Tag Archives: Sakamoto Hiroshi

16 – 51

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Tendrils of shadow rose beneath her, twining together into a great twisted trunk and entangling her legs, and lifted Natchua straight up. She rose to a solid twenty feet in height, balanced perfectly in the tentacles’ grasp, until she judged that a sufficient altitude to do what she needed. Off to the south, beyond the range of human senses, she could see the necro-drake thrashing about and erratically charging in different directions as its new targets teased and tormented it from all sides. The green blotches of elven groves were barely visible to her in other directions—close enough the woodkin shaman would undoubtedly be aware of the large-scale infernomancy that was about to be performed on this spot. Hopefully they’d do as woodkin usually did: duck their heads and wait it out rather than taking action. The last thing she needed was nosy shamans disrupting her casting, to say nothing of what would happen if they appealed to the Confederacy and brought more of those damned Highguard.

Projecting steady streams of fire from her palms, Natchua quickly sketched out two huge spell circles, establishing only the basic boundaries to delineate their overall purpose, then paused to survey her work before getting down to refining the specific—rather elaborate—details this was going to need. For a moment, she considered a third, then thought better of it. Two should be plenty.

Next was supplies. In quick surges of shadow, she summoned from Leduc Manor the extra materials necessary for this that she hadn’t carried on her person: a selection of power crystals, enchanting dusts of three distinct grades, and finally, two bemused succubi.

“What the f— ” Melaxyna broke off and clapped a hand over her eyes. “Well, at least she’s not dead, I was more than half convinced…”

“What kind of bassackward nowhere is this supposed to be?” Kheshiri complained, peering about at the vacant prairie. “You never take me anywhere nice.”

Both demons fell silent as they caught sight of the sprawling circles burned into the ground to either side of their arrival point, the nearby stalks of tallgrass still smoking. In eerie unison, their expressions changed to a matching look of tremulous uncertainty as they recognized what she was about to do and basic pragmatism rebelled at the implications, while their Vanislaad attraction to carnage reveled in them.

“Have you finally lost your last vestiges of sense?” Melaxyna demanded. Kheshiri just began squealing and giggling. After that first moment of uncertainty, they seemed to have taken off in opposite directions, almost as if they’d planned it.

“Enough!” Natchua barked from atop her shadow-tendril perch. “I do not have time to argue; either you trust me or you don’t. I need those circles charged. You both understand the proper lines to augment with enchanting dust and the runic nexi where power crystals will need to be placed. Each of you pick a circle and get to work. Double-check with me if you have any questions, but otherwise no dawdling! We have one chance to save Veilgrad.”

Kheshiri instantly snapped her wings out, snatching up a bag of enchanting dust and swooping off to begin tracing glittering purple lines around the perimeter of one of the circles. Melaxyna hesitated for two full seconds, just long enough Natchua feared the succubus was about to rebel at this. But then she just shook her head, gathered up an armful of power crystals and launched herself at the other circle, muttering under her breath. Even Kheshiri wouldn’t have been able to make out any words at that distance, but Natchua of course heard her clearly.

“Hell with it, either I trust the little freak or everything’s twice-fucked anyway. She hasn’t ended the world yet.”

Natchua forbore comment outwardly, though she spared a moment to hope that remark didn’t prove prophetic. Then she resumed firing jets of flame into the ground, carefully avoiding both swooping succubi and searing the finer details of her summoning circles into place. The Wreath would hold the line for a while, but the clock was ticking.


Despite his dire commentary on their situation, Rogrind seemed in little hurry to remedy it. Of course, as he subsequently pointed out when she complained, they were a short walk from one of the province’s main highways, and with an iota of luck, could there flag down a lift to Tiraas. In the absolute worst case scenario, they’d have to walk to Madouris, which was closer; in nicer weather that would have been merely tiring and time-consuming. At present, it would be a very unpleasant slog through the thick snow, though Rogrind insisted he had enough of his resistance potions to tide them both over. Which did nothing to make the prospect appealing to Rasha, who was already not enjoying standing here in the snow while he fussed over the ruins of his carriage.

She understood his purpose, of course, for all that it was no concern of hers and thus annoying. A custom carriage outfitted by Svennish intelligence contained all sorts of goodies his agency wouldn’t want falling into the hands of anyone who might come to investigate this wreck. Already Rogrind had pried loose multiple concealed devices and made enough of them disappear to reveal he had potent bag-of-holding enchantments on multiple pockets. Including, she noticed with amusement, the vehicle registry plates. Undoubtedly those wouldn’t lead directly to the Svenheim embassy, but Imperial Intelligence would take one look at what had happened to this carriage and begin tracking everything as far as its substantial resources would allow.

“Oh, that’s real subtle,” she scoffed as Rogrind very carefully uncorked a vial from his apparently substantial alchemy kit and poured its contents over a console which had been hidden beneath the driver’s seat. Most of its dials were shattered anyway, but the thing itself must have been distinctive. At least before the metal had begun to dissolve under the potent acid with which he was now dousing it. “I’m more nobody’s gonna have any questions about that.”

“Obviously,” the dwarf replied without looking up, continuing to be unperturbed by her disapproval, “the best technique is to avoid notice entirely. When that fails, it can suffice to ensure that there remains nothing to notice. Alas, this is somewhat more labor-intensive, and less likely to succeed. In the business one must not expect the fates to align in one’s favor.”

“Can’t see, don’t see, won’t see,” she agreed. The dwarf sighed softly but said nothing, and Rasha gleefully filed that away. He didn’t like being reminded that the Thieves’ Guild’s work was very similar to his own. There was more amusement to be leveraged from that, surely. “While we’re standing around making small talk anyway, what are you still doing in Tiraas at all? I’d’ve figured you’d be reassigned as hell after your cover got blown last year.”

“An agent whose identity is not known has many uses,” he explained, still outwardly calm. “An agent whose identity is known in his country of operation has other, specific ones. In particular when one operates opposite skilled players like Quentin Vex, it is vastly useful to have obvious targets for him to follow around. There are no wins or losses in the great game, Rasha, merely changes upon the board. Hm.”

“Something wrong?” He’d stopped pouring, as a faint light had begun to flicker on one of the surviving pieces of the instrument panel he was destroying. Rogrind hesitated before continuing his work, quickly drizzling acid over that, too, and snuffing it out.

“No more wrong than we should expect, I think. Apparently we are being tracked by means of fae magic.”

“Hm,” she echoed, frowning. There were tradeoffs in fae versus arcane divination; fae tracking was all but impossible to deflect or evade, but so inherently imprecise that it was often not more useful than more vulnerable but specific arcane scrying. “Friend or foe?”

“Sadly, we would need an actual practitioner to determine that. The simple ability to detect fae attention via a passive enchantment is state of the art. By your leave, I believe we should adopt a cautious posture, in any case.”

“Leave granted.”

He took great care to re-cork the bottle which had contained acid and wipe it off on the surviving upholstery before stowing it away. Rasha would’ve just discarded the bottle on the grounds that any idiot would be able to discern what had happened here and one more piece of glass wouldn’t tell them anything, but then again, thieves and spies weren’t so similar that they had exactly the same training. Only when that was done did he produce a device made to look like a pocketwatch—a standard deception, Glory had over a dozen enchanted devices set in watch casings—and flipped it open.

Whatever it was, the information it contained instantly changed the dwarf’s mood.

“Hide,” he hissed, already turning and bolting. Rasha’s only instincts were trained enough to set her into motion before she bothered to ask questions. For a dwarf, Rogrind was amazingly agile, but she was still faster, and so managed to beat him to the shelter of one of the angled sheets of rock Schwartz had summoned out of the ground last year. Funny how things worked out; for all she knew, this was the second time she’d taken shelter behind this particular bulwark.

“What is it?” Rasha breathed once they were concealed. Rogrind still had his device out; she snuck a peek over his shoulder but couldn’t make heads or tails of the multiple tiny dials set into its face.

“We’re about to have company,” he whispered. “An arcane translocation signal just activated in this vicinity.”

“Scrying?”

“No such luck, this is for teleportation.”

“Shit,” she whispered. It might not be bad; Rasha’s friends would definitely be looking for her by now. Off the top of her head, though, she didn’t know of anyone in her inner circle who could teleport. Then again, Trissiny knew all sorts of wacky people, and Glory knew everyone. She looked at the very clear tracks the two of them had made through the snow right to their hiding spot and grimaced, noting Rogrind doing the same.

He pulled out another vial, drank half, and handed the rest to her. Rasha downed it without asking, and he immediately tugged her arm, beckoning her to follow. They set off to another position behind a large hunk of fallen masonry—this time leaving behind no traces in the snow. That was some good alchemy; thanks to Glory’s tutelage, Rasha had some idea what potions like that cost. It stood to reason an intelligence agent would have resources, but she hadn’t realized Svenheim made such heavy use of potions. That information was worth taking back to the Guild.

Even as they moved, a shrill whine like a very out-of-season mosquito began to resonate at the very edge of her hearing, growing steadily louder. No sooner had the pair ducked behind their new concealment than sparks of blue light began to flicker in the air over by the carriage’s wreck. It was but another second before a bright flash blazed across the ruins, and then over a dozen people materialized.

Rasha did not curse again, though she wanted to. These were not friendlies.

By far the majority were soldiers in crisp uniforms, with battlestaves at the ready; they instantly spread out, forming a perimeter around their landing zone and several detaching themselves from the formation to cover the wrecked carriage and the body of Sister Lanora. Rasha didn’t recognize those uniforms. They were white, vaguely resembling Silver Legion formal dress, but their insignia was a golden ankh over the breast. She’d thought the Holy Legionnaires only wore that ridiculously pompous armor, but one of the other parties present revealed the troops could not be anyone else.

Glory had insisted all her apprentices attend occasional services at the Universal Church, simply for the sake of being exposed to polite society. It was not the first time she had seen him, thus, but his presence here threw everything Rasha thought she understood into disarray. Archpope Justinian never left the safety of his power base in the Cathedral. And why would he? There, he was all but invulnerable, even against the countless factions and powerful individuals he had spent the last few years industriously antagonizing. Yet, there he was, his powerful build and patrician features unmistakable, behind a golden shield which had flashed into place around him the instant he’d arrived.

Rasha snuck a glance at Rogrind, who was staring at the new arrivals with the closed expression of an observant man determined to take in all possible data and reveal none in turn.

“Ugh!” shouted one of the other people with the Archpope, a stoop-shouldered individual bundled up as if against an Athan’Khar winter rather than a clear day in the Tira Valley. “These conditions are totally unacceptable!”

“Unfortunately, Rector, this is what we have to work with,” Justinian replied, his mellifluous voice utterly calm. “I apologize, but I must rely on your skill to overcome the inconvenience. This is the last place Lanora’s spirit existed upon the mortal plane, and distance from it makes the task more difficult. Seconds and inches are precious. Nassir, is that…?”

“Think so, your Holiness,” reported one of the soldiers, straightening from where he’d been kneeling at the very edge of the bloodstained patch of snow. The man’s face was hard, but Justinian’s grumpy companion took one look at the remains of Sister Lanora and was noisily sick into the nearest snowdrift. “No other bodies nearby, and she’s wearing Purist gear. Unfortunately her face is…gone.”

The Archpope, perhaps fittingly, was made of sterner stuff. His expression was deeply grave as he joined the soldier and gazed down at the body, but he did not flinch or avert his eyes. “What terrible damage. I don’t believe I have ever seen the like. It’s almost as if…”

“It looks like something triggered small explosions inside her body,” Nassir said, scowling deeply. “In the head, and look, there in the side. That wound would’ve been inflicted first. The head wound would be instantly lethal, so there’s no point in attacking again after that.”

“Have you seen such injuries before, Nassir?”

“Not in person, your Holiness. I’ve been briefed on the like, though, in the Army. Not sure anything I’ve heard of would’ve done it here, though. Some fairies are known to do nasty things like this, but nothing that lives this close to the capital. And of course, if you see unusually ugly wounds, infernomancy is always a suspicion…”

“There has been nothing of the kind done upon this spot in many years,” Justinian stated, raising his head to slowly direct his frown across the scenery. “At this range, I would sense it even under the Black Wreath’s concealment.”

