Dusk was falling as she neared her destination, which meant that while most of the city was lulling itself to rest, Lor’naris was undergoing more of a shift change. No matter how acclimated they grew to surface life, the drow retained a preference for darkness, hence the diminished number of fairy lamps in the district. The street, never boisterous, wasn’t growing any less active with the last red stains of sunset fading from the sky, though the proportion of drow increased slightly with nightfall. Of course, not every business kept hours compatible with everyone’s personal schedule. The shop Lakshmi approached was locked, a sign in its window indicating it was closed.
She craned her neck to peer through the window, shading her eyes, then with a fatalistic shrug, rapped her knuckles on the door, following that with a half-step to the side—carefully leaving her still in view of the door, while also obviously trying to look through the gloom to see if there was any movement within. She did not look around the street behind her; that would have looked suspicious. She was just a late shopper distressed to find the Minor Arcana closed and hoping for late admittance, after all. So few people in the Guild understood that information people had to do as much playacting as con artists, if not more. At least a con artist could turn it off. If you wanted to see and overhear secrets, you had to be invisible, had to fade into the background, make your every action consistent with everyone’s perception of an “extra” person they couldn’t be bothered to notice.
No steps sounded from within, but after only a couple of seconds, the lock clicked and the door opened slightly. Lakshmi beamed into the gap, carefully not looking anything less than delighted to meet the store’s proprietess. She was tall and willowy—rather attractive, actually, if you got past the shield-like ridge of spiked bone rising above her forehead, the deep red shade of her skin and those feline, reflective eyes.
“You must be Peepers,” Elspeth said calmly. She had a surprisingly deep voice for such a lean wisp of a woman.
“Well, you’re too tall,” Lakshmi mused, “so yeah, I guess it must be me!”
The half-demon regarded her in silence for a second, and then a half-smile of muted but genuine amusement tugged at her lips. “You’re right on time. Come on in.”
Lakshmi ducked inside as soon as the shopkeeper stepped back to make room, pausing to look around curiously while Elspeth re-locked the door. She did not study her hostess, though she was by far the most interesting part of the scenery. People rarely liked to be examined, and instinct warned Lakshmi that this calm, aloof woman was perceptive enough to catch sidelong glances. There’d be time to pick up interesting details later, little bits here and there as they arose. Irritating her now would diminish those prospects.
“This way, please,” Elspeth said, leading her toward a curtained doorway at the back of the shop’s main room. They strolled past racks of enchanting paraphernalia dimly glimpsed in the relative darkness—only one of the store’s fairy lamps was active, dimmed to its lowest level—Lakshmi still peering around all the while. The facade was important, and one never knew when one might quite accidentally pick up on something useful.
Behind the door was a tiny hallway, with another door leading into a back room and a spiral staircase going both up and down, into mysterious darkness in both directions. The shopkeeper glided to this and descended, Lakshmi following her with a little trepidation.
The room at the bottom was clearly a storage space, much bigger than the shop up above; it apparently ran the whole length of the building. Half of it was cluttered with a miscellaneous assortment of crates and barrels, arranged around the walls to leave a somewhat cramped central area open. The other half, behind the iron staircase, was currently empty, though tracks on the floor and the general lack of dust suggested that objects had been dragged through it quite recently. Along one wall was a long rack of shelves, holding unboxed enchanting supplies very like those above, clearly ready to restock the storefront without requiring the effort of opening crates. In one corner was a square trapdoor, its proximity to a bank of vertical copper pipes suggesting it was a sewer access. The whole space was also much better lit, currently, than the main shop, as it was also currently occupied.
Lakshmi took in the details of the room with a single sweep of her eyes and then focused her attention on the people present.
