Tag Archives: Thumper

Bonus #43: The Audit, part 3

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                             Next Chapter >

Akinda wasn’t one to flatter herself, but she thought she was doing rather well considering what had been looming all morning. Her work involved a lot of interaction with rich people in general and nobles in particular, who were arguably more dangerous than Eserite street soldiers in their way. Today, though, would be her first time facing a room of Guild enforcers who were likely to end up being pissed off by what unfolded. To be uneasy at the prospect was wholly reasonable.

But her well-practiced poker face did not suffer for the unaccustomed exercise. She smiled blandly and looked skeptically aloof as an auditor should on a routine inspection while spending the morning looking over the factory’s attached mana well, where a slowly grinding magnetic generator spun infinite circles right in a major leyline nexus and conjured a steady stream of enchanting-grade dust ready to be refined into usable form. It was a pride and mainstay of Falconer Industries, and had been the elder Mr. Falconer’s original cash cow before his son turned his personal fascination with horseless carriages into an even more lucrative empire.

Geoffrey Falconer himself had decided to join her for her noon visit to the employee services center, accompanied again by his wife. This time, to her relief, their daughter was not present. Their Butler, however, was. Depending on how events unfolded, that could prove to be very good, or cause a lot of potentially messy complications.

“I mean, there are limits,” Marguerite Falconer was saying blithely while stirring a bowl of split-pea soup with her spoon. “It’s not a feast fit for the Duke’s table or anything. The factory does need to turn a profit and we’re not running a restaurant! But we do employ dedicated cooks and kitchen staff, and there are firm standards for the quality of ingredients used.”

“And you find this is cost effective?” Akinda asked mildly, taking a sip of soup. It was hard to judge its quality objectively; she hated peas. The buttered rolls were quite good, though, and it was hard to ruin tea.

“Oh, definitely,” Geoffrey said, having swallowed his own bite of ham and peas. “Tarvedh was skeptical when Margeurite first floated this, but it made sense to me from the get-go. Obviously people do better work when they’re well-fed and don’t have to worry about fetching their own meal.”

“Tarvedh was skeptical, was he?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Oh, now,” Mr. Tarvedh blustered, “not at the principle of the thing, merely some of the particular expenditures!”

“It is in line with Vernisite practice,” Akinda said noncommittally. “Human employees are like any beast of burden in that they are most productive when properly cared for.”

A few nearby people in overalls turned to give her flat looks at that.

“You, uh, don’t often talk doctrine in front of the beasts of burden, do you?” Marguerite asked with a reproachful frown.

In fact, she did not. Akinda cleared her throat, covering her momentary lapse by wiping her mouth with a napkin. “Speaking of which, do you often eat with the laborers?”

“Oh, not most days,” Geoffrey said blithely, gesticulating with his spoon and causing his wife to snatch it from his hand before he could spray them all with droplets of broth. “But it’s nice to have this down here, just in case, you know? And one does like to keep in touch with the staff. Can’t very well stay on top of the condition of the place if we’re always hiding away in the office.”

“Truthfully he’d eat down here more, except he often forgets to eat at all,” Marguerite added, giving her husband a fondly annoyed look. He grinned at her and retrieved his spoon.

Akinda had actually never eaten at a picnic-style table surrounded by working class people on their lunch break. She liked to think she was not so snooty as to find their company objectionable in and of itself; it was hard to analyze her own emotional reaction given the constant pressure of what she knew was going to start happening any minute. Every moment that it didn’t only increased the sense of looming threat.

The Falconer’s Butler had not sat down at the table with them, which was no surprise. Suddenly, though, he shifted to look at one of the double doors into the cafeteria from the main floor—the one closer to the factory’s entrance. Then, with no sign of hurry or change in his expression, he took two steps to the left to hover in front of the Falconers.

Akinda inhaled slowly, but deeply, and set down her spoon. Showtime.

She was now listening, and so picked up the sound of a lot of feet on the stone floor outside over the general low hubbub of the cafeteria. Neither of the Falconers had noticed their Butler’s movement; he was staring at the door, and had not yet sought their attention. At the first raised voice outside, the babble of conversation at the tables began to subside. Enough that the brief sound of a scuffle was audible, followed by a wordless shout.

Geoffrey looked up, frowning deeply. “What in—”

They streamed in through the two wide doorways, two groups of four people in mismatched attire immediately planting themselves in wedge formations inside the cafeteria to secure the entries; another foursome glided swiftly to the kitchen doors where they split up to cover those. Then more slipped in around their comrades, slowly spreading to either side to cover most of the room’s front. Not all of them were visibly carrying weapons, but…enough were.

“Excuse me!” Geoffrey said, his voice a sharp crack that cut across the rising murmurs of his employees. He got to his feet and took a step forward, clearly not intimidated by the mass of scruffy people who had just invaded his factory. Marguerite remained frozen in place, clutching a spoon, her face almost white. Tarvedh looked like he might faint.

The Butler shifted with his master, not blocking his view of the enforcers or exactly hovering, but remaining close enough that no thief who recognized the uniform was likely to make a move toward Falconer.

Akinda slowly turned fully around on her bench. She let herself stiffen, let her eyes dart nervously across the ranks of Guild enforcers forming up, just as would someone who was surprised by this development.

There were close to two dozen of them. How many practicing thieves could possibly infest a given economy? This had to be a significant chunk of the Eserite population of Madouris.

“Just what the hell is going on here?” Falconer demanded, glaring.

“Now, now, now!” The ranks in front of the closer door parted and he emerged, swaggering even as he held up both his meaty hands in a placating gesture. Rogue wasn’t dressed exactly as he’d been the night before; the dashing woodsman theme was still in place, but today’s leather doublet actually had gilded embroidery and his pointy hat and blousy shirt were a deep maroon instead of forest green. By all the gods, he was wearing a cape. “Let’s everybody remain calm, shall we? I realize this must look a certain way, but you have my personal assurance that my associates and I don’t intend to so much as ruffle anyone’s hair, nor make off with even one pilfered spoon.” He came to a stop in the forefront of the line of grim-faced thugs, grinning and tucking his thumbs into his broad leather belt. “I do, however, require a few moments of your time.”

“And you are?” Falconer replied acidly. His wife sighed heavily. Akinda had to wonder whether the man was actually brave, or just too perpetually in the clouds to fully grasp the situation. Then, too, she’d met a lot of wealthy people who couldn’t quite parse the notion that bad things could happen to them, even after they were bleeding.

“You may call me Rogue!” The man swept off his insipid little hat and executed a bow elaborate enough for the Calderaan court. “I have the honor of heading your local chapter of the esteemed Guild of Thieves. And yourself, sir! May I presume you are Mr. Geoffrey Falconer?”

“Well, you don’t seem to have trouble presuming,” Falconer snorted. “If you’ve harmed my guards—”

“I’m going to have to stop you there,” Rogue interrupted, holding up one hand as the gregarious smile melted from his face. “You probably think you’re showing some spirit in front of your subordinates and lady wife, sir, but you are not the only one here with an audience. There’s a stark limit to how much backtalk I can afford to take with my own people looking on. So what say we agree to be polite to one another, whether or not either of us likes it?”

“Now you listen to—”

“Geoffrey,” Marguerite pleaded.

He hesitated, half-turned to catch her eye and hold it for a moment. Then a little of the tension seeped from the set of his shoulders and the industrialist turned back to fix his gaze on Rogue.

“Fine,” he said, folding his arms. “What do you want?”

“Well, what do any of us want, really?” the Underboss replied, spreading his arms and grinning broadly. “Peace, justice, happiness, a wholesome world for—”

“Rogue,” interrupted one of his subordinates, a thin hawk-faced woman in a long velvet coat. “You’re doing the thing again. Just because we busted into the guy’s factory doesn’t mean we gotta waste his time.”

“I am justly rebuked,” Rogue said, giving her a sidelong glance. “Right, then, to the point. What I need from you at the moment, Mr. Falconer, is forbearance. As I have said, I’ve no intention of causing any further kerfuffle here than we already have; I believe my point is made. I can get to you, Falconer, any time I so choose. You’ll have to take my word that I can do so subtly—after all, if you knew who the Guild operatives among your staff were, that would be rather missing the point, eh? But now, you are aware the Thieves’ Guild has the forces and the will to march in here at any time we like, and do…well, really, what couldn’t we do?” He winked. “After all, what would you do to stop us?”

“And?” Falconer replied with scathing disdain.

“And that is all I have to say to you, sirrah, and thank you for indulging me.” Rogue tugged the forward point of his hat politely, then raised his chin and his voice. “To everyone else present! Clearly, you value your employment too much to squander it here and now by coming forward. But now you know that your petty overlord is not the almighty tyrant he tries to seem. The working man’s lot in life is going to start improving in Madouris, as of today, and as of here. Starting now, you can be assured that any further abuses by your employer will be…” He grinned lazily, casually rolling a coin across his fingers. “…addressed. We’ll be around, never you fear.”

Akinda’s blood had gone cold, and not because she feared incipient violence—in fact, quite the contrary. Her entire strategy here counted on Rogue creating a confrontation; it had not occurred to her that he might throw down an offer of support and then leave. Did he really need to bring so many enforcers just to do this? Of course he did, she realized. Shows of force were the only language Eserites understood, and this was her fault for assuming that meant they were completely unreasonable. Between the Duke and her own cult pulling strings even Rogue couldn’t entirely be blamed for having been maneuvered into this position.

Now, she had to find a way to push this to a head or the entire endeavor would be a complete loss. And there was just no way she could see that didn’t involve exposing herself…and therefore becoming a personal target of the Guild’s vengeance.

Akinda, for the first time in a long time, froze. Was that a sacrifice she was willing to make? Was it one she should? Would the bank expect it of her, or chide her for recklessness?

And then it was abruptly taken out of her hands.

“You have got some god damn nerve!” roared a man at the next table over, shooting to his feet so suddenly he almost knocked over the bench, and the two coworkers still sitting on it. He was a burly, towering specimen even for a factory laborer, with the handy addition of an immensely bushy black beard to enhance his fearsome scowl. “You come into our factory, you threaten our boss, an’ you wanna talk to us about abuse? Fuck you Eserite pigs!”

An ugly murmur rose in the cafeteria—no, more of a growl, Akinda decided. The assembled crowd of laborers shifted, a stir running through them like a great hibernating beast twitching as it dreamed. Instantly, at least half the thieves in front of them straightened up visibly, reacting on instinct to a threat.

“Yes, yes,” Rogue said in a tone of condescending faux-mollification, “I was made aware that the bosses have their sycophants, as in every—”

“Piece of shit!” screeched another woman, surging forward from her seat the next row of tables back and almost tripping over a bench even as she leveled an accusing finger at the Underboss. “You wanna call Rajesh a sycophant? How about you come over here and do it to his face without your little posse, then?”

Far from being displeased at being thus nominated, the big Rajesh—who was one of the few men in the room physically larger than Rogue—cracked his knuckles, glaring at the Underboss. All around him, more of the employees were rising from their benches, and several had started to stalk forward to the front row of tables.

The row of thieves began inching forward, as well. It seemed that not only were street soldiers sensitive to a hostile mood, but their innate response to it wasn’t a sensible retreat. None raised weapons yet, but a few had started to finger them.

And Akinda, right on the front row of tables, was positioned between the two groups. Well, the good news was she could return to worrying about her physical safety and not her whole plan going belly-up.

“Everyone, please,” Falconer said, turning back to face his employees and finally, it seemed, starting to understand the potential danger here, “let’s not make this worse.”

Rogue was frowning, his eyes cutting back and forth across the increasingly angry crowd of factory workers. Akinda could see him doing the math. Nearly the entire room was furious, many enough to push aggressively forward, and he hadn’t even hit anyone. They reacted this way in near unanimity to having their boss merely insulted and threatened. To a man like Rogue, accustomed to both manipulating individuals and steering large groups, the evidence of Falconer’s popularity was staring him right in the face.

He fixed his gaze on Akinda, and she tried to look confused and alarmed. She wasn’t his sole source of intel on the state of this factory, but he couldn’t miss the significance of her contribution. The plan was for her to be out of the province anyway before the Guild could begin unraveling any retribution against her, but if he decided to make an issue of it here and now…

Meanwhile, the rest of the thieves were growing increasingly nervous, which in their case meant increasingly ready to fight. The cafeteria full of laborers might not be professional knuckledusters, but every one of them had the well-muscled frame of someone who did heavy labor for a living, and they outnumbered the Guild’s presence by a good five to one. If this became a brawl, it was likely to end with Madouris emptied of Eserite presence for the foreseeable future.

Apparently Rogue either bought her helpless act or decided to put off dealing with her for later. Shifting his attention back to the crowd, he raised his hands again. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you please…”

“Get outta here!” a woman’s voice rang out, quickly echoed by a chorus of agreement. The growling crowd pushed a few steps farther, momentarily cutting off Akinda’s view as they shifted in front of her table. She reflexively pushed herself back against it as the sounds of scuffling broke out.

The crowd parted again, letting her see, and apparently the two fronts hadn’t clashed yet; in fact, there were a couple of matching tableaus where particularly aggressive thieves and workers were being held back by their fellows.

A roll of bread went sailing over the front ranks of the laborers, accompanied by an upsurge in the angry noise.

Rogue snatched it out of the air and took a big bite. His eyes widened in surprise. “Hey, that’s pretty good! Are these fresh? And it’s… Is that rosemary and butter?”

He pitched his voice a little too loud for a man commenting on a buttered roll, but it had the designed effect. The crowd—both crowds—calmed slightly as he carried on, studying the bread in his hand and chomping enthusiastically away.

“Well,” the Underboss said after pausing to swallow, “I’m starting to think I’ve been misinformed on a few important points. I realize we’ve already overstayed our welcome a tad, but if you’d indulge me just a moment longer—”

“Fuck off outta here!” one of the laborers yelled, igniting another angry push forward.

“Now just a minute!” Falconer shouted, himself pushing to the head of the crowd. “That’s enough of this. Everybody calm down!” He turned to stare at his employees, waiting for the muttering to subside somewhat, before returning his attention to Rogue. “What, exactly, were you misinformed about?”

The Underboss had taken another bite of the roll and was chewing while watching this scene play out, still projecting a picture of perfect calm. Akinda forced herself to breathe evenly. At least the two men in charge here had enough leadership ability to set an example to their respective groups.

Rogue swallowed and casually brushed off his fingers on his jerkin. “Now, I say this to inquire, not to accuse. Just repeating some stories I’ve been told, you understand. But on the matter of Falconer Industries employees being required to work extra hours, unpaid, and threatened with dismissal if they didn’t—”

“There is nothing like that here,” Geoffrey burst out, glaring.

“With all respect, Falconer,” Rogue replied, actually showing a little respect in his demeanor now, “that’s also what you’d say if that were going on, isn’t it? If you don’t mind, I’d like to hear from—”

“You heard the man!” interrupted another FI laborer, a short but barrel-chested man with dark Onkawi features, pushing to the front of the crowd. “This is a good job. We make the best damn carriages in the Empire and we get paid well for our work. Everybody here is proud of our company!”

The chorus of agreement was very nearly a roar.

“I see,” Rogue said, raising his bushy eyebrows in a serious expression. “And, for another example… These tales I’ve heard, of employees taking sick and their children having to step into their jobs so they don’t lose their positions?”

“Bullshit!” squawked a woman with steel-gray hair, pointing accusingly at him. “We get sick leave, we do! An’ four times a year Mr. Falconer brings a doctor in an’ everybody here gets whatever treatment he can do for whatever it is we got, on the company time. He set my daughter’s busted leg, he did, an’ she don’t even work for FI!”

Rogue, again, let his eyes flicker back and forth across the assembled factory workers while they shouted a disjointed chorus of agreement. He took another bite of buttered roll, chewing for a strategic pause while letting the noise die down somewhat. Geoffrey Falconer also waited, eyes narrowed; thankfully, so did the assembled thieves, though some of them clearly weren’t happy with the prospect.

“Well, this is awfully embarrassing,” Rogue said at last, turning to his compatriots. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry to say that we have been played for chumps! It looks like we’ve got no business here after all.”

“Damn right!” someone shouted from among the workers, quickly repeated by others.

“Mister Falconer,” Rogue intoned, turning around again and sweeping off his hat in another deep bow. “Assembled men and women of this esteemed establishment! You have my humble apologies for this disruption. It seems I was in error to have so accused you—truly, I am sorry to have caused you trouble. I will be taking my people and myself and getting out of your hair as swiftly as possible.”

“What about her?” The oily-looking young man who spoke was better dressed than most of the thieves in a well-fitting suit, with slicked-back hair and sharp features; he was a stranger to Akinda, but he clearly knew her, and stared accusingly. “If we’ve been misled, it’s obvious who did it.”

“It’s anything but, Thumper,” Rogue said with an ostentatious roll of his eyes. “Whatever person is right in front of you is rarely the one to blame for whatever’s on your mind, and I know we’ve had this conversation before.”

“Yeah, but she—”

Rogue turned to stare at him, and that was enough. Thumper clamped his mouth shut, scowling.

“Again, my sincere apologies,” the Underboss said to Geoffrey, holding up the half-eaten roll. “Thanks for lunch, Falconer. It’s on me, next time.”

“Hold it,” the industrialist said flatly. “After all this, you think you’re just going to walk away? I think I want to have this conversation with you and the police present.”

“Falconer,” Rogue said in a very even tone, “today you have seen the Thieves’ Guild made a fool of. That, sir, is a rare treat for anyone. Now, I truly am sorry to have unduly burdened you. I’m willing to say that I owe you a favor for the trouble—so long as it doesn’t end up being anything too unreasonable. Like, for example, that.”

“Geoffrey,” Marguerite said quietly, “let it go. They’re leaving. That’s good enough.”

Falconer folded his arms again, fixing Rogue with a stare which the thief met without flinching while his assembled enforcers began streaming out through the cafeteria doors. Rogue was the last out; he paused, tipping his hat once again, before vanishing.

Akinda let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding, and felt the tension begin to leak from her body. Slowly, she turned back around on her seat, and found herself face to face with Marguerite Falconer, who was staring at her over steepled fingers.

“Why,” Marguerite asked calmly, ignoring the noise going on around them as the crowd of factory workers began expelling the pent-up tension of the encounter, “would the Thieves’ Guild blame you for their misconceptions about this company, Ms. Akinda?”

Her husband, now, was also staring at Akinda. As was Tarvedh, the Butler, and a couple of nearby laborers who had overheard.

Akinda cleared her throat. “I wonder if I could trouble you for a word in private, Mr. and Mrs. Falconer?”

“Yes,” Geoffrey said pointedly, regarding her with a decidedly unfriendly expression, “yes, I think that is a good idea.”


“With the rapid advancement of the science of enchantment has come rapid industrialization. That’s not news to you, of course,” Akinda said, nodding politely to the two Falconers once they were safely ensconced in their top-floor office. Tarvedh had not accompanied them this time, though the Butler remained discreetly by the closed door. “You have probably had reason to think about the social changes this has brought; the new industrial class are the first incidence of a rising economic power that can compete with the nobility since the first merchant guilds were formed.”

“Yes,” Marguerite said wryly, folding her arms, “Duke Madouri has made that a point of interest to us.”

