Tag Archives: Sabrina Price

7 – 10

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“Behind you!”

“I saw it!”

Wandshots cracked through the falling snow; a katzil demon squawked in pain as it was cleaved out of the air. Weaver kept up his fire, taking fragments off the eaves of the building over which the creature had been trying to escape, and then it was lost to sight behind the structure.

Joe was the first around the corner; his boots skidded on the light dusting of snow dancing down the street. Between that and the sharp wind he might have lost his footing, but he was too in tune with his body and environs to overbalance. This was the first he’d seen of the snow actually reaching the ground and staying there; he factored it into his calculations without a conscious thought.

The demon raised its head and hissed at him, an orange glow rising within its mouth. His wandshot pierced its skull before it could spit fire at him, and the katzil flopped back to the ground, thrashed once, and fell still. Immediately, it began to disintegrate into foul-smelling charcoal.

Weaver arrived, wands up, and came a lot closer to slipping than Joe had. He caught himself on a lamppost, however, scowling at the remains of the demon. “Right, good. There’s that one dealt with. Have you seen…”

They both lifted their heads at the distinctive sound of Billie whooping. In the next second, a flare arced into the sky from the next street over. It was quickly caught and blown off-course by the winds, but fizzled out before it could land on anything and start a fire.

Joe and Weaver set off without a word.

They were slowed by an accumulation of trash in the middle of the alley down which they had to travel, but in less than a minute were stepping out the other side, to find two of their party standing back-to-back in the middle of the street. McGraw still held his staff in a wary position, peering around at the rooftops; Billie was sliding something long and metallic into one of her pouches. Five large clumps of charcoal lay in the street around them, crumbling and blowing away. The acrid stink of them was almost painful, even carried off by the wind as quickly as it was.

“There y’are,” the gnome said cheerfully. “Turns out we didn’t need the rescue, but glad to see ye nonetheless. Best not t’get separated.”

“Good thinking,” Joe agreed. “We had to chase after that bird-serpent thingy, though. No tellin’ what havoc it would cause, loose in the city.”

“Not that much,” McGraw said, resting the butt of his staff against the cobblestones and straightening up, apparently satisfied the danger was past. “Katzils rarely attack people unless ordered by a warlock. You can usually tell one’s in the area by scorched rooftops and a sudden absence of rats, cats and small dogs in the neighborhood. Those khankredahgs were a bigger priority,” he added, nodding toward one of his erstwhile targets, by now little more than a black smudge on the pavement. “They do attack people. You see any of those, take ’em out first.”

“Duly noted,” Joe said, nodding.

“You have missed one, nonetheless,” Mary announced, appearing beside them. They hadn’t even heard her approach in bird form this time, what with the shrieking wind, but none of them were startled by her comings and goings anymore. “Above that apartment complex to the west.”

“I just had a wild thought,” Weaver said. “Being that you’re by a wide margin the most powerful person here, it seems like you could be doing a lot more than recon.”

“The key to having power is to know how it is used,” Mary said, unperturbed as always. “I find the most potent way to influence the world is through information. For instance, rather than running around to a side street after the katzil, you can pass through the public house in the base of the building. It has entrances on both sides and is currently unlocked.”

They turned to look at the door toward which she nodded; only the sign labeling it “The Devil’s Deal” revealed it was a pub. The door was shut tight, the windows darkened, its silence in keeping with the crisis in the city, but still somehow even more eerie. Pubs were meant to be places of laughter and vitality.

“You sure?” McGraw asked uncertainly. “Looks buttoned up pretty tight from here,”

“I assure you,” the Crow replied, “I have observed the entrances in use. Time is short.” She ascended toward the roof of the building with a raspy caw, her dark little wings seeming to have no trouble in the wind.

“And there she goes, not through the pub,” Weaver muttered. “I have a personal rule against taking directions from people who don’t follow their own.”

“Obvious, innit?” Billie said cheerfully. “Somethin’ in the pub she wants us to see. If you think the Crow’s out to get us, by all means sit here an’ freeze. Me, I think it’s worth havin’ a look at.”

They started toward the pub’s closed door, McGraw muttering as they went. “I didn’t see a katzil head off in that direction. Reckon there actually is one?”

Joe made no reply. Billie was first to reach the door, but she stepped aside, allowing him to grasp the handle and pull it open.

There was a short entrance hall beyond the door, lined with pegs for coats and stands for heavy overboots, all depressingly empty at the moment. An inert fairy lamp in an old-fashioned wrought iron housing hung overhead, swaying in the breeze admitted by the open door.

They trooped through in single file, weapons at the ready. The hall made a sharp left into the public area, where the group came to an immediate stop.

It looked like it might be a cozy place to have a drink in better times; not large, and with a disproportionately huge hearth along one wall. In addition to the usual tables and benches there were battered old armchairs upholstered in cracked leather arranged in small clusters in the corners. As Mary had said, there was indeed another hall leading from the opposite side of the room, presumably toward the other street. The fireplace was dead and dark, as were the wall sconces. It was not at all dim, however, lit as it was by the glow of the seven alarmed clerics in Universal Church robes who stood huddled in the middle of the room.

The two groups stared at each other in surprise for a silent moment. The priests weren’t armed, at least not visibly, but the glow around them at least partially came from a divine shield covering their party.

“What are you doing out?” a middle-aged woman near the head of the group demanded finally. “There’s a curfew in place!”

“We’re officially deputized for the duration of the crisis,” Joe informed her, holding up the lapel of his coat, to which was pinned the pewter gryphon badge Bishop Darling had given him. “Could ask the same of you.”

“We answer to the Universal Church,” she replied, still studying him warily. “Deputized? How old are you?”

“Collectively, oldern’ the Empire,” Billie said cheerfully. “Look, we can yammer on about who’s entitled to be out, or we could address the more pressin’ matters at hand. There’s demons still on the loose in the street. What’re you doin’ huddled in a dark pub? Could use the help out there.”

An unreadable look made its rounds through the clerics. “We have our orders,” a younger man said cryptically. “If you’re on demon cleanup duty, don’t let us keep you.”

“Now, I might be mistaken,” McGraw drawled, “it wouldn’t be the first time. But ain’t that the insignia of that new summoner corps his Holiness is building? Seems like demons on the loose would be right up your alley.”

“I told you, our orders—” He cut off at a sharp gesture from the older woman.

“Never mind,” she said, speaking to her companions but keeping her eyes on the group standing by the doorway. “This position is clearly compromised anyway, we’ll fall back to the secondary rendezvous. You do what you like,” she added directly to McGraw, “but if you intend to help, keep out of our way.”

They filed rapidly out the other hall exit. In moments, they were gone, and the party stood, listening to the door bang shut behind them. The only sound in the room was the faint sound of wind from without; Weaver had neglected to properly close the door through which they’d come.

“That doesn’t make a lick of sense,” Joe muttered, frowning after the departed clerics. “Holy summoners, hiding in a bar when there’s demons loose in the city?”

“They were not all summoners, holy or otherwise,” Mary remarked. They whirled to find her perched nonchalantly on the edge of the bar. “Did you note the slight divide in their group? Three in one cluster, four in another. Of the four, only one was a priestess. They also included a mage, a witch and a diabolist.”

“…a strike team,” McGraw said, thunking the butt of his staff against the floor. “In the wrong uniform? Well, they’re used for discreet ops often enough.”

Joe’s eyes widened as the equation added up in his head. “…they don’t want the demons un-summoned. They summoned them!”

“Cor,” Billie muttered.

He whirled to look at the group. Billie was frowning in consternation, McGraw in thought. Mary was watching him with the faint smile he associated with a teacher waiting to see if a pupil would understand a lesson. Weaver’s face was uncharacteristically blank.

“We have to tell the Bishop about this,” Joe said urgently. “Which way did he go?”

Weaver heaved a deep sigh. “Kid, this is a pitying expression I’m wearing, in case you failed to interpret it.”

“I told you,” Billie said, scowling. “I said it. That fellow gaining new powers fair makes my hackles rise. Gods only know what he might do with ’em. Not what he told us he was gonna, that much you can bank on.”

Joe’s eyes darted back and forth. “…did you all know about this?”

“Suspected,” McGraw muttered. “Had an inkling. Ain’t exactly the kinda thing one asks one’s powerful employer, though. ‘Scuze me, your Grace, but would you happen to be up to anything especially villainous this evening?’”

Weaver just shrugged.

“We were sent out to, first, attempt to lure the Black Wreath into an ambush, and second, destroy any demons they had unleashed,” Mary said calmly, her eyes fixed on Joe’s. “Ask yourself, why would they unleash demons?”

“They…they’re…the Black Wreath,” he said lamely. “Demons are what they do.”

“You cannot afford to be so naïve, Joseph. The Wreath call up demons only to use them. When they find demons otherwise, they put them down. Aimless summons of uncontrolled demons are less likely to be the work of the Wreath…”

“Than an attempt to lure them out,” Billie finished. “Bloody fuckin’ hell, in the middle of the city!”

“Let me just point out,” Weaver said, “before anybody goes on the warpath, that that was a mixed group of Universal Church and Imperial personnel we just saw, who were probably responsible for the demons loose in this neighborhood, if your theory is correct. It may be satisfying to blame Darling, but even if he could organize something this big, he couldn’t enact it on his own. This must’ve been done at the highest level. Bet you anything he’s not the only Bishop playing a part here.”

“There are many forces at work tonight,” Mary said calmly. “Some at cross purposes, most with more than one agenda. Best not to act in haste.”

“Act?” Billie snorted. “As to that…what’re we s’posed ta do, then? Just go back to killin’ demons like nothin’ else is going on?”

“Few things in life are simple,” said McGraw, “but some things are. If there are demons on the loose in the city, no matter who did it or why, killing ’em is a good use of our time.”

“But is it the best use?” Mary asked with a smile. “Joseph, did you still want to know which way the Bishop went?”

Embras managed one step backward before the front door of the warehouse banged shut, then froze.

“Well,” he said with a sigh, “there we are, of course. The question becomes, then, which of you do I attempt to go through?”

Price raised an eyebrow.

The warlock held out one hand, palm-up. “Young lady, if you would be so kind as to step aside—”

A ball of shadow began to form in his palm, then abruptly exploded; Mogul staggered backward, clutching a burned hand and staring around himself at the piles of crates hemming them in. Several of those nearest were emitting a faint golden light through cracks where the boards did not fit together snugly.

“You’ll want to be careful of that, old fellow,” Sweet said cheerfully, strolling around the corner behind him. The two elves paced silently at his sides, their expressions curious. “Want to know what’s stored in this warehouse, a literal stone’s throw from the Dawnchapel? Why, whatever was lying around! Relics of just all kinds, sacred to a whole smorgasbord of gods, that had been cluttering up the temple where Justinian needed to make space for his own projects. Frankly I’ve not idea what most of ’em even do, but I’ve got a pretty good notion what’ll happen if somebody starts trying to throw around infernal magic in here.”

“Yep,” Embras said, taking two steps to the side and angling himself to keep all of them in view. He stuck his burned hand in one of his coat pockets, tilting his head forward so that the brim of his hat concealed his eyes. Only his grin was visible. “I’ve gotta hand it to you, Antonio, this was mighty fine work. Mighty fine work. How’d you manage to arrange all this? One professional to another.”

“Oh, but that’s the best part,” Sweet said, grinning in return and coming to a stop a few feet from him. “I didn’t arrange this! Nor the mess you encountered in the Dawnchapel. In fact, I did my damnedest to get you to come at me, but I guess that was a little too obvious to get a nibble. No, all this was just here; you just ran afoul of Justinian placing his new toys exactly where you were most likely to trip over ’em in the dark.”

“Well, that’s just irritating,” Embras remarked. “I believe I’m gonna write him a very sternly worded letter.”

“Tell you what I did arrange, though,” Sweet continued, his grin beginning to slowly fade. “You’ve already discovered the Shaathist blessing blocking shadow-jumping over the city, I’m sure. You probably deduced the presence of a lot of Huntsmen rounding up your fellows. Here’s what you don’t yet know: those Huntsmen will be herding the Wreath toward the Rail stations, which are right about now being inundated with the Imperial soldiers who were sent to Calderaas earlier in the day. The Third Silver Legion has been re-sorted into squads off site, one of which will accompany every unit of the Army, with shield-specialized priestesses at the front. No doubt a good few of your warlocks will still manage to use those syringes of theirs when they see what’s waiting for them, but enough of them will be pacified on sight that we stand to take plenty alive.”

“How did you manage that?” Embras asked mildly. “You’re talking about hundreds of people. Thousands, even. I don’t mind admitting I haven’t heard a peep about this, and I’ve got eyes and ears in places you wouldn’t believe.”

“Simple operational control, old man. All of those soldiers and Legionnaires were kept in the dark; they were ordered to respond to the crisis on the frontier, and when they got to Calderaas telescrolled orders sent them right back here. The Huntsmen have been sequestered on rooftops all afternoon, in parties constantly watching each other.”

“Hnh,” Mogul grunted. “At what cost? I do know that hellgate in Last Rock isn’t a feint. Are you really so obsessed with capturing me you let that thing stand open? My people weren’t behind it, nor was my Lady. There is no telling what’s gonna come boiling out.”

“Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that,” Darling said condescendingly. “That’s being taken care of. Worry about the here and now.”

Mogul finally lifted his head, meeting Darling’s eyes. “Take a good look at yourself, Bishop. The bards lie about a lot, but they tell a few solid truths. The man standing over a well-executed trap giving a soliloquy is seldom the hero of the piece.”

“You’re just stalling, now,” Sweet said, stepping forward. Behind him, Flora and Fauna moved to flank. Price held her position, watching with perfect poise. “Obsessed I may be, but I’m not the one with a foot in the snare.”

“Fair enough,” Embras agreed, adjusting his tie. “Well, relics or no relics, I do hope you’re not expecting me to stand here politely while you—”

“Oh, keep it in your pants,” Darling said scornfully. “I didn’t go to all this trouble to kill you. No, I don’t intend to capture you, either.”

“Oh? I confess to some curiosity. That would seem to exhaust all the likely ambitions you might have toward my person.”

“Remember who you’re dealing with,” Darling said grimly, taking slow steps forward. “I am, first and foremost, an Eserite. I brought you here, Embras, to take something from you. Something you’ll be hard pressed to do without. Something you will never get back, until you finally submit yourself to my will.”

He came to a stop finally, with barely a foot separating the two men. Mogul withheld comment, simply staring challengingly into Darling’s eyes.

Suddenly Sweet grinned and swiped his hand across the space between them. Embras reflexively twitched backward, disarranging his hat as the brim thumped against the crates behind him. Grinning madly, Darling held up his fist, with the tip of his thumb poking out from between two fingers.

“Got yer nose!”

Embras gaped at him.

“All right, that’s a wrap,” Sweet said cheerfully, turning around and swaggering back toward the path between the crates. “Pack it up, ladies, we’re out. Embras, old man, you’ll wanna take the first left on the path out the other side, it’ll lead you straight toward the administrative offices. Past the secretary’s desk is the manager’s, and past that is a cleaning closet. Sewer access is in there. You have a good evenin’, now!”

Price caught up as he reached the crates and they stepped out into the shadows side-by-side, leaving the lamp behind. Flora and Fauna, however, hadn’t moved. They were staring after their tutor with expressions very similar to Mogul’s.

“What. The. Hell.”

“Are you ever gonna actually fight this guy?” Fauna demanded shrilly.

“Look, if you just want somebody to play practical jokes with, we can find you a friend.”

“Hell with that, let’s find him a girlfriend. He’s clearly pent up.”

“All the way up to the skull!”

“Girls, girls,” Darling soothed, turning to grin at them. “Not in front of the mark, please. I know exactly what I’m doing, as always. Embras knows, too. Or he will once he’s had time to think it all over. He’s having a stressful night, poor fellow. We’ve got exactly what we came for, now it’s time to go. Chop chop, our guest has a stealthy exit to make. Respect the exit.”

He strolled off again into the shadows. With a last, wary glance at the completely nonplussed Embras Mogul, the girls finally followed him. There really wasn’t anything else for them to do.

“I swear,” Fauna muttered as they wound their way through the dark maze of crates back to the entrance, “if I don’t hear a full explanation of all the aimless running around we’ve done tonight, I’m gonna kill somebody.”

“That would carry a lot more weight if it wasn’t your response to everything,” Darling said cheerfully. “Thank you, Price.”

“Sir,” she said, pulling the door open and stepping aside to hold it while Darling strolled out into the windy streets.

He came to an immediate stop, the glowing tip of a wand inches from his face.

“Evenin’, Joe,” he said mildly. “Something on your mind?”

“Lemme see if I’ve got this straight,” Joe said, glaring at him. “You send all the troops away and have summoners call up demons in the city, creating a crisis only more summoners can fix. And then, when the Black Wreath shows up to help the civilians you’ve put in danger, you land on ’em with Huntsmen and whatever else. That about the shape of it?”

Darling held up a hand at his side; Flora and Fauna halted, having been about to dive past him at the Kid. Behind Joe, the rest of his party stood in a semicircle a good few yards back, dissociating themselves from him with distance.

“You have the aspect of someone who’s just made several assumptions,” Darling said, “and plans to make a few more.”

“I asked you a question.”

“Joe,” Flora warned.

“That’s about the shape of it, yes,” Darling said, nodding. He kept his eyes on Joe’s. “Minus a number of highly significant details.”

“That,” Joe said flatly, “is easily one of the more evil things I’ve ever heard of.” He shifted his grip subtly, the wand’s tip glowing a touch brighter; Flora and Fauna stepped forward once. “And you made me a part of it.”

“Did you see those crocodile-lookin’ things with the gorilla arms?” Darling asked. “Yes? Those are called khankredahgs. One of them killed Bishop Snowe’s servant in her own home a few weeks back. The same night the Wreath attacked us in my house, remember?”

“That has noth—”

“There’s something called the Rite of Silencing,” Darling pressed over him, “it’s what the Wreath does to members who try to betray the group. See, what they do is, they get the traitors in a pit that’s been made into a summoning circle. They’ve bound them beforehand, you see, so they can’t use any magic they possess. And then they call up khankredahgs in the pit with ’em, and the whole cell stands around above and watches them get eaten alive.”

He took a step forward, then another; Joe actually stepped back to avoid jabbing him in the eye with the wand, but did not lower his arm. “And not just the would-be traitor, either,” Darling went on, staring him down. “Anyone deemed close enough to them. Spouses, siblings, children. The exceptions are any children considered too young to be responsible. Those join the onlookers, and get to watch their families being torn apart. These are the people we’re talking about, Joe.”

“What they do has nothing to do with what we do about it,” Joe growled. “If we can’t be better than them, then what’s the point of fighting ’em?”

“I only wish I could tell you how close the Black Wreath was before tonight to overthrowing the Empire,” Darling said. At that Joe’s eyes widened and his hand wavered a fraction. “I can’t, though; the pertinent parts are actually Sealed to the Throne, and most of the rest is merely classified. But yes, Joe, we’ve been walking the knife’s edge for months now. The prospect of an Elilinist government coming to power is a real and extant one even still. This night’s work has broken the Wreath’s spine in Tiraas, but they are not dead, and Elilial certainly isn’t. They’ll be back. They’ll never stop. Have you ever given any thought to what life would be like in a country ruled by the Black Wreath?” He paused for a moment, giving Joe a chance to answer. He didn’t. “I have. And I, and others in the government, the Church and the cults, have had to consider what is appropriate, and what is necessary, to stop that from happening.”

“Appropriate?” Joe all but whispered.

Darling slowly lifted his hand and pushed aside the wand. Joe offered no resistance. “I won’t know for a few days exactly how many people were hurt or killed due to our scheme tonight,” he said quietly. “We’ll probably never have a full accounting of the damage. But this is something that was carefully considered at the highest level. The Emperor, the Empress, the Archpope. Myself, the head of Imperial Intelligence, others. Not one of us are going to sleep well for a good while, if ever. And someday, Joe, when you have had to make a brutally hard choice like that, then you will be in a position to make judgments about those who have. They probably won’t be correct judgments, but you’ll have earned the right to make ’em.” He pursed his lips, and shook his head. “Till then… Grow up.”

Darling turned and walked off up the street. Flora and Fauna paced after him, staring at Joe in passing as he slowly lowered his wand to point at the ground. Price brought up the rear, seeming totally unperturbed.

A small hand touched his leg just above the knee. He looked down to meet Billie’s eyes. She jerked her head significantly at the two elves, then very clearly mouthed “Not now.”

They listened, for a long moment, to the wind, and the sound of distant hunting horns.

“Welp,” McGraw said finally, “I guess we won.”

“What is victory?” Mary mused aloud. “And who are ‘we?’”

“Just in case you were wondering,” Weaver told her, “that inscrutable act of yours isn’t impressive. It’s just annoying.”

“I can live with that,” she said with a smile. “Annoying I may be, but I have achieved exactly what I set out to, tonight. I wonder who else can say the same?”

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7 – 8

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The Dawnchapel held so much history and significance that its environs, a small canal-bordered district now filled with shrines and religious charity facilities, had taken on its name. Originally the center of Omnist worship in the city, it had been donated to the Universal Church upon its formation and served as the Church’s central offices until the Grand Cathedral was completed. More recently it had done duty as a training facility and residence for several branches of the Church’s personnel, and currently mostly housed Justinian’s holy summoner program.

It was a typical structure of Omnist design, its main sanctuary a sunken amphitheater housed within a huge circle of towering standing stones, of a golden hue totally unlike the granite on which Tiraas sat, imported all the way from the Dwarnskolds along the northern rim of the continent. Once open to the sun, its sides had long ago been filled in with a more drab, domestic stone, which was later carved into niches that now housed statues of the gods. Its open top had been transformed into a dome of glittering stained glass, one of the architectural treasures of the city. Behind the circular center rose a ziggurat, topped with a sun shrine which had been left as a monument sacred to Omnu in gratitude for the gift of the temple itself. Most of the offices, storage rooms and other chambers were either underground or inside the pyramid.

The circular temple sat on a square plot of land, forcing the furtive warlocks to cross a measure of open territory before they could reach its entrance. They went unchallenged, however, and apparently unnoticed; this part of the city was as eerily silent and empty tonight as the rest. Still, despite the lack of opposition, only Embras Mogul strolled apparently without unease.

Two khankredahgs and two katzils accompanied the party, which had to be momentarily soothed as they crossed onto holy ground. They had been warded and phased against it, of course, but this ground was holier than most, and the demons were not immune to the discomfort. There were two hethelaxi escorting the group, both of whom bore the transition without complaint. That was it for demon thralls, the more volatile sentient companions having been dismissed back to their plane rather than risk the outbursts that would result from bringing them here.

Even peering around for onlookers, they failed to observe the small, faintly luminous blue figure which circled overhead.

Mogul himself laid his hand upon the bronze latch of the temple’s heavy front door and paused for a moment.

“Warded?” Vanessa asked tersely. “Cracking it with any kind of subtlety will take too long… Of course, I gather you want to make a dramatic statement anyway?”

Mogul raised an eyebrow, then turned the latch. It clicked, and the door opened smoothly, its hinges not uttering a squeak.

“There’s overconfident,” Mogul said lightly, “and then there’s Justinian.”

He gestured two gray-robed warlocks to precede him inside, accompanied by one of the katzils and the female hethelax.

The sanctuary was not completely unguarded, but the outcry from within was brief.

“Who are—hel—”

The voice was silenced mid-shout. Mogul leaned around the doorframe, peering within just in time to see the shadows recede from a slumping figure in Universal Church robes, now unconscious. His attention, however, was fixed on the hethelax, who was frowning in puzzlement.

“Mavthrys?” he said quietly. “What is it?”

“It’s gone,” she replied, studying the interior of the sanctuary warily. “The sensation. Not quite un-consecrated, but… Something’s different.” Indeed, the katzil inside had grown noticeably calmer.

“Justinian’s using this place to train summoners,” said Bradshaw. “Obviously it’ll have some protections for demons now.”

“Omnu must be spinning in his grave,” Vanessa noted wryly, earning several chuckles from the warlocks still flanking the entrance outside.

They all tensed at the sudden, not-too-distant sound of a hunting horn.

“What the hell?” one of the cultists muttered.

“Huntsmen,” Embras said curtly, ducking through the doors. “They won’t hunt in the dens of their own allies. Everyone inside, now.”

As they darted into the temple, the spirit hawk above wheeled away, heading toward a different part of the city.

“This is so weird,” Billie muttered for the fourth time. “And I have done some weird shit in my time.”

“Yes, I believe I read of your exploits on the wall of a men’s bathhouse,” Weaver sneered, taking a moment from muttering to his companion.

The gnome shot him an irritated look, but uncharacteristically failed to riposte. They all had that reaction when they glanced at the figure beside him.

In the space between spaces (as Mary had called it), the world was grayed-out and wavering, as if they were seeing it from underwater. The distortion obscured finer details, but for the most part they could see the real world well enough. This one was more dimly lit than the physical Tiraas, but apart from being unable to read the street signs (which for some reason, apart from being blurred, were not in Tanglish when viewed form here), they could navigate perfectly well, and identify the figures of Darling and his two apprentices, and even the little black form of the Crow as she glided from lamp to lamp ahead of them.

None of them had been able to resist looking up at the sky, briefly but long enough to gather an impression of eyes and tentacles belonging to world-sized creatures at unimaginable distances, seen far more clearly than what was right in front of them. Mary had strongly advised against studying them in any detail. No one had felt any inclination to defy the order.

The weirdness accompanying them was far more immediately interesting to the group. She was wavery and washed-out just like the physical world, but here, they could see her. Little of the figure was distinct except that she was tall, a hair taller even than Weaver, garbed entirely in black, and had black wings. She carried a plain, ancient-looking scythe which was as crisply visible as they themselves were, unlike its owner. Weaver had stuck next to his companion, carrying on a whispered dialogue—or what was presumably a dialogue, as no one but he could hear her responses. The rest of the party had let them have their privacy, for a variety of reasons.

The winged figure subtly turned her head, and Joe realized he’d been caught staring. He cleared his throat awkwardly and tipped his hat to her. “Ah, your pardon, ma’am. I didn’t get the chance to thank you properly for the help a while back, in the old apartments. You likely saved me and my friend from a pair of slit throats. Very much obliged.”

The dark, silent harbinger of death waved at him with childlike enthusiasm. It was nearly impossible to distinguish in the pale blur where her face should be, but he was almost certain she was grinning.

“Oddly personable, ain’t she,” McGraw murmured, drawing next to him as Weaver and his friend fell back again, their heads together. “That’ll teach me to think I’m too old to be surprised by life.”