Most of them were sitting around on various barrels and boxes, clearly waiting. There were two fellows in dark suits, a boy of no more than sixteen who rose and nodded respectfully to her and Elspeth, and an older man with a goatee and ponytail who gave her a single disinterested glance. Sweet was present, of course, in one of his slightly loud and slightly shabby suits; he grinned at her entry as if she were the most exciting thing he’d seen all day, which she knew very wall was just part of his shtick. There were also three elves, including Sweet’s two apprentices, the one in the ridiculous cloak and the one who wouldn’t stop playing with her knife. Lakshmi had never interacted with them directly, but in conversations with other Guild members had taken to pretending she couldn’t remember which was which; it usually got her a laugh.
It was the third elf who nearly made her lose her poise, though upon a second look it was not, in fact, Principia. Just another wood elf with black hair. Unusual as that trait was, it was increasingly obvious on closer inspection. Quite aside from the prairie elf buckskins she wore—in which Prin would never have been caught dead—the woman’s face was longer, the features subtly different, though elves in general seemed to have less variance in their facial features and skin tones that humans. Moreover, she was clearly one of the old ones. She had that characteristic stillness.
“Wonderful, everyone’s here!” Sweet enthused. “Everybody, this is Peepers. Glad to have you along!”
“Glad to be here,” she said glibly, grinning around at them. “I almost didn’t make it; only just got your message, Sweet. What’s up?”
“Well, first things first,” Sweet went on, crossing his legs and leaning back against the wall. He, like the brunette elf, had selected a perch two boxes high, so he loomed above most of the group. “I’ve heard good things about your work, which is especially impressive given you’ve not been in the city that long. And you nabbed us a Guild traitor! Well done.”
“Well, it’s just a matter of keeping my ears open,” she said lightly. “That was a right place, right time situation.”
“Of course,” he said with a smile, and Lakshmi forced herself not to tense. The lack of introductions had not been wasted on her. She was very much on the spot, being inspected by a roomful of silent strangers. Just what was he playing at? Sweet, by his rep, wouldn’t have lured a Guild member somewhere with any intention to harm them…but on the other hand, if he had wanted to do something like that, an intel guy like him would probably bring along extra muscle to handle the actual kneebreaking.
“And then I got an endorsement of your skills from no less a source than the Hand of Avei!” he continued brightly. “Very impressive, not to mention kind of unconventional. It’s not often that Avenists go out of their way to find ranking members of the Guild to report to, much less find something kind to say about one of our number.”
Damn…maybe that hadn’t been such a bright idea on her part. Too pushy? But she’s been in the city for weeks by then and was no closer to following Prin’s advice. Sweet was an approachable fellow, but he was highly-placed enough that he didn’t have time for everybody who wanted a slice of his attention.
“As for that, I may have asked her to put in a good word,” Lakshmi replied, carefully mixing a bashful grin with shameless delivery. “It’s not as if a person like that would’ve bothered if she didn’t think it was deserved.”
“Of course, of course,” said Sweet, nodding. “It’s just funny, the little turns life takes. Finding yourself on opposite sides of two generations like that.”
She blinked. “Um… What? I don’t follow.”
“Oh, you hadn’t heard?” he said, grinning. “Trissiny Avelea is the daughter of Principia Locke.”
What? She tried to fit that piece of information in with existing knowledge and came up blank. “She… What?”
“Prin didn’t happen to mention that?”
Immediately she was on the alert. “Uh, when would she have talked to me about something like that?”
“I’ve just been going over it in my mind,” he mused, idly kicking his dangling leg. The man in the black suit sighed impatiently and slumped back against his crate, grimacing in annoyance; everyone else in the room just watched her silently as Sweet carried on. “Not just what happened, but what went down afterward. I’ll spare you the boring details, but the crux of it is none of us at the Guild anticipated just how good Principia is at what she does. And then she goes and gets caught, this master conwoman with elvish senses. She just happened to be overheard by a young, inexperienced thief operating in a city where the Guild perforce has to keep its head down. You see why I’m curious?”
