Khadizroth physically swelled, drawing in a long breath, his face descending into a deep scowl. “You, Kuriwa, I had minimal patience for to begin with. If—”
“Truce,” Mary said calmly, holding up a hand, palm forward.
The dragon paused and narrowed his eyes. “Truce? Why?”
“Let me second that incredulous question,” added McGraw. “With you bein’ here, finally, this ruckus seems about to take a turn for the beneficial. For some of us, that is.”
“There are some things you should all know before pursuing this matter any further,” Mary said equably, lowering her hand. “If you will kindly give it a minute or two, let the others gather. I’ve had to send help for some myself, but—ah, here they come now.”
Now might have been overstating it for those without the benefit of elvish hearing. Vannae turned his head slightly toward the far end of the square, narrowing his eyes; Khadizroth glanced fleetingly in that direction before focusing his attention back on Mary.
“I am impressed, at the least, with your nerve. That you should presume to speak politely with me after our last encounter…”
“Khadizroth, I will not have this conversation if you plan to contend that your treatment was unwarranted,” Mary interrupted. “Existence is not fair, and people cannot be expected to be scrupulous in their judgment; we are not all Avei, nor Themynra. Your actions have consequences, and you knowingly took a substantial risk by launching a scheme which, frankly, was beneath you on multiple levels. If you wish to discuss the removal of my curse, we can. As soon as you are no longer attached to Justinian.”
“I see,” the dragon said evenly. Vannae scowled deeply at Mary and opened his mouth.
The sound of footsteps came from around the corner at the end of the square. The flaming green silhouette of the Jackal, eerily visible through intervening buildings, dashed toward the corner and whipped around, not slowing as he pelted straight for his compatriots. A second later, the huge panther rounded the corner, sliding on the dusty street, and lunged after him.
The Jackal unashamedly skittered behind Khadizroth; the panther skidded to a halt and glared at the group, tail lashing.
“Raea, please don’t play with that,” Mary said with a smile. “You have no idea where it’s been.”
“Look who decided to show up,” Raea shot back, her expression decidedly unfriendly. “After leaving this whole situation to devolve into carnage, here you are to clean everything up and take credit. As usual.”
“Petulance does not become you, child,” Mary chided gently. “If it makes you feel better, there will be very little credit here for anyone. If you will join us, we are going to have a chat shortly. I’ve had to send some help to escort the last few interested parties to this location.”
“Did you sign off on this?” the Jackal asked, peeking around from behind Khadizroth.
“Regardless of any outstanding personal business between myself and the Crow,” the dragon intoned, folding his arms, “it has been my long experience that it is worth listening when she speaks. I’ll grant a few minutes to hear this…revelation.”
“Oh, good,” said the assassin, brushing fruitlessly at the flames on his sleeves. “Can you do something about this?”
Khadizroth half-turned to glance over him. “Probably. Not here, in the presence of opportunistic hired thugs who I don’t trust not to take advantage of my distraction.”
“That’s a little rich,” Joe protested. “All’s fair in war, as they say. Now we’ve agreed to a truce.”
“This is the first time I have heard you voice such agreement,” Khadizroth replied. “Regardless, complex magics can wait.”
“Oh, sure, I’ll just wait,” the Jackal said sullenly as Raea came to stand next to McGraw, laying a hand on his shoulder. After a moment of no visible effect, the old wizard straightened up slightly and rolled his shoulders as if suddenly freed of stiffness, then smiled and tipped his hat to her.
Everyone shifted to stare at the mouth of a side street when a swirling cloud of dust emerged from it, moving far too slowly to be natural. The cloud slowed and arced back toward the street from which it had come, and for a moment during the shift a vaguely humanoid outline was visible in its form. Then it shifted again, drifting toward Mary, and rippled in an indecipherable series of gestures.
She smiled and bowed to the air elemental from a seated position. “En-shai da.”
The elemental swelled outward and dissipated, a few leftover streamers of dust drifting to the ground.
From the street behind it came Weaver, carrying Billie seated in the crook of his left arm; he had his wand in his other hand, pointed currently at the ground. The bard glanced rapidly around the growing assemblage in front of the well, but spoke to his passenger.
“Quit drinking those, you idiot. You of all people know what the effects of healing potion overdose are!”
“Ah, quit yer maunderin’,” Billie said with a grimace, tossing the vial she had just emptied to the ground. “All the worst times I ever had seem to’ve begun with somebody tellin’ me not ta drink somethin’.”
“And did you ever follow that advice?”
“Course not, what d’ye take me for?” She grinned at his ostentatious sigh, raising her voice to address the others. “Well, what’ve we got ‘ere? Back to talkin’, eh? You wankers had enough?”
“Hello, Billie,” said Mary, finally getting up from her perch and stepping over to them. As Weaver carefully lowered the gnome to the ground, she knelt and placed both hands on Billie’s cheeks.
Billie grimaced, then shuddered, staggering, and apparently would have fallen had Mary not held her up. “Ach! Blech, that tingles. Thanks, though. Feels a lot better.”