“And that’s it exactly,” said Akinda. “Responses among the nobles to social change vary widely, but as a group they tend to feel threatened by anything which shifts the landscape on which their privileges rest. Some have moved to profit from the great manufacturing companies springing up within their fiefs. Others have Madouri’s attitude. You may not be aware of this, but a very old trick in the aristocracy’s perpetual maneuvers against each other is to try to trip one another into conflict with the Thieves’ Guild. That’s practically the preferred regional sport in Calderaas. Unfortunately, while the Houses are prepared to play that game, people like you are most often blindsided by it. In the last ten years, there have been several promising companies damaged and in some cases completely dismantled by the Guild over offenses which in hindsight proved to have been completely fabricated.”

“Really,” Geoffrey said, frowning. Now both of them had pensive expressions, which was an improvement over their hostile ones of a moment before.

Akinda nodded. “Eserites, like all religious people, are prone to a few predictable flaws. Once they smell corruption and abuse, they pursue it single-mindedly enough that they can easily gloss over exonerating evidence, even with the best intentions. That is the reason for my presence, and involvement. Obviously, the Guild doesn’t need outside help to investigate Falconer Industries. They do have people here already, as Rogue said. But those people are looking for weaknesses, not reasons to back off. My bank went to a great deal of trouble to give Rogue the impression that he could use me to ferret out your secrets, and arranged for him to acquire falsified evidence of some trumped-up crimes on my part. He believes he is blackmailing me into complying with his efforts here.”

“You’re telling me,” Geoffrey said flatly, “that Duke Madouri manipulated the Thieves’ Guild into attacking my factory.”

“Yes,” she said. “And the Vernisite bank in Madouris, which had been watching for such activity, warned central bank in Tiraas, which sent me. My assignment was to re-direct the Guild’s efforts.”

“You couldn’t just warn them?” Marguerite demanded.

“They don’t listen to bankers,” Akinda replied, shaking her head. “Our relationship with the Guild is rather one-sided. We find them an extremely useful measure against corruption, even within our own ranks—but that only works so long as they keep us at arm’s length, so we deliberately make no effort to cozy up to them.”

“And you couldn’t warn us?” Geoffrey snapped.

“For that, I apologize,” she said, inclining her head. “It’s policy. We tried that, early on; the effect was, consistently, industrialists taking aggressive measures either against the Thieves’ Guild or their noble tormentors, with predictably disastrous results.”

“I can’t believe anyone would do something that stupid,” he huffed.

“Yes, you can,” Marguerite said with a sigh. “You almost did it not ten minutes ago, Geoffrey. Don’t make that face, you were that close to throwing a punch at that guy and you know it.”

“Now,” Akinda said, “the Guild knows better than to attack you. Rogue has been embarrassed and will look into his sources of information with greater care. He will find details my bank has planted revealing the source of Madouri’s original misdirections, and turn his anger on the Duke. Madouri will bleed for this, and hopefully not try it again. Most importantly, his reprisal will come from the Thieves’ Guild and not from Falconer Industries, giving him no pretext to punish you.”

They stared at her, then turned to each other and shared a silent married conversation. Then turned back to her, still staring.

Akinda cleared her throat discreetly. “Needless to say, the bank regrets the imposition, and greatly appreciates your role in this affair, unwitting as it was. This has been a success for everyone—Falconer Industries, the bank, even the Thieves’ Guild. Well, everyone except Duke Madouri, who is soon to be given a lesson in not antagonizing Eserites. This ostensible audit was a formality anyway; FI is an excellent company and has been consistently a valued business partner. Your loan is approved, at twenty-five percent above the asked amount.”

“No.” Geoffrey Falconer stepped closer to her, staring right into her eyes. His wife remained behind, and matched his glare.

“No?” Akinda raised an eyebrow.

“We’ll take the amount originally applied for,” he stated. “And we will take it at zero interest, with no defined term of repayment.”

Akinda could only gape at him for a moment.

“Ah. Mr. Falconer, the bank of course wishes to accommodate you under the circumstances, but not to the extent of obviating the reason we give loans.”

“Tough,” he said flatly. “You can tell this to your bank, Akinda: I don’t need more money from you, I need you to walk away with your knuckles stinging. This scheme of yours came within a hair’s breadth of setting Thieves’ Guild brawlers on my employees. Omnu’s breath, my daughter could have been here. You will hurt for this, is that understood? If the bank will not accept my terms—or if you ever again put any of my people in danger for any reason—I will go right to the Duke, to the Guild… The Empire, the Universal Church, the Sisterhood of Avei, everyone I can think of who even might take exception to a Pantheon cult engaging in this kind of chicanery. I know very well that I’m not a sly manipulator like your masters, Akinda. But I have money, I have magic, and I am pissed off. I’m willing to bet that by the time I get finished throwing blind punches, you’ll have lost a lot more than the interest you would’ve made off this loan. Am I understood?”

He met her gaze in silence after finishing, waiting for her to answer. Akinda stared back, then shifted her eyes to look behind him at his wife. Marguerite raised on eyebrow at her.

“Well,” she said at last, “obviously, I cannot personally authorize such a measure. But I will convey your, ah, terms to the bank. And,” she added, “I will encourage them in the firmest language possible to take your offer, Mr. Falconer. In this particular situation, I am reasonably confident I can persuade the bank to agree.”

“Good.” He turned his back on her and walked back to his wife, who took his hand with an expression of pride. “Then I bid you good day, Ms. Akinda. This audit is concluded.”

She bowed, just for good measure, then turned and walked out, the Butler opening the office door for her. Outside the office, Akinda allowed herself a soft sigh of relief.

Not the outcome she’d gone in looking for, or expecting, but…one she would accept. A hoarder had been thwarted, the bank could continue doing business, and the company would thrive.

It must flow. And for now, at least, it would.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                            Next Chapter >

13 – 37

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

“So, here’s a question,” Ruda grunted, taking the heavy power cell from Gabriel. “We’ve got two people here with invisible valkyries whispering in their ears, who apparently know how all this shit works. So why the fuck are they both together screwing around with that thing, while all the rest of us are having our slow-ass orders relayed by Mr. Avatar?”

“Hey, you heard the man,” Gabriel said with a grin, and dusted off his hands as he backed away from her. “Worst you guys can do is break the factory and drown us all. If we screw up, we could end the whole world!”

“Neither of those outcomes is remotely likely,” the Avatar said soothingly from the nearest of his floating projections. Talking to him in this state was a little disorienting; as they had scattered to various pieces of the command platform to dismantle equipment under his direction, he addressed them from whatever apparatus was most convenient, which meant there were several purple men displayed in viewscreens and hovering as light sculptures, sometimes more than one talking at once. “I assure you, the software modifications you are making will not destabilize the facility. And the dimensional gate’s full capabilities would have to be accessed very deliberately; it has far too many incorporated failsafes to accidentally activate any kind of rift, stable or otherwise.”

“Yeah, okay,” Ruda said, carefully slotting the power cell into a housing indicated by small flashing lights the Avatar had activated. “Question stands, though.”

“Counter-intuitive as it might appear, I believe this to be the most efficient allocation of our manpower,” the Avatar explained. “Your work is with the installed software, via interface devices which I can access directly and relay detailed instructions, responding in real time to developments as needed. The gateway is a completely separate device, and seems to have been deliberately installed in such a way as to avert my standard oversight measures. Their work is better facilitated by additional—”

“Yeah, yeah, point taken,” she said sourly, stepping back while the Caretaker slipped in with a diffident chime to begin attaching the power cell to the console. “Right, this thing’s being hooked up. What’s next?”

“As soon as the console is powered, it should form the last link in our jury-rigged system to bypass the gateway’s intrusion into my network. It will need to be configured; I will walk you through the process once it is online.”

“You okay?” Toby asked quietly, straightening up from the screen he’d been tapping to lay a hand on Ruda’s shoulder.

“You know, this thing you do,” she said wryly, “how you’re everybody’s mom all the time? That would be really annoying if it was anybody else. But for some damn reason I can’t get mad at you, Caine. And that is also annoying, but I can’t get mad about it either. It’s a recursive loop of stymied pissiness.”

Toby blinked, then grinned and held his arms out. “Hug?”

“Fuck off,” she snorted, but not without grinning in return. “Don’t mind my bitching, I’m just worried about what’s goin’ on up there without us. Faster we get this done, the faster it all becomes moot.”

A few feet away, Gabriel had returned to the gate, where Milady was bent over its attached control screen, eyes narrowed in concentration. The soft background noise of voices drifted by them, from Toby and Ruda’s conversation and the Avatar giving instructions to Fross and Juniper at another part of the machinery.

“Soooo,” he drawled quietly, “since it was brought up, maybe this is a good time to have a chat about valkyries?”

Milady’s lips twitched. The sharp light of the viewscreen emphasized the dark circles under her eyes. She kept her gaze on it, answering him after a short pause.

“You place me in an awkward position, Mr. Arquin. My loyalties being what they are, I cannot go divulging Imperial secrets.”

“Okay, well…” He knelt next to the base of the gateway. It was in two distinct parts: the actual gate, a metal doorway with an attached control screen, and a hefty base in which its power cells were installed, which the Avatar had set him to cannibalizing so they could build extra units to work around the blocks forced into his main system. “Can you at least account for what happened to Yrsa? Valkyries are kind of experts on death; when one of them dies, the others notice.”

“Apparently not,” she muttered. Straightening slightly, she glanced sidelong at Juniper, whose back was turned to them at the other end of the platform. “Are you aware what can happen to daughters of Naiya who are severely traumatized?”

“They transform,” he said, frowning. “Though…I thought that was just dryads.”

“Well, it’s valkyries, too. And, theoretically, I suppose also kitsune, though it’s hard for me to imagine anything really hurting one of those.”

“Met one too, have you,” he said with a grin, which immediately faded. “So…Yrsa?”

“Have you heard the legend of the Dark Walker?”

“Sure, I grew up with the same fairy tales you did, but what’s…” Gabriel trailed off, then straightened up, the color fading from his face. “Oh. Oh, no.”

Milady cleared her throat, glancing up at him. “So…on the one hand, Imperial secrets. On the other is a good friend whom I hate to deprive of access to her own sisters… Is Vestrel here right now? I mean, close by?”

He winced. “Uh, yeah. By the way, you’re decapitated again.”

“Charming,” she muttered. “Well, I am just going to casually mention the words spaceport and gravitational isolation chamber, and if anybody here can make something of that, well, good for them.”

“Oh…kay?”

The purple figure of the Avatar appeared nearby, projected from the closest surface he could access. “How goes it?”

“I found the activation records,” Milady reported in a louder tone. “It’s good news: this gate was last powered up more than fifteen thousand years ago. Last portal activation was never. So your worry about the other side coming through seems to be unfounded.”

“Excellent!” the AI said with a broad smile of relief. “That also bodes well for our immediate work here. As I hoped, the interlopers were using the connector between the actual portal surface and its base rather than the portal itself. The gate’s technology is merely being used to connect the dimensional vortex in the Golden Sea to this structure, which is already nightmarishly complicated. It would have been much worse had there been another rift involved. This means the Caretaker should be able to disconnect them without ill effect. Which is an additional benefit; all of these gates were slated for destruction, but their maker hid an annoying number of them. It is gratifying to be able to remove one from the world.”

“Wait, there are more of these things floating around?” Gabriel placed one hand against the side of the gate. “Just…doorways to other dimensions, built by the Elder Gods?”

“Unfortunately, yes. Have you found where this one goes, Milady?”

“Not yet,” she said, frowning at the screen. “This is the most annoying thing… It doesn’t seem like there’s very much information in this; each piece I find is just a few lines, if that. I bet it could all be just displayed on the desktop. But everything is hidden behind links, and each one wants multiple confirmations before letting you see it…”

“Yes, that sounds like Heilo’s idea of a user interface.”

“Heilo?” She glanced up at the purple hologram. “Let me guess, the Infinite Order member who made these?”

“Correct. Allegedly, his aim was to make them difficult to access for safety reasons, but Heilo also took personal satisfaction in being obstreperous.”

“What kinds of places might it go?” Gabriel asked.

“Heilo devised these gates as a means to solve intractable technological dilemmas. Each has only one destination, because each was formed by scanning possible alternative universes to locate one according to specific criteria. The Infinite Order used them, when they were unable to devise a given technology, to seek out a universe in which the technology already existed and observe it.”

“All the power in the world and they were still lazy, cheating bastards,” Ruda grunted. She had wandered away from her console, waiting for the Caretaker to finish installing the power cell and turn it on.

“That’s absolutely fascinating, though!” Fross chimed exuberantly, zipping around overhead. “Why, it’s confirmation of the many-worlds hypothesis!”

“Not necessarily,” the Avatar cautioned. “It was never entirely clear whether the alternate universes viewed through these gates had an independent existence, or were actually created by the act of viewing them.”

“Oh, come on,” Gabriel exclaimed. “Sub-atomic particles are one thing. How can an entire universe not exist until someone opens a door to it?”

The Avatar’s nearest projection shrugged, even while another called Ruda back to her station and a third continued to walk Juniper through disconnecting something. “Reality gets that way, when you pick it apart in sufficient detail. Are you familiar with the Big Bang theory? According to one interpretation, this universe didn’t exist until a door to it was opened. In any case, these gates should all have been destroyed after use. In addition to their practical application, however, Heilo had a hobby of creating gateways to view universes in which his favorite mythological stories were real. Obviously, the Infinite Order did not tolerate this and had all such dangerous devices destroyed. I think most of the fun for Heilo was hiding them from his colleagues. If you ever encounter another device like this, I strongly urge you to verify that it is inactive and then leave it strictly alone. It would lead either to a dimension inhabited by beings more advanced than the Infinite Order, or given Heilo’s taste in fiction, to someplace chaotic and wildly dangerous.”

“Azeroth,” Milady said suddenly, straightening her back without lifting her eyes from the screen.

The Avatar’s projection, with oddly human body language, stiffened and widened his eyes in visible alarm. “I beg your pardon?”

“I can’t find anything labeled as a destination for the portal, but there’s a folder that says it’s the device’s name. It just says ‘Azeroth.’” She looked up at him. “What’s that?”

He remained still for a moment, though a flicker ran through his form.

“You are certain this gate has never been fully activated?”

“Well, that’s what the records say,” she replied, her eyebrows rising, “though of course I can’t know if anybody has tampered with them…”

“Mr. Arquin, if you would, please take a moment to disconnect all the power cells from that apparatus.”

“Uh…sure, okay.” Gabriel picked up the multi-tool the Caretaker had brought him and bent to begin working on one of the three remaining cells. “Rough neighborhood, I take it?”

“One of the stories I mentioned. Certain entities there might detect a dimensional rift and attempt to cross it, none of whom I wish to meet. That is not my primary concern, however. This gate is among those listed as missing; the world it leads to was not one of Heilo’s personal interests, but Scyllith’s. He built it for her as a gift, attempting to coax a favor in return. Scyllith’s personal dimensional plane is inundated with her personal transcension field, which makes it difficult and dangerous to traverse, even for ascended beings. The gate was hidden there and then never accounted for again. I am relieved, and somewhat surprised, to see she retained enough sense never to open a full portal through it. I cannot, however, explain what it is doing on this plane of existence, much less in my fabrication plant, attached to my systems.”

The others had all stopped work and turned to listen while he spoke; apparently the Avatar was spooked enough by this discovery that his other projections had fallen silent, leaving only the one near the gate speaking. After he finished, there was a pause in which only the rush of water below could be heard. Even Gabriel had halted in the act of detaching one of the power cell’s couplings.

“We knew whoever broke into the facility in the first place was logged in under Scyllith’s credentials,” Milady said slowly, at last breaking the silence. “I had assumed someone had just found them. As…a relic, like all the other Infinite Order junk that’s turned up over the centuries.”

“But this thing was actually in Hell,” Toby added, eyes wide, “and apparently only Scyllith knew where.”

“Elilial has reigned in Hell for eight thousand years,” Fross pointed out. “She could’ve found it, easily.”

“If the Black Wreath were involved in setting this up,” Juniper countered, “why would that Mogul guy have helped us get down here to fix all this?”

Ruda snorted derisively. “The only thing we can be sure of about why the Black Wreath does anything is that they’d lie to us about it.”

“So it was either Elilial or Scyllith,” Gabriel said, shifting from his uncomfortable crouch to sit on the floor next to the power cell, his task apparently forgotten. “Remember the hellgate last year? The demons that came through that weren’t loyal to Elilial. She doesn’t fully control Hell, any more than the Pantheon has absolute control over the mortal plane. I bet Scyllith still has secrets and allies there, even if she’s been banished. And if one of them has access to something like this, plus the ability to cart it through a hellgate somehow to get here…”

“Elilial can’t get through Infinite Order security,” Milady murmured. “Scyllith could. Elilial also can’t just hop between dimensions whenever she wants, it’s known she has to use the hellgates like everybody else. But Scyllith was part of the Order that created the separate dimensions in the first place. If anybody could work around that…”

“Also, Scyllith or someone working for her might know how to build a big, complicated gadget like this,” Fross acknowledged, her glow dimming slightly in alarm. “I don’t think the Wreath would.”

“Scyllith is bound,” Toby insisted. “Elilial stole her throne in Hell, and Themynra and her drow are keeping her imprisoned in the Underworld.”

“And yet…here’s this thing,” Gabriel said, craning his neck to stare up at the dimensional gate. It was such a plain thing to look at, little more than an empty, rectangular doorframe, unadorned and apparently made of stainless steel.

Ruda slammed her fist against the side of a console, making several of them jump. “All right, enough. Yes, this is a big fuckin’ deal and I am pretty goddamn sure we’re gonna be dealing with the implications of this later on, so we’d better not forget it. But right now there’s not a damn thing we can do about any of that. What we can do now is finish fixing the Avatar’s shit, so he can shut off the nanites and kill the Rust. Gods know what’s happening to my city while we sit here maundering. Back to your stations, people, we’ve got work to do.”


Kheshiri was forced to cover her tracks by following one of the wall guards through the gatehouse; she had been drenched in the storm, and the only way to conceal the trail of water she left was by following a trail of water the guards expected to find. Unfortunately, that meant she had to stop in the north gatehouse barracks where the soldier she was stalking had come to rest. The good news was that he had plunked down by the fire to dry himself and his gear.

She was now lurking precariously in the rafters near the brazier. It would’ve been nice if they’d made a proper fire, but Puna Dara was simply too hot at this time of year; the glowing coals were only being used to dry uniforms soaked in the storm, and that only because the arcane heater shoved into a nearby corner was apparently broken. The succubus wasn’t willing to risk filching a towel, not in front of this many people. So she perched there, wings fully spread both for balance and to expose them to the rising heat, while water dripped from her. The occasional drop fell in the brazier itself, but the hissing went unnoticed thanks to the wind outside and the boisterous chatter within.

At least this enforced pause gave her a chance to eavesdrop. Somewhat to her surprise, she actually overheard something useful.

“Sir!” A soldier had entered who was not part of the wall rotation; rather than going to dry off, he had marched up to the officer in charge and saluted. “Message from Lieutenant Laghari in the south gatehouse!”

The local commander, a tall man with a waxed mustache and captain’s knots at his shoulder, kept himself in the barracks with his men instead of squirreled away in an office; at this, he set down the book he’d been reading and turned on the bench to face the dripping trooper who had just arrived. Nearby, conversations faltered as onlookers turned to watch.

“At ease, soldier,” said the captain. “Go ahead.”

“Yes, sir. The squad of Silver Legionnaires from Tiraas are in the south bunkhouse, including an elf. She reported hearing something. The Lieutenant felt you should know.”