The soldier nodded. “That leaves arcane attack spells. They exist. Very illegal, though. The Wizards’ Guild and the Salyrites both prohibit such craft.”

A moment of contemplative silence fell.

And then, a hand came to rest on Rasha’s shoulder, causing her to jump.

“Go on, say it,” breathed a new voice next to her. “Ask him.”

She just barely managed to stay silent, turning to gawk at the man who had appeared from nowhere between her and Rogrind: the waiter from the cafe who had warned her and Zafi of the Purist ambush. He was even still in his askew tuxedo, the cravat untied and hanging unevenly down his chest. Now, he was watching the scene unfolding before them with the wide-eyed eagerness of a child at a play.

Then she noticed that Rogrind had slumped, unconscious, to the ground, face-down in the snow.

“What of a Thieves’ Guild hedge mage?” Justinian asked, and the waiter began cackling aloud in sheer glee. Rasha frantically tried to shush him without adding to the noise herself.

“They…would be very hesitant to do such a thing, your Holiness,” the soldier named Nassir answered, his voice slowed with thought. Amazingly, neither he nor any of the others appeared to notice the gleeful hooting coming from Rasha’s hiding place. “The legal authorities would investigate any such thing, and possibly get Imperial Intelligence involved. Plus, if the Guild were feeling particularly cruel, they’d do something that would kill far more painfully and slowly. As deaths go, it doesn’t get much more merciful than the sudden loss of the entire brain. It’s not in their nature to risk official attention for something that gains them so little. Still,” he added pensively, “if I had to list mages who might know spellcraft like this, a back-alley Guild caster would top the list, even if they were hesitant to use it in practice. For example, this could be a vicious repurposing of a lock-breaking spell.”

“Oh, relax,” Rasha’s new companion chuckled, patting her on the head as the conversation over Lanora’s corpse continued. “They can’t hear or see us, I took care of that. Also your dwarf buddy here. Don’t worry about him, he’ll be fine; he’s just taking a nap. We’re about to see some shit that he really doesn’t need to, is all. You’ll have to convey my apologies when he wakes up.”

There were just too many questions; she settled on one almost at random. “Who the hell are you?!”

The man turned to meet her gaze, still wearing a cocky half-grin. And for just an instant, he let the veil slip, just by a fraction.

Weight and sheer power hammered at her consciousness as Rasha locked eyes with an intelligence as far beyond her own as the sun was beyond a candle. It was just for the barest fraction of a second, but it was enough to cause her to sit down hard in the snow.

Before them, Justinian raised his head suddenly like a hound catching a scent, and once more turned in a slow circle, studying his surroundings with a frown.

“Easy, there, Rasha,” Eserion said kindly, helping her back up. “I know you’ve had a pisser of a day already, but stay with me; you really need to see this next bit. Moments like this are rare, and you’ll almost never get forewarning of them, much less a front-row seat. We’re about to watch the world change right out from under us.”


One of the worst things about Natchua was that she was sometimes extremely right.

The Black Wreath didn’t fight; at most they laid ambushes. They contained, and that only after preparing the ground ahead of them to the best of their ability, luring their prey exactly where they wanted it before striking. Whether putting down loose demons, rogue warlocks, or their own traitors, it was simply not their way to engage in a frontal assault. Maybe, occasionally, the appearance of one after setting up the scene with the most exacting care, but actually fighting? Hurling themselves into the fray with spell and weapon and their own lifeblood on the line? It simply wasn’t done. It was not Elilial’s way.

Be foxes, not spiders.

The damnable thing was that their usual approach absolutely would not have worked here. The necro-drake was very much like a demon in how predictably it reacted, but there was a lot they could do about demons. Against this thing, their spells were simply not able to make a lasting impact. The mission wasn’t even to destroy or contain it, but only to keep it busy. There was nothing for it but to fight.

Embras Mogul wasn’t particularly surprised at how satisfying it was to simply let loose with all his destructive skill at an enemy, nor how the other survivors of his cult were clearly finding the same liberating vigor in it. After all they’d been through, it was only natural. He was rather surprised to find out that they were, in fact, pretty good at it.

They knew each other intuitively, with the intimacy of long cooperation and bonds forged in suffering. The Wreath moved in small groups, noting and reacting to one another so intuitively it felt like pure instinct. One trio would vanish as the necro-drake dived at them, and others would pummel it from multiple directions with shadowbolts, forcing the increasingly frustrated monster to whirl about and struggle to pick a target while under attack from all sides, only to be thwarted again when its chosen victims vanished into their own conjured darkness when it even tried to get close.

The poor thing was actually rather dumb. It never improved its strategy, just got progressively sloppier as going on and on without making any progress made it ever more angry.

It wasn’t as if they were making progress, either, but the difference was they were having fun. For once, the shoe was on the other foot: after a string of debacles and defeats, they were the cats tormenting the mouse and not the other way around. Embras kept an eye on the others every moment he could spare his attention from the necro-drake, watching for injury or signs of fatigue, but rather than growing tired, he saw his compatriots having more fun than he’d seen them have in years. Some, like Hiroshi, seemed to have fallen into a trancelike state of flow, concentrating in apparent serenity on their spells and tactics, while others were smiling, grinning with savage vindication as they did what no responsible warlocks ever allowed themselves to do: poured unrestrained destruction at their target.

It was, as Vanessa had said, cathartic. And he was a little afraid of what it might mean for the future, perhaps more than he was of the inept monstrosity trying to slaughter them all. It was going to be…a letdown, going back to their usual ways after this burst of sheer release. If they even could. Was there still a place for the Wreath as it was in the world? And if not, how big a mistake was it to tie their fates to Natchua of all bloody people?

Despite his misgivings, Mogul was having such a grand time shadow-jumping about and hammering the chaos best with infernal carnage that his immediate reaction to the sudden end of the exercise was a surge of pure disappointment. In the next moment, as he beheld the nature of that end, his emotional response felt more…complex.

The sound that echoed suddenly across the prairie brought stillness, as warlocks and necro-drake alike all stopped what they were doing and turned to stare. It was a terrible noise rarely heard on the mortal plane, and always a herald of catastrophe: a low sibilance that was like a hiss, if a hiss was a roar, a sound that was at once subtly slender and deafening.

The necro-drake’s bony face was unable to convey expression, but somehow, its body language as it turned to confront this new threat showed shock, even a hint of fear. It crouched, letting its wings fall to the sides, and lowered its head.

Embras Mogul, meanwhile, suddenly sat down in the tallgrass, laughing his head off.

Vanessa appeared next to him in a swell of shadow. “You know, I think we may have miscalculated, allying ourselves with that girl.”

“She doesn’t do anything halfway, does she?” Rupi added, coming to join them on foot. “Bloody hell, Embras. It’s like a…an infernal Tellwyrn.”

He just laughed. It was all too much.


They were adolescents; she’d made the summoning circles smaller on purpose, simply because full-sized adults would be too large to effectively grapple with the necro-drake the way she needed them to. All they had to do was pin the bastard down so she could step in and deliver the coup de grace. Behind their beaked heads, between their triple rows of crimson eyes and the flared directional fins, they wore collars of glowing crimson light, containing the runes which imbued them with the pact of summoning, restricting their behavior to that commanded by the warlock who had called them to this plane. Such bindings had never been placed on demons of this species before. They floated above her, eel-like bodies larger than a Rail caravan undulating sinuously as they awaited their mistress’s command.

It was with grim satisfaction that Natchua beheld the suddenly cowering necro-drake. Standing on the prairie beneath two captive nurdrakhaan, she pointed one finger at the monstrosity.

“Boys? Sic ‘im.”

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16 – 50

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She didn’t dare stop moving.

The necro-drake reacted a lot like a demon, for all that there was no infernomancy in or around it and indeed, any such conventional magic would have disintegrated due to its innate chaos effects, as Natchua had been quick to observe. When attacked, it attacked back, predictable as clockwork. It had gone after everyone in Veilgrad who had fired spells at it, and only been dissuaded from dive-bombing the mag cannon emplacement because Natchua had intercepted it mid-attack. And like many species of demon, it had no strategy beyond rabid frontal assault. That was the good thing: leading the creature away from the city was as simple as hammering it with spells and shadow-jumping away to strike again before it could kill her in retaliation. It didn’t get tired and never wised up to her strategy, just kept coming after her. The beast was no dragon; it wasn’t sapient, and not even particularly clever as animals went. A bear or wolf would have long since given up and gone to do something less futile.

That was the extent of the good news.

Natchua had nothing with which to fight except magic, and against a creature of chaos, magic was useless. Worse than useless—some of the misfires caused by her infernal spells hammering the necro-drake could easily have rebounded on her devastatingly had she been standing closer, which of course was exactly why she kept herself at a distance (aside from the threat posed by the beast itself). Also why she only attacked with magical projectile spells, no energy beams or other effects that would make a connection between her and her target. Spells rebounded, disintegrated, fizzled, transformed into harmless puffs of mist or far less harmless bursts of fire and acid; it seemed each one found a new way to go wrong. They certainly weren’t doing the necro-drake any harm, for all that it clearly perceived her hostile intent and continued coming after her.

She had worked out one trick so far which seemed to do the thing some damage, and was reluctant to use it. It was complex enough that only her elven speed and infernal mastery made it possible: she had to summon a fragment of native rock from Hell and use the inherent volatility of the dimensional transit to fling it at the necro-drake at high velocity, which was at least three individual things few warlocks could have done. Worse, that would leave infernally irradiated chunks of rock littering the landscape unless she took the time to both banish them back to Hell and siphon up the local infernal energy before it corrupted someone, two more feats that were beyond the average warlock’s ability and difficult enough even for Natchua that taking a few seconds to clean the mess she’d left in Veilgrad had nearly allowed the chaos monster to grab her. Thus, she wasn’t about to do that again, for all that it had been far more effective at harming her foe than any of her direct spells.

Worst of all, what harm she did do was quickly reversed; the thing had some kind of innate healing ability. Amid all the constant misfires, there were now again explosions and conjured projectiles which struck the necro-drake, revealing that the craggy black glass of its skeleton was exactly as fragile as it seemed like it should be, but when broken its shards would immediately flow back into place.

Infernomancy was the magic of destruction. All other things being equal, Natchua was certain she could destroy it through brute force alone; she had more than enough of that at her fingertips to compensate for any amount of rejuvenation. But things were not equal, and all her terrible power was good for nothing more than antagonizing it. That wasn’t nothing; she’d managed to lead it away from the city, out past the outlying towns and into the wide empty stretches of the Great Plains, leaving behind a trail of charred tallgrass, outcroppings of conjured rock, at least two mutated trees which had spontaneously grown from nothing, and an annoyingly whimsical variety of other lingering effects. Between constantly dancing ahead of the beast, checking the distance to make sure she wasn’t leading it toward a village or a woodkin grove (the Confederacy would really let her have it for that), and also doing her due diligence to make sure nothing being left behind was too dangerous, Natchua was rapidly becoming overextended. Even elven stamina wouldn’t enable her to keep this up forever, or for long. She needed a solution.

And of course, the only thing she could come up with was the absolute last thing she ever wanted to do: prayer.

“Hey, bitch!”

Undoubtedly the Wreath had rituals for communing with their goddess as did any faith, and undoubtedly that wasn’t one. Natchua didn’t know them, though; Elilial had given her knowledge of infernal magic, not Elilinist ritual practice, and while there was overlap it didn’t extend to religious sacraments. But she was, after all, connected to the Queen of Hell on a personal level, and so she fell back on her own character and resorted to shouting at her. The necro-drake didn’t seem to take the yelling personally; it was already trying to slaughter her due to all the spellfire, so it wasn’t as if some harsh words would make a difference.