“Are you accusing me of something, Sweet?” Lakshmi asked as calmly as she could manage, folding her arms and raising one eyebrow. After discovering that this pose worked wonders on Sanjay, she’d tried it out in other situations and found that lots of people from all walks of life could be brought to a halt by the Momface.
“Peepers, hon, that’s not how we do things,” he said, his smile shifting almost imperceptibly to convey more compassion and less insouciance. Damn, but he was good. “If you were being accused, you’d be having this conversation at Guild HQ, with several enforcers present. Not in a basement with a bunch of assorted friends of mine. Aside from my apprentices, nobody here is attached to the Guild, or knows who I’m talking about.”
“I know who you’re talking about,” the woman in buckskins said serenely.
“I don’t,” said the man with the ponytail, “nor do I care. Are we going to drag this out much longer? Do I have time to go get a snack? I didn’t haul myself out at this bloody hour to help you intimidate some Punaji waif you found.”
Sweet gave him an irritated look before returning his gaze to Lakshmi and restoring his open expression. “Look, Peepers, you’re not in trouble; sorry if I gave you that impression.” The hell he was, she thought silently; this was a man who created precisely whatever impression he intended to. “Also, in case the word hasn’t reached you, Prin is not in trouble, though there are several things the Guild would like her to explain. What’s at issue is that…well, I’ll get to it in a moment, but suffice it to say there’s some complicated shit going on and trust is at a premium. I need to know who I’m working with. If you’ve got secrets to protect, by all means, keep ’em, and no hard feelings. With regard to just who you are and how you got here, though… I kind of need to see some cards on the table. Otherwise, we’ll have to bid you good evening.”
She chewed her lower lip, thinking rapidly. Prin had said to get in with Sweet; this was a golden opportunity. Even if, as he implied, she’d be allowed to walk away from it without repercussions, turning down such an opportunity was a near-perfect guarantee that she’d never be offered another one. There were other paths to advancing her career, of course, but none likely to be as ideal. She hadn’t uprooted herself and Sanjay from their ancestral home to waste her days lurking in market districts picking pockets and trying to overhear worthwhile tidbits.
“You are valuable here because you’re an outsider,” Sweet said gently, “without the kind of strings that can be exploited. And because I suspect that the thing you don’t want to reveal is a ringing endorsement from an extremely skilled thief.”
Hell with it; sometimes you had to take chances.
“All right, I consider myself caught,” she said with a grin, shoving her hands into the pockets of her greatcoat and affecting a cocky pose. “Prin wanted to be reported to the Guild. More than that I really don’t know; it was her scheme, and a good bit more complicated than anything I’d have tried. Frankly I still don’t get what she was going for or whether she pulled it off, much less how. Also, before you ask, I have no idea where she is; I haven’t heard from her since Puna Dara, a little while after sending in my report. But, yes, she advised me to come here and try to get in good with you, Sweet.”
“Hmm,” he mused, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “I never am sure with that woman…”
The dark-haired elf snorted softly. “You and everyone else.”
“Does that satisfy your curiosity?” Lakshmi asked, permitting herself a sharper tone. “Wanna know what color my bloomers are while we’re here?”
“If that’s on offer, I wouldn’t mind—” Ponytail Guy broke off with a curse as the teenager leaned over and slapped the back of his head.
“No, I think that pretty much brings us all up to speed,” said Sweet. “Thank you, Peepers. Well! We all know what you’re about, now, so why don’t I introduce you around?”
“Already?” she said dryly, to which he laughed.
“You’ve met Elspeth, of course, and probably were aware of her before now, since you’ve been involved in this district a few times.” The demonblood shopkeeper bowed when Lakshmi turned to look at her. “These are my apprentices, Flora and Fauna.”
“Okay,” Lakshmi said warily, nodding to each of them.
“And we have a few celebrity guests,” Sweet went on. “You have probably heard of these two gentlemen as Gravestone Weaver and the Sarasio Kid.”
Lakshmi blinked, looked at him, then at the two. “Are you serious?”