“An elf,” the captain said flatly, “heard…something. What kind of a something, did Lieutenant Laghari see fit to mention?”

“She wasn’t sure, sir,” the soldier said crisply, eyes straight ahead. Even Kheshiri could see this captain wasn’t a hardass from the relaxed manner in which his troops chatted around him while not on watch, but there was a certain, universal way about soldiers having to report something even they knew was stupid to a superior officer. “Corporal Shahai reported a possibility that someone was creeping around the gatehouse under magical stealth, but couldn’t be certain. The Lieutenant didn’t feel it warranted further action, but he wanted you to know in case you disagreed. I’m to convey the message and bring back any orders if you have them, sir.”

The captain sighed. “Orders? Well, obviously, be on watch for intruders. But since that is the entire mandate of gate watch duty, I hopefully don’t need to issue orders to that effect. Back to your post, soldier.”

“Yes, sir,” the man said with clear relief. He saluted again, then turned and made for the stairs with incongruous eagerness for someone about to climb up into the kind of storm that blew people off battlements.

“Think there’s anything to that, Captain?” asked a female sergeant hovering nearby.

“Oh, who knows,” the captain said irritably, picking up his book again. “Keep an eye out, regardless. It won’t hurt anything to be extra wary, but I don’t think we need to change our rotation over it. Naphthene’s tits, but Laghari wouldn’t even have humored something like that if the elf in question had been male.”

There was a round of guffaws at this, by which time Kheshiri had already started moving again. She was still dripping, but time was now out. Apart from the elf’s warning, her partners had been waiting longer than they were supposed to, and she didn’t need them getting antsy.

She dropped to the floor, pressed herself to the wall, and crept as rapidly as she could for the door opposite the one she had come in. The layout of this gatehouse was a mirror of the other, so she knew where she was going. The succubus luckily encountered no more soldiers as she descended a narrow staircase to the ground level.

The barracks was on the second floor; down below was an armory and a narrow hall leading to a small, sturdy side door. As with everything in the Rock, it was almost excessively defensible. Slits in the ceiling and upper walls provided soldiers above the ability to fill the space with arrows, wandshots, spells, boiling oil…whatever they had handy. Sections of the wall next to the outer door and the stairwell were cut away, the space beyond filled with stones and angled to create an avalanche that would completely block the hall if the sturdy net covering the opening were released.

Only one side door opened off the hall, into the armory. Kheshiri peeked into this in passing, finding two more soldiers “guarding” the exit by playing cards. Well, they weren’t drinking and their backs weren’t to the door; clearly nobody here expected trouble, but the Punaji soldiers weren’t incompetent. There was a good chance the people she was supposed to let in were not going to get any further than the gatehouse.

Not that that was her problem. She had her job to do, and the offhand satisfaction of knowing somebody was going to die because of it. Who it was didn’t concern her. This petty little religious squabble was even more boring than most such inane affairs.

The small side door was only small in comparison to the main gate; though narrower than the average door, it was a single piece of oak, which she knew to be fully six inches thick and with a hollowed out interior filled with a sheet of steel. It was barred and locked.

Picking the lock took her a few minutes. The Punaji hadn’t grown complacent in the years since anyone had attacked the Rock, so this was a new and well-maintained lock. Fortunately, she’d had ample opportunity to practice during all the downtime lately…

It finally gave with a soft click, and she smirked and tucked her lockpicks back into her bodice. Lifting the bar was the challenging part, for her; it was a bar designed for two men to pick up, and she was a demon designed for stealth, not brute force. Not that she couldn’t have managed to shove it loose, but raising the thing to rest against the wall without creating a noise had her clenching her teeth and concentrating hard to avoid giving herself away with a grunt.

Soon, though, it was open, and she didn’t waste a second to rest on her laurels, or even catch her breath. Opening the door itself was risky, thanks to the noise outside; she waited for a particularly heavy thunderclap to shove it outward and slip through the gap, pushing it shut behind her. The whole maneuver took less than a second.

Outside, there was a broad space between the Rock’s walls and any other structures, which left her exposed. She was invisible, sure, but if anyone had been paying close attention, an invisible person moving through a rainstorm was an eye-catching sight. Nobody was within view, however, and at this angle she wouldn’t be visible from atop the wall. The door was also somewhat sheltered from the wind, which had prevented it from being loudly slammed shut.

Still invisible, Kheshiri shifted into a form exactly like her usual one, minus only the obvious demonic features. Without wings and tail to get caught in the wind, she had less trouble getting across the square. There wasn’t much she could do about her hair being blown around, but at least it didn’t obstruct her vision when it was blown across her face. A fringe perk of invisibility.

As she’d entered the other gatehouse, she had to swing all the way around the corner of the Rock’s outer wall to get back to where the others were. In moments, though, she was there, slipping through the warehouse door.

Inside, dozens of individuals whirled, pointing weapons at the door which had apparently opened and shut by itself. Kheshri popped back into view, raising her hands in a gesture of surrender. She didn’t bother to keep the predatory grin off her face. The local rubes would expect such from the likes of her, and this was the most fun she’d had in weeks.

“It’s about fucking time,” Shook growled, holstering his wand. He shouldered roughly past several Rust cultists and grabbed her by the upper arm in a bruising grip. “What held you up?”

“Sorry, master,” she said, still grinning, well aware of the tinge of madness in her expression and enjoying it. “That was a little more fun than I’d anticipated. There are Silver Legionnaires in the gatehouse I entered, including an elf; she could hear me.”

“You were discovered?” Two figures stood apart from the crowd of cultists; the one who had spoken wore heavy robes, a deep cowl, and a mask below that. The other was half machine, and now fixed her with a piercing stare.

“No,” Kheshiri replied, deliberately leaning into Shook’s touch. By this point she had conditioned him to a specific degree of roughness that she’d led him to believe she enjoyed. Well, she actually did rather enjoy it, but that was beside the point. “I couldn’t mask myself completely from the elf’s senses, but she couldn’t figure out what she was hearing, either. So I went across to the other gatehouse, to be safe. The side door is unlocked.”

“That’s a longer run from here,” Ayuvesh said sharply, shifting his gaze from her to glare at the hooded man with him. “More time for the guards on the wall to see us and react.”

“My girl’s the best at what she does,” Shook stated flatly. “If that was what she could do, it’s all anybody could do.”

The machine-man gave him a long, contemplative look, as if pondering the relative merits of a rodent he had just discovered digging through his trash, and Kheshiri had to concentrate to keep the anticipation from her expression. That was exactly the kind of provocation that could send Shook into a most amusing snit.

The enforcer simply stared back, however, and annoyance rose in her. Apparently Khadizroth’s efforts with him were beginning to bear fruit.

That simply would not do.

“Very well, I take your point,” Ayuvesh acknowledged at last, turning back to the hooded man. “Your people seem quite capable. Since this is now more difficult than we had planned, we could use—”

“Our part in this is finished,” he replied, his mellifluous voice not muffled by his mask. “We have opened the door for you, as agreed. That is already far more than you could have achieved unaided. What you are able to do with this advantage depends upon you.”

“Very well,” Ayuvesh replied after a moment’s pause. “I would thank you for your help, but I suspect we are soon to learn what your motive is for intervening here, perhaps to our detriment. Farewell, then, strangers.”

The hood shifted as the man nodded. Ayuvesh turned his back with no more ado, and strode for the door.

It took time for the dozens of cultists to file out. They went without speaking, though their movements were accompanied by a soft scrape and clatter of metal which was only mostly overpowered by the storm outside. Soon, though, they had all exited the warehouse.

Almost immediately, the sound of alarm bells began.

With a sigh, Khadizroth reached up to push back his hood and lower the mask. “And that is our signal.”

The Jackal popped out of nowhere nearby, wearing his usual borderline insane grin and toying with a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman. “Aw, sure you don’t wanna stay a while? His Holiness’ll just put us back into storage for fuck knows how long.”

“There’s good fun to be had here,” Kheshiri agreed eagerly. “I haven’t seen a coup go down in ages.”

“In that castle,” Khadizroth said quellingly, “is the Hand of Vidius, who is accompanied by at least one valkyrie. You of all people should be anxious to get away from here.”

“Yeah,” Shook agreed. “I’m as stir-crazy as anybody, but this isn’t our problem. Those demented half-metal assholes are going to get themselves killed, and I say good fucking riddance. Better them than us.”

“Oh, I highly doubt we are the only surprise they will spring on the King today,” Khadizroth said dryly. “That Ayuvesh is too lucid a man to attempt something like this unless he believed he could truly gain. But that, as you rightly point out, is now his business. Our part in this is done. Let’s go.”

 

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

12 – 58

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                 Next Chapter >

“I need someone to say how quiet it is,” the Jackal murmured, easing back into the alley from having peeked around the corner. He turned to grin at the rest of them. “You know. So I can make the obvious rejoinder.”

He was met by a cluster of unimpressed expressions.

“It’s too quiet,” he clarified, seeming on the verge of bursting into laughter.

“You see what I have to deal with?” Shook muttered to Joe. “Every day with this crap.”

“My heart bleeds,” Joe retorted. “Although, to be fair, that was just the once.”

They all ducked at the sudden gust of wind that swooped into the alley. Seconds later, a stack of old crates a few yards back shook slightly, and Kheshiri popped back into view atop it, wings still spread from her glide.

“Well?” Shook demanded.

“It’s a trap,” the succubus reported.

“Didn’t we already know that?” Rook stage whispered. Moriarty nudged him with the butt of his staff, scowling.

“No, no, this is good news,” Kheshiri continued, grinning, as she folded her wings against her back. “It was supposed to be a trap, but it’s been neutered. The guy in charge is gonna try to ambush us right out there on the street, he’s got his people positioned packed into alleys and a couple ground-floor rooms in the surrounding area. But! The Thieves’ Guild have finally got off their butts and been moving, too, and they do quick and quiet a lot better than these guys. They’ve ambushed several of the shadow-jumpers and have been blocking doors. I don’t think they’ll be able to contain the whole horde, there are still at least a couple scores of ’em, but Mr. Big Shot out there is gonna be very underwhelmed when he tries to spring his ambush.”

“How, exactly, do you know this guy’s in charge?” Joe demanded.

“Because he’s the only one I can sense,” she said condescendingly. “I told you the others are on drugs—all I get from them is…fuzz. They’re like a sea, not like individuals. The ones using magic, though, and this guy, they’re alert and focused. And this one’s standing still, not shadow-jumping around, which makes him in charge. We take him out—”

“You can read minds?” Finchley blurted out in horror.

“Not quite,” Danny murmured. “Children of Vanislaas can sense desires, though. It’s an intuitive thing. I never heard of one making such tactical use of the skill, though…”

“I’m a piece of work,” Kheshiri said smugly. “Right, master?”

“That’s my girl,” Shook said, then snapped his fingers and pointed to the ground by his feet. The demon obediently hopped down from her crate and went to heel with an unnecessarily slinky gait, deliberately turning to brush her bust against Finchley’s chest as she squeezed past and causing him to turn nearly scarlet.

“As a point of general reference,” said Joe, “you guys trust the demon because…?”

“People make such a fuss about trust,” the Jackal mused, shaking his head woefully. “We work as a group because we all know what we want and what we’re like. And Kheshiri will be in deep shit if anything excessively bad happens to her precious master, there. Considering we’re not only in mortal danger but surrounded by Guild enforcers who specifically want to haul his ass away in chains, she’ll behave herself. And she’s right; if we’ve identified the leader, and he thinks he has the upper hand but doesn’t, this is our chance to finish this.”

“Undead,” Vannae said weakly. He had regained some of the color in his cheeks, but was still having trouble breathing, apparently.

“Ah, yes,” the Jackal said, “that. When I said ‘undead,’ I didn’t mean skeletons and zombies. He’s got some real nastiness waiting in the wings. Soon as his trap fails to go off, he’ll drop that hammer, so we’ve gotta finish this fast.”

“Vampires?” Finchley squeaked.

“Kid, if there was a vampire after us, most of this group would be dead already,” the Jackal said disdainfully. “Constructs. Big ones. Constructed undead are pretty fragile, but they hit hard. Better by far if we put a stop to this before they come into play.”

Rook cleared his throat. “Uh, doesn’t it seem likely the thieves will attack him once that starts? Him and possibly us, since we’re with Shook?”

“Fuck my life,” Shook muttered. Kheshiri snuggled against his side, and he absentmindedly patted her rear.

“Yep,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “Well, what’re you jokers all standing around for? This beehive ain’t gonna kick itself!”


“Here?”

“I—I don’t know!” Maureen said frantically, clearly on the verge of tears. “I wasn’t—it all looks the same, it’s just grass and I can’t see over it—”

Sheyann stepped over to the horse and reached up to lay a hand gently on Maureen’s leg. The gnome broke off, choking back a sob, then blinked down at the elf.

“One breath at a time,” the Elder said, radiating calm. Maureen nodded, hiccuping again, and squeezed her eyes shut, clearly reaching for self-control. Sheyann shifted her attention to Whisper’s other rider. “Gabriel, did you happen to take note of your surroundings?”

“’Fraid I have the same problem, uh, Elder,” he said, frowning around at the horizon. “I was distracted trying to find the girls, and…this all looks the same to me. I came north toward the Sea, so it’s this general area…”

“It’s here,” said Wyrnst, who was barely visible through the tallgrass, being a foot shorter than its average height. “It’s fading fast, but…there’s a characteristic smell about this, so to speak. Infernal magic was used…not quite here, but across the dimensional barrier from this spot. I’ve encountered similar in the aftermath of major summonings. From what I know of how the Golden Sea works, it could cause the same residue. Can you sense anything?”

“Agitation,” Haunui murmured, gazing out across the tallgrass. “The wind speaks of its anger. They call this a sea?”

“We know that’s how centaurs navigate,” said Tellwyrn, striding forward to join Sheyann. “Shift the Darklands, cause a corresponding shift on this side of the barrier, at least until the tension builds up and the whole system randomizes itself. But that’s within the Sea, and we’re a good half a mile from the border. Sheyann, you’re older than I; have you ever heard of someone reaching out of the Sea to suck someone in like this?”

The Elder shook her head, patting Maureen’s leg one last time and then taking a step north, toward the endless horizon, where the last red light of sunset was fading. “Centaurs are not ambitious warlocks; I doubt any would think to try such a thing. I do feel it, now that I focus…but it’s strange. It’s not what I… Give me a moment, please. I must concentrate.”

She folded her legs under herself right where she stood, sinking smoothly down to kneel and consequently all but vanishing into the tallgrass. Gabriel gently nudged Whisper away, giving the Elder a respectful space in which to work.

Haunui glanced down at her, then up again at the horizon. “I will help if I can, but I do not understand this land. Nor the depth of your craft.”

“There are few elemental spirits anywhere on this continent that don’t know Sheyann,” Tellwyrn said briskly, “and few people anywhere who are more skilled at what they do. If she wants to try something, we’ll probably get the best results by leaving her to it.”

“She’s out there,” Maureen whimpered.

“And we will find her,” Tellwyrn said firmly. “Sheyann is, as usual, right. Right now the best thing you can do is take care of yourself, Maureen. Try to find some calm.”

“Should…I go back for some of the others?” Gabriel asked uncertainly. “I mean, since Whisper and I have the speed, here.”

“To retrace the Sleeper’s steps, we need infernomancy and shamanism,” Tellwyrn replied. “That’s who I brought along, Arquin—and before you suggest it, Embras Mogul is already more involved in this whole business than I like.”

“Wasn’t gonna,” he muttered.

“Mr. Wrynst,” Tellwyrn said, turning to the dwarf, “I realize this is out of your element, but can you detect anything else?”

Wrynst stroked his chin ruminatively. He was clean-shaven and altogether looked the part of the modern dwarf; his formal robes were well-tailored, suggesting a business suit in their style and cut to accentuate rather than conceal the blocky shape of his physique.

“Not without more to go on,” he said at last. “As I said, the traces are fading rapidly, even while we stand here. The problem is that there wasn’t actually a rift opened. I can track a shadow-jump or dimensional transfer if I can get at it, but this accursed mirroring effect obscures the traces I’d need to read. The real action happened in Hell, not here. If either of our shaman can coax the Sea to oblige us, that’ll be another matter. Rifts are even easier to follow in the context of other nearby rifts, so long as you’ve a head for the math—and have the right tools. I have both, of course! The Golden Sea makes the ultimate sextant in that regard; most theorize there is a massive dimensional nexus of some kind at its center, which both causes the instability in the region and is the reason the Sea doesn’t let anybody get at its heart. But, again, that’s little help because the shifting we’re trying to follow is merely a reflection of something that happened in another universe, and I’ve neither the senses nor the instruments to perceive something like that in the necessary detail.”

“The winds are angry,” Haunui repeated morosely. “I expect no help from them.”

“Thanks for that,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh.

“The Sea will help us,” Sheyann said suddenly, opening her eyes and standing. “I must remain here, to keep communication open. The mind of the Sea is normally unreadable…but it seems Iris reached it.”

“She said please,” Maureen whispered. “Over and over. I didn’t know who she was begging…”

“The child will be a truly remarkable witch, in the fullness of time,” Sheyann said gravely, “provided we are able to rescue her. She touched the Sea itself, its consciousness, something no shaman I have ever known has been able to do.”

“Iris has gifts apart from her craft,” Tellwyrn said tersely. “I don’t invite just any teenage witch to my school. You have an expression that says there’s a downside, Sheyann.”

“The consciousness of the Golden Sea is…rather like a god, in some respects,” Sheyann explained, nodding. “It is a consciousness, but not like ours. In the way it is approached, it’s like a machine, responding predictably to a few narrow stimuli and ignoring most others. While gods will sometimes make their thoughts known, however, the Sea never has that I know of. Iris left traces that I can follow. However…”

“Here it comes,” Tellwyrn muttered.

Sheyann gave her an irritated look without pausing. “This is delicate. I sense compliance toward Iris, as well as resentment at the Sleeper. I don’t understand what Iris did, exactly, and cannot reproduce it; the Sea will not comply with me. To do this, I will have to skirt the line between cajoling the Sea’s distant mind in the wake of Iris’s touch, and coercing it to cooperate, as the centaurs do. One false step will backfire catastrophically.”

Tellwyrn drew in a breath, and let it out in a short sigh. “I know your skill, Sheyann. If anyone can do it…”

“I would not suggest such a risk if I didn’t think I could,” the Elder replied gravely. “That is not the problem. I must maintain a reflection, in Mr. Wrynst’s words, of what was done before.”

“What’s that mean?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“The Sleeper’s passage was separate, and invisible to me,” Sheyann said. “I can retrace the grip that seized Iris and Maureen. But two were taken, and only two can follow.”

“Sometimes,” Tellwyrn growled, “I honestly hate magic.”


Immediately upon exiting the alley, they put together the best formation they could. Shook and Kheshiri stepped to one side of the opening, the Jackal and Vannae to the other, while Joe paced out in the center, wands in hand. Behind him, Danny emerged, and the three soldiers swiftly clustered around him as soon as they had space to do so, brandishing staves at the empty street.

“Fuckin’ creepy,” Shook muttered. “Haven’t even heard any alarm bells…”

They all whirled to face the shadows which swelled in the center of the street ahead. The darkness receded, revealing three figures in gray robes which obscured their faces.

“Grandiose,” Kheshiri said skeptically. “You only needed one caster to shadow-jump. You’re sacrificing strategic value for—”

“We are the rising tide,” a gravely voice interrupted her.