“He’s right, you know,” Mary said more severely. “One more vial of that and you’d have had much more serious problems than the internal bleeding. Remedying that was more difficult than what remained of your actual injuries.”
“Well, sorry, yer Crowness, but if you just turn up at the last second, don’t expect ta be handed the easy jobs!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Weaver said dismissively, glaring around the square. “Either someone explain to me why we’re not still killing these assholes, or let’s just resume.”
Khadizroth reached behind himself unerringly and planted a hand over the Jackal’s mouth, just as the assassin opened it. “We are as eager to learn the point of this as you, I’m sure, deathspeaker.”
“Just a moment, please,” said Mary calmly. “Our final guest is arriving.”
She stepped in front of McGraw, Joe, and Raea, crossing the space separating the two groups, and met a large figure emerging from another street.
It was easily eight feet tall and seemed made of stone, which made the silence of its movements deeply incongruous; only upon closer inspection was it apparent that the elemental was not made of solid rock, but slowly shifting sand. In its blocky arms was the unconscious form of Jeremiah Shook.
The sand elemental bent and carefully laid him out on the ground, where Mary knelt to touch his forehead. “Hm, he’s been healed recently. Your work, Vannae? Neatly done.”
“Mary,” Joe said tersely, “that man—”
“Is your diametric opposite in nearly every respect, Joseph, and altogether would have been a better choice for a first nemesis than a dragon.” Mary straightened up, turning her back on Shook, and strode serenely back to her perch on the rim of the well. The elemental, rather than rising again, slowly sank back into the dusty street, leaving no trace of its presence.
Shook twitched once, then sat bolt upright, groping at his belt where his wands should have been and not finding them. He fell still, staring at those gathered in the square through narrowed eyes.
“Come on, really?” the Jackal protested. “No one’s dead? Nobody? You guys suck at this.”
“Okaaaay,” said Shook, ignoring him. “What the hell now?”
“That is what we’re about to find out, apparently,” said Vannae, returning his attention to Mary.
“I have spent the last several days traveling widely,” Mary said, while Shook got to his feet and joined the other members of his party. “Much has been going on behind the scenes, and I’ve been working to determine what, and why, and at whose behest. I had some advance warning of these events, you see, thanks to my own divinations. When the oracles begin to warn of danger, there are always some of us who hear the alert first.”
“Thanks for keeping us in the loop,” Weaver snorted.
Mary raised an eyebrow. “I’ve worked toward the betterment of the world for a very long time before you came along, Weaver, though I would still have included you, had I any reason to believe you would act for the greater good when not being paid. Regardless, there is a point within your griping, whether you intended it or not. There is one secret I knew long beforehand, which I wish I had been present to share with you before you were sent off on this errand. It could have spared us all a great deal of needless fuss and bother.”
She folded her legs beneath herself and regarded them all solemnly. “You were sent here to obtain the skull of Belosiphon the Black—or more accurately, to fight over it. For the last eight hundred and twelve years, the skull has lain in a sealed barrow in the mountains outside Veilgrad, reachable through the city’s ancient catacombs.”
There was a beat of silence.
“Veilgrad?” Shook said incredulously. “Bullshit.”
“Veilgrad,” Mary continued, “has been the scene of all manner of catastrophe in the last few months. Necromancy, werewolf activity, multiple misfired spells. Chaos cultists.” She cocked her head to one side. “Exactly the sort of goings-on one would expect to see in the presence of a major chaos artifact, and which has not been seen here.”
“Well,” McGraw mused, “suddenly I feel a lot less intelligent than I did this morning.”
“So…what, this is a race to Veilgrad, now?” Joe asked. “Then I don’t see what’s different about this encounter. Stands to reason we’d be best advised to prevent each other from settin’ out first.”
“I suspect we are not done being surprised,” said Khadizroth.
“Indeed,” Mary said with a smile. “The skull is now secure, or will be very soon. An extraction team sent from the Universal Church, composed of members of the Holy Legion and spellcasters of multiple schools form the cult of Salyrene, were dispatched in a borrowed zeppelin. Their operation was exquisitely timed; I expect they either have the skull in their hands now, or will within the hour.
“Most interestingly, to me,” she went on, her expression growing more serious, “is the timing. That skull was inside a casket sealed by Salyrene herself. It has endured for centuries and in theory should have indefinitely. This summer, the roof over it was collapsed, cracking the seal—a most interesting development, considering the protections laid upon that place. I would venture to say such a thing could not happen unassisted. This caused the taint of chaos to flood Veilgrad, slowly growing until it became a severe enough threat to alarm the oracles, leading to…all of this.
“So Justinian sent you here,” Mary said, turning to nod at Khadizroth’s group. “Bishop Darling, to whom I spoke just yesterday, researched the oracles’ warnings on his own time, finding the Church’s records to indicate the Badlands as the skull’s resting place. There is no historical reason why they should.”
“Wait,” said McGraw, frowning. “There’s the matter of Imperial Intelligence. Darling looked through Imperial records too, and got the same info. And they’ve sure as hell been a presence in Desolation of late.”
“The inner workings of the Empire are frustratingly opaque to me,” Mary allowed. “Who has done what and why in the halls of Imperial Intelligence I cannot say. But I can interpret the events unfolding as I see them. The new Imperial presence and construction in Desolation, among its other aims, is directly targeted at extending the Rail network to Rodvenheim and Puna Dara—two sovereign states which have emphatically refused to give Tiraas a clear route to their front doors. Now, with adventurers brawling, plains elves prowling and rumors of a major chaos artifact flying about the desolate region where all their territories abut, I rather suspect both governments are under significant pressure, from both within and without, to join hands and impose mutual civilization on this last piece of wilderness.”
She paused to let her words sink in for a moment before driving them the rest of the way with a veritable hammer. “Of course, there is exactly one man who could arrange for the skull to be exposed, you four and your succubus companion to be sent here, and a trail of breadcrumbs laid exactly where Darling would look for it. Now, I’ve said my piece. We can resume this affair to its logical conclusion, which in any outcome involves massive damage, injury, and likely fatalities. Considering who has arranged all this, who is the only party who will benefit from both our groups weakening each other… Well, I find that I, for one, am disinclined to dance for his amusement. I am even less interested in helping the Tiraan Empire advance its foreign policy ambitions. My proposed truce has now seen its purpose fulfilled. I suggest that rather than continuing to fight… This is a good time for us all to walk away.”
The wind whistled emptily over the shattered rooftops of the town, carrying the scents of smoke and ozone. Both groups assembled in the square stared suspiciously at one another, at their own members, at Mary positioned neutrally apart from them.
Then Joe, moving slowly and very deliberately, slipped his wands back into their holsters.
“I said it to begin with,” the Jackal said, still swiping absently and fruitlessly at the green flames limning him. “Whatever problems we’ve got with each other, with Darling or anyone else—and you’d better believe there are going to be a series of reckonings on all those scores—at the end of the day, Justinian’s still the big spider in the middle of this web. And the son of a bitch went and made us forget that for a while.”
“Yes,” said Khadizroth softly. “A fitting reminder why he is dangerous.”
“You don’t have to answer to him,” said Joe.
“Someone does,” Khadizroth replied. “I like him better in my proximity than weaving his schemes behind my back.”
“Aye?” Billie snorted. “How’s that workin’ out for ye?”
Shook grunted. “Pains me to admit it, but the gnome makes a point. We have every fucking one of us just been played like a whole band of fiddles.”
“A veritable orchestra of dupes and patsies!” the Jackal said, grinning. Shook gave him a filthy look.
“Now, I might be mistaken,” said McGraw. “It wouldn’t be the first time. But all this talk seems to be leadin’ toward the conclusion the lot of us have more urgent matters in common than we have reason to fight.”
“You’re not completely right there,” Weaver replied. “The matters in common, yes. But every time we meet, this shit gets more and more personal.”
“I’m sure this has nothing to do with the proclivity of several of you to be gratuitously vicious toward each other,” Raea commented.
“The enemy of my enemy,” Vannae began, and was drowned out by a loud snort from Shook, a peal of hysterical laughter from the Jackal, and a theatrical groan from Weaver.
“Enough.” Khadizroth did not raise his voice, but it nonetheless cut off the noise. “You are all right. We have between us matters which must be settled. However… The Crow is also right. The matters need not be settled right now, and we have in common one figure who would presume to control or destroy all of us. We would be wise not to let ourselves forget that, when next we meet.”
“I can’t help but see the utility in havin’ one group in the Archpope’s camp and one outside it,” said Joe. “If we were willin’ to…compare notes, so to speak. Not to mention that, let’s face it, Darling ain’t a whole lot better. If he’s any better.”
“Darling is as duplicitous a player as the Archpope,” said Mary, “and I think has an even greater capacity for viciousness. The ultimate difference between them, however, is that Darling does not aspire to rule. He is Eserite to his core; his aim is to bring down those who would set themselves above others. That makes him useful, despite his…numerous annoying character traits.”
“Hm,” Shook muttered, frowning at nothing.
“I accept your recommendation, for now,” said Khadizroth, taking one deliberate step backward. “We will continue to play Justinian’s game because we must. Henceforth, however, we must be very careful not to find ourselves doing his dirty work.”
“Agreed,” Joe replied, nodding. The dragon nodded back.
There were a few more mutters and grunts from various persons, but with that, it seemed the main topic of conversation was exhausted. Mary stood and strolled calmly over to join her own group, as both parties began shuffling backward from each other. They eased away in reverse at first, keeping eyes on their rivals, but gradually, as they neared the edges of the square, everyone relaxed enough to turn around and slip into the streets on opposite sides.
The desolate wind whistled into the space left behind as both groups walked away.