“Tell you what’s unsettling is that,” Billie remarked, stepping in front of them so they couldn’t miss seeing her and pointing ahead. Several yards in front of the group, Darling and the two elves were engaging a group of Black Wreath. Their demon companions were clearly, crisply visible, while the warlocks themselves appeared to glow with sullen, reddish auras. As per their orders, the party was hanging back, allowing the Eserites to handle things on their own until they were called for. In any case, it didn’t seem their help was needed. Darling was glowing brightly, and making very effective use of the chain of white light which now extended from his right hand. As they watched, it lashed out, seemingly with a mind of its own, snaring a katzil demon by its neck and holding the struggling creature in place. In the next moment, a golden circle appeared on the pavement beneath it, and the chain dragged the demon down through it, where it vanished.

“I’ve gotta say, something about that guy equipping himself with new skills and powers doesn’t fill me with a sense of serenity,” Billie mused, watching their patron closely.

“You don’t trust him?” Joe asked. She barked a sarcastic laugh.

“Ain’t exactly about trust,” McGraw noted.

Mary reappeared next to them with her customary suddenness and lack of fanfare. “One can always trust a creature to behave in consistency with its own essential nature. As things stand, Darling is extraordinarily unlikely to betray us.”

“As things stand?” Joe asked, frowning.

The Crow shrugged noncommittally. “Change is the one true constant. In any case, be ready. I believe we will not be called upon to carry out the planned ambush; it likely would have happened already, were it going to. That being the case, we’ll shortly need to return to the material plane and move on to general demon cleanup duty.”

“Fun,” Joe muttered.

“What, y’mean we don’t get to stay and hang out in this creepity-ass hellscape?” Billie said. “Drat. An’ here I was thinkin’ of investing in some real estate.”

Mary raised an eyebrow. “If you would really like to remain, I can—”

“Don’t even feckin’ say it!”

“Hold it, stop,” Sweet ordered. Fauna skidded to a halt on command, turning to scowl at him as a robed figure scampered away down the sidewalk before her.

“He’s escaping!”

“Him and all three of his friends!”

“Let ’em,” he said lightly, peering around at the nearby rooftops with some disappointment. “We were making a spectacle of ourselves, not seriously trying to collar the Wreath. That’s someone else’s job. You notice there are no signs of Church summoners here, despite the presence of the demons they let loose?”

“Everyone’s bugging out?” Fauna asked, frowning. “What’s going on?”

“Seems like ol’ Embras isn’t taking my bait,” Sweet lamented with a heavy sigh. “Ah, well, it was probably too much to hope that he’d do something so ham-fisted. It’s not really in an Elilinist’s nature, after all. Welp, that being the case, onward we go!”

“Go?” Flora asked as he abruptly turned and set off down a side street. “Where now?”

“You know, it would save us a lot of stumbling along asking annoying questions if you’d just explain the damn plan,” Fauna said caustically.

“Probably would,” he agreed, grinning back at them. “But adapting to circumstances as they unfold is all part of your education.”

“Veth’na alaue.”

“You watch it, potty mouth,” he said severely. “I know what that means.”

“Oh, you speak elvish now?” Fauna asked, raising her eyebrows.

“Just enough to cuss properly. It seemed immediately relevant to our relationship.” They both laughed. “Anyhow, just up this street is the bridge to Dawnchapel. We are going to a warehouse facility, uncharacteristically disguised behind the facade of an upscale apartment building so as not to offend the ritzy sensibilities of those who dwell in this very fashionable district. A fancy warehouse, but still a warehouse if you know what to look for, which makes it the perfect spot for what’s coming next.”

“I didn’t realize there were warehouses in Dawnchapel.”

“Just outside Dawnchapel,” he corrected, grinning up ahead into the night. “Along the avenue leading straight out from the less obvious exit from the Dawnchapel sanctuary itself.”

“I don’t know what to hope for,” Fauna muttered, “that this all plays out as you’re planning and we finally get to learn the point of it, or that it doesn’t and you have to eat crow.”

“Well, there was a mental image I could’ve done without,” Flora said, wincing.

“Not that Crow, you ninny. Oh, gods, now I’m seeing it too.”

“Don’t worry your pretty little heads,” he replied. “I know exactly what I’m doing.”

Before any of the obvious responses to that could be uttered, the clear tone of a hunting horn pierced the night.

“Now what?” Flora demanded. “What’s that about?”

“That,” said Sweet, picking up his pace, “is the signal that we are out of time for sightseeing. Step lively, girls, we need to get into position.”

The spectral bird lit on Hawkmaster Vjarst’s gloved hand, and he brought it forward to his face, gazing intently into its eyes. A moment passed in silence, then he nodded, stroking the spirit hawk’s head, and raised his arm. The bird took flight again, joining its brethren now circling above.

“The summoners have retreated to their safehouses,” he announced, turning to face the rest of the men assembled on the rooftop. “Warlocks in Wreath garb are attempting to put down the remaining demons. There is significant incidental damage in the affected areas. No human casualties that my eyes have seen.”

“And the Eserite?” Grandmaster Veisroi asked.

“His quarry has not bitten his lure, but gone to Dawnchapel as he predicted. Darling and his women are moving in that direction. They are now passing through a cluster of demons, and acquitting themselves well.”

“How close?”


Veisroi nodded. “Then all is arranged; it’s time.” The assembled Huntsmen tensed slightly in anticipation as he lifted the run-engraved hunting horn at his side to his lips.

The horn was one of the treasures of their faith, a relic given by the Wolf God himself to his mortal followers, according to legend. Its tone was deep and clear, resounding clearly across the entire city, without being painful to the ears of those standing right at hand.

At its sound, Brother Ingvar nocked the spell-wrapped arrow that had been specially prepared for this night to his bow, raised it, and fired straight upward. The missile burst into blue light as it climbed…and continued to climb, soaring upward to the clouds without beginning to descend toward the city. Similar blue streaks soared upward from rooftop posts all across Tiraas.

Where they touched the clouds, the city’s omnipresent damp cover darkened into ominous thunderheads in the space of seconds. Winds carrying the chill of the Stalrange picked up, roaring across the roofs of the city; Vjarst’s birds spiraled downward, each making brief contact with his runed glove and vanishing. Snow, unthinkable for the time of year, began to fall, whipped into furious eddies by the winds.

The very light changed, Tiraas’s fierce arcane glow taking on the pale tint of moonlight as the blessing of Shaath was laid across the city.

“Brother Andros,” Veisroi ordered, “the device.”

Andros produced the twisted thorn talisman they had previously confiscated from Elilial’s spy in their midst, closed his eyes in concentration, and twisted it. Even in the rising wind, the clicking of the metal thorns echoed among the stilled Huntsmen.

Absolutely nothing happened.

Andros opened his eyes, grinning with satisfaction. “All is as planned, Grandmaster. Until Shaath’s storm abates, shadow-jumping in Tiraas has been blocked.”

“Good,” said Veisroi, grinning in return. With his grizzled mane and beard whipped around him by the winds, he looked wild, fierce, just as a follower of Shaath ought. “Remember, men, your task is to destroy demons as you find them, but only harry the Wreath toward the Rail stations. Yes, I see your impatience, lads. I know you’ve been told this, but it bears repeating. A dead warlock may yield worthy trophies, but he cannot answer questions. We drive them into the trap, nothing more. And now…”

He raised the horn again, his chest swelling with a deeply indrawn breath, and let out a long blast, followed by three short ones, the horn’s notes cutting through the sound of the wind.

Four portal mages were now under medical supervision in the offices of Imperial Intelligence, recuperating from serious cases of mana fatigue from their day’s labors, but they had finished their task on time, as was expected of agents of the Silver Throne. Now, from dozens of rooftops all across the city, answering horns raised the call and spirit wolves burst into being, accompanying the hundreds of Huntsmen of Shaath gathered in Tiraas, nearly every one of them from across the Empire. They began bounding down form their perches, toward lower roofs and the streets, roaring and laughing at the prospect of worthy prey.

“And now,” Grandmaster Veisroi repeated, grinning savagely, “WE HUNT!”

The three of them hunkered down behind the decorative stone balustrade encircling the balcony on which they huddled, taking what shelter they could from the howling winds and snowflakes. Uncomfortable as it was, they weren’t as chilled as the weather made it seem they should be. The temperature had dropped notably in the last few minutes, but it was still early summer, despite Shaath’s touch upon the city.

Directly across the street stood the warehouse Sweet had indicated. It had tall, decorative windows in sculpted stone frames, shielded by iron bars which were wrought so as to be attractive as well as functional. Its huge door was similarly carved and even gilded in spots to emphasize its engraved reliefs. It was, in short, definitely a warehouse, but did not stand out excessively from the upscale townhouses which surrounded it, or the shrines and looming Dawnchapel temple just across the canal.

“More information is always better,” Sweet was saying. His normal, conversational tone didn’t carry more than a few feet away, thanks to the furious wind, but his words were plainly audible to the elven ears of his audience, who sat right on either side of him. “When running a con, you want to control as much as you can. What you know, what the mark knows, who they encounter… But the fact is, you can’t control the world, and shouldn’t try. There comes a point where you have to let go. Real mastery is in balancing those two things, arranging what you can control so that your mark does what you want him to, despite the plethora of options offered to him by the vast, chaotic world in which we live.”

“And you, of course, possess true mastery,” Fauna said solemnly. She grinned when Sweet flicked the pointed tip of her ear with a finger.

“In this case, it’s a simple matter of what I know that Embras doesn’t,” he said, “and what Justinian doesn’t know that I know. This part of the plan wasn’t shared with his Holiness, you see; he’d just have moved to protect his secrets. That would be inconvenient, after all the trouble I went to to track them down, and anyway, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make use of it tonight.”

“What trouble did you go to?” Flora asked. “When did you find time to snoop out whatever it is Justinian was hiding from you on top of everything else you’ve got going on?”

“I asked Mary to do it,” he said frankly, grinning. “Now pay attention across the bridge, there, girls, you are about to see a demonstration of what I mean.” He shifted position, angling himself to get a good look down the street and across the canal bridge at the Dawnchapel. “When you know the board, the players, and the pieces…well, if you know them well enough, the rest is clockwork.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Embras said sharply as his people clustered together, peering nervously up through the glass dome at the storm-darkening sky. “It was a good move on Justinian’s part, but they’ll be hunting out there. This is probably the safest place in the city right now. Focus, folks, we’ve got a job to do.” He pointed quickly at the main door and a smaller one tucked into one of the stone walls. “Ignore the exterior entrances, we’re not about to be attacked from out there. That doorway, opposite the front, leads into the temple complex. Sishimir, get in there and shroud it; I don’t want us interrupted by the clerics still in residence. Vanessa, Ravi, Bradshaw, start a dark circle the whole width of the sanctuary. Tolimer, Ashley, shroud it as they go. You’re not enacting a full summons, just a preparatory thinning.”

“Nice,” said Vanessa approvingly. “And here I thought you just wanted to smash the place up.” She moved off toward the edge of the sanctuary, the rest of the warlocks shifting into place as directed, Sishimir ducking through the dark entrance hall to the temple complex beyond. The two hethelaxi took up positions flanking the main doors, waiting patiently, while the non-sentient demons stuck by their summoners.

“Now, Vanessa, that would be petty,” Embras said solemnly. “It’ll be so much more satisfying when the next amateur to reach across the planes in training tomorrow plunges this whole complex straight into Hell. Perhaps they’ll think with a bit more care next time someone suggests fooling around aimlessly with demons.”

“Ooh, sneaky and gratuitously mean-spirited. I like it!”

Everyone immediately stopped what they were doing, turning to face the succubus who had spoken.

“Not one of ours,” Ravi said crisply, extending a hand. A coil of pure shadow flexed outward, wrapping around the demon and securing her wings and arms to her sides; she bore this with good humor, tail waving languidly behind her. “Who are you with, girl? The summoner corps?”

“Justinian’s messing around with the children of Vanislaas, now?” Bradshaw murmured. “The man is completely out of control.”

“Why, hello, Kheshiri,” Mogul said mildly, tucking a hand into his pocket. “Of all the places I did not expect you to pop up, this is probably the one I expected the least. You already rid yourself of that idiot Shook? Impressive, even for you.”

“Rid myself of him?” Kheshiri said innocently. “Now why on earth would I want to do something like that? He’s the most fun I’ve had in years.”

“Change of plans,” Embras said, keeping his gaze fixed on the grinning succubus. It never paid to take your eyes off a succubus, especially one who was happy about something. “Vanessa, Tolimer, cover those doors. Sishimir, what’s taking so long in there?”

The gray-robed figure of Sishimir appeared in the darkened doorway, his posture oddly stiff and off-center. His cowled head lolled to one side.

“Everything’s okey-dokey back here, boss!” said a high-pitched singsong voice. “No need to go looking around for more enemies, no sirree!”

The assembled Wreath turned from Kheshiri to face him, several drawing up shadows around themselves.

Two figures stepped up on either side of Sishimir, a man in a cheap-looking suit and a taller one in brown Omnist style robes, complete with a hood that concealed his features.

“That is absolutely repellant,” the hooded one said disdainfully.

“Worse,” added the other, “it’s not even funny.”

“Bah!” Sishimir collapsed to the ground; immediately a pool of blood began to spread across the stone floor from his body. Behind him stood a grinning elf in a dapper pinstriped suit, dusting off his hands. “Nobody appreciates good comedy anymore.”

“I don’t know what the hell this is, but I do believe I lack the patience for it,” Embras announced. “Ladies and gentlemen, hex these assholes into a puddle.”

Kheshiri clicked her tongue chidingly, shaking her head.

A barrage of shadow blasts ripped across the sanctuary at the three men.

The robed man raised one hand, and every single spell flickered soundlessly out of existence a yard from them.


Bradshaw was interrupted by a burst of light; the wandshot, fired from the waist, pierced Ravi through the midsection. She crumpled with a strangled scream, the shadow bindings holding Kheshiri dissolving instantly.

“Keep your grubby hands off my property, bitch,” Shook growled.

The robed figure raised his hands, finally lowering his hood to reveal elven features, glossy green hair, and glowing eyes like smooth-cut emeralds.

Khadizroth the Green curled his upper lip in a disdainful sneer.

“I do not like warlocks.”

“Almost wish I’d brought snacks,” Sweet mused as they watched the dome over the Dawnchapel flicker and pulse with the lights being discharged within.

“I wouldn’t turn down a mug of hot mead right now,” Flora muttered, her hands tucked under her arms.

“Hot anything,” Fauna agreed. “Hell, I’d drink hot water.”

“Oh, don’t be such wet blankets,” Sweet said airily, struggling not to shiver himself. “Where’s your sense of oh wait there he goes!”

He leaned forward, pointing. Sure enough, a figure in a white suit had emerged from the small side entrance to the temple’s sanctuary and headed toward the bridge at a dead run.

“Clockwork, I tell you,” Sweet said, grinning fiercely, his discomfort of a moment ago forgotten. “Confronted with an unwinnable fight when they weren’t expecting one, the cultists naturally huddle up and create an opportunity for their leader to escape. The rest of them are losses the Wreath can absorb; he simply can’t be allowed to fall into Justinian’s hands. And so, there he goes. But whatever shall our hero do now?”

Embras Mogul skidded to a stop at the bridge, glancing back at the Dawnchapel, then forward at the warehouse. He started moving again, purposefully.

“So many choices, so many direction to run,” Sweet narrated quietly, his avid gaze fixed on the fleeing warlock. “The Wreath’s first choice is always to vanish from trouble, but with their shadow-jumping blocked, his options are limited. But what’s this? Why, it’s a warehouse! And all warehouses in this city have convenient sewer access. Once down in that labyrinth, he’s as good as gone. As we can see, he is slowed up by the very impressive lock on those mighty doors.”

“Amateur,” Flora muttered, watching Mogul struggle with the latch. After a moment, he stepped back, aimed a hand at the lock and discharged a burst of shadow. With the snowy wind howling through the street, they couldn’t hear the eruption of magic or the clattering of pieces of lock and chain falling to the ground, but in the next moment, Mogul was tugging the doors open a crack and slipping through, pulling it carefully shut behind him.

“You weren’t going to ambush him there?” Fauna asked, frowning.

“What, out here in the street?” Darling stood up, brushing snow off his suit. “Where he could run in any direction? No, I believe I’ll ambush him in that building which I’ve prepared ahead of time to have no useable exits except the one I’ll be blocking.”

“One of these days your love of dramatic effect is going to get you in real trouble,” Flora predicted.

“Mm hm, it’s actually quite liberating, knowing in advance what your own undoing’ll be. The uncertainty can wear on you, otherwise. All right, girls, down we go. We’ve one last appointment to keep tonight.”

Embras strode purposely forward into the maze of crates stacked on the main warehouse floor, scowling in displeasure. This night had been an unmitigated disaster. He only hoped his comrades had had the sense to surrender once he was safely away. For now, he had to get to the offices of this complex and find the sewer access—there always was one—but in the back of his mind, he had already begun planning to retrieve as many of them as possible. It was a painful duty, having to prioritize among friends, but Bradshaw and Vanessa would have to be first…

He rounded a blind turn in the dim corridors made by the piled crates and slammed to a halt as light rose up in front of him.

The uniformed Butler set the lantern aside on a small crate pulled up apparently for that purpose, then folded her hands behind her back, assuming that parade rest position they always adopted when not actively working.

“Good evening, Master Mogul,” Price said serenely. “You are expected.”

Embras heaved a sigh. “Well, bollocks.”

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6 – 33

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The grate lifted seemingly on its own and Professor Ezzaniel pushed the doors open, letting in a rush of cool night air laden with the scents of earth and grass. The whole party pressed forward, and would have pushed him out of the way had he not stepped quickly aside. They straggled out and stopped, a unified sigh of relief rippling through the whole group, and all stood, faces up, savoring the coolness and the moonlight.

Only one person was there to meet them.

“Well,” said Professor Tellwyrn, planting her hands on her hips. “Well. We do very occasionally lose someone down there, but this… This is unprecedented, I must say. How exactly did you pick up gnomes?”

“She makes us sound like a case o’ hiker’s foot,” Steinway muttered to his companions.

“They were lost,” Fross reported. “In fact, there may be other things in the Crawl that aren’t supposed to be, these days. Rowe was doing something he shouldn’t in the Grim Visage, trying to get out.”

Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “Was? Did you ruffians kill my bartender?”

“He was alive the last we saw,” said Ruda with a leer. “He’ll probably stay that way at least a while. Melaxyna doesn’t strike me as the type to give out swift and merciful punishments.”

“You took him to…” Tellwyrn sighed heavily, rolling her eyes. “Ugh. Now I have to go trap another Vanislaad demon, or something equally sketchy. Leaving a succubus down there without competition isn’t on the table; she’d be running the place within a year. Shamlin, what the hell were you doing in my Crawl?”

“Making my fortune,” he said with a broad grin. “Oh, come on, don’t act surprised, Professor. It’s been two years; I’ve talked with every student group and faculty guide you sent. You had to know I was down there. Nice to see you again, by the way!”

“Well, here it is barely a week on, and here you lot are.” Tellwyrn adjusted her spectacles and fixed her eyes on Teal, who was carrying the long wooden box. “Only the third freshman group even to reach the objective, and you’ve absolutely destroyed the previous speed record. Let’s have a look.”

“I’m sure you already know everything, seeing as how you were here waiting,” Teal said, stepping forward as the others cleared a space. “I got a look at the apparatus in the basement of the Visage, the one that I gather students aren’t supposed to see.” She knelt, setting the box down on the grass, unlatched it, and lifted the lid. Within, in their custom-fitted grooves in the red velvet lining, lay the elven sword and dagger, gleaming lustrously under the moonlight.

Tellwyrn gazed down at them for a long few moments, her expression far away. Then, she blinked, shook herself slightly, and lifted her eyes. “Well! That’s the treasure, all right. Since you were lugging them around, Teal, may I assume the honor of the find was yours?”

“It was a group effort,” Teal said firmly. “I was the one to put my hands on them. We had to divide forces to make that happen.”

“She’s being modest,” said Gabriel, grinning. “Teal made the plans that led to us getting them at all. Fairly earned spoils, I’d say.”

“Well, I certainly cannot argue with results,” Tellwyrn said. “I’ll be reading Professor Ezzaniel’s report in detail, but frankly, you completed your assigned task with flying colors, and showed up every previous group to undertake it in the process. Unless you were transcendently stupid in your approach to every step thereof, which seems improbable, you not only receive an A, but a measure of extra credit for this. Right now, kids, I think you can consider last semester’s Golden Sea debacle obviated.”

“Yay!” Fross cheered.

“And we’ll find lodging for our guests, of course,” Tellwyrn went on, turning to the trio of gnomes, who had moved to the side with Shamlin. “I won’t send you down to the town at this hour; neither of the resident innkeepers would appreciate being roused after midnight. If you can bear with me, though, I’ll have to wake my groundskeeper and have one of the unoccupied student dorms opened up. I’m afraid they’ll be rather dusty.”

“Ma’am,” said Sassafrass respectfully, “we’ve been livin’ in the Crawl these last…what’s it been, lads?”

“Least ten months, I reckon,” said Woodsworth. “Me sense o’ time is understandably a bit off-kilter. I’d no idea it was night out.”

“Point bein’,” Sassafrass continued, grinning up at the Professor, “dust is nothing. If you can offer us a bit o’ somethin’ other than mushrooms and stringy ham, an’ a mattress not made o’ patchy leather, you’ll ‘ave gained three devoted slaves.”

“No, thanks,” Tellwyrn said with a wry smile. “The downside of slaves is having to feed them; they make expensive pets. Anyhow, I believe my hospitality can furnish a higher standard than that.”

“It’s a real honor to meet you, by the way,” Steinway said, grinning broadly.

“Yes, I’m sure. As for you.” Tellwyrn leveled a finger at Shamlin. “You may as well stay the night, too, though I’ll be wanting a prolonged word with you before you skitter off.”

“Uh oh,” he said, grinning.

“All right, that’s enough for now,” the elf went on briskly. “It’s an altogether ungodly hour and I have class in the morning. You lot are excused from tomorrow’s classes, of course, but that’s all the time you’ll have to reset your biological clocks. Education waits for no one.”

“Oh, come on,” Juniper protested. “You thought we’d be down there for three weeks! We should get some time off.”

“Juniper,” Tellwyrn said, staring at her over her glasses, “what have I told you about whining?”

“Um…well… Actually, nothing.”

“Mm hm. Would you like to hear my opinions about whining?”

The dryad crept backward a half step. “Actually, now that I think about it, no.”

“Good. All right, off with you. Emilio, have time for a cup of tea with me before retiring?”

“I’m just beginning my day, Arachne,” Ezzaniel said amiably. “I don’t look forward to classes next week. The young can spring back from these sleep cycle disruptions so much more quickly.”

“I have faith in you. Shamlin, the Wells is currently empty. I know you know where that is. Kindly escort our guests there, and I’ll send Stew along to spruce it up for you.”

“Oh, my,” said the bard, grinning. “But Professor, that’s a girls’ dorm!”

“When there are girls in it, yes,” Tellwyrn said acidly. “I’ll just have to trust you not to impregnate the dust bunnies. Move along, Shamlin.”

“Your wish is my command!” he proclaimed, bowing extravagantly. Tellwyrn snorted at him and strode off, Ezzaniel prowling along beside her.

“Welp, it’s been a right pleasure adventurin’ with you kids,” said Woodsworth.

“Aye,” Sassafrass agreed, “you be sure to pay us a visit before we ‘ave to head out.”

“Count on it,” said Toby with a smile.

They stood in silence, breathing in the clean night air and watching the other two groups vanish around corners into the shadows of the campus.

“Well,” Ruda said at last, “who woulda figured it was midnight?”

“I think I’ve had enough of being underground forever,” Juniper muttered. “No offense, Shaeine.”

“None was offered, even by mistake,” Shaeine replied, smiling. “I doubt I would fare well in your home, either.”

“Actually,” said Fross, “Crawl excursions are kind of a big deal at this school. We’ll probably have at least one a year. Maybe one a semester from now on.”

Juniper groaned.

“Here’s what I’m thinkin’,” said Gabriel. “The pubs down in the town are closed, and our dorms are spelled to keep out the opposite sex. But since we’re all awake, and we’ve been subsisting on Crawl food for a week…” He grinned wickedly. “Who’s up for raiding the cafeteria?”

“That is extremely out of bounds!” Fross said shrilly. “It violates multiple school rules as well as personal directives given out by Professor Tellwyrn, Stew, and Mrs. Oak! We could get in so much trouble, especially since we’re supposed to be going to bed!”

“Well,” Ruda began.

“So,” the pixie continued, “you’d better let me go ahead and scan for detector charms. Gabe, I may need your help with the locks!”

Chiming exuberantly, she buzzed off in the direction of the cafeteria.

“Well, blow me down,” Ruda said in wonder. “They really do grow up fast, don’t they?”


“I know how many of us suffer, day by day,” Branwen said. Her voice and expression were painfully earnest; the magical spotlight illuminating her was an expensive piece of spellwork that made her easily visible to anyone looking, as if she were standing right in front of them. The charm that made her words echo throughout the grand auditorium was a more conventional piece of magic. “The sad thing about the trials in everyone’s lives is how they can disconnect us, how they can distract us, encourage us to retreat into ourselves and become fixated upon our own problems. It creeps right up on you, doesn’t it? But if you look around you, at the people here tonight, at the people you pass on the street every day, even at the people you love, people you work with… Each time, you are passing another whole story, someone with his or her own struggles. They are different struggles than yours, but no one’s challenges are less important. What you should mourn is not that you face challenges, but what they can cost you, without you even realizing it. It’s the saddest thing in the world, not to see another’s pain.

“Because it’s in those challenges that we have our greatest opportunities. It’s in the connections we can form with our fellow human beings that we may find the simplest solutions.” She smiled, an expression so brimming with optimism and love that Darling, as a fellow artist working in the medium of facial features, found himself in awe of her mastery. Awed, and wondering just how deep those waters ran, considering her well-established facade of pretty uselessness. “It is natural that we should look upward, to the gods, in our most troubled times. But we must be careful. That can lead to despair when solutions do not come down to us from the gods. And that despair is a trick, played on us by our own minds. It’s not what the gods can give us, but what they have given us, that matters.”

She placed a hand over her own heart, a gesture that was totally innocent and yet drew attention right to her impressive bosom. The plain Bishop’s robes she wore, with the pink lotus pin of Izara at the shoulder, were far more carefully tailored than those of her colleagues, emphasizing her voluptuous figure in a manner that was just subtle enough not to be called out upon, while still pushing the envelope of ecclesiastical dignity.

“Each of the gods stands for something which they have bestowed on the world for our use. To cry out to them to solve our problems for us is missing the point of these precious gifts. The gods have given us the means to raise ourselves up. They ask that we have faith in them, because they have faith in us!” Her expression stayed solemn, though her eyes were alight with passion. “The gods believe in you. I believe in you. Whatever you face in your life, I know you can rise to meet it. You must believe in you!”