“Which one’s talking?” Finchley whispered.

“I will bet you a year’s pay it’s the one in the middle,” Rook muttered back.

The Jackal barked a laugh. “No bet.”

“We will sweep away the unworthy,” the voice continued, and finally the figure in the middle stepped forward to raise his arms skyward. “The very stones are worn away by the tide!”

“Fascinating,” said Danny, craning his neck to peer over Moriarty’s shoulder. “Excuse me, but what god are you with? I don’t recognize that rhetoric.”

“You cannot stop the—”

The cultist’s proclamation was cut short by a lightning bolt. It was an imperfect shot, coming at an awkward angle; the electric discharge struck the figure to his left indirectly, arcing to graze him. He toppled backward to the street with a squeal, while his compatriot fell silently, robe smoking. The other cultist jumped backward, and vanished in an abrupt swell of shadow.

The rest of them had whirled to face the direction from which the shot had come, with the exception of the Jackal, who flung his arms wide in a gesture of frustration.

“Oh, come on! I was gonna murder that guy! Goddammit, I never get to kill anybody anymore…”

Sweet hopped down from the second-floor fire escape, landing in a deep crouch, then straightened, still aiming a wand.

“Still alive?” he said to the fallen cult leader, who was emitting shrill moans of pain. “Splendid, I have some friends who’re looking forward to kicking your ass in meticulous detail. Flora! Fauna! Why do I not hear—ah, there we go.”

A bell began tolling not far away, followed by another, and then a third more distantly, the city’s chain of alarm bells finally coming to life to signal the emergency.

“Sorry, boss!” shouted a feminine voice from the roofs above the street. “We’re not miracle workers, you know!”

“Flesh and blood can only move so fast,” another added.

“Yeah, yeah,” the thief muttered, sweeping his gaze across the group. “Joe, you picked a perfect time to show up. Everybody all right?”

“Quite well, thank you,” Danny said pleasantly.

“Well indeed,” the Jackal said, grinning. “The man himself! It’s been a while.”

“It’s gonna go much worse for you than the last time if you attempt any of the bullshit you’re contemplating,” Sweet said curtly, striding over to the fallen cultists. He kicked the leader, eliciting another cry of pain. “You. I don’t know who you fuckers are, but you are going to explain, and then have things explained to you. You do not do this horseshit in my city. By the time I finish—”

He jumped back at the resurgent rise of shadows. Six more robed figures had appeared on either side of the street from the cluster of people present, arranged in a pair of matching triangles.

“Summoning formations!” Joe barked, snapping his wands up. He dropped the three on their right with a round of blindingly fast shots.

Shadow-jumping was an extremely rapid process, though, and by the time he’d turned to the other cluster, they had done their work. The shadows which swelled up obscured that entire half of the street momentarily. When they receded, the three cultists had vanished with them. What remained behind was at least twelve feet tall.

“Oh, by the way,” the Jackal said helpfully. “Undead.”

It was proportioned like a centaur, with a humanoid torso rising from a four-legged base, and made from bones. Not that it was a skeleton; it had been built from haphazardly-collected bones forming a lopsided structure, held together with bolted lengths of iron and pulsating greenish strands of tissue rather like misplaced ligaments. Atop its torso was a single, normal-sized human skull. If not for the overall horror of the thing, its tiny head might have looked comical.

The accompanying smell was truly unspeakable.

Rook squeaked, Finchley retched, and Moriarty shot it. He actually hit it, too, the blast of lightning sending charred bone fragments flying and causing electricity to crackle visibly along the iron pieces lining its structure. The only tangible result of this was to catch the construct’s attention. It turned far more smoothly than such an awkward-looking thing had any right to, facing them directly.

Joe dispatched a rapid series of shots, burning hole after hole through the thing’s tiny head until the skull finally dissolved completely in broken fragments.

This accomplished nothing. The construct ignored him entirely, charging at the group with the speed of an angry bull.

The three soldiers shoved Danny back into the alley, leaving the rest of the group to dive out of the way. It crashed against the side of the building with an awful clatter, breaking chunks of masonry and sending large pieces of bone and iron to the sidewalk.

“Look how fragile it is!” Kheshiri shouted from above. “We can wear it down!”

Joe, Sweet, and the elves had gotten out of the way, Vannae moving far more deftly than his previous show of weakness had suggested he could. Shook was slower, and got accidentally kicked in the monstrosity’s charge and sent skidding across the pavement. Kheshiri dived to the ground, landing over him with her wings protectively spread.

Lightning blasted out of the alley’s mouth; with the construct pressed against the opening, there was no way they could miss, and bolts of energy ripped pieces of it loose. They broke off firing as the thing adjusted itself to reach into the alley with one enormous arm. It was thankfully too big to fit inside, but it had a long enough reach that they were forced to retreat to avoid being grabbed.

Sweet and Joe fled to the opposite side of the street, where the thief let fly with indiscriminate shots from his wand, raking more and more pieces off the monster, while the Kid surgically shot out metal joints one at a time. After just a few seconds of this, the monster sagged slightly to one side, beginning to lose some of its structural integrity. It stumbled further when the Jackal darted up and slammed a long blade into the knee of one of its back legs, wrenching it loose and causing it to slump sideways, that leg disabled.

Moving less adroitly now, the construct shifted to face the rest of them, just in time to take another barrage of lightning out of the alley to its central mass.

“Hold your fire!” Kheshiri shouted. The succubus dived straight down from the sky, striking the monster’s shoulder with both feet and all her weight, then bouncing off and gliding away. The impact knocked its arm loose entirely, leaving it with just the one reaching into the alley.

“Shit!” Shook yelped from up the street. “Shit shit!”

They turned, barely catching the end of another swell of shadows from that direction as the cultists jumped back out, leaving behind a second construct built along the same lines as the first.

“What?” Sweet protested. “How? Where were they keeping them?”

“With multiple shadow-jumpers, coulda been in Sheng-la for all the difference it makes,” Joe said grimly, swiveling and unleashing a barrage of wandfire at the thing as it came barreling up the street at them. “Gotta catch the—look out!”

They had to dive out of the way again, back toward the first monster, which was still trying to move, but able to do little but thrash now, all of its limbs having been disabled by the various adventurers. The new arrival slammed against the apartment building opposite, shattering windows and demolishing a set of decorative eaves; Joe and Sweet barely got out of its way in time to avoid being crushed.

A figure swathed in black plummeted from the roof above, cloak billowing behind her.

“Flora, no!” Sweet shouted.

“Flora, yes,” the elf snapped from right next to him, grabbing his arm and tugging him away. “You let the heavy-hitters deal with this crap.” Fauna planted herself between him and the second monster, brandishing long knives in both hands.

“Wait a sec,” Sweet protested, though he didn’t struggle against her tugging. “If you’re—who is that? Who else wears a cloak?!”

The black figure whirled and swarmed across the construct’s massive body like a temporally accelerated monkey, moving with speed and deftness that even an elf could not match—not to mention strength. Striking with hands and feet, it swiftly and precisely knocked loose strategic pieces of iron while clambering over the monster and evading its grasp. In barely ten seconds, it accomplished what a gaggle of armed fighters hadn’t managed to do to the first construct, which was still feebly wriggling, now lying across the street itself after the last barrage of staff fire had knocked it away from the alley. The new construct, however, collapsed to the pavement in pieces. Something fundamental in its body had clearly been destroyed; it entirely disintegrated, none of its components even attempting to move.

There was a momentary pause in which the only sound was the ongoing alarm bells, followed by another massive swell of shadows out of nowhere, immediately pierced by three beams from Joe’s wand. The shadow abruptly dissipated, leaving three robed figures lying dead in their wake.

“That is enough a’ that,” Joe growled.

Kicking aside a piece of arm as long as she was tall and lowering her hood, the figure in black turned to face the rest of the street. On the ground and stationary, she was revealed as a pretty young woman with dark hair.

Across the way, Shook, Kheshiri, the Jackal, and Vannae, who had just attacked an undead monstrosity five times their collective size without flinching, shouted in panic and scrambled away toward the nearest open alley.

Face set in a predatory glower, the woman shot after them, fast as a pouncing lion.

“STOP!”

Roughly pushing aside Finchley, who was trying to hold him back, Danny emerged from their hiding place, giving the still-twitching necromantic construct a wide berth, but showing no sign of unease. On the contrary, his voice and bearing radiated a command which, surprisingly, stopped everyone in their tracks. The woman skidded to a halt, whirling to stare at him, and the four she’d been pursuing hesitated in spite of themselves.

“We’ve won here,” Danny said firmly. “No more. No turning on each other, and no revenge. Let them be, Milanda. I owe them.”

She let out a short breath, then charged at him, cloak flaring behind her.

Moriarty whipped up his staff at her and Danny punched him in the face, and then she was on him, wrapping her arms around him and burying her head against his chest.

Feet came pounding up the street, and Joe whirled to aim wands, which he immediately lowered.

Five soldiers skidded to a halt, weapons raised, staring around incredulously.

“What in the goddamn hell?” demanded the sergeant at the head of the group. “Weapons down! NOW!”

“Coulda used you gentlemen ’bout ten minutes ago,” Joe muttered, holstering his wands.

“Officers,” Sweet said pleasantly, obligingly dropping his wand and raising his hands over his head. “This is…” He paused, glancing around at the dead bodies, the damaged walls, multiple lightning burns, and shattered remnants of two giant constructs of bone, one still trying to get up. “Well! This is probably more or less exactly whatever the hell it looks like.”

 

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                  Next Chapter >

12 – 57

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                 Next Chapter >

They emerged from the alley into more trouble.

“Contact!” Rook called rather shrilly, placing himself in front of Danny and lifting his staff to take aim at the two figures in gray robes suddenly dashing down the street toward him.

Before he could fire, perhaps luckily, Joe pushed past, raising one of his wands. Two short, clean beams of light pierced each attacker straight through the head, causing them to collapse mid-stride.

“Holy shit,” Finchley said somewhat tremulously.

“Keep it together,” Moriarty muttered. “We have a mission still to complete.”

Kheshiri was the last out of the alley. She paused upon the sidewalk, surveying Joe’s handiwork with her fists on her hips, and incongruously grinned. “Well, well, you are learning!”

“Shut up,” Joe said curtly, his eyes scanning the street. It was narrower than the main avenue they had been trying to reach at the other end of the alley, and looked less planned, to judge by the way it kinked back and forth around irregularly-placed old buildings. Altogether this was a much more ambush-friendly corridor, though at least it showed no further evidence of cultist activity at the moment.

“Really, I applaud your dedication to preserving life,” Kheshiri continued in an overtly mocking tone. “I warned you, though: berserker drugs. Shooting to disable is not going to accomplish anything. Ah, well, what matters is you eventually got the—”

Joe very calmly turned and shot her through the foot. She yelped and staggered back, slumping against the face of the nearest building.

“Whoah, hey!” Rook protested.

“I understand the impulse, Joe,” Danny said more quietly, “but she’ll only keep needling if you give her reactions, and that isn’t going to help. If you’re not going to kill her, please don’t wind her up.”

The three ex-soldiers glanced at each other with wide-eyed alarm, while Joe heaved a heavy sigh.

“Fine,” he grunted after a pause. “We’d best move out.”

“Oh, I’m all right, thank you for your concern,” Kheshiri said bitingly. Indeed, after holding her foot off the ground for a moment and flexing her ankle, she set it down again, and set off up the street without any trace of a limp. “Good call, time is precious and enemies abound. This is the fastest—”

“Not that way,” Danny interrupted, already heading down the street in the other direction.

“Hey!” she called after him in irritation. “This leads directly to a major artery—there’ll be military police there. You’re going deeper into this dead end of a district that way!”

“We can circle around easily enough,” Danny replied, “and more importantly, not taking straight and obvious routes is key to avoiding pursuit.”

“Not in this situation,” she retorted. “Unless you have a better reason than that…?”

“He’s right,” said Joe, nodding solemnly at Danny. “We know somebody who lives just up the road there, and we ain’t leadin’ whoever these clowns are in that direction.”

“I said better reason,” she said dryly.

“Come on.” Danny turned and resumed walking without another word. He finally seemed motivated to pick up his pace; at any rate, there was no more of his previous aimless ambling. The troops fell into formation around him, and Joe quickly pushed ahead, weapons out. Kheshiri, grumbling and cursing under her breath, finally brought up the rear.

“Sooo, Kheshiri,” Rook said rather weakly after a few yards of awkwardness. “Interesting name. Is that Calderaan?”

“Vanislaad,” Joe said shortly.

All three came to an immediate stop, swiveled in unison, and pointed their staves at the disguised succubus. She rolled her eyes.

“Cut that out,” Danny ordered. “In fact, with all respect, I’d prefer if you three refrained from firing your weapons except in the last extremity of self-defense. Those are military-grade, and people are living all around us. We have a legendary sharpshooter along; let him do what he does best.”

“For people being all around, it’s awful quiet, don’t you think?”

They swiveled again, still raising weapons, as did Joe, to aim at the man who slipped out of another alley just up ahead.

“Oh, great,” Joe muttered.

“Master,” Kheshiri said warily. “I thought you were—”

“Situation’s changed,” he interrupted. “Jack and Vannae are still scouting and trying to keep our flanks clear, but you chowderheads are about to plow right into another big concentration of the Wreath.”

“They aren’t Wreath,” she said sullenly.

“Yeah, you really latched onto the important part of that,” he snapped. “Keep quiet if you’re just gonna waste air.”

“You know this guy, I take it?” Finchley asked.

“Shook,” said Joe. “Am I gonna have to shoot you, too?”

“Another time, kid,” Shook replied. He had two wands in hand himself, both pricey-looking enchanter wands rather than standard lightning-throwers, but had them aimed at the ground, and was seemingly ignoring all the weapons still trained on him. “We’ve got mutual fish to fry right now. These robed assholes are gonna kill everybody they stumble across, which raises some real concerns about what happened to everybody living around here. Come on, we gotta backtrack, fast.”

“They won’t go that way,” Kheshiri complained. “This is like herding suicidal cats.”

“I do not give a fuck,” Shook exclaimed. “You go back if you want to live.”

“We’ll not be doing that,” Danny replied in perfect calm, heading across the street. “Do you happen to know where this alley—”

The pounding of feet on the pavement was the only warning they got.

As before, the attackers came in disturbing silence. They rushed around the corner ahead with a speed and ferocity that seemed it should have been accompanied by mad howling, but the only sounds were footsteps and the rustling of robes. This time, though, there were a lot more of them.

“Into the alley!” Finchley barked, grabbing Danny roughly by the shoulder and shoving him through the opening. Rook and Moriarty backed after them, firing into the crowd as they went. Joe and Shook both joined in, shooting with much more accuracy, but even as they created enough bodies to physically impede those still coming, none of the berserkers so much as slowed.

“How the fuck many of these guys are there?” Shook snarled, furiously casting beam after beam into the throng.

“Master, quickly!” Kheshiri called, her voice inexplicably coming from directly above them. “Into the alley, now!”

“We’ll be trapped—”

“Trust me, now!”

Shook cursed, turned, and bolted after the others through the narrow gap. Joe was the last in, moving backwards and still shooting. By the time he passed through the opening, silent cultists brandishing clubs had nearly reached it.

Abruptly, a wall of solid stone shot straight upward from the ground, sealing off the entrance.

There were no cries from beyond; the rock was too thick, apparently, to carry the sound of bodies piling against it as they must be.

“There you are,” Shook said in relief. “Where’s the other one?”

“Still scouting,” an elf in a dark suit replied; he had been pressed against the wall of the alley, forcing the others to push past him, and seemed out of breath.

“Vannae,” Joe said stiffly.

“Jenkins,” the shaman replied in a similar tone, pressing a hand to his chest.

“That’s a useful trick,” Danny commented from just up ahead. “Can you do that again? They can’t possibly keep this up long before drawing attention. I’m surprised we haven’t already heard alarm bells, given the weapons being fired off.”

“Weapons being fired mean anybody with any sense is huddling inside, not going after the cops,” Shook retorted. “There’re always a couple of heroes without sense, but they’ve gotta get through those…them. And there are a lot of ’em out there.”

“Also,” Kheshiri added from above, “the rooftops around this whole area are lousy with Thieves’ Guild enforcers, who I suspect had something to do with it.”

“Shit,” Shook hissed, quickly holstering his wands. He drew a black bandana from an inner coat pocket and began wrapping it around his lower face.

“You mentioned that before,” said Danny, looking up at the succubus and seeming unperturbed at the fact that she now had spiny wings and was clinging spiderlike to the side of the building. “What’s the Guild doing?”

“Fuck all, as usual,” a new voice said cheerily. Another elf in a suit ambled toward them from up the alley, casually twirling a stiletto in one hand.

“Not another step!” Joe snarled, aiming a wand at him.

“Oh, keep it in your pants, child,” the Jackal said dismissively. “You and I will have to continue our discussion later. Right now we face more urgent questions. Who are these people? Where did they come from? What are they doing here?”

“We’ve already killed more of ’em than the Wreath has skilled operators left on the whole continent,” said Kheshiri, finally dropping to the ground. It made the alley even more crowded, even when she pressed herself against Shook’s side. “I’m at a loss. I may be a little behind on events, but I don’t know who could not only field a surprise army, but drop it into the middle of Tiraas on a whim.”

“The dropping is easy,” Vannae panted. “Shadow-jumping. Could come from anywhere…”

“Hey, are you okay?” Shook asked him.

“This city…” The shaman shook his head, slumping against the wall. “Worst possible place for my magic. So few natural materials, so much arcane… I overextended myself—”

“Then what the hell good are you?” the Jackal demanded, arching an eyebrow. “One more idiot for us to shepherd around, now. This whole business is entirely outside my skill set. I’m used to being the one doing the hunting.”

“Hey, Joe?” called Rook. “I’m gettin’ a vibe where it might be best to just shoot all of these people.”

“Generally, that’s correct,” Joe said, “but let’s not start a firefight in this alley.”

“Also, let’s none of us waste allies, however reluctant,” Danny added. “We seem to be in a tight spot, metaphorically as well as literally.”

“I just love the way he talks,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “Back to the matter at hand, let’s be honest with ourselves. We all know someone who it wouldn’t surprise any of us to learn could pull an army out of his butt—even if this really isn’t an army. They’re jumping into nearby buildings in parties of not more than a couple dozen each. It’s a raiding party, at most.”

“Oh, is that all,” Finchley muttered.

“Assuming you’re talkin’ about who I think you are,” Joe said warily, “don’t you creeps work for him?”

“Indeed, indeed.” The Jackal grinned so widely it looked physically painful. “I’m inclined to interpret this as a very careful notice of termination—one he can deny if it turns out we’re the ones doing the terminating.”

“Fuck,” Shook growled. “How sure are you of that?”

“I wouldn’t stake my honor on it, and not just because I left that at the bottom of a river a few decades back. But let’s face it, none of us is going to be surprised if that turns out to be the case.”

“So,” Danny said slowly, “perhaps we have grounds for a more than immediate alliance.”

“Danny, no,” Joe said firmly. “You do not wanna get mixed up with these…people.”