“Joe to my friends, ma’am,” the Kid said with a smile, giving her a nod that was nearly a bow.
Weaver grunted. “I’m accustomed to responding to ‘hey, asshole.’”
“I’m certain that’s convenient for you,” said the remaining woman.
“And this,” Sweet finished with a slight grimace, “is Mary the Crow, who I actually didn’t plan to include in this discussion but likes to invite herself places.”
“Joseph is still under my care,” Mary said calmly. “Very much on the mend, yes, but I will exercise a healer’s prerogative to observe.”
“…seriously?” Lakshmi repeated, studying Mary, and then the other two again. It suddenly occurred to her that nobody knew she was in this basement with this assortment of walking hazards. She unconsciously took a half-step toward the stairs.
“What’s going on,” Sweet continued, gazing at her with a much more serious expression, “is that the Black Wreath is on the move.”
“Everyone knows that,” she said tersely. “At least, everyone who reads the papers.”
“Yes, and you’re a little more on the ball even than that, aren’t you?” he replied, smiling. “Hence your invitation. The complicating factor here, Peepers, is that for the time being, the Guild can’t be considered a trusted ally.”
“Wait…are you saying the Guild is compromised by the Wreath?”
“Ah, ah, ah.” He held up an admonishing finger. “Everyone is compromised by the Wreath. That’s what the Wreath does. Most of the time you just have to grin and ignore it, and most of the time it doesn’t much matter. They rarely care enough to stick their little fingers into a given person’s business. However, right now, it matters very much. They are up to something big, and I aim to figure out what. Unfortunately, part of what they’re doing involves leveraging their assets inside various cults, and the only cult I know for a fact has culled their Wreath infestation are the Huntsmen of Shaath.” He grimaced. “For reasons I hope I don’t have to explain, I’m not eager to pin my hopes on their help. Until the current crisis has passed, we have to consider all cults and organizations suspect and potentially complicit. Anything they know may get back to the Wreath and be used against us.”
“So,” she said slowly, “you’re putting together an unaligned group to hunt them down. Hence all this extravagant muscle.”
“Never been called that before,” the Kid said with a grin.
“You have the gist of it,” Sweet replied, nodding.
“How do you know I’m not Wreath?” she asked.
“You’re not,” said Mary.
“I would know.” The elf looked her right in the eyes, face impassive, and Lakshmi found herself believing her.
“I actually had a plan to figure that out,” said Sweet, sounding somewhat disgruntled. “It involved props. But I guess having the Crow around is useful.”
“So…doesn’t that mean you can track all the Wreath and ferret them out?” Lakshmi inquired, tilting her head and studying Mary.
“This is a unique situation,” the Crow said calmly. “I made preparations. Were the Wreath so easy to hunt, they’d have been gone from the world long since.”
“Besides,” Sweet added, “if we theoretically did figure out who all their agents were and move against them, they’d either abort and bolt or do something very destructive. Possibly both. That’s a scenario we need to avoid. So for now, we play the game.”
“What is the game?” she demanded. “What are they trying to do, and what are you trying to do about it?”
“The answer to both questions,” he said with a slightly predatory grin, “is that we are out to figure out what they are up to, as a first step toward putting a stop to it. I have some leads on which to follow up, which is what you’ve been brought aboard to do. Elspeth has generously offered her premises as a safe, neutral space for us to use; with this shop under inspection by the Church and the Empire as often as it is, there’s little chance of it being compromised by warlocks.”
“Warlocks, in particular, are generally advised to stay away from my store,” Elspeth said calmly.
“Joe and Weaver, here, are our muscle,” Sweet continued, nodding to them. “I’ve actually got a couple more aces up my sleeve to that end, but they’re both too distinctive to move discreetly through the city. These two gentlemen, aside from cultivating a laudably generic sense of style, haven’t spent enough time around civilized parts that they’re likely to be recognized. As such, they’ll be able to lend you some protection from relatively close at hand. The bigger wands, including Mary, here, can be called upon at need, but the plan is not to goad the Wreath into any kind of confrontation, especially not with you or I. Our job is just to figure out what they’re doing, how, and why.”