“Yeah, I’m talking to you,” Natchua snapped aloud at the air as she stepped out of another swell of shadows twenty yards to the northwest of where the necro-drake was now clawing at the ground where she’d been standing a second before, and fired and short burst of shadowbolts right at its head to get the stupid thing’s attention. There was one factor that would make all the difference here, and only one person she could ask about it. “Paladins are supposed to be immune to chaos! That’s why they always send paladins when there’s a chaos event. I know you can do that, so why the fuck isn’t my magic working on this thing?”

The thing in question emitted its spine-grating wail and vaulted through the air at her. Natchua peevishly launched a carriage-sized fireball right into its face and shadow-jumped out of range a split second before its claws reached her, already conjuring another flurry of shadowbolts to be discharged once she’d positioned herself to lead it farther toward the Golden Sea. If worse came to worst, maybe she could keep going long enough to lure the thing into there and just let it get lost?

Of course, then there’d be no telling where or when it’d come back out…

In all honestly Natchua had not really expected an answer. Thus, the surprise at receiving one caused her a moment’s hesitation that nearly proved fatal before she jumped away again, scowling at the amused voice that rang clearly inside her own head.

Oh, Natchua, you do get yourself into the most interesting situations.

“Yeah, that’s real fuckin’ cute,” she snarled. “Are you going to help me or not?”

I believe you made it clear we would not have that kind of relationship, my dear. I acquiesced readily to those terms. You want nothing to do with me…unless you need help?

She hammered the necro-drake with another huge fireball. Then a second, when the first fizzled out into a harmless puff of smoke seconds before impact. The follow-up spell detonated in a shockwave of kinetic force that sent her flying backwards and smashed the skeletal dragon into the ground.

Natchua was back on her feet immediately, wincing and taking stock. Nothing broken; Professor Ezzaniel had taught her how to fall and her reflexes had been enough to compensate for the suddenness. She was nicely bruised all over, though, just from the force of the hit. The necro-drake stumbled drunkenly about, its bones re-forming right before her eyes.

“And you,” she replied, straightening her sleeves, “said I could call on you for help when I needed it!”

And you don’t need it. There is no need for you to continue fooling about with that thing. You can easily escape—even retrieve your family from Leduc Manor and go back to Mathenon until all this blows over.

“It attacked my city!” she snarled, blasting the chaos beast with a particularly heavy shadowbolt. It transmuted into a three-second burst of choral song in four-point harmony, of all things, but at least that sufficed to get the monster’s attention. It came after her yet again, and she shadow-jumped deeper into the plains, heckling it with desultory spells to keep it interested while she focused on mobility and arguing with the recalcitrant deity in her head. “Protecting Veilgrad is my responsibility! That is not negotiable.”

I will protect you if I must, Natchua, but not from the consequences of your own choices. Trust me, I know more of the history of House Leduc than you ever will, dear. No one will be surprised or even disappointed if you duck your head and sit this one out. Playing hero accomplishes nothing except to fluff your ego.

“Oh, you evil—” It was doubtless for the best that she had to break off and jump repeatedly away as the monster came after her in a renewed frenzy; for a few moments she didn’t even have to fire back at it to hold its interest. Natchua ultimately made a longer shadow-jump, putting enough distance between herself and the necro-drake that it paused, looking around in confusion.

Then she launched a seething kernel of hellfire into the air in a parabolic arc that came down directly on top of the beast. Before it drew close enough to be mangled by the chaos effect, she detonated the spell, causing another huge swath of tallgrass to be charred flat and the monster crushed into the ground. It instantly began trying to rise again, though it took several moments to regather itself sufficiently.

This was not a winning strategy. She needed to kill this thing. She could kill it, of that she was absolutely certain, if only the stubborn goddess would lend her protection to Natchua’s spells.

“I. Need. Your. Help.” Baring her teeth, she growled the admission with all the reluctance of her desperate predicament.

The surge of amused laughter resounding her head made her right eyelid begin to twitch violently.

Because I like you, Natchua dear, I’ll share with you a vital life lesson someone should really have made clear to you long before now: nobody cares what you want. They care what they want. Negotiation is the art of convincing others that meeting your needs will meet their own.

She chewed on that almost literally, working her jaw and watching the necro-drake get its bearings. Despite the distance, she was the only visible landmark around them as by that point she’d taunted it far out onto the prairie. With a keening roar, it charged across the ground at her like a galloping bear rather than trying to fly.

Natchua exploded the ground under it, sending it hurtling away. Unfortunately the monster had enough wit to recognize and abandon a doomed strategy, and came at her through the air again, forcing her to shadow-jump once more to avoid its dive. The interlude had bought her precious seconds to mull Elilial’s words.

“Well, I’m not leaving,” she stated aloud. “Not until that thing is dead. If it kills me, you lose your anchor.”

I like you, my dear, truly I do, and I’m willing to help you up to a point simply because I acknowledge how much I owe you. That doesn’t mean you have a blade to my throat, Natchua. You’ve bought me enough stability that if you insist on squandering your life, I have time to find a replacement. Your existence is not vital to me. Try again.

She cursed a few times each in elvish, Tanglish, demonic and Glassian (Xyraadi was right, it was perversely gratifying to be obscene in such a pretty language). And then for a few minutes longer as Elilial laughed at her again and she had to dance once more with the necro-drake.

It wasn’t getting tired. Natchua wasn’t either, yet, but she knew that would come before too much longer. She had already kept this up longer than a human spellcaster could, and even elven stamina had its limits.

“This is your chance to redeem yourself,” she tried again, moving and firing ineffective spells while speaking. “With the truce in place, if you take action to protect—”

It doesn’t work that way, not for creatures like me. You can have a redemption story because you’re a mortal woman. I am a goddess, a fixture of history. No one will believe I acted out of anything but self-interest.

Natchua did not shriek in frustration, instead channeling her ire into a particularly vicious blast of infernal destruction. The spell disintegrated an instant before smashing into the necro-drake, instead showering it with a cloud of flower petals.

She and it stared at one another in disbelief for a second. Then she zapped it again with a shadowbolt, and carried on evading its furious retaliation.

“What do you want?” she demanded in desperation.

More infuriating, wordless amusement. You’ve already hit on the real issue, and I have explained it to you further. Show me you can work that brain, Lady Leduc. Connect the dots and make this crusade of yours useful to me; you know exactly how. Do that, and I promise you’ll have your divine protection. And yes, you’re correct: with that, you can bring this thing down.

It hit her in a burst, the way her own squirrelly schemes often did, the insight that told her what Elilial was hinting at but refused to say outright. And then she could only curse again, because she knew what she had to do.


As distractions went, it wasn’t anyone’s best work, but Natchua figured it was pretty good for a spur-of-the-moment desperation spell. One of the basic summoning spells for katzil demons bound them to obey certain commands, and if carefully memorized and practiced beforehand could be employed to instantly summon a pre-bound flying, fire-breathing servitor to attack one’s enemies. That was one of the old standbys of the seasoned warlock. She was able to augment the base spell considerably, requiring only a few more seconds of conjuration, to compel one of the flying serpents to harass the chaos dragon while remaining out of reach and avoiding leading it toward any signs of civilization. Designing a binding to make it goad the necro-drake toward the Golden Sea proved more intricate than she could manage while casting by the seat of her pants, but hopefully this would distract it long enough to buy her a few precious minutes.

Natchua returned to Veilgrad in a series of jumps rather than directly just to lay a pattern of wards across the general path back, to warn her of the necro-drake’s return if it came back to the city after finishing off her enhanced katzil, which even optimistically she didn’t think would keep it busy for long. Most of them might not help, as the thing might not fly in a straight line and infernal wards had a starkly limited radius of sensitivity, but close to the city walls she swiftly set up three wide arcs that should give her a few seconds of forewarning if it returned.

From there, it was just a matter of shadow-jumping to the last place she’d seen her quarry and stretching out her senses. They were adept at concealing their presence from magical detection, even from her, but had little recourse against the ears of an elf. Natchua hated opening herself up this way in a city—even subdued as it was, Veilgrad was still painfully noisy, and the amount of screams and weeping she could hear made her heart clench.

Finally, though, something went right. It worked, and she found them not far at all from the rooftop on which their smoking barbecue still stood, abandoned.

The collected Black Wreath were making their way three abreast through a wide alley toward the mountainside gate of the city, and slammed to a stop with a series of muffled curses when her final shadow-jump placed her directly in their path.

“You’re going on foot?” Natchua demanded. “Well, whatever, I’m glad I caught up with you.”

“Excuse me, lady, but not everyone’s crazy enough to shadow-jump in the presence of a chaos effect,” Embras retorted.

“It’s arcane teleportation that’ll fuck you up if you do it anywhere near chaos. Shadow-jumping is relatively safe, so long as you don’t actually jump into the source.”

“You may have forgotten,” Vanessa said icily, “but we have particular reason to be leery of anything chaos-adjacent.”

“Right.” Natchua drew in a deep breath, steeling herself. That was the worst possible segue into her next argument, but she didn’t have the luxury of time to finagle this conversation back around. “I need your help to take that thing down.”

Mogul, Vanessa, and about half a dozen of the others outright laughed in her face. Which, she supposed, wasn’t the worst reaction she could have expected.

“Bye, Natchua,” Mogul said, shaking his head and stepping forward and one side as if to brush past her. “Good luck with that.”

Natchua reached to to press her hand against the cold brick wall, barring his path. “We made a deal, Embras.”

“No part of our deal involved us committing outright suicide,” he shot back, his expression collapsing into a cold scowl. “Don’t pretend what you’re asking is anything else. Remember when you handed me that oh so helpfully collated binder of yours? You said in particular to avoid chaos-related issues until everything else was wrapped up. If you intend to make this a stipulation of our arrangement…deal’s off.”

In the back of her head, Natchua felt one of her outlying wards disintegrate as proximity to a chaos effect unraveled it. The beast was coming back. Time grew ever shorter.

She had to inhale once fully to compose herself. Mogul being recalcitrant and petty in the middle of a crisis was just begging to be screamed at and belabored, but Natchua had a suspicion that was exactly the reaction he was fishing for, the perfect excuse to blow her off. As she had just been reminded, he didn’t care what she wanted to begin with. People cared about their own interests. She had to put this in the right way…

“This is your one chance,” Natchua said aloud, not a hundred percent sure where she was going but riding the sense that some subconscious part of her knew what it was doing; that approach had mostly led her to success so far. “The Wreath have always talked a big game about how you’re really in the business of protecting the world—”

“From demons,” Rupi interrupted, “not chaos.”

“—but the last time there was an incident like this in Veilgrad, your help was blatantly self-serving and only caused more problems. This is the moment when you can prove you mean your own rhetoric. Fight to protect this city, and it will be remembered.”

Mogul, expression skeptical, opened his mouth to reply, but Natchua pressed on, overriding his intended interruption.

“This is the only chance! Running away is not the neutral action here, it will sink your prospects permanently. We’re at a unique moment in history: Elilial is at peace with the Pantheon, the Wreath has official sponsorship from Imperial nobility, and you’ve been winnowed down to a fragment of a remnant. Elilial’s name will be mud for centuries to come, no matter what she’s done now, she’s been the universal enemy of civilization for so long. But you are at a moment, the only moment you’ll get, when you can prove you have changed and people just might start to believe it. This can either be the rebirth of the Black Wreath, or its final slide into obscurity.

“That thing reacts like a demon; you know how to deal with demons. Magic isn’t effective against it, but it’ll attack anything that attacks it, however futile the spell is. Mages can’t reliably teleport around it, but with shadow-jumping you can stay mobile, get it to chase you away. I did it, and I’m just one person; a whole group can watch each other’s backs and pull it out of range of the city. Only warlocks can do this. It’s not just your reputation on the line here, but the future of infernomancy itself! I don’t even need you to take it down! I can do that, but I need someone to buy me time to prepare the spells I need.”

They were silent, now. Another ward went dark—much farther inward. To judge by the position, the necro-drake wasn’t returning in a straight line, but it was definitely coming this way. Fast.

“Help me,” Natchua said urgently, “and you can change…everything. This is your chance to make a new future, where the Wreath and Elilial can be part of the world instead of pushed into the shadows. Throw this chance away, and you won’t get another.”

Slowly, Mogul shook his head. “I can respect your passion, Natchua, but not enough to die for it.”

Then the chaos beast crashed through her outer string of wards arcing past Veilgrad’s western walls, then the next, and time was up. Natchua snarled at him and vanished in a swell of shadow, already cursing to herself when she rematerialized on the plains outside just as the necro-drake, roaring, crashed through her final line of wards and nearly reached the walls. She immediately snared it with a colossal tentacle of shadow—which, for a wonder, actually did snare it, as the purple-black tendril of energy solidified into a huge structure of glass upon contact with the chaos effect. It immediately shattered, of course, but it had been enough to interrupt the monster’s flight and send it flopping awkwardly to the ground just outside the gates.

She was already hammering it with fireballs and shadowbolts before it could get up, and retreated in a series of small shadow-jumps even as the necro-drake regained its bearings and came after her, howling in outrage. The whole time, she never stopped cursing.

This development not only sank her best idea, but her Plan B as well. With a promise of a paladin’s resistance to chaos and accomplices to buy her a few minutes to put her plan into action, she was certain she could kill the monster. Failing that, there were other paladins, and Natchua was certain they’d come running for something like this.

And had it been several hours ago, she could’ve shadow-jumped right to Madouri Manor and collected them. But now all three were neck-deep in major political actions in their own temples—structures with ancient and powerful wards that prevented her shadow-jumping, to to mention basically all of her magic, currently swarmed with dozens if not hundreds of people each who’d be demanding the paladins’ attention, and staffed by clerics who were unlikely to be impressed by her noble title and would probably become overtly hostile at the first hint of infernomancy. Untangling that could take, potentially…hours.

Natchua had just learned that she could distract this thing for, at best, a few minutes at a time. She was officially on her own. Which left the backup plan: stay alive long enough to goad it for hundreds of miles until they reached the Golden Sea and try to lose it there. That would be kicking the problem down the road, and probably not by more than a few days, not to mention guaranteeing it was uncertain where it would come back out again. But at least it would buy enough time for the paladins to rally, and the Empire to throw something together. Tiraas ran mostly on arcane magic, but its resources were unfathomable. Surely Imperial Command could come up with something.

That was a hope for later, though. For now, she had her task in front of her.

Cursing didn’t take much energy, so she didn’t stop even as she retraced her steps, past the wreckage and peculiar stains left by her last try to leading the necro-drake away from Veilgrad. Having to cover the same ground, in the same exhausting way, made it all feel so…futile.

But Natchua Leduc did not stop fighting in the face of futility. She cussed at futility and smashed it with shadow-bolts. So that was what she did.

The surviving spires of Veilgrad were still within view when suddenly infernal magic swelled around her. In the next second, the skies were filled with demons.

Katzils swarmed the necro-drake, distracting it from Natchua’s own attacks and earning her a reprieve. They fared poorly, of course, dramatically dying just by coming too close, to say nothing of what happened if it got its claws on one. But there were dozens of them, and they were being directed to spray it with green fire from the maximum possible distance. Better yet, they whirled around the monster, attacking it from all directions, which sent it into a confused frenzy. The necro-drake whirled like a dog chasing its tail, snapping and slashing, and demons perished, but for the moment, they held its attention.

Natchua took the opportunity to turn around and stare incredulously at the assembled warlocks who had just appeared behind her.

“Did you seriously just do that so you could make a dramatic entrance?” she demanded. “Are you bards now? No, wait, never mind, what am I saying? Bards would never do something so cliché.”

“Excuse you, bards wallow in cliché like pigs in their own filth,” Embras Mogul retorted, grinning at her. “Anyway, no, we obviously had to discuss our options without you hovering around to overhear and put in your two pennies’ worth. Fact is, Natchua, you made a compelling case, but you are also just about the last person we trust. There’s a general feeling, here, that you’re as likely as not to be planning to double-cross us at the first opportunity. It was Vanessa who pointed out that we’ve got a pretty good handle on your numerous character flaws. And not only are you too generally bullheaded to be duplicitous, if there is one thing we can rely on you to do, it’s keep going after an enemy long after all sense and reason should tell you to drop it and leave well enough alone.”

Despite herself, despite everything, Natchua found herself grinning as he spoke, and finally barked an involuntary laugh.

“Besides,” Vanessa added, “since we’re apparently not allowed to murder you, pummeling the hell out of a chaos creature sounds fucking cathartic.”

“I’ve never been so glad to see a bunch of assholes in my life,” Natchua replied. “Just…stay moving. This is no time for grandiose schemes or clever plots, you need to be agile and think on the go. The monster isn’t hard to trick as long as you don’t get too cocky. Keep in motion, watch each other’s backs, and keep it distracted and agitated. Be foxes, not spiders.”

“I am not losing any more of my people because of you,” Mogul warned. “If someone’s injured or we collectively get too tired to keep on, we’re pulling out. However long that takes, that’s how long you’ve got to put together whatever you’re planning.”

Natchua glanced behind her. The necro-drake was still tearing apart the katzils; it was getting close to finishing them off. Any second it might decide the assembled warlocks were a more tempting target than a mere handful of swarming demons.

“I’ll be as fast as I can manage,” she promised. “I will not abandon you. Just hold out for a few minutes. And Mogul—”

He held up a hand. “Don’t say it. Just get to work, Duchess. If we’re all still alive in an hour, I plan to gloat at length.”

“Here’s hoping,” she said, and called the darkness to carry her away to another broad, flat stretch of tallgrass, unmarred by habitation or any sign of combat, leaving the Black Wreath to tangle with the monster.

Before she could even start work, the resonant voice sounded in her head.

A deal’s a deal. You’ll have your divine protection.

“Good,” Natchua said curtly, pushing up her sleeves. “Now, I’ll also need spell formulae to confer that protection into the binding element of a demonic summoning. Damned if I’m gonna be the only one in this relationship earning my keep.”

The dark goddess’s delighted laughter echoed in her mind as she began casting.

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16 – 46

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“I haven’t done anything wrong!” Rehvad Salimon protested, his voice growing shrill.

“Master Salimon,” Ravana said in a calm and not unkind tone, “there is no one truly innocent. We all have something upon our conscience. The only person who makes such a blanket protest of innocence is, quite obviously, laboring to conceal guilt.”

He gaped at her for one fishlike moment, then began stammering. “I—but that—what does—”

Keeping her expression even as always, Ravana inwardly rebuked herself. It was a pointless observation, which a man less intimidated and out of his depth would naturally dismiss for the silly philosophical time-wasting it was. Playing such mind games with someone like this was purely self-indulgent, and needlessly cruel.

“More specifically,” she went on, cutting off his fumbling protests, “I should remind you that it is not customary for miscellaneous citizens to have a personal audience with their Duchess in the preliminary stages of an investigation. I am well aware of your role in organizing that lamentable incident outside Falconer Industries. Of greater import, I am aware that you did so at the instigation of the Universal Church, in exchange for a monetary bribe.”

“That’s not a crime!” he burst out, and then went pale. “I mean—that is, I don’t know what… My concerns about that archdemon were perfectly valid! Our concerns.”

The man was visibly sweating now. Ravana stared at him in silence. It was a favorite trick of Tellwyrn’s, one she’d not had an opportunity to learn before Last Rock. When her father had wanted to unsettle someone, he blustered and threatened. Cold silence was far more deadly to an already-burdened conscience, and easier to deliver with dignity.

This room was carefully chosen for such a purpose, a small office lined with dark-stained oak paneling and deep blue wallpaper that made it feel close, even claustrophobic, especially with five people present. Mr. Salimon occupied an uncomfortably small wooden chair in the center of the room, with two House Madouri guards looming behind him in positions flanking the door. Ravana sat across from him, in a comfortable armchair designed to evoke the aspect of a throne, Yancey standing like a solemn statue at her left. It was an interrogation chamber, designed for exactly this use, and all the more intimidating for a middle-aged shopkeeper like Salimon for being in Madouri Manor rather than a police barracks. Soldiers and police officers in the Empire scrupulously followed the letter of the law and handled citizens with care under the Tirasian Dynasty’s rules, with the occasional exception of Imperial Intelligence. The Madouris, on the other hand, were known to make inconvenient people vanish.

He drew in a deep and slightly shaky breath, making a deliberate effort to square his shoulders, and raised his chin. “I believe that the Writ of Duties requires me to be represented by a qualified attorney before any judgment is rendered.”

Ravana lifted one eyebrow. “Of course. Master Salimon, our purpose here is to determine the details of what happened. It has not yet been decided that you are to be charged with any crime. Should it come to that, you will of course have access to a lawyer of your choosing, or be provided one by the state if you are unable to secure such services on your own. Why?” She subtly leaned forward, holding her gaze on his. “Is there something to which you would like to confess that would require a trial?”

Even more color leached from his cheeks. That was the only reply he managed to produce.

“So,” Ravana continued more briskly, “as a key witness in this ongoing investigation, you will naturally be our guest here until the matter is brought to a conclusion, one way or another.”

“Y-your Grace,” he said weakly, “I…I mean, my Lady… I have a family.”

She frowned in reproach. “Good heavens, man, we are hardly going to torture you. This is the twelfth century, and we are all professionals here. You will be interviewed at whatever duration the specialists I employ deem necessary, and until they are finished, housed here when not speaking with them. Comfortably, Master Salimon, not in a dungeon cell. With all due respect, I imagine my humblest guest chambers are more salubrious than your own home. Simply cooperate with your interviewers to the greatest extent you can, and this matter can be resolved with the utmost speed.”

“But I…” He wrung his hands, staring pleadingly at her. “Please, Lady Madouri, you must understand I only meant to do what was right.”

“And make some easy coin in the process?”

Salimon cringed. “It—it was just that—”

“These are the details you should explain at length when asked. Now you must excuse me, Master Salimon, as I have many other engagements today.”

“I beg you, Lady Madouri—”

“That will be all.”

The guards immediately stepped forward and helped their guest to rise and make his way to the door. Politely, even gently, but no less firmly for that. Ravana had taken pains to ensure that her House Guard understood the distinction.

When the door clicked shut behind them, leaving herself and Yancey alone in the chamber, she allowed her expression to descend into a flat stare at the wall.

“He is a small business owner,” she said aloud after nearly a minute of silence. “A lifelong resident of Madouris. Born and raised.”

“Yes, my Lady,” Yancey replied. “A bootmaker. His shop is not large, but rather successful.”

“And that,” she whispered, “due to one of the business loans furnished by my treasury, before which he was a cobbler in a factory. I consigned everyone I loved to the headsman to rescue this province, Yancey. Opened my House’s wealth and resources to improve my people’s lives to the greatest extent I could—and with amazing success, if I may boast, in only two short years. Now, here I find one of the most direct recipients of my generosity, paid in my family’s blood, trying to stab me in the back. For a handful of doubloons. I begin to understand why the powers of this world still insist on resorting to torture, despite centuries of accumulated knowledge to show how ineffective the tactic is. There’s an appeal to the simplicity, is there not? If the subject won’t comply, hurt them until they do.”

“Torture is indeed an extremely effective tool for securing compliance, my Lady,” the Butler said diffidently. “It is sadly counterproductive when used to acquire valid information.”

“And even so,” Ravana hissed, her fingers tensing into claws on the arms of her chair, “it is tempting. So very tempting, when the subject in question is an infernally presumptuous ingrate.”

Two heartbeats of silence ensued before Yancey discreetly cleared his throat. “Veilwin and Barnes have both successfully attached magical traces to the priority targets Barnes’s spirits identified. The ‘bigger fish,’ as he put it. Lord-Captain Arivani also has his best men observing their movements. It is my understanding, my Lady, that those are the anticipated sources of intelligence on his Holiness’s connections in the province. Mr. Salimon’s detention is more designed to provide a pretext for your upcoming declaration, and convince the Archpope that we have failed to identify his true agents. If we do not truly expect to garner worthwhile information from Mr. Salimon… Strictly speaking, it would seem not to matter what befalls him here.”

With a Butler’s customary subtle precision, he managed to express the suggestion without voicing it directly.

Ravana continued staring at the wall in silence for another long moment before very slowly shaking her head. “Such self-indulgent brutality all too quickly becomes a habit, Yancey, and I have seen firsthand what that habit in a leader does to a realm. No… I fear I have already indulged myself to excess, here. The wretch will be handled with all due care and then thrown back to his sad little life when he’s no longer useful. Perhaps that, at least, will teach him some caution, if not virtue.”

“Very good, my Lady.”

She could not fault him for the suggestion, for all that it ran against her practices and stated policies for the running of her province. In truth, this entire interview had been unnecessary; nothing about Salimon’s case had required her personal attention, and indeed only took time away from the actually professional interrogators she employed, not that she expected them to get anything useful from him anyway. All of this was simply because she’d wanted to look him in the eye, see the man and hear his excuses for aiding the enemies of his Duchess. Ravana had expected nothing from him, and still come away disappointed. From Yancey’s point of view, it was a purely logical extrapolation to suggest she might wish to vent her ire on the little toad of a man—and Yancey, of course, would not venture an opinion on the subject one way or another. Whatever his mistress chose to do, he would see done with the greatest efficiency.

Ravana did not have that luxury. As a leader, she had to make better choices. The monster within her that eternally snarled for vengeance must remain leashed, until there were more fitting targets upon whom to loose it.

And in fact, only for minutes longer. She was about to declare total war upon a worthy target indeed.

“Time?” she asked crisply, rising from the chair.

“The reporters you invited have begun gathering, and will be ready when you appear to deliver your address,” he replied smoothly, the Butler of course not needing to consult any messengers or even a watch to know the exact status of any project within his domain. “As you requested, my Lady, only journalists from Madouris have been summoned, though we have not limited the conference to representatives of papers under your direct control. The paladins will begin delivering their own speeches within the hour.”

“I hope they took my advice,” she murmured.

“It appears so, my Lady. All three will make their announcements in a staggered order, to avoid drawing attention from one another, and build political momentum.”

“Good. And we have magical oversight to notify us when the last paladin announcement is complete?”

“Yes, my Lady. Veilwin expressed her displeasure at the need for her to remain sober for the duration.”

“She will live, provided she does not antagonize her employer much further.” Timing would be important; Ravana had suggested to the paladins that they would achieve a greater effect by chaining their formal announcements one after another rather than delivering them simultaneously, and she planned to launch her own as soon as they were finished to further extend the chain, and avoid stepping on their toes. Against the right kind of foe, a rapid succession of blows could be more devastating than a single more powerful one.

Ravana swept toward the door and her much anticipated date with full-scale conflict, but hesitated with her hand upon the latch. “And Yancey, make arrangements for me to have a fencing tutor during my vacations from Last Rock. Professor Ezzaniel believes I am not without talent, and… I suspect this seething desire to pummel the crap out of someone is going to become a recurring part of my life. I should cultivate a properly graceful means of expressing it. As befits a Lady.”


She emerged in a split-second surge of darkness as usual, and immediately had multiple destructive spells aimed at her. For a given value of “immediately;” Natchua had the dual advantages of faster-than-human reflexes and preparation, since only she had known in advance the precise timing of her arrival. Infernal countermeasures were already sizzling at her fingertips before the stepped out of the shadows onto the rooftop, and had assembled mental preparations to neutralize or reverse every hex the other warlocks conjured before they could attack.

But they didn’t. After a tense second, most of them released their gathered energies, and the few holdouts kept their spells in a suspended low-power state. Natchua, frankly, was disappointed. Her life would be so much simpler if they would just throw down honestly so she could put a final end to all this. And yet, here they were.

“Only you weirdos would hold a picnic on a rooftop in Veilgrad at midwinter,” she snorted, folding her arms and looking down her nose at the assembled Black Wreath.

“Like it?” Embras Mogul asked cheerfully, gesturing around. They had dragged—or more likely shadow-jumped—a wooden table and several benches up here, and even set up a grill. None of the warlocks appeared to be cold, which meant they hadn’t actually done any serious infernomancy, as that would destabilize most commercially available arcane heating charms. No, it appeared they were simply relaxing in the open air, working their way through a big cauldron of mulled cider and sandwiches made of grilled sausage and a horrible local specialty called sauerkraut which Natchua didn’t care to be within smelling range of. “I’m surprised more people don’t do this, what with modern warmth charms. Hot food and cold air make for a delightful contrast! Rupa, get the Duchess a sandwich.”

“The Duchess can get her own fucking sandwich,” retorted a Punaji woman before taking a long draught of cider.

“No, thank you,” Natchua sniffed. “I don’t suppose the owners of this building even know you’re up here?” She was answered by a variety of disdainful expressions. For once, and for whatever reason—likely having to do with eating and drinking—the Wreath had their hoods down. They were a collection of humans of various ethnicities; Natchua wasn’t sure she liked seeing all their faces this way. Wiping them all out would feel easier if they could be dismissed as formless robed mooks.

“Really, how many flat rooftops are there in Veilgrad?” Mogul retorted. “They’re practically asking for it. We should demand payment for clearing off the snow; that’s exactly why they build those steep gabled roofs around here, you know.”

“I guess I can’t fault your inventiveness when it comes to finding new ways to get my attention.”

“Yes, that’s right, Natchua,” he replied with gratuitously heavy-handed sarcasm. “Everything we do revolves around you.”

She folded her arms, refusing to rise to that bait. “Well, here I am. So go ahead, Mogul, do your gloating. Don’t hold back, let’s get it all out of your system up front.”

He actually hesitated with a sandwich halfway to his mouth, staring at her through slightly narrowed eyes. Several of his fellow cultists were regarding her with similar expressions, those who weren’t scowling outright.

“Gloating,” Mogul said slowly, rolling the word around as if to taste it.

“Are you really going to make me start?” Natchua demanded. “You know what, fine, whatever gets this done with faster. I’m big enough to admit when I’ve been beaten. So congratulations, you called my big bluff. I’ll own up to it: the thought genuinely never crossed my mind that you would actually grovel in public. I wouldn’t have. So, you win. And now I’m stuck with you freaks, because no, my word means too much for me to renege on a public promise, even to…you. I’m sure I have many long years of you finding ways to torture me with it to look forward to.”

She grimaced right back at their scowls, only belatedly noting that some of those scowls had melted into expressions of confusion. Natchua glanced back and forth at the displeased warlocks whose picnic she had crashed; now, for some reason, they mostly looked bemused or suspicious, as if trying to figure out what she was up to. Mogul himself was just staring at her with a curious blank face, sandwich still held halfway to his mouth.

“Well?” she prompted. “That’s it. If you were hoping for more, you’re gonna be waiting a long time. I just said I’m not willing to humiliate myself any—”

Natchua broke off again as Embras Mogul burst out laughing, then just stared while he appeared to fall into outright hysterics. Dropping his sandwich, the high priest of Elilial staggered into the picnic table, only haphazardly managing to slide onto a seat rather than tumbling to the frozen rooftop along with his spilled bread and sausage. Even the other Wreath were watching him with varying degrees of confusion and alarm, Vanessa stepping closer and reaching out but then hesitating, as if unsure how to deal with this.

“Does he often…?” Natchua gestured vaguely at the cackling warlock. Nobody answered her, except with a few spiteful stares.

“Y-y’see,” Mogul wheezed, removing his omnipresent hat and tossing it carelessly down on the table. “You see what she’s doing, though?”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Natchua huffed. “What is it you think I’m doing now?”

“Not you,” he snorted, his laughter cutting off as abruptly as it had begun. “No, Natchua my dear, you pegged me right in the first place. I’m right there with you; I’d sooner chew off my own foot, if the alternative was making a degrading public spectacle of myself. Only a direct command from the Dark Lady could make me even consider such a thing.” He bared his teeth at her in an expression very much like a fox in the kind of trap that could only be escaped by the means he’d just suggested. “And so it was.”

Natchua narrowed her own eyes, feeling a chill down her back that was unrelated to the cold air. She had suspected at the time, having felt that moment of Elilial’s dark attention in the moment before the man had buckled to the ground. “I really don’t know how you can still trust her enough to do such a thing, after all that’s happened. Much less why she would see any advantage in humiliating you like that.”

“Why, that’s exactly what I just realized,” he replied, grinning bleakly up at her. “It’s a classic trick—but then, simple tricks are the best tricks. If you want mutually hostile people to get along, you give them a mutual enemy. And for people who are all, to varying degrees, averse to being ordered around, there’s no more tempting enemy than someone in authority over them. You see?”

She did see, but found nothing to say, for once.

“I don’t believe it,” one of the warlocks growled.

“That’s too…” Vanessa trailed off mid-sentence, as though unsure what she’d actually meant to say.

“It fits, though,” Mogul said, still staring up at Natchua. “It has to be said there’s not a shred of trust here, nor even amity. You know, what with all the murder and torture and ambushing and all.”

“I don’t believe you,” Natchua managed at last, echoing one of Mogul’s own followers. “I can believe Elilial would be cruel enough to make you humiliate yourself, but not for no point. There’s no reason she would care enough whether we get along. There’s no reason we need to.”

“I think you know better,” he replied, his stare again gone flat and expressionless. “There’s a new paradigm brewing; none of us know what the new order will shape up to be. But the Dark Lady isn’t one to just let things happen without applying her own finger to the scales. And obviously, whatever plans she has are better off with her cult and her paladin able to work together.”

Wind whistled over the rooftop, carrying with it the sounds and smells of the bustling city laid out around them.

“So,” Natchua said at last, “you do know about that.”

“Oh, come on, why did you think we were here?” he scoffed, spreading his arms. “Our only business with you should have been a quick and lethal ambush. But we had to know, Natchua. What other question could there have been, except why. In all of recorded history, even we have no hint there was ever a Hand of Elilial. And she chooses an enemy? Someone who did to us what you did? Of all the possible prospects, why you?”

It would be so easy to seize that opportunity to say something spiteful, or simply deflect the question, but something stayed her impulse. They were all starting at her with an intensity which, if it didn’t exactly bring down the masks, said this question was absolutely sincere, and pivotal. That was only understandable, even if she couldn’t see the raw aspect of their faces. Natchua had been trying to pay attention to this feeling, and while she didn’t feel she’d made much progress in understanding it, she had learned to at least recognize these moments of decision, when an unknown impulse prompted her to do something that seemed irrational. So far, these had turned out better for her than she had any right to expect. This time, it pushed her to simply be straightforward with the Black Wreath.

“She said I was cunning,” Natchua answered him, fixing her eyes on Embras’s and ignoring the intent stares of the other warlocks—and not, of course, relaxing her defenses for an instant, just on the chance one of them got agitated and then impulsive. “Apparently the archdemons were her equivalent of a paladin, and with them all gone and Vadrieny effectively against her, she needed something to fill the gap. It didn’t make sense to me why an avowed enemy was a good choice, either, but…here we are. Cunning, she said. I got the impression your cult has been disappointing in that regard. Clever and deceitful rather than cunning. She spent some time lecturing me about the difference.”

She hesitated, once more glancing around; Mogul remained expressionless, but some of the other warlocks were starting to look angry again. On that, she couldn’t exactly blame them.

“As for what’s really going on, I couldn’t tell you,” Natchua snorted. “The whole thing was a crock of bullshit. I have no idea what her game is, but honestly. Cunning? I know my faults, thank you, and I’m not stupid enough to swallow that. I’m impulsive and lucky, that’s all. Whatever game Elilial is playing, I guess she didn’t feel the need to bring you into the loop either, and I’m afraid I can’t help. Cunning, my gray ass.”

“Hm,” a bearded man grunted from one side of the group, shifting his eyes to stare pensively out over Veilgrad’s skyline rather than at her.

“I know that grunt,” Mogul said with a sigh, turning back to him. “That is the grunt of forbidden wisdom. Well, come on, Bradshaw. Let’s not keep us in suspense.”