“Oh, he’s done business with worse,” the Jackal said merrily. “But let’s walk as we chat, my new friends! I’m freshly back from a scouting run sweep, and while the bulk of our enemies are just humans hopped up on alchemicals, they’ve got good magical support. Shadow-jumpers are not only bringing them in, they’re moving them around to avoid having to cross the streets in large groups, and cleaning up after themselves; there are no bodies left on the site of your first firefight, and I’ll bet by now there are none left on the street right out there, either. It’s inconceivable they don’t have tactical scrying, which means we’re gonna be constantly surrounded until we can call in the Army.”

“Fuck this whole business,” Shook muttered.

“Amen, brother,” Rook agreed.

“Time’s on our side,” said Danny. “This is still Tiraas. They can’t keep this up long without drawing official attention, and if the Guild has people on site, they’ll intervene before too many bystanders can be hurt.”

“Yeah, the Guild’s a real charity operation, I hear,” said Finchley.

“The Guild isn’t in it for the profit,” Shook snapped. “Whatever they’re doing here, they won’t allow magic assholes to carve up the population. But the Guild doesn’t use much magic, especially in fights, and there’s no way they’ve got as many people around here as the cultists do. They won’t wade into a pitched battle unless they’ve got an advantage…”

The Jackal cleared his throat pointedly. “I wasn’t finished. Yes, the clock is ticking down, the enemy surely knows this, which is why we can’t waste time either. They’ll be forced to take us out as fast as they can, which means they’ll shortly start leveraging their other assets. Like the undead I saw them starting to summon before I came to see what was taking you clods so damn long.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Seriously?” Moriarty exclaimed at last.

“Like I said.” The Jackal had turned and was already strolling away up the alley. “Walk and talk.”


As predicted, the rozzk’shnid proved not to be a great threat. Having been summoned into a ring around the town, they effectively blockaded Last Rock, at least for a while, but that didn’t last long. Like most towns this far into the frontier territories, weapons control laws were lax at best, and rare was the household that did not own several wands and staves. Had the demons been in any way organized, they might have prevailed, but they were essentially wild animals, blind and isolated, and their discovery by citizens resulted in their dying in a swift hail of lightning. By the time the Sheriff had gathered a hunting party to clean them out, at least half the rozzk’shnid had been reduced to smoking husks.

The town was in a general state of disorder, however, having found itself surrounded by demons. The doctor was already busy treating injuries—so far, none of these were demon-inflicted, but resulted mostly from surprise-related accidents, including one electrical burn from a friendly fire incident.

By far the worst of it, though, were the katzils.

Where the ring of nearly-blind, slow-moving rozzk’shnid did little to contain or damage the town, the fast-moving, fire-breathing flying serpents were causing havoc. Lighning bolts blasted skyward nearly constantly, from almost every street, and there were several small fires where errant shots had clipped the eaves of buildings, or demons had come close enough to exhale on rooftops. The katzils as a rule moved too fast to make easy targets, and so far none had been felled by wandshots, but on the positive side, the constant barrage of thunderbolts mostly chased them away when any dived low enough to spit flame at anyone.

Unfortunately, it was also making them angry.

As the crowd assembled outside the church watched, another katzil rammed into a wall of silver light which suddenly appeared in front of it. Dazed, it reeled away, and in the next moment Vadrieny had swooped in, seizing the creature in her claws and ripping it cleanly in half. By the time its pieces fell to earth, they had crumbled away to charcoal.

Several other smears of charcoal and ash were scattered around; after the first four had been incinerated, the remaining katzils had learned to avoid the gathering which included Toby and the priestesses. That, however, had forced them to branch out ever more aggressively in taking the flying demons down; even Vadrieny wasn’t nimble enough in the air to catch them unassisted, though in a straight flight she was faster.

“Be careful,” Matriarch Ashaele snapped in the most openly irate tone any of those present had heard from her, after a stray wandshot clipped the archdemon, sending her veering off course with a screech of protest.

“S-sorry, ma’am,” the man responsible stammered, backing away from her glare.

“She’s all right,” Toby said soothingly. “Nothing we’re throwing will harm her.”

“This ain’t good,” said Mayor Cleese to himself, frowning deeply as he watched the sky. “We can win this…eventually. Longer it goes on, though, th’more fires are gonna be started. Whole town’ll be ablaze by the time we take ’em all down…”

“Rafe and Yornhaldt are helping with damage,” Toby reminded him.

“I know, son,” the Mayor said with a sigh. “A wizard an’ an alchemist, and that’s a darn sight more than nothing. But you want fire suppression, you need fae magic.”

“I think you may be underestimating Professor Rafe,” Juniper assured him with a smile.

An abrupt chorus of loud pops occurred in the street just ahead of them, causing the Awarrion guards to spin, raising sabers and flowing between the sound and their Matriarch. A whole group of people appeared out of thin air. At their head was a figure they all recognized.

“Professor Tellwyrn!” Toby exclaimed in clear relief.

She paused for only a moment to scan the sky before turning to face the cluster of diverse individuals she had just teleported in. “All right, what exactly are we dealing with?”

“There are active dimensional rifts around the town,” a dwarf in formal robes reported, closing his eyes in concentration. “Summoning circles…cloaked from immediate view.”

“Open, but inert,” added Embras Mogul, himself frowning in thought. “From the feel of it, I’d say prepared to bring more demons, but not currently doing so. That suggests the summoner’s attention is elsewhere.”

Tellwyrn shifted her attention to the nearest elf. “Sheyann?”

“Child’s play,” the Elder said calmly, her eyes drifting closed. She inhaled deeply through her nose, then fell totally still.

“While she is putting a stop to that,” Tellwyrn said, turning back to Mogul, “what have you got for a mass banishing?”

“You know very well if we could do that our lives would be a lot easier,” he said testily. “You want to banish demons, you have to catch them, individually. For lesser critters like katzils, it’s faster and easier to just kill them.”

“Fast is a factor here,” she retorted. “Easy, not so much. It’s time to send a message. Haunui!”

The man she addressed was a Tidestrider windshaman, barefoot and bare-chested, with his hair gathered into braids adorned with seashells and feathers. An intricate, sprawling tattoo depicting an octupus was inked across his back, its tentacles adorned with runes and spiraling along his right arm.

“If the winds allow it,” he intoned dourly, “the skies themselves can be called to repudiate the unclean things. I do not know the spirits here, though, nor they me.”

“I can assist you, Wavespeaker,” Sheyann said, opening her eyes. “Portals are closed, Arachne.”

“I can confirm that,” the dwarf added.

“Thank you, Mr. Wrynst,” Sheyann said dryly.

“Please refrain from bickering,” Tellwyrn said in a clipped tone. “All right, we can do this. Sheyann, Haunui, do what you can to weaken demons in the vicinity. It doesn’t have to be decisive, just put them off balance and buy the rest of us some space to cast. Father Raas, I’d like you to invoke whatever blessing you can around this immediate area without interfering with them. We need them kept away from here long enough for us to work.”

“Blessings are easy,” replied the man addressed, an older gentleman in a Universal Church parson’s frock. “Structuring it so as not to impede the fae casters is trickier. I’ll do what I can; if anything impacts either of your work, please speak up so I can correct it.”

“What do you have in mind, Professor?” Mogul asked.

“A mass banishing,” Tellwyrn said grimly. “Don’t start, Mogul; we can discuss what is and isn’t possible after we’ve done it. Ashaele, I’m very glad to see you here. May I borrow your priestesses?”

“Provided they are returned in the same condition,” the Matriarch said sardonically, directing a nod to the three cowled women now hovering beside her.

“Thank you. Caine, and all of you with wands, you’ll have to take over keeping the creatures away until Raas gets some results. Hopefully this won’t take long enough to matter. All right, I am going to set up an ambient spell lattice over the area to intermix and control magic of different schools. That is every bit as difficult as it sounds and will require my full concentration, so I need each of you to handle your individual parts. It should become intuitively apparent how to work your own spells into the whole—I’ve recently had some practice in mind magic, but it’s not my forte, so please sing out if you have any trouble understanding what the matrix calls for. Mogul, Wrynst, combine your focus and set up some demon chains for me. I need those creatures immobilized.”

“There’s a stark limit to how many of those spells we can conjure at once,” Mogul said with a frown. “Especially since we don’t have a clear line of sight to many of the katzils or any of the rozzk’shnid.”

“I will take care of that. You just have the spell templates ready to be slotted into the whole; you should be able to tell how it works once I have it running.”

“I’ve done multi-school cooperative spells before,” Wrynst said, nodding. “It should be achievable.”

“Good. I am aware that you’ll need a power boost to get as many chains as we’ll require. Mr. Saalir, that’s where you’ll come in. I won’t have the focus to spare on it, so I need you to establish a standard arcane-to-infernal energy conversion pipeline. Please wait until I have the overall matrix assembled; I need everything to be structured, and piping in energy from an unconnected system will threaten its stability.”

“Now, wait just a moment,” said a lean Westerner in blue Salyrite robes, scowling heavily. “I’m willing to endure this individual’s presence for the sake of the greater good, Professor Tellwyrn, but what you’re asking me is that I lend power to the Black Wreath!”

“Yes, I am,” she said in a tone that warned of fraying patience. “I appreciate your willingness to help me, Saalir, very much. I did not promise you that this would be easy, however, and this is what we need to do to protect this town. There’s no time for arguing.”

“There are serious matters of principle—”

Nearby, Inspector Fedora loudly cleared his throat. “Pardon me,” he said with an insouciant grin, “but maybe you should pause and think about what happened to the last Salyrite who got up into Arachne Tellwyrn’s face?”

Tellwyrn closed her eyes. “Oh, good. You’re here. Stop helping me, Fedora. Saalir, please ignore him. I am not going to blast you for refusing to help. I’m asking for your contribution.”

The Salyrite frowned at her, at Fedora, then at Mogul, then at Fedora again.

“To be clear,” he said at last, “is everyone aware that that man is a—”

“Yes!” chorused half a dozen people.

“Right,” he muttered. “Well. There’s the greater good, after all. For the time being, Professor, I’ll choose to trust you. Please don’t make me regret this.”

“I’ll do my utmost,” she assured him. “And thank you. Now, ladies.” Tellwyrn turned to the three Themynrite priestesses, nodding deeply in respect. “I don’t know your specialization, but when I last spent any time in Tar’naris, every priestess of Themynra was trained to banish demons.”

“That much has not changed,” the woman in the center of their group replied. “Our method will not send them neatly back to Hell like your Elilinist friend’s; the demons will be simply destroyed.”

“Even better,” Tellwyrn said firmly. “If you would, please, come closer, and attend to the spell matrix as I organize it. I am going to direct energy pathways along the demon chains our warlocks will be establishing, and applying dispersal systems which should enable you to strike multiple targets simultaneously.”

“Provided the demons are immobilized, that should work,” the priestess said, nodding her hooded head.

“They will be,” Tellwyrn assured her. “With three of you, I expect you’ll have adequate power without needing to draw from our shamans; if it begins to appear otherwise as I set it up, please let me know.”

“Of course.”

“All right, everyone, you know your part. I’ll make this as quick as I can.”

There was some shuffling and nervous glancing from the assembled townspeople in the silence which followed, as well as from several more of the individuals who had appeared in Tellwyrn’s mass teleport who were apparently not involved in the spell. To outside viewers, it seemed a large and complex magical working of this nature mostly involved several people standing around with their eyes closed, frowning in concentration.

After a pause, Toby sidled over to Fedora, murmuring. “What happened the last time she had an argument with a Salyrite?”

“Oh, you haven’t covered that in class, yet?” the Inspector said, smirking. “I was referring to Magnan, the last Hand of Salyrene. Also the out-of-control piece of shit who built the Enchanter’s Bane that destroyed Athan’khar. Guess who ultimately took his ass down?”

Toby sighed. “Right.”

The event, when it came, was so sudden that quite a few of the onlookers jumped in surprise, and more than a couple cursed. Tendrils of pure black limned with a thick purple glow sprang from the ground at a single point in the middle of the street, spiraling skyward; each of the katzils twirling overhead was snared and held in place midair, where they immediately began hissing and squawking in protest. More of the shadow tentacles arched toward the ground around the outskirts, apparently seizing the rozzk’shnids still surviving around the periphery.

“Hold your damn fire, you knuckleheads!” Sheriff Sanders bellowed at the men who took the opportunity to shoot at the suddenly stationary katzils. “You don’t fire wands into the middle of the most complex spell this town’s ever seen! What’s wrong with you?”

The actual banishings were not exactly simultaneous, but a cascade of sharp retorts, each accompanied by a burst of silver light, flashed through the air above the town, rather like a giant kettle of popcorn cooking. In each, a katzil exploded into nothingness, and a suddenly unmoored tendril of shadow was wrenched loose and drawn back into the point from which they spawned.

The whole thing took only seconds. Then, quite suddenly, it was all over: no spells, no demons, nothing but the evening sky. Shock at the abruptness kept the onlookers silent for only a few seconds, before the whole town erupted in cheers, and more than a few celebratory wandshots fired skyward.

Before that had a chance to escalate into a proper celebration, however, there came the pounding of hooves.

Whisper rounded the corner just up ahead, slowing to a canter as she approached the group. Astride her, Gabriel held the reins with one hand, his other wrapped around Maureen’s waist, where she was perched in front of him.

“Professor Tellwyrn!” he shouted, drawing his steed to a stop just in front of the assembled crowd. “Thank the gods.”

“That’s something I don’t often hear,” she said with a sigh. “How bad is it?”

“Where’s Iris?” Juniper demanded in alarm.

“It’s the Sleeper!” Maureen burst out frantically. “They’re in the Golden Sea! He’s got her!”

“Oh, does he,” Tellwyrn said in such a grim tone that several people immediately took a step away from her. “We will see about that.”

 

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                  Next Chapter >

12 – 40

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

“And that’s the perimeter secure,” Rossiter said, heaving a sigh. “On we go.”

“Don’t look so glum,” Alsadi replied as they rounded the corner into the interior halls. “It’s probably nothing, same as always.”

“I’ll look glum if I wanna,” she said without ire. “’Sides…”

He echoed her sigh. “Yeah, yeah. I know.”

Everything and everyone in this sub-level below Dawnchapel was a secret of the highest order, but at least the soldiers of the Holy Legion—the true Holy Legion, veterans trained by Colonel Ravoud, not the shiny-armored popinjays who served to attract attention in the Cathedral—could take off their white uniforms and visit home. They were all fully devoted to the Archpope and his cause, and thus far there had been no breaches of security from them. The others down here, though, were either too distinctive, or too hunted, to show their faces outside except on assignment. There had been no assignments for far too long a span of weeks, and several of them were growing increasingly restive. Mostly the ones whose personalities hadn’t been much to speak of in the first place. Which was most of them.

No sooner had they entered the ring of halls circling the central underground complex than Rossiter’s worst fears were born out.

“Lot of running hither and yon all of a sudden,” Jeremiah Shook commented idly, lounging against the wall with his hands in his pockets. Had he encountered such a man on the street, Alsadi would have gripped his weapon and increased his pace—or, if he’d been on duty, stopped to demand an explanation for his presence. Everything about the guy screamed thug, which was an aspect Shook cultivated deliberately and with skill. Not that it did him much good down here. “What’s got you lot so stirred up, hm?”

He addressed himself directly to Rossiter, allowing his eyes to flick below her collar for a moment, though at least he had the restraint not to give her the full once-over. This time.

“An irregularity in the wards, sir,” Rossiter replied with admirable composure. “There’s a possibility of incursion. The squad is doing a full sweep.”

At that, Shook straightened up, his leer vanishing. “What? Intruders? Why wasn’t I told?”

“It’s almost certainly nothing,” said Rossiter. “This has happened before, usually caused by a telescroll passing overhead in just the wrong way, or a nearby factory firing up new equipment. It’s common; wards are finicky in a city with this much active enchantment. You and the high-value assets are safe, rest assured.”

Not, Alsadi noted, you and the other high-value assets. Rossiter had spoken completely deadpan, but he knew her well enough to know the omission was deliberate. His own face betrayed a smile, though, which made him the focus of Shook’s glare. The man tensed up, bunching his fists and flushing, as if somebody had just insulted his mother. What a charmer.

“We need to continue our sweep and report in, sir,” Alsadi said politely, saluting. “Good evening.”

He and Rossiter turned and marched off down the hall. He had half-expected Shook to follow and try to make something of it—which wouldn’t have been the first time—but there was no sound of footsteps from behind them, thankfully.

“Gods, I hate that guy,” Rossiter growled once they’d rounded the corner. “What’s he even doing down here? The others I understand, but he’s just some sleazy…”

Alsadi gave her a sympathetic look. She was the only woman in the unit attached to Dawnchapel, which, Shook being Shook, made her the frequent focus of his attention. The Holy Legion suffered the same imbalance as the Imperial Army, but far worse: most women who wanted to be soldiers enlisted in the Silver Legions. The Army was barely forty percent female, and the Holy Legion less than one in ten, since women who were of both martial and religious inclination especially preferred the Silver Legions.

“At least the succubus leaves you alone,” he offered. “She’s tried to get in everybody else’s pants. I don’t think she even wants to, really. She’s just bored.”

“I never thought I would hear myself say this,” she grumbled, “but I don’t have a problem with the demon. At least she keeps him busy. Anyway, she can probably tell I don’t go for girls; I think they have special senses for—”

Alsadi barely registered the black blur that sped at them from behind, crashing into the side of Rossiter’s head and sending her careening off the wall, before an arm was wrapped around his throat, cutting off his airflow and clamping down. He gripped it desperately, but his attacker had the strength of an ogre. Not the weight, though; he was able to shift, trying to throw the assailant, but they moved with astonishing deftness, compensating for his every motion. Not they, she—pressed against his back as she was, he could tell that much, though all he could see was the tip of the elbow clutching his neck. Frantically, he tried to shift his staff to aim behind at her feet, and it was deftly wrenched from his grasp and tossed away. As sparks and darkness encroached on his vision, he scrabbled for his sidearm, only to find his wrist pinned. Gods, she was strong…


Milanda released the soldier, letting him slump to the floor. White uniforms…this was new. They had an understated ankh insignia at the breast, so she was clearly looking at Universal Church personnel.

“Did you hear any of that?” she asked softly, trusting the mask to muffle her voice. Vex had issued them four; the black wrap which concealed everything below her eyes was enchanted so that anything spoken into it could be heard only by someone wearing one of its siblings. Between that and her Infinite Order earpiece, she was audible to the rest of her team and no one else. In theory.

“Uh…maybe a scuffle of some kind?” Finchley’s voice offered. “You okay?”

“As I’ve mentioned, the earpieces are designed to obscure anything but your voice,” Walker replied with her customary calm. “Not perfectly, but… What happened?”

“I overheard some soldiers talking,” Milanda replied, moving lightly back up the hallway in the direction from which they had come. “There’s a succubus down here.”

“Holy shit,” Rook muttered. “On the list of the top ten things an Archpope should not be screwing around with, that’s gotta be numbers two through six!”

“Seems your hunch was right, then,” Finchley added.

“Clear this channel, please,” Walker said curtly. “Milanda, think about disengaging. The only thing you know about that facility is that what’s down there crushed the core of the Black Wreath when they invaded it. Just the intelligence you’ve gathered so far is important. I can have you out the moment you give the word.”

“That’s what makes the difference,” Milanda murmured. “The Wreath couldn’t escape; their shadow-jumping was blocked at the time. Vex says this is where Justinian’s keeping his dark project, and it’s darker than we imagined. Be ready to teleport me out, Walker, but I want to learn more if I can. And possibly break some things.”

“Need backup?” Moriarty offered.