“I see,” she said, frowning deeply in thought.
“Which brings us to the all important question, Peepers,” Sweet continued, grinning hugely. “You in?”
“…what, exactly, would I be doing?”
His grin widened. “Well, to begin with, I’ll need you to get a real job.”
She stretched her lips into a distasteful grimace. “What else you got?”
“Well, first things first,” Radivass said, carefully inspecting the necklace. “It’s pretty.”
“Yes,” Trissiny replied, deliberately keeping her tone neutral. “I can see that. Its magical properties are what interest me.” And what she was paying the enchantress to explain, she did not add.
The drow pursed her lips, tilting the piece this way and that so it glimmered in the ruddy light. “Can I ask where this came from?”
“It was a level reward,” said Trissiny, “from the Descent. It appeared in the chest we got for clearing it, along with several other bits and bobs.”
“Mm.” Radivass glanced quickly at the golden eagle sigil on Trissiny’s breastplate, then back at the necklace, which was worked into the same form. Hanging from a twisted chain of steel links, it was a disc of white crystal a little bigger than an Imperial doubloon, inset with the eagle of Avei in gold. “What level?”
“Level 7. The Circle Chessboard.”
“You got that on Level 7?” Radivass looked up at her and whistled. “Damn. Shamlin said you kids were hard-hitters. I guess the Crawl isn’t…well, that’s neither here nor there. On this level, did you in particular do something impressive?”
“We basically used it as a training level,” Trissiny said slowly, frowning. “Practicing our tactics and getting used to fighting together. I was organizing it, I guess.”
“I see. Well, to begin with, this thing is old.”
“That I can’t tell you. I could try, if you want to spend the coin, though in all honesty I can’t guarantee my divinations would be able to pinpoint its age or origin. The Crawl messes such things up, and so does divine magic. I mention it because there’s some uncertainty over where those level rewards come from. Some of them—well, a lot of them, probably—the Crawl actually creates. Some, though, are things that were left down here by other adventurers. The old things, the powerful things, it occasionally gathers up and bestows upon worthy individuals.”
“Worthy individuals?” Trissiny raised an eyebrow.
Radivass grinned. “For a given value of ‘worthy.’ It’s hard to say exactly what the Crawl approves of.”
“It doesn’t seem to like cheating.”
“In the Descent, no, it doesn’t. In other places…different rules apply. Let’s just say there are several reasons I stay up here in the Visage. Anyhow, whatever you did it clearly judged worthy of reward, so…here you are.”
“I see,” Trissiny mused.
“As for what this does,” the enchantress went on, “it’s actually laden with fae magic, not divine. The specific blessings upon it are designed to draw on its fae energy—which, by the way, is considerable—and transmute it into holy energy. Basically it boosts your powers by giving you an extra source aside from your goddess. Whether that’s a good idea is…debatable. Most deities will let their followers draw on as much power as they safely can without burning themselves out. This might have extra protections to increase your capacity. That would make sense to me, but unfortunately I can’t tell for sure. I deal in mostly arcane magic; I can tell you the gist of what this piece does, but the magic on it is more complex than that. You really need to have a witch look it over to be certain.”
“I was told,” Trissiny said slowly, “that the specific effect you’re talking about can’t be worked into a talisman or passive object. Transmuting one kind of power into another requires a conscious spellcaster.”
“You were told correctly,” Radivas replied, nodding. “This little beauty is keyed to some high-level fairy or other; it draws on their power and will to work. Fae and infernal magic are prone to such charms, using fairies or demons as…arbiters, so to speak.”
“Can you tell what fairy is involved?”
The drow shook her head. “Again, you need a witch. I can tell you they’re either friendly toward Avei, to be attached to this thing… Or maybe the exact opposite of that and are enslaved by it.”
“I see,” Trissiny murmured, shifting to glance around the room at her classmates. Juniper and the boys had gone up to the Visage’s main room in search of food; the rest of her classmates were clustered around Shamlin’s stall. “Thank you. I believe I’ll keep this for later.”
“I think that’s smart,” the drow agreed, nodding. “You being who you are, and Avei’s sigil being on this, it’s probably safe for you to use. But it’s a good general policy not to mess with magical objects you don’t understand.”
Trissiny sighed, accepting the pendant back from her and tucking it carefully into one of her belt pouches. Part of her wondered how much of her hesitation was due to the last golden eagle necklace she’d been given. “If only I could get through life not messing with things I don’t understand. Someday, maybe I’ll understand enough to go a whole day without stumbling into some nonsense or other.”
“If you ever accomplish that, you let me know,” Radivass said, the twinkle in her eye belying her grave tone. “You’d be a scientifically significant case.”
Rowe carefully pulled the door shut and systematically re-armed each of the charmed locks securing it. After all the times he’d done this routine, it was in danger of becoming exactly that, which he could not afford. People going through a routine forgot to pay attention; people who didn’t pay attention made mistakes. A mistake, here, wasn’t an option.
“They made it to Level 17 today,” said Sarriki, slithering into the kitchen and storeroom behind the Grim Visage’s main bar. Aside from the water pump, stove and counter, there wasn’t much back there except barrels of mushrooms and racks of booze, most of it distilled from mushrooms. At this hour, the kitchen had been cleaned and its unnecessary supplied put away. All the good stuff, the meat, fruits and vegetables, was down in the secure storeroom he had just locked up.
The naga glided over to him, grinning smugly as he turned to face her. “Second day, and they’re almost a fifth of the way down! Shamlin says this is the most overpowered group he’s ever seen. Even their bard is apparently all but invincible. Of course, they’ll slow their pace as they get deeper and start facing the hard stuff, but still.”
Rowe simply raised an eyebrow in silence, giving her a patient stare.
“It’s dear Melaxyna who makes this interesting,” Sarriki cooed, beginning to slither around him in a circle and gradually coiling her long, serpentine body about him as she went. “Finally, she’s got all her pieces lined up. That portal of hers is working, she can make waystones and the Crawl itself appears to be allowing her to play her own game. Between their firepower and Mel’s help, this is looking like the group that’ll reach the bottom.”
“Who’s tending the bar if you’re floofing around back here, pet?” he asked mildly.
“Oh, please, it’s stupid o’clock at night. There’s nobody out there but the University kids, and they’re all set up with a pot of stew.” Grinning, Sarriki twined her arms around his neck, leaning in to nuzzle at his collarbone. “How about a little squeeze and cuddle while it’s quiet, boss? For old time’s sake? After all…you may not be around much longer.”
“Ah, Sarriki,” Rowe said, extricating one of his arms from her coils and reaching up to caress the fins trailing from her head. She purred in pleasure, flaring them slightly and allowing him to get a firmer grip. “This is a new side of you, poppet. So assertive.” He tightened his fingers in her fin. “So smug, so confident and in control.”
Rowe increased his grip until he was pulling her head back and to the side, forcing her to look up at him. He toed the line right to the iota, his grasp of her sensitive fin hard enough to be uncomfortable, but not violent enough to trigger the sanctuary effect. Sarriki’s expression stilled when she beheld the hard look in his eyes.
“It doesn’t suit you,” he said softly.
They stared at each other in silence for a moment, then he released her head. Immediately, she loosened her coils, and backed away, still staring at him warily.
“Go tend to our guests,” he said in perfect calm. “Do your job.”
He turned his back to her, rustling his wings once and then folding them more tightly, listening to the soft rasp of her scales against the stone as she departed the kitchen without another word. Rowe stared at the locks on the cellar door, frowning.