Bradshaw’s eyes focused on him, and then he glanced again at Natchua. “Are we giving explanations to the…her, Embras?”

“The her has deigned to be forthcoming with us,” Mogul acknowledged. “And it does seem we are stuck with one another for the time being. Let’s hear what you know.”

The other warlock’s nostrils flared once in a silent sigh which connoted annoyance, but he did turn back to Natchua. “What you did at Ninkabi was…or at least, could be interpreted as a ritual called an Offering of Cunning. Someone who out-maneuvers the Black Wreath in open combat and then…” He paused, gritting his teeth so hard the expression was visible even behind his beard. “Well, the spirit of the thing calls for withdrawing at that point before delivering a deathblow. You technically didn’t kill anyone with your own hands, though your next actions certainly were the next worst thing. For whatever reason, it seems the Dark Lady chose to interpret that as an Offering of Cunning. The reward is a personal audience with her, in which the successful offerer is allowed to ask questions and receive truthful answers.”

“That’s the first I ever heard of that nonsense,” she assured him. “I really was just trying to kill you and ruin her day.”

“Yes, well, the last time we got an Offering of Cunning was two years ago and at that time, none of us had heard of it, either, including Embras. Understand that for most of the Wreath’s history, our core operations have been concentrated on this continent, as with most of the Pantheon cults. And that led to a dramatic change in the nature of our operations a century ago, as the Wreath was damaged almost as badly as the Empire during the Enchanter Wars.”

“I didn’t know you fought in the Enchanter Wars,” Natchua admitted, beginning to be intrigued in spite of herself.

“Ugh,” Vanessa grunted, folding her arms.

“Oh, I assure you our forebears did their level best to stay out of that mess,” Mogul said wryly. “Unfortunately, other parties taking advantage of the chaos took their own toll. The Wreath’s leadership at the time was entirely wiped out by… Well, actually, your friend Kheshiri could tell you that story far better than I, as she was neck-deep in it.”

“You lost the right to complain about Kheshiri when you let her out of her bottle in the first place.”

“I have to give you that one,” he agreed. “Anyway, your pardon, Bradshaw. Please continue.”

“The point,” said Bradshaw, “is that the Wreath keeps a mostly oral tradition; few of our secrets were ever written down. That loss of important personnel cost us a great deal of our magical and ritual knowledge, and so the Wreath subsequently pivoted from a largely mystical to a mostly political organization. A lot of its more esoteric knowledge was left lost. After the battle at Tiraas two years ago when we were abruptly reminded of the Offering of Cunning, I’ve been focusing on digging up what I can of the Wreath’s past mystical traditions. Ironically, the best sources now are hidden archives of the Pantheon cults recording their various observations. It’s been slow, but I have turned up a number of fascinating things.”

“One of which you just recognized,” she said.

“The grunt of forbidden wisdom,” Mogul said solemnly. “Go on, Bradshaw, lay it on us.”

“I know of cases like yours,” Bradshaw explained, now studying Natchua through narrowed eyes, his stare more analytical than angry. “Not exactly like it; I’ve seen no record of the Dark Lady gifting someone the way she did you and that Masterson boy. But the old Wreath used to deliberately do a similar thing, using the auspices of greater djinn. Actually that practice had fallen by the wayside long before the Enchanter Wars, as it was more risky than rewarding. Given the kinds of people who’d be selected for a task like that, the circumstances in which the risk was considered warranted and what usually happens when a greater djinn is invoked, it was mostly a recipe for losing key personnel exactly when they were needed most. When it did work, though, the warlock could gain, all in one moment, vast knowledge of the infernal.”

“Sure, no great mystery there,” Natchua said with a shrug. “Obviously a more powerful warlock is more useful.”

“It wasn’t about power,” Bradshaw said irritably. “It has never been our way to go head-to-head with our enemies. Even if we weren’t heavily outnumbered in every contest, we serve the goddess of cunning. And cunning was always the point. A person who was abruptly gifted a vast command of infernomancy would usually become almost preternaturally devious. Able to think faster than any of their foes, taking actions that seemed nonsensical at the time but always seemed to work out to their advantage.”

That, finally, brought Natchua up short. She narrowed her own eyes to slits, and at last nodded grudgingly. “…go on?”

“Subjective physics,” the one called Rupa said thoughtfully. “What’s that old expression, Hiroshi, the one the Salyrites like to use?”

“Magic,” replied a man with Sifanese features in a soft tone, “is data processing.”

“That’s basic magical theory,” Vanessa agreed. “Magic isn’t about power; the power comes from mundane universal principles. Magic is…information. It bridges the gap between what conscious minds can conceive and sub-atomic phenomena, and then performs the vast calculations necessary to produce physical effects based on ideas.”

Bradshaw nodded. “If you already have the right personality type…say, an aptitude for lateral thinking, that probably wouldn’t manifest well before you received the gift. Would I be right in guessing your antics mostly caused you embarrassment and trouble before your first encounter with the Dark Lady, Natchua?”

She managed not to cringe at the forcible reminder of her behavior during her first years at Last Rock. “That’s…not inaccurate.”

“Some people are just dumb,” Bradshaw continued, raising an eyebrow. “Or thoughtless, or overly aggressive, or any number of other things. But sometimes, people who act unpredictably or unwisely are just trying to extrapolate too much from their surroundings. Sometimes, if gifted with a great deal of magic, the gaps are filled in. They start to draw information from sources even they aren’t consciously aware of, and process it faster and in ways most people can’t. Their actions appear random, but they are instinctively led by…magic. Data processing.”

“Huh,” she said, blinking. “I guess…people with odd magical mutations do exist. Tellwyrn sort of collects them. November, Fross, Iris…”

“Yes, I’m sure you’d like to think of yourself as a unique and beautiful snowflake,” Bradshaw said with a disdainful sneer, “but no, I’m not talking about anything so interesting. It’s simply one possible effect of being suddenly inundated with magical knowledge the way you were, and it explains your subsequent pattern of blundering and failing your way into ever-greater success better than…well, anything.”

“Why am I just now hearing about this?” Mogul demanded.

Bradshaw turned back to him with a shrug. “It’s just a theory, Embras. Another possibility is that she hasn’t actually succeeded at anything and is being used by more powerful figures for their own ends. This Duchess business is definitely an example of that. And after all, it’s usually wise to look for mundane explanations before exotic ones. We don’t know, but…given her description of what the Dark Lady said, it’s at least a possibility.”

“If our fate is to be tied to hers anyway,” Hiroshi said softly, “perhaps it behooves us not to allow rival powers to manipulate her too badly.”

To judge by their displeased expressions, none of the other warlocks were enthusiastic about that idea. But no one offered a word of rebuttal; the fact was, he was right. The same held true from Natchua’s perspective. As little as she liked any of these…people, she had given her word, in public. As long as they were willing to toe the line, they now had the right to demand her protection.

She and Embras studied each other in mutual reluctance. Despite the animosity here, this was the situation they were in. They could either struggle further, or try to make the best of it.

“Okay,” Natchua said grudgingly, “I see what you mean. She is a manipulative one, huh. Why are you so eager to be jerked around like this?”

“You’ve never devoted yourself to a cause greater than your own life, have you,” he replied, and it wasn’t really a question. “I could explain, but the result would only be another argument with no winner. You’ll come to understand in time, or you won’t.”

“That’s super fucking helpful, thank you.”

Mogul grinned unrepentantly. “Well, then… What now?”

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10 – 18

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“Thanks for letting me drag you out here,” said Embras. “This is a last-minute change in the schedule, based on an idea I had scarcely an hour ago, otherwise I’d have given you more warning.”

“Not at all,” Hiroshi replied with his customary unflappable calm. “It’s not as if any distance is an impediment when one can shadow-jump. And I quite enjoy the chance to stretch my legs a bit, and especially see new sights. Not that I’m not fond of Puna Shankur, but it’s pleasant to see more of the Empire.”

He made no mention of the fact that as his cult leader, Embras Mogul could send him anywhere on a whim with neither apology nor explanation.

“For instance,” Hiroshi added, nodding at the bustling crowd teeming in and around the double doors of the structure across the street from them, “what is going on in there?”

“Why, like the sign says,” Embras replied easily, “that’s the Mathenon Stock Exchange.”

“We can both read, Embras,” Bradshaw said wryly. “That doesn’t mean either of us has a clue what that is. If it were any other neighborhood in any other city, I’d think that was some kind of sporting event, the way those fellows are riled up.”

“It is peculiar to see men in business attire shouting at one another and drinking in public,” Hiroshi added, glancing once more over his shoulder at the heaving crowd as they passed further down the street.

“It’s the most ingenious thing, really,” Embras explained, smiling darkly. “First, trading companies and other businesses are organized so that shares of them, or stocks, can be sold as tradeable commodities. For instance, if, say, Falconer Industries sold stocks, we could just wander into that building back there and buy a share for whatever they go for, and be the part owner of one of the Empire’s most successful operations.”

“Does FI do this?” Hiroshi asked in a tone of fascination.

“Hell if I know,” Embras said glibly. “I’m only this up to date on the practice because, as you may have heard, I suffer a minor obsession with the Vernisites and their various schemes. But anyway, the whole idea of a stock exchange is first to divide a business into pieces which can be traded, and then to trade them. Once these imaginary slices of ownership become commodities, the laws of supply and demand come into play. People can make—or lose—money in trading them back and forth, and the companies in question can improve their fortunes by manipulating the market to increase their perceived value.”

“That is the barmiest thing I ever heard of,” Bradshaw snorted, shaking his head. “I give it a year before the government shuts that down.”

“It is rather ingenious, as you say,” Hiroshi mused.

“And so very Vernisite,” Embras added. “A whole lot of lies, nonsense and legal fictions committed to paper, used to create money out of thin air by manipulating human nature. I’m telling you, boys, as I’ve told you time and again, it doesn’t matter how many people Avei kills, Naphthene drowns or Omnu pompously lectures: it’s Verniselle who truly embodies the rotten, self-serving heart of the Pantheon.”

Bradshaw sighed. “Anyway. You were going to explain a bit more about our business here? I thought the matter in Puna Shankur was rather urgent.”

“Yes, of course. Hang a right here, lads,” Embras said, turning the corner onto a street which immediately proved itself to be much quieter. Not that there was much activity of any kind, with sunset fading rapidly into twilight. Mathenon was a very genteel place, or at least most parts of it were. Not very much happened after dark. “Before meeting with Hiroshi’s Sifanese expert, we’re going to drop in on an information broker who specializes in the diabolic. If anyone on this continent happens to have tips on how to tangle with a kitsune using infernal means, she will.”

“And how likely is that, do you think?” Bradshaw asked.

“Not very likely at all. In fact, not likely enough to be worth the trip on its own merits; I have a secondary agenda here. Our current troubles merely provide a perfect excuse to put it into play. I’ll explain more on the way back, fellas; we don’t want to be late to meet with Hiroshi’s friend. I already delayed to ask Vanessa if she wanted to come along. She didn’t.”

“Vanessa is busy wrangling our annoyed contacts in Calderaas…ah,” Bradshaw nodded, his pensive expression clearing. “I see. So this is where she scurried off to. I confess it didn’t really occur to me to wonder. Is this necessary, Embras?”

“Necessary? Probably not. But useful, definitely.”

He fell silent as a man lounging against a gate up ahead straightened, turning to face them and reaching into his coat. A soft footstep sounded behind the three men, another individual materializing out of an alley.

None of them faltered so much as a step. Embras held out a hand, palm up, and a seething orb of fire sprang into being above it, casting a sharp orange glow over the scene. Hiroshi flicked his wrists, two wands sliding neatly out of his sleeves and into his hands. Bradshaw simply walked on, acknowledging none of this.

To his credit, the burly man in the slightly shabby coat ahead of them hesitated only fractionally before turning his motion into a cough smothered behind a fist. “Pleasant evening, gents,” he said politely, tipping his hat.

“Right back atcha,” Embras replied cheerfully as they filed past him.

Mathenon’s founding, two thousand years ago, had been a mistake and a cause of much misfortune for everyone involved. Situated on the plains between the Golden Sea and the Wyrnrange, its location had nothing to recommend it except proximity to the Old Road and to the only significant source of fresh water in the area. The mountains provided scant ore and timber, there were few available native animals, and while the prairie did yield good crops if properly cultivated, it had been centuries before the then-kingdom of Mathenon had built up its forces enough to adequately protect its farmland from tribes of centaurs and plains elves. The city’s only true asset had been the road, the primary trading route between the dwarven kingdoms and the human lands in the south.

Two millennia later, Mathenon was known as the Gilded City—or, less charitably, as the richest place in the world that had done nothing to deserve it. With nothing to cling to but trade, the Mathenites had hurled themselves into commerce with a vengeance, and by this point in history had built up an empire of their own, whose reach exceeded that of Tiraas, even as it paid its taxes to the Silver Throne. Here were all the greatest guild halls, the trading syndicates, the merchant conglomerates and the banks which serviced all of them. The wealth of the world flowed through Mathenon, a goodly portion of which never flowed back out. And with little agriculture and no manufacturing to speak of, almost everyone living in the city was either involved in commerce, or in a less financially privileged class who made a living servicing the bankers and merchants in whatever ways they required. It was a city that infamously produced nothing, and took its cut of everything.

Unsurprisingly, it was also a thriving haven for those who profited less directly from the peccadilloes of the rich. Mathenon was unquestionably a stronghold of Verniselle, but the disciples of Eserion had a much heavier presence here than a city of its size could ordinarily support. To them, three men in well-tailored suits strolling the streets without guards as dark fell would seem at a glance like a walking gift basket.

But the Black Wreath did not pay the Unwary Tax. In most places, at most times, they would simply have avoided confrontations via stealth. Once in a while, though, Embras Mogul took a personal satisfaction in seeing agents of the Thieves’ Guild back down.

At the next intersection, Embras crossed the street to take a left down an even narrower avenue, this one lined with expensive houses behind walled gardens and lit by fairy lamps in elaborate brass sconces, which levitated three yards above the sidewalks, unsupported by poles. There was a grassy median down the center of the street, dotted with immaculately trimmed dogwood trees, each protected behind a wrought-iron fence topped with chrome accents. The whole neighborhood screamed of wealth.

“And here we are,” Embras murmured aloud, slowing as they came abreast of an open gate. The house beyond was quiet, but all its windows blazed with light; clearly there was a social event in progress despite the hour, but it was a demure sort of party, as befit the neighborhood. He turned at the path, Bradshaw and Hiroshi trailing silently behind, and strolled up to the house’s richly carved walnut door.

A servant stood at the top step by the door, dressed in a suit that was just similar enough to a Butler’s uniform to be evocative without being close enough to provoke the Service Society—which was a thing no sensible person did. She regarded them calmly from behind thick darkened glasses, which seemed incongruous at this hour.

“Good evening,” Embras said politely to her, tipping his hat. “I’m afraid we’re not expected.”

“I’m afraid you are not invited, Mr. Mogul,” she replied. “Specifically, and by name. Goodbye.”

“Now, now, let’s be neighborly to one another,” he replied with a cheerful grin. “A fellow deserves a chance to plead his case to the lady of the house, don’t you think?”

“What I think is that my job is, in part, to dissuade undesirables, a category in which you are emphatically included. You can spare me the charm, sir; you’re not charming enough to come between me and a steady wage.”

“Well, that seems to be all the grounds we need to reach an agreement,” he said smoothly, producing a decabloon from within his pocket and bouncing it on his palm.

The woman regarded him in stony silence for a moment, then reached up and pulled her glasses down the bridge of her nose. Her eyes had golden irises which glowed in the dimness, with vertically slitted pupils.

“Sir,” she said with a cold smile, “are you attempting to bribe me?”

“Nothing so clumsy,” Embras replied, now tossing the coin back and forth between his hands. “There’s no reason the mistress need suspect you were paid to let us in, when she’ll find it perfectly believable that I threatened, enchanted, or otherwise coerced my way past you. Isn’t that right?”

“You’re right in that regard—I can hardly be expected to fight off the likes of you.” She glanced behind him at the other two men. “The same cannot be said of those inside the house, Mogul. You realize she’s just going to throw you right back out again.”

“That, my dear lady, is between her and me,” he said, holding up the decabloon between forefinger and thumb.

Faster than a flicker of lightning, her tongue lashed out, seizing the coin and drawing it back into her mouth. She leaned over to turn the door latch, and pulled it wide for them, smiling ironically.

“Enjoy your visit, gentlemen. I will see you again very soon.”

“Much obliged,” Embras said lightly, stepping past her. Bradshaw and Hiroshi followed him in, both nodding politely to the doorkeeper. She watched them with that same knowing smile, her dark glasses once again in place, and shut the door gently behind them.

The soft sounds of conversation and pianoforte music resonated through the marble-appointed foyer in which they stood. A staircase lined with deep scarlet carpet curved up to a landing ahead of and above them; to their left was a wide doorway, blocked only by velvet drapes, from which the sounds of the party could be heard.

“Good evening, gentlemen,” said the only person visible, a hethelax demon wearing a suit oddly tailored to fit over his armor plates. “I would offer to take your coats, but you will not be staying long.”

“That’s a likely outcome, yes,” Embras said with a sunny smile. “She’s in the salon, I assume?”

“Yes,” the demon said evenly. “I would advise you to depart rather than seek her out.”

“I appreciate the advice,” Embras replied, tipping his hat and turning to push aside the curtains, his fellow warlocks following on his heels.

The salon was large and displayed understatedly expensive taste in its furnishings. It was also full, occupied by over a dozen people whose attire and bearing spoke of wealth. They stood and sat, chatting, sipping glasses of sparkling wine and nibbling canapes, looking for all the world like any gaggle of rich people enjoying a house party, apart from a few unusual elements. Several were obviously half-demons; one young woman had finned ears and slowly writhing tendrils instead of hair, another had eyes that were featureless pits of crimson flame, and a man near the door had patterns of scales across his cheeks and forehead. There was also a katzil demon curled up asleep in front of the fireplace. In one corner stood a pianoforte, being softly played by a female hethelax. Her clawed fingers made faint clicking noises on the keys, just barely loud enough to be heard beneath the music.

“No.”

The three had hardly made it in before being addressed by the lady of the house, who had risen from her chair near the fire to point imperiously at them. She was a young woman, well short of thirty, with elaborately coiffed dark hair and a pale complexion, attired in a gown in the latest fashion which emphasized her figure despite its modest cut.

“You are unwelcome in my house, Embras Mogul,” she said sharply, the music and conversation falling silent around them.

Embras swept off his hat and bowed deeply. “Be that as it may, it is a genuine pleasure, Madeleine, as always. I hoped I might implore you to—”

“You might not,” she snapped. “Leave, before I am forced to insist.”

He straightened, his expression growing serious. “Whatever you may think of me—of us—I do respect your wishes, and would not have bothered you if it were not important. We have an urgent need, Madeleine.”

“Good,” she said flatly. “May it devour you. Somewhere else.”

“I understand your dislike,” he pressed on, “though I do believe, as I’ve said, that it is born of a misunderstanding. Perhaps if you would deign to do business with me as with any of these fine people, we might make progress toward finding common…ground…”

He trailed off as she turned her back on him, stepping over the sleeping katzil to lift an ancient-looking oil lamp from its perch upon the mantle. She turned back to face them, languidly dragging her fingers along the lamp’s curved surface.

The violet smoke that poured forth made the room smell of myrrh and jasmine. It streamed from the lamp in an oddly twisted cyclone, resolving itself into the form of a woman with blue skin and aquiline features—at least from the waist up. Below the navel, her body was only a long tendril of smoke, connected to the lamp.

“I am summoned, and have come, as it is agreed,” she intoned, executing an elaborate salaam. “Gracious lady, I beg that you deign to tell this unworthy traveler how she may have the honor of serving you.”

“Qadira,” Madeleine replied, “the Black Wreath has entered my home, despite knowing their presence is unwanted. Embras Mogul, the high priest of Elilial, stands in my salon, having thrice refused my orders to depart. I would have you bear witness to his next actions, that the worlds both above and below may know how he comports himself, lest anyone find themselves holding commerce with a faithless brute where they expected a gentleman.”

“It is indeed a precious gift you bestow upon me, most honored one,” Qadira replied, turning a crafty smile on Embras and his companions. “The eyes of the djinn see all things, in every plane and beyond, but that I may watch firsthand as such as this unfolds will grant me prestige in the esteem of my kin. Again, lady, I am in your debt.”

Madeleine stared at Embras with a faint, smug half-smile; the others assembled in the room watched like an entire rookery of hawks, awaiting a signal to strike. As if alerted by the change in mood, the katzil uncoiled itself, raising its head to sniff the air.

After a very tense moment of heavy silence, Embras Mogul took a deliberate step backward, again tipping his hat to Madeleine. “Well. My apologies for intruding, good lady. Can’t blame a fellow for trying.”

“Not for the first time in our acquaintance,” Madeleine said icily, “you are deeply mistaken.”

“Do enjoy your evening, ladies and gentlemen,” he replied, turning and pushing back through the heavy curtains.

They made their quick way out of the house, not acknowledging the smug looks of the hethelax manservant and half-demon guardian. Bradshaw waited until they were out the gate and two houses back down the street before speaking.

“Well, Embras, since I know you as I do, I’m going to assume that was not as completely pointless as it seemed.”

“In fact, that simply could not have gone better,” Embras said cheerfully. “There was always the risk she’d summon a baerzurg to pummel us, or have that diffident fellow in the impossible suit give it a go, but really, that was remote. Madeleine’s never been one to go in for brutish tactics. Ill-considered and overdramatic, yes, but never barbaric.”

“And?” Bradshaw drawled.

Embras came to a stop, turning to face them. “And now, she has very obligingly gone on record before a djinn, refusing to help the Black Wreath when we came to her in need, hat in hand. Were the girl a hair less aggravated by my presence, I think she’d have thought carefully before doing something so rash, but it’s done now! At issue, gents, is these fence-sitters, of which Madeleine is a prime example.”

“You can’t possibly mean to start hounding every diabolist who’s not part of our organization,” Bradshaw said, frowning. “We’re stretched too thin as it is, Embras. After Tiraas this spring, it’s a challenge to stay on top of the demons and warlocks who need to be put down, in addition to our ongoing major commitments.”

“Of course,” Embras replied. “That policy hasn’t changed; we’re not going to go out of our way to smite anybody who does not absolutely need it. However, matters are careening toward a head, and a lot of these characters are unknowable variables that present a problem. We’re going to have to be ready to bring down Justinian when the alignment comes, and between his holy summoner program and having bloody Kheshiri in his stable of lackeys, he’s proved his willingness to draw resources from even the most deplorable places. Going forward, anyone in the infernal community who is not with us must be assumed to be against us. Take note of tonight’s events, lads, and find opportunities to repeat the performance. We are going to start putting each of these independent operators on the spot. Any time an opportunity arises, or you can create one, force them to declare either their support or opposition, as publicly as possible.”

“Ah,” Hiroshi said, nodding. “To burn away the fog of war with the light of hellfire, leaving no gray area in which Justinian’s creeping fingers can hide.”

“Poetic as always,” Bradshaw noted with a smile. “I hope you’re not proposing to trust all of these outsiders, just because we can coerce them into declaring their support.”

“Trust, no,” Embras replied, “but you know as well as I where their interests fall. That’s why that trick worked on Madeleine, and variants of the same will likely work on the others, even when we’ve used it enough that they start to see it coming. A warlock who betrays his word is hamstrung; the mortal community is too small and the demonic one too vindictive to do business with oathbreakers. If anyone does turn on us, they will pay the price even if we are in no position to extract it ourselves. Now, then! Hiroshi, my thanks for your patience with this little drama. I hope this isn’t going to make us late to meet your friend.”

“Indeed not,” Hiroshi said with a smile. “Uncle will be expecting us at some point this evening after dinner; it is nowhere near late enough to be an imposition, even on the east coast.”

“Splendid! Let’s not drag this out any further, regardless. Lead the way, would you?”

“Of course,” Hiroshi said, bowing. The haze of Elilial’s stealth settled over all of them—not that anyone was nearby, but one never knew who might happen to be looking out a window in time to see three men abruptly shadow-jump out of a public street.

Following the dimensional tunnel bored by Hiroshi, who knew their destination best, they emerged in a dirty, dark and cluttered alley. All three immediately set off for the lighted street at the end of it, unfazed by their squalid environs. Such alleys were the Wreath’s bread and butter, in terms of moving around cities undetected.

Night had fully fallen over the city into which they emerged, but this area showed no signs of going to sleep. Lights blazed forth on all sides, illuminating bustling crowds pushing through narrow, winding streets that made as stark a contrast to the orderly layout of Mathenon as their shabby cheerfulness did to its discreet ostentation.

Puna Shankur itself would be a contrast to most Imperial cities, lacking their organization, wealth, and omnipresent law enforcement, not to mention being lit by lamps and torches nearly as commonly as fairy lights. Punaji territory in general was wilder, poorer, and yet more festive, even in cities as far south as this one, where the locals were forced by the climate to bundle up more than the Punaji in general cared to. For that and other reasons, Puna Shankur was one of the less ethnically consistent outposts of Rajakhan’s realm.

This particular neighborhood was a perfect example of that; brown Punaji faces were less common among the crowd than paler complexions accompanied by tilted eyes. Embras and Bradshaw would have stuck out if not for the layer of misdirection they maintained; Onkawi and Stalweiss were almost totally absent from the passersby, and only here and there could the odd Tiraan be seen. The people here hailed from a dozen nations, and the signs were in nearly as many languages, but on the Tiraan continent such neighborhoods were often referred to as Sifantowns. In other parts of the world, this racial mix might have met each other with swords and wands drawn, but when surrounded by another domineering culture of people who couldn’t even tell them apart, those from that general region tended to cluster together. It was an imperfect familiarity, but it would do.

Hiroshi led the way down the bustling market street, then down a quieter one lined with ramshackle apartments rising four and five stories above. The streets here were scarcely wider than alleys, though most were better cared for by their inhabitants, and continued to wend this way and that with no apparent plan. Their guide strode confidently, however, well familiar with the territory.

“Is it safe to involve your uncle in this?” Bradshaw asked as they walked. “Most of us prefer to keep family out of the Lady’s business. Much healthier for them, unless they’re already part of the faith.”

“I would prefer that he not learn just whose business this is,” Hiroshi agreed. “Uncle knows only that I am bringing two friends who have questions about the kitsune. And he is not a relation of mine; everyone in the neighborhood calls him that. He is the man most dedicated to preserving the traditions of the old country in this one, and makes sure the Sifanese children who grow up in Puna Shankur know who we are, and where we came from. In fact, he seemed delighted at the opportunity to share his knowledge with interested parties who are not of Sifanese blood.”

He stopped before the door of a three-story structure that seemed positively squat beside its towering neighbors, and rapped, murmuring to his companions, “Remember, it is polite to remove your shoes in the entryway.”

“Noted,” Embras replied.

The door opened after only a moment, revealing a young woman with her hair tied back in a silken kerchief. A warm but restrained smile spread across her face.

“Sakamoto Hiroshi. Just look at you, fancy suit and all. Should I be honored that you’re still willing to visit us?”

“You may be as honored or as insulted as pleases you, Kiyoko,” he said, grinning more widely back. “As long as your mother makes those sweet buns of hers, you’ll just have to keep putting up with me.”

“Oh, well played,” she retorted. “Now I have to be the polite and traditional one, which rules out the excellent rejoinder I had about your obsession with my mother’s buns.”

“Does Uncle know you talk to guests this way?” Hiroshi demanded, planting his fists on his hips and glowering in mock outrage.

“Oh, please, you know very well who I learned it from. Come in, Hiroshi, come in. And your friends! Uncle’s expecting you; he’ll be right down.”

After a brief exchange of introductions, which notably did not include anyone’s surname, Embras and Bradshaw found themselves seated on the floor along one side of a low table in the living room. It was arranged in a very Sifanese style, rather bare of furnishings and decorations, but spotlessly clean and everything carefully placed. The sparseness was clearly a deliberate aesthetic, not due to poverty.

Scarcely had they had time to get comfortable when Uncle arrived; Hiroshi immediately rose, and both his companions followed his lead.

Hiroshi’s description had hinted at an older man, and Uncle was definitely that, but rather than the wise old master of archetype, he resembled nothing so much as a blackmith. Despite his gray and receding hair, and the thick lines which nearly hid his eyes, he walked with an unbent spine, and was of an incredibly powerful build, his arms thickly corded with muscle and shoulders almost too broad to comfortably pass through the doorway. He was also, they noted upon rising, rather short, the top of his balding head not quite reaching Embras’s chin.

“Uncle,” Hiroshi said warmly, first bowing, and then stepping over to clasp the old man’s hand. “It’s been too long!”

“And whose fault is that, boy?” Uncle replied, his Tanglish clear but with a distinct accent. “You know my house is always open.”

“And you know how life is, better than I ever will. I only wish I could still run around bare-footed, listening to your stories and sneaking sweet buns.”

“Don’t wish for the past, Hiroshi,” Uncle said, reaching up to pat his shoulder. “You’re right, as you well know. There is only forward. So! I hear your friends are curious about kitsune?” He turned his bright eyes on his guests inquisitively.

“Indeed,” said Hiroshi. “May I present Embras and Bradshaw, neighbors and colleagues of mine.”

“My apologies for the hour, sir,” said Embras, tipping his hat. “I’m very grateful that you would take the time to speak with us.”

“And it’s a pleasure to visit,” Bradshaw added. “Your home is beautiful.”

“Not at all, it’s only a humble place,” Uncle replied, coming to join them at the table. “Please, sit! Be comfortable. Kiyoko will be back soon with tea. I’m always pleased to talk of the old stories, but it’s very rare that someone not of our nation would come seeking to hear them.” He arranged himself cross-legged at the table, staring piercingly at Embras. “And with such a specific question, too. Why are you curious about the fox-goddesses?”

Embras glanced at Hiroshi, who nodded, before replying. “Well…the truth is, our interest is practical, sir. We seem to have drawn the attention of one.”

Uncle’s expression did not visibly change, but he stilled slightly, as if his very breath were held in abeyance. “Here? On this continent?”

“Here,” Embras replied, nodding.

Uncle let out a long, slow breath, shifting his gaze to Hiroshi. “And you are mixed up in this?”

“I did not learn of it until after the fact,” Hiroshi said. “These are my friends, Uncle; I consider their problems my own. But I’ve had no contact with the kitsune.”

“Nor have we, directly,” Embras added. “So far, she seems to be just…playing jokes on us.”

“Mm,” Uncle murmured, his brow creasing further in a deep frown. “And so, you wish to learn of their ways.”

“We would be extremely grateful,” said Bradshaw.

Kiyoko returned at that moment, carrying a tray laden with a pot of fragrant green tea and small cups. There was silence in the room while she poured, her manners notably more conservative in Uncle’s presence. The master of the house gazed thoughtfully at the center of the table throughout her deft performance. Only when she had departed again, and everyone had a cup in hand, did he speak.

“The story of the kitsune is the story of Sifan, and of the world,” he said at last. “Tell me, Embras, Bradshaw… Do you know of dryads?”

“I certainly know they exist,” Embras said, glancing curiously at Bradshaw. “I must say I’ve never considered them any of my business, either.”

“You’re suggesting they’re related to the kitsune?” Bradshaw said, frowning.

“That makes some sense, in fact,” Hiroshi said thoughtfully. “In the stories, kitsune are always seducing people or killing people. Sometimes the same people.”

“Hiroshi always loved the stories,” Uncle said, glancing fondly at the younger man. “But I don’t tell all the stories to the children. There are some it does not profit them to know. But if you have already drown the attention of a fox-goddess, you clearly need not worry about doing so. Very well, then.

“The dryads are spirits of conservation,” he said, his voice taking on the subtly rhythmic quality of a veteran storyteller. “Spirits of life, who dwell where they will and live in balance with nature. They are thus, as the youngest daughters of Naiya, because they were made to compensate for their elder sisters. Before them, the valkyries were spirits of death, and they reaped so vigorously and so well that the gods of the last age conspired to capture them, and expel them from the mortal plane, lest they unmake everything the Elders had wrought. It was this which led to the world we now know, for Vidius found a way to anchor them to the world, and to keep them engaged and able to interact, though in a limited way. For this, Naiya sheltered the young gods of the Pantheon in their war, and refused the slightest succor to her fellow Elders. If not for her aid, the new gods would surely have perished before ascending.

“The valkyries, like their sisters who came after, were created to balance an even older mistake. The eldest daughters of Naiya, the kitsune, are spirits of play, of passion, and of deceit. Even Naiya could not control them, and so she brought forth a land for them to call their own, and persuaded them to claim it at the expense of leaving the rest of the world to its devices. The kitsune are Sifan. They do not rule it; they do not care for such things. They simply exist, and all others who exist there are at their sufferance.”

“That’s fascinating,” Bradshaw breathed. “Did Naiya have another generation of daughters before them?”

“That is not part of the story,” Uncle said sententiously, and Embras hid a smile behind his teacup. That digression about valkyries hadn’t been exactly germane, either; if this wasn’t part of the story, it was because Uncle didn’t know it. “Unique among nations, Sifan has had an uninterrupted history since its founding after the Elder Wars. It has never been conquered, nor even invaded. Though troubled by storms, earthquakes and tsunamis, it has never been ravaged by a disaster so great that it could not recover. This is as it is because the Eternal Kingdom exists at the pleasure of the goddesses of the Twilight Forest. The first humans settled there because the kitsune allowed it. The drow of Nathloss sally forth to raid and keep our people alert because the kitsune find it amusing. The surviving orc clans dwell there because they asked the blessing of the kitsune and were given it, and the Queen’s government would not think to gainsay them, despite the conflict it caused with Tiraas. The dragons come to Sifan to meet because they come often alone, bringing gifts to the kitsune, and have earned a permanent welcome.”

“How amazing,” Embras murmured. “I’m increasingly puzzled that one would leave such a place, if it’s so apparently sacred to them.

“Wouldn’t you?” Uncle countered. “In Sifan, they are the highest, the most mysterious, the most feared, respected, and oddly beloved. The people respect their forest, and do not set foot within except by permission. We hold festivals during which they may walk among us to be honored, and sometimes lay blessings where they think them deserved. And if sometimes a kitsune’s playfulness results in a burned house or field, a daughter transformed into a cow or a son who never returns from the Twilight Forest…” He shrugged fatalistically. “Shou ga nai.”

“If anything,” Hiroshi began, frowning, but Uncle forestalled him with an upraised hand.

“To engage a fox-goddess in her own realm is to be a character in a story of which she is the author. They are older than the gods, and have powers which draw deeply from Naiya—and thus from the universe itself. And what they love above all else is play. Tell me, would you not be bored, staying in the same place for eternity, with nothing to challenge you? The kitsune are not bound to Sifan, but they rarely leave it. They have, however, now and again, and always when offered the chance to do something…interesting.”

“Hmm,” Embras murmured, stroking his chin. “This is altogether not encouraging.”

“You do not fight a kitsune,” Uncle agreed. “She plays with you, until she grows bored…or her toys are too broken to entertain her.”

Bradshaw drew in a deep breath and let it out in a slightly shaky sigh.

Embras, however, suddenly smiled. “Well, then. I simply cannot thank you enough for the insight, sir—I fear I was about to make a very serious mistake.”

“If you have drawn the attention of a fox-goddess,” Uncle said seriously, “there are few paths open to you which are not mistakes.”

“Indeed, I see how that would be so. If you can indulge us a while longer, sir, we would be deeply grateful to learn anything you are able to tell us about their habits. But in the broad strokes…” His smile widened. “I do believe I know, now, what to do.”

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