She grimaced behind the mask. The thought of those three loose down here was not comforting. So far, she hadn’t come up with an actual plan for them, though they’d already proved useful to her in keeping in contact with Vex while she visited the old spaceport for supplies.

“Not at the moment,” she said aloud, creeping up to the corner and peering around. No sign of whoever the two soldiers had been talking to. There were living beings present, though, including one which felt remarkably similar to the dryads; she had to get a look at that, at bare minimum. Milanda could have pointed to them in a straight line, but there were walls intervening, and she didn’t know the layout down here.

She had minutes, at most, before this got very exciting. There were two unconscious soldiers lying behind her in the hall, while the facility was apparently in the middle of a security sweep. The only question was whether they’d wake before they were discovered.

Milanda padded swiftly up the hall, silent on enchanted boots. Vex had provided absolutely top of the line charms on all the gear, including actual invisibility cloaks, though ironically she hadn’t been able to bring one of those as the rest of the enchantments she was wearing messed up its function. The cloak she did have on was a more limited version, bearing a chameleon charm; so long as she stood completely still, she would blend into the background, but in motion she became visible again. That was one of the problems with over-reliance on enchantment. The more powerful they were, the more likely to interfere with each other.

She came to a broad doorway, its double doors standing open, and paused for a moment to let the chameleon charm activate before carefully peeking around the frame. Moving slowly enough made her a barely-visible blur; if someone were looking right at the door, they might still spot her, but it was better than nothing.

Beyond lay a very wide circular chamber, its center slightly lowered. It looked like a stadium, actually, which made sense as the Dawnchapel had once been an Omnist temple. Now, though, it had clearly been retrofitted as living quarters, with furniture and decorations scattered about. Doors branched off from multiple sides, with wide double ones in each of the four cardinal directions and smaller ones in between. She sensed living beings behind several of the small ones. So…broad doors leading to outer halls, narrow doors to attached rooms or suites, most likely.

A man in a suit stood next to a bar/kitchen arrangement with his back to her, in the process of mixing a cocktail.

Milanda took stock of this for a bare moment, then slipped inside, moving slowly to remain partially obscured, and dividing her attention between the man with the slicked-back hair and her sense of the lives around. She headed toward the door behind which lay the blazing beacon of fae power; she very much needed to learn what that was. If Justinian had a dryad of his own, her situation with Hawthorn and the others could become complicated.

The shortest path there took her uncomfortably close to the man in the suit, but she kept to it for the sake of speed, watching him closely and prepared to freeze instantly if he turned. It was odd, considering the danger she was in, how calm she felt. One of the gifts of her new status, maybe?

She was so focused on her objective and the surrounding threats that she very nearly missed the other presence in the room.

It was different—subtle, too, difficult to notice, and not life so much as…its inversion. Not like Walker, though. It was its movement that gave it away, and Milanda paused, not turning her head, but focusing her attention. Something off-kilter and wavery was creeping through her perceptions right toward her.

The succubus.

Grimacing behind her mask, she considered her options. The demon clearly knew she was there, and was coming in for a stealth attack. By the same token, the succubus apparently didn’t realize she’d perceived her. Milanda had the element of surprise and was physically more than a match for the creature, she was sure. But engaging would draw attention… Could she get to her objective first? No, the demon was too close, and drawing closer. If there was a fight, the object of her focus might come out to investigate anyway… But if it was something related to dryads or comparably powerful, having it come after her was a very different proposition than sneaking up to peek at it.

Bollocks. Well, any dead demon was progress on behalf of the world, especially if this one was important to Justinian.

Among her equipment was a variety of weapons. Milanda considered them for a moment before deciding to try for one last hope of subtlety.

Knife-throwing wasn’t favored in Viridill, being associated with rogues and ruffians rather than honorable warriors, which was exactly why she had practiced it in her rebellious youth.

Augmented as she was by the craft which made the Hands of the Emperor, the act of snatching a knife from behind her belt and hurling it was so fast even an elf would have been hard-pressed to dodge the attack. That, however, was the extent of the good news. The rapid movement collapsed her stealth, snapping her back into visibility—just as the guy in the suit turned to bring her into his field of view. The succubus, also, was no elf, and while Milanda had never read that children of Vanislaas were noted combatants, her presence in Milanda’s ethereal senses rippled and shifted, and the knife flashed harmlessly past.

“What the fuck!” the man snarled, and despite his phrasing, it was not a question.

Then he dropped his freshly-mixed drink and whipped out a wand, and Milanda lost all control of her body.

Without deciding to move, she was moving, hurtling toward him in a flying leap and spinning about in midair, causing her cloak to whirl dramatically about her. Two wandshots—clean white beams of light, not lightning bolts—flashed at her, but she had successfully distorted her appearance with her approach, and neither connected. Not with her, anyway; both pierced the cloak, and Milanda heard the soft but distinctive crackle of enchantments being disrupted.

So much for stealth.

She landed on him, neatly grabbing him by the wand arm and whipping herself around in a kind of reverse throw, hurling her body instead of his, so that she landed behind him with his arm still in her grip. With, in fact, her hand covering his, and squeezing his finger on the trigger.

Milanda, far stronger than he, shifted minutely, firing the wand at midair. The succubus dodged again, but beams of light were not so easily evaded as thrown knives. With a shriek, she popped into visibility as she spun around, pierced right through the chest.

Would that kill her? Did they even have organs? She was sadly unfamiliar with demonology.

“Kheshiri!” Milanda’s captive shouted. “You fucking who—”

The rest of his imprecation was lost as she shifted her grip, spinning in place, and hurling him forward over her shoulder. He impacted the wall back-first, upside down, and slid down to land on his head before collapsing in an ungainly heap.

Finally, she froze, staring about in near-panic. She could never have moved like that. No one could move like that. Scuffling with the dryads had been one thing; this was a total loss of control. Her body just reacted. It had surely saved her life, but it was not an experience she had enjoyed.

Her moment of frantic introspection cost her.

One of the doors burst open, catching Milanda’s attention and bringing her focus back to the other life signs nearby.

An elf stood there, wearing an incongruous pinstriped suit and regarding the scene with an expression of mild surprise. Milanda, cloaked and masked all in dramatic black, standing over the unconscious shooter and with the succubus groaning on the ground nearby. Not dead, curse it all. How did you kill a Vanislaad?

Then the elf smiled, and despite her lack of fear for her physical safety, the expression sent a chill down her spine.

“Now you,” he said cheerfully, “are exactly what I was looking for. Finally, a little fun!”

With that, he vanished from view.

Once again, Milanda was overtaken by the “gifts” of the dryads. She could still sense the now-invisible elf, making a beeline toward her with the speed only his race possessed, and while her instincts wanted her to flee, her body stood in place, swiveling to peer about in an pantomime of disorientation. Only belatedly did she realize what she was doing.

The invisible elf lunged from opposite the direction she was currently looking. Without turning her head, Milanda grabbed him in mid-leap. She felt the bones of his arm break in her grip an instant before she whipped him through the air above her head and slammed him onto the bar.

He yelped, wheezed, and tumbled gracelessly to the ground, again visible.

“I’m fairly certain that was a wandshot,” Walker said in her ear, “and I’m positive I hear scuffling. What’s your status, Milanda?”

“Fine,” she said a little numbly, shaken more by her own loss of control than the violence. “Three hostiles down. How do you kill a succubus?”

To her credit, Walker hesitated only for a moment. “They don’t have biological weak points. Magic weapons, if you brought any, or catastrophic physical damage. Removing the head or destroying at least fifty percent of the torso should suffice.”

At that moment, another door opened. The one toward which she’d been heading in the fist place.

Milanda locked eyes with the new arrival for a bare moment, before she and her newfound battle reflexes found themselves in agreement. Which was to the good, because she might have wasted precious seconds staring in shock before fleeing. As it was, she made it out the door and around the corner before a blast of fire roared after her, splashing against the wall.

So. Not a dryad, then.

“A dragon,” she gasped, pelting down the hall at full tilt. “There is a green dragon down here!”

“Holy fuck!” Rook squeaked. “Lady, get out of there!”

“Agreed! Walker!”

Silence. Milanda carried on down the hall, reaching out with her senses. The dragon had hesitated in the central chamber, probably examining his downed allies. Unfortunately, the path she was taking away from that door was bringing her closer to a large cluster of human life signs. Troops, probably.

“Walker!” she shouted. “Pull me out!”

“There’s a problem,” Walker said in a strained voice. “The wards have been cycled—wait, no. These aren’t passive wards anymore, someone is actively maintaining them. This is real trouble, Milanda. This equipment can outsmart any enchantments currently made, but an actual wizard is another matter.”

“Standard procedure in the event of an incursion like this,” Moriarty said, and oddly enough, his clipped delivery was somehow reassuring. “At least, in the Imperial Army. It stands to reason these soldiers will have similar policies and regulations.”

“All right, give me a minute,” Walker said quickly. “Keep moving and stay alive, Milanda. I’m going to zero in on the wizard, then I’ll direct you to him. Take him out, the wards will lift, and I’ll be able to extract you.”

“Got it,” Milanda said grimly. She skidded to a halt next to the first door she came to; people were running in the halls now, closing on her from multiple directions. Yanking the door open, she dived through, pulling it shut quickly and then holding it at the last instant to avoid a slam.

She very gently finished closing it a second before she sensed the first soldier moving into the hall behind her. There was, blessedly, a lock, which she slid softly home. Only then did she turn to discover the bad news.

“So much for keeping moving,” she muttered.

“What?” Walker demanded.

“I’m in a room with only one exit,” Milanda said irritably. An office of some kind; desks, papers, nothing that looked useful in her situation. “Soldiers in the hall behind me.”

“Hey, uh,” Rook said hesitantly, “can you get us into there? Maybe we can help her…”

“Not with that wizard working!” Walker snapped. “Be quiet, let me concentrate!”

Milanda stood in place, focusing. Soldiers were now moving in the halls behind her… But not on the other side of the wall opposite the door. In fact, there was no one in the immediate vicinity on that side. Was she strong enough to punch through a wall, now? Not quickly or cleanly—that would take time and draw attention.

The dragon was moving, now. Could he sense her this way, or similarly? Who knew what a green dragon could do?

“I need another exit,” she said aloud.

“I can’t help you there,” Walker said somewhat plaintively. “I’m working, Milanda! Soon as I have something, I’ll direct you, but you’ll have to find your own way through the soldiers.”

“You’ve got this, ma’am!” Finchley said encouragingly. “You faced down a succubus and whatever else, you can do it!”

She wasn’t listening. Milanda had reached into the largest pouch attached to her belt, and with some difficulty extracted the object she’d stowed there earlier. Finally she had to jerk it free. It hadn’t wanted to fit in the first place; this wasn’t part of the kit Vex had issued her.

A quick press of the switch, and the room lit up a pale, arcane blue, suddenly filled with a deep buzzing.

“What was that?” Walker said sharply.

“Oh, that you heard,” Milanda muttered, then crossed the small room in two strides and pressed the glowing blade against the wall.

It sank through as if she were cutting cheese. Sparks flew from the masonry, flames flickered along the scorched edges of wood paneling, but the weapon carved neatly through. She began drawing a vertical line, attending to the motions of people around her. Still nobody in the space beyond, but there was movement on the periphery… Nothing else for it now; it would likely only be moments before they thought to check this door.

“Milanda,” Walker said shrilly, “that sound had better not be what I think it is!”

She pulled the blade free from the wall, and began carving a vertical line to form the top of her improvised door. “I’m afraid it is.”

“You—how could you!? Did I not emphasize how dangerous those—put that fool contraption down before you kill yourself!”

“I know what I’m doing, thank you.”

“Uh, what’s going on?” Rook asked nervously.

“You shut up!” Walker barked. “Milanda, put that thing away! Aside from the risk to you, what do you think will happen if anybody sees the saber? You might as well advertise where you got it in the papers!”

Milanda paused before starting on the other vertical cut. “If anybody sees the what?”

“The weapon!”

She frowned at the straight, glowing blade. “This is clearly not a saber. If anything, it’s a longsword.”

The buzz and crackle of the sword going back into the wall was augmented this time by a repeated, muffled thumping from her earpiece.

“Walker, don’t hit your head on things. That equipment is ancient.”

Finally, she withdrew the blade again and switched it off, though she kept it in her hand rather than trying to cram it back in the ill-fitting pouch. Her improvised doorway smoldered and put off acrid smoke. It also wasn’t particularly even, but it would do.

She stepped back, shifted position, and slammed her foot against it.

Ordinary human strength probably wouldn’t have sufficed, but the cut section of wall cracked and buckled at its base, then toppled outward into the space beyond. Milanda immediately stepped after it.

She was now in what appeared to be a mess hall—long tables and benches, broad doors at either end. Oh, just perfect. Thankfully the soldiers were still chasing her around, rather than occupying their own living quarters, and clearly didn’t expect to find her here of all places. Perhaps their section of the facility down here wasn’t connected to the space where the serious assets were kept.

But no such luck.

“What was that?” a man’s voice shouted from beyond the door to her left.

Milanda paused to concentrate on her senses. No… If anything, she’d managed to pin herself even more thoroughly. Humans were clustered in the space to the left side. Worse…

The dragon was approaching. Not quickly, but exiting the right-hand doors would bring her in his direction.

“Shit,” she muttered.

“Well said!” Walker snarled.

Milanda glanced rapidly back and forth, then drew a wand from its holster at her belt with her other hand. Wand and sword at the ready, she made her choice and flew into motion.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

9 – 38

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

“So naturally, you brought it here,” Tellwyrn said in exasperation.

“She,” Toby said firmly. “Come on, Professor. That’s a person you’re talking about.”

“Hello,” Scorn offered, apparently noticing that attention was focused on her.

“What,” Tellwyrn demanded, “do you think I’m going to do with a Rhaazke? I’m not even going to bother being taken aback that you kids managed to get one. Somehow it’s always you lot!”

“Point of order!” Fross chimed. “We didn’t get her! A stupid man was trying to summon a succubus and fell afoul of an unpredictable chaos effect. So, really, it wasn’t even his fault, though it’s very tempting to blame him because he was really dumb and also a great big creep. But still. These things just happen.”

Professor Yornhaldt burst out laughing, earning a glare from Tellwyrn. Her office was rather crowded with the entire sophomore class present, plus Tellwyrn behind her desk, and Yornhaldt and Rafe in chairs against one of her bookcases. Scorn stood in the corner nearest the door, hunching somewhat awkwardly to keep her horns from brushing the ceiling.

“Maybe what you do with any of us?” Ruda suggested. “I mean, let’s face it, the student body here is probably the biggest collection of weirdos on this continent, if not the planet.”

“This is not a hostel,” Tellwyrn said acidly. “We don’t take in strays just because they have no place better to be!”

“Where would you suggest sending her, then?” Trissiny asked quietly. “What else could we have done?”

“BEHOLD!” Scorn shouted.

Tellwyrn buried her face in her hands, displacing her glasses. Rafe howled with laughter.

“If I may?” Shaeine said with customary serenity. “Scorn is a daughter of nobility in her own realm; her principal problem seems to be unfamiliarity with the mortal plane. The speed with which she is picking up Tanglish suggests a capable intellect, and she certainly meets the qualification you set out for us in our very first class last year. She is too dangerous to be allowed to wander around untrained. All in all, she would appear to be the very model of an Unseen University student.”

“I know it’s unusual to enroll a student at this point in the academic year, Arachne,” Yornhaldt added, “but really. These are unusual circumstances, and what is this if not an unusual place?”

“She’s completely clueless about every detail of life on this plane,” Tellwyrn grated. “Can you lot even begin to imagine the havoc that could ensue from her mingling with the student body? Or worse, the general populace. What would she do if sent out on one of your field assignments? And the curriculum here is not designed to hand-hold people who have no concept what anything in the world is. The closest parallels to this case in the University’s entire history are Juniper and Fross, and they at least speak the language!”

“Well, we have to put her somewhere,” said Gabriel. “I mean, it’s not like you can just kill her.”

“Oh, really,” Tellwyrn said flatly.

“Yeah, really,” he replied, meeting her eyes unflinchingly. “Just. I said you can’t just kill her. You can no doubt do that or anything else you want, but not until you’ve plowed through every one of us first.”

“Whoah, guys,” Juniper said soothingly. “Of course she’s irate, we just dropped a Rhaazke demon in her lap. Professor Tellwyrn’s only that mean to people who’ve done something to deserve it. C’mon, let’s everybody calm down, okay?”

“Excellent advice,” Shaeine agreed.

“All right,” said Tellwyrn, drumming her fingers on the desk and staring at Scorn, who peered quizzically back. “All right. This is what we’ll do. I am not enrolling this walking disaster in your or any class at this juncture. Don’t start, Caine, I am not done talking! She can stay with the girls in Clarke Tower; it has a basement space that should be big enough to be fairly comfortable for her. If she’s going to be on the campus, she’s not to leave it; I refuse to have to explain this to the Sheriff. You lot, since you had the bright idea to bring her here, will be responsible for bringing her up to speed on life in the world. Teach her Tanglish, local customs, the political realities of the Empire, the cults… You know, all the stuff none of you bother to think about because you’ve known it for years.”

“I bother to think about it,” said Fross.

“Me, too,” Juniper added.

“Good, that’ll make you perfect tutors, then. We’ll revisit this issue next semester, and if I judge her prepared, she may join the class of 1183 at that time. If not… She can take that semester and the summer for further familiarity, though frankly I will consider it a big black mark if she hasn’t the wits to get her claws under her in the next few months. If she is still not ready or willing to be University material at the start of next fall’s semester, that’s it. No more chances. Then I’ll have to figure out what to do with her, which I frankly do not suspect anybody will like.”

“That’s fair,” Trissiny said quickly. “She’s smart. I’m sure she’ll be good to go by this spring.”

“Not kill?” Scorn inquired.

“Sadly, no,” Ruda said while Tellwyrn leaned far back in her chair, letting her head loll against it to stare at the ceiling.

“Well, anyway,” Rafe said brightly, “you’ll get my detailed report later, Arachne, but the kids did a damn fine job. Not at all their fault that the Church butted in at the last moment—they were right on the cusp of getting to the bottom of Veilgrad’s problem, and I have to say their investigation was deftly handled. A much better showing than the Golden Sea expedition!”

“Aw, we can’t take too much credit,” Ruda said sweetly. “Professor Rafe helped a lot by fucking around in Malivette’s house with her concubines instead of sticking his clumsy fingers into our business. Like in the Golden Sea expedition.”

“HAH! Straightforward, on-target sass, Punaji! Ten points—”

“Admestus, shut your yap,” Tellwyrn snapped. “I am in no mood. For the time being, pending a full report, you kids can consider your grade for this assignment in good shape. All right, all of you get lost. Go settle in, get some rest; you’ve got assignments waiting in your rooms. Classes are tomorrow as usual. Have fun explaining this to Janis,” she added, flapping a hand disparagingly at Scorn.

“Pointing is for no,” the demon said severely. “Rude. Social skills!”

“Malivette is scary even when she’s not here,” Fross whispered.

“Hell, Janis loves having people to mother,” Ruda said, grinning. “I bet Scorn’s never had muffins. C’mon, big girl.”

“I’m a little nervous how she’ll react to the tower,” Teal said as they began filing out the door. “Any sane person is unnerved by that tower at first glance.”

“Welp, I’ll just get on with my paperwork, then, shall I?” Rafe said, rising and following them.

