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Vadrieny sighed, peering around. Morning sun blazed from a gap in the passing clouds; the mountain air was fresh and bracing, the manor grounds quiet but enlivened by birdsong from outside the walls.
There was a total lack of warlocks or demons.
“Well, fine,” the archdemon said in exasperation. “It’s for the best; I feel ridiculous, shouting into thin air.”
“The woman merely said to call,” Shaeine said calmly, not for the first time. “She seemed quite eager to gain your favor; as Trissiny has explained, they have ample reason to be. If there were more to it, she would have said so.”
“And yet, here we are,” Vadrieny said, folding her arms. “Really, I think this is for the best. Trissiny was right about getting involved with the Wreath, and anyway, this just means they’re not listening. I’m more comfortable knowing I’m not being scryed on.”
“Arcane scrying would not be a practical way for them to be notified if you reached out,” Shaeine said, gently placing a hand on the back of Vadrieny’s shoulder. “Your voice is powerfully magical, Vadrieny; it’s far more likely the Wreath can pick up on that.”
“I don’t think I like that better,” Vadrieny replied, frowning deeply.
“You didn’t expect ’em to just pop up right away, didja?” Ruda inquired from her perch on the manor’s steps, pausing to swig from her bottle of rum. “They’ve gotta check out the situation before doing anything. On the subject of which, this whole idea is pointless on account of the Black fucking Wreath aren’t careless.”
“Be that as it may,” said Shaeine, “if Trissiny’s idea does not pan out, communicating with them may still be—”
She broke off at the sudden appearance of a spell circle on the gravel path in front of them. Vadrieny moved between Shaeine and the circle, subtly flexing her claws and spreading her fiery wings. It was a small circle, though, and simple in design, glowing sickly green and marked only with a sparse few runes.
In the next moment, a puff of smoke erupted from it, reeking of sulfur. It cleared swiftly in the light breeze, revealing an imp, which immediately fell to its knees and prostrated itself face-down on the ground.
“Oh, great, wise, talented and undeniably attractive lady!” the imp wailed in a thin, scratchy voice. “It is the greatest honor inflicted upon this humble servant to have the opportunity to humbly service you! Speak your command and it shall be done, preferably not in a fashion that gets me killed!”
Vadrieny blinked her blazing eyes, glancing at Shaeine before returning her gaze to the imp. It was a gangly little creature, rather like a monkey with some features of a goat: horns, hooves, and an elongated face. The fur with which it was covered was greasy and matted into clumps, and the smell that clung to it was of worse than sulfur. Altogether it couldn’t have been more than a foot tall, standing upright.
“You are supposed to help me?” Vadrieny demanded. “This is the assistance the Wreath promised?”
“Not exactly, oh euphonious one!” the imp declaimed. “Your humble servicer’s task is to learn what you need and carry this information back to your legion of warlocks just waiting on tenterhooks to fulfill their duty to your exalted person. Oh, yes, and I’m also supposed to tell you something from them.” He scrambled to his feet and drew himself up as if at attention, tucking on hand behind his back and discreetly coughing into the other. “Ahem. I am to say hello to your paladin and fairy friends and your vampire hostess and express with the greatest respect that no, we will not be charging headlong into an insultingly obvious trap. Honestly, is babysitting the little thug going to be like this every time? Why couldn’t Arvanzideen have been the one who survived?” He trailed off, blinked his beady eyes once, then swallowed heavily and began folding himself back down into a crouch. “I, uh… It just occurred to me I wasn’t supposed to repeat the whole thing verbatim…”
Ruda howled with laughter. “Ah, man, that is priceless. Since saying ‘I told you so’ is gauche and cliché, I’ll have to upgrade my contribution to ‘I fucking told you so!’”
Vadrienly flexed her claws once, very deliberately; the imp let out a shrill squeak and huddled into a ball.
“Very well,” the archdemon said stiffly, reaching out one leg to prod him with a single talon. “That’s fair. I need two things from the Wreath. First, I want to know if they attacked the Imperial barracks in Veilgrad, and if so, what they took.”
“I can do that!” the imp said, peeking up and nodding vigorously. “Yes indeed, I’m your hellspawn, oh wise and mellifluous, not to mention devastatingly good-looking purveyor of all that is—”
“Please stop!” Vadrieny exclaimed. “Second, we have a Rhaazke demon here who needs a way home. I want to know if the Wreath can help with that.”
“You’ve got a what?” Seeming to forget his terror, the imp unfolded himself, blinking owlishly up at her. “What’re you doing with a Rhaazke? We are on the mortal plane, right? How did you do that?”
“Never you mind!” she barked. “Just get me the answers I asked for. Is that clear?”
He snapped to attention again and saluted. “Yes, ma’am, my greatest and most beneficent—“
“And stop that! Simple answers only, please!”
The imp froze, blinked, worked his mouth slowly as if rolling something around his tongue, and finally spoke hesitantly. “Okay.”
“Now, what information are you supposed to get me?” Vadrieny said sharply.
The imp frowned reproachfully. “You wanna know whether the Wreath attacked the Imperial barracks, and how to send a Rhaazke home. Honestly, lady, you don’t gotta be condescending. I’m not stupid. I was given the task of charging headlong into an insultingly obvious trap just to speak with you! I’m somebody trusted!”
Vadrieny snorted musically. “That, or they don’t care if you die.”
“That…well…I…oh.” His posture slowly deflated until he slouched with a hangdog expression. “I guess I’ll just go…deliver your message, then. Bye.”
With another puff of foul-smelling smoke, the demon vanished. A moment later, the tiny summoning circle faded out.
Vadrieny clapped a clawed hand to her face. “Augh. Why do I feel guilty about that?!”
“Because it was mean,” Shaeine said quietly, patting her shoulder again. “And because you are a good person, if a trifle impatient.”
The crunch of feet on gravel announced the arrival of the others from behind Malivette’s vine-encrusted tool shed.
“I liked him,” Juniper announced with a beaming smile. “He was adorable! We didn’t really get to spend any time with the imps in Melaxyna’s place.”
“Imps,” Trissiny said disapprovingly, “are among the better-behaved but less stable species of sentient demons. They tend to leak infernal radiation wherever they are.”
“Actually, that’s debated among scholars,” Fross chimed. “There’s usually a lot of infernal residue where imps have been, but in most such cases there are lots of dead imps where imps have been, and all magical creatures release energy upon expiring. They’re kind of careless, as I understand it.”
“Either way,” said Trissiny, “I am going to bless this space before—”
“Here’s an idea,” Toby interrupted. “Let’s ask our undead hostess if she minds having blessings laid on her property before we do anything. Malivette has already been more patient with us than we have any right to expect. I really don’t think it would be nice of us to create a patch of her front drive that she can’t walk over.”
“Oh. Right.” Trissiny looked abashed. “Right, that’s a good point.”
“Anyway!” Ruda ambled toward them, casually tossing her bottle from hand to hand. “There’s that much out of the way. The day’s still young, and we’re still up shit creek without a clue. Do what you need to with Vette and the driveway, and then let’s go collect Gabe and get on with the next stage of the plan.”
Dijanerad dismissed Lieutenant Vriss with a pat on the shoulder before turning to face the elf stalking across the parade ground toward her, brandishing a piece of parchment. The rest of Squad One trailed after their sergeant in precise formation, with carefully blank expressions.
“Good morning, Locke,” said the captain. “You know, you get increasingly witty the madder you are. Sometimes I feel tempted to tick you off on purpose, just to enjoy the comedy that follows.”
Principia halted a few yards distant, frowning. “Well…thank you?”
“It wasn’t a random comment,” Dijanerad said dryly. “I’ve learned to associate that observation with the expression on your face right now. Let me just ask for formality’s sake: what’s on your mind?”
“May I be allowed to know why my squad is being punished?” Principia demanded, holding out the paper accusingly.
“If you are, nobody informed me,” Dijanerad said calmly. “In which case I am going to scrub my bathtub with someone’s scalp. Yes, yes, fine, I know. I did sign off on those orders, which are not a punishment. It was at the request of your current—ah, what perfect timing. As always, your Grace.”
She saluted the approaching Bishop Shahai, who nodded to her with a smile. “Oh, stop that, Shahdi; we hold the same rank.”
“Until Syrinx comes back, if she does.”
Shahai rolled her eyes. “At ease, then. Do you mind if I borrow Locke and company? It seems I owe them an explanation.”
“I am perfectly willing for someone other than me to endure this conversation, yes,” Dijanerad said with a grin. “As you were, ladies.”
“First,” said Shahai as the captain departed, “I apologize for the fact that you did not hear this firsthand from me. I prefer, of course, for any such disruptive orders to come with an explanation if possible. It’s been an interesting morning; I had to send the message out before I had liberty to join you.”
“Confined to the Temple grounds?” Principia said sharply. “I assumed this was a punishment of some kind, your Grace, because otherwise it smacks of attempting to protect us. As if someone, somewhere, had mistaken a squad of Silver Legionnaires for a gaggle of simpering schoolgirls.”
“It is an attempt to protect you,” Shahai replied calmly. “Nor is that a denigration of your abilities.” She glanced around the parade grounds; the cohort’s other squads were trailing out toward their assigned duties. “The facts as we know them are that you were recently the target of a campaign by Zanzayed the Blue, which seems to have been meant to draw attention to you. As of today, we are reasonably sure it worked.”
“Worked?” Principia said sharply. “How?”
“Individuals have been watching the Legion fortress’s gates,” Shahai said, still in perfect calm. “That is unusual, but not criminal, and by itself not necessarily suspicious. We do not accost people for just hanging around. They fled when approached, which is much more suspicious. However…” She sighed softly, her expression tightening. “First thing this morning a request was delivered to me at the Cathedral by Bishop Ferdowsi for Silver Legion guards, which as you know is somewhat unusual for Nemitites. Someone he described as ‘suspicious and creepy’ was at the Steppe Library yesterday evening, making pointed inquiries after Private Szaravid.”
Farah’s eyes widened and she clutched her lance tighter, trembling faintly in place.
“I assure you,” Shahai said quickly, “all relevant steps have been taken. Lang, I know you don’t speak with your parents, but the main temple in Calderaas was telescrolled anyway; they will be discreetly watched. Steps were taken to protect all of your families, including Avelea’s ex-husband.” She pursed her lips. “Since attempting to post a guard on a Huntsman would have been tantamount to instigating a brawl, I was forced to explain the situation to Bishop Varanus, and endure his subsequent commentary. And, of course, Legionnaires were posted at the Steppe Library as requested.”
“I am going to stab that dragon right in the nuts,” Principia announced. “With his own jawbone.”
“It does appear Zanzayed’s campaign was effective,” Shahai agreed sardonically. “He has managed to publicly mark you, Locke, as a person of interest to him. While we are still without useful leads as to the identities of this anti-dragon organization, this does reveal they have some organizational capability and the capacity for more forethought than their paint-throwing suggested. They’ve identified members of your squad and begun investigating them. Locke, you are jealous of your privacy, I know, but if there is anyone you would like to have protected, you need only ask.”
Principia snorted. “Who? The Thieves’ Guild? My parents’ grove? The Legions? Seriously, I hope these idiots try to attack any of my past associates. That’ll solve this whole problem neatly.”
“Indeed,” Shahai said with a faint smile. “I fear we are not so lucky as to have such foolish foes. For now, Squad One is confined to the Temple grounds, partly for its direct protection, but mostly as a means to control the situation. You are trusted to take care of yourselves, ladies, and that trust will be acted upon soon. In fact, you are now the perfect bait to draw these dragon-haters out. We know they want you. However, this will occur at a time and place of our choosing—a trap laid by the Sisterhood, not an ambush sprung by our opponents. And until we have more information with which to work, that means you must be kept out of sight and inaccessible.”
“This is is totally unacceptable,” Ephanie said tightly. “For the Conclave to use us this way…”
Shahai sighed and shook her head. “Yes. Part of me hates to be so mercenary, but the fact is that we gain immense political capital from this. Such an action by the Conclave, or any member thereof, places them significantly in our debt. And not even dragons will wish to be on the cult of Avei’s bad side on a permanent basis. Hands of Avei and Silver Legions have brought them down in the past.”
“Your Grace,” Principia said icily, “I had training planned for my squad which required access to carefully prepared facilities, which I set up. At my own expense.”
“I can see that you are compensated, of course,” Shahai said.
Principia shook her head. “It’s only money. Not important.”
“Can I have your wages, then?” Merry muttered.
The sergeant gave her a warning glance, but continued. “The training was what mattered. It was…necessary. I need to be able to drill my squad.”
“Is there something wrong with the parade ground here?” Shahai asked mildly.
“I need to be able to drill my squad in private,” Principia clarified, holding her gaze.
“I see.” The Bishop studied her carefully, then glanced across the assembled Squad One. “Considering the nature of Tiraas, I assume this was a prepared indoor space.”
“Yes, your Grace.”
“For what you had in mind, would you need anything other than the space itself?”
Principia hesitated before responding. “Practice dummies. Imperial Army grade, preferably, with shielding charms.”
“Is there something you would like to tell me, Sergeant?” Shahai asked quietly.
Principia drew in a deep breath. “I assure you, your Grace, we are not up to anything against regulations or the Legion code of conduct.”
“But something you don’t wish to be seen doing.”
“There are things beyond regulations and codes binding the Legions,” Principia said evenly. “I might even say strangling them. I think the High Commander will approve of what we’ll have to show her—if I am allowed to conduct the training needed.”
“And you cannot just ask her because…”
“Because,” Principia said stiffly, “I’m reasonably sure she won’t let us do it.”
Shahai studied them all again. The squad stood rigidly at attention, eyes straight ahead, except for Princpia’s, which rested on the Bishop’s face.
“I will secure one of the subterranean gymnasiums for you,” Shahai said abruptly. “You are extending trust to me in this, Locke, so I shall do likewise. You have earned some confidence in your judgment. Please do keep in mind that the outcome of your…experiment…will reflect on me.”
“You will not be disappointed, your Grace.”
“I don’t worry about being disappointed,” Shahai murmured, turning back toward the temple. “Disappointment I can live with. I worry about the things I can’t. Dismissed, ladies.”
“Okay, I’ll admit it,” Gabriel said, “I’m impressed. And a little puzzled. Seriously, how did you know to come here? Are you sure you’ve never been to Veilgrad before?”
“For about ten minutes at a time, on the way to and from Puna Dara.” Ruda snorted. “It’s a city—I know how cities work. Punaji royalty don’t get raised in a palace. People who grow up in palaces have no concept of how actual people live, and that is a recipe for a bad fucking leader.” She shrugged, gesturing expansively around at the shabby, shadowed back street into which they had stepped. “I’ve been watching the city while we’ve wandered through it. Every city has something like this—one any bigger would have several. You just keep an eye on the street layout, check the quality and size of buildings and their state of repair, and watch the movements of people, see where the shabby and/or sneaky ones drift toward.”
“You’ve observed all that just from passing through the city a few times over two days?” Trissiny said. “Well, I’m… Floored, honestly. That’s sort of amazing.”
Ruda turned to wink at her. “You were trained to lead troops, Boots; I was trained to lead everyone else. Neither of you two pay much attention to people, you know that? Anyhow… Since I like you, I’m comfortable admitting that we lucked out, here. The kind of signs I was looking for could just as well lead to an industrial area, or a foreigner-town like Lor’naris. Or several other things.”
At a very superficial glance, Rose Street was just another shopping neighborhood, lined with stores and stalls and wavering very slightly in its course; in contrast to the ordered grid of Tiraas, Veilgrad had meandering streets that had clearly been allowed to grow organically. It was a shadier avenue than most in the literal sense, sheltered by the city wall on one side and the towering bulk of warehouses and factories on the other, its smaller storefronts sandwiched into a space that had probably been a mandated gap between the wall and the town proper long ago, in more militaristic times.
It wasn’t that everything was in particularly bad repair, either. In fact, a few of the storefronts they passed were clean and formed of ostentatiously carved wood, with gilded signs and broad glass windows graced by velvet curtains. Others were shabby, and this variety of shops here mixed together in a way that rich and poor rarely did in most places. The signs were subtler, but unmistakeable once noticed. Rough-looking, unsmiling people loitered in alleys and in front of the pricier shops, staring flatly at everyone who passed, and making up for the total lack of actual constables. Well more than half of the stores, despite being clearly open, had boarded windows, no signs and generally no indication of what sort of business they did. There was a disproportionate number of weapon and magic stores, and far too many all-purpose pawn shops with discreet signage. Nearly every window had bars, either permanently in place or fixed to be latched onto storefront displays once business hours ended. A good number of places that were too clean and well-repaired to be abandoned were closed and shuttered, their own business hours clearly occurring after dark.
“This is exactly the kind of neighborhood my father warned me to stay out of,” Gabriel murmured.
“Oh, c’mon, what’s going to happen to you?” Ruda asked breezily. “You’re practically invulnerable. Yes, Arquin, fucking stabbed you, and so on. You need some new fucking material.”
“I wasn’t going to say that,” he replied, “and it loses emphasis when said by someone who uses ‘fucking’ as punctuation. Anyhow, it’s not about physical vulnerability. If a mob had jumped me and any of them got so much as a broken nail, the story would be how the half-demon mauled a bunch of upstanding citizens. Even assuming a magistrate enforced the actual laws, every incident like that brings me closer to a headsman with a blessed ax. Brought, I guess,” he added. “I don’t think I’ll ever be used to being someone…significant.”
“We don’t seem to be making any friends, here,” Trissiny murmured. “Why is everyone just staring? If they’d run, or attack, or… I can’t figure out what to expect.”
Indeed, their passage down the street brought most activity nearby to a stop, with thugs, passersby and shopkeepers pausing to gaze flatly at them.
“Normal people don’t flee or attack strangers, Trissiny, that’s just you,” Ruda said cheerfully. “Here we have three teenagers, very well-dressed and with needlessly expensive weapons. One, however, is in armor that clearly means serious fucking business even if you haven’t read enough books to know what a Hand of Avei looks like. We’re clearly marks, but also possibly not to be fucked with, so they don’t know what to think. Usually the presence of the Thieves’ Guild determines how the rough element behaves, but if that soldier told you the truth, they aren’t around anymore. That leaves a gray area in everyone’s expectations.”
“Hmp,” Trissiny grunted disapprovingly, glaring at a brawny man in a sleeveless vest. He blinked once, then nodded respectfully at her and eased backward into the shadows of an alley. “What do all these people do if there’s no Guild? They can’t all be criminals, or the Guild would come back to stomp on them. They like to talk about bringing down the powerful, but what they really don’t tolerate is competition.”
Ruda shrugged. “Probably just folk doing business in less-than-socially-acceptable materials, mostly. Maybe some light smuggling, a little gambling, harmless stuff like that. I guarantee the local shroom farms are in basements on this street.”
“Wait, back up. I look expensive?” Ariel asked, sounding mildly surprised.
“To someone who knows weapons, you’re clearly elven and old,” said Ruda. “That automatically means expensive, if you can find the right buyer.”
“So…what is our plan, here?” Gabriel asked. “So far, this seems about as useful a day as Toby and the fairies are probably having.”
“They might still get something out of the cultist prisoners,” Trissiny murmured.
“Yeah, but we aren’t getting anything out of the local rough element,” Gabe retorted. “I thought the big idea was to see if we can find information about dangerous business in town.” He frowned, glancing up and down the street. “Actually…hasn’t everyone been telling us the citizens of Veilgrad have been more aggressive than usual lately? This seems too quiet…”
“Well, obviously, you learn things by talking to people.” Ruda paused, turned to look at them critically, then continued. “Okay, you two hang out here for a bit while I go talk to someone.”
“Why?” Trissiny demanded.
“Because,” the pirate said with a grin, “neither of you has the slightest concept how to have the kind of conversation I’m about to have, and you will fuck it up.”
“She’s almost certainly right,” Ariel noted.
“Thanks,” Gabriel said sourly.
“Be right back,” Ruda said, and strolled off toward a stall selling bread and sausage in front of a moneylender’s store with iron bars over its windows. No less than five scruffy, muscular, well-armed men loitered around the front of the building.
Ruda walked right up to the stand and leaned on it, conversing with the stout woman behind it, who looked wary but gradually seemed to un-tense as the pirate spoke. A moment later, she was smiling and deftly slicing a tough little bun with a knife, forming a kind of pocket into which she stuffed a hot sausage and a helping of sauerkraut. The whole time, Ruda chattered on aimlessly.
“None of that seems too difficult,” Trissiny muttered.
“Yeah,” Gabe agreed. “And do you notice how she’s not ordering any food for us?”
“I’m not hungry anyway. What, doesn’t Grusser feed you?”
“That’s not the point,” he huffed. “It’s rude.”
“Then analyze the message,” Ariel suggested. “Unlike you, Princess Zaruda is rude for specific purpose, not due to a lack of social skills.”
“Yeah?” he said irritably. “What’s your excuse?”
“I was designed for magical assistance, not social interaction. It’s my nature to render straightforward opinion, which is helpful toward my primary purpose but, I have noticed, often counterproductive when people’s feelings come into play.”
“You could refrain from sharing all your opinions?” Trissiny suggested.
“I do. You have never heard me observe, for example, that that dryad of yours desperately needs to be muzzled and leashed. Sometimes, however, personal observations are imminently relevant to the situation at hand.”
Trissiny started to speak again, but fell still, staring at the action around the stall.
One of the toughs watching over the moneylender’s building had straightened from his lounging position at the corner, swaggered over to Ruda and leaned forward to say something inaudible at that distance, leering. His compatriots were staring at this expressionlessly, making no move to get involved.
Ruda glanced up at the man, said something curt, and turned her attention back to the sausage vendor, who now also looked nervous.
Scowling, the thug grabbed Ruda by the shoulder, attempting to spin her around.
Her rapier formed a silver arc as she whipped it out of its sheath and stabbed him through the foot.
“Wait,” Gabriel said urgently, grabbing Trissiny’s pauldron as she started forward. “Just wait. Ruda knows what she’s doing; if the others get involved, we’ll go help.”
They didn’t, though. One of the tough’s fellows rolled his eyes and another burst out laughing, but no one made a move to help him. He hopped backward, flailing for balance and cursing loudly, which lasted until Ruda landed a vicious kick between his legs.
She came strolling back to her friend, munching on her sausage roll and leaving the man huddled in a ball on the sidewalk. The sausage vendor gave him a pitiless look and snorted; one of his friends finally stepped forward to help him up, while another called “Nice kick!” after Ruda.
“Hey, you didn’t butt in,” Ruda said cheerfully. “You’re finally learnin’ some discretion, Shiny Boots!”
“Gabriel stopped her,” Ariel said. “Even more impressive, he is finally learning some discretion.”
“Shut up, Ariel,” the paladins said in unison.
“Did you gain anything from that besides a second breakfast?” Trissiny added.
Ruda chewed, swallowed, and grinned. “Yup. Some insight into where the creepy shit in this town tends to come from and congregate. Did you know there are catacombs?”
“No, but of course there are catacombs,” Gabriel groaned. “There are always catacombs.”
“Tiraas doesn’t have catacombs,” Trissiny pointed out. “And honestly, how many places have you been to that did?”
“Come on, that’s quibbling over terminology. Tiraas has a network of unusually large sewer tunnels, and the University has the Crawl. There’s always something nasty underground, where the nasty things go to hide.” He sighed. “And we have to go down there, don’t we?”
“What, us? Just like that, at the first sign of the existence of such a thing?” Ruda snorted, took a bite of her sandwich and carried on talking around it. “Try not to be such a towering fucknut, Arquin. You need to read some comics; doin’ shit like that is exactly what always gets the heroes into trouble. No, if we’re going into any goddamn catacombs, we’re bringin’ the whole group. We handled the Crawl, nothing under this town’s gonna take on the ten of us.” She paused to swallow. “But. Before we bring the others in, let’s get some more information. The nice lady told me where the nearest entrance is—it’s under a Universal Church chapel, so should be safe enough. And by the way, this stuff is awesome. I can’t believe I never had sauerkraut before. Gotta import some of this back home.”
“Ew.” Gabriel wrinkled his nose. “That crap tastes like pissed-on feet.”
“People are eating here, you fucking cretin. Mind your goddamn language.”
“A chapel sounds good,” Trissiny agreed. “We can ask the priests there about the catacombs.”
“Yeah, except there aren’t any,” said Ruda. “My new friend back there said the Universal Church has been pulling out of the city since early summer. Only their central cathedral still has any staff at all, and it’s down to a skeleton crew.”
“Oh, so it’s an abandoned church,” Gabriel groaned. “That’s good and creepy.”
“Less creepy than roomin’ with a vampire,” Ruda said, grinning, which was a horrible sight given the tendency of sauerkraut and sausage to stick in the teeth. “C’mon, whiner, she said it was just up the street a ways.”
“Odd that the Universal Church would have a chapel in this neighborhood,” Trissiny said, frowning. They moved off down Rose Street, following Ruda.
“Probably just seems that way because you’re an elitist, Boots. If you’re running any kind of organization that does charity, you go where the people who need charity are. Isn’t that the whole point of your Silver Missions?”
“Yes, you’re right,” Trissiny said thoughtfully. “In fact, now that you bring that up, this is an excellent place to put one, especially if the local church has closed up. I’ll send a scroll to the Temple next chance I get.”
“I thought the Avenists stayed out of Veilgrad because it was full of Shaathists?” Gabriel said.
“At no point in all of history have the Sisters of Avei permitted the Huntsmen to push us around,” she said frostily. “There’s not a significant Sisterhood facility in Veilgrad because there aren’t enough Avenists worshipers to make it worthwhile, and we don’t proselytize as a rule.”
“Okay, okay,” he said, raising his hands. “No need to snap.”
“Gabriel, for your own well-being and general peace of mind, refrain from telling irate feminists to mind their tone.”
Ruda howled with laughter, spraying flecks of her sandwich. Luckily she was facing away from them, but that still served as enough of a distraction to end the discussion.
Most of Rose Street was much the same as the parts they had already seen. They did, at one point, pass a stone building which stood out from its mostly wooden counterparts; its only sign advertised free meals for the poor, and there was a discreet sunburst of Omnu painted above the door. Another block or so beyond that, not long after Ruda finished her sandwich, they finally came to the old chapel.
It was a typical representation of the Church’s preferred style: stone, rectangular and with tall windows. None were stained glass, and all were behind iron bars; encouragingly, none had been broken. The place was still and silent, an accumulation of dead leaves and other minor debris on its steps and sills attesting to its disused state, though it had clearly not been abandoned long enough for any real decay to set in. As far as could be observed from the street, the chapel had suffered no actual damage.
“So,” Gabriel drawled, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “Do we…knock?”
“Do I have to do everything around here?” Ruda said, rolling her eyes. “You two are fucking paladins. I’m pretty sure you’ve got the right to go in a Universal Church chapel if you want. Hell, I doubt anybody would bitch too much if you broke in the door.”
“Ruda,” Trissiny said, turning to gaze evenly at her.
Trissiny held her gaze for a long, silent moment, until Ruda sighed and shuffled her boots, looking actually uncomfortable. “All right, fine, sorry. I doubt anybody would complain if you broke the door. Better?”
“Yes, thank you,” Trissiny said with a smile.
“Well, there’s always the traditional approach to try before that,” Gabriel said, bounding up the two steps leading to the doors. “It’d be a shame to damage these.” Indeed, they were of the local dark hardwood, once well-polished, though their sheen was quite dull now, and ornately carved to form a large ankh split down the middle where the double doors opened. He grasped the handle and pulled.
The hinges squealed in complaint at their long disuse, but the door opened easily. Gabriel froze, blinking, then turned to stare down at the others.
“Is it just me, or is that…ominous?”
“It’s a little ominous, yeah,” Ruda agreed. “Unless the Church had gotten too bureaucratic for its own good, someone should’ve thought to at least lock it.”
“Well, actually,” said Trissiny with a slight smile, “according to—”
“I’m sorry to interrupt this charming banter,” said Ariel, “but you should be aware there is magic active in that building, and not of the divine nature one would expect on a chapel. In fact, its normal blessings have been eroded far more than a few months of disuse would account for. Someone did that deliberately.”
“What kind of magic?” Trissiny demanded, frowning. “I don’t sense anything…evil.”
“It is vague and extremely difficult for me to pin down,” the sword replied. “Which, in conjunction with your own failure to identify a magical signature, suggests what I am perceiving is some kind of ward intended to obscure what is happening within.”
The three of them exchanged a round of looks, frowning, then turned as one to peer up at the silent chapel. The street around them was even quieter than normal, it seemed.
“We’d better have a look,” Gabriel said finally. “And I’m not just saying that because I’d feel ridiculous running away from something just because it’s kind of creepy. If we’re going to go get the others in on this, we should have something actually useful to tell them.”
“Agreed,” said Trissiny, stepping up to join him. “A quick look.”
They filed inside, Gabriel leaving the door standing open, and paused, letting their eyes grow accustomed to the dimness. The interior was laid out on a standard plan, with a wall right in front of them serving to divide the main sanctuary from its entryway. It covered only the center of the space, leaving gaps to either side into the chapel proper. After a moment, Trissiny drew her sword, nodding pointedly to the others, who followed suit. Gabriel pulled his wand out, somewhat awkwardly drawing Ariel left-handed.
“I sense something now,” Trissiny murmured. “Faint, obscured, but…it makes me a little edgy. Be wary.”
They stepped around the corner into the sanctuary, and froze.
The sanctuary was a wreck. Its pews were demolished, scattered about as little more than kindling, leaving a wide plowed track running erratically through the debris instead of the orderly central aisle there would have been before. The entire pulpit was destroyed, the very dais on which it had stood ripped up, floorboards and flagstones alike. All this had been piled in the choir loft, leaving a gaping hole in the floor where the pastor would have stood to give sermons.
More immediately, the room was occupied.
The man standing to the right of the hole was tall and hunched, wearing a hooded robe that had been blood red before getting as filthy as it was; it served handily to conceal his appearance. The students gave him, the destruction and the hole into the underground only a passing look before focusing on the other creature present.
At least nine feet tall, it was made of bones—apparently human bones, though its own form was not at all human. A rough melange of ribcages and pelvises formed its lower body, which was laid out roughly like a horse’s, with four bowed limbs cobbled together from multiple long bones supporting it. In fact, it was proportioned like a centaur, a secondary torso (also stitched together from pieces of skeletons) rising from the front of its lower body. Four spindly arms extended from this, at uneven intervals, seemingly attached wherever a suitable end of a collarbone happened to jut from its asymmetrical construction. On the top of the towering monstrosity perched an incongruously normal-sized human skull, banded with iron, marked with runes and lit from within by eerie green fire. The whole construct was bound together with a combination of metal joints and supports, and networks of black, oozing tissue serving as ligaments. All of its fingers, of which it had an uneven number on each hand, were tipped in iron claws; its four feet were huge iron horseshoes, each connected to its legs by the bones of three distinct human feet.
“Well,” Ruda said after a moment, “do you fucking sense that?”
“Fools and interlopers,” the bent man hissed, dry-washing his hands in front of his filthy robe. The ragged ends of a graying brown beard emerged from the deep hollow of his hood, all that could be seen of his features. “Running around, trying to spoil everything. Try, little bugs, just try. More fun in the end.”
“Oh, gods,” Gabriel muttered. “He’s one of those.”
“Enjoy your last moments!” the man suddenly shrieked, and skittered toward the hole with an oddly spider-like gait. He vanished into the darkness below, deranged laughter echoing after him.
The bone construct took a deliberate step forward, a wet rumble sounding from within one of its chests. Framed by rib bones, there were several pulsing organs that might have been hearts, lungs, or something comparable.
“We can take this thing, right?” Gabriel muttered tersely.
“Standard necromancy, not chaos,” Ariel reported. “It is safe to use magic against it.”
“Hang on,” said Trissiny. She stepped forward and raised her voice. “Hey, you! Can you understand me? Do you talk?”
The construct halted its slow advance, peering down at her. “Khhrrr?”
“I’ll take that for a yes,” she said. “We surrender.”
It leaned forward; there was no interpreting any expression on its fleshless face, but it lowered its arms to a slightly less menacing position. “Surrrr?”
“What?” Ruda hissed. “What the fuck are you doing?”
“Here, see?” Trissiny carefully reversed the grip on her sword, holding it point-down. “All yours. Close your eyes,” she added in a much lower tone, and tossed the sword forward, straight at one of the construct’s hands.
Apparently by reflex, it caught the weapon by its hilt.
The chapel filled with a deafening roar and an obliterating blaze of white light.
“Motherfucker!” Gabriel squawked, staggering to one side and furiously rubbing his eyes.
“She warned you.”
“Oh, shut up!”
“She did, though,” said Ruda, lowering her hands from her own eyes to survey the damage.
Just like that, the towering abomination was gone. Not so much as a splinter of bone remained, though its four smoldering horseshoes still rested on the floor amid the debris. None of the wooden scraps had been burned, despite the flecks of ash drifting on the air.
Trissiny’s sword rested on the ground, its point improbably driven into the floorboards. She stepped forward and picked it up, looking smug.
“That was pretty damn underhanded,” Ruda noted with approval. “Good to see you branching out your tactics and all, Triss, but isn’t using surrender as a cover for attack pretty damn well frowned upon? That doesn’t seem very Avenist.”
“I didn’t attack it,” Trissiny replied, sliding her sword back into its scabbard. “Anyone picking up this sword is inviting Avei’s direct attention. She surely wouldn’t smite someone for catching something I threw at them, but by someone, I refer to an actual person. A necromantic abomination of the worst kind is an entirely different matter.”
“Sounds to me like you’re splitting hairs,” Ruda said skeptically.
“Mm. You may have a point.” Trissiny frowned thoughtfully. “I will pray on that later.”
“Meanwhile!” Gabriel snapped, still blinking his eyes. “Needless to say, we are not going down that hole. This seems like exactly the kind of intel we should bring back to the others so we can form a plan and act on it.”
“Yeah,” Ruda agreed. “I feel even worse about Toby, Juniper and Fross being sent off to the prison, now. They’re obviously wasting their time.” She glanced at the ragged tunnel leading underground, into which the robed man had fled. “No point interrogating the chaos cultists dumb enough to get caught, when we should be worried about the ones still loose.”