The mostly-silent crowd stirred at that, a smattering of applause and hushed voices rising up. It was a bit more exuberant than the last such; Branwen was working this audience with absolutely masterful skill. Darling had seen this done before, many a time, in his observations of religious ceremonies. There was a rhythm to it, a familiar pattern. It would be a while yet before she built it to its climax. Tonight’s festivities had only just begun.

He tore his gaze from Branwen to look around the darkened theater. She’d drawn quite a crowd, with the full resources of the Church and every major newspaper in the Empire pushing her forward to fame. The place was full of the hoi palloi thronging the cheap seats below, the slightly more upscale classes in the balconies and the wealthy few occupying boxes like himself. The arrangement tickled at his mind. It somehow seemed very appropriate to have used a commercial theater for this address rather than the Cathedral.

“Damn, but she makes a good speech,” Embras Mogul remarked, dropping heavily into the seat next to Darling and stretching out his long legs. “Fills out that robe quite exquisitely, too, doesn’t she? I have to say, that was a genius move on Justinian’s part. I wonder how long he’s been grooming her for this? Doubtless the lady has her own ambitions, but his Holiness doesn’t strike me as the type to catapult one of his underlings into power without spending a good long while sculpting them first.”

Darling was aware that he was staring, and didn’t bother to stop. “Well,” he said finally. “You’re not quite the last person I expected to see tonight, but… If Scyllith pops in here, too, I may just have to check outside and see if the world has ended.”

“If you encounter Scyllith under any circumstances, I think that’s a worthy concern,” Mogul said, grinning broadly.

“To what do I owe the honor, Embras?”

“Oh, this’n that. I thought you might be missing your tracking charm.” Mogul’s spiderlike fingers deposited a small metal object on the arm of Darling’s chair. It had been badly scorched and bent nearly in half. “Somehow it ended up under my collar. Funny, the way these little things wander off, isn’t it?”

“You said it,” Darling said easily, picking up the destroyed charm and making it vanish up his sleeve. “I owe you one, old man. I tore my whole study apart last night looking for this.”

“I don’t doubt it.” Mogul crossed his legs, lounging back in the plush chair. Below them, Branwen continued to soliloquize, but neither man spared her a glance. “After our little game of tag yesterday, I found myself mulling over your motivations.”

“I’m flattered!”

“And I’m curious. Here’s a man clearly playing both ends against the middle. Or all three ends, or more. The point is, you’re balancing far too many loyalties to be truly loyal to all of them.”

“It does seem to keep people on their toes,” Darling agreed solemnly.

“Loyalty, now, people don’t generally understand how that works,” Mogul mused. “It’s a lot less important than they think. What matters is motivations, those are what lie at the root of loyalties, and everything else. So I got to wondering, and decided to arrange a little test.” He leaned away from Darling and angled his body toward him so he could spread his arms wide. “Thus, here I am! The big, bad leader of the Black Wreath, sitting not a foot away, in a theater just crawling with the Church’s agents. A golden opportunity for you to raise the cry and try your luck at cutting off the snake’s head, so to speak!”

“This speech has the smell of an approaching ‘but’ about it,” Darling said wryly.

“Oh, I dunno,” Mogul replied, grinning broadly. “Or at least, that is what we’re here to find out, isn’t it? After all, you’d be pitting the assembled powers of the Church against whatever I have prepared to come to my aid, which you just know is gonna be something nasty. Obviously I’m a powerful player and I wouldn’t have come here unless I were pretty confident of my chances. On the other hand, Justinian wouldn’t have placed his newest, prettiest pet in such an easily shootable position without ample protections at the ready. Sounds to me like a pretty close contest! The only thing that makes it complicated…” He leaned forward, crossing his arms on the box’s low wall, and peered down at the rapt crowd below. “…are aaaallll those innocent people, just waiting to be pulverized in the crossfire. Priests and demons and the gods know what else, running amok in a crowded theater. Why, it fairly scalds the imagination, doesn’t it?”

“Innocent people.” Darling chuckled darkly, turning his gaze back to Branwen. “We both know there’s no such animal.”

“That a fact?” Mogul leaned back again. “Why not kick off the festivities, then, Antonio? Unless you’re bothered by the thought of unleashing hell on their heads.”

“Have you learned nothing about the modern world from this little campaign?” Darling said mildly, gesturing at Branwen. “Everything’s connected. There are a lot of reasons beyond the moral not to start a fire in a crowded theater.”

“Yes, and we could discuss in detail why the Church doesn’t need to worry about those matters, but that would be a tediously long back-and-forth and quite frankly, I believe we’re done here. At any rate, I’ve got what I came for.” Mogul smiled at him, a thin, smug expression. “So there is a core of decency motivating you, old fellow. Well, I must say, that is…fascinating.”

“I’ll be honest, this kind of gloating seems beneath you,” Darling remarked. “You can’t possibly be that bored. Are you really that sore about losing out to the Archpope on this project? I’m sure your pet columnists would have been valuable and all, but just look at her! Isn’t she adorable? A gift to the world, if you ask me.”

“Losing out,” Mogul mused, raising his eyebrows. “Maybe you can clarify that for me. I have a respected journalist setting out to present my perspective to the world. I have that bosomy little piece speaking what amounts to secular humanism, mortal ambition and self-empowerment—all the things the Wreath stands for. And frankly I have to admit she does make a better mouthpiece than anything I had lined up to do the job, and with the Church’s own credibility behind her, too! The people of this city and the Empire have begun questioning the line of divine bullshit they’ve been fed from the cradle. The cults that pose the greatest threat to me have lost face, while that scheming spider Justinian has gained power, and don’t even pretend you fully understand what he aims to do with it. So, what is it, exactly, that I have lost? I confess the point escapes me.”

“You know, I am trying to watch a speech. If you want to exchange taunts, we can do that in the heat of battle sometime. Butting in like this is rather rude.”

“Why, you are absolutely right.” Mogul stood, swept off his hat and bowed deeply. “My most sincere and humble apologies, Antonio. You enjoy the rest of the evening, now. It’s a great speech.”

“See you later, Embras,” Darling said, waving languidly at him, his face already turned back toward Branwen.

Mogul didn’t even try to move silently and didn’t shadow-jump out, simply pacing back to the curtained door of the box, whistling. Darling listened to him leave, ignoring Branwen for now. With his back to the warlock’s exit, he permitted his features to fall into a grim scowl.


Midnight had long passed and the moon was drifting toward the horizon when the doors to the Crawl eased open again. A wary, slate-gray face peered out, glancing left and right, before pushing them wider. The figure who stepped forth was followed by two others, all looking around in blended wonder and nervousness.

“Just as he said,” the lone male whispered in the subterranean dialect of elvish.

“We will go directly,” said the woman in the lead. “There are sure to be wards and defenses, and we are not out for a fight. Stay low, and—”

The soft pop was the only warning they got.

“Right on schedule,” Professor Tellwyrn said grimly, stepping out of thin air. “Congratulations! Most of your compatriots aren’t dumb enough to try this. You get the rare honor of being an example.”

The three drow had fallen to their knees before her as soon as she spoke.

“Arachne,” the second woman said breathlessly. “We’ve—”

“I don’t think I like hearing that from you,” Tellwyrn interrupted. “Well, the good news is, with Rowe’s nonsense at an end, it shouldn’t be too hard to find and plug whatever hole you lot are creeping out of. I do not need drow in my Crawl, except the ones I send in myself. Hm,” she added thoughtfully, frowning. The three kneeling elves flinched. “Now, there’s an idea. A Scyllithene priestess would be a worthy check on Melaxyna’s ambitions. If, that is, I could find one of a modest enough nature not to be an excessive pest. Doesn’t seem likely.”

“We are both priestesses of Scyllith,” the second drow woman said eagerly, not seeing or ignoring her companion’s frantic expression of warning. “I would be—”

“Well, not you, obviously,” Tellwyrn said with a grimace.

The flames were brief, lasting only a split-second, but more intense than the interior of a blast furnace while they burned. In the darkness and quiet after they had vanished, Tellwyrn dismissed the invisible shield over her and brushed drifting ash from her sleeves. A circular patch had been scoured completely clean just in front of the Crawl’s entrance, the upper layers of dirt melted to a puddle of still-steaming glass. It was rapidly hardening, cracking as it did so, the energy of the fire having been removed far more swiftly than simple physics would allow. Nothing was left, not even skeletons. They had not even had time to scream.

“Stew is going to gripe about this for weeks,” Tellwyrn remarked, wrinkling her nose at the hardening glass. “Ah, well. He loves griping.”

She stepped around the burned area to the doors, pushing them carefully shut, then paused. The Professor laid a hand against the dark wood for a moment, smiling fondly, before turning and setting off to wake the groundskeeper for the second time that night.


“Good evening, your Grace,” Price said serenely, taking his coat. “I trust the presentation was enjoyable?”

“Good morning, Price,” he said, yawning. “The presentation was fine, as propaganda shows go. I never object to staring at Branwen. Then I had to go to the Intelligence office and the Church and report on more Wreath nonsense. Brandy, please.”

“Of course,” said Price. “Your Grace has a guest, waiting in the downstairs parlor.”

“I have a— It has to be one o’clock in the morning!”

“Yes, your Grace,” she said calmly. “The Crow appears generally unconcerned with such trivialities.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” he muttered, stalking off toward the parlor.

“Ah, Antonio,” Mary said as he entered. She was sitting on the back of his favorite chair, her feet perched on one of its armrests, nibbling one of Price’s scones. “It seems I picked a poor moment to leave the city on business. You managed, though, did you not?”

“Mary, it’s an absolutely stupid hour of the morning and I’m exhausted. What do you want?”

She tilted her head. “You are unusually tetchy. I’m accustomed to seeing you more smooth under pressure. Was it really that stressful?”

“If by it, you mean the grand cavalcade of stalking and violence you missed, then no. It was actually rather fun. But I’ve just had my nose rubbed in it by the Wreath’s mortal head and had to explain all this twice, to two separate groups of superiors, so yes, I’m damn well tetchy. Even more so now that I find myself again having to repeat. What do you want, Mary?”

“Merely to discuss events,” she said, hopping lightly to the floor. “I waited, as I’ve found you generally amenable to holding late hours, but if you are unduly stressed I can return tomorrow. Would you like me to ease your weariness before I go?”

“Thank you, no,” he grumbled. “But do you happen to know a time travel spell? What I would like is to go back about a week and a half and warn myself not to get into it too closely with Embras bloody Mogul.”

“As I should hardly have to remind a Bishop of the Church,” she said evenly, “messing with time travel is an extraordinarily bad idea. Vemnesthis punishes such infractions without mercy. Even I don’t aggravate the gods in person. You might ask Arachne.”

“It was a joke,” he said wearily. “The last damned thing I need is Tellwyrn anywhere near anything I’m trying to do.”

Mary studied him in silence for a moment. “What happened?” she asked, her voice more gentle. “You are rattled. I confess it’s a little disconcerting, coming from someone so self-assured.”

“Yes, well, circumstances and other people’s bullshit I can cope with just fine,” he said. “Ah, thank you, Price.” Darling tossed back the proffered brandy in one gulp, then set the glass back on her tray. “It’s more disappointing when I screw up. I’ve been going about this all wrong, sneaking around, playing the thief against the Black Wreath. It’s been mentioned often enough lately—hell, I’ve had reason to comment that Eserites and Elilinists think very much alike. I should never have tried to match them at their own game.”

“Is that not also your game?” Mary asked mildly.

“Yes, and that would be the problem,” he said, striding past her to the window, where he pulled aside the curtain and glared out at the dark street. “The whole reason the Empire has done so well militarily is its doctrine of asymmetrical warfare. Not just the Strike Corps utilizing the Circles of Interaction to advantage, but leveraging different kinds of assets against different enemies. Hit them where they’re weakest. The Guild against the Wreath is just…attrition. For all the Church’s resources, Justinian is a schemer, too. He and Vex have been doing the same thing. We’re never going to get anywhere if we keep obliging their love for skullduggery.”

“What, then?” Mary inquired. “If the Empire were able to pin down the Wreath and use its military power against them, it would have done so long since.”

“I can pin them down,” he said. “Next time, I am going to hit the bastards with sheer overwhelming force.”

“You don’t have overwhelming force,” she pointed out.

He turned from the window, grinning broadly at her, a predatory expression that was not meant to be pleasant. Mary, unsurprisingly, seemed totally unimpressed, which didn’t bother him.

“I cannot fathom why people keep saying things like that to me,” he said. “New strategies or not, I’m still a priest of Eserion. When I need something, I’ll take it.”

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“Ah, perfect.” Mogul calmly adjusted his lapels as he stepped out of the shadows onto the latest rooftop. Carter landed beside him, for once without stumbling, and had to repress a moment of pride at how well he was adapting to shadow-jumping.

Their new perch was an especially narrow structure four stories tall, facing what had clearly once been a park before being piled with trash and the debris of preliminary deconstruction of some of the district’s buildings. The piles of rubbish were short, though, affording them a view of both the street leading to the bridge out of the empty district, and a side street which intersected it, down which a small party of people was now moving at a good clip.

“That’s them?” Carter asked, stepping up to the edge of the roof. He couldn’t see identifying details at this distance, but it pretty much had to be. The only other people around were Wreath warlocks, who were in hiding, and the four were clearly fleeing away from or toward something.

“Mm hm,” his guide murmured in reply, turning his back to the scene below.

“You called?” said a new voice from behind them. Carter embarrassed himself by jumping in surprise, then whirled to face the speaker. He might as well not have bothered; it was another figure shrouded in the gray anonymity of their ceremonial robes. Definitely male, possibly of a large build.

“There you are,” Mogul said, cheerful as ever, leaving Carter wondering by what mechanism he had called the man. “How’s it look out there?”

“You can see the Bishop and his servants nearing the square,” the warlock replied, nodding his hood in the direction of the street beyond. “There’s also activity just over the bridge. Looks like reinforcements coming to meet him.”

“All expected,” said Mogul. “What’d he bring?”

“His Butler, a pair of elves in…what I guess might be Eserite garb, or maybe they’re just stupid. Also two Huntsmen of Shaath.”

“That is interesting!” Mogul sounded delighted. He turned to look at Darling’s group and then at the bridge. Carter couldn’t see figures at that distance, but he wasn’t about to make assumptions regarding the warlocks’ capabilities. “Why, this is all shaping up marvelously. The timing is impeccable! The Lady smiles on us tonight. All right, you know the plan. Get started. Unleash the demons at both groups. Carefully, stagger the attacks so as to give them a sporting chance. If it isn’t too difficult to manage, do try to time it so that they meet up about as the demons run out.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” The robed figure put his hands together; there came a soft clicking noise, and he vanished in a swell of darkness.

“How many of those talismans do you have?” Carter asked.

“As many as we need, and a few extras to play with.”

“I must say that’s…oddly generous. That bit about giving them a sporting chance. These are your enemies, aren’t they?”

Mogul half-turned to give him a knowing smile. “And why waste a perfectly good enemy? I’m just getting to know this one. As soon as you kill the bastard you’re used to, you’ll find yourself hip-deep in an unknown quantity. Anyhow, I am taking the opportunity to…clean house a bit.” He turned back to watch the street. Darling’s party had slowed as they neared the square; suddenly there were flashes of fire and the white sparkle of wandshots from their vicinity. Infuriatingly, their path had taken them behind as shattered old clock tower, leaving Carter with no idea what was happening.

“The demons I’ve brought to this little hoedown are…troublesome sorts,” Mogul continued, idly gazing down on the street as if he could see the action. Nothing was visible except the odd flash of light. “Some of the more animalistic ones who just aren’t taking their training… Some sentients who seem determined to use the Wreath to scheme toward their own ends. Exactly the sort of thing we are on the mortal plane to put a stop to. Of course, we have our own methods, but when fortune gives me a squad of bloodthirsty Church enforcers, why waste the opportunity?”

“I see,” Carter said, frowning.

“Come now, Mr. Long, why do you imagine I really allowed Darling to finish his little obstacle course and get himself set up where he wanted to be? He needs to be in a position of strength if I’m to let him get out of this alive.”

“In that case…I’m afraid I don’t see,” Carter admitted.

Mogul laughed. “It’s all about expectations. As I told you earlier, I want to have a few words with Mr. Darling this evening, but following that, he can go home and do whatever it is Eserites do when not cutting purse strings. If I simply offered them the chance to leave unmolested, they would either suspect a trap and attack, or see it as a sign of weakness…and attack. If they’re going to attack anyway, I’d rather they be tired out mowing down the fodder first. Then we’ll have a nice, polite little stand-off and they can leave believing they forced us to a truce.”

“You’re that certain they’ll be so aggressive?”

“I am, as I said, cleaning house.” Mogul gave him a considering look. “I began this sequence of events by sending some of my less reliable members to visit the Church. Warlocks who, like the demons below, have been scheming on their own to amass personal power through the infernal arts, at the expense of their duties. Now, we attract all manner of miscellaneous oddballs and I’m quite indulgent of eccentricity in the ranks, but abuse of power is absolutely not to be tolerated. Ours is a sacred calling. So off went the ne’er-do-wells, and not a one came out alive. That’s what the servants of the Pantheon do when they catch someone who doesn’t bend knee to their power.”

“I’m not aware of Church personnel behaving that way, as a rule,” Carter said very carefully.

Mogul grinned bitterly. “I encourage you not to take my word for it. Look into the events of warlocks being killed by Bishops recently. They have floated the official story that the Wreath attacked them, and frankly I doubt there will be any contradicting evidence left intact. But have a long, deep look at the histories of the Bishops in question. Things may become more clear to you then.”

“This is all…absolutely byzantine,” Carter said, shaking his head.

“Demons are a responsibility, and an occasional means to an end,” Mogul replied. “They’re not the point of our faith; we serve the goddess of cunning. Who, through no fault of her own, was consigned to a dimension full of demons by her own family, and even still took it upon herself to defend the mortal world by disposing of the last hostile Elder Goddess. You don’t think it interesting that the only other deity who bothers to keep Scyllith away from our civilization is Themynra, who also is not of the Pantheon?”

Carter frowned, deep in thought. Below, Darling’s group moved out from behind cover, at a more cautious pace than before, but he barely saw them.

“Welp, looks like matters are coming to a head,” Mogul said cheerfully. “Come along, Mr. Long. Let’s go have us a chat.”


The third and final katzil demon rebounded off the wall against which Weaver’s wandshot had smashed it, emitting an aimless puff of flame from its mouth at the impact. The feathered serpent shook itself, barely staying aloft, and opened its fanged maw to direct another blast at them.

Joe fired a bolt of light straight down its throat. Soundlessly, the creature flopped to the pavement, where it immediately began to crumble to dust and charcoal, as the other two had.

“You seein’ what I’m seein’?” Joe asked, warily scanning the streets with his wands up.

“I see fucking demons!” Peepers practically wailed. She was trying to hide behind Darling, who had a throwing knife in each hand, but had let the two men with wands take the lead against the onslaught.

“Yeah,” said Weaver. “Small groups, one at a time. No warlocks, just demons. Not hitting hard enough to herd us away… We’re being softened up. Wonder what’ll be at the end after we mow down the disposables.”

“Hard to say what is and isn’t disposable with these guys,” Darling noted. “This whole thing started with them sending twelve trained spellcasters to their certain deaths. It’s odd that they’d do this now, when we’re close to the edge of the district. That’s not a smart place for the Wreath to set up a confrontation. Any ruckus kicked up in sight of the public will bring the Army down on them.”

“So, basically, we don’t know what the fuck is going on,” Weaver snorted. “Situation normal.”

“Standard procedures, then!” Darling proclaimed. “Forward! There’s a somewhat reasonable chance we’ll be having help soon.”

“Hate you so much,” Peepers growled.

“He’s right, to the extent that we can’t exactly stay here,” said Joe. “Exit’s just up ahead. How’s it look, Weaver?”

“Actually…” The bard tilted his head in that way he did when listening to his invisible friend, then smiled. “Well, fuck me running. Looks like Twinkletoes’s non-plan is actually working.”


“Stay back,” Price said in a clipped tone, simply striding forward, the clicking of her shoes on the pavement lost in the thunder of the charging demon’s footsteps.

“You can’t—”

“What can two little elves do about this?” The Butler gave Flora a sharp sidelong look before returning her attention forward as the baerzurg reached her.

She sidestepped neatly, allowing it to charge several steps past. Roaring in fury, the hulking, bronze-scaled brute rounded on her, striking out with a ham-sized fist. Price calmly stepped inside the swing of its arm, grasping it as it went past. Her hands looked absurdly tiny against its forearm, which was as thick as her waist. At that moment, however, there came a tiny golden flash as the creature stepped on the small holy charm she had dropped the second before. With a bellow of pain, it staggered into the impetus of its own punch.

The movement of its body momentarily hid the Butler from view; they didn’t see exactly how she did it. In the next second, however, the huge creature had been spun to the side, staggering back against the bridge’s railing. This came only just past its knees, and scarcely served to stop the baerzurg. It teetered at the edge, flailing with its arms.

Price took two running steps forward and vaulted, landing lightly with both feet against the demon’s massive chest.

Roaring, it toppled backward, grasping at her and just missing as she hopped lightly back down to the bridge’s surface. Behind her, the bellowing demon plunged into the canal. Price pause for a moment to straighten her tie.

“Whoah,” Fauna muttered.

An arrow whistled above their heads, and a second later there came a squawk of protest. A flying katzil demon dropped to the ground, a quivering shaft still embedded in its neck.

“We will create a path through these trash,” Andros growled, stalking past the two elves with Tholi and Ingvar flanking him. “Your agility will be needed against the warlocks when we near them. Stay behind us.”

Another arrow, fired by Ingvar, brought down a sshitherosz that spiraled upward, apparently seeking a higher vantage from which to strike. The next creature to charge forward was a grotesque abomination of tentacles and claws that looked like it would be more at home underwater. It faltered as an arrow from Andros’s bow, glowing gold, thudded into its upper chest. Then Price had darted forward and past it, reaching around to rip a small knife across the creature’s throat. Blue-green fluid sprayed forth and it dropped.

The next moment, Price had to dodge backward as a sinuous, crocodile-headed khankredahg snapped at her. She bounded onto the bridge’s rail, then back down, retreating from its powerful jaws. For being built like an elongated bulldog, it was awfully fast.

Tholi was there in moments, striking out with a hatchet. The beast paused, maw gaping open to hiss threateningly as the Huntsman and Butler moved to flank it.

“Hsst,” Flora said, joining Fauna on her side of the bridge. “Tell me you see it too.”

“One at a time, never enough to push us back,” Fauna replied, nodding. “Something’s up.”

“Let’s get behind the lines.”

“Remember the rules…”

“Oh, come on, we’re still elves.” Smirking, Flora switched to elvish. “If we can’t sneak past this lot without teleporting, we don’t deserve the name.”

Exchanging nods, they separated and dived over the bridge on both sides. In the next moment, while their companions pressed forward through a sequence of demonic attacks, they were clambering horizontally along its decorative stonework just below the level of its surface.


“There, and there,” Darling said, pointing at two side alleys. “Uglies coming out, attacking in both directions, but not trying to block the way. As a strategy, it’s so ineffective I have to assume it was meant to be.”

Even as he spoke, the latest khankredahg collapsed with a piteous groan, incidentally bearing down the young Huntsman who had charged forward, thrust his arm into its open mouth and driven a knife into its brain. The lad cursed at being dragged down, though he was free almost immediately as the demon began to disintegrate into ash.

“Good evening, your Grace,” Price intoned, striding forward. “I trust the results of tonight’s excursion have been to your satisfaction?”

“Ask me again when I’ve seen the results,” he said cheerfully. “Excellent timing, by the way, Price.”

“Yes, it was. If your Grace is seeking comfort in reminders of the familiar, I also have red hair.”

There came a scream from above, and a figure in a gray robe plunged from a second-floor window to hit the street with an unpleasant thump. A second behind, a slim figure in black leather dived down, landing nimbly beside him.

“Oh, don’t be such a baby,” Fauna told the groaning warlock. “You’re barely broken.”

“More summoners over here!” Flora reported, leaning out a window in the structure opposite. “They shadow-jumped away as I got here, though.”

“Oh?” Darling turned to her, raising an eyebrow. “It’s not like you to give warning of your approach.”

“I’m gonna let that pass because I’m really glad to see you’re okay,” she shot back. “And no, they were already in motion by the time I arrived. Whatever they were up to, it looks like their plan is still going forward.”

“Then it is time we were gone,” Andros rumbled. “These are the two gentlemen you mentioned?”

“Indeed,” Price replied.

He studied Joe and Weaver for a moment, flicked his gaze across Peepers and visibly dismissed her from consideration. “Very well. The force we now have assembled is sufficient to repel a considerably greater threat than we have faced thus far. While they are in retreat, we should do likewise.”

“But we have them on the run!” Tholi said, practically panting in eagerness. “Now is the time to press on and finish them off!”

“Listen to your superiors,” Ingvar snapped. “And to your scouts! The Wreath has planned this, all of it, and it’s gone as they intended. We are in a snare. It’s time to flee.”

“I quite agree,” said Darling, tousling Flora’s hair fondly as she rejoined the group. “C’mon, once across the bridge we’re—”

“Too late,” said Joe, raising both his wands.

The ten of them clustered together, unconsciously forming into a circle in the center of the square. Behind them was the bridge back to the lights of the city, before the desolation of the condemned neighborhood, but all around, there were suddenly shadows rising from nowhere. They appeared in windows, out of doors and alleys, on rooftops, some seeming to rise up from the very pavement. Surges of darkness swelled, then receded, leaving figures in gray robes standing where they had been. Some carried weapons, a mix of wands, staves and clearly ceremonial (to judge by their elaborate design) blades, quite a few accompanied by demons of various descriptions. In seconds, a dozen ringed them; in seconds more, their numbers doubled, and then continued to grow. The Wreath pressed forward, flanking them from behind, not quite cutting off escape but edging into their own path out of the district.

“Hmp,” Weaver muttered, “damn. I forgot to tell you so. Now I can’t say it.”

“These are pups that have cornered bears,” Andros snarled. “If they will not let us leave in peace, crush them.” Tholi growled in wordless agreement.

A final surge of shadows rose up from the street directly ahead, depositing two men in front of the group.

“Now, now,” Embras Mogul said reprovingly. “There you go, offering to solve a puzzle with a hammer. Honestly, how you get dressed in the morning without strangling your wife is beyond me.”

“Are you really still hanging out with these guys, Carter?” Peepers demanded.

“I’m just here to observe,” the journalist said, licking his lips nervously.

Ignoring a hissed warning from Flora, Darling stepped forward out of the circle. “Well, this has been a grand little chase, Embras, but we all have better places to be, don’t we?”

“Quite so.” Mogul stepped forward to meet him, placing each foot with a care that made him resemble more than ever a wading stork. “My people have suffered no end of abuse at your hands already, Antonio, and you’ve worn yours down with your ill-conceived antics.”

“Not to mention that I’ll have to spend my whole day on paperwork tomorrow if I’m party to shooting up a whole district, condemned or no,” Darling replied easily. “I just can’t spare the time. There’s a social event in the evening to which I’ve been looking forward for weeks.”

“Then it’s all too obvious how we handle this, isn’t it?”

They came to a stop less than a yard apart. The priest and warlock stared at one another, grim-faced.

“Indeed,” Darling said softly. “None of you interfere. This is personal.”

“Are you crazy?” Fauna shouted. Price held up a warning finger in front of her face.

“We settle it like gentlemen,” Mogul said, equally quiet.

“Man to man.”

“One on one.”

“To the death.”

There was a horrified silence. The Wreath stood motionless, robes fluttering in the faint night breeze, several of their demon companions shifting impatiently. Darling’s party held weapons at the ready, staring at the pair in disbelieving fascination. The light shifted, faltering, a cloud scudding across the moon and leaving them momentarily illuminated only by the distant glow of the city itself.

And then Mogul and Darling simultaneously burst into gales of laughter.

While the entire assembled crowd stared, utterly bemused, both men roared in mirth. Mogul slumped forward, bracing his hands against his knees; Darling reached out to steady himself against the other man’s shoulder.

“Fuck it,” Weaver said loudly after this had gone on for half a minute. “I say we shoot them both.”

“Oh, my stars and garters,” Mogul chortled, straightening up. “Thanks, old man, I needed that.”

“Hah, makes me wish we could do this more often! Price never lets me have any fun.”

“I admit I’m impressed! For a second there I really thought you were serious.”

“C’mon, Embras, how long have we been at this tonight? Give me credit for a sense of fun.”

“Yeah, I particularly enjoyed your little street-writing display.”

“Oh, you caught that! Better and better. It gets so tedious, running mental circles around people all the time. Sometimes I feel like nobody really gets me, y’know?”

“Tell me about it. Some days I’d trade it all for some intelligent conversation.”

“I hear that.”

“What the hell is going on?!” Peepers shrieked.

“Well, anyway, I’ve got cranky little ones to take home and put to bed,” said Darling, pointing a thumb over his shoulder at the group. “Are we just about done here?”

“Yeah, this seems like a good place to call it a night.” Mogul patted his shoulder, still grinning. “Good game, my man. Mr. Long!” He turned to beckon Carter forward. “I realize this has been more excitement than you planned on seeing. We’ll not detain you if you would rather head back into the city with these folk, but I encourage you to keep in mind what I said about the Church.”

“You’ve said a lot of things,” Carter replied warily, looking as confused and nonplussed as Darling’s allies.

“At the moment,” Mogul said, stepping back from Darling, “you’ve not done anything to earn the Archpope’s ire. Matters will be different if you decide to publish your story, though, and you can certainly expect these folk to lean on you about it one way or another. The Empire’s another matter. Lord Vex is too canny to disappear an inconvenient member of the press and set your entire profession yapping at his heels. Sometimes I kind of miss his predecessor.” The warlock grinned reminiscently. “I could make that guy chase his tail across the city and back, all from the comfort of my rocking chair.”

Carter stared at him, then at Darling, then glanced around, at the warlocks, the assembled mix of Huntsmen and Eserites, the demons. “I, um…”

“Careful,” Mogul cautioned. “You’re thinking with your emotions, remembering who your upbringing has taught you to trust. That’s fine and dandy for an opinion columnist, but if you decide to play the game on the level at which this story will place you, you’ll need to be more careful. Think in terms of whose interests align with yours, not who you happen to feel fondly toward.”

“That is excellent advice for a variety of situations,” Darling said, nodding. “Just keep in mind that telling the truth is the most valuable weapon in a good deceiver’s arsenal. You understand that better than most people, Carter.”

Long’s face grew blank as he clearly marshaled his expression through sheer will. “I…appreciate the reminder, Bishop Darling,” he said somewhat stiffly. “Mr. Mogul, do you think you can drop me off at the offices of the Imperial Herald?”

“Not within it or too close,” Mogul replied. “Your superiors very wisely keep their wards updated, and the whole place had a recent and thorough Pantheonic blessing. We can put you down in the neighborhood and keep watch till you’re safely home, though.”

“I would appreciate it.”

“Very well, then,” Mogul said, grinning widely. The expression he turned on the Bishop was subtly triumphant. “This has been just a barrel of laughs, but…time marches on.”

“Mm hm,” Darling replied mildly, his own face open and affable. “See you next time, Embras.”

With a final, mocking grin, Embras Mogul laid his hand on Carter’s shoulder and vanished in a heave of darkness. All around them, the rest of the Black Wreath followed suit, demons and robed cultists disappearing in a series of shadowy undulations, till in seconds, the small group were clustered alone in the deserted square.

“Either someone is going to explain to me right damn now what just happened or I will begin stabbing people at random,” Peepers threatened.

“You don’t have a knife,” Joe observed.

“I will improvise.”

“Simple mathematics,” Darling said, strolling back over to the group. “They had the numbers, but we have the power, pound for pound. After watching all of us in action, Mogul knew it. A real fight would have left the area in ruins and cost lives on both sides. Neither of us wanted that.”

“I did,” Tholi muttered sullenly. Ingvar rolled his eyes.

“There will be another time,” Andros rumbled. “Did you at least learn what you set out to, Antonio?”

Darling grimaced in annoyance. “We bloodied their noses, cost them some tame demons and I have a few more little pieces of the puzzle to slot into place. For all the general fuss and bother this evening has been, though… I can’t say we’ve gained as much ground as I would have liked. But we drew them out of hiding, got a sense of how much manpower they’ve got in the city, and faced them down. That’s not nothing.”

“It will be worth reporting in detail to his Holiness,” Andros said, nodding. “But I agree. We must make more progress, quickly.”

“I’ve a few more ideas to mull over,” Darling replied, then rolled his shoulders. “Well, anyhow! What say we haul ass out of this depressing dump? I don’t know about any of you, but right now I would kick a nun into the canal for a brandy.”

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6 – 30

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“Are you sure you should be confronting this guy?” Carter asked as they strode rapidly along the rooftop. “And no, I’m not making a tactical suggestion; this is in my professional capacity of looking for information.”

“Duly noted,” Mogul said with a grin. “I’m curious about the question, however. This chap and his various lackeys have attempted to spy on our interview and then assaulted and killed my personnel when confronted about it. While I happen to have a miscellaneous handful of warlocks and demon thralls in the area, this seems like an ideal opportunity to have a word with him.”

“But the djinn strongly advised you not to. I’m just puzzled that you’d ignore his advice after summoning him to ask for it.”

There came a pause in the conversation when they reached the edge of the building. The darkness swelled around them, and then they were stepping onto the next roof over, two stories up and thirty feet away across a broad street. Carter stumbled again, but less dramatically; he was growing more accustomed to the disorientation.

“Mr. Long,” the warlock said as they resumed walking, “I’ve just spent much of the afternoon making the case to you that the Black Wreath are not at all as you believe them to be. With that established, let me just emphasize that demons are every bit as dangerous as you’ve always been told, and worse. That is why the Wreath is important, because believe me, no one else who tries is adept at handling them without creating a mess. Making allowances for individual personalities, they are highly aggressive. Infernal magic has that effect on any form of life it corrupts. Now, djinn aren’t able to physically interact with the world, which doesn’t diminish their propensity to cause trouble; it only limits the methods by which they can do so.”

The roof along which they were walking wasn’t another flat top like the previous one; their path was a lip of stone along the edge of a steep incline shingled in ragged old slate tiles. They came to the corner, where the path was interrupted by a decorative finial, and Carter had to accept a hand to navigating his way over the smooth slope and back onto even ground on the other side. It was an apparently L-shaped structure, to judge by the long distance it stretched out on the side ahead. Embarrassing as it might be to be handed about like a lady in silks and slippers, Carter wasn’t too proud to admit he needed the assistance. Despite the excitement of this assignment, he was keenly aware of being out of his element. His avuncular suit and briefcase didn’t lend themselves to nocturnal rooftop shenanigans.

“Ali and I have a well-negotiated contract,” Mogul continued as they moved on again. “He doesn’t lie to me and answers direct queries with a minimum of obfuscation. But beyond the simple answers to my questions, in the realm of his personal opinions and asides? You’re damn right I ignore his advice. It’s calculated to trip me up, without exception. Either with the goal of weaseling out of our contract, or just to create general mayhem.”

“But…if he can’t lie…”

“And what did he say, exactly?” Mogul grinned and winked. “That I would learn humility? Come on, what does that mean? You have to be eternally on guard when negotiating with demons. Any demons, but particularly the crafty ones. Sshitherosz, djinn, Vanislaad, all the schemers. They’ll promise you your own doom in a frilly dress, and you’ll step right into it if you make the mistake of paying too much attention to the frills. The exact wording gets you every time.”

“That sounds…exhausting,” Carter mused.

“Warlocks and lawyers, Mr. Long,” Mogul said cheerfully. “Warlocks and lawyers. Ah, here we are. You may want to keep back, we’re about to have some company.”

They had come to the end of the building, where there was a small rooftop patio. Raised beds held sad-looking old dirt and the twisted skeletons of small shrubs. Mogul hopped down from their improvised walkway and positioned himself against the bannister looking over the square below, beckoning Carter over to join him.

In the next moment the shadows gathered and took shape in the lee of the overhanging roof, then receded, leaving two figures standing there. One, dressed in obscuring gray robes, was hunched over with an arm across its midsection, supported by the other, which was clearly some kind of demon. Armored plates covered its forehead and limbs.

“Ah, still breathing,” said Mogul. “I’m glad to see that.”

“I had to confiscate her potion belt,” noted the demon. “She may have already taken more than the safe dosage.”

“It hurts,” the robed figure rasped, her voice taut with pain. “Inside. Bricks landed on my back… Think I have ribs broken. And lower.”

“That’s bad,” Mogul said, frowning, “especially if you’ve been chugging potions on top of internal bleeding. You know better, Vanessa. Hrazthax, get her to a healer. You two are out of this evening’s events.”

“You sure you won’t need me here?” the demon asked.

Embras waved a hand. “She’s urgent, and by the time you got back this would all be over. Be careful, though. Speak to Ross on your way out and have him pass along the word: anyone with a Vanislaad thrall needs to send it away, and everybody watch for holy symbols popping up in surprising places. There’s a reaper on the loose.”

Hrazthax frowned heavily. “A reaper? A real one? Just on patrol, or… It’s not good if Vidius is taking an interest in this.”

“You let me worry about that,” Mogul said firmly. “Take Vanessa’s talisman and get her to help. And when you find Ross, tell him to get everyone organized; our quarry is heading to the intersection of 31st East Street and Alfarousi Avenue. Don’t impede them; get everyone set up and ready to spring at that location, on my command.”

“Got it,” said Hrazthax, nodding. “But what about—”

Vanessa groaned and slumped against him.


The hethelax nodded to Mogul once more and took something from Vanessa’s hand, which she relinquished without argument. There came a few soft clicks as he manipulated it one-handed, and then the shadows welled up again, swallowing them.

“Busy, busy,” Mogul said, straightening his lapels. “Ah, well. When things go the way I want them to, I have the damnedest time keeping myself entertained. Ironic, isn’t it? This way, if you please.”

One shadow-jump later, they were on yet another rooftop across the street, and heading toward…Carter didn’t know what. The district was like an island of quiet and darkness. On all sides, not too far distant, the lights of Tiraas blazed like a galaxy come to earth, and at this altitude the sounds of carriage traffic and periodic Rail caravans were audible, but immediately around them was desolation. He doubted he could have navigated this jumble of broken-down structures even with the streetlights working, but Embras seemed to know where he was going.

“What’s a reaper?” Carter asked, regretting having put his notebook away. Ah, well, he wasn’t great at writing while walking at the best of times, and would likely have broken his neck trying to do it while navigating rooftops.

“Grim reaper,” Mogul said as they moved, “soul harvester, valkyrie. You’ve surely heard of them under one name or another.”

It took the journalist a few seconds to gather his thoughts before he could reply.

“Well… I must say, this night is going to leave me without things not to believe in.”

Embras grinned at him. “Oh, they’re very real, but you can be forgiven for not knowing it. The Vidians don’t encourage people to ask about them, and really, nobody on the mortal plane is likely to interact with one at all unless they dabble in necromancy. It’s the reapers who usually get sent to shut that down. Oh, and Vidian exorcisms? All theater. If the death-priests want a spirit laid to rest, they put on a big show to make you think they’re being useful while a valkyrie quietly gets rid of it. Warlocks only need to know about them because they have the same authority over incubi and succubi—which, as you may know, are human souls who are not supposed to be on this plane.” He shook his head and chuckled. “Vlesni is going to wring every ounce of pathos out of this anecdote she possibly can. I hear tell getting sent back by a reaper is…uncomfortable.”

“Do you really think you can intercept your opponent if he’s got an invisible spirit working with him?” Carter asked, glancing around somewhat nervously.

“Intercept him? I’m going to do no such thing.” Mogul stopped at the edge of the current roof, one long leg raised with the foot propped on the low wall surrounding it, and grinned at him. “We’re meeting him at the end. The man’s going excessively out of his way to spell out a message. I really ought to let him finish it, don’t you think? That’s just good manners.”

“Where the hell are we going?” Weaver snarled. “And don’t feed me that bullshit about just wasting time. You keep insisting on taking specific routes!”


“Child, I swear by Omnu’s hairy third testicle I will shoot you right in the fucking mouth.”

“Settle down, good gods,” Darling reproved. “And yes, Weaver, you’re right, we are heading for an intersection a few blocks up.”

“Great, well, you should know there are warlocks and demons moving parallel to us in the same direction. We’re either walking into an ambush or being escorted by a mobile one.”

“Okay, how do you know this stuff?” Peepers demanded. “Where are you getting intel?”

“He’s got a spirit companion,” Joe explained.

“I want one. You have any idea how valuable that would be in my line of work?”

“You wouldn’t get along,” Weaver grunted.

“Don’t even ask,” added Joe, “it just gives him an opportunity to be standoffish and coy about it. He loves that.”

“About how many?” Darling interrupted.

Weaver cocked his head as if listening for a moment before replying. “Nine warlocks. Six of them have companion demons of various kinds. No incubi or succubi. And…a guy in a white suit almost straight behind us on the rooftops. With Peepers’s friend.”

“He’s not my friend,” she said with a sigh. “Never was, probably sort of hates my guts now.”

“Shame,” Weaver said, grinning nastily. “He was cute. Ah, well, guess you’re destined to be an old maid.”

“Joe, please shoot him in the foot.”

“Maybe after we deal with the demons.”

“You’re not wrong,” said Darling, “we are heading somewhere. There’s a small square up ahead close to the bordering canal of this district. That street leads straight to one of the bridges out.”

“The ones you said not to go near because they’d be guarded?” Joe asked.

“Yup!” Darling didn’t slacken his pace in the slightest; none of them were having trouble keeping up, though Peepers was starting to look a little haggard. “But it’s been enough time, approximately. I hope. I chose this particular bridge to approach because it leads to the most direct route toward the main temple of Shaath.”

“And…that is relevant…why?” Peepers asked.

“This must all be part of that plan he doesn’t have,” said Weaver, rolling his eyes.

“The Wreath has both oracular and divinatory sources of information,” Darling said lightly. “Many warlocks can use enough arcane magic to scry, and there are demons who trade information for favors. Any plans we made could be found out and countered, heading up against what we were.”

“There are methods to block both of those,” Joe noted.

“Yes,” said Darling, nodding, “and when I have time to arrange a real campaign against the Wreath, with Church and Imperial support, you better believe I’ll be using them. On the fly like this, though, there’s a loophole that can be exploited: they can’t scry a plan that doesn’t exist.”

“Not having a plan doesn’t strike me as a great plan,” Peepers muttered.

“I know the board,” Darling said more quietly, “and I know the pieces. I set in motion the ones most likely to lead to the result I want. Plans are nice, kids, but sometimes they’re a luxury you can’t afford to count on. If you know what’s going on, and if you’re a little lucky, you can tell more or less how things are going to play out. Even arrange them the way you want, sometimes.”

The other three glanced at each other.

“This is not how I wanted to die,” Peepers sighed.

“Oh?” said Joe. “How did you?”

“Of sex-induced heart failure on top of a gigolo in my eighties, wearing a fortune in jewels and nothing else. And drunker than any woman has ever been.”

He flushed deeply and didn’t manage to form a reply. Weaver actually laughed.

“And,” Peepers said in a more subdued tone, “certain my little brother was going to be taken care of…”

“He’ll be fine,” said Darling soothingly. “We will be fine.”

“You are so full of it,” Weaver snorted.

“Yeah.” Darling glanced over his shoulder and winked. “Luckily I keep enough of it on hand to throw into my enemies’ eyes. It’s always worked so far.”

“Ew,” said Peepers, wrinkling her nose.

“I think that metaphor got away from you,” Joe added.

Weaver shrugged. “Eh, they can’t all be winners.”

“Oh, shut up, all of you. We’re almost there. Mouths shut, eyes open, and be ready to fight or flee.”

“Of course,” Andros rumbled to himself, staring across the canal at the darkened district up ahead. “What better place? I’m a fool for not thinking of it.”

“Holy shit, that all looks abandoned,” Flora marveled. “How long has it been like this?”

“Less than a week,” said Savvy. “It’s not going to be left this way long, but while it’s there… Yes, it really is an ideal venue.”

They had stopped in the shade of two warehouses flanking the road which became a bridge into the condemned district. The spirit wolf had come unerringly here, then halted, glaring ahead with his hackles raised. He growled quietly until Andros rested a hand on his head.

Ingvar and Tholi immediately set to prowling around, investigating, with Flora and Fauna following suit after a moment. The elves, after peering in every direction, nimbly shimmied up lamp posts and perched improbably atop the fairy lights, peering ahead into the district. The two Huntsmen kept their attention chiefly on the ground, tracking back and forth.

“Cities,” Tholi muttered disparagingly. “Nothing leaves tracks.”

“Not easy tracks,” Ingvar said in a more even tone. “And the rains wash away what little there is very quickly. These are not elk, Tholi; be sure you are not following the wrong kind of spoor. Look.”

He had crossed to the foot of the bridge and knelt, drawing his hunting knife and carefully scraping it across the pavement.

“Infernal magic isn’t useful for stable area-of-effect spells, unlike arcane wards,” Ingvar said, holding up the knife. “It is anchored to something physical. In this case, the paving stones.”

The tip, where he had dragged it against the ground, was now spotted with rust. Even as they all stared, the reddish stain crept up the blade another half an inch.

“Infernal wards cause rust?” Fauna asked, frowning down at them.

“The weapons of Huntsmen are blessed by the Mother,” said Andros, glaring over the bridge.
“They do not decay, nor suffer damage from the elements. Heat, cold, moisture… Such an effect is the result of magical corruption. They are here, and they have warded this bridge against intrusion.” He began to glow subtly.

“What mother?” Flora asked.

“Honestly,” said Savvy, pointing at the wolf. “Have you ever seen divine magic used for anything like that? Most of the Huntsmen’s arts are fae in nature. I really need to explain this? I was almost certain you two were elves.”

“I don’t like you out of uniform,” Fauna announced.

“Enough,” Andros growled. “What can you see from that vantage?”

“Movement,” Flora said, peering into the dark district. “Through windows and gaps in walls, mostly. There’s activity directly ahead, hidden behind things. People moving inside buildings.”

“Without lights,” said Ingvar, nocking an arrow to his bow. “That’ll be the Wreath. Once we go in there it will be increasingly hard to track our quarry. They won’t appreciate our presence.”

“Let them come,” Tholi said, grinning savagely. Behind him, Ingvar rolled his eyes. “I just hope the Eserite we’ve come to rescue isn’t dead. If he’s running around in there with warlocks and demons after him… Doesn’t look good, does it?”

“Darling would die swiftly in our wilds,” Andros said, “but we fare almost as poorly in his. The man is adaptable and this is his city. He chose to enter there. I will believe he has fallen when I’ve buried him. We proceed.”

“Agreed,” Savvy said crisply, deftly smoothing her hair back with both hands. She shrugged out of her coat, reversed it and swept it back on, and just like that the illusion vanished, leaving the immaculately attired Butler straightening her tie.

“Uh,” Fauna asked, “what was the point of that, then?”

“Camouflage,” Andros said, nodding approvingly. “There are few enough Butlers in the city that some know all their faces, and their masters. Best not to advertize that Bishop Darling has run into trouble.”

“Wait!” Flora said suddenly, straightening. “I see people coming into the square— It’s him! And the others!”

“And more coming out of hiding,” Fauna added. “In robes. With demons.”

“Then this is the time,” Andros declared, starting forward and raising his bow. The spirit wolf stalked at his side. “Ingvar, Tholi, strike down the demons. I will attend to any infernal arts used against us.”

“And the people?” Ingvar asked. “The warlocks?”

Before he had finished speaking, Price strode forward onto the bridge, gliding smoothly down its center. Flora and Fauna leaped from their perches, landing on either side of the Butler. The three of them walked without apparent hurry, but at a pace that devoured the distance between them and Darling.

“That,” said Andros with a grim smile as he stepped forward after them, “appears to be attended to.”

Teal staggered slightly upon materializing, but quickly caught her balance and straightened, self-consciously smoothing her coat.

“That’s a neat trick,” Sarriki noted, pausing as she slithered past with a tray of empty mugs, bound for the bar. “You shouldn’t be able to teleport into here. Are you even a wizard?”

“Not using arcane magic, no,” the bard said with a smile, holding up a waystone. “But the Crawl’s methods work just fine.”

The naga cocked her head to the side. “I thought you kids couldn’t afford to buy from Shamlin.”

“Shamlin has decided to return to the surface,” Teal explained. “As such, he was quite interested in Tiraan bank notes. Where’s Professor Ezzaniel?”

“Here,” he said from the second level of the bar. “And what are you up to, Miss Falconer? It is not generally wise to split up the party.”

Teal tilted her head back, staring mutely up at him for a moment. “It’s funny how you’re supposed to be evaluating our progress down here, yet you haven’t been around for any of it. You just sit here drinking and chatting with the other patrons.”

“Since you make such a point of my absence, what makes you think you know what I’ve been doing while not under your eyes?” Ezzaniel leaned one arm against the railing and smiled down at her.

Teal stared at him thoughtfully, then glanced at Sarriki, who chuckled and set about pulling herself up the steps.

“It’s not like you to nakedly evade a question like that, Professor,” she said quietly.

Ezzaniel raised an eyebrow. “I assure you, Miss Falconer, everything is attended to. Professor Tellwyrn has made appropriate arrangements for you to be graded fairly.”

“I don’t doubt she has. Where is Rowe?”

The Professor shrugged. “I don’t much wonder about him when he is not in front of me. He is entertaining company, but in a rather exhausting way. One does get tired of always keeping a hand on one’s purse strings.”

She turned from him and bounded up the stairs in two long leaps, then paused, glancing around. The Grim Visage was fairly quiet at the moment. A lone drow man was nursing a drink in the far corner; he nodded politely to her as her gaze fell on him. A small party of five goblins were conversing quietly next to the fireplace. Not far away, Sarriki was clearing dishes and trash off an empty table.

Teal squared her shoulders and strode past the naga, straight through the curtained doorway next to the bar.

She paused only momentarily in the kitchen beyond, quickly taking in its meager furnishings and stored food at a glance, then stepped across the floor to study the door opposite the exit. It was secured with multiple locks. Unlike most of the rusted, battered and apparently recycled equipment the students had seen in most parts of the Crawl, these looked new. Clean, strong, and highly effective. Teal didn’t need to start tampering with them to know there was magic at work, too. This door would not be opened by someone who wasn’t entitled.

“You know, you’re not supposed to be back here.”

She turned slowly to look at Sarriki, who stood framed in the doorway, her arms braced against it on both sides.

“My friends are going directly to Level 100,” she said quietly.

“Oh?” The naga smiled, a bland, languid expression. The light framing her wasn’t bright enough to make her features difficult to see, but it was sufficiently darker in the kitchen than in the bar that the contrast made for good dramatic effect. “Excellent. I had a feeling, you know. And I’ve just won a bet. If they manage to beat the boss, I’ll be absolutely rolling in it.”

“The going theory,” Teal went on, “is that the final boss of the Descent is the Naga Queen.”

“Interesting idea. My people mostly live far below, you realize. It’s rare that any of us climb to this level.”

“Mm hm. It would fit, though, wouldn’t it? She’s easily the most formidable personality in the Crawl… One possibly powerful enough the Professor Tellwyrn wouldn’t want to leave her running around at liberty.”

Sarriki shrugged. “Whatever. Your friends are hard-hitters; they have as good a chance as anyone. I’m fairly confident of my odds.”

“You have more at stake here than a bet, don’t you?” Teal asked softly.

The naga’s eyes hardened. “Little girl, it is seldom wise to stick your nose into other people’s business. Now, if you’re hungry, kindly come back out front and I’ll make you something. This area is not for patrons.”

“Where’s Rowe? It’s odd for him not to be around. With Melaxyna placing bounties on his head, it’s not exactly safe for him to leave, is it?”

“Child,” Sarriki said sharply, “I’m losing patience. There’ll be no fighting in here, but you’ll find there is a lot I can do to make your stay in the Visage and the Crawl unpleasant if you disrupt the peace in my bar. Now, for the last time, out.”

“Actually,” said Teal, stepping aside and pointing at the locked cellar door, “I need to get through here.”

Sarriki actually laughed, loudly. “Oh, you silly little thing. That is not going to happen.”

They were familiar with the drill by now, after making extensive use of Melaxyna’s portal and waystone. Immediately upon landing, the students unlinked arms, Fross zipping out from under Ruda’s hat, and fell into formation, weapons up, eying their new surroundings carefully.

It was definitely the Descent. The distinctive proportions of the room were right, and the staircase behind them was just like those they had seen dozens of times before. It was the contents of the room that made them all straighten, staring.

“Well,” Toby said after a moment, “I don’t know what I was expecting.”

The wall were covered with masterfully painted murals, all depicting in exquisite detail their adventures through the Crawl thus far. The scenes blended one into the next as they marched around the walls, but everything was familiar, if portrayed somewhat more dramatically than the events had actually occurred. Juniper laughing in delight as she hugged a capling, Trissiny standing at the foot of the throne with Melaxyna smirking down at her, the whole group in disarray and being chased by boars, Gabriel studying an invisible maze with an expression of intense thought while the others ostentatiously bickered around him, the group lined up facing a row of chessmen. The scenes continued, wrapping around the chamber and showing the details of every step of their journey through the Descent, though they did not portray anything from before or after that. Nothing of the Grim Visage, the complex of dream-inducing mists, Shamlin’s grotto or the Naga Queen’s shrine.

There were statues, too, nine of them. Towering marble depictions of the students lined an avenue straight toward the opposite end of the chamber, each over eight feet tall even without the plinths on which they stood. At the far end, rather than another staircase downward, there was a semicircular indentation in the wall, in which stood an even larger statue, this one of the Naga Queen.

Of the Queen herself, there was no sign.

“I kind of wish I had one of those lightcappers,” Juniper mused. “Remember, from Tiraas? I mean, just look at these portraits! Makes me feel kinda proud, y’know?”

“Maybe we can come back with one?” Gabriel suggested.

“Unlikely,” said Fross. “This was all arranged for us on this visit. I bet it’ll all be blank as soon as we leave.”

“Experience is by nature a transient thing,” Shaeine said quietly.

“Only one direction to go,” Trissiny said, stepping forward. Ruda fell into step right beside her, the others quickly following suit.

They came up short a moment later, before they’d gone ten feet, when the sound of clapping began to echo throughout the chamber. Slow, rhythmic, and coming from only a single pair of hands, it resounded sourcelessly from the stone on every side, leaving them peering around again, weapons raised.

He materialized then, fading from invisibility into view atop the Naga Queen’s statue, where he was perched on her stone shoulder. Rowe continued to applaud, smirking down at them.

“Well done, kids. Well done. I congratulate you on your highly improbable victory.”

“Son of a bitch,” Gabriel murmured, not noticing the sour look Trissiny shot him. “Teal was right.”

“I have a theory,” Teal said, drawing the snake flute from within her coat. “One I’ve been working on since we came here. A lot of the pieces to the puzzle were hard to find, but several of the more important ones fell into place for us just recently.”

Sarriki had fallen still, eyes fixed on the flute. Her expression was purely hungry. Teal raised the instrument toward her lips.

“Let’s see if we can come to an understanding, your Majesty.”

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6 – 29

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They made excellent time; the Butler was half a head shorter than the elves and had shorter legs to match, but she stayed in the lead the entire time, not quite compelling them to rush. Not being the swiftest members of a group was an unfamiliar experience for them. It wouldn’t have been wise to run, though. Three women walking through the city was not a sight interesting enough to draw attention, but matters became different when two of them were elves, and more different still when one of the elves wore a sweeping cloak and the other a suit of black leather with ostentatiously displayed daggers. Running would have set the police on them.

“You are two Thieves’ Guild apprentices,” Price said as they rapidly crossed one of the city’s oldest districts under a darkening sky. She kept her eyes straight ahead and her voice to a bare whisper, but of course they could hear perfectly. “You are elves. That’s all. No matter what we end up seeing tonight, you will keep a sense of context in mind. Show the world anything beside what they expect of you and it’ll create trouble for all of us. Especially the Bishop. The kind of trouble from which there’s no coming back.”

“If it comes to an emergency—” Flora clamped her mouth shut as Price half-turned her head to give her a flat look.

“Why are we coming here?” Fauna asked in audible disgust.

“The Bishop has made it clear that with regard to the business at hand, the Guild can’t be considered reliable,” Price replied flatly. “And it should be obvious why we’re not going to the Empire for help. If you have a better idea, the time to say so was when we were leaving the house. Now hush.”

With that, she set off up the long staircase to the city’s main temple of Shaath, in bounds that consumed three steps at a time. The apprentices fell silent as ordered, following her.

At the top, a bearded man in ceremonial leathers, carrying a longbow, nodded politely to them. “Welcome, girls. Can I help you with—”

“Nope,” Price said curtly, sailing past him. He raised his eyebrows, turning to watch the three women vanish inside, but made no further comment and didn’t pursue.

“Odd how polite he was,” Flora murmured. “I’d have expected—”

“Hsst!” Price snapped, making a beeline for the only group of people present. The dim, barbarically ornate sanctuary was quiet at this hour, with only two Huntsmen in attendance. They stood at the far end near the large wolf statue, apparently doing nothing but talking quietly, their poses relaxed. Either they were simply stopping for a chat or Shaath didn’t require much formality from his ceremonial guards.

Both turned as the Eserites approached, expressions curious but not unfriendly. The older one had no beard; the younger had only the earliest scruffy stages of one, and appeared not much past fifteen. The beardless elder opened his mouth to speak, but Price beat him to it.

“I need to speak with Bishop Varanus.”

“All right,” the Huntsman said, in a deep but evidently female voice. “Why is that, and who are you?”

“You can call me Savvy, and it’s about Bishop Darling. There’s a problem. An urgent one.”

“Mm.” The Huntsman eyed her up and down, then flicked a cool gaze over Flora and Fauna. “I see. Tholi, go find the Bishop and bring him here with all haste.”

The boy took one step toward the rear door of the hall, then hesitated. “And…what shall I tell him?”

“The truth,” replied the Huntsman, giving him an irritated look. “There are three Eserites here asking for him, and it’s to do with that blonde poof.”

“Got it,” he said with a grin, then darted off.

“You’re Brother Ingvar?” Price—Savvy—inquired.

“Mm hm. So he remembered my name? I’m surprised.”

Savvy shrugged, took three steps backward and leaned against a carved pillar, producing a coin from within her sleeve, which she began rolling across the backs of her fingers. “Everyone makes mistakes, Huntsman. Only a fool doesn’t learn from them.”

“That’s very wise,” Ingvar replied in a completely neutral tone. “Can I get you ladies anything while you wait? It won’t be long, but I would have guests be comfortable in our lodge.”

“Thanks, but I’d rather not be comfortable,” Savvy said, keeping her gaze on the coin. It flashed in the dim light of the braziers as she manipulated it. “I’ll be comfortable when all this is settled.”

“As you like,” Ingvar said mildly, turning an inquiring gaze on the two elves. When they shook their heads, he nodded to them politely and folded his arms, staring down the length of the hall at its opposite door.

“I’m a little surprised by the reception,” Fauna said after nearly a minute’s silence. “I expected…subdued hostility.”

“Oh, and why’s that?” Savvy asked quietly. Ingvar flicked his gaze over to them, but didn’t join in the conversation.

“Well, it’s not as if our cults get along,” Flora said.

“And everyone knows how Shaathists are about women,” Fauna added.

“Apparently you don’t. Shaath always needs women.” Savvy made the coin vanish into her sleeve and straightened up, dividing a long look between them. “Your training has been mostly on practical matters, but you need at least a basic grasp of the theologies of the other cults. Particularly the ones we tend to butt heads with. The Huntsmen are always looking to recruit women. A successful man in this faith is one who can afford to provide for two or more wives; just by the numbers, they need to have more women than men in their ranks. The bar is set accommodatingly low for female converts to Shaathism, but men have to prove a great deal before being allowed to join a lodge from outside the faith. You can walk into any Shaathist lodge, anywhere, and if you don’t mind a generally condescending attitude toward your faculties, you’ll have no cause for complaint about your treatment. Now, if you marry a Shaathist, your ass is his to do with as he pleases. But for an unattached female, a lodge is probably as safe a place to seek shelter as an Avenist temple. Creepy and not pleasant, but safe.”

“Huh,” Flora said, sounding flummoxed.

“Relating to that,” Savvy added with a faint smirk, “spend any amount of time around here and you will be courted. Aggressively.”

“Tholi is newly raised to the rank of Huntsman,” Ingvar chimed in with an amused smile, “and looking for his first wife. Give him an hour or so to decide which of you he wants and you’ll see what she means. It’s a rare honor for a Huntsman to claim an elf maid for his own.”

“Him and what army?” Fauna said, baring her teeth and placing a hand on the hilt of her dagger. Ingvar laughed.

At that moment, the rear door opened again and Bishop Varanus himself emerged, crossing to them with long strides, Tholi trailing along behind. Andros wore traditional leather, with a pelt of some spotted animal hanging from his shoulders like a cape; he carried a longbow in one hand, and a heavy knife and hatchet hung at his belt. He came to a stop next to them, studying the three.

“What is this about, then?” he asked without preamble.

“Bishop Darling went off about four hours ago with a companion, tracking two other allies of his through metaphysical means,” Savvy reported crisply. “The two in question were pursuing a nest of the Black Wreath. He left instructions to seek help if he wasn’t back by dinner, which he was not. So here we are.”

Andros drew in a long breath through his nose and let it out quickly. “How many Wreath? Of what potency? With what demonic allies?”

“Everything I know, I’ve just told you,” Savvy said evenly.

“And you cannot go to your Guild with this?”

“The Guild’s skills are not most applicable here,” she replied, “and besides, the Bishop believes they are compromised by the Wreath. I have no idea where he is, only that he is certainly in some trouble. We need trackers.

Andros grunted in agreement. “Antonio is a dismal excuse for a fighter. What possessed him to chase a bear into its den?”

“The allies he’s with are far from weak.”


“Gravestone Weaver and the Sarasio Kid.”

Tholi’s eyes widened and he bit back a curse. Ingvar simply lifted an eyebrow, watching Andros.

The Bishop himself stroked his beard once with the hand not occupied with his bow, frowning. “There is a limit to what powers the Wreath can bring to bear within the city. Hn…very well. If Antonio has been delayed, he is presumably in danger, and requires assistance. Hopefully those allies will suffice to hold out. Come.”

He turned and strode off toward the front door. Price immediately fell into step behind him, followed by Ingvar. Tholi and the elves brought up the rear, eying one another warily.

“Is this…all?” Flora asked. “This is the only help you’re bringing?”

“There are few Huntsmen in residence, and mustering them will take time we cannot spare,” Andros replied curtly. “Ingvar is one of the lodge’s finest, and Tholi…can run ahead, beating the bushes.”

Ingvar grinned, and Tholi devoted a self-defeating amount of effort to not looking sullen.

“And what about you?” he countered, glaring at Flora. “Three women is the only thing you offer your Bishop in a time of need?”

“This woman is a Butler,” Andros said.

“I don’t see a uniform,” Tholi snipped.

“You don’t see the world,” Ingvar replied calmly, and the youth fell silent, flushing.

“And these two are only partially trained,” Andros continued, “but you should know that elves are never to be taken lightly.”

Sweeping outside, he paused at the top of the steps, turning to face them. “I need something of Antonio’s.”

Price instantly produced a strip of cloth from inside her coat, handing it to him. The four Huntsmen, including the one watching the door, paused to regard the paisley silk scarf with identical expressions, then Andros raised two fingers to his mouth and let out a long, sharp whistle.

A shape formed seemingly out of thin air, a bluish-white discoloration upon the world, as if it were an invisible presence wreathed in frost. It was a wolf, standing waist-high on the Huntsman who had summoned it, eyes glowing like blue candle flames and a faint but steady mist trailing off its fur. Andros held the scarf in front of its nose.

“Find this lost friend,” he said softly, tucking his bow under his arm to stroke the ghostly animal’s neck.

The wolf made a soft whuff, then whirled and bounded down the steps. It paused at the bottom, looking up at them, its aspect clearly impatient.

“And now,” Andros said with a grin, “we hunt.”


Joe fired off another warning shot, blasting a spray of rubble from the corner of the building up ahead. “I confess it’s downright liberating, doing something like this in a civilian-free landscape for which I won’t be held financially liable.”

“Yeah, something about this city is just asking to be shot to hell,” Weaver said tersely; he held a wand in one hand and his flute in the other. He’d not distributed earplugs, so hopefully he was planning to rely on the former, not the latter. “Did you get it?”

“Nope,” said Joe, keeping his gaze on the now-smoking corner around which the demon had retreated. “Just scared it off.”

“Means there’s a warlock behind it somewhere,” said Darling. “Katzils are smart, but not sentient; once on the hunt it wouldn’t retreat unless ordered to.”

“Cat and mouse it is, then,” Joe murmured, tearing his eyes from the corner to peer warily about.

“Guys, we might all die out here,” said Peepers solemnly, “so…just so we don’t go out with any unfinished business, I want you to know I hate you all.”

“Aw, somebody’s not having fun,” Darling said, grinning at her. “Relax, Peepers, we’re gonna be fine. Think of it as a great game—the great game. You know your catechism, surely.”

“I’m fully comfortable thinking of theft, espionage and extortion as games,” she snapped. “That I was trained for. I did not apprentice myself to the Thieves’ Guild because I wanted to be chased around by fucking demons.”

“And warlocks!” Weaver said helpfully.

“Hate. You. All.” She viciously kicked a chunk of fallen masonry out of the road. “Except maybe Joe. Mostly because he’ll let me slap him upside the head if we survive this.”

“Excuse me?” Joe said, affronted. “What did I do?”

“Come now, vaudeville while we move, please,” Darling said, setting off for a side alley.

“Let’s keep going to the next alley,” Weaver said. “That one’d put us straight down the line of sight of that demon’s last known position.”

“Oh, it could be anywhere by now,” Darling breezed. “Worry about the demons when you see them. This really is a game, guys. It cannot go on long and it can’t involve a huge amount of force. It’s only a matter of time and not much of that before the Empire or the Church realizes this district is blockaded with infernal magic. The Wreath doesn’t deal in brute force tactics; whatever they’ve fielded against us will be fine for chasing around a ragtag band of misfits, but not enough to stand against an Imperial strike team or squad of Silver Legionnaires. Keep moving, keep alert, and we’ll get through the night just fine.”

Weaver actually walked backward a few paces as they proceeded down Darling’s selected alley, peering up the street where the katzil demon had last been seen. “Fine, whatever. I still think going straight would have been safer. We’re backtracking toward where we shot at that guy with the staff. Likely to be more Wreath in the vicinity.”

“When we don’t know where the Wreath may be, assume they could be anywhere!” Darling said cheerfully.

“Hate you so much,” Peepers growled.

“Then why this alley?” Weaver demanded.

Darling turned his head and grinned at him.


Carter staggered as the latest swell of shadows deposited them on another rooftop, bracing himself against the low wall surrounding its edge. A figure in gray robes, accompanied by a hulking, crocodile-like demon—a khankredahg, that’s what they were called—prowled the streets below.

“How’re you holding up, Mr. Long?” Embras Mogul asked solicitously. “Shadow-jumping itself is perfectly harmless to the body and spirit, I can assure you, but I know any kind of rapid teleportation can be disorienting. Particularly if one isn’t used to it.”

“I’m…fine,” Carter said, straightening and taking a breath, and finding that he more or less was. “This is…well, not what I was expecting.”

“We aim to entertain,” Mogul said with a grin and a bow. “And now, if you don’t mind a momentary respite from the action, I’m going to offer you the chance to see something even most warlocks never manage to behold.”

“Oh?” Carter reflexively pressed himself back against the wall. It was a four-story drop, but he’d never had a problem with heights. He had what he felt was a perfectly reasonable aversion to demonology, though.

“All this running around, stalking shadows and shooting around corners is very exciting, to be sure,” Mogul said, reaching into his inner coat pockets. He produced an ancient-looking clay bottle and set it upright on the flat rooftop, then pulled forth a handful of fine gray powder, which he trailed around it, forming a circle. “However, I find that I’ve somewhat lost my taste for playing games for their own sake as I grow older. Our visitors are proving to be exactly the kind of delightful challenge I enjoy when I don’t actually have anything that needs to get done, but this isn’t the night for it. Here we are, wasting your valuable time and keeping me from my beauty rest. So! I’m arranging a little shortcut. It’s cheating, really; takes a lot of the fun out of the game. A man must do what he must, though. You know how it is.”

As he chattered, he had knelt beside the bottle and its boundary of powder—which was lying remarkably flat despite the light wind over the rooftop—and begun augmenting the circle with a piece of chalk, adding glyphs and embellishments whose meaning was completely lost to Carter. He flipped to a new page in his notebook, though, and began making a sketch, leaving out the glyphs. Writing down demonic symbols, especially summoning symbols, seemed like an invitation to trouble.

“Since we have a moment to breathe,” he said while they both worked, “may I ask about what we saw in that alley? That was obviously the symbol of Vidius, who isn’t known to be very proactive in combating Elilial. Or, at least, he doesn’t have that reputation among most mortal laypeople. I guess everything looks different from the Wreath’s perspective. What could create an effect like that, if there wasn’t a Vidian priest nearby?”

“Well, for starters, that neatly answered the question of what happened to my succubus,” Embras mused, continuing to draw on the floor. “This has been a night of firsts for us all, Mr. Long. Suffice it to say there are much more dangerous things than demons prowling this night. But not to worry! You and I are perfectly safe. I don’t have much to fear from holy symbols, which are about the worst that Vidius’s little pets can throw onto the mortal plane, though I don’t fancy trying to walk through one and having to replace most of my personal effects as a result. It’s all terribly inconvenient, though. Now I have to re-summon Vlesni, and she’s always such a pain about it.” He looked up at Carter and winked. “She’s a sweet girl, really, just can’t resist the opportunity to be a pain in the butt. The children of Vanislaas are like that, as you may have heard. She’s forever trying to sneak her friends through, as if I need extraneous demons cluttering up the place. Believe me, Mr. Long, you never want a demon around that you haven’t fully planned for, and prepared the means to both control them and get rid of them when you’re done.”

“I must say the most surprising thing to me is how responsible you seem to be about diabolism,” Carter remarked. “The last time I heard this much talk about safety measures I was interviewing a professional wandfighter.”

“Betcha I have more reason to worry than he did,” Mogul said glibly. “Worst thing you can do with a wand is kill somebody. All right, now, prepare to feast your eyes!”

With a dramatic flourish, he plucked the lead stopper from the upright bottle and stepped back.

A thick mist immediately poured out, curling upward and filling the air with the scent of spices and an ocean breeze. The smoke coalesced, rapidly taking the shape of a man—or at least, the upper half of one. Below the waist he trailed off into a swirling funnel of smoke, the tail of which poured into the mouth of the bottle. Above he was shirtless, muscular, and bald as a melon. And, at the moment, grinning broadly.

“Finally,” he said, his voice resonating as though heard down a long tunnel.

“Getting antsy, are we?” Mogul said, grinning in return. “Now, you know how I like to solve things for myself. If I weren’t in such a hurry—”

“Oh, Embras, you know I don’t care about that,” the smoke-creature interrupted. “But I do keep an eye on you, and I did so desperately want to see the look on your face when this one was explained to you.”

“Is that a djinn?” Carter breathed.

“It most surely is,” Embras said brightly. “Mr. Long, may I present Ali Al-Famibad, an old acquaintance and colleague of mine. Ali, this is Carter Long, noted journalist.”

“Indeed, I quite enjoyed your column, when it was circulating,” the djinn said, bowing elaborately to Carter, which was a very peculiar sight given his lack of legs.

“I…you… Well, it’s news to me that the Herald is distributed in Hell,” Carter said weakly.

Ali let out a booming laugh. “My good man, I am, after all, a djinn! Knowledge is what I do. Knowledge is what I am. And I rather miss your opinion column, I must confess. Naturally the position as reporter makes better career and financial sense from your standpoint, but when dealing with the facts you tend to suppress that sly wit of yours. ‘Tis a loss to the world.”

“Why…thank you,” Carter said, bemused.

“Glad as I am to see you all getting along,” Embras interjected, “I have a little problem, Ali.”

“Ah, yes, your Eserites.” Turning back to him, the djinn grinned broadly, an expression with more than a hint of cruel mockery. “I have advised you time and again not to antagonize Eserion’s followers—they play your little games as well as you, and with less courtesy. As a case in point, you’ll be wanting to know where the good Bishop Darling and his friends will poke their heads up next, yes?”

“Quite so,” Embras replied, then turned to Carter. “By the way, Mr. Long, Ali and I have a long-standing and fully enforceable contract. Should you ever find yourself in a position to ask a favor of a djinn, or any sentient demon, don’t. The loopholes will get you every time. It’s not only a joke that lawyers make the best warlocks.”

“I can’t really see that coming up,” Carter said, “as until two minutes ago I thought djinn were a myth. But thanks for the advice.”

“Here it is, then,” Ali boomed, and dissolved. He swirled about above the circle as a cloud of smoke for a moment, before resolving his shape into a visual representation of the district. The demon’s voice echoed sourcelessly out of the diagram. “And here is the path taken from your meeting point by the Bishop.”

A golden mote flared to life near one edge of the diorama, which did indeed resemble the nexus of streets where Carter remembered seeing them, or so he thought; it was very hard to align the map with his recollection of the area from the ground. The mote moved off rapidly down the tiny streets, leaving behind a glowing thread of gold tracing the path taken by the Bishop and his party.

Its form almost immediately was apparent. It was somewhat distorted by the angular nature of the paths they were obliged to take, conforming to the street grid, but there were enough alleys of various dimensions to give Darling enough free reign, it seemed. The golden thread traced out, in oddly blocky cursive script, a brief message.

“Well,” Mogul said after a moment of silent perusal. “I do say that seems rather…gratuitous.”

“How does he know the streets that well?” Carter marveled.

“It says ‘fuck you!’” Ali crowed from within the diagram. They didn’t need to see his face to know he was grinning. “Or it will when he gets to the end.”

“Yes, I can read Tanglish, thank you,” Mogul said dryly.

“How does he know the streets?” the djinn continued. “He is the streets. You’re one of the best operators it has ever been my privilege to know, Embras, but you’ve let your perceptions of Antonio Darling be colored by your first encounter with him, in a tiny town where you were in your element and he was wildly out of his. You’ve skillfully sealed off this district, which is the only way for you to safely tangle with that man in the streets of Tiraas. Know this, Embras Mogul: the next time you do, you’ll learn humility.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Mogul said solemnly. “So the question is, does he expect to be intercepted at the end of his little script? What trick might be prepared there? Or… You know what, no.” He shook his head. “You can drive yourself nuts playing ‘does he know that I know that he knows.’ No, I do believe I’m fed up with this foolishness. Come Mr. Long, let’s bring this to a conclusion.”

The three-dimensional map dissolved back into smoke, and then re-formed in the shape of the djinn’s upper body. Still smiling unpleasantly, he bowed again. “I have rendered my advice, Embras Mogul. Thus is our contract upheld. Ignore my counsel at your peril.”

“Thank you, I believe I shall.” Mogul bent forward and stuck the plug back in the bottle. Above it, the djinn dissipated instantly into the air, taking with him the exotic scent of whatever incense it was. “After all,” the warlock added, picking up the bottle and straightening, leaving the summoning circle inscribed on the floor, “life without peril is just too easy to be worth it. Don’t you think so, Mr. Long?”

Carter very much did not agree, but found himself with no safely polite way to say so.

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6 – 27

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The alley behind the apartment was less dim than its interior, albeit not by much. Above them, the sky was fading rapidly to orange, though not much of that light penetrated into the narrow space backing the crumbling edifice. Two smaller structures sat behind it, with another thin sliver of navigable space between them, which Joe glanced longingly down as they crept past it. The space was only a yard wide, and it was liberally seasoned with trash. Being Tiraas, the layer of detritus on the floor of the alley had been wet enough long enough to become a layer of homogenized, ill-smelling sludge, with crunchier bits of broken wood and windblown paper sprinkled here and there along the top.

Like an apple cobbler. Peepers had seemed pleased with this metaphor, and even more pleased with Joe’s lack of amusement.

She crept along in near silence, while his boots alternately squelched and crunched; quiet moving had not been part of his education. While Joe kept his wands out and eyes roving, turning frequently to glance behind, above, and at windows they passed for any possible threat, she remained intent on the building they had just exited, peering upward and counting windows.

“Here,” she said softly, coming to a stop. “Straight up.”

Joe didn’t bother to ask if she was sure. He put his back to her and kept moving his eyes, certain they were about to come under some kind of attack. It made no sense to him that the succubus might be the only guardian in the building.

“You can climb it?” he asked, half-expecting nothing but a snarky comment in reply.

She surprised him. “Gods, I hope so. The windowsills help, as does the bad state of this stone… But this was a pretty smooth surface, once. Be sure to glance up now and then, I may need to be caught.”

“If you need to be caught,” he said darkly, “we’ll need to run. Unless you can fall a lot more silently than anyone I’ve ever heard of.”

He glanced at her in time to catch her grin, and then she was off. With one bound she got her feet on the sill of the window. It was bricked up, as was the one on the second floor—apparently there had been ground-floor views when this structure was built—but the third floor, her target, was high enough to see out over the sloped roof of the building behind, and its window was covered with nothing but dilapidated wooden shutters which had once been painted green. Peepers had to press herself flat against the surface; the surviving windowsill gave her a few inches on which to plant her fingers and toes, but nothing more. She stretched upward, groping experimentally toward a crack in the stone above.

“All right, I believe that’s enough of that nonsense.”

He whipped up his wand, aiming at the speaker, and immediately Peepers spoiled his shot, lurching backward off the wall in her surprise and barely managing to land on her feet, right in his line of fire. Beyond his companion’s crouched form, he beheld a person in an all-concealing gray robe, pointing a wand at him.

He had not heard her approach.

“I suggest you put that down, ma’am,” he said. Politely, but firmly.

“No, no, dear, that is not the situation. I am not the one needing to protect a bystander, here.” She adjusted her aim, pointing the wand at Peepers, who froze.

Joe didn’t move, studying her. The robe had a cowl that kept her face in full shadow, but the hand holding the wand was expertly manicured, its nails painted an excessively flashy shade of pink. Her voice was low, and deliberately sultry in a way that was starkly inappropriate in this context. She would be pretty under that hood, he knew. He’d grown up around enough prostitutes to know the type. Even if nature hadn’t blessed her looks, this was someone who would have an expert grasp of cosmetics.

“Ma’am,” he said, “I can disarm or kill you if your finger tightens a fraction. I’d prefer not. Please drop the weapon.”

A throat was cleared behind him, and Joe flattened himself against the wall, bringing up his other arm and aiming his wands in both directions down the alley. Another figure in a gray robe had materialized several yards down, cutting them off. He also was carrying a wand, a mass-produced model with a standard clicker, like his fellow cultist.

Materialized was the word. There had been no sound, nothing to warn of their approach until they were there. Shadow-jumping, then; these were either warlocks or had Wreath talismans.

“Now, young man,” the woman said condescendingly, “you can’t fight in both directions, especially if you’re trying to protect—”

She broke off with a hiss of surprise and pain as a beam of light lanced out from Joe’s wand, ripping the weapon from her hand. A second shot from his other wand simultaneously disarmed the robed man, who actually yelped and stumbled backward.

“Wouldn’t think so, would you?” Joe said. “I did warn you, ma’am.”

“Holy shit,” Peepers breathed.

“Language,” he said automatically. “There are ladies present.”

Peepers glanced at the robed woman, now cradling a singed hand against her chest, and back at him. “Yeah? Where?” He sighed.

Then came the stomping.

“You probably should have surrendered,” the woman said smugly.

Peepers pressed herself back against the wall; Joe didn’t budge, keeping his eyes forward so as to keep both warlocks peripherally in view. Neither of them moved, however, apart from nursing their hands. The footsteps echoing down the side alley were far too heavy to belong to anything human.

The thing that emerged bore out that analysis.

It couldn’t really fit in the alley; its broad shoulders scraped both sides hard, and it couldn’t even raise its arms in the cramped confines. The creature was very roughly humanoid in shape, albeit twice the size of any man Joe had ever seen, with a disproportionately broad chest and stubby legs. And it had no head, just a protrusion at the top of its shoulders; its face was over-large and located in its chest, its fanged mouth hanging below where the ribs would be. It was entirely covered in bronze scales, even its lips; a double ridge of pointed scales extended up over its mouth, making the interior seem a forest of fangs in the brief moment that it hung open. Then it clamped shut, glaring at him through disconcertingly tiny black eyes.

Joe shot it directly in the center of its mass.

The demon growled at him.

“Really should have surrendered,” said the female warlock with unmistakable satisfaction. “A baerzurg’s skin is utterly impervious.”

“Oh?” he said, raising his wands again. “Good. Thanks for the tip, ma’am.”

The next two wand shots took the demon right through what there was of its head. It emitted a hoarse grunt and started to topple backward, immediately wedging itself tight in the narrow alley. Its brawny arms hung limply; smoke drifted up from its eye sockets.

From behind it, the man squalled, “What happened? What’s wrong?”

The woman gaped in silence for three seconds, then raised her good hand. There was no visible effect, but Joe felt the temperature in the air lower slightly.

He pointed a wand directly at her head.

“Do. Not.”

She froze, letting her spell fizzle. In the next second she turned and scrambled all of fives steps away before the dimness of the alley itself seemed to rise up and swallow her.

“What is going on?” the other warlock demanded, kneeling in the muck to peer under the dead baerzurg’s armpit.

“She ran away,” Joe informed him. “In all modesty, you might wanna think about—there ya go.”

The man had risen awkwardly and retreated; in the next second he, too, vanished in improbable silence.

“Holy crap,” said Peepers, staring at Joe. “This really isn’t your first rodeo, is it?”

“Never had to deal with demons before,” he muttered. “I’d rather never again. Can we consider our cover blown and skedaddle, please?”

She sighed heavily. “Yeah, might as well. If they brought out the heavy wands like that, I don’t want to see what happens when they get desperate. C’mon, it looks like that way’s off the table.”

Peepers turned and started off down the alley away from the obstructing demon corpse, Joe right on her heels. They made it all of six yards before the shadows ahead swelled again, and two more figures materialized.

With more agility than he’d expected after seeing her tumble off the wall, Peepers whirled around behind Joe. He raised both weapons.

“I don’t see any need for another dust-up,” he said flatly. “We are leaving. Best for everyone involved if we don’t have to go through you.”

“This kid killed Vhakzud?” the figure in the lead said, craning his head to peer past Joe. “…oh. Oh, I see. That’s actually quite impressive, for several reasons. Anyhow, kid, no. I’m afraid your escape ends here.”

“Don’t let him shoot!” his companion, the woman from before, said somewhat tremulously.

The figure in the lead grinned, faint light glinting off his teeth. In fact, light glinted on other surfaces, along his forehead and shoulders, and lower arms, all of which seemed distorted. In the dimness, even Joe’s perceptions took a moment to make sense of what he was seeing. The fellow had outgrowths of some kind of armor, which seemed natural, or at least melded to his skin. It gleamed faintly like chitin. At any rate, it affected his posture; he kept his knees slightly flexed, his upper body angled forward and his elbows bent, hands dangling in front of him.

“Are you, by chance, another demon?” Joe asked.

“’fraid so,” the self-professed demon replied, still smiling. “Somehow I doubt you’ll take my word that you’re not getting by me the way you did Vhakzud. By all means, go ahead and shoot me.”

“By your leave, then,” Joe said politely, and fired a beam of energy directly into his eye.

“Ow!” the demon protested, twitching his head to the side. “You little twerp, that stings! It’s too dark in here for that kind of light show.”

Joe lowered his weapon a fraction, his own eyes widening. That beam should have been enough to bore a hole through a tree.

“Good trick, though,” the demon went on, blinking his affronted eye. “Baerzurgs have armored skin, so a shot through the eye socket takes out the brain. I am seriously impressed; we’ll have to talk about where you learned to shoot like that. But hethelaxi are just magically invulnerable—no tricks, no gimmicks. So, are we done here, or is there going to be a ruckus that gets you or your ladyfriend injured?”

“Ruckus,” Peepers said immediately. “The hell I’m going anywhere with demons and warlocks. I bet if you keep shooting you’ll find a soft spot.”

“Maybe,” Joe mused.

“I mean over his shoulder,” she said in exasperation, pointing past him at the woman hovering behind the hethelax. At this, she ducked down, concealing herself behind the demon much as Peepers was behind Joe. The two of them exchanged a wry look.

“I’m not much of a scrapper,” the demon confessed. “But the fact is, you can’t harm me, and you can’t stop me. All my employers will want to know is who sent you here and why. With that out of the way, you may as well just leave. Nothing you tell anyone will lead to us, and the Wreath is looking to increase its public profile anyway.” He leaned forward subtly, making no threatening moves. “A quick chat, we get our publicity, you get to spend the rest of your evening not being hexed and beaten on by demons. How is there a downside for anyone in this?”

“Well, you make a persuasive case,” Joe said, nodding.

“We have a deal, then?

“I’m afraid it ain’t really up to me,” he said apologetically. “I’m just the hired wand, I don’t make the rules. The rules are we don’t cooperate with the Black Wreath.”

“Well, that’s a shame,” the demon said with a sigh. “Now somebody’s going to get all mussed. I have to ask, what drives you to be so stubborn?”

“Sheer bloody orneriness, mostly,” Joe confessed, raising both his wands.

The hethelax crouched, bracing his arms apart as if to attack rather than defend against wandshots, but Joe wasn’t even aiming at him.

A spray of white bolts flashed out from each weapon, digging into the walls of the structures to either side of the demon and warlock. Fine beams of light sank deep into the crumbling stone, sending up small clouds of dust and tiny flecks, and followed a split-second later by heavier bursts of power that exploded within the holes just bored. Under the onslaught, the walls gave away, tumbling inward onto the pair.

The hethelax braced both his arms over his head; there came a short scream from the woman, quickly cut off. Empty rooms gaped on both sides of them now, their exterior walls reduced to fragments. Pieces continued to crumble off from above.

Joe turned back toward Peepers, quickly sheathing one wand to tip his hat. “Ma’am, I apologize for the language—”

“Just run!” she exclaimed, grabbing his wrist and dragging him forward.

They had to duck under the dangling arm of the slain baerzurg to get into the alley from which it had emerged, but in the next second they were clear, pelting down the narrow path toward the silent street ahead, neither of them imagining for a moment that this was over.

“What was that?” Carter exclaimed, jumping to his feet at the crash resounding from just below. The entire room shook slightly.

Mogul rose more languidly, stepping over to the window, and pushed up the sash then opened the shutters utterly without hurry. He leaned far out, looking down.

“Ah,” he said in an oddly satisfied tone. “We appear to be under attack.”

“We are?” Carter asked nervously, protectively clutching his notebook to his chest. “By whom?”

“Oh, the usual, I suspect,” Mogul said airily, ducking back in and straightening up. “Well, Mr. Long, it seems we are about to have an adventure!”

“Oh,” the reporter replied carefully, edging back toward the door, “I don’t think…”

“Forgive me if this sounds disrespectful to your profession,” Mogul went on, stepping toward him, “but words are cheap. I brought you here to learn the truth about the Black Wreath. Well, you’ve listened with great patience while I nattered on about this and that, for which I thank you, but you and I both know that my viewpoint is only that. You need facts; your editor will demand hard, objective evidence. Fortuitously, it appears the Church or some of its lackeys have provided you a chance to see them in action!”

“By ‘action,’” Carter hedged, “you mean…”

“I mean,” Mogul said with a canny smile, “you’ll get to find out what the agents of the gods really do to those who commit the egregious sin of not sharing their opinions. In fact, this is absolutely perfect; I couldn’t have asked for a better case in point. Don’t you worry, Mr. Long; you and your pen are far too important to me to take any unwarranted risks. Your person is sacrosanct, I assure you. We’ll not allow you to come to any harm.”

“Well…when you put it that way, this sounds like an opportunity I can’t pass up,” Carter said somewhat reluctantly, but with the eagerness of a hound on the scent beginning to rise again in his face and voice.

“Splendid!” Mogul said cheerily. “It would have gotten all awkward if I’d had to insist.”

The shadows rose and swallowed them up, and suddenly they weren’t there anymore.

“That came from around behind the building,” Weaver said, narrowing his eyes.

“So it did,” said Darling, pausing at the base of the steps up to the apartment’s front door. “Hm…now that we know where the action is, it doesn’t seem worthwhile to get ourselves cornered in this dark maze of hallways, does it?”

“Not that it ever did,” the bard growled. “I suppose you’ll want to go charging blindly into whatever cause that racket, then?

“Oh, don’t be melodramatic, your face’ll stick that way.” Darling hopped lightly back down the steps and brushed past him. “I don’t know these streets as well as some—hardly seemed worthwhile, with them on the docket for renovation. There’s a general grid to the neighborhood that makes a rough sort of sense, though. We’ll make a slightly wider sweep around and approach from a less expected angle.”

“Finally, something distantly resembling logic,” Weaver snorted. “Lead on, then, brigadier.”

“So, what kind of capabilities does your little bugaboo have?” Darling asked, moving down the street at a good clip. He passed the edge of the apartment building and kept going, making for the next alley. “Can’t physically interact with the world, but apparently you can get intel from it?”

“Bugaboo,” Weaver grunted. “Charming. Would you kindly stop with the ‘it’ bullshit? I know you’ve been screwing around with oracles enough to know better. No need to be excessively rude.”

Darling glanced back at him, pointing one finger at his mouth. “This is the face I make when I’m repressing the first six responses that spring to mind. Just for future reference.”

“Duly noted, though I try not to look at your face any more than absolutely necessary.”

“Anyhow,” Darling went on, turning down the alley, “your point is taken. I was simply staying in the habit of using vague terms out of respect for your privacy, but I guess it matters little between just us. So what can she do to aid us in this situation?

“Mostly just keep tabs on what’s up ahead,” Weaver said. “Joe and Peepers are currently running. They’ve—well, Joe has killed a baerzurg and dropped a wall on a hethelax, which I’m sure you know will only slow it down.”

“Attaboy, Joe!” Darling cheered quietly.

“And my companion took out a succubus earlier. No other demons nearby have revealed themselves, but the Wreath in this area are making heavy use of shadow-jumping. In addition to those demons there have been two warlocks that appeared basically out of nowhere. No way to tell what—”

“Wait, stop,” Darling interrupted. “I thought you said she couldn’t touch the physical world? How did she take out a demon?”

“It was a succubus.”

“Oh, good, thank you. Maybe if you repeat it a few more times it’ll spontaneously start making sense.” They emerged into a side street; Darling darted across it to another sheltering alley, Weaver trailing behind him.

“It’s about death,” the bard snapped when they were back under the cover of looming walls. “Most demons are just things stuck on the wrong plane of existence. A Vanislaad is a human soul that’s already died and been condemned to hell. Them being here is fundamentally against the rules. She can send them back. Works for ghosts and undead, too, not that that helps us any.”

“Hm,” Darling mused, filing that away. “Well, giving us a bird’s eye view of the situation is helpful. Speaking of which…?”

“We’ve actually gone past them,” Weaver reported, pointing at the wall. “Back that way, about half a block over. They’re just coming out of an alley.”

“Perfect, I want to come at them from another angle. Anything else she might be able to do? And willing, of course. You know how I hate to impose.”

“Uh huh,” Weaver said dryly. “Actually, now that you bring it up…”

They had just burst out of the long alley into the street when a startled voice sounded from behind them.


Joe and Peepers turned.

“Hi, Carter!” she said, waving cheerfully.

Two figures stepped forward into the light at the very edge of the alley, a dark-skinned man in a dapper white suit, and the reporter from the Herald.

“Why, Mr. Long! You know this young lady? Or is Rupa the lad? Forgive me for jumping to conclusions, but it sounds like a Punaji name.”

“She’s…my editor’s secretary,” Carter said slowly, his forehead wrinkling into a frown as he spoke. “Interim secretary, actually. The real one suddenly took sick…”

“Ah, I can positively see you putting it together,” Mogul said, grinning. He turned to study the two of them; Joe now had a wand pointed at his chest, which seemed to concern him not at all. “You’re a little young to be a Church lackey, my boy. Especially dressed like that. Fashionable, but clearly not a uniform; they typically like to brainwash their kids before anything so outrageous as a sense of personal style develops. And you, my dear! An Eserite? That would suit you being used as a plant. Or perhaps an Avenist? They can be crafty at need, contrary to popular belief.”

“Don’t talk to him,” Joe said, backing away.

“You think?” she shot back derisively.

“Well, now, I consider myself a reasonable fellow.” Mogul took a step forward, his smile growing brittle. “You’ve only murdered one of my companions this evening that I can verify so far. Possibly two, if Hrazthax didn’t manage to shield Vanessa from that little avalanche you created. What I would really like to know is…what happened to my succubus?”

“She just keeled over,” Peepers said honestly. “I think it may have been a heart attack.”

“Look into my eyes,” Mogul said quietly, the mirth fading from his face in an instant, “and take a guess as to how amusing I find that.”

He stepped forward once more, coming to the very edge of the alley.

Light flared up in his path.

Mogul stumbled backward as the glow blazing forth solidified, forming a shape hovering in the mouth of the alley. It was a two-dimensional symbol, a mask with a scythe running through it vertically. There it hovered, its soft golden radiance gently illuminating all of them, the symbol of Vidius cutting off the warlock and reporter from the two fugitives.

“Oh, my,” Mogul said, sounding positively delighted. “How fascinating!”

“C’mon,” Joe said unnecessarily, turning and heading off down the street at a run. Peepers kept pace with him easily.

They both drew up short, though, as they passed a side alley and a voice from within hailed them.

“There you are!” Darling said brightly. “Well done, kids, you’ve smoked them out.”

“This district is lousy with Wreath,” Peepers said accusingly. “I think we’ve walked into a trap.”

“Young lady, as the person who walked into it and forced the rest of us to come in and get you, I think you’re in no position to be taking that tone with me.” Despite his chiding words, Darling was grinning. “Now come on, this way. We’ll talk as we move.”

“Think we can make it back to the main streets?” Joe asked, nodding at Weaver as the four of them set off down the alley toward the next street up. “I bet they won’t get too aggressive with that many witnesses…”

“No, no,” Darling interrupted. “Tactics, my boy, basic tactics. This district is bordered by canals; there are a limited number of bridges in and out. Why chase us around when they can just control the exits? We won’t be on our own indefinitely, but for now, our best bet is not to try to escape. They’ll intercept us at the bridges. If we scurry around and stay hidden in here, though, it’ll be a little while before Embras loses patience and starts trying in earnest to ferret us out. Enough time to try a few tricks of our own, at least!”

“Tricks of what kind, specifically?” Weaver demanded. “Really, don’t keep us in suspense. I’m sure this will be just hilarious.”

“Embras Mogul is a living theatrical streak in a nice suit,” Darling said. In the lead of the party, he grinned ahead into the darkness. It was probably best that none of them could see his predatory expression. “And he has an audience. Hell, that reporter is a proxy for an audience of virtually everyone. I may not know his plans, here, but I know he won’t be able to resist putting on a show.”

“Oh, gods,” Peepers groaned.

“Yup, you guessed it!” Darling interlaced his fingers and flexed them, cracking his knuckles. “I wish we could’ve stopped for popcorn on the way here, kids. This is going to be a spectacle.”

Dinner was strained, awkward, and quiet, the empty place set at the table relentlessly drawing the girls’ attention. Price never set out more places than were needed; they could always tell whether Darling would be there for a meal by whether a meal was prepared for him. Yet, there it sat, growing slowly cold while they finished their own dinner.

Flora and Fauna, though they were encouraged to sit at the table for meals at Darling’s insistence, were still apprentices, expected to be put to work, and ostensibly housemaids to boot; as usual, Price set them to busing their own dishes back to the kitchen. She, as always, had not sat to eat with them. In fact, they had never seen her do anything as mortal as eat. With the master of the house not present, she had not silently presided over dinner, but emerged from the kitchen with her usual impeccable timing as they were finishing up to remove the untouched meal set out for him.

“I must leave you to your own devices for the remainder of the evening,” Price informed them, once the plates were cleaned and drying in the dish rack.

The two elves exchanged one quick glance.

“We’re going with you,” they said in unison.

Price very slowly raised on eyebrow, an expression they had learned to regard with fear, but they both squared their shoulders, staring right back at her.

“You think so?” the Butler asked mildly.

“He’s in trouble, isn’t he?” Fauna demanded.

“We can read between the lines.”

“If you’re going out to help him—which you are—”

“—you can’t be crazy enough to think you’re leaving us behind.”

“You realize,” Price said mildly, “that if you insist on involving yourself in this, you do so in contradiction of the orders of both your Guild sponsor and trainer, and myself, your superior in both the Guild and this household?”

“And you realize we’ll just follow you if you try to leave us, right?” Fauna shot back.

“So long as we are all on the same page,” said Price, then turned and strode into the hall.

The apprentices scurried along after her, grabbing their outerwear from the racks in the foyer in passing.

“This is now a Guild operation,” Price informed them, pausing just before the front door. “Tags only from here on.”

They glanced at each other again.

“Um,” Flora said hesitantly, swirling her cloak around her shoulders in a dramatic swish, “we don’t have tags…”

“And we don’t actually know your…”

Fauna trailed off as Price removed her tailed coat and deftly turned it inside out, slipping it back on. Whether that activated the enchantment or she had touched a hidden rune in the process, her entire outfit melted from the impeccable Butler’s uniform to a casual ensemble of patched trousers, tight blouse and a rakish leather jacket. Settling this back over her arms, she made one swift pass through her carefully coiffed ginger hair with both hands; when her fingers came away, it was slightly, perfectly disheveled, just the finishing touch the disguise needed.

“Savvy,” she said, then pulled open the door and stepped out. She bounced down the steps and crossed the garden in three rangy strides, leaving the elves to trail after her in bemused silence.

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6 – 26

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“I guess the most obvious question is, why now?” Carter settled back into the chair he had been offered, pencil poised over his notepad. His interviewee had perched on the edge of the bed, there being no other furniture in the little room. “Why is the Wreath suddenly interested in speaking openly?”

“Why, because you think this is unprecedented,” Mogul replied, steepling his fingers and smiling over them. It was a knowing smile, but not an overtly sinister one. That summed up his whole aspect; he didn’t threaten, but something about him always hinted at the level of control he had over the situation. The deliberate, slightly exaggerated way he moved his long limbs was evocative of a large spider. “There have, at various times in history, been enclaves of open Elilinist belief, whole societies dedicated to our faith, practicing their beliefs in broad daylight before their neighbors. Odd villages here and there in most parts of the world in most eras, but at times, entire kingdoms, and once, an empire worthy of the name. I don’t suppose you knew that, did you?”

“I did not,” Carter admitted, jotting down shorthand and refraining from saying he still wasn’t sure he knew it.

Mogul’s smile widened, his expression suggesting he understood what was in the reporter’s mind. “Let me begin by giving you some advice, Mr. Long. Once your paper has run your article, report immediately to Imperial Intelligence and turn yourself in for questioning. Once there, volunteer for any kind of mental scrying they want to do and positively fall over yourself to answer questions. I am not a source who needs protecting; hiding from my enemies is my entire way of life. You, on the other hand, will need to ingratiate yourself with the law.”

“Well, I’m not particularly worried about that,” said Carter. “The Writ of Duties—”

“Yes, yes, that is precisely my point. The Tirasian Dynasty makes it a point to be reasonable in its rule. Take advantage of that. If you fall, instead, into the hands of the Universal Church… Well, it’s likely that’ll be the last anyone sees of you.”

“The Church isn’t in the habit of accosting journalists,” Carter said with a smile. “Really, I appreciate your concern…”

“Rare is the journalist who has had the opportunity you are enjoying right now,” Mogul replied, that knowing smile still hovering around his lips. His eyes, though, were direct and intent. “You have no idea what the gods and their pawns do to people who truly threaten their interests. You don’t know because they are very good at doing it. Yes, right now you’re thinking this is exactly the kind of paranoid propaganda you would hear from a man in my position. Right?”

“In my line of work, one learns not to be judgmental,” Carter replied. “The point is to report on the facts, not to promote opinions about them.”

“Very laudable,” Mogul said, grinning now. “Here are some facts, then. Members of the Black Wreath set themselves up to oppose the greatest powers in existence, and live under the constant threat of imprisonment, injury and even death if exposed. Have you never wondered why?” He tilted his head, beginning to drum his fingertips against each other. “There’s no glory in what must be done in secret. There is assuredly no pay in it. Sure, one can accrue great power as a warlock, but the Wreath practice diabolism chiefly with an eye toward containing it; our summoners suffer a much lesser rate of damaging infernal corruption than those employed by the Church or the Strike Corps, or any other organization, for that matter. Chiefly because containing demons without permitting them to spread corruption is central to our calling. Why, then, do we do this?”

“You tell me,” Carter suggested, keeping his tone carefully mild. “That is why you asked to meet with me, correct?”

“I don’t oppose the gods because I’m a rebel, Mr. Long. I’m a rebel because I oppose the gods. Because once I understood the truth about the Pantheon, I could not live with my conscience while giving them the support of my prayers.”

Carter leaned forward. “And what is the truth?”

“The entire truth, I’m afraid, I can’t tell you. But there are things it is time for you—and your readers—to know. It is, as I’ve said, not without precedent for the Wreath to operate openly, though the Church has gone to great lengths to bury those facts.” He grinned, and winked. “But I encourage you not to take my word for it. The records may be destroyed or hidden, but there are living immortals who remember Elilinist kingdoms. There was one on this continent as recently as twelve centuries ago, in the foothills where Calderaan Province abuts the Stalrange.”

“Dragons and elder elves don’t have a reputation for being approachable,” Carter noted wryly.

Mogul grinned again and nodded. “True, true. But who better to approach them than a professional interviewer? If you want to start with an easier search, though, you might direct your attention to Last Rock. The good Professor Tellwyrn has some fascinating things in her University’s library, and she enjoys tweaking the establishment’s nose enough that she might show them to you. But for the moment, let’s focus on the here and now.”

He shifted, unfolding his legs and re-crossing them the other way, then settled himself with one hand on his knee, the other resting on the bed. His expression was suddenly much more serious.

“Four years ago, in locations scattered across the Empire, seven teenage girls spontaneously combusted. Only one survived. The Black Wreath was involved in creating this situation, for which we owe an apology to those poor children and their surviving loved ones. That is overdue, but the opportunity hasn’t exactly arisen before now. I hope you’ll convey it in your paper.” Mogul’s eyes narrowed. “But had our plans unfolded as they should, those girls would all be alive today. Alive, healthy, happy, and with nothing to fear from anyone, ever again. I believe the world, and especially their families, deserves to know the whole truth about that incident. If I knew which god of the Pantheon murdered those children to protect their secrets, believe me, I would tell you.

“Allow me to explain.”

“Your Grace, you have a—”

“Trouble,” Weaver announced, shouldering roughly past Price into the study. She gave his back a very calm look.

“Indeed,” the Butler said. “As I was saying, you have a trouble. It insisted upon seeing you immediately.”

“Sounds dire,” Darling remarked, removing his feet from the desk and setting aside the novel he’d been holding. In fact, he had been practicing his knife work, due to the lack of opportunities for proper exercise lately, and had affected an indolent pose upon hearing the footsteps approaching his door. “Is Peepers okay?”

“Last I saw her, probably,” Weaver said. “She’s gone off following some journalist who she thinks is going to an assignation with the Wreath. Or so I mostly put together, from what Jenkins said. This is third-hand intel. What I know is that she’s run off after this guy and Jenkins went off after her.”

“Hmm, that could be trouble indeed,” Darling mused. “Joe isn’t exactly trained for discreet operations.”

“Sounds like a good thing to have considered before assigning him to discreet operations,” Weaver observed.

Darling grinned at him. “Watching from across the street isn’t discreet operations, Weaver, it’s babysitting. Anyhow, it was always my assumption the Wreath would spot anyone we sent to tail them. Hence you two; if this was to be done through spying alone, I’d have just sent Peepers. I doubt they’re prepared for the Kid, if it comes to rough stuff. Where are they?”

“No idea,” Weaver said bluntly. “I can lead you to them in a more or less straight line, but you can probably guess where the line ends better than I. You know this city.”

“Ah, yes, your…that. Just a moment, let me think.” Darling frowned into the distance, drumming his fingers on the desktop while he rapidly sifted through facts, probabilities and options. Price remained as calmly aloof as ever; Weaver began tapping his foot in ostentatious impatience before half a minute had passed.

“All right, then,” Darling said abruptly, standing up and rummaging through his upper desk drawer for items which he began tucking into his coat pockets. “Let’s go give them a hand, shall we?”

“You want to… Just us?” Weaver frowned. “If they run into real trouble with the Wreath, it might we smarter to round up some of the others.”

“Time is more important than firepower,” Darling replied, tucking throwing knives into his sleeves. “It’ll take too long to gather McGraw and Billie. Mary might turn up anyway; I’m never sure when she’s watching, but it’s probably best to assume it’s just us. Anyhow, I’m not worried about that. We have you and Joe, remember?”

“Against an unknown force of possible Black Wreath warlocks and demons?” Weaver stared at him. “Who the hell knows what they’ve got waiting for us?”

“Only one way to find out,” Darling said breezily, stepping around from behind the desk and brushing past him. “Price, I’m going out.”

“Indeed, sir.”

“If I’m not back by dinner, you know what to do.”

“Very good, sir.”

He lengthened his stride in the upstairs hall and practically bounded down the steps, making for the front door. He was in one of the Bishop’s nicer suits, so it wouldn’t be too shocking for the neighbors to see him leaving this way.

Weaver followed at a slightly less efficient pace; Darling had to pause and wait for him at the end of the garden path.

“What’s the plan if we don’t come back, then?”

“Plan?” Darling shrugged, smiling vaguely. “I guess we’ll improvise.”

“Not us, I mean what contingencies did you set up with your Butler? That bit about her knowing what to do.”

“Oh, I haven’t a clue. There’s no plan, per se. Price always knows what to do, though.”

He’d have dearly loved to see Weaver’s face right at that moment, but he wasn’t about to spoil the effect by turning around to look.

Joe rounded the corner of the stairwell, slightly out of breath but doing his best not to pant or otherwise make needless noise. There was no telling who or what was lurking in the abandoned complex. Quite apart from the darkness and dust, if his quarry’s quarry had come for the reasons they suspected, there was certain to be something very dangerous here. Multiple somethings, in all likelihood.

Fortunately, Peepers was right in front of him, and had finally stopped moving. She was a good distance down the hall, partially shrouded in darkness, kneeling before one of the room doors and clearly trying to listen at the keyhole.

Glancing up at his arrival, she made a sideways slashing motion with her hand, then urgently beckoned him forward.

Joe paused, trying to even his breathing, before stepping slowly out of the stairwell, heading toward her. He decided to interpret her sign language as “be quiet, but come here,” for want of a better idea. She was once again intent on the door, apparently ignoring him. He approached with a blend of relief at having found her and annoyance at her antics, which in turn made him feel a little chagrined. She was, after all, doing her job; his was to watch her back. It might have been nice if she’d make it a little easier for him…but then again, it might not have been possible.

Peepers stood as he neared and stepped toward him, away from the door.

“They’re in there, all right,” she reported very quietly, barely above a whisper, “but I can’t hear a thing. They keyhole isn’t blocked, I can see through it, but no sound comes out.”

“What’s the plan, then?” he asked, just as softly. “I don’t suppose you can read lips?”

Her mouth tightened. “Can’t see them clearly enough.”

“Then…you want to back out? We know the guy’s meeting with the Wreath…”

“This isn’t evidence,” she whispered fiercely. “It’s some fellow in a white suit, not a Wreath robe. I need to hear what they’re saying in order to get what I need.”

“But you can’t,” he said reasonably. “And if we just hang around out here, we’re sure to be discovered. When they come out, if nothing else. If they just got here, they’ll be a while. I think the best thing to do is to go get reinforcements and try to take the Wreath guy into custody.”

“There’s a window in the room,” she said, turning and heading back toward the stairwell. “I’m gonna try to get to it and see if I can hear in.”

“Wh—if they silenced the keyhole, you don’t think they’ll have thought of the window?”

“It’s a third floor window. Probably why he chose this room. I’m a Guild agent; I can get up the side of a building, especially one as old and crumbly as this. Yes, Joe, I know what you’re going to say, but I have to try. If it doesn’t work, we’ll retreat, get Darling. Where’s Grumpypants, by the way?”

“Getting Darling.”

“Oh, well, then. Everything’s taken care of. C’mon.”

His exasperated sigh was cut off by, of all things, a soft giggle. They both whirled, and at what they saw, Peepers edged behind him and Joe whipped out both his wands.

She was a woman of incredible beauty, wearing an improbable leather bustier and a skirt that barely deserved the title, falling well short of her knees and slitted to the waist on one side. Joe appreciated a pretty girl as much as anyone—though he always endeavored to do so politely—but in this case, he was far more interested in her eerily white complexion, scintillating jade eyes, and the half-furled bat wings with which she blocked off the corridor.

“Oh, shit,” Peepers whispered.

“Are you children lost?” the succubus asked solicitously. Her sculpted lips were curved up in a gentle smile, but those eyes were far too wide, exhibiting a glee that verged on insanity. Joe edged back, pushing Peepers behind him and training his wands on the demon. “You shouldn’t root about in condemned buildings, you know. It’s dangerous. Why, the whole floor could fall right out from under you.”

“Shoot her,” Peepers hissed.

At that, the succubus laughed again, and abruptly vanished into thin air. Joe hesitated; he could fire at her position, but there was no telling where she would be. Did the room’s silencing work both ways? Were the soft hisses of his wands enough noise to get its occupants’ attention? He’d never had to use them under a need for silence before.

“Did you seriously just hesitate to kill a demon because it was a woman?” Peepers growled. “I never thought I’d hear myself say this to anyone, but if we survive tonight I am gonna drag your ass to an Avenist service, boy.”

Joe didn’t bother replying, scanning the whole hall rapidly. They could go invisible, check. They could shapeshift, which wasn’t really relevant here. Could they shadow-jump? Were those wings functional, and was there room for her to fly? For being on a job involving the Black Wreath, he had lamentably failed to study up on demons. He could feel the air currents in the corridor, enough to suggest there were bodies moving, but despite his mind converting perceptions into hard information, none of his senses were acute enough to pinpoint an invisible person. He’d probably hear and feel it if she tried to fly, but the hallway was wide enough for her to walk past if she was careful. He glanced back at the stairs, then back at the room. Peepers whimpered into his coat. The demon hadn’t carried any visible weapons, but…

The soft sound came from behind them, by the stairwell. They both whirled again, staring.

The succubus was visible again, no more than two yard distant, but she was gaping at them with a shocked expression. A small wound had appeared in the center of her upper chest, just above her bulging cleavage, trickling black blood. As they stared, the demon slumped forward, falling to her knees and then landing face-down on the ragged old carpet. Joe and Peepers hopped backward to avoid her.

There was silence for a long moment.

“Is it…is she faking?” Peepers whispered finally.

Joe could only shake his head. The succubus had landed gracelessly, with her wings flopping limply to either side; one was half-propped up against the wall. He couldn’t see any benefit to her in playing dead, unless she was just toying with them. Of course, the children of Vanislaas were known to do that. On the other hand, there was the wound in the center of her back, opposite the one in front and much larger. It looked a lot like a triangular blade had run her straight through. Even if it had severed her spine, though (and it appeared to have entered an inch to the left), that shouldn’t have caused instant death. He had seen how long it sometimes took people to succumb to mortal wounds. Or were demons different?

He stepped carefully around Peepers, ushering her back with one arm, and was only dimly surprised when she submitted to the protective gesture. Joe leaned closer, keeping one wand trained on the felled succubus, peering at the stab wound. The edges of it were severely discolored, blackened and peeling away, with dark streaks running visibly through her veins beneath. The whole area looked decomposed, as if on a corpse dead at least a week, rather than seconds.

He had seen wounds like this before.

“She’s not faking,” he said, straightening up and looking somewhat nervously around. There was no one and nothing visible in the dingy hall except himself and Peepers.

“What the hell happened?” she demanded.

Weaver’s familiar was supposedly unable to interact with things on the physical plane. Khadizroth had only run afoul of it by thinning the barriers between dimensions. Then again, demons were from another plane. Did they carry with them some trait which made them vulnerable to it? He knew nothing of demonology.

“I appreciate the help,” he said aloud, tugging his hat politely in what he could only hope was the right direction. “If you’re inclined to continue assisting, you may need to take point. I can finish most demons, I think, but not as quietly.”

“Who are you talking to?” Peepers asked, a note of panic rising in her voice. “What is happening?”

“Weaver’s invisible friend,” he said. “It can’t ordinarily touch things. Are demons different, maybe?”

She swallowed so hard he could hear it. “Taking this job wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done, was it.”

“Well, I couldn’t really say, ma’am. What else have you done?”

Peepers huffed softly. “Well…we’re here. Let’s head down and around back.”

“You still want to try listening in? We know there are demons around now! What are the chances that was the only one?”

“Pretty good, I’d say,” she replied, creeping past him and stepping carefully to avoid treading on the felled demon’s wings. “We didn’t see any on the way up, right? And the Wreath clearly wants this to be discreet. An invisible shape-shifter is the ideal guard for an assignation like this. Keep alert, though, I wouldn’t want you to be taken by surprise again.”

Joe had to concentrate very hard to withhold the response that welled up. Following her to the stairs, he was a lot less careful about stepping on the succubus’s wing.

“I should’ve known,” Darling commented. “There are so many places in the city where you could hold a discreet meeting, it didn’t occur to me to choose the most obvious. People who live by subtlety don’t typically go for the obvious anything. On the other hand, this isn’t only about subtlety, is it? If something goes sour, an entire empty neighborhood makes for a great battlefield.”

“Do you never tire of hearing yourself talk?” Weaver growled.

“Well, not so far, but who can say what the future holds?”

He snorted, then lifted his arm to point. “Should be that one. The big building next street over, you can see the top above the roofs here.”

“The old tenement? Looks unsafe,” Darling noted cheerfully, adjusting his course toward a side alley.

“I seriously don’t get what you intend, here,” Weaver said, jamming his hands in his coat pockets and peering balefully around them. The neighborhood had been empty only for a few days, but was already severely dilapidated, not that it had been in sterling condition to begin with. With no residents, it was totally at the mercy of scavengers and vandals; it seemed that whatever wasn’t broken was covered in graffiti. Despite this evidence that vagrants had spent time here, there was no sign of them now, nor of anything living apart from themselves. The contrast, especially in light of what they were approaching, had chilling implications.

“We’re going to walk into a totally unknown situation, just the two of us,” Darling said lightly.

“Yes! That, right there! Would you kindly quit screwing around and tell me what you’re planning? This couldn’t more obviously be a trap!”

“First step in avoiding a trap is knowing of its existence. Yes, yes, I get what you mean. And yes, a trap is one possibility; the other is that our quarry doesn’t know we’re coming, and us strolling up to them will kick the hornets’ nest.” He glanced over at Weaver, his expression finally growing more serious.

“You want to provoke a confrontation?” the bard said, staring at him. “Again, I’m lost. You really want to pick that fight with nobody but us two, Joe and Peepers? Against a group of the Black Wreath with completely unknown capabilities?”

“You and Joe are probably more than they’re prepared to deal with,” Darling replied, “I was serious about that. Here’s the thing, though: there are traps, and then there are traps. You can lay out everything precisely so that your enemy experiences the effect you want them to suffer… Or you can calculate the general lay of the land, and lead them into a situation you can control. If the Wreath is prepared for us, we’ll be stepping into the first one. But we are bringing with us the second. Listen, if it does come to violence, I want you to focus on ensuring everyone’s survival. If they run, we’re not chasing them; if they come at us with something we can’t handle, then we run. But if it turns into any kind of pitched fight or hostage situation, what we’re going to do is dig in and hold out. Don’t fight excessively hard not to be taken prisoner.”

“You’re counting on a rescue,” Weaver said slowly. “That Butler? What is she going to do?”

“I don’t know,” Darling said with a grin. “And as such, any scrying directed at me can’t reveal it. But Price is resourceful—they don’t make just anyone a Butler. I also have allies in this city, lots of them. Both friends of my own, and when it comes to the Wreath, far more powerful forces willing to intercede.”

“A counter-trap.” Weaver sighed, scowling heavily. “Really, this is the big idea? Heading into a totally unknown situation against an unknown foe with a possibility of unknown reinforcements coming if we take too long about it? This is insane.”

“No, it’s a risk,” Darling demurred. “A calculated one, and believe me, I have not survived this long by not knowing what risks are worth taking. Bear in mind I also know things you don’t, here, and I have excellent reason for keeping those under wraps for the time being. Whatever you think about my regard for your safety, Mr. Weaver, you can trust I wouldn’t be putting my own skin on the line if I weren’t confident of my chances. Just remember what I said. Stay alive, and don’t get too hungry for blood.”

“If that’s what you want, spending our entire prep session pissing me off isn’t your best approach.”

Darling turned to him and winked. For just a second, he thought Weaver was going to shoot him.

They emerged from the alley into another empty street. The sun was sinking toward late afternoon; the street lights weren’t on yet (and probably never would be in this particular district), but the light was beginning to take on an orange tinge. The two men paused, glancing up and down the street. In the distance they could hear the traffic of Tiraas, but all around them was deathly silence. It was as if a patch of ancient ruins had been transplanted into the heart of the Imperial capital, so out of place was the quiet.

Weaver withdrew a tiny cage of mesh wire from within his coat, no bigger than a cigar case.

“Ladybugs?” Darling said, peering at it and raising an eyebrow. “That’s a new one. What are those for?”

The bard just gave him a contemptuous sidelong look, very carefully flipping open the small catch on one corner of the cage, holding his hand over it so as not to release the captives within. He jimmied the thing until he had dropped one ladybug into his palm, then shut it again. And with that, he crushed the insect against the side of the cage, lifting it to his mouth to whisper inaudibly.

“Gross,” Darling observed.

Weaver ignored him, ending his muttering, wiping his hand off on his coat and slipping the tiny cage back into his pocket. “All right, they’re in there, both of our people still alive. There was at least one demon, now dead.”

“Smashing!” Darling said cheerfully, setting off across the street. “Let’s go tempt fate, shall we?”

Weaver followed, muttering to himself. Audibly, this time. Darling was impressed by the number of languages in which he could curse.

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6 – 13

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“Well, I don’t know what surprises me more,” Tricks said dourly. “You bein’ here on the orders of the Church, or the fact that you’d accuse me of such a thing right to my face.”

“Whoah,” said Sweet, taking a step back and staring at him in consternation. “Where did that come from?”

Behind Trick’s shoulder, Style grimaced, tightening her crossed arms, and Sweet’s bad feeling intensified. There was something very off in the vibe here. They were meeting, as usual, in the counting room beneath the Casino, but there the routine ended. Tricks looked worn out and bitter, Style was being uncharacteristically silent, and now he was on the defensive.

“I’m not accusing you of anything,” he said more quietly. “And this is much less about the Church than it is about the Guild. They’re just questions, and let’s be honest, pretty obvious ones. What’s happening, Boss? You have to know you played right into the Wreath’s hands, sending out the enforcers that way.”

Style let out a lungful of air through her nose, her grimace intensifying, and Sweet started to actually worry. Not about himself—she’d be glaring at him if he were in trouble—but about the whole situation. As the least emotionally contained member of the group, Style was something of a barometer, and her unhappiness was infectious.

“You’re right,” Tricks said wearily, slumping back into the overseer’s chair and propping his head up with one hand. “Sorry, Sweet, that came out more confrontational than it needed to. Yeah, I know. It was pretty damn obvious what the Wreath was playing at; that move was subtle by the standards of the general public, but not by their standards, or ours. If anything, it was weirdly aggressive.”

“So…” Sweet frowned. “…you were weirdly aggressive right back?”

The Boss stared up at him in silence for a moment before speaking. “You’re worried the Guild has been infiltrated.”

“Tricks, I’m almost positive the Guild has been infiltrated, and that’s got little to do with the current crisis. That’s a standing assumption and you know it. The Guild is decentralized enough that it’s not usually a major concern; there’s a limit to the damage a given spy can do. I’m worried that the Wreath’s infiltration has got far enough in to start affecting policy. And now you tell me this wasn’t due to anyone’s influence, but entirely your idea? Boss…you didn’t walk into their trap, you charged headlong.”

“And that makes me Wreath?”

“Dammit, Tricks…”

“No, no, I know. Sorry. You’re right.” Tricks waved a hand as if shooing away gnats. “I’m sorry. This has been… Y’know, you once told me that this had to be the cushiest job of its rank among any of the Pantheon’s cults, because the Guild all but runs itself and the Big Guy basically never has any orders to hand out. Remember that?”

“Sure,” Sweet said hesitantly. “Is that somehow relevant to…”

“I’ve gotta ask, Sweet.” Tricks leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees, and stared up at him almost pleadingly. “Were you just fucking with me? Was that some kind of tradition I have to pass on to the next poor asshole?”

“…Tricks, what’s going on?”

The Boss just stared at him. Style looked down at Tricks, her forehead creased in consternation, but held her silence.

“No,” Sweet said finally. “It was the plain truth as I experienced it. The whole time I was Boss I had to seek out the Big Guy’s opinion exactly twice, and got orders from him three times, in that entire span of years. None of it was hugely complicated, though it was never pretty.”

Tricks grimaced, leaning back again. “Well. Dunno if that makes me a better Boss than you were or a shittier one. And no, don’t ask; the Big Guy’s edicts are private, as you damn well know.”

“I think…it may or may not have to do with you,” Sweet said slowly. “There’s also the situation. Shit’s going down, Boss. Justinian’s making a play, Elilial’s making a play, Tellwyrn’s butting the fuck in, the Empire is faltering on multiple fronts… And then there’s shit like Principia’s whatever-she’s-doing. I think you just have bad timing.”

Tricks grunted sourly. “You want your fucking job back?”

“I really, really do not,” Sweet said fervently. “…but, man… If that’s a sincere offer, I think I might have to take it. Dunno if I’d cope any better than you are, but you’re scaring me, Tricks. I hate seeing you like this.”

Style gave a wordless grunt that conveyed emphatic agreement.

Tricks just heaved a sigh. “Nevermind me, I’m just bitching. It’s been two days since I slept and I’m overdue for lunch.”

“You’re overdue for fucking breakfast after the day you skipped lunch,” Style said quietly.

Tricks blinked, twisting his head around to look up at her. “What day is it? No, never mind, doesn’t matter. Soon as we’re done here I’ll eat something, get drunk, find someone to boink my brains out and get some sleep, I promise.”

“You better,” she warned. “I will enforce that. I’d do it myself, but damn…look at you. I’d break your spine.”

“You never have learned to be gentle, huh?” Sweet asked with a faint grin.

She smirked at him. “You will never know.”

“To drag this back in the general direction of the original point,” said Tricks, straightening in his chair, “no, Sweet, this was not my idea. This came down from the highest level. That much you may feel free to take back to Justinian.” He folded his arms loosely in his lap. “Whatever Wreath have wormed their way into the Guild are not in control. But in the short term… Eserion operates much the way Elilial does, and I can say without breaching his confidence that while he doesn’t take care of our business as a point of principle, he is willing to stir himself to deal directly with her. You said it, Sweet: shit’s going down.” He shook his head slowly. “This is not the first time I’ve been directed to play along with a Black Wreath ploy, and I would love to tell you I expect it to be the last, but I’m just not that optimistic.”


“Master Jenkins, you have a visitor.”

Joe carefully finished tucking the last throwing knife he had just pulled free from the target board into his palm before turning to fact the house. He hadn’t actually cut himself yet, but his introduction to the world of bladed weapons had begun with a long lecture on the safe handling thereof, delivered by two elves who were casually playing with knives like a pair of circus performers the whole time. As in most cases, he had decided the safest policy was to compliment Flora and Fauna on their artistry and then take them at their word.

On the other side of the small, walled garden, Price stood at attention next to the townhouse’s back door, from which Longshot McGraw was emerging, giving him a friendly grin.

“Joe, my boy,” the old mage said amiably. “How’re you holding up?”

“In all honesty, chafing under my house arrest,” Joe replied with a matching grin. “I feel entirely as good as new. What brings you by, Elias?”

“Oh, this is an attempt to ferret information out of our employer, clumsily disguised as a social call,” McGraw said blithely. “But, as the good Bishop appears to be out, I’m glad enough to actually socialize. You get to be my age, and the glittering attractions of the big city start to look less attractive and more annoying; give me a quiet drink with a friend any day. Unless, of course, I’m imposing.”

“Not in the least, I’m goin’ stir-crazy myself,” Joe replied, strolling back over to him. “Sit a spell, Bishop Darling’s stated on record that you and the others are always welcome.”

“Indeed,” said Price. “If you gentlemen would care to make yourselves comfortable, I shall bring refreshments.”

“Very much obliged, ma’am,” McGraw said courteously, pausing in the act of taking out his cigarette case to nod to her.

Price flicked her gaze briefly but deliberately to the case. “It is rare that we have such pleasant weather in Tiraas. By all means, don’t waste the opportunity to pollute the air outdoors instead of in.”

She slipped back inside, leaving McGraw staring after her, not moving.

“I do believe I’ve just received a hint,” he said ruefully, tucking the case away.

“Nah, that just means she likes you,” said Joe with a smile, pulling out a chair from the small wrought-iron garden table set up on Darling’s back patio. “It’s an expression of familiarity and comfort, or so I’ve chosen to believe. I knew I was part of the family the day I left muddy boots in the hall and received a four-second passive-aggressive character assassination that plumb drove the breath outta me.”

“Well, call me overcautious, but I’ve met enough Butlers in my time that I’ve developed a policy of playing it safe around ’em,” said McGraw, seating himself as well. “Learning a new trick, are we?”

Joe sighed, setting the knives carefully on the table. “The girls were kind enough to show me the basics. I’ve been getting in some practice. I think this is the longest I’ve ever gone without practicing with my wands, but…”

“I don’t reckon the neighbors would much appreciate that,” McGraw noted.

“Exactly,” Joe nodded. “The Bishop is a generous host; I rather suspect he would supply me with a magically shielded target if I asked, but… My wands are quieter than the mass-produced variety, but not silent, and there’s really no way to dampen the flash. Besides, you never know who in the surrounding houses might be an arcanist or witch, and would sense the discharge. All it’d take is one of the idle rich to learn some kid was shootin’ off weapons behind the Bishop’s house and there’d be no end of trouble.”

“Indeed,” McGraw said, a twinkle in his eyes belying his grave tone, “you might have to tell ’em all just which Kid you are and become a local celebrity.”

“Only in my nightmares,” Joe muttered.

“You know, Tiraas does have shootin’ ranges. Not my scene, but I’ve had occasion to visit a few, here and there.”

“I’m aware,” Joe said with a sigh, “and I do plan to frequent them if we’re to stay in the city over the long term. Sadly, my caretaker deems that an unsuitable degree of excitement for me. It’s not so bad, really. Turns out I’ve got a knack for throwing knives, too. The more skills a body has, the better.”

“That’s true, and a wise observation,” the wizard said, nodding. “I must say you seem hearty enough. Why the short leash, if you’ll pardon my askin’?”

Joe shrugged. “Believe me, I’ve asked the same thing. And it’s not like Mary’s shy about explainin’ herself. It’s just…she gets going, and I get lost. I have worked out from context that ‘cardiovascular’ refers to the heart and blood vessels. A cardiac arrest means a heart attack, which apparently I’m still at risk for, or so she claims. There’s also ‘pulmonary,’ which I haven’t quite puzzled out yet.”

“Seems to me there’s a simple enough solution to that,” McGraw said mildly.

“Yeah,” Joe replied, grimacing. “But when she first started in on it, I was too prideful to admit ignorance in front of the legendary immortal. By the time I got more comfortable around her, well… At what point can you fess up to playin’ smarter than you really are for weeks?”

McGraw actually laughed. “These things have a way of runnin’ away with you, I’ll grant. Forgive me for exercising an old man’s prerogative to dispense advice, kid, but the sooner you get over choking on your pride, the happier you’ll be in the long run.”

“I believe you,” he said ruefully. “But it’s not as if I’m under poor care. I grew up a stone’s throw from an elven grove. In my experience, elves know what they’re talking about, especially the elders, and most especially a shaman. Soon as I’m free to roam, I think I’ll go pester the Nemitites for some definitions.”

A soft croak commanded their attention; both turned to behold a crow perched on the garden wall, watching them.

Joe grimaced. “…ah.”

The bird launched itself into a shallow dive, and then Mary landed lightly on the grass, her moccasins making no sound.

“’Pulmonary’ refers to the lungs and their operation,” she said with a faint smile. “Ask questions, Joseph. Ignorance is a fault only if you refuse to correct it.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, chagrined, and only belatedly remembered to stand. By that point she had reached the table, and placed a hand on his shoulder, pushing him gently back down.

McGraw half-rose, doffing his hat to her. “Ma’am,” he said respectfully. “Always a pleasure. I’ve been makin’ a point of keeping in touch with the others, but I hadn’t run across you since we reported back from the mountain.”

“I make it a point not to be run across unless I have specific reason,” she said mildly. “But I, too, have been keeping watch over all of you, and over our host. You came here to inquire when we will be expected to move, yes?”

“That was the idea,” he said with a faint grimace. “I don’t personally feel a great urgency to go out and cross wands with whatever passel o’ horrors we’ll be called on to deal with, but there’s only so much sittin’ around I can take. Most particularly when I know what I now know about what’s loose in the world.”

“I have seen many apocalypses come and go,” she said, calm as ever. “These things happen. Darling is being diligent in his pursuit, but it is, at this stage, a waiting game. To rush it is to court ruin.”

“I think we all understand that,” Joe said with a sigh. “Doesn’t mean it’s driving me any less crazy. Seems like I went straight from being cooped up in a bordello for weeks to being cooped up here. If this is gonna be the pattern…”

“You were cooped up where?” McGraw asked in a tone of great interest.

“Oh, that’s right, I hadn’t told you the story. That was Billie; she’s come to visit every few days. Well, a while back I had occasion to meet the new paladins, along with an assortment of other mightily interesting folk…”

The back door of the house opened at that moment, and Bishop Darling himself strolled through, looking more tired than usual. “You should be glad for your currently limited amount of social contact, Joe; you seem to attract interesting people. They won’t always come with the likes of Tellwyrn or myself to keep them in line.”

“Interesting people do have a way of tearin’ up the scenery,” McGraw said gravely.

Darling pulled out one of the remaining chairs and plopped himself down in it. “Elias, good to see you. Why do I suspect you didn’t bother to come in through the door, Mary?”

“At a guess, because you are a swift learner,” she said serenely. “Welcome home. Have you learned anything interesting?”

Price had emerged from the house behind him, carrying a laden tray. She set this down on the patio table and began pouring tea and parceling out cucumber sandwiches in silence while they talked.

“Interesting,” Darling said with a sigh, “in the sense of raising more questions than answers, and answers only of the alarming variety. Joe, I know you’ve been somewhat forcibly isolated from events. Are you all aware of the recent ruckus in the city?”

“I do read the paper,” said Joe, nodding. “Several, in fact, to get a balance of editorial slants. I’ve gotta say, it seems out of character, how the Legions acted. There’s a lot of fuss kicked up over it.”

“To say nothing of the Guild’s actions,” Mary added, watching Darling closely.

“That’s not spoken of as openly,” said McGraw, “and certainly not in print, but I’ve not managed to escape the rumors myself. Can’t say I’ve managed to overhear much that’s in favor of the Black Wreath, but a number of the major cults have smudged their good names in comparison recently.”

“I’m operating on the assumption you’re all intelligent enough to work this out for yourselves, but I’ll spell it out anyway,” Darling said grimly. “This—all of it—is a Wreath plot. It’s not yet unfolded enough that I can see where it’s going, but the early stages suggest an effort to discredit the Pantheon’s cults. What troubles me is I can’t envision an endgame to this. In the long term, there’s just no way Elilial can win back the hearts and minds of the general public. If that were on the table, she’d have done it at some point in the preceding eight thousand years.”

“She has, in fact, done so several times,” Mary noted, “sometimes on a fairly considerable scale. I agree, however, that in the current climate, such an outcome is highly unlikely. Which suggests that this is not her long-term goal, but a more immediate one.”

“Which means,” Joe said slowly, “there’s something else coming. Something big.”

“That’s where we’re at, yeah,” Darling agreed, scowling. “And I’ve got Justinian doubtless trying to spin this to serve his own plots, the Guild and the Sisterhood having royally embarrassed themselves, and no one apparently reliable to back up counter-Wreath efforts but the bloody Huntsmen of Shaath.”

“The provincial attitude of the Huntsmen has often overshadowed their effectiveness,” Mary noted. “This would not be the first time the Wreath has underestimated them, either. If I may point it out, you also have us.”

“You lot are, indeed, an ace in the hole,” Darling agreed. “But we are all left in Joe’s position at the moment: stuck waiting. In order to make good use of this massive collection of firepower I’ve so carefully lined up, I need a target, and an environment in which I can safely fire at it. Otherwise I risk furthering the Wreath’s agenda yet again. To the best of my knowledge, they don’t know about the five of you, but I’m not naïve enough to bank on that assumption.”

“Wise,” Mary said, nodding.

“In my experience,” said McGraw, crossing his legs and lounging back in his chair as he sipped his tea, “the defensive is a bad place to be. Being stuck in a waiting position is the proper time to look into unconventional ways to seize the initiative. Something the enemy won’t anticipate.”

“I am, in fact, exploring several possibilities,” said Darling. “Once again, there is you lot; shifty situation or no, you may end up being the tiebreaker. It’s also a good time to research new skills. How’s your knife-throwing coming along, Joe?”

“I daresay I’m very nearly enough to have another contest with Fauna and not quite as severely humiliate myself,” Joe said gravely.

“Mm.” Darling gave him a sidelong look. “Just for your edification, if she finds out you let her win, she’s gonna kick your ass.”

Joe froze, blinking. “Um…pardon?”

“I know only the broad strokes of how your ability works, but it’s not at all a leap to figure out that knife-throwing of all things would come as naturally to you as breathing.” Darling grinned at the Kid’s abashed expression. “Anyhow, I’m looking into branching out myself. It was recently pointed out to me that the Church has a holy summoner program, and training is available. With the Wreath bopping around, maybe a little demonology would be worth picking up.”

“You as a warlock?” McGraw mused. “…I could almost see that.”

“Thanks,” Darling said dryly. “Anyhow, not a warlock, obviously. I’m not much with the divine flash, but I’m still a priest. Too much holy magic stored in the aura makes that impossible.”

Instantly they all turned their heads to him, identical frowns falling across their faces. Darling looked from one face to another and back, his eyebrows climbing in surprise.

“What? What’d I say? What’s that look for?”

“Who told you that?” Mary asked evenly. “About holy magic in the aura.”

“Someone who’d taken advantage of the aforementioned training,” he said slowly. “Why?”

She raised one eyebrow. “I’m afraid they misled you.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s just…startling,” Joe said carefully, “hearin’ that from a priest. Usually magic-users of any stripe are better versed in the Circles of Interaction.”

“I’m an Eserite,” Darling said, a note of impatience creeping into his voice. “My god does not encourage the use of magic when mortal skills will suffice. Would someone care to explain the issue, please?”

“You two mind if I take this one?” McGraw asked, setting down his tea and straightening. When they both nodded to him, he turned to face Darling. “Specializing in one form of magic can inhibit you in learning the others, but not to any great degree. Except in very rare cases, magic is something you do, or have, not something you are. All four schools have in common that magical power grows with time and use, which is why the older casters are nearly always the stronger. But the nature of that barrier is different for each school. What you describe, storing power in the aura…that’s arcane magic that works that way. Storage capacity’s like a muscle that gets stronger the more it’s flexed. With divine magic, the barrier’s in handling the power safely.”

“Users of holy magic do not store or produce it themselves,” Mary said, “but rather channel it from an outside source. The divine burns if drawn upon too deeply. You build up a tolerance, not a capacity, and that tolerance does not inhibit the use of other schools. I have seen Scyllithene priestesses hurl shadow blasts from behind sacred shields, and call upon divine light to heal their wounded demon thralls.”

Darling’s frown had grown progressively deeper as she spoke, and he switched his gaze from an abstract contemplation of the distance to her face at that last. “You meet a lot of Scyllithene priestesses?”

“Hardly a lot,” she said calmly, “but I have lived a long time, and been many places.”

“Whoah, hang on,” Joe interjected. “Doesn’t holy magic kill demons by nature?”

“You confuse nature with source,” she said. “The holy magic to which you are accustomed would, because it is channeled through the gods of the Pantheon. Their rules demand that their power be harmful to demonkind. Clerics of other gods, for example Themynra, have fewer restrictions. Then, too, the dwarves are often able to call on divine energy without the aid of any god. There are many ways to drink from that well.”

“So…that might not have been completely wrong?” Darling asked thoughtfully. “Given the source of the power I’d be using, having it around could inhibit using infernal magic?”

“Only if you tried to use them concurrently,” said Mary. “And by the way, while I do advocate a broader understanding of demonology, I strongly suggest you stick to learning theory and whatever practical applications you can use via divine methods, which are several. Please do not attempt to handle infernal power directly.”

“I’m not an idiot, Mary.”

“No,” she said evenly, “you are a man who has safely picked up weapons that others feared to touch in the past. The infernal is not a weapon, it is a poison. The barrier to its use is, as with divine magic, in handling it safely.”

“That’s why you never meet an elderly warlock,” McGraw said with a grin. “You can pull down any amount of hellfire you want on your first try, provided you’d bonded with a powerful enough demon. It’s just that you’ll find your body and spirit so badly twisted by the effort you may not be able to feed yourself afterward, much less bust out more magic. Difference is, the gods’ll usually stop their servants from burning themselves out. Demons are typically divided between those who don’t care if their warlocks riddle themselves with cancer and mutation, and those who find it hilarious when they do.”

“I am beginning to rethink this whole enterprise,” Darling said solemnly.

“Do,” Mary agreed, nodding. “At the very least, until you acquire more accurate information. It might also be worth determining whether your source intentionally set you up for that fall. If not, they themselves may be in danger.”

“Mm…” he mused. “I doubt Justinian would let one of his favored servants make that kind of mistake. On the other hand, I can’t think of any motive Bishop Snowe would have for letting me do so, especially when…”

“You know Bishop Snow?” Joe cut in, straightening up and smiling. “Think you could get me her autograph?”

Darling stared at him. “…I’m sorry, what?”

“I didn’t realize y’all were acquainted,” McGraw added. “That’s one sharp lady. You hear she’s got a book coming out?”


“Of course, I read her column,” Joe said, nodding. “Planned to get a copy, assuming I’m allowed to visit something as exciting as a bookstore.” He gave Mary an accusing look.

“Bookstores are not, generally speaking, stimulating environments,” she said calmly. “Matters become different when a local celebrity is launching a debut book.”

Darling could only gape at them.

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6 – 2

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The lock was no more than a formality; it had never needed to be. No one skilled in the bypassing of locks would have attempted to break through this particular one. As such, the soft scratching of lock picks at work went on for a fairly short time before the tumbler gave, the latch turned and the door was pulled silently open.

It was so late it was early; well beyond midnight, the first gray lightening of dawn not yet visible, but not far off. There were lights in the street, but they were dim and far apart, the residents of this neighborhood preferring that their rest not be disturbed overmuch by the omnipresent glow of Tiraas. The three figures who entered were barely silhouetted against the gloom outside, and all but vanished in their gray robes when they pulled the door shut behind themselves. Stepping warily, tense and as silent as they could manage, they passed through the foyer and into the hall, spreading out to fill the narrow space and studying their surroundings. Moonlight streamed in through upper windows in the tall space, which rose a full two stories. The hall was cast in a faint glow, pale, but adequate for human eyes.

Behind them, the relatively narrow space separating the hall from the foyer was narrowed still further by decorative molding just above head height. It was still a considerable gap, however; Price’s legs were spread widely, one foot braced against each inch-wide ledge. She studied the intruders dispassionately as they passed beneath, then lifted herself lightly by the toes, snapped her legs together and dropped to the ground.

Between her cat-like landing and the construction of her shoes, one of the Service Society’s trade secrets, she landed in total silence, behind the oblivious trio.

“Good morning, gentlemen.”

They whirled to face her, and the two on either side immediately fell, gurgling and gasping, with throwing knives embedded in their throats. The man in the center wasted seconds staring in shock, which cost him dearly.

Price launched herself forward, and belatedly he reacted, throwing up a hand. Enormous whip-like black tendrils lashed out from within his sleeve, limned by a sickly purple glow. She changed course mid-run, kicking off the wall to the opposite side of the hall. The demonic tentacles followed, but remained always an instant behind her, tied as they were to the reflexes of the caster. They smashed against the wall just after she bounced off it, then again on the opposite side, crushing glossy wood paneling and shredding wallpaper, and then the Butler was upon the warlock.

Launching herself off the wall from mere steps away, she grabbed the collar of his robes with both hands and flipped over him, somersaulting in midair to plant both feet against his back and kick, shoving herself forward and sending him tumbling face-first to the floor, his magical weapons vanishing instantly. Price landed in a smooth roll and was immediately on her feet again, whirling to face the fallen warlock.

Much less gracefully, he scrambled over onto his back, throwing out his hand desperately in her direction.

As he tried to call up his tentacle spell again, the charm she had planted on his collar erupted. A multilayered thing, it unleashed a blast of pure divine energy, cutting off his spell and slamming him to the ground, and also laid a light fae blessing over him. Neither was powerful enough to hold on its own, at least not for long, but it was plenty adequate to put a warlock momentarily out of commission.

“Now, then,” Price said evenly, “we can discuss the matter of who sent you.”

“T-tell you nothing,” the warlock rasped, scrambling backward from her in a desperate crab-walk.

Two slim figures burst out of the side hall, skidding to a stop at Price’s peremptorily upheld hand. Ignoring Flora and Fauna, she stepped forward between the two slain warlocks, bearing down on their last companion.

“As I hope you are aware, when I have finished you will converse avidly on any subject I choose to raise,” she said calmly. “Your only input shall be into what transpires before we reach that point.”

He came up against the wall, pressing his robed hands together before him and glaring up at her. “Have your little victory, then! It doesn’t matter. A great doom is coming, whether you are ready for it or not!”

“You are not, one presumes, referring to yourself,” Price said, raising one eyebrow sardonically.

Joe came staggering in, wearing a long nightshirt but with a wand in each hand. Flora and Fauna grabbed him from either side before he could bring up his weapons.

Price paused, tilting her head to study the felled warlock as he began to convulse. In seconds, he had actually begun frothing at the mouth.

“Ah,” she said. “Dear me.”

The Butler knelt and pried the man’s hands apart, revealing a brass-bound syringe pressed into his wrist, the plunger fully depressed and its contents emptied.

“Too late?” Darling asked, striding down the stairs.

“Indeed, sir,” she said. “My apologies. This device matches the description from the Tellwyrn incident in Hamlet.”

“Hm,” he noted, coming to a stop between the three youths and the three slain warlocks. The last one’s convulsions were already trailing off. Darling wore a hastily-donned robe over his silk pajamas; his feet were bare and the condition of his hair suggested recent proximity to a pillow. He seemed fully awake and alert, however. “Drat. I liked them better when they were too chicken to carry suicide measures.”

“This sorta thing happen often?” Joe asked carefully.

“Not in the least,” said the Bishop, shaking his head. “These numbnuts just declared war on the Thieves’ Guild, coming here; that’s not a mistake anyone’s ever made twice. It’s pretty alarming. The Black Wreath hasn’t openly scrapped with the Guild in centuries. Why now?”

Price discreetly cleared her throat. “If I may, your Grace, they did not approach the Guild itself. I believe you identified yourself to a representative of theirs in Hamlet, suggesting you were on Imperial business?”

“Yes,” he said slowly, frowning. “That was months ago, though… But if they’re finally aiming to clean up that loose end, the others would also…” His eyes widened, a quick calculation taking place behind them. “Oh, gods, Branwen.”

“We can help!” Fauna said eagerly.

“Just tell us where to go,” Flora added.

“Right. Yes.” Darling whirled to face them. “Split up. One of you go to the Casino, one to the Cathedral. Let the Guild and the Church know what’s happened here. Approach carefully; if the Wreath is attacking them, too, do not engage. Come back here in that event and secure the house.”

Their faces fell. “But we can help—”

“I know you can handle yourselves,” he said, adding pointedly, “You can help by not placing yourself in a position where anyone has to see how well you can handle yourselves. Clear?”

“Yes, sir,” they chorused somewhat glumly, but both turned and strode off to their rooms to get dressed.

“Ah,” Joe said tentatively, reflexively making awkward motions at his sides as he attempted to holster his wands in sheathes that weren’t there, “anything I can do?”

“Back to bed,” Darling ordered, already moving toward the front door. “You’re still disabled.”

“I’m practically as good as new,” Joe said somewhat rebelliously.

“Kid, you’re ready for action when that mother hen of a Crow declares you are. That way, nobody gets turned into a newt. If you can’t sleep, help Price and keep an eye on the house. I’ve gotta get to Bishop Snowe’s house, and pray I’m not too late…”

“Your Grace,” Price said pointedly, “if this attack was carried out with the Wreath’s characteristic forethought, and the other Bishops were indeed targets, the strikes are likely to have been simultaneous. You are very unlikely to reach Bishop Snowe before any putative warlocks.”

“Yes,” he said impatiently, his hand on the latch. “All the more reason—”

“All the more reason,” she interrupted firmly, “to take the time to approach carefully. Beginning, perhaps, by putting on shoes.”

Darling sighed heavily in annoyance.

“I merely suggest, of course,” Price said humbly. “If your Grace wishes to do battle with the Black Wreath without pants on, that is your Grace’s prerogative. Doubtless they will find it tremendously amusing.”

“You are severely annoying when you’re right, Price,” he said curtly, turning and stomping past her toward the stairs, peevishly kicking one of the slain warlocks as he went by.

“Yes, sir,” she said calmly, folding her hands behind her back and watching him go. Joe, wisely, had retreated down the hall toward his own room in search of clothes.

Alone with the bodies, Price surveyed the hall, finally permitting herself a small frown of annoyance as she studied the shattered wall paneling.

“I just polished that.”


“She’s insane,” Gabriel mumbled around a yawn. “What freaking time is it, anyway?”

“Approximately one minute later than the last time you asked,” said Toby with a smile.

“But why here?” he whined, yawning again as he tugged open the heavy front doors. “Why now? And why couldn’t she have just told us to be up early? And for fuck’s sake, why does she have to wake people up that way?! I don’t care if it was an illusion, I swear I’ve got water in my shoes.”

“Gabe, I realize you’re not exactly at your best right now, but stop and consider that you’re asking why Professor Tellwyrn does what she does. Do you really expect to get anywhere with that?”

“Crazy,” Gabriel groused, stepping into the library and leaving Toby to catch the door on his own way in. “I expect to get crazy. It’ll be a nice change from sleep-deprived.”

“And I see we’re last to the party as usual,” Toby said amiably, waving at those assembled in the main entryway. “Morning, ladies.”

“It’s not morning until there’s sun, for the record,” Teal grumbled. “G’night, Toby.”

“I’ve been here all night!” Fross said brightly. “It’s a great time to get some out-of-class research done. Nobody bothers me.”

“That’s because we need sleep,” Gabriel moaned.

“Yes, I know! I have kind of an unfair advantage, which I sometimes feel a little guilty about, but it’s not like I can help it. If you want, Gabe, I can help you study any time! We’re in the same degree program, after all!”

“I’ll file that away for grah!” Catching sight of the figure that had just appeared behind the receptionist’s desk, he stumbled backward against the doors, apparently coming fully awake in a wide-eyed panic. “What the hell is that?!”

“Tellwyrn’s experimental golem,” said Ruda, who was lounging in one of the reading chairs, sipping from a bottle of bourbon.

“She has a name,” Fross said reproachfully. “Hello, Crystal!”

“Good morning, Fross,” the golem said politely. At first glance, she resembled a slim woman in elaborate armor, if the armor in question were banded in gold, embossed with arcane runes and inset with pale blue crystals. It didn’t add the bulk that armor would have, though, but outlined her own slight frame, a metal suit of skin. From the gaps at the joints, muted blue light streamed out, occasional puffs of mist emerging when she moved. Her face was an eerily lifelike but expressionless steel mask, its eyes empty holes opening onto an intense blue glow. “Good morning, students. May I help you find anything?”

“I don’t think so,” said Trissiny, who looked more alert than most of her classmates. “Professor Tellwyrn told us to meet her here.”

“Ah, very good,” Crystal replied.

“What’s she doing here?” Gabriel stage-whispered.

“She’s the head librarian now,” Fross replied. “And really, you can talk to her yourself, she’s right there. You’re being rude, Gabe.”

“Sorry,” he said with a grimace, then turned to Crystal and repeated himself. “Uh, sorry. I was just…startled.”

“It’s quite all right,” the golem replied. “I expect there will be an acclimation period. It has already extended further than I had calculated. My initial data seems to have been in error.”

“What happened to Grumpypants McPonytail?” Toby asked.

“Weaver?” Fross fluttered in a circle around his head. “He’s been gone for weeks. Seriously, how have you not noticed this before now?”

“We try to stay out of the library,” said Gabe, grimacing.

“But—but—but you’re university students! You need to use the library!”

“We need to stay away from that crankety-ass freak, is what,” Gabe replied. “Although if he’s gone, I’ll probably start spending more time here. Why does nobody ever tell me anything?”

“Combination of factors, really,” said Ruda, beginning to tick off points on her fingers. “We don’t think about you when you’re not here, you’re not all that important, nobody likes you…”

“That’s playing a little rough, Ruda,” Trissiny said, frowning.

Her roommate snorted loudly. “Oh, come on. You tried to kill him.”

“I think you lost the right to throw that at me when you stabbed him!”

“I just love my life,” Gabriel said to no one in particular.

“What did happen to Weaver?” Toby asked hastily.

“He felt the call of adventure!” Fross proclaimed.

There was a moment of silence as they all stared at her.

“What does that mean?” Juniper asked finally.

“I don’t know,” the pixie admitted. “That’s what Professor Tellwyrn said when I asked her. And then she laughed. You know that kind of mean laugh, like when somebody says something silly in class and she spends five minutes making fun of them?”

They all nodded in unison.

“Mr. Weaver is on indefinite sabbatical,” Crystal said into the silence. “And I am detecting a buildup of translocative arcane energy focused on this spot, characteristic of a scrying spell and minor dimensional fold, so I infer you are—”

They never got to hear the rest, as with a sharp pop the scenery changed.

The students dropped about half a foot to the grass—except Fross, of course—with varying degrees of grace. Ruda landed on her butt, cursing; Teal had to flail her arms for balance until Shaeine steadied her. Gabriel very nearly fell over sideways.

“Goddammit!” he shouted. “Why? Why must you do that?”

“Three reasons,” Professor Tellwyrn said brightly. “It’s the most efficient way to get around, it serves the purpose of protecting the surprise, and your suffering amuses me. Note, Arquin, that that was not a plural ‘your.’ Nobody else suffers with quite the distinctive self-pity you have. It’s inspiring, really.”

“I hate you.”

“I don’t care,” she said, still cheerfully. “Good morning, students, and welcome to your midterm test!”

“Why are we on the quad?” Toby asked, peering around.

“Because I just teleported you here. You’re not at your quickest first thing in the morning, are you, Mr. Caine?”

“I wonder what would happen if we all rushed her?” Trissiny asked grimly.

“Fuck that, I’ve had enough pain in my ass already today without getting teleported into the sun,” Ruda grumbled, discreetly rubbing her bum.

“As for why I asked you to meet up at the library,” Tellwyrn continued, “you might say it’s tradition. I like to send the kids off on their freshman delve as unprepared as possible, so as to simulate the real conditions faced by your adventuring forebears, which were often woefully spontaneous. Thus, a cheap and simple misdirection. Your goal is in there.”

She turned and pointed to the wooden gates set into the terrace wall opposite the gazebo, beside which they stood. On command, they swung outward with a hideous groan of hinges badly in need of oiling. Behind that was an iron portcullis, which slid into the ground almost as soon as it was revealed, leaving nothing between them and a broad stone staircase down into darkness.

“That’s the Crawl,” Ruda said softly.

Tellwyrn rolled her eyes. “You kids really aren’t at your best without your precious beauty sleep, are you? Yes, Miss Punaji, that is the Crawl. Any other blindingly obvious observations you’d like to share with the class?”

“In a few hours,” said Ruda, “the sun will rise, I’ll have breakfast, and at some point after that I’ll begin to care what the fuck you think. Meanwhile, you can shove it sideways.”

“All right, enough folderol,” Tellwyrn went on more briskly. “Professor Ezzaniel will be your accompanying faculty member on this excursion. Rafe usually does the freshman delve, but I try not to inflict him on a class more than once a year if I can help it. Also, after he stuck his fingers into your Golden Sea excursion, I’ve lost some faith in his objectivity. Ezzaniel, at least, I can trust to leave you all to die if that’s what you deserve.”

Professor Ezzaniel, who had been standing behind her so quietly they hadn’t even noticed him in the dimness, stepped forward, raising an eyebrow and glancing at Tellwyrn after that last remark. He was in his usual open-collared suit, with his customary saber belted at his waist and a simple knapsack flung over one shoulder. It was a plain leather affair, not the enchanted carpet bag in which he kept the practice weapons for their martial arts class.

“Your assignment,” Tellwyrn continued, “is to retrieve a treasure from below. It is a rectangular wooden chest, bound in brass and embossed with floral patterns, in which reside a matched sword and dagger set of elven make. Professor Ezzaniel will be along to observe; he will not aid you or interfere in your actions. It is upon his observations that I will determine your grade. Actually retrieving the chest is not essential; most freshman groups don’t. The last party which succeeded was nine years ago; this particular treasure has been down there for that long. If you do manage to fetch it back, though, the group gets an automatic A on the exercise, which will comprise a substantial chunk of your grade for the semester, and the individual who gets it gets to keep it.”

“A sword and dagger?” Gabriel scoffed. “Sounds like a consolation prize.”

“Those were my personal weapons for a good many years,” Tellwyrn said, giving him a long look. “They are older than the Empire and heavily enchanted. If none of that impresses you, Arquin—and based on your performance in combat class, I rather suspect it won’t—if you get your hands on those, you can quite possibly buy your way into the nobility.”

“Always did enjoy getting consolation prizes,” he said thoughtfully.

“Hang on,” Trissiny protested. “We don’t have any supplies! No food, no equipment, only Ruda and I have weapons…”

“Yes, Avelea, that’s the point,” Tellwyrn said patiently. “As I explained moments ago. You’ll find the Crawl an exemplary arbiter of fates. If you are intelligent, if you deserve to survive, it will provide more than adequately for you. If not, it’ll see to it you meet whatever end most befits you. All right! You have three weeks.”

“Three weeks?” Teal demanded, wide-eyed.

“Three weeks,” said Tellwyrn. “Good gods, you kids are like an echo today. You can come back as soon as you get the sword and dagger, but if you haven’t got them in three weeks, your Professor will call short the assignment and lead you back to the surface. All right, that’s more than adequate jibber-jabber. Begin!”

She smirked, snapped her fingers, and vanished with a quiet pop.

“I think we shoulda rushed her,” Gabriel mused.

Professor Ezzaniel cleared his throat. “Come along, then, students,” he said, and with no more ado strode into the darkness of the Crawl.

There was nothing left for them to do but follow him.


Naturally, he didn’t approach the house head-on. The open front door would have warned him away, if nothing else. Luckily, Branwen’s neighborhood—a wealthier one even than his own—gave him plenty of above-ground territory on which to prowl, and the elaborate houses on all sides were easily climbable. There was only one close enough to her house to be worth the trouble of ascending, but the gardens had suitably high walls separating the lots. It was from the top of this structure that he got his first glimpse into Branwen’s own sprawling garden, positioned behind her house, and determined it was safe to descend.

Darling landed deftly in a leafy bush, which would have been very uncomfortable for some, but he had long since mastered the knack. Brushing leaves from his coat, he carefully paced forward, studying the surrounding carnage. Blood spattered the walkway, with here and there pieces of bodies. They weren’t too widely distributed; he could mentally piece them together easily enough to determine that there were three of the robed figures, just as there had been at his house.

Branwen sat silently on the stone lip of a reflecting pool, a fourth body pulled half into her lap. It was of an older woman, looking almost asleep from the waist up. Her legs were crushed, mangled completely, and a veritable pond of blood surrounded the pair. Branwen gazed vacantly down at the woman, stroking her white hair with one hand.

“Branwen?” he asked quietly, creeping closer.

“Tieris has been with my family her whole life,” the Izarite said quietly. “She practically raised me. It’s so…absurd. It just seemed she would always be there.”

“Bran, I’m so sorry,” he said, carefully seating himself beside her.

“You too, then,” she murmured. “…thank you for thinking of me, Antonio. You should have gone to help the others, though.”

Darling frowned. “I—Bas and Andros? Well, they’re both surrounded by cult members. I know you were out here alone…”

“And you thought I was helpless and useless and would need rescue,” she said. There was no emotion in her voice, only a deep exhaustion.


“It wasn’t a complaint. You think what I want you to think. So does everyone else.” She reached behind her to trail her fingers through the water.

Something rose up from within.

Darling bounded to his feet and danced backward, staring. The creature that crawled, dripping, out of the pool was the size of an alligator and had a head shaped very like one, though its scaled body was more like a bulldog’s in proportion. Steam rose from its flaring nostrils.

They were mistakenly called hellhounds, by people who had never seen a real hellhound. Kankhradahg demons were favored tools of the Black Wreath: easily summoned, easily controlled, and not intelligent enough to be rebellious. Usually.

Branwen scratched the demon under its chin; it closed its red eyes, beginning to purr softly.

“Wreath summoners don’t always take good care of their charges,” she said in that same dull tone. “Their victims, really. This fellow wasn’t treated well at all. It just took a little persuasion, and just the right kind of blessing to break his former master’s control…”

“That’s…impressive,” Darling said carefully, keeping his eyes on the apparently contented demon. Gods, she had her delicate little hand just inches from those teeth…

“This is about Hamlet, isn’t it? Only reason they would do something like this, antagonize our cults and the Church this way. You should have gone to the others, Antonio. Those who came here underestimated me. Whatever they sent at the Huntsman and the Legionnaire will be intended to finish off more powerful targets.”

“Well,” he said after a moment, “I suppose you’re not wrong. Unfortunately it’s a little late now.”

“Yes,” she said softly. “What will be, will be. Looks like we won.”

Branwen gathered up the body of her servant in her arms, leaning over her, and finally began to weep.

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