“How industrious of you, Admestus,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “What did you do this time?”

He grinned insanely. “Wait, learn, and be amazed.”

“Get the hell out.”

“Aye aye, fearless leader!”

Fross hesitated in the top of the door after everyone else departed. “It’s good to see you back, Professor Yornhaldt!”

“Thank you, Fross,” he said, smiling. “I’m quite glad to see all of you again, as well!”

The pixie shut the door with a careful push of elemental air, leaving them alone.

Tellwyrn set her glasses on the desk, massaging the brim of her nose. “Those kids are going to be the graduating class that brings me the most pride and satisfaction if they don’t burn the whole goddamn place down, first.”

“That’s not entirely fair, Arachne,” Yornhaldt protested. “They are pretty obviously not the ones who opened the hellgate. And they were, after all, instrumental in closing it.”

“You know exactly what I mean.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” he said with a sigh. “But this is business as usual, Arachne, just more of it. Some of those kids have fearfully direct connections to significant powers, but in the end, we’ve been training up heroes and villains for half a century now, and sending them out to face their destiny.”

“There are no such things as heroes or villains,” she grunted. “Or destiny.”

Yornhaldt smiled, folding his thick hands over his midsection. “I disagree, as you well know.”

“Yes, yes, let’s not get in that argument again.” She put her spectacles back on and gave him a more serious look. “You were in the middle of telling me of your adventures when Admestus barged in with the goslings.”

“Actually, I had just finished telling you of my adventures. Although I had a rather interesting time procuring a new suit with most of my money having walked off during—ah, but I gather you don’t care to hear about that.”

“Naturally I’ll reimburse you for any expenses,” she said. “But the research, Alaric. It’s really a dead end?”

Yornhaldt frowned in thought, gazing at the far wall but seeing nothing. “I cannot accept that it’s a dead end, but I may be forced to accept that continuing down this particular path is beyond me. It’s an alignment, Arachne, I’m sure of it. But an alignment of what is the question. I am certain there are astronomical factors, but this is unique in that the stars and bodies coming into position are beyond our current society’s capacity to detect. That much I can say with certainty; a few of the surviving sources were of a scientific mindset and blessedly plainspoken. There must have been means for such long-distance viewing during the time of the Elder Gods, but right now, we simply cannot see the distant galaxies which must be taken into account.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” she said, frowning heavily. “On the cosmic scale you’re talking about, eight thousand of this planet’s years is nothing. An eyeblink—it’s one tenth of one percent of a fart. There wouldn’t be significant deviation from their positions relative to us eight millennia prior. And that’s not even addressing the question of how such distant objects even could influence matters on this world. You know as well as I the upper limits of magical influence. It’s not constrained by the lightspeed constant, but it’s far from infinite.”

“Just so,” he agreed, nodding. “Which brings me to the other issue: I am convinced that what is being aligned is planar as well as physical. Perhaps more so. There are factors relating to the positions of the infernal, divine and elemental planes relative to this one. Unfortunately,” he added with a scowl, “most of this information seems to have been recorded by bards. Or at least, individuals who thought a poetic turn of phrase was a useful addition to the historical record. Considering that this work requires finding the few sources that have even survived, translating them out of dead languages… We’re in the realm of lore, now, Arachne. I have a hankering to continue the project, but I also need to acknowledge that I’m not the best person for it. If you can help me work out a means of measuring and scrying on things in other galaxies, that I’ll do with a will. This… We need a historian. Preferably a somewhat spoony one.”

“I should think a less spoony mindset would be more useful in untangling those records,” she said dryly.

Yornhaldt grimaced. “I consider myself as unspoony as they come, and I mostly found the work frustrating.”

Tellwyrn sighed and drummed her fingers on the desk again. “Well. Based on the speed with which actual events are unfolding, we have at least a year. Likely more; apocalypses like this don’t just drop from the trees like pinecones. If the alignment does lead to another apotheosis, as everything seems to suggest, the gods will be taking action, as will those closest to them, before it actually hits. For now,” she went on with a smile, “I’m damned glad to see you home safe, Alaric.”

“I have to confess I am as well,” he replied, grinning.

“Unfortunately, I can’t put you back at a lectern just yet. I promised Kaisa the year; I don’t even know whether she wants the full year, but the issue is it was promised to her. The last thing I need on top of everything else is an offended kitsune tearing up my campus.”

“Arachne, I’m sure I have no idea what you are going on about,” Yornhaldt replied, folding his hands behind his head and leaning back against the books. “Teach classes? You forget, I am on sabbatical.”


 

“It is a great relief to see you all back unharmed,” Archpope Justinian said with a beneficent smile. “Your mission brought you into conflict with some very dangerous individuals.”

“Yep,” the Jackal replied lazily. “Since apparently that was the entire and only point of the whole exercise, it sure did happen.”

“None of us are shy about conflict, your Holiness,” Shook said tightly. “Being jerked around, lied to and sent into big, pointless surprises is another thing. You want someone killed? We’ll do it. I don’t appreciate being told to dig in the desert for weeks for damn well nothing. As bait.”

Kheshiri gently slipped her arm through his and he broke off. A tense silence hung over the room for a long moment.

Their assigned quarters in the sub-level of the Dawnchapel temple in Tiraas were actually quite luxurious. Private rooms branched off from a broad, circular chamber with a sunken floor in the center. This had originally been some kind of training complex, probably for the martial arts for which the temple’s original Omnist owners were famous. Now, the area was tastefully but expensively furnished, the chamber serving as a lounge, dining room, and meeting area.

The five members of the team were arrayed in an uneven arc, their focus on the Archpope, who stood with Colonel Ravoud at his shoulder. The Colonel looked tense and ready to go for his wand, but if Justinian was at all perturbed by the destructive capacity arranged against him, he showed no hint of it.

“I understand this assignment has been the source of several surprises for you,” he said calmly. “For me, as well. I found your choice of strategy extremely intriguing, Khadizroth. Did I not know better, I might conclude your decision to attack Imperial interests was designed to draw their interest to your own activities. You must forgive me; dealing with as many politics as I do, I tend to see ulterior motives where they may not exist.”

“I believe we have been over this,” Khadizroth replied in a bored tone. “It was necessary to deal with McGraw, Jenkins, and the rest—indeed, it turns out that was the sole reason we were out there. At the time, depriving them of their secure base of operations seemed the best strategy.”

“And yet, neither you nor they suffered any permanent casualties,” Justinian said. “How fortuitous. Surely the gods must have been watching over you.”

“Would it be disrespectful to snort derisively?” Kheshiri stage-whispered to Shook, who grinned. She was in human guise, as always on temple grounds. The original consecration on the place had been lifted to allow her to function here.

“I think you could stand to consider who you’re dealing with, here, your Archness,” said the Jackal, folding his arms. “Really, now. We’ve all got a sense of honor, or at least professionalism. None of us mind doing the work. But is this really a group of people it’s wise to jerk around?”

“None of you are prisoners,” Justinian said serenely. “If at any time you wish to discontinue our association, you may do so without fear of reprisal from me. Indeed, I’m forced to confess I might find some relief in it; our relationship does place a strain upon my conscience at times. Due to my position, I am beholden to the Sisters of Avei, the Thieves’ Guild, and other organizations which are eager to know about the movements of most of you. It would assuage my qualms to be able to be more forthright with them.”

Shook tightened his fists until they fairly vibrated; Khadizroth blinked his eyes languidly. The others only stared at Justinian, who gazed beatifically back. Ravoud’s eyes darted across the group, clearly trying to anticipate from which direction the attack would come.

“For the time being, however,” said the Archpope after a strained pause, “I encourage you all to rest after your travels. Unless you decide otherwise, I shall have more work for you very soon. Welcome home, my friends.”

With a final nod and smile, he turned and swept out of the chamber, Ravoud on his heels. The Colonel glanced back at them once before shutting the doors to their suite.

Shook began cursing monotonously.

“Well said!” the Jackal said brightly.

Khadizroth stepped backward away from the group and turned his head, studying the outlines of the room. “Vannae, assist me?”

The elf nodded, raising his hands to the side as the dragon did the same. A whisper of wind rose, swirling around the perimeter of the chamber, and the light changed to pale, golden green. The shadows of tree branches swayed against the walls.

“I attempted to insulate any loose fae energy,” Khadizroth said, lowering his arms. “Kheshiri, are you aversely affected?”

The succubus pressed herself close to Shook’s side; he tightened his arm around her. “Not really. Doesn’t feel good, but I’m not harmed.”

“Splendid.” The dragon smiled. “This will ensure our privacy, since we were not able to catch up before returning here. How did your…adventure go?”

She glanced up at Shook, who nodded to her, before answering. “Everything went smoothly—I’m good at what I do. You were right, K. Svenheim was a trap.”

“You’re certain?” Khadizroth narrowed his eyes.

“Not enough that I’d stake my life on it,” she admitted. “But the Church is an active presence in the city, and I observed some very close interactions between its agents and curators at the Royal Museum.”

“I knew that fucking dwarf was gonna backstab us,” Shook growled.

“Not necessarily,” Khadizroth mused. “Svarveld may have been a double agent, or he may have been as betrayed as we. The point ended up being moot, anyway. We will simply have to remember this, and not underestimate Justinian again.”

“Why would he bother with that, though?” the Jackal asked. “He knew the skull wasn’t even in circulation. We were never going to acquire it, much less send it to Svenheim instead of Tiraas.”

Khadizroth shook his head. “Unknowable. I suspect there are currents to this that flow deeper than we imagine. Did you have time to tend to the other task I asked of you, Kheshiri?”

“Easy,” she replied, her tail waving behind her. “I swung by Tiraas on my way back; only took a few hours.”

“What’s this?” the Jackal demanded. “I thought we were sending the demon to Svenheim to snoop. How did you even get across the continent and back?”

“Oh, that reminds me,” Kheshiri said sweetly, producing a twisted shadow-jumping talisman from behind her back and tossing it to her. “You shouldn’t leave your things lying around.”

The assassin rolled his eyes, catching it deftly. “That’s right, let’s have a ‘who’s sneakier’ pissing contest. I’m sure there’s no way that’ll backfire.”

“Quite,” Khadizroth said sharply. “Kindly show your teammates a little more respect, Kheshiri. This group is primed to dissolve into infighting anyway; we cannot afford such games.”

“Of course,” she said sincerely. “My apologies. But in any case, your message was received and acknowledged. No response as yet.”

“Give it time,” he murmured.

“Message?” Vannae inquired.

“Indeed.” The dragon smiled thinly. “Justinian is not the only one with dangerous connections.”


 

“Busy?” Rizlith sang, sliding into the room.

Zanzayed looked up, beaming. “Riz! Never too busy for my favorite distraction. He’s got me doing paperwork. Help!”

“Aw, poor baby,” the succubus cooed, sashaying forward. “I bet I can take your mind off it.”

“I should never have introduced you,” Razzavinax muttered, straightening up from where he had been bent over the desk, studying documents. “Zanza, Riz…don’t encourage each other.”

“Well, joshing aside, there’s been a development I think you’ll urgently want to hear,” Rizlith said, folding her wings neatly and seating herself on one corner of the desk.

“A development?” Razzavinax said sharply. “Do we need to revisit that tedious conversation about you leaving the embassy?”

“Oh, relax, I’ve been safely cooped up in here the whole time,” she said sullenly. “No, the development came to me. And by the way, if you’re just now hearing of this, your wards need some fine-tuning. I had a visit from one of my sisters.”

“Sisters?” Zanzayed inquired. “Like…an actual sister, or is that just demon-speak for another of your kind?”

“You do know we’re not an actual species, right?” Rizlith turned to Razzavinax. “You’ve explained it to him, haven’t you?”

“Never mind that,” the Red said curtly. “Children of Vanislaas are not sociable with each other as a rule, Zanzayed; developments like this are always alarming.”

“Oh, quite so,” the succubus said with fiendish glee. “But Kheshiri brought me the most fascinating gossip!”

“Kheshiri,” Razzavinax muttered. “That’s a name I’m afraid I know. How bad is it?”

“That depends.” Rizlith grinned broadly, swaying slightly back and forth; her tail lashed as if she could barely contain herself. “Weren’t you guys looking for Khadizroth the Green a while back?”


 

Even strolling down the sidewalk in civilian attire, Nora did not allow herself to lose focus. She had been trained too long and too deeply to be unaware of her surroundings. When four people near her suddenly slumped sideways as if drunk, it wasn’t that fact alone so much as her reaction to it that told her something was badly wrong. She paused in her own walk, noting distantly that this was peculiar, and well below the level of her consciousness, training kicked in. It was much more than peculiar; her mind was not operating as it should.

Nora blinked her eyes, focusing on that tiny movement and the interruptions it caused in her vision. Mental influence—fairly mild, and clearly concentrated on an area of effect, not just targeting her. That meant the solution was to keep moving…

Then she was grabbed, her arms bound roughly behind her, and tossed into the back of a carriage that had pulled up next to the curb.

She hadn’t even seen anyone approach. Hadn’t noticed the delivery carriage pull up. How humiliating. It began moving, however, and the effect subsided with distance, enabling her to focus again on her surroundings.

It was a delivery truck, or had been originally; basically a large box with a loading door on the back built atop an enchanted carriage chassis. The runes tracing the walls indicated silencing charms, as did the lack of street noise once the doors were shut. One bench was built against the front wall of the compartment, with a single dim fairy lamp hanging in on corner, swaying slightly with the motions of the carriage.

The space was crowded. Four men stood around Nora, one with a hand knotted in her hair to keep her upright—she only belatedly realized that she had landed on her knees on the floor. On the bench opposite sat a thin man with glasses, who had a briefcase open on his lap, positioned to hid its contents from her. Against the wall on the other end of the bench perched a woman Nora recognized from a recent mission briefing.

“Good morning, Marshal Avelea,” Grip said pleasantly. “Thanks for joining us, I realize this was short notice.”

“I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t get dressed up,” Nora said flatly.

The thief grinned. “Saucy, aren’t we? Just like a hero out of a bard’s story. I thought you Imperial professionals were supposed to clam up when captured.”

“Would that make you happier?”

“I’m not here to be happy,” Grip said, her smile fading. “I get a certain satisfaction from my work, sure, but it’s not as if breaking people’s joints makes me happy, per se.”

“I don’t think you’ve considered the implications of this,” said Nora. “I’m an agent of Imperial Intelligence. If you intend—”

“Now, see, that attitude is why you are in this situation, missy. People seem to forget that we are a faith, not a cartel. This isn’t about intimidation—because no, the Imps don’t really experience that, do they? But when you start boasting about how your organization is too powerful to stand for this, well…” Grip leaned forward, staring icily down at her captive. “Then you make beating your ass an absolute moral necessity, rather than just a satisfying diversion.

“Besides, it’s all part of the cost of doing business. Your training means you won’t be excessively traumatized by anything that happens here, and your superiors will accept this as the inevitable consequence of their blundering and not push it further. You may not know, but I guarantee Lord Vex does, that the Empire is not a bigger fish than Eserion. At least one sitting Empress found herself unemployed as a result of pushing back too hard when we expressed an opinion. So this right here is a compromise! We’ll discuss the matter of you attempting to kill a member of our cult, Vex will be especially respectful for a while, and we can all avoid addressing the much more serious matter that you, apparently, are not afraid of the Thieves’ Guild.”

Grip very slowly raised on eyebrow. “Because believe you me, Marshal, I can fix that. But then there really would be trouble. So, let’s just attend to business and go our separate ways, shall we?”

“Fine, whatever,” Nora said disdainfully. “Could you stop talking and be about it already? Some of us have plans for this evening.”

Grip sighed. “I wish you wouldn’t say such things,” she complained. “Now this is going to suck up my whole afternoon. Toybox, start with that nervous system stimulating thingy of yours. When I’m satisfied the bravado is genuinely regretted, the lads can move on to the more traditional means.”


 

“This is on me,” Darling said, scowling.

“You’re awful eager to take credit for someone who wasn’t there,” Billie remarked, puffing lazily at one of McGraw’s cigarillos.

Darling shook his head. “Weaver, want to explain why she’s mistaken?”

“Always a pleasure,” said the bard, who sat crookedly in the armchair with one arm thrown over the back. “First rule of being in charge: everything is your fault. Being the man with the plan, he takes responsibility for any fucking up that occurs. More specifically, he sent us out without doing some very basic research that could’ve spared us all this.”

“Knew I could count on you,” Darling said dryly.

“Acknowledging that I am not generally eager to let you off the hook, Mr. Darling,” said Joe with a frown, “realistically, how could you have known the skull wasn’t in the Badlands?”

“Known? No.” Darling sighed, slouching back in his own chair. “But Weaver’s right. I found a trail and followed it without doing any further research. Hell, I knew about the werewolf issue in Veilgrad—we even discussed it, briefly. All I had to do was check with my contacts in the Imperial government for signs of possible chaos effects. Too late to say what difference it would have made—we might have decided to go for the Badlands anyway, as the Veilgrad case wasn’t a confirmed chaos incident until mere days ago—but it would’ve been something. Instead I got tunnel vision, bit Justinian’s bait and risked all your lives for damn well nothing. Somehow, ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t really cut the mustard this time.”

“You know better than this, Antonio,” Mary said calmly. “Learn the lesson and apply it next time. Recrimination is not a constructive use of our time.”

“Right you are,” he said dourly. “Regardless, I feel I owe you all something for this. The oracles settled down when the skull was secured, so the projects I’m pursuing on you behalf are again proceeding. It’s hard to tell, but I’ve a hunch that I’m close to an answer for you, at least, Mary.” He grimaced. “Unless the trend of the responses I’ve been getting reverses, I’m starting to fear it’s an answer you won’t like.”

“I do not go through life expecting to like everything,” she said calmly.

“Wise,” he agreed. “Anyway, it’s Weaver’s question that I think will be the toughest. I get the impression they’re actively fighting me on that. It may be my imagination, and the general difficulty of working with oracular sources, but still…”

“Wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest,” Weaver muttered.

“If nothin’ else,” said McGraw, “this wasn’t wasted time. We’ve learned some interesting things about our opponents.”

“And about ourselves,” Weaver added caustically. “Such as that Billie’s too theatrical to just kill an assassin when she has him helpless, rather than painting him with a stealth-penetrating effect.”

“Aye, now ye mention it that would’ve been more efficient,” Billie mused. “Hm. I’m well equipped for big bangs, but it occurs t’me I’ve got little that’d straight-up off a single target at close range. Funny, innit? I’ll have to augment me arsenal. I love doin’ that!”

“You said that green fire came out of a bottle?” said Joe. “That’d be a remarkable achievement if it was just a spell. How in tarnation did you manage to do it alchemically?”

“Oh, aye, that’s a point,” Billie said seriously. “Don’t let me forget, I owe Admestus Rafe either a really expensive bottle o’ wine or a blowjob.”

Weaver groaned loudly and clapped a hand over his eyes.

“Can’t help ya,” Joe said, his cheeks darkening. “I’m gonna be hard at work forgetting that starting immediately.”

“How do you plan to proceed?” Mary asked Darling. “It would appear that waiting for Justinian to take the initiative is a losing strategy.”

“You’re right about that,” the Bishop agreed. “And I do believe that some of what you’ve brought back is immediately relevant. For example, that he is harboring a fugitive from the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Is it wise to act on that point?” McGraw inquired. “Shook bein’ on his team is part o’ that game of intelligence chicken you’n Justinian are playin’, right? The one you’re not s’posed to acknowledge knowin’ about.”

“Some day I’m gonna hold you and Jenkins at wandpoint until you both prove you can pronounce the letter G,” Weaver grumbled.

“Oh, I’m sure Justinian will know exactly how the Guild learned of this,” Darling said with a grim smile. “If he didn’t want to play that game, he shouldn’t have made the first move. I’m not waiting for him to make the next one.”


 

“I’m sorry this business didn’t work out the way you hoped, your Holiness,” Ravoud said as the two men arrived in the small, glass-walled enclosure atop the ziggurat behind the Dawnchapel.

“On the contrary,” Justinian said, gazing out over the city, “this has been an extremely successful field test. We now have an idea of the effectiveness of Khadizroth’s group against Darling’s, which was the purpose of the exercise.”

“They seem pretty evenly matched…”

“Power for power, yes, but we knew that to begin with. And power is not so simply measured.” Justinian tilted his head backward, studying the cloudy sky. “Considering the violence all those people are capable of, their total lack of casualties indicates a mutual disinclination to inflict them. That is the most important thing we have learned. Using adventurers to winnow each other down will only work if they do not comprehend where their true best interests lie. These, clearly, do. Another strategy will be necessary.”

“I suppose this proves we can’t expect loyalty out of that group,” Ravoud said, scowling. “Hardly a surprise.”

“Indeed,” Justinian agreed with a smile. “Khadizroth deems himself above me, Vannae is loyal only to him, and the rest of them are simply monsters of one kind or another. Loyalty was never on the table. What is interesting to me is how quickly and openly Khadizroth set about undermining me. He is more than patient and far-sighted enough to play a longer, more careful game. Holding back from killing their opponents, attracting the Empire’s attention, that ploy to have the skull sent to Svenheim… To take such risks, he must perceive an urgency that I do not. That must be investigated more closely. It will also be important to learn whether the other party is operating on the same principles, or has developed an actual loyalty to Antonio. They are a more level-headed group, generally, and he is quite persuasive.”

“Forgive me for questioning you, your Holiness,” said Ravoud, carefully schooling his features, “but it is beyond my understanding why you tolerate that man. You know he’s plotting against you, and there’s not much that’s more dangerous than an Eserite with an ax to grind.”

“Antonio Darling is one of my most treasured servants,” the Archpope said softly, still gazing into the distance. “I will not have him harmed, nor deprive myself of his skills. Matters are tense now, because I cannot yet reveal everything to everyone. He has no cause to trust, and thus I have to arrange these diversions to keep him from investigating things he is not yet ready to know. When the full truth can be revealed, he of all people will find my cause the best way to advance his own principles and goals.”

“As you say, your Holiness,” Ravoud murmured. “Did… Do you intend to make some use of the skull?”

“Objects like that are not to be used,” Justinian said severely, turning to face him. “I fear I have abused my authority by making it a part of my plans at all. Frankly, my predecessor was unwise to have the Church take custody of that thing; it is far better off in the hands of the Salyrites. The goddess of magic can keep it safe better than anyone.” He sighed heavily. “My attempts to compensate for the risk seem to have backfired. We are still gathering intelligence from Veilgrad, but indications are the charms and blessings I designed to protect the people from the skull’s effects enabled those cultists to remain lucid enough to do significant harm, rather than blindly lashing out as chaos cultists always have. In addition to the damage to Veilgrad and its people, that has drawn the attention of the Empire.”

“That, though, could be useful by itself,” Rouvad said slowly. “If those same blessings can be used for agents of the Church… If there is ever another major chaos incident, they could protect our people, keep them functional.”

“Perhaps,” Justinian mused. “Regardless, I will have to meditate at length on a proper penance for myself; I have unquestionably caused harm to innocents with this. I badly misjudged the risks involved. Still… From all these events I feel I have learned something of great value.”

He turned again to gaze out through the glass wall over the rooftops of Tiraas. “In Veilgrad, a class from the University at Last Rock were hard at work interfering with my plans. And I note that one of the first actions undertaken by Darling’s group was to visit Last Rock itself. Everywhere I turn, Arachne Tellwyrn’s fingers dabble in my affairs. Just as they nearly upended Lor’naris last year, and Sarasio months before.”

“That’s…sort of a fact of life, isn’t it, your Holiness?” Rouvad said carefully. “There’s just not much that can be done about Tellwyrn. That’s the whole point of her.”

“No power is absolute, Nassir,” Justinian said softly. “Be they archmages, gods, or empires. They only have the appearance of absolute power because the people agree that they do. Such individuals live in fear of the masses discovering that they do not need to tolerate their overlords. Every tyrant can be brought down.

“I was always going to have to deal with Tellywrn sooner or later. We cannot rid the world of its last destructive adventurers when she is spewing out another score of them every year—to say nothing of her specifically elitist methods of recruitment. She targets those already most powerful and dangerous and equips them to be even worse. No… Arachne Tellwyrn must be dealt with.”

He nodded slowly to himself, staring into the distant sky. “If she insists on making herself a more urgent priority… So be it.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter >

9 – 36

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

Khadizroth physically swelled, drawing in a long breath, his face descending into a deep scowl. “You, Kuriwa, I had minimal patience for to begin with. If—”

“Truce,” Mary said calmly, holding up a hand, palm forward.

The dragon paused and narrowed his eyes. “Truce? Why?”

“Let me second that incredulous question,” added McGraw. “With you bein’ here, finally, this ruckus seems about to take a turn for the beneficial. For some of us, that is.”

“There are some things you should all know before pursuing this matter any further,” Mary said equably, lowering her hand. “If you will kindly give it a minute or two, let the others gather. I’ve had to send help for some myself, but—ah, here they come now.”

Now might have been overstating it for those without the benefit of elvish hearing. Vannae turned his head slightly toward the far end of the square, narrowing his eyes; Khadizroth glanced fleetingly in that direction before focusing his attention back on Mary.

“I am impressed, at the least, with your nerve. That you should presume to speak politely with me after our last encounter…”

“Khadizroth, I will not have this conversation if you plan to contend that your treatment was unwarranted,” Mary interrupted. “Existence is not fair, and people cannot be expected to be scrupulous in their judgment; we are not all Avei, nor Themynra. Your actions have consequences, and you knowingly took a substantial risk by launching a scheme which, frankly, was beneath you on multiple levels. If you wish to discuss the removal of my curse, we can. As soon as you are no longer attached to Justinian.”

“I see,” the dragon said evenly. Vannae scowled deeply at Mary and opened his mouth.

The sound of footsteps came from around the corner at the end of the square. The flaming green silhouette of the Jackal, eerily visible through intervening buildings, dashed toward the corner and whipped around, not slowing as he pelted straight for his compatriots. A second later, the huge panther rounded the corner, sliding on the dusty street, and lunged after him.

The Jackal unashamedly skittered behind Khadizroth; the panther skidded to a halt and glared at the group, tail lashing.

“Raea, please don’t play with that,” Mary said with a smile. “You have no idea where it’s been.”

“Look who decided to show up,” Raea shot back, her expression decidedly unfriendly. “After leaving this whole situation to devolve into carnage, here you are to clean everything up and take credit. As usual.”

“Petulance does not become you, child,” Mary chided gently. “If it makes you feel better, there will be very little credit here for anyone. If you will join us, we are going to have a chat shortly. I’ve had to send some help to escort the last few interested parties to this location.”

“Did you sign off on this?” the Jackal asked, peeking around from behind Khadizroth.

“Regardless of any outstanding personal business between myself and the Crow,” the dragon intoned, folding his arms, “it has been my long experience that it is worth listening when she speaks. I’ll grant a few minutes to hear this…revelation.”

“Oh, good,” said the assassin, brushing fruitlessly at the flames on his sleeves. “Can you do something about this?”

Khadizroth half-turned to glance over him. “Probably. Not here, in the presence of opportunistic hired thugs who I don’t trust not to take advantage of my distraction.”

“That’s a little rich,” Joe protested. “All’s fair in war, as they say. Now we’ve agreed to a truce.”

“This is the first time I have heard you voice such agreement,” Khadizroth replied. “Regardless, complex magics can wait.”

“Oh, sure, I’ll just wait,” the Jackal said sullenly as Raea came to stand next to McGraw, laying a hand on his shoulder. After a moment of no visible effect, the old wizard straightened up slightly and rolled his shoulders as if suddenly freed of stiffness, then smiled and tipped his hat to her.

Everyone shifted to stare at the mouth of a side street when a swirling cloud of dust emerged from it, moving far too slowly to be natural. The cloud slowed and arced back toward the street from which it had come, and for a moment during the shift a vaguely humanoid outline was visible in its form. Then it shifted again, drifting toward Mary, and rippled in an indecipherable series of gestures.

She smiled and bowed to the air elemental from a seated position. “En-shai da.”

The elemental swelled outward and dissipated, a few leftover streamers of dust drifting to the ground.

From the street behind it came Weaver, carrying Billie seated in the crook of his left arm; he had his wand in his other hand, pointed currently at the ground. The bard glanced rapidly around the growing assemblage in front of the well, but spoke to his passenger.

“Quit drinking those, you idiot. You of all people know what the effects of healing potion overdose are!”

“Ah, quit yer maunderin’,” Billie said with a grimace, tossing the vial she had just emptied to the ground. “All the worst times I ever had seem to’ve begun with somebody tellin’ me not ta drink somethin’.”

“And did you ever follow that advice?”

“Course not, what d’ye take me for?” She grinned at his ostentatious sigh, raising her voice to address the others. “Well, what’ve we got ‘ere? Back to talkin’, eh? You wankers had enough?”

“Hello, Billie,” said Mary, finally getting up from her perch and stepping over to them. As Weaver carefully lowered the gnome to the ground, she knelt and placed both hands on Billie’s cheeks.

Billie grimaced, then shuddered, staggering, and apparently would have fallen had Mary not held her up. “Ach! Blech, that tingles. Thanks, though. Feels a lot better.”

“He’s right, you know,” Mary said more severely. “One more vial of that and you’d have had much more serious problems than the internal bleeding. Remedying that was more difficult than what remained of your actual injuries.”

“Well, sorry, yer Crowness, but if you just turn up at the last second, don’t expect ta be handed the easy jobs!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Weaver said dismissively, glaring around the square. “Either someone explain to me why we’re not still killing these assholes, or let’s just resume.”

Khadizroth reached behind himself unerringly and planted a hand over the Jackal’s mouth, just as the assassin opened it. “We are as eager to learn the point of this as you, I’m sure, deathspeaker.”

“Just a moment, please,” said Mary calmly. “Our final guest is arriving.”

She stepped in front of McGraw, Joe, and Raea, crossing the space separating the two groups, and met a large figure emerging from another street.

It was easily eight feet tall and seemed made of stone, which made the silence of its movements deeply incongruous; only upon closer inspection was it apparent that the elemental was not made of solid rock, but slowly shifting sand. In its blocky arms was the unconscious form of Jeremiah Shook.

The sand elemental bent and carefully laid him out on the ground, where Mary knelt to touch his forehead. “Hm, he’s been healed recently. Your work, Vannae? Neatly done.”

“Mary,” Joe said tersely, “that man—”

“Is your diametric opposite in nearly every respect, Joseph, and altogether would have been a better choice for a first nemesis than a dragon.” Mary straightened up, turning her back on Shook, and strode serenely back to her perch on the rim of the well. The elemental, rather than rising again, slowly sank back into the dusty street, leaving no trace of its presence.

Shook twitched once, then sat bolt upright, groping at his belt where his wands should have been and not finding them. He fell still, staring at those gathered in the square through narrowed eyes.

“Come on, really?” the Jackal protested. “No one’s dead? Nobody? You guys suck at this.”

“Okaaaay,” said Shook, ignoring him. “What the hell now?”

“That is what we’re about to find out, apparently,” said Vannae, returning his attention to Mary.

“I have spent the last several days traveling widely,” Mary said, while Shook got to his feet and joined the other members of his party. “Much has been going on behind the scenes, and I’ve been working to determine what, and why, and at whose behest. I had some advance warning of these events, you see, thanks to my own divinations. When the oracles begin to warn of danger, there are always some of us who hear the alert first.”

“Thanks for keeping us in the loop,” Weaver snorted.

Mary raised an eyebrow. “I’ve worked toward the betterment of the world for a very long time before you came along, Weaver, though I would still have included you, had I any reason to believe you would act for the greater good when not being paid. Regardless, there is a point within your griping, whether you intended it or not. There is one secret I knew long beforehand, which I wish I had been present to share with you before you were sent off on this errand. It could have spared us all a great deal of needless fuss and bother.”

She folded her legs beneath herself and regarded them all solemnly. “You were sent here to obtain the skull of Belosiphon the Black—or more accurately, to fight over it. For the last eight hundred and twelve years, the skull has lain in a sealed barrow in the mountains outside Veilgrad, reachable through the city’s ancient catacombs.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Veilgrad?” Shook said incredulously. “Bullshit.”

“Veilgrad,” Mary continued, “has been the scene of all manner of catastrophe in the last few months. Necromancy, werewolf activity, multiple misfired spells. Chaos cultists.” She cocked her head to one side. “Exactly the sort of goings-on one would expect to see in the presence of a major chaos artifact, and which has not been seen here.”

“Well,” McGraw mused, “suddenly I feel a lot less intelligent than I did this morning.”

“So…what, this is a race to Veilgrad, now?” Joe asked. “Then I don’t see what’s different about this encounter. Stands to reason we’d be best advised to prevent each other from settin’ out first.”

“I suspect we are not done being surprised,” said Khadizroth.

“Indeed,” Mary said with a smile. “The skull is now secure, or will be very soon. An extraction team sent from the Universal Church, composed of members of the Holy Legion and spellcasters of multiple schools form the cult of Salyrene, were dispatched in a borrowed zeppelin. Their operation was exquisitely timed; I expect they either have the skull in their hands now, or will within the hour.

“Most interestingly, to me,” she went on, her expression growing more serious, “is the timing. That skull was inside a casket sealed by Salyrene herself. It has endured for centuries and in theory should have indefinitely. This summer, the roof over it was collapsed, cracking the seal—a most interesting development, considering the protections laid upon that place. I would venture to say such a thing could not happen unassisted. This caused the taint of chaos to flood Veilgrad, slowly growing until it became a severe enough threat to alarm the oracles, leading to…all of this.

“So Justinian sent you here,” Mary said, turning to nod at Khadizroth’s group. “Bishop Darling, to whom I spoke just yesterday, researched the oracles’ warnings on his own time, finding the Church’s records to indicate the Badlands as the skull’s resting place. There is no historical reason why they should.”

“Wait,” said McGraw, frowning. “There’s the matter of Imperial Intelligence. Darling looked through Imperial records too, and got the same info. And they’ve sure as hell been a presence in Desolation of late.”

“The inner workings of the Empire are frustratingly opaque to me,” Mary allowed. “Who has done what and why in the halls of Imperial Intelligence I cannot say. But I can interpret the events unfolding as I see them. The new Imperial presence and construction in Desolation, among its other aims, is directly targeted at extending the Rail network to Rodvenheim and Puna Dara—two sovereign states which have emphatically refused to give Tiraas a clear route to their front doors. Now, with adventurers brawling, plains elves prowling and rumors of a major chaos artifact flying about the desolate region where all their territories abut, I rather suspect both governments are under significant pressure, from both within and without, to join hands and impose mutual civilization on this last piece of wilderness.”

She paused to let her words sink in for a moment before driving them the rest of the way with a veritable hammer. “Of course, there is exactly one man who could arrange for the skull to be exposed, you four and your succubus companion to be sent here, and a trail of breadcrumbs laid exactly where Darling would look for it. Now, I’ve said my piece. We can resume this affair to its logical conclusion, which in any outcome involves massive damage, injury, and likely fatalities. Considering who has arranged all this, who is the only party who will benefit from both our groups weakening each other… Well, I find that I, for one, am disinclined to dance for his amusement. I am even less interested in helping the Tiraan Empire advance its foreign policy ambitions. My proposed truce has now seen its purpose fulfilled. I suggest that rather than continuing to fight… This is a good time for us all to walk away.”

The wind whistled emptily over the shattered rooftops of the town, carrying the scents of smoke and ozone. Both groups assembled in the square stared suspiciously at one another, at their own members, at Mary positioned neutrally apart from them.

Then Joe, moving slowly and very deliberately, slipped his wands back into their holsters.

“I said it to begin with,” the Jackal said, still swiping absently and fruitlessly at the green flames limning him. “Whatever problems we’ve got with each other, with Darling or anyone else—and you’d better believe there are going to be a series of reckonings on all those scores—at the end of the day, Justinian’s still the big spider in the middle of this web. And the son of a bitch went and made us forget that for a while.”

“Yes,” said Khadizroth softly. “A fitting reminder why he is dangerous.”

“You don’t have to answer to him,” said Joe.

“Someone does,” Khadizroth replied. “I like him better in my proximity than weaving his schemes behind my back.”

“Aye?” Billie snorted. “How’s that workin’ out for ye?”

Shook grunted. “Pains me to admit it, but the gnome makes a point. We have every fucking one of us just been played like a whole band of fiddles.”

“A veritable orchestra of dupes and patsies!” the Jackal said, grinning. Shook gave him a filthy look.

“Now, I might be mistaken,” said McGraw. “It wouldn’t be the first time. But all this talk seems to be leadin’ toward the conclusion the lot of us have more urgent matters in common than we have reason to fight.”

“You’re not completely right there,” Weaver replied. “The matters in common, yes. But every time we meet, this shit gets more and more personal.”

“I’m sure this has nothing to do with the proclivity of several of you to be gratuitously vicious toward each other,” Raea commented.

“The enemy of my enemy,” Vannae began, and was drowned out by a loud snort from Shook, a peal of hysterical laughter from the Jackal, and a theatrical groan from Weaver.

“Enough.” Khadizroth did not raise his voice, but it nonetheless cut off the noise. “You are all right. We have between us matters which must be settled. However… The Crow is also right. The matters need not be settled right now, and we have in common one figure who would presume to control or destroy all of us. We would be wise not to let ourselves forget that, when next we meet.”

“I can’t help but see the utility in havin’ one group in the Archpope’s camp and one outside it,” said Joe. “If we were willin’ to…compare notes, so to speak. Not to mention that, let’s face it, Darling ain’t a whole lot better. If he’s any better.”

“Darling is as duplicitous a player as the Archpope,” said Mary, “and I think has an even greater capacity for viciousness. The ultimate difference between them, however, is that Darling does not aspire to rule. He is Eserite to his core; his aim is to bring down those who would set themselves above others. That makes him useful, despite his…numerous annoying character traits.”

“Hm,” Shook muttered, frowning at nothing.

“I accept your recommendation, for now,” said Khadizroth, taking one deliberate step backward. “We will continue to play Justinian’s game because we must. Henceforth, however, we must be very careful not to find ourselves doing his dirty work.”

“Agreed,” Joe replied, nodding. The dragon nodded back.

There were a few more mutters and grunts from various persons, but with that, it seemed the main topic of conversation was exhausted. Mary stood and strolled calmly over to join her own group, as both parties began shuffling backward from each other. They eased away in reverse at first, keeping eyes on their rivals, but gradually, as they neared the edges of the square, everyone relaxed enough to turn around and slip into the streets on opposite sides.

The desolate wind whistled into the space left behind as both groups walked away.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter >