Tag Archives: Thumper

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“Warlocks?”

“Or, in theory, demons,” Khadizroth answered, still resting one hand upon Shook’s shoulder. The enforcer lay on the narrow bed in his room at the Inquisition’s improvised headquarters, blinking groggily at everyone around him—which was basically everyone else here, save the Church-assigned guards and servants. In addition to the dragon, Kheshiri knelt by his side, holding his hand against her bosom, and Vannae was lurking in one of the room’s corners, unobtrusive as only he could be. Syrinx stood at the foot of the bed with her arms folded belligerently, scowling at Shook as if she held him personally to blame for his situation. Which was likely the case.

“In theory,” Syrinx repeated with heavy sarcasm, her eyes cutting to Khadizroth.

“It bears mentioning, since we know so little,” the dragon replied in his customary calm. He seemed to make a game of not rising to her constant needling. “What we know is that the attack was magical and infernal in nature, thus a demon is a possibility. I am inclined to suspect warlocks, however. They are the most likely to be found lurking in human cities.”

Syrinx grunted, turned, and began pacing back and forth. Her caged lion routine appeared to be just a sign that she was deep in thought; apparently the woman couldn’t do anything without looking like she wanted to kill somebody. Shook suspected that she existed in a constant state of wanting to kill somebody, anybody, or everybody. For as brief a time as he’d known Basra Syrinx, he already fully understood why Bishop Snowe would go behind her boss’s back and secretly sneak off halfway across the continent to try and get rid of Syrinx for good.

“And you say you’ve never heard of this magic before.”

“I said I have never seen it before,” Khadizroth corrected gently. “I’ve heard of such spells, but only in rumors, ancient tomes of infernal magic, and the boasting of red dragons. Allegedly, Elilial’s wraiths employed some such craft during the last Hellwar, though I did not encounter it personally. This is exceedingly advanced infernomancy, Inquisitor. There are few warlocks who even might have the capability.”

“So,” she murmured, still pacing with her eyes now narrowed to slits. “Wreath.”

“Those fucking…” Shook started to struggle upright, but Khadizroth exerted slight pressure on his shoulder—a message, not enough to physically hold him down.

“It is normal to feel foggy after what you have been through, Jeremiah, even with the most thorough cleansing I could give you. Your mind will clear quickly, but do not push yourself before it does.”

Shook settled back down, squinting up at the dragon, who was looking at Syrinx. Actually, by that point he felt fine; pretty well-rested and alert, considering the amount of fae healing that had been done on him in the last few minutes. Further, he would have bet Khadizroth knew that perfectly well. He made a show of squeezing his eyes shut and then blinking rapidly, letting them go out of focus in an imitation of his own natural state just moments ago.

Jeremiah Shook knew a subtle signal from a teammate when he saw one, and all other things being equal, he trusted Khadizroth to know what he was about. And Syrinx’s very presence automatically validated any measures to pull the wool over her eyes.

“What of our actual targets?” Khadizroth asked, watching Basra stalk up and down the narrow room. “We are, after all, pursuing a mysterious cult with mysterious powers. Among other things, we know for a fact that they have prodigious skill in necromancy.”

“Necromancy isn’t infernomancy,” she snorted, giving him a scathing look in passing.

“Of course,” he said politely. “But there is a saying: when you hear hoofbeats, think of horses before zebras.”

Syrinx slammed to a halt so abruptly that Shook twitched in bed, then made a show of lolling his head drunkenly to one side. She didn’t appear even to notice him, though, fixing her attention fully on the dragon.

“Khadizroth, perhaps you can clear something up for me,” the Inquisitor said in an alarmingly calm tone. “What in the hell is a zebra?”

If Khadizroth was taken aback by the intensity with which she delivered this apparently innocuous question, he gave no overt sign of it.

“Zebras are a rare species of equine which are found only on the Arkanian sub-continent,” he explained. “They greatly resemble horses, aside from their coloration, which consists of black and white vertical stripes. Unfortunately, they are not domesticable, being notoriously ill-tempered and aggressive.”

“Oh,” she said pensively, looking off to the side. Incongruously, she smiled. “Oh, I get it. Good one.”

“It’s a somewhat obscure aphorism, but I can’t claim original credit,” Khadizroth said, still showing no surprise at this turn of the conversation. “I merely meant that given our mission here, it might be premature to posit the intervention of a hypothetical third party when we are already after dangerous prey of uncertain capabilities. These cultists have not been seen using infernomancy, that we know of, but we specifically do not know their identity or motivation, or the origin of their powers. The necromancy they were seen performing was very impressive, as I understand it, and the spell used on Jeremiah something nearly unheard of.”

“That works the other way, too,” she snorted, turning aside and starting to pace once more. “If it quacks like a duck, waddles like a duck, and uses infernal spells like a duck, no reason to assume it’s a mysterious doomsday cult when the Black Wreath are known to be belligerent and active.”

“Actually, they have been notably quiet since the debacle in Tiraas,” Khadizroth countered. “The last I’ve heard of them popping up since was the announcement that Tellwyrn actually invited them to her school in Last Rock. And again, this is a particular kind of spell which they have never been known to use—strange, if they had the ability this whole time, especially as it would be fantastically suited to their goals in particular. And chaos cults are nothing if not unpredictable in their methods.”

Syrinx stopped again, turning to frown at him. “Chaos? Where are you getting that?”

“A theory, as yet unsupported by the evidence,” he admitted, releasing Shook’s shoulder to fold his hands at his waist. “Necromancy is the only firm lead we have on these people. It was also highly characteristic of the chaos cult which attacked Veilgrad not so long ago. And these people did pop up in the middle of Tiraas with no prior hint of their existence, and then disappeared without a trace.”

“Nothing I’ve been told suggests chaos is a factor here,” she said, then leveled a finger at him. “And don’t you go borrowing that kind of trouble unless we have good and sufficient evidence that it needs to be considered. The Veilgrad cultists were necromancers out of expediency; they were operating out of the catacombs where all the corpses were. No, everything points to a warlock attack, so that is what we will assume. And that leads to the question of why the hell our boy was ambushed by warlocks and then ditched in an alley!” She turned the full force of her glare on Shook. “I don’t suppose you have remembered anything slightly useful, yet?”

“It is possible some few of his memories will return in time,” said Khadizroth. “But definitely not so soon after the event. He is unlikely to be fully lucid—”

“Excuse me, dragon,” Syrinx said very evenly, “but was someone talking to you?”

He bowed, and took a step back away from her. “My apologies, Inquisitor.”

“I went to the cafe,” Shook said, not faking the slowness of his speech or the faraway expression in his eyes; it was difficult to dredge up the images from his memory. It no longer hurt, but he well remembered the singe of hostile magic attacking his mind, and the recollection of it was like a curtain over his thoughts, growing thicker and hazier the more he tried to focus on what he needed to know. “That’s… That was the last time it was clear. I think I talked to somebody. Yeah, yeah, I remember that much. A man.”

“His name?” Syrinx said flatly. “Description?”

He shook his head slowly. “Sorry, boss. Whole thing kinda trails off into sparks after that. Whoever these assholes were, they knew what they were doing. I get some flashes of what came later…” He squinted, concentrating on what few flickers remained. “A dark place… I think that was just the alley where K found me. Beams of light—yeah, wandshots, I’m pretty sure. I dunno who fired or at who.”

“One of your wands was on the ground,” Khadizroth said, reaching out to touch the shaft of dark wood where it lay on his nightstand. “I retrieved it. Unfortunately, it carries no trace of the magics used in its vicinity. Occasionally one can extract such hints from enchanted objects, but in this case it was a forlorn hope.”

“How specifically inconvenient,” Syrinx sneered.

Shook started to shoot back at her, remembered Khadizroth wanted him to play possum, and winced, placing a hand on his forehead. He slumped back against the pillow, growling deep in his throat, a noise which came quite naturally.

“Rest, master,” Kheshiri murmured, caressing his hand and then tucking it right into her cleavage. “We’ll get them for this.”

Syrinx gave the succubus a look of utter contempt, then rolled her eyes and turned to resume pacing yet again. “Then the question becomes: why did Thumper get rolled by the Wreath, in particular?”

“Also significant is that whoever attacked him used esoteric spellcraft to wipe his memory and leave him for us to find,” Khadizroth murmured. “Killing him would have been far easier.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Shook muttered.

“One damn thing at a time!” Syrinx barked. “Our mission, our very presence here is secret. No one should even know of the Inquisition’s existence! And yet, the first time I send you louts out on a simple information-gathering assignment, one manages to come under attack by the Black Wreath.”

“Second time,” Kheshiri said sweetly.

“What I want to know,” Syrinx snarled, “is which of you idiots have been jabbering!”

Shook lay back and tried to look sleepy.

“To whom would any of us talk?” Khadizroth asked. “Aside from being somewhat inherently unsociable, each of us is currently working for the Church because we have a need for protection, and nowhere else to go.”

“I haven’t even been outside this birdcage of yours since we got here,” Kheshiri pointed out.

“Another old saying springs to mind,” Khadizroth added. “Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead. We are not the only people involved in this.”

“That’s a point,” Shook said absently, groping at Kheshiri’s chest, less for the inherent pleasure of it than because the looks Syrinx was giving them were increasingly entertaining. “You’ve got at least one servant, guards… And obviously this whole Inquisition of yours has more to it than what’s just here. There are personnel in Tiraas, at least, right?”

“The Wreath’s whole method is infiltration,” said Kheshiri, puffing out her chest into his hand. The two of them shared a sense of humor when it came to winding up the likes of Basra. “Especially of low-ranking people who tend to get ignored.”

“Everyone here has been thoroughly vetted,” Syrinx said through gritted teeth, pointedly turning away from the pair of them. “But your point is taken. If our security has been compromised, there’s no reason to assume it had to come from you in particular. I suppose now I have to go round and interrogate the entire bloody staff. If there’s even still a point, since there’s no telling what Shook revealed to his attackers. I’ll have to assume it was everything.”

“How much do I even know?” he asked pointedly. “Who and where we are, what we’re doing. It ain’t like we got some great master plan in the works, anyway.”

Syrinx rubbed at her eyes in frustration. “Where in hell is that sniggering elf?”

“Presumably still following leads,” Khadizroth murmured. “Hopefully, the fact that he is taking this long means he is having better luck than the rest of us.”

“Well, as soon as his scrawny ass is back here, it’s not leaving again,” Syrinx stated curtly. “This operation is locked down until I figure out exactly how much damage has been done by this breach. We must assume our location has been betrayed, and while I doubt even the Wreath would attack a Church facility openly and in force, it doesn’t pay to make assumptions with the likes of them. We’ll be moving ASAP. I have to arrange a suitable alternate base first…” Her scowl deepened. “And verify, again, that none of the base staff are corrupted.”

“If we may be of assistance in any way, you have only to ask,” Khadizroth said gravely.

“Yeah!” Kheshiri simpered. “We live to serve!”

“You freaks have ‘helped’ enough for one day, I think. Everyone is confined to the safe house until further notice, and while I realize this isn’t exactly a sprawling estate, I would appreciate it if you lot would try not to get underfoot while I’m cleaning up this mess.”

“And our core mission?” Khadizroth asked.

Her scowl was a fearsome thing to behold. “Our mission…is effectively halted. If this is our quarry striking back at us, our whole strategy will need to change. Though I don’t know how they could even know we are here unless several of you have been more grotesquely incompetent than is even possible. More likely the Black Wreath has discovered a secret Church operation and decided to meddle, in which case the entire thing might have to be scrapped. I probably don’t need to tell you this,” she added, glaring at each of them in turn, “but this does not look good, for any of us. And we are none of us in a position where we can afford not to look good.”

“Well,” Khadizroth said gravely, “for now, we will simply have to rely upon your guidance, Inquisitor. We will be here when you have tasks for us again.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she grunted, waving him off. “Everybody out, then. Let Shook rest up; if you recover any fragment of memory from that missing period, Shook, you come to me with it immediately. I don’t care how inconsequential it seems. I will be the judge of what’s relevant.”

“Can do, boss,” he said, saluting haphazardly.

“That means everybody get out and let the man rest,” Syrinx added acidly when nobody moved.

“The Inquisitor is right,” said Khadizroth. “I can work a minor craft that will help you sleep, Jeremiah. I do not know a specific counter to this specific spell, but if you are willing to indulge me I can induce a dreamless state that is generally recuperative for the mind. It may yield results, if the memories are still there to be recovered.”

“Uh… Not tryin’ to be difficult, K, but I’m sure you’ll understand if I’m not excited about having more hoodoo done to my head right now.”

“I will not force the issue, of course. I merely offer, for your good and that of the mission. Rest assured, I am extremely competent.”

“Omnu’s breath, let him help,” Syrinx said irritably, pausing in the doorway after shooing Kheshiri and Vannae out. “Did you not hear me say we need every possible scrap you can recover? If the dragon doesn’t know what he’s doing, no one does.”

“Yeah…all right, fine,” Shook said with a sigh.

“Thank you, Inquisitor,” Khadizroth said politely, bowing to her. “Would you kindly close the door? The quieter, the better. This should not take long; should you need me after—”

“No one leaves the house,” she ordered curtly. “If and when I want you, I’ll find you.”

Syrinx shut the door behind her, harder than was called for upon a room for which quiet had just been requested.

Khadizroth stepped silently over to it and rested his fingertips against the wood, closing his eyes and for a few long seconds just standing there. Shook watched him curiously until the dragon inhaled deeply and lowered his hand.

“We are alone. Good, we must have a quick discussion during what little privacy we are afforded.”

“So that sleep thing was a crock of bull,” Shook said, grinning. “Had a feeling.”

“Actually, that offer was quite real, and I still strongly suggest it. I don’t think well of the odds of recovering any more memories, I must inform you, but attacks upon the mind are to be taken with the utmost seriousness. Your brain needs rest and rejuvenation.”

“Yeah, fair enough,” Shook agreed with a worried frown. He didn’t feel brain-damaged, at least not anymore, but the dragon was right; that was not an area with which risks should be taken. “You not gonna do your ward thing on the room?”

“It is a mistake to over-rely upon magic. For furtive conversations such as this, it is more likely to attract attention than to deflect it. On the subject of deflections, I rather think Syrinx is correct that the Wreath has caught wind of us hunting them. Any further attempts by me to deflect her interest back to this mystery cult would have prompted her to wonder about my motives.”

“Thought that was your angle,” Shook said, nodding. “How’s that gonna affect our game?”

“The range of possibilities narrows if this turns explicitly into the Inquisition versus the Wreath; the lack of that other cult in the mix deprives us of a convenient patsy. I believe we can still work it to our advantage, but too much is unknown and up in the air to lay firm plans just yet. There is a much more immediate problem, Jeremiah; brace yourself.”

“Uh oh.”

“I am accustomed to sensing the presence of a specific, very significant infernal artifact upon your person—one tweaked with arcane charms and linked to your own life force. I have not intruded upon your privacy, but the nature of such a thing is impossible for a being like my self not to notice simply by being in a room with it. Jeremiah, when I found you in that alley, it was missing.”

Shook went pale. He already knew the dragon was right; it had escaped his notice amid all the pain and subsequent healing, but on having his attention called to it, he keenly felt the absence of the reliquary’s familiar weight inside his coat. Still, he clutched at the spot where it normally lay out of useless reflex.

“Oh, shit. Shit. Motherfucker.”

“Peace,” Khadizroth urged, again laying a hand on his shoulder. The dragon’s voice was soothing but firm, a tone that practically commanded calm. “The soul vessel is lost, and unless we are able to learn the identity of your attacker, we have little chance of retrieving it. In the meantime, this provides clues. Obviously your assailant was an infernomancer; the interest of such a being in a Vanislaad soul vessel is obvious. And yet, Kheshiri is still here, neither recalled to it nor given contradicting orders. She shows, so far, no sign of being aware it is gone. Either the thief does not understand how to make use of it—unlikely, given the caliber of infernomancy they have already demonstrated—or for their own purposes saw fit to leave her at liberty. I do not yet know what meaning to attach to these possibilities, but they cannot but be significant.”

“I had it bound to me,” Shook said weakly, his eyes wide and darting about frantically. “They wouldn’t just be able to…”

“I must inform you, Jeremiah, that any skilled warlock would be able to dismantle arcane charms laid after-the-fact upon such a device. It is of Black Wreath craft; its core magics are quite impervious to tampering. All you can do is add bindings, which can then be removed far more easily than they were applied. Even an arcane enchanter would be able to do so. The lack of a reaction so far suggests they may still be working upon that task. Regardless, this is the reality we must now accept: very shortly, Kheshiri will be either gone, or suddenly working against us. Or possibly even left entirely to her own devices, which for practical purposes is the same.”

“I…she’ll listen to me,” Shook said frantically, starting to rise from the bed. “I know my girl, after two years. She—”

“Jeremiah.” Khadizroth placed a hand against his chest and pushed him inexorably back into the bed. “That creature is not your girl. You have, through cleverness and strength of will, kept nominal control of her for a time—longer than most men can claim to have done, even most warlocks. But that time was always limited. Children of Vanislaas are not pets, and leashes do not hold them. Be grateful that this ending has come without worse loss to you than even this; you have suffered less for it than most who underestimate their kind. Now, it’s over. Let her go.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Shook snarled, grabbing his wrist and shoving it aside. “Everybody says that, but I did it. She’s mine, and I’m not giving up my property to anyone!”

“You have held Kheshiri this long in part because she chose to allow it,” Khadizroth said mercilessly, holding his gaze. “I have watched you and the demon carefully, seen her working at your mind. Even with your hand on her chain, it was she leading more often than being led, and more so the longer you were linked. It is for the best that you are separated before you ended up fully subservient and ignorant of it.”

“I am no one’s servant!” Shook roared, surging up off the bed. He managed to sit upright, but Khadizroth was standing too close for him to even swing his legs over the side, and he immediately had to sit back down, to his further outrage.

“Of course you are,” the dragon retorted, still calm. “Right now, you should be worrying about what Syrinx will do when she learns you no longer control the asset that earned you a place here. That moment is coming very quickly.”

“Fuck Syrinx and fuck you. Get out of my way, I’m going to get my fucking property back!”

“Jeremiah Shook.” Khadizroth’s voice pushed down on him more firmly than his hand had, pressing him inexorably back against the cushion. He was still in a well-lit bedroom with a thin elvish man who had green eyes, or so his senses told him, but now another impression began to be layered over the top of this perception. The image of the room in his mind wavered, dreamlike, imposing the mundane room with the towering form of a dragon, great wings and sinuous neck arched menacingly above and blazing emerald eyes boring into his very soul. “Do you imagine it pleases me to bow my head to that vicious little shell of a woman whom I could annihilate with one snap of my jaws? Do you think I seek to impose any greater humility upon you than I have embraced for myself? I am a creature beyond your understanding, blessed and burdened with pride greater than you could imagine. And even I am not too proud to bend my neck, when the situation calls for strategy above force. You are an enforcer, one of Eserion’s chosen. You understand this—or did, before that slinking demoness worked her fingers into your mind, stroking your ego and teasing away your restraint. I am not trying to subdue you.”

The second perception faded away, the room swimming back into simple focus, and once more he was simply there, in a bed, with a green-eyed man standing over him wearing a sad little smile.

“Right now, I am the closest thing in this world you have to a friend,” Khadizroth said gently. “I am trying to free you.”

“Why?” Shook croaked in spite of himself.

“Why would I not?”

“Nobody does anything just…to be nice. Everybody’s got an angle.”

“Oh, Jeremiah.” Slowly, Khadizroth turned and sat down on the foot of the bed; Shook retreated, tucking his knees against his chest. The dragon just gazed wearily at the wall, offering no further hint of aggression. “Some philosophers argue that there is no such thing as a truly good action, because there are no truly unselfish actions. Because it is inherently, viscerally satisfying to be good to others. You’re wise to be mindful of schemers, but if you disregard the very possibility of altruism, you are blind to a vast swath of the motivations of people. But…if it helps you…I am not without ulterior motive.”

“Uh huh,” Shook prompted warily.

“You’re a flawed creature, make no mistake,” Khadizroth said with a wry note in his voice, turning to regard him directly, “but in everything that is detestable in you, I see what I detest in myself. The reflection of my own sins, and the prospect of further. If I turned up my nose at you, I would be the most craven hypocrite. And I find, upon reflection, that while I have been worse than a hypocrite, I am unwilling to add that to my failures. We are here—you, me, Vannae. The demon is as good as gone. It is only a matter of time before the Jackal either turns on us or we simply lose control of him; I am somewhat surprised it has taken this long. And Syrinx is a lesser version of him; all the same flaws with less self-mastery. I would not have advised growing attached to her, even if we didn’t specifically intend to remove her from our list of troubles. Like you, I do not have so many friends left that I can afford to mistreat those who remain.”

Shook drew in a deep breath, unable to keep it from shuddering. “Well… What the fuck do we do now?”

“In the near future we will have to think very fast, and react just as quickly. There is simply too much unknown for us to plan that far in advance. But now, all we can do is make ourselves ready. So for the time being, you need to rest. You will need every iota of your strength very soon, my young friend. Lie back.”

He found himself obeying without protest, settling back down into the pillows and straightening out his legs as Khadizroth stood and stepped over to stand by his head. The dragon laid one graceful hand against his forehead, and that was it: nothing that looked or felt like magic. Just the light pressure, the warmth of his skin, and a single word:

“Sleep.”

Shook’s eyes closed in a second and his breathing evened out swiftly as he sank below consciousness. Khadizroth kept a hand upon his brow, still speaking softly.

“What is lost is gone; we heal not by restoring the old but by growing the new. I give you a dream, my friend, to aid you in rebuilding yourself. You are freed of one demon, and you must master the other with which you struggle. Rage.”

Shook’s sleeping face twisted in a scowl and he clenched his fists against the quilt.

“Feel the anger,” Khadizroth murmured. “Let it flow through you. Let it pass you by, Jeremiah, and understand that it is only a thing. You are not your anger. You have it; it does not have you. Learn to let it pass.”

Slowly, the human’s body began to relax, and his expression evened out. He breathed in slowly and back out, eyes darting behind their lids.

Khadizroth released him and stepped back. The dragon gazed thoughtfully down at the enforcer for several protracted seconds. Then, suddenly, he lifted his head and turned toward the door.

In a flash he had stepped across the room and yanked it open.

A few yards down the hall, Kheshiri turned to meet his eyes, perched in the sill of the window whose bars she had just somehow finished working loose. By this point, he knew the range of her senses; that was close enough to have overheard a great deal, if not everything. The succubus winked, and launched herself out over the ravine.

Khadizorth tore across the hall in a near-instantaneous glide, but even moving faster than an elf, he was barely in time to catch sight of Kheshiri vanishing into invisibility as she soared away.

“…clever girl,” he acknowledged, pulling himself back in out of sight. The dragon lingered for a moment, gazing thoughtfully out into space. Then he returned momentarily to the bedroom to pull the door softly closed, and departed up the hall, already planning how to manage this new crisis.

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15 – 17

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“Pretty,” Jonathan said warily, dividing his attention between the reliquary in Natchua’s hand and Shook, who was still gasping heavily in pain but already trying to drag himself back up to his hands and knees. “And that is…?”

“It’s a Black Wreath reliquary,” Melaxyna said from behind them, making him twitch. “They use them to bind the souls of Vanislaads. That’s the only way to take one of us off the board entirely.”

“Seems like asking for trouble,” he said, frowning. “Anything bound can be unbound. If you want to eliminate something entirely, why not…eliminate it entirely?”

“Doesn’t work,” she said brusquely, her eyes still on the reliquary, which Natchua was now lightly bouncing in her hand. The succubus was still disguised as a human, but had her arms folded defensively and was frowning in naked unease. “If you kill a child of Vanislaas, they just to back to Hell, ready to be summoned again.”

“This craft is not widely known,” said Natchua. “They are exclusively of Black Wreath make. And that illustrates Jonathan’s point: any magical artifact which exists presents a risk of falling into the wrong hands. Like this guy’s, for example.”

“That…is…mine,” Shook snarled, pushing himself fully up to his knees and glaring balefully at her.

“Was yours,” she replied pitilessly. “Now it is mine. You’re an Eserite, I’m sure you understand how that works. However, I still want to know how you came to be in possession of such a thing. I’ve got the funniest feeling the answer to that will end up strangely relevant to my own interests. Ah ah!”

Shook’s wand was still lost in the shadows where he had dropped it, but he abruptly whipped out the lightning wand he had taken from Jonathan minutes ago, moving with a speed and agility which suggested his pained posture just before had been an act. Not that it helped him much, when the wand dissolved into shadow before he could bring to to bear and re-materialized in Natchua’s hand. She handed it back to Jonathan without taking her eyes off the downed enforcer.

He muttered a curse at that, but still seemed remarkably unintimidated, considering he was now cornered, on his knees, and facing an armed man and a warlock. Shook’s eyes flickered between Natchua and Jonathan, and then to Melaxyna, whose head was just visible over Natchua’s shoulder from behind. Then, unexpectedly, he smiled.

Raising his hands, he stood up in a deliberately slow and unthreatening motion.

“Well, how quickly the tables turn, huh? I guess my hunch was right, Jonathan. You do know a little something about the Black Wreath in this neighborhood, don’t you?”

“Wreath?” Jonathan blinked. “Is that what you were after? Sorry, Jeremiah, but you’re still barking up the wrong tree. Natchua here is an…free agent, I guess would be a term.”

“The Wreath is here?” Natchua demanded, clutching the reliquary suddenly. “That complicates…everything. Tell me what you know, Shook.”

His eyes dropped to the reliquary in her hand before returning to her face, and he smiled again. “Well, seems like we’ve got something to offer each other, don’t we? Yeah, the Wreath is here. They aren’t the only ones, either. Whoever you are, you’ve bumbled into more trouble than you can imagine. If you want to know how you can wiggle out of this intact, and maybe even profit from the chaos, you can start by giving me back my property.”

“I don’t care who’s bound in that thing,” Melaxyna said in a tight voice, “a demon is a person. That is a human soul who has already been through Hell, literally. They are not property.”

“Relax, Mel,” Natchua said, still staring at Shook. “We’re not going to cut a deal with this clod.”

“Y’know,” he said, his tone hardening, “if I yell for the guard, this here situation isn’t a good look on you three. People barely need a reason to assume a drow is up to no good.”

She hit him with another shadowbolt.

“Easy,” Jonathan protested as Shook went down once more. “Just because he’s a bastard doesn’t mean we need to be!”

“You’re right, Jonathan, that’s not why we need to be,” Natchua said curtly, turning and gesturing at the mouth of the alleway behind them. There was a momentary darkening of the sunlight, as if she had pulled a curtain across it. “There, we have some privacy. Now we need to have a conversation with our new friend.”

“You’ve already shown me some things today I did not know infernomancy could do,” Melaxyna said warily. “Don’t tell me you can cast a truth spell, too.”

“In fact, I do know a spell for that, but no. That’s in the category of infernomancy that only a demon can perform and not be instantly incinerated.” Natchua studied Shook pensively; he glared right back, now down on one knee and yet looking more like he was coiled to spring than beaten. “For us, a true truth effect would require either divine magic or alchemy. Sadly, I don’t even know the alchemical formula; it was one of those Professor Rafe was forbidden by Tellwyrn to teach us.”

“She forbade that?” Jonathan said incredulously. “His first vacation home, Gabe showed me how to use household cleaners and common enchanting dust to make fire that burns underwater.”

“It’s one of those rules that has to do with the number of nobles at that school,” she said with a thin smile. “Like segregating the dorms by sex. Oh, there was all kinds of alchemical mischief slipped into people’s drinks, but not truth serum. It’s all fun and games until somebody spills a family secret. No, a proper truth effect is beyond my ability, but I can…improvise.”

“You are not going to torture him,” Jonathan said firmly.

“Give me a little credit,” she retorted, shooting him an annoyed look. “I’m not that much of a monster, and anyway, you don’t torture people for information if you want your information to be accurate. Everybody knows that.”

Shook chose that moment of her distraction to lunge forward. He was instantly seized around all four limbs by tendrils of shadow that burst out of the ground around him, and yanked down to lie spread-eagled on the ground with his face against the alley’s dirty floor.

He turned his head to one side and spat. “Worth a shot.”

“I’d have been disappointed if you hadn’t tried,” Natchua agreed. “All right, Mr. Shook, there are two paths open to us from here. One, I can cast a sort of…disinhibition spell. It will basically shut off your mental filter and befuddle you, causing you to babble constantly and lack the mental clarity to concoct a serviceable lie. I don’t want to do that because your stream of consciousness won’t be particularly helpful to me. You don’t want me to do that because we are literally talking about using infernal magic to damage—albeit slightly and temporarily—parts of your brain. Even if I do everything exactly right, which I assure you I will, that’s not good for you at all. The other option, of course, is that you answer my questions quickly and I graciously allow you to leave here unmolested.”

He had to twist his neck uncomfortably to meet her eyes, but he made the effort just to sneer at her.

“So I get fucked over either way? Then I’m sure as hell not going to choose the option that makes your life any easier, you smug darkling cunt. Lemme just take this last opportunity to say fuck you.”

Natchua sighed heavily. “Nobody can ever let me do anything the easy way.”


He hummed to himself as he hunted. It wasn’t generally a wise thing to do, for obvious reasons, but he just couldn’t help it. He had been cooped up and stifled for so damn long, it was positively exhilarating to be back on the chase, even if he wasn’t chasing anything that presented the slightest challenge. Whether one was hunting bunnies or bears, though, Ninkabi was the perfect city for the kind of rooftop-hopping he so enjoyed. It was all tiers, terraces, and spires, so full of interesting opportunities for acrobatics.

Unless, of course, one had to go after a specific target who very sensibly would hide somewhere in the majority of the city that was underground. Not that that would have saved anyone from the likes of him, either, but for now he had the luxury of picking the kind of trouble he was to cause, and naturally he indulged himself in picking trouble that permitted him to bounce around on the roofs.

The elf who these days called himself the Jackal perched atop a chimney, where he would be extremely obvious in his black suit in the morning sunlight to anybody who happened to be looking up. Not that he was concerned; aside from the fact that hardly anyone ever looked up, it well suited his purposes for rumors to circulate about a mysterious figure haunting the rooftops.

From his current spot he had a handy view down at an intersection where two streets crossed one another at a peculiar angle forced by the wedge-like prow of the tower directly across the square from him. So many people! Talking, walking, arguing, laughing, making all kinds of healthy ruckus. All those little bunnies, hopping along and ripe to be snared.

There would be the odd handful of immortals, magic users and aristocrats leavened among them, individuals who could claim to have some actual influence over the course of their lives. By and large, though, humanity existed for the benefit of their betters. Even their own societies were structured to enforce that. And yet, they always threw such a fit when reminded of that simple fact. He never got tired of it.

The Jackal spied what he was after and hopped down, sliding lightly along an angled roof to its edge and pacing along it silently. Below him a pair of city guards on patrol had just moved out of the square and along one of the main streets. He hummed softly as he followed them, skittering and bouncing along rooftops three stories above.

The street bent forty-five degrees once it reached the edge of the island, becoming one of the border avenues guarded on the cliff side by a waist-high wall atop which ran an even taller iron fence. That meant it was one of the major trafficked areas on this particular island, which made his job considerably harder. An opening wasn’t going to occur unless he made one.

Good. After staring at the walls for ages the last thing he wanted was an easy jaunt that’d be over quickly. And so the Jackal prowled, keeping pace with the two guards and delighting in the sense of mounting pressure; he didn’t know what kind of timetable he was under, how long their patrol was, when something might happen that would spoil his opportunity entirely. He just needed two variables to line up: a convenient alley and a lull in the foot traffic.

That confluence occurred almost half an hour later, just as he was beginning to become antsy. Half the street rose in a ramp to the next tier of the island and his targets didn’t follow it, instead going around and under to a quieter section that terminated in a little cul-de-sac against the cliff wall; it was quieter there by far, not to mention shadier.

He abandoned his careful pace to leap over a rooftop and into the yawning chasm of an alley just ahead of the patrolling guards, achieving a midair “landing” two stories above ground with his legs braced across the gap against each wall. Ears attuned to their approach, he waited until they were just before the alley’s mouth before calling out.

“Hello? Anybody! Help!”

Magic was useful, and he made ample use of it, but it did not pay to over-rely on such tools when so many others did. As magic became more and more common, so did counters to most available enchantments and spells. Thus, simple and practical skills became ever more valuable—such as the ability to throw one’s voice.

Hearing, as they thought, a young woman crying out from the far end of the alley, both guards put on a burst of speed and darted in, one igniting a pocket-sized arcane torch to banish the darkness.

From above, the Jackal watched with a wild grin as they slowed, carefully exploring the entirely empty alley. This one was a dead end with only a few doors along it, most having piles of trash and old crates near them. Only two had fairy lamps mounted above and neither was lit at this hour. He noted at the guards were thorough, testing every door—all locked—and pausing to investigate behind every refuse heap large enough to conceal a person before finally deciding there was nothing to find. Conscientious city watchers, that boded well. For the next stages of Khadizroth’s plan, of course, not for these two.

He was just formulating a plan for how to dive upon the pair when the man requested a little privacy. His partner scoffed, but turned and strolled back toward the mouth of the alley while he unbuttoned his trousers and faced the wall behind a stack of crates.

The Jackal almost pouted. That made things easier. It was just dreadfully inconsiderate of them, making it easy. City guards couldn’t be considered a challenge on their best day, and now they had to go and deprive him of an opportunity to apply some rapid problem-solving. It was just rude.

That made him perhaps a little extra vindictive when he lunged straight down at the female guard once she had passed beneath him. Being an elf he was light, lithe, and not particularly muscular, but deftly agile beyond the ability of any human. Even given his lack of weight, he made an impressively effective missile upon dropping two stories at a steep angle. He flexed his knees deeply upon impact of course, which helped absorb the force exerted on his own body but did little to soften the blow upon her back.

It drove the breath right out of her before she could cry out, which was really a redundant benefit for him—a side effect of using her as a cushion, not part of the plan. By the time she could have thought to yell, anyway, he had already reached around and driven his stiletto under her chin, all the way up into her brain.

The Jackal bounced off the twitching body even as she fell, already kicking off the walls in a back-and-forth trajectory deeper into the alley, the impacts he made soundless to human ears thanks to his light frame and especially his skill at this.

He stopped, though, waiting for the man to finish pissing. There were some courtesies guys observed between one another.

The guard was in the process of buttoning up his fly when an arm appeared over his shoulder and, faster than he could have reacted to, ripped a knife still stained with his partner’s blood right through his throat.

The elf swung the gurgling man around to impact against the wall, leaving them face-to-face.

“Shh, easy there,” he murmured solicitously while the man gaped at him and bled, impotently clutching at his throat. “Ah, ah, that won’t help you now. Here, lemme give you a hand.”

He deftly relieved the guard of the wand he’d been trying to bring up—impressive that he still had that much fight in him!—and gently helped ease him down to sit against the wall.

The Jackal retreated just out of reach, squatting on his heels across the alley from the dying man, and smiled benevolently at him as he watched the light fade from his eyes.

Of course he had to stop and savor one of his kills—who knew when he’d get another chance? And it had to be the man, as a matter of personal policy.

During lean seasons when there wasn’t much contract work, the Jackal had long entertained himself in human cities by hunting and slaying serial killers. At first it had been because he sought the challenge of hunting a fellow hunter, but after the very first one his motivation changed to expunging such pitiful filth from his noble profession. They were without exception obsessed, pathetic idiots entirely enslaved by their compulsions, an odd preponderance of them male, and the vast majority of those seemed to have some weird fixation on women. What was worse, they all seemed to think they were somehow getting revenge on the female sex for some imagined slight, failing to realize that their obsession made them more the slaves of womankind than the most henpecked housebroken husband. The whole thing had left the Jackal with a lingering distaste for mutilating or tormenting female targets. Business was business, but he resented anything that made him resemble the saddest, stupidest creeps he had ever encountered.

That didn’t mean he couldn’t have a little fun once the woman was dead, of course.

Dragging the bodies toward the mouth of the alley was annoying work; humans were heavy. It would all be worth it, though, for the comedic effect. Unfortunately he couldn’t afford to linger and watch, but he could imagine it well enough! He propped them up just beyond the rim of the sunlight, where they made a peculiar hunched shape on the ground that would be just barely visible to a human passerby. They might not be disturbed by curious bystanders, even; it was an open question whether someone would come looking after they failed to report in before somebody else came out of one of those doors to throw more rubbish on the ground. Regardless, he didn’t dally, and barely two minutes later was standing back to admire his handiwork.

He set them up with their backs to the mouth of the alley, leaning against each other, and stuck their hands into each other’s pants, finishing off his little installation by painting smiles upon their faces in their own blood.

Time was wasting, but the Jackal indulged himself in a few minutes simply to giggle in delight. Of course, none of his audience would appreciate either his artistry or his sense of humor. That was what made it funny.

Then he was bounding up toward the rooftops again, kicking back and forth off the looming walls and already thinking ahead.

There were two kinds of city guards, for his purposes: craven bullies who would avoid the hint of any real danger to themselves like the plague, and the other kind. Killing a few of them was exactly how you found out which. Even now, a hundred years after Athan’Khar had ceased to be a danger and more than half that long since the Tidestriders had been pacified, N’Jendo had healthy vestiges of a warrior culture. He strongly suspected the reaction to this was going to be pure fury.

If the Black Wreath were indeed up to something in this area, their lives were about to get significantly more complicated. Along with everyone else’s.

Oh, this was gonna be such fun!


Sherwin yelled and flailed upon Natchua’s sudden entry into his kitchen apartment, actually tumbling off his bed in a heap of blankets.

“Aw, poor tiger,” Melaxyna cooed, slinking around the warlock and diving to coil herself about him. “Sorry we spoiled your nap! You had a busy night, I know.”

“Oh, that, I, uh…” He yawned hugely, rubbing at his eyes while the succubus pressed herself into him from behind. “Well, you’re back! What time is it?”

“It’s not noon yet,” Natchua said briskly, crossing to the kitchen’s other door. “I assume Hesthri is supervising the horogki?”

“Yeah, she offered after I kept yawning,” he mumbled. “Very nice lady, really polite for a demon. How was Ninkabi? Did you guys learn anything?”

“I’ll say,” Melaxyna replied. “Turns out our fearless leader can shadow-jump stuff right out of people’s pockets!”

That seemed to wake Sherwin up, and he turned a suddenly alert frown on Natchua. “What? Really?”

“Is that not normal?” Jonathan asked, shutting the outside door behind himself.

“Hell, no!” Sherwin exclaimed. “For shadow-jumping to work, you have to see your target, be familiar with your destination—and it shouldn’t be possible to shadow-jump an object besides yourself if you aren’t going along!”

“Nothing is impossible,” Natchua said, turning back to him with a thin smile. “Some things are just so difficult they are not worth bothering to try. Fewer things for me than for you. Well! Jonathan, would you please take over watching the hobgoblins? You have some construction experience, so you might be the best candidate for that work anyway.”

“I’m not sure how qualified I am to ride herd on a trio of demons,” he protested.

“Hobgoblins barely count as demons. Think of them as highly-skilled adolescents; they need monitoring because they’re unpredictable and energetic, not aggressive or highly magical. More to the point, a changing of the guard is necessary, based on what we discovered in Ninkabi. Agasti is not someone to be approached with hostile intent. Therefore, we will do the polite thing and show up at his club this evening when it opens. And, of course, the best choice of personnel to crash a nightclub is three hot women.”

Sherwin and Melaxyna exchanged a look, then said in unison, “Uhhh…”

“I’ve already taken steps to insure Mel will pass undetected through his wards,” Natchua said in an amused tone. “I can do the same for Hesthri, as well as disguise her to mundane senses. I do know what I’m doing.”

“Have you noticed this expression we all make every time you say that?” Jonathan demanded. She made a face at him.

“That’s not even the most important thing we discovered,” Melaxyna added for Sherwin’s benefit. “Somebody else is working in Ninkabi—we didn’t get much, but Natchua knows some horrifying brain-damaging spells that made this guy talk and then apparently erased his most recent few memories.”

“Guy?” Sherwin said in alarm. “Spell? Brain-damaging?”

“Evidently,” said Natchua, “the Universal Church has re-formed the Inquisition, and they are hunting the Black Wreath, whom they believe to be active in Ninkabi. We know nothing more than that, save that they are evidently working with a dragon, Khadizroth the Green. Much of what the man babbled was unhelpful, and we hadn’t the luxury of time to interrogate him at length.”

“Holy shit,” Sherwin whispered. “Natchua, that is bad news. Other warlocks is one thing—we are not equipped to fight the Church, especially if they’ve organized another Inquisition, and definitely not a green fucking dragon!”

“We’re not going to fight them,” she said patiently. “Our encounter with one of their lackeys proved useful. I left him lying in an alley reeking of infernal attack. We had to leave in a hurry as fae energies were starting to coalesce on us and you are correct, I absolutely don’t want to mix it up with a green dragon. I could maybe fend off a red or blue, but a green would demolish me. It worked out, though. A fae caster of that skill should be able to heal the man I injured, but not restore the memories I scoured out of his brain. He doesn’t know who attacked him. But they will know it was a warlock…and they’re already hunting the Black Wreath right there.”

“Set our enemies against each other,” Jonathan murmured. “It’s a good strategy. If it all works out the way you’re hoping.”

“I don’t hope, I plan,” she retorted. “There’s no telling how things will shake out in the long run, but this? Today’s events are under control. Shook, and soon Khadizroth and whatever other allies they have, know they crossed a warlock and will naturally turn to the ones they were already after. They will increase pressure upon the Wreath in that area, likely forcing them to make a mistake. And I will be watching Ninkabi to see what happens…and how we can take advantage.”

“Okay, that actually is a good plan,” Sherwin said. “Risky as hell, but, y’know…what isn’t?”

“Hn,” Jonathan grunted.

“It gets better.” Natchua held up her hand, and in a swell of shadow, the reliquary appeared. “Shook was carrying this.”

“Uh…who’s in that?” Sherwin asked warily.

“No one, at present,” Natchua replied with a malicious smile. “But it is attached to the succubus Kheshiri.”

“What?” he squawked. “Are you serious?”

“Has everybody but me heard of this woman?” Jonathan exclaimed.

“Not hardly,” said Melaxyna with a worried frown, “but in certain very specific circles, she’s something of an underground legend. Children of Vanislaas tend to have, um…characteristic obsessions, let’s say. That guy Murgatroyd who’s doing security in Last Rock now? He’s the big name in coping mechanisms; his whole thing is finding ways to channel the itch into something useful that doesn’t make him hurt people. Wrangling Arachne’s students and research fellows should keep him good and occupied. Well, Kheshiri’s deal is…pushing the envelope. She’s all about exploring the outer reaches of what a child of Vanislaas can or can’t do, and then seeing how many ‘can’ts’ she can turn into ‘cans’.”

“What’d she do, that’s so impressive?” Jonathan asked.

“Well,” said Melaxyna, “for starters, she’s a magic user. Not a very skilled one, but Kheshiri has been known to dabble in both infernomancy and arcane enchantment.”

He frowned. “What, is that uncommon? I figured all of your kind would try to use magic.”

“Try, yes,” she said dryly.

“It’s their condition,” Sherwin explained, patting Melaxyna’s hand where it dangled over his chest. “Magic is very detail-oriented work that requires a lot of concentration. Vanislaads get jittery when they try to focus that tightly on anything that isn’t a person or an ongoing scheme.”

“So yes, it’s impressive that Kheshiri can cast spells at even a basic level,” Melaxyna said, nodding. “Also, the reason she’s bound to a reliquary is she assassinated the leader of the Black Wreath, impersonated her, and ran the cult for a couple of weeks back during the Enchanter Wars.”

“Ho…lee…shit,” Jonathan whispered.

“They didn’t even catch on,” Melaxyna added, grinning. “Elilial rumbled her in person. Here’s the thing, Natch: those charms that idiot put on the reliquary? They wouldn’t hold her, not for the two years he claims he’s held that thing. The fact he didn’t tell her what all the restraints were would buy him some more time, but after that long? The only reason she hasn’t weaseled out of his control is she wants to stay there. She is doing something with those people, something of her own design. Probably calculated to find out exactly what she can pull off with the likes of an Archpope and a green dragon looking over her shoulder. And remember, Kheshiri’s two favorite pastimes are setting unreasonably high goals and being underestimated.”

“Well,” Sherwin said slowly, “I guess I can see why someone like that would be an asset to the cause…”

“Oh, hell no,” Natchua said, immediately and firmly. “We are not involving this woman in our group. Mel is a friend, and also the entire roster of Vanislaads I’m willing to trust anywhere near me.”

“Good,” Melxyna said firmly. “I mean, thanks, that’s sweet, but also good. Now twist the cap and put her back in the bottle. That’s one less asset for both the Wreath and the Inquisition to call upon.”

“Will that work from here?” Jonathan asked. “We’re all the way across the continent from Ninkabi.”

“It’s not limited by space,” Melaxyna said. “It’d work from all the way across the world. Go on, Natch, chop chop.”

Natchua was still holding up the reliquary, and now staring at it as if in deep thought. “You know…”

“Oh, no,” Melaxyna groaned, burying her face in Sherwin’s shoulder.

“She doesn’t know what’s happened,” the drow mused, gazing at the rose suspended within the green glass. “Only that someone has her reliquary. Someone she must assume to be the Black Wreath. She has two possible courses of action: double down and hunt them ferociously, or betray her group and try to cut a deal with them. Either will draw them out.”

“Natchua,” Jonathan said quietly, “Ninkabi is a city. People live there. That is not a place for a succubus, let alone one you’ve driven into a panic.”

“The Wreath are always careful not to involve bystanders, the Inquisition cannot afford to, and Kheshiri has not choice but to focus tightly on the obstacle before her. And the instant I don’t like something she does, I can put her away for good.” Natchua’s voice and expression had become faraway and vague, as if she were now talking to herself, or someone else not even in the room. “What was it she said? Ticking time bombs. Foxes with their tails afire, set loose in my enemies’ fields. Let’s see how you like it, you hypocritical old cow.”

She held up her other hand above the reliquary, and the chain dangling from its end lifted toward it as if drawn by a magnet. Then it began to rust right before their eyes…and then decay. The chain itself started to come apart in fragments as Natchua’s infernal magic ate away its arcane charms. In seconds it had entirely disintegrated. Next to go were the metal rings, their charms dying in a series of small sparks and the metal bound to them corroding away to dust in the space of a few moments, to leave the reliquary as it had been originally designed, fully stripped of the extra measures constraining Kheshiri’s actions.

Staring at it, Natchua bared her teeth in a vindictive grin.

“Fly, my little bird.”

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15 – 16

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A short bark of laughter burst from Jonathan, to his own slight surprise.

“I say something funny?” Jeremiah demanded. He still wore an attempt at an easygoing smile, though his eyes and voice had both gone hard.

“No, sorry,” Jonathan chuckled. “Your question just forced me to confront how ridiculous I am. Well, lemme put it this way: what’s the most likely reason for a man to find himself suddenly miles from where he belongs and floundering without properly understanding why?”

“Ahh.” The other man’s expression cleared, even growing into a knowing smile, and he nodded sagely. “A girl.”

Jonathan sighed. “Two of ’em, actually.”

“Hah!” Jeremiah snorted a terse laugh of his own, and clapped him on the shoulder. “Nice, brother. That makes you either the luckiest son of a bitch in town, or just the opposite. Maybe both at once.”

“No…I’m leaning toward opposite,” Jonathan mused, staring at the wall behind the cafe’s counter. “The whole thing is altogether more complicated than I ever wanted out of life. Thought I’d found something straightforward and…pleasant. But she wasn’t what she seemed, and then dragged an old flame into it, and now I hardly know what’s going on anymore.”

“That’s how they getcha, y’know,” Jeremiah said sympathetically. “There’s not a damn thing complicated about it until some bitch comes along and makes it that way. Long as you’re all confused and turned around, they’re in control. That’s what it all comes down to: who’s in control.”

Jonathan looked at him sidelong. “That’s a pretty grim outlook on relationships.”

He shrugged, grinning wryly. “It’s a pretty grim world, my friend. Dunno if you’ve noticed.”

“Well, you’re not wrong about that…”

The shopkeeper had come back over, her expression now stonily blank, and Jonathan deliberately kept his own clear of the annoyance he felt. He disliked it on general principles when men were sexually aggressive toward women (and the reverse, though the Avenist sect who were the only women likely to do that in public were rare enough he’d only run across two in his life). This wasn’t just general principles, though; quite apart from interrupting his own information-gathering efforts, the well-dressed stranger had made a thoroughly bad impression, and now Jonathan was part of it. Even if Jeremiah left right now he might well be getting nothing further out of this woman today, or anyone in earshot for that matter.

“What’ll it be?” she asked the new arrival in the terse, toneless voice of merchants everywhere who had not yet decided to lose a sale over their personal dislike of a customer, but didn’t care who knew how close they were.

“I think I’ll have what my new friend here is having,” Jeremiah said with a smirk, slapping Jonathan’s shoulder again. “And what’ll it cost me for a smile from you?”

“More than you can afford,” she said evenly. “It’s ten pennies for a pasty and tea.”

He had already shifted on the stool to reach into his pocket, and now slapped a doubloon down on the counter. “Keep the change, darlin’.”

“I don’t think—”

“What?” he demanded, the hard edge creeping back into his voice. “You don’t appreciate my generosity?”

She glanced at the coin, then back up at his eyes, and took one deliberate step back from the counter. “Coming right up.”

“You’re not much of a people person, are you, Jeremiah?” Jonathan inquired, sipping his own tea.

The man’s eyes cut to him and his expression darkened further, but just for a moment. Then, deliberately, he relaxed, even chuckled softly. “Yeah, well, you’ve got me there. I’ve spent a lot of time cooped up lately with the same few assholes for company. That’s not great for anybody’s social skills, but I guess my current friends like to play rougher than the general population. I should do better at being nicer to honest, hard-working folks out and about. You forgive me, don’t you, honey?” he added to the shopkeeper, again with a broad smirk.

“Sure,” she grunted noncommittally, setting a meat pastry and cup in front of him, then turning to fetch the teapot.

Jonathan kept silent for the moment, nursing the last of his own tea. It would be ideal if he could get some answers for Natchua here, in the first place he looked. He had some slight experience with evading investigators from the first time Hesthri had been part of his life, and plenty since then at being part of a neighborhood, and knew very well that one guy appearing in several places in the same day asking questions about Agasti and Second Chances was likely to spark rumors which someone could follow. Well, if it came to that, he’d hopefully be shadow-jumped safely back to Veilgrad by tonight. Not to mention that sometimes, you just didn’t get the ideal outcome. Most of the time, in fact. Life was about making do with what you were given.

Still, he wasn’t quite ready to give up on this spot…which meant having a reason to stick around here until Jeremiah left. Another cup of tea would do for a start; he held his up in a mute request for a refill when the shopkeeper came by again with the pot for his neighbor, and was gratified that she poured it with a thin smile and no talk of payment. Someone running a business like this was probably sensitive enough to the moods of her customers to observe that he wasn’t enjoying Jeremiah’s company much more than she. A bit less with each passing moment; the man’s last comments had sounded to Jonathan a lot like a coy euphemism for having been in prison.

He gave the fellow a sidelong examination while he munched with apparent satisfaction on his breakfast pasty. The pinstriped suit was clean and fit him well, and while the slicked-back hair just looked shady to Jonathan, it was further evidence that the man cared about his appearance and had money to spend on it. He was neither scrawny nor flabby, unlike the majority of men who wore pricey suits in Jonathan’s experience. In fact, those hands were not only callused, but had an unusual number of scars…

He shifted his gaze back to the far wall, putting the sums together, and hid a grimace behind another sip of tea. Physically strong, moneyed, aggressive streak, signs of a violent past, apparently recently in jail… Great. And wasn’t there some kind of Eserite shrine in Ninkabi? Jonathan wasn’t much for organized religion but he was sure he’d read that somewhere.

“I gather you’re not from this neighborhood, either,” he offered. The shopkeeper had already retreated down to the other end of the counter, but glanced at him and made a face.

Fortunately, Jeremiah appeared not to notice that, pausing to wash down a bite of pasty with a sip. “Why, no, I’m just passing through myself. Looking to get the lay of the land, you know how it is. Never know what kind of information might be important. Though when I hear people chattering about demons, I damn well pay attention to that, as we were just discussing. Speaking of, sounds like I interrupted a very interesting conversation.” He smiled at Jonathan, then shifted his focus to their hostess. “Please, don’t let me stop you. What’s all this about something strange in the neighborhood?” He kept his eyes on her while filling his mouth with another bite of pasty. The man had an unblinking stare that seemed calculated to unsettle.

She had busied herself with a nonsense cleaning task at the far end of the counter; Jonathan opted to come to her rescue. “From what the young lady was telling me, there’s not much to tell. Folks around here seem to think well of Agasti and his club. That speaks well of anyone, but if he’s a warlock and has still managed to get on the neighborhood’s good side, the fella must be the most upstanding citizen in town.”

“Oh, for sure,” Jeremiah said agreeably. “But there’s no way he’s just…left alone to do his business. Guy like that must get checked up on by all kinds of interested parties. Topaz College, Silver Legions…” He still had his gaze pinned on the shopkeeper, and the expression was draining from his face, leaving a blank mask of focus like a prowling cat sighting a songbird. “Black Wreath. What about that, darlin’? How often do you get shifty-looking spellslingers coming through here, asking nosy questions?” A humorless grin cracked his lips. “Like these, for example.”

“This is a safe neighborhood,” she said shortly. “Trendy people come here to spend money, and the city guard keeps a very good presence. I’m sure the Empire keeps an eye on Mr. Agasti.”

“Not what I asked you, is it?” Jeremiah said tonelessly. His food and tea were lying suddenly forgotten on the counter, next to the doubloon she still had not picked up. The intensity of his stare couldn’t be taken for anything but a threat.

“I sell tea and pastries,” she snapped, picking up his hostility. “I don’t know anything about cults or warlocks. If you like gathering rumors, you might try being civil to people.”

“Oh, I get by, trust me,” Jeremiah said in a low tone, flicking his wrist as if adjusting his cuff. Another doubloon slid out of his sleeve, though, and he flipped it into the air, caught it on the backs of his fingers, and began slowly rolling it back and forth. “So let’s try this again, bitch. When I ask you a question, you give me an answer, and we both stay un-ruffled and on our respective sides of the counter.”

“That’s enough of that.” Jonathan was only slightly surprised it was his own voice which had spoken. He had just been thinking it was smarter to stay out of this, and yet he couldn’t muster any regret for intervening. Even though Jeremiah looked to have been about to extract exactly the intel he needed, there were some things that were just not to be tolerated.

The other man turned that flat stare on him, and Jonathan met it without flinching. His lack of fear caused a further tightening of the muscles around Jeremiah’s eyes.

“Friend,” the thug said in the tight voice of someone holding anger barely in check, “I think you wanna stay out of this.”

“I surely do,” Jonathan agreed. “I want to do a lot of things that I can’t. Unfortunately, the way I was raised, a man doesn’t act abusively toward a lady, or allow others to do so.”

Jeremiah curled his lip in a sneer. “Well, there’s your out. A lady isn’t going to be slinging tea in some hole-in-the-wall shop. Lucky for our little friend, here, since I never met an actual lady who didn’t urgently need a bite from a knuckle sandwich, just by default.”

One of the other patrons from the table in the back rose and hurriedly left the shop; the other two men he was with stayed where they were, eyes on their drinks but no longer speaking. Well, good; hopefully the guy could find a nearby guard. Jonathan saw Jeremiah see this, noted the aggravated flare of his nostrils, but he made no attempt to intervene. The man was, at least, professional enough not to cross a major legal line. So far, at least.

“I don’t concern myself with judging anyone else’s character,” he said, meeting Jeremiah’s strained fury with calm. “I concern myself with myself, and that’s all I recommend a man does. There are some kinds of mistakes that make you less of a man, friend. You’re very close to making one now.”

Jeremiah surged up from his stool, seizing Jonathan by the collar and dragging him forward; he kept his own seat, but barely, not struggling.

“Listen here,” the enforcer hissed, “you’re going the right way for an ass-kicking. Is that what you want?”

“No fighting in here!” the woman behind the counter ordered, her voice high-pitched with worry.

Jeremiah started to turn toward her, his expression promising worse than harsh words, so Jonathan moved quickly to recapture his attention.

“Okay, and then what?”

Jeremiah focused back on his face, narrowing his eyes. “What?”

“Let’s say you kick my ass,” Jonathan said evenly. “What comes after that?”

“Are you— What, you’re just gonna sit there and let it happen? You an Omnist or something?”

“I’ve never had much use for religion,” Jonathan admitted, allowing himself a small grin. “Fortunately for you; some Omnists are more dangerous to manhandle than a Sister of Avei. No, I fought in his Majesty’s Army and I’m not one to get pushed around by some punk in a cafe. But still,” he added as the arm holding his collar tightened further, “let’s be realistic. You’re, what, ten years younger than me? I haven’t been in a fight in at least that long; you look like this ain’t even your first one today. You’d probably win that. So, what then? There’s probably a guard heading this way already. Best case scenario, you miss out on the rest of your breakfast. And for what? It’s not like you gain anything from this.”

“Definitely not an Omnist,” Jeremiah sneered. “That’s the kind of limp-wristed pussy talk I’d expect from an Izarite. When someone pushes you, you push back. Sounds like your papa forgot to teach you something important. A man’s nothing if he can’t command respect.”

“So it’s about respect?” Jonathan said mildly. “I think you’re going about that the wrong way, friend. Nobody in here is going to respect you one bit more for roughing me up. They’ll respect you less for laying a hand on the girl. Hell, be honest with yourself. Would you respect yourself any more after that?”

Jeremiah hauled him forward until their noses were nearly touching, forcing Jonathan to grab the edge of the counter to avoid being pulled entirely off balance. “I don’t need life lessons from you, old man.”

“From who, then?” Jonathan countered. “If you’re after respect, son, you’re going about it the wrong way. Respect is earned mutually. All this’ll get you is fear, at best.”

The younger man’s expression was a vicious combination of a sneer and a grin. “Yeah? Well, I guess fear’s enough, for practical purposes.”

“Is it?” Jonathan asked quietly. “Don’t you think you deserve better?”

They were close enough he could feel his breath. Jonathan met his stare, waiting for the punch. He fully intended to give an accounting for himself, but he hadn’t dissembled; he was out of practice and anyway had been better trained with staff and wand than his own fists. He frankly would have bet on Jeremiah if it came to a brawl.

He was actually rather surprised when Jeremiah slowly eased back, relaxing his grip until he had released his collar entirely. Jonathan settled back on the stool, watching him closely still. Sucker-punching someone after faking them into dropping their guard was a classic trick.

The punch still didn’t come, though. Instead, Jeremiah took a full step back and straightened his lapels, then ran a hand over his hair, as if the little grooming ritual helped brush away his incipient rage.

“Y’know,” he said in a much milder tone after a moment, “you remind me of a friend of mine. You a shaman, by any chance?”

“Can’t say I am,” Jonathan replied, raising an eyebrow. “If you’re friends with a shaman, though, my advice would be to listen to him more often.”

“Yeah, that’s his advice, too,” he said wryly.

The shopkeeper cleared her throat. She was holding a full, steaming teapot as if thinking about throwing it or its contents. “All right, buddy, you need to leave.”

Jeremiah gave her a long, cool look, and Jonathan’s first thought was that this was all about to start up again.

Instead, the thug nodded politely to her. “Right you are, miss. Seems I’ve been entirely out of line.” He rapped twice on the countertop with his knuckles. “My apologies for the trouble. You folks enjoy your tea, now.”

Pausing only to give Jonathan a brief, considering look, he turned and sauntered out.

Everyone waited until he had passed beyond view of the front windows to relax. Then Jonathan blew out a heavy breath. “Whoof. Well! Least he’s less of a hothead than some punks that age. I thought for sure that guy was going to start breaking furniture.”

He turned back to the shop’s proprietress just in time to have another pastry slid in front of him, this one a puffy sweet piece dripping with honey and candied almonds.

“On the house,” she said with a warm smile. “I don’t get many white knights in here, and they’re exactly the kind of customers I want to come back.”

“Oh,” he said, actually feeling slightly flustered. “Well. I don’t think I can take a reward for doing the bare basics of the right thing…”

“In that case,” she said, picking up the doubloon Jeremiah had left behind, “your buddy there paid for you. Is that more acceptable?”

“Well, I guess he owes me,” Jonathan agreed with a grin, carefully picking up the sticky bun. “It’s socially incorrect to throttle somebody before dinner. I’m pretty sure I read that in an etiquette manual somewhere.”

She grinned back, leaning on the counter in front of him. “You know what, I think I can see how you ended up with two girls after you, mister.”

He sighed, the smile fading. “Yeah… And at half my present age I might’ve daydreamed about that a bit. Amazing how much pure trouble it turns out to be in practice. Well, anyway! Seems like we were discussing something a little more pleasant before all that noise, but I can’t for the life of me remember what?”

Jonathan took a bite of his free pastry, chewing contentedly and waiting for her to respond. Maybe this would work out after all.


He was lost in thought as he made his way back up the street, hands jammed in his pockets. The sun had risen most of the way toward its zenith and Ninkabi was fully alive, the avenue crowded with shoppers browsing the stores and vendor stalls set up along the sidewalk. A veteran urban dweller, Jonathan navigated through them without really noticing them.

There hadn’t been a lot more to learn about his quarry from the cafe, but he had whiled away most of an hour in far more pleasant conversation after the Eserite had left, both with the owner and a couple of other regulars. The discussion had touched upon Mortimer Agasti and his club a few more times, but did not linger there, and Jonathan hadn’t tried to steer it back. That would have been overplaying his hand, for one, and besides, all the cloak-and-dagger lately had left him missing ordinary chitchat with ordinary folks. It was a nice little reprieve. Who knew when the next chance would be?

Anyway, Natchua and Melaxyna were probably getting all the scuttlebutt they needed from the local magic shops. For his part, Jonathan planned to warn Natchua to lay off a little as soon as he found her again. Agasti was a rich man, a lawyer, and a warlock, three traits which by themselves made a man difficult for common people to like. That he was so well thought of by his neighbors meant he was probably one of the more aggressively decent people in the city. That, or a truly insidious villain, though in Jonathan’s experience people who could actually pull off that act were more likely to be found in chapbooks than real life.

Quite apart from the fact that Natchua and the rest could find themselves in a world of trouble if they riled up the whole city against them, it was starting to seem to him that the best approach in this case was the direct one. If Agasti was harboring this “friendly” khelminash demon, the two of them would probably respond better to an open invitation than to being stalked.

Something sharp jabbed the small of his back through his coat.

“Hello again,” Jeremiah’s voice said pleasantly from just behind Jonathan’s ear.

He came to a stop, slowly turning his head to regard the thug’s smiling face from, again, far too close for his liking.

“Morning,” Jonathan said calmly. “Fancy meeting you again.”

“It’s a smaller town than it seems,” Jeremiah replied. There was a slight tug at Jonathan’s belt as his wand was removed from behind. “Let’s walk and talk, Johnny boy. Just up ahead, alley on your left.”

For a moment, he pondered whether that was an actual wand poking him in the back.

“And what’ll you do if I just start yelling for the police?” he asked.

“Run like hell,” Jeremiah replied. “But it’ll be too late for you to appreciate it. Or, you can do what I fucking tell you, and get to go back to juggling your two girls at the end of the day. That’s the way I prefer, myself.”

“You have a persuasive argument, there,” Jonathan agreed, moving forward. The other man kept pace with him, uncomfortably close, no doubt to conceal from other passersby the fact that he was holding a weapon against him. It was just a few yards, and nobody intervened, nor appeared to notice. Considering a city guard never had showed up at the cafe after one of the other patrons had slipped out in search, he didn’t have high hopes of one coming to his rescue now.

Ninkabi’s alleys were as likely to be tunnels or crevices, in truth, and this was one of those; they were a level down from the uppermost tier of this island. It was even darker in here than in a similar space in Tiraas or Mathenon.

“If you’re just looking to get back at—”

“Oh, let me reassure you on that point.” Jeremiah gave him a sharp push between the shoulder blades. Jonathan staggered forward, but caught himself quickly and turned to face his assailant, hands still in view to his sides. He hadn’t actually been ordered to show them yet, but it was generally wiser to be extra soothing toward a twitchy person brandishing a wand. Which the fellow actually did have, he noted now, a sleek, powerful-looking model that likely cast deadly energy beams instead of arcs of electricity. Jeremiah held it at the waist rather than aiming properly, but at that range he would have to be truly incompetent to miss.

Jonathan didn’t suspect he was.

“No hard feelings,” the enforcer said, grinning. “I respect a man who can talk his way out of a beating. Not my own way, to be sure, but you gotta appreciate skill wherever you see it. Nah, this is just business.”

“Well, I admit I’m perplexed what business we even have.”

“The same, I think.” The man’s smile faded rapidly. “You were in there pumping the locals for information about the local warlock. I might have bought your random stumblebum act if you hadn’t then, as I said, talked our way out of a beating. Got my wheels turning; back where I’m from, they offer actual training in that particular ability. It’s very useful, in my line of work. And then it occurred to me you were sittin’ there chatting about demons, nonchalant as you please. So! Let’s start with who the fuck you are, who you work for and what you’re doing here. Then we’ll move on to whatever you learned from that feisty little piece slinging tea back there.”

Jonathan stared at him. And then, in spite of himself, laughed.

“Is this another one of those things where you just suddenly realized how ridiculous you are?” Jeremiah asked dryly.

“Exactly, yes. Would you believe I’m just a guy with a knack for diplomacy and an unfortunate history of getting tangled up in matters way above my pay grade?”

“Yeah, that’s surprisingly plausible,” Jeremiah agreed. “Are you gonna tell me now you’re not acting on behalf of a more significant player?”

“Well…as to that.”

“Yeah, I thought so. Let’s start with a name.”

“Let’s start with a discussion,” Jonathan countered. “It occurs to me once you get what you need, your incentives aren’t to let me walk out of here having seen your face. It doesn’t really serve me to hurry up and hand over what I know, then, does it?”

The flash of light was almost blinding in the dark alley, but it was constrained enough by the tight beam to leave Jonathan’s eyesight sufficiently intact to discern what had happened. It left a smoking line along the stone wall just to his left.

“That’s what I love about these wands,” Jeremiah said lightly. “Dead quiet. If I decide I’m tired of your crap, I can put a beam through your head at any moment and nobody’s gonna hear a thing. By the time they find your corpse, I’ll be long gone. So let me clarify your position, asshole: the guy with the wands is the guy making the decisions. You want to walk out of here, start by not convincing me you’re more trouble than you’re worth.”

“I’d be very surprised,” Jonathan said, in just as dry a tone, “if you’ve ever heard of who I’m with.”

“Oh, I get around. Try me.”

Shadows gathered.

They dispersed instantly, leaving Jonathan disoriented and in a new position, closer to the mouth of the alley and facing Jeremiah from behind. The enforcer was just spinning about in confusion, brandishing his wand, when a streak of bruise-colored energy slammed into him, sending him staggering to the dirty alley floor with his weapon clattering away across the pavement.

He immediately started pushing back upright, his teeth clenched in pain, and a second shadowbolt slammed him back to the ground. This time, he stayed there, gasping.

“In fact, he does know me,” Natchua said, lowering her arm. “His name’s Jeremiah Shook. He spent a week bumming around Last Rock a couple of years ago, till he incited some kind of adventurer riot and got hauled off to the capital in cuffs. I’m very curious what the hell he’s doing here, why he is pestering you, and most especially…”

She gracefully held out one hand, palm up, and darkness coalesced around it. The shadows dispersed to leave her holding a reliquary, an iron-bound tube of green glass with a single rose suspended in its center. It had a newer metal chain and several enchanted rings attached to one end that looked like they had been tacked on after the fact by a different artisan than its maker.

“…just what he is doing with this.”

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15 – 15

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“He is an Izarite, as a matter of fact.”

“Now I’ve truly heard everything,” Shook snorted.

The Jackal brayed his characteristic shrill laugh. “Sonny boy, if you haven’t learned better than to think that by now, you never will!”

“He sounds like an intriguing individual,” Khadizroth said to their hostess, ignoring the two of them.

Branwen Snowe nodded, smiling at the dragon. “Infernomancy is not esteemed by the cult, obviously, but Mr. Agasti has exercised his craft—both of them—in Izara’s service. He is among the few trusted with the creation of shatterstones, and has provided legal services to local temples at no charge. I can personally attest that being a person not widely liked by the Brethren does not preclude being of service to them.”

“Shatterstones,” the Jackal chortled. “That’s got to be the silliest idea anyone’s ever had for defense.”

“I assure you, those things are not to be taken lightly,” Khadizroth murmured.

“More to the point,” added Shook, “what the hell legal services would the Izarites ever need? What kind of asshole sues a temple of Izara?”

“Such things do happen, now and again,” Branwen said ruefully, “but it mostly comes down to the fact that the majority of lawyers look to Avei for patronage. Their faith is not fondly disposed toward ours as a rule.”

The enforcer nodded. “Well, Avenists making trouble is something I definitely understand.”

“You could say it is what brings us all together,” Khadizroth added with a small smile at Branwen.

“To give the Sisterhood credit, I think blaming Basra on them is excessively harsh,” the Bishop replied, smiling back. “Creatures such as she are adept at squirming into organizations and hollowing out a niche for themselves. And it was Avei’s own who drove her out. Really, it was inspiring the way young Trissiny descended upon her. I am not pleased by violence as a rule, but to see an avatar of Avei’s righteous vengeance in action, one cannot help but be impressed.”

Shook and the Jackal snorted in unison.

“I have several times had the same thought,” Khadizroth said to Branwen, continuing to ignore them. The dragon gave her a warm little smile before returning his attention to the city map laid out upon the room’s sole desk. “So. This pattern is suggestive, obviously. What would you say are the chances that this Mortimer Agasti is in league with the Black Wreath?”

“The entire menace of the Wreath is that one can never be certain of that, about anyone,” Branwen replied gravely. “But I am as confident in Agasti’s loyalties as in anyone’s.”

“I dunno this guy but I’m inclined to agree,” Shook added, folding his arms and leaning against the wall. “The one Izarite warlock? Seems a little on the nose. The Wreath never do the obvious thing, even when it would be the smarter thing in their position. I honestly wonder if over-complicating everything isn’t a commandment their religion.”

“Then there is another explanation for the distribution of these sites you have identified around his establishment, your Grace,” Khadizroth mused, studying the map. “May I ask how you acquired this intelligence?”

“These reports come from the Thieves’ Guild,” she said. “My own contact, not the Church’s. Eserites are generally disinclined to respect any central authority; coupled with the general Western distrust for the Universal Church, it is unsurprising that these reports weren’t made available to Basra. I am reasonably sure they won’t be, either, so you needn’t worry about her learning these are not reports of chaos cultist activity.”

“How come the Guild hasn’t moved against ’em, if they know where they are?” Shook asked, his attention more focused upon her.

“Each of these six sites was the source of a single sighting,” Branwen explained, smiling vaguely at him. She had a tendency to appear oddly vapid when not speaking directly to Khadizroth. “A demon sighting, summoning residue, in one case just people in gray robes. Nobody has been harmed, that I have heard of, which makes all the difference. The Guild and the Wreath mutually avoid one another; it gets gratuitously ugly when they fail to, as I have observed since one of my fellow Bishops keeps deliberately setting that up. So long as the Wreath are not actually harming the people of Ninkabi, I don’t expect Eserite intervention. And they likely won’t. Whatever they are up to, the Wreath seldom create civilian casualties, I have to give them that.”

“What’re you thinkin’, K?” Shook asked.

“The obvious possibility is that the Wreath have some designs upon this Mortimer Agasti,” the dragon said, straightening back up and turning to gaze pensively out the office’s window. Branwen had brought them to a nondescript space owned by the Izarite cult, a two-room apartment with a cozy office-like space in which they now stood and a small, adjoining bedroom. “But that, I feel, is the less likely one.”

“The obvious answer’s always the less likely one with these assholes,” the Jackal chuckled. “Jerry hit that nail on the head.”

“I think,” Khadizroth said slowly, “they are using him as cover.”

“Trying to create ‘accidents’ to discredit Mortimer?” Branwen asked, her blue eyes sharp and alert once fixed on the dragon. “It occurred to me that this might be their goal. Their entire calling is to quell and contain demonic outbreaks. If they consider him a danger…”

“Possible, but I rather doubt it. Notably, the Black Wreath move to suppress lone warlocks, yes, but have historically been reluctant to face potential rivals. They go to great lengths to avoid the Topaz College, and flee from red dragons upon sight.”

“You may not’ve noticed, being cooped up with us the last year or so, but people fleeing from dragons ain’t just a Wreath thing,” Shook said dryly. The Jackal burst out laughing in near-hysterics; by this point, even Branwen knew to ignore him.

“Even so,” Khadizroth said, turning to face them again and folding his hands behind his back. “If Mortimer Agasti is a known and liked figure in the city, and closely involved with the Izarite cult, the Wreath are unlikely to have hostile designs upon him. Perhaps in years past they might have, but following their defeats at Tiraas and Veilgrad, their forces are considerably thinned. I cannot believe they would waste effort chasing mockingjays, which raises the question of what they are after in Ninkabi. What would be in character for them is using him as camouflage.”

“Yeah, I could see that,” the Jackal said, still grinning. “So long as they’re close to warlock boy, any miscellaneous demon shit that somebody reports is likely to get blamed on him.”

“The hole in that plan is the warlock himself,” said Shook. “Who better to hunt them down? If I was him, Wreath digging a burrow under my back porch would immediately become my first priority.”

“Mortimer is…quite reclusive,” Branwen said, frowning thoughtfully. “It is entirely possible he has not noticed any infernal presence nearby. Aside from his work on shatterstones, he has not done anything save look after his revenants within the walls of his club in years.”

“Do not forget, also, that the Wreath’s greatest weapon is their stealth,” Khadizroth added. “They can hide even from paladins, even from the gods, and that craft is Elilinist specifically, not merely infernal. A rival warlock might be one of the least likely parties to detect their presence.”

“Okay, so let’s say this theory’s right,” said Shook. “Wreath’s operating in that neighborhood, using this Agasti guy as a cover. What’s our play? Right off the bat I can tell you it’s not a good situation to wade into. Just the fact they were able to pick their own ground gives ’em the advantage. I like the Wreath better when they’re forced to meet on somebody else’s terms. Preferably mine.”

“Well spotted, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said gravely, nodding. “Making targets of ourselves is not a winning move. As yet, it is unlikely the Wreath even know we are present and interested in them. That is our greatest advantage.”

“How’s about we make Basra a target?” the Jackal suggested, grinning as usual. “That’s where all this is leading up to anyway, isn’t it?”

“You know, that’s a pretty good idea,” Shook agreed. “If the whole objective here is cutting the legs out from under Basra, it’s a lot less likely to bite us on the ass if it’s somebody else who does it. Trick is setting that up.”

“It may be less tricky than you imagine,” Branwen said softly, “if approached in the right way. Simply introducing Basra to Black Wreath cultists directly will almost certainly result in some manner of explosion.”

“There’s no way she’s dumb enough to just lunge after bait like that,” Shook objected. “Nobody who’s lived that long and achieved what she has is that stupid.”

“Why, Thumper,” the Jackal cooed, “I didn’t know you thought so highly of our fearless leader! How long have you been nursing that crush?”

“First step in dealing with any asshole who needs a takedown is to give them full credit for their capabilities,” Shook said icily. “I made the mistake of not respecting one smarmy cunt once, and it’s the reason I’m stuck out here with you fuckers. I don’t mean to repeat my errors.”

“You may find it an amusing irony, Mr. Shook,” Branwen said lightly, “that Principia Locke has played a major role in cutting Basra Syrinx down to size on multiple occasions. She’s arguably the reason you are both out here.”

Shook went stiff as a plank, sucking in a long breath through his teeth. For a long few seconds, color rose in his face as if he were bout to burst a blood vessel.

Then, unexpectedly, he relaxed, and actually chuckled. “Y’know what? That actually is pretty funny.”

“Hmmm.” They all turned back to Khadizroth to find him smiling slightly, again looking down at the map. “I like this general line of thought. Rather than confront our enemies, let someone else exert pressure upon them. And ultimately, set them against one another without dirtying our own hands.”

“So, basically the thing Justinian does to everybody else,” the Jackal said lightly. “Hey, sounds good! Sure seems to work out okay for him.”

“We aren’t Justinian,” Shook pointed out. “And there’s a notable lack of a middle part in that plan. Pressure them how? And then, arrange that confrontation…how?”

“It is simply too early to lay out the final stages of such a campaign,” said Khadizroth. “The manner in which things develop will determine what pieces are in what position upon the board when the endgame approaches. It is a mistake to over-plan too far in advance, particularly when one knows as little as we do at the moment. Instead, we must seek to apply that pressure, and continue increasing it until an opportunity presents itself to move decisively.”

“What do you propose to do, Lord Khadizroth?” Branwen asked.

“Leverage the assets available to us, to begin with,” the dragon explained. “There are means within the mysteries of fae magic of laying triplines which may catch even the Wreath. I do not propose to set traps for them, but rather signals that will enable me to tell where they have been, and ideally, doing what. Unfortunately it is problematic for me to move about the city. Some things I can do from a distance, using only this map. For others, Vannae can travel more freely.”

“Somewhat,” Shook cautioned. “An elf will create less of an uproar, but they still aren’t common in cities. Especially out here in the West.”

“He can deflect some attention by adopting traditional costume rather than that suit he was wearing before,” Branwen suggested. “Many people cannot tell one elf from another, sadly. And city dwellers in general are somewhat jaded to novel sights. So long as he does not cross his own trail too frequently…”

“Elves can be pretty sneaky when they want to,” the Jackal drawled. “I mean, y’know, so I hear. Damn shifty elves, stealin’ our women and our jobs.”

“Great, more magic bullshit,” Shook grunted. “What’s that leave for us to do?”

“It would be tremendously foolish not to take advantage of the full range of talents available,” Khadizroth assured him. “To begin with, one thing we are equipped to do is draw official attention to this district and hamper the Wreath’s movements. In our own little cell are a Thieves’ Guild veteran, a succubus, and an assassin. If the three of you cannot create a stir that fills this neighborhood with police, no one can.”

“Oooh!” The Jackal sat bolt upright in the chair in which he had been sprawled, positively beaming. “Crime spree!”

“Now, hold on,” Shook interjected. “One of the few actually sacred sites to Eserites is in Ninkabi, and by Snowe’s account the local Guild is already aware of warlocks fucking around in this area. If anything resembling unauthorized crime starts happening consistently, the Guild will move into the neighborhood in force. And that will spook the Wreath into vanishing. Like the Bishop mentioned, they want none of that fight.”

“It will have to be a slow escalation,” Khadizroth agreed. “And ideally, of a nature that stirs up official presence in the entire city. The Wreath may be able to shift their focus away from Agasti’s local aegis, but that will only make them stand out more—and I think they will not leave Ninkabi entirely. There is, after all, a reason they are here.” He shifted to regard Branwen with a thin smile. “I have a theory about that, as it happens.”

“Oh?” She raised her eyebrows expectantly.

“I hesitate to comment prematurely. With luck, my efforts with Vannae will yield answers soon.”

“It’s not kind to lead a lady on, Lord Khadizroth,” she said, smiling.

“I hope I shall soon be in a position to make it up to you, my dear.” Khadizroth held her eyes a moment longer before turning back to the others. “So. Given those criteria, what do you think?”

Shook heaved an irritated sigh. “I think that job needs either a much bigger crew or more magic fuckery. There’s not a doubt in my mind that Shiri can whip up something like that, which I got a feeling is why Syrinx doesn’t like me takin’ her out of the HQ. Me, though, I’m not the guy for large-scale manipulation.”

“So,” the Jackal said, his avid grin a sharp contrast to Shook’s dour expression, “crime that torques off the authorities…but slowly…and doesn’t rile the Thieves’ Guild. Oooh, it’s like a puzzle box! I love it! I’m gonna get started right away!”

“Get started on…what, exactly?” Branwen inquired delicately.

“I don’t know!” the Jackal exclaimed with wild glee. “But I have a good feeling about this!”

“Makes one of us,” Shook muttered.

“I apologize for relegating grunt work to you, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said, drawing his eyebrows together in a slight frown, “but we must also be attentive to the need to placate the Inquisitor. My work and Vannae’s I can justify to her as hunting cultists, as that will be precisely what we are doing. We already need to concoct some manner of cover that will satisfy her as to what Jack and Kheshiri are up to. Someone needs to be following up on leads the old-fashioned way, if only to have something convincing to report to her.”

Shook heaved a sigh. “Yep, sounds about right. Well, hell, I haven’t made any of my choices with the aim of gettin’ to do the glamorous jobs. And you’re right, K, that bitch as as paranoid as a shaken can of mice. We’d better start digging up some bone to throw her or she’s never gonna let more than three of us at a time out of her sight.”

“Basra is paranoid,” Branwen offered, “but also possesses wide blind spots, and a tendency to get tunnel vision once her attention is fixed on a target. Certain important functions in her brain are just missing. In fact, what’s wrong with her is very similar to what’s wrong with him.” She nodded at the Jackal, who waved back. “If you have developed any skill at managing his antics in the last year, you will find it applicable in maneuvering around Basra.”

“That is good to know,” Shook said, and winked. “Thanks for the tip, B.”

“Now, I don’t think that’s entirely fair,” the Jackal protested breezily. “The woman is one big clenched sphincter rolling along in a ball of ego. At least I know how to have fun.”

“Basra has her amusements,” Branwen said, unsmiling. “She is particularly fond of murder, and of sexually abusing her subordinates. I urge you to be careful in dealing with her.”

“That’s just unsporting, that is,” the Jackal opined. “If you’re gonna sexually abuse someone, it should be at least a rival, if not a superior. Otherwise where’s the satisfaction?”

“You’re a twisted little fuck, aren’cha,” Shook grunted, stepping over to the desk. Ignoring the Jackal making kissy faces at him, he leaned over the map, his eyes darting back and forth across it a few times before he pointed to a specific spot. “This one has a lot more notes next to it.”

“Ah, yes, that’s a little cafe where there have been multiple suspicious sightings,” Branwen said, craning her neck to follow his indicating finger. “Well, three, which is two more than at any other location on the list. But those were three of the earliest; there has been nothing there in months.”

“Eh, this is busywork anyhow,” he said with a shrug, and stepped back from the desk, straightening his lapels. “And that’s where Syrinx will screech at me for not going if I don’t go there, so that’s a handy answer to the question of where to start.”

“I will have familiar spirits watching you, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth assured him, “in case you run into trouble. But remember: our ability to rush across the city to your aid is limited. Do be careful. This mission is not entirely a smokescreen, and there’s a real chance of the Black Wreath noticing someone dogging their heels.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Shook said with a grin. “That, plus I need to avoid the actual Guild. Thanks for keepin’ an eye out, K, but this ain’t my first rodeo. You guys do your magic shit and…whatever the fuck he’s up to.” He jerked a nod toward the Jackal, then turned and pulled open the front door. “Let me worry about the grunt work. That’s where I shine.”


“I still don’t know if it’s a great idea to split up,” Jonathan protested.

“How much of what we’ve done would you characterize as a great idea?” Melaxyna replied.

“That’s my point exactly. Even relative to all this noise in general, this specific thing doesn’t seem like a good idea.”

“It’s a question of dividing our forces most efficiently,” Natchua said quietly. “Melaxyna and I are going to canvas nearby magic shops and practitioners. That is my area of expertise, and let’s be honest, social skills are not. I’m more in need of backup from the manipulator demon.”

“Empathy demon,” Melaxyna corrected primly.

Jonathan sighed, distractedly running a hand through his hair. “Well. I won’t lie, it’s a little reassuring to know you’re consciously aware of that.”

Natchua’s expression soured slightly, but she made no comment on his observation. “The opposite is true of you, Jonathan. You’re better at talking to average, working-class people because you are one. You’re also likable and forthright, and frankly you don’t need supervision.”

“Thanks, I guess,” he said a little wryly.

“I’m not sending out off alone without protection,” Natchua added in a softer voice, her expression growing more solemn. “I have ways of being alerted if you’re in danger, Jonathan. Believe me, I’ve taken steps.”

“Natchua, knowing infernomancy has been done at me is never going to make me feel safer.”

She pressed her lips into an irritated line. “Fine. Good. Don’t feel safe, because you aren’t; none of us are, that is the entire point of this. But either you trust me, or you don’t.”

He stared at her. “Trust? Do…we need to revisit how this all started with you lying to me for months?”

“We both know what happened,” she snapped. “And that I didn’t harm you, or let you be harmed. Either you trust me, or you don’t. It’s a choice, Jonathan. Sometimes the smart thing to do isn’t the right thing.”

“Yeah,” he said quietly, meeting her eyes. “Yeah, fair enough. I guess it’s sure as hell true that none of us are here to do the smart thing.”

Natchua cracked a smile in spite of herself, but just as quickly cleared her throat, smoothing her face. “Right, anyway. We’re off; you find some watering hole to gossip with the locals. Come on.”

She turned and strode to the mouth of the alley, both of them following. They emerged into the morning sun, earning a few curious glances from passersby.

“Yeah, good thing this isn’t suspicious,” Jonathan muttered. “Don’t mind me, I’m just the guy coming out of dark alleys with two—oof!”

Melaxyna flung herself forward, hugging him with her arms around her neck and her feet off the ground. “You be careful, Johnny! This isn’t Mathenon and you don’t know where anything is, and if you get lost we’re not gonna spend the whole day chasing you down! Got it?”

She dropped her heels back to the pavement and gave him a pointed stare from inches away. He stared right back, blinking in shock.

“Never try not to be noticed, that’s shifty as hell,” the disguised succubus muttered, barely moving her lips. “Be noticed doing something ordinary, nobody’ll remember that. All right, get outta here, y’big goon,” she added loudly, reaching up to ruffle his hair and then turning to flounce away.

This time Natchua was left to follow, herself looking bemused.

Jonathan smoothed his hair back into place while walking the other way, peering around. The business day was underway by that point, shops opening and people passing with increasing frequency. He surveyed each storefront in passing, just like any person new to the city and looking for a place to stop in…which was true, ulterior motives or not.

Passing the open door of a small tea shop, Jonathan slowed at the smell of bread and meat from within, suddenly reminded that he’d skipped breakfast, not trusting anything cooked by a succubus. And apparently they were going to be in this city until suitable hours for a nightclub to open…

That decided him. He stepped into the relative dimness, taking in the layout as his eyes adjusted. There were three other patrons sitting at a table in the back, and a young Jendi woman standing behind the counter, just putting a fresh pot of tea on an arcane stovetop.

“Morning, stranger,” she said with a smile as he slid onto a stool at the counter itself. “What’ll it be?”

“Cup of plain tea, please,” he said. “Whatever you’re brewing there is fine. And… Okay, I’m too hungry to be picky. What would you recommend for someone who’s unfamiliar with Jendi food but willing to be adventurous?”

“There’s no high cuisine here,” she replied, grinning. “If you want a good solid breakfast, my pasties are the same meat, cheese and cabbage in flatbread you can get anywhere in the Empire.”

“The same as anywhere in the Empire sounds perfect!”

“Then perfect is coming atcha,” she said, winking and reaching for one of the still-steaming pastries set below glass in the case next to the counter. “It’ll be ten pennies for that and the tea.”

Jonathan was already pulling out his coin pouch and counted out pennies without comment; that was steeper than what a similar meal would cost back in Tiraas, but he’d been living in Mathenon where everything was hellaciously expensive. It was downright refreshing not to be gouged, after living in a city of bankers.

He chewed and drank in silence for several minutes while she attended to another customer. A shopkeeper was the perfect person to pump for information, but Jonathan knew better than to be seen to be pumping; people mistrusted a nosy stranger. For the moment, the food was plenty distracting, considering how hungry he was. The pasty appeared to be full of goat, and spicier than he was used to, but still good. This was good, honest chow, the kind of thing a man needed to fuel a solid day’s work.

For a few minutes he just let himself sit there in a cafe and eat. Just a guy and his breakfast. It was strangely but deeply therapeutic after the repeated upheavals of the last few days. And the last twenty years.

And as luck would have it, the shopkeeper was the one to strike up the conversation, in the end.

“I get mostly people from the neighborhood in here,” she said, returning to Jonathan with a smile and topping off his tea unasked. “You’re a fresh face! And clearly not from nearby.”

“Aw, what gave me away?”

Her grin was a white flash in her dark face, a smile of good humor that warmed her brown eyes. “You just passing through, or settling in?”

“That kind of depends on my luck,” Jonathan said with a sigh, setting down his nearly-finished pastry on his napkin. “You know how it is, a guy’s gotta go where there’s work. I thought I had a job lined up this morning, but that turned out to be somebody playing some kind of prank on me.”

She frowned. “That’s a rough start to the day. What sort of prank?”

“Oh, sent me to a place that’s not even hiring, and frankly…” He frowned, lowering his voice and leaning forward. “It was weird. Kind of scary. You know about a place called Second Chances?”

The shopkeeper’s expression went flat. “They don’t hire, stranger.”

“Yeah, I sure as heck know that now. You’re going to think I’m crazy, but I would swear it was a demon who answered the door. If I wasn’t passing by here and got distracted by the smell of your cooking I’d already be heading to the police.”

“If you’d met a demon who was afraid of being rumbled to the police, you wouldn’t have walked away,” she informed him. “That place is run by Mr. Agasti. Don’t you give him any trouble, he’s a good man.”

Slowly, Jonathan straightened up, setting down the teacup he had started lifting to his lips. “That so?”

“That’s so,” the woman replied, now meeting his gaze challengingly. “Yes, he’s a warlock, and yes, those are demons he’s got working his club. But Mr. Agasti has never hurt a soul, and done a lot of good for Ninkabi. You want to get by around here, you’d better not cause him any grief.”

Jonathan held her eyes for a moment, then nodded and raised his teacup again. “All right, that’s good enough for me.”

She looked slightly taken aback. “Is it?”

He shrugged, swallowed a sip of tea, and picked up his pasty again. “Sure, that hard to believe? I dunno the neighborhood, I’m new in town. It’s not the first neighborhood I’ve ever been to, though. If somebody rouses that kind of defense from the first random shopkeeper I meet, it almost always turns out they’re good people. I dunno how that works, him being a warlock and all, but there’s no reason I need to, is there? Everything’s better when folks mind their business.” He took a bite, smiling as he chewed.

The woman relaxed, and found a smile of her own. “Well, good. Sorry to get tetchy with you. It’s not always somebody new to the area is so down to earth about it.”

“Oh, I believe that,” Jonathan said wryly after swallowing. “Like I said, not my first day dealing with people.” He hesitated in the act of lifting his last bite to his mouth. “You mind indulging my curiosity, though? How’s a guy who summons demons get to be so well thought of by his neighbors? That’s something you don’t see every day.”

“No, that’s true enough,” she agreed, “Mr. Agasti is nothing if not special. Oh, hello there! Two Tiraan boys on the same morning, that’s new. You guys friends?”

Jonathan looked up, meeting the eyes of the man who had just stepped up to the counter from the door, whom he had never seen before. In fact, with one glance he was pretty sure this was not the sort of person with whom he was likely to become friends. The guy wore a suit about five times more expensive than Jonathan’s, had his hair slicked back with an excessive amount of oil, and in general projected a greasy quality he associated with aggressive salesmen.

“Not everybody from the home province is related, sweetheart,” the new arrival said condescendingly, then smiled, deliberately letting his eyes drop to her chest for a moment. “But maybe we can be friends, hmm?”

Her smile had already evaporated. “I’ll be right with you, sir,” she said curtly, then turned and strode off to check on the table at the back.

Jonathan chewed slowly on his last bite, stifling his annoyance. Quite aside from having his information-gathering interrupted right when it was about to pay off, now he was stuck next to the kind of man who urgently needed to have his face punched on general principles. It was enough to ruin the appetite.

The sleazy guy in the suit seated himself right beside Jonathan, regarding him with a smile that went nowhere near his eyes. “Funny conversation I just walked in on. What was all that about warlocks and demons?”

“Couldn’t really tell you,” Jonathan said noncommittally. “I was just about to find that out myself. I’m new to the area, too. If there’s demon stuff going on, that’s the kind of thing you want to find out about sooner than later, am I right?”

“Hell yes, and pun intended,” his new acquaintance agreed, extending a hand. “I’m Jeremiah.”

“Jonathan.” He grasped his hand and shook it firmly. Appropriately firmly, while Jeremiah stared into his eyes and squeezed hard enough he was clearly trying to hurt. One of those guys, if that hadn’t been obvious already. It wasn’t much of a hardship; the guy had decent grip strength, but Jonathan had spent his life working with his hands, and they showed it.

“So, Jonathan,” Jeremiah said in a tone that didn’t quite succeed at being nonchalant, “what brings you to town?”

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15 – 10

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“Natchua, honey,” Malivette said in a deliberately kind and gentle voice, “I hope you’re comfortable being condescendingly spoken to like you’re a child, because my only other response to that kind of talk…well, you’d like that even less. Now, really. Are you sure you want to make this confrontational? Have you maybe not thought this matter through carefully?”

“Of course I haven’t thought it through,” Natchua said bitterly. “I came here with every intention of never interacting with anyone in Veilgrad but Sherwin. If I had my way, everything would unfold without anybody knowing we were ever here, and everybody would have been better off that way. Instead I’m now dealing with you, and no, I don’t have a plan for that. What I have is a lot of infernal magic and a vested interest in protecting these people. That’s what you should keep in mind here, Lady Dufresne. You start messing with my friends and I’ve got exactly one recourse for that, and it won’t leave anybody happy. So instead of that, how about we walk this back a little bit and see if we can’t find a friendly resolution to this…difference of opinion?”

“Uh, Natchua?” Sherwin said warily, glancing around at Malivette’s four attendants, who had fully encircled the group. “Remember just a minute ago when I said very firmly that we do not want to start a fight here?”

“Sounds like she agrees with you, Sherwin,” Malivette remarked, giving him a thin smile. “Right, Natchua? Nobody here wants the outcome of any kind of brawl that might ensue, especially since there’s no such outcome that doesn’t include most or all of you dead. Natchua, I need you to button up your fly and think with your big head for a moment. I’m sure you are very protective of your friends, and that’s admirable and all, but that is a succubus. If you know anything about infernal magic, or if you’re able to read, you understand why she cannot be allowed to run loose. I’m responsible for this city, and this province, and you bringing her here is the kind of thing for which I could legally have already separated you from your skeleton if I had any intention of doing such a thing. Sometimes, kiddo, the right thing to do is back down, acknowledge exactly how you’ve made a gigantic cock-up of the situation, and let the nice Imperial governor contain the incredibly dangerous demon without making this any messier than it already is.”

“Don’t,” Sherwin urged, placing a hand on Melaxyna’s shoulder as she tensed up. “Even the thralls can track you by smell; Vette definitely can. Don’t go invisible or do anything else to set them off.”

“Thanks for the heads up,” the succubus muttered, tail lashing.

“It’s not even that you’re wrong,” Natchua said quietly, still standing between Malivette at the others. “But it is what it is. Melaxyna is not a threat to anyone right now, and won’t be so long as you leave her in my custody.”

The vampire’s scarlet eyes flicked past her to Sherwin. “Your custody, is it? Interesting. If anything, you’re even less qualified for that than he is.”

“She’s a lot more qualified than you may realize,” Hesthri offered.

“We can either come to some kind of compromise,” Natchua insisted, staring her down, “or you can suffer the consequences.”

“Would you stop threatening her?” Jonathan exclaimed.

“I’m afraid not, Jonathan,” Natchua replied without taking her eyes off Malivette. “That’s all we have to work with, here: the fact that interfering with us would be a lot more trouble than leaving us alone. I don’t want to do this, Malivette, but if you try to separate Melaxyna or any of my people, I’m going to have to stop you. And you may very well win that confrontation, but I can promise you it would cost you dearly. I intend to die elsewhere, do you understand? Not dealing with you. But I intend to die, regardless, and if you force my hand, it’ll be here and now, destroying a wide swath of whatever you may still love in this world. I don’t want to, and it may cost me everything, but I’ll do it anyway because I am way past being backed into a corner. Or you can avoid all this and we can find a compromise. Choose.”

In the short quiet which followed, it wasn’t just the vampires and elves who could hear Jonathan’s teeth grinding.

“Wooooow,” Melaxyna said at last. “I do believe that was the single edgiest thing I’ve ever heard. Did that sound impressive in your head before your mouth fell open? A chapbook author wouldn’t even cram a speech like that into the mouth of their most cliché villain—they’d re-read that and say ‘nah, everybody but consumptive thirteen-year-olds would find this unintentionally hilarious’ and start over. Really, Natchua, a vampire who lives in a crumbling manor with four beautiful maidservants is telling you to tone down the melodrama. You think about that for a moment, and reflect on the direction your life has taken.”

By the end of that, Natchua’s mouth was hanging slightly open. She blinked her eyes three times in rapid succession.

Malivette, meanwhile, clapped her hands together once and rubbed them briskly. “Well! I’ll say this much for this entirely too awkward conversation: now I know who’s responsible for belatedly jamming a spine up Sherwin’s butt, and to my surprise, it’s not the succubus.”

“You really don’t need to be an asshole about this, Vette,” Sherwin complained.

“It’s too easy to be with the effort of not doing it, Sherwin dear. I would like to have a pleasant little chat with the ringleader of this fascinating operation, without the peanut gallery. Girls, make our guests as comfortable as you can for a little bit. If,” she heavily emphasized the syllable, holding up one hand and meeting Natchua’s eyes, “Melaxyna attempts to escape, or does anything else that you judge requires it, kill her immediately. Failing that, she is an esteemed guest and is to be treated as such until I say otherwise.”

“Yes, Mistress,” all four chorused in eerie unison.

“And yet,” Melaxyna mused, “still not the kinkiest party I’ve ever been to.”

“Natchua,” Malivette said pleasantly, “do join me upstairs. I believe we should converse woman to woman without the distraction of all these onlookers.”

“I—”

“Now.” The syllable cracked with the force of a thunderbolt, seemingly through the entire house; the very floorboards shuddered and in the near distance, several doors slammed in emphasis.

Natchua slowly tore her gaze from Malivette’s and nodded at the rest of her group. “It’s all right. Please do as they ask, and be polite.”

“Look who’s telling who to be polite,” Jonathan said flatly. “Keep in mind we’re all still in the building and try not to start a brawl, will you?”

“I did manage to run my own life before you came along, Jonathan,” she said irritably, turning her back on him. “Lead the way, Lady Dufresne.”


Syrinx continued pacing up and down for a few minutes after hearing their report. The rest of them sat in silence in the conference room, watching her.

It wasn’t as if there was much for her to think about, and if this was some kind of power play, it clearly was not working. The three of them had returned to find Syrinx already stewing and both Kheshiri and the Jackal looking serenely pleased with themselves, which as good as said how that inevitable personality clash had played out in their absence. Now, Khadizroth and Vannae sat in matching poses of pure serenity, hands folded atop the table and regarding the pacing Inquisitor in total calm. The Jackal had tipped his chair up on its hind legs, slouching back in it and resting his snakeskin boots on the table. He was unnecessarily cleaning his fingernails with a stiletto and intermittently glancing up at Syrinx, his self-satisfied grin not wavering for a moment. Shook had pulled a chair away from the table and turned it to face the front of the room directly, and now slouched back in it with his legs splayed, watching the Inquisitor with a vague little smile with his head resting in Kheshiri’s bosom while she, standing close behind him, slowly ran her hands up and down his arms.

The Inquisitor’s clear anger was having no effect on its intended targets, and that appeared to be making it worse.

“And that’s all?” Syrinx abruptly demanded, coming to a stop and rounding on them.

“At this time, yes,” Khadizroth said, still utterly calm. “Your lead appears to have been fruitful. The results are slight, this is true, but one cannot expect miracles at the very first step of such an investigation.”

“Something wrong, boss lady?” Shook asked in a milder tone than his voice ever held when he wasn’t being deliberately spiteful. “It was your lead, after all. We met the mark and got results. I dunno why you seem so…tetchy.”

Ironically, that suddenly calmed Syrinx down. She straightened up and the tension melted from her stance, her incipient scowl fading away as she turned a more thoughtful stare upon Shook. He continued to sprawl indolently in his seat, but others in the room more sensitive to undercurrents clearly smelled danger; the Jackal’s blade froze, as did his expression, and he glanced rapidly between Shook and Basra. Kheshiri also stopped the movements of her hands, her fingers clenching on the sleeves of Shook’s coat.

“Quite so,” Syrinx said in a clipped tone, staring blankly at him. “For some reason I expected such a vaunted crew as yours to have achieved more progress, but in hindsight I cannot imagine why.”

“Well, don’t take it to heart, sugar,” he drawled. “We’ve disappointed even smarter people than you.”

Kheshiri’s fingers clawed an iota harder in a silent warning, which he disregarded.

“Mr. Shook,” Basra said, now with a pleasant little smile that made the Jackal’s grin widen slightly in anticipation, “it’s beyond my fathoming why you would even want to get a rise out of me in your situation, but what disappoints me most is that you aren’t better at it. Apparently the Thieves’ Guild doesn’t train its thugs nearly as well as they like to claim. Regardless, you will straighten up. You rely upon his Holiness the Archpope for protection from the Imperial law enforcement and multiple cults you have provoked, including your own. And right now, it is I who will decide how, and indeed whether, that protection will be extended over you.”

He had tensed up, but did not move, and kept his expression deliberately even. “That so?”

“You stand out even in this gaggle of reprobates, Shook,” she stated, planting her fists on the edge of the table and leaning forward to stare down at him. “I know your history. While we are here, I promise you, there will be no preying on or abusing women.”

Shook’s frozen expression suddenly thawed, and then warmed, a dark but genuine smile curling up the corners of his mouth.

“Rrrrright back atcha.”

The Jackal burst out laughing. The room filled with a series of shrill barks of his amusement which may have hinted at the origin of his nickname.

Slowly, Basra straightened back up, her expression revealing nothing.

“In a situation like ours, discipline is a necessity, not a luxury. It is sorely clear how the lack of it has rendered you lot virtually useless. For the duration of your service under my Inquisition, Shook, you will address me as Inquisitor, or ma’am. Is that clear?”

He gave her a lazy mockery of a salute. “Yes sir, ma’am.”

She elected not to push it, instead turning a wry look on the Jackal. “Are you just about done?”

“Wait, wait,” he gasped, holding up one finger with the arm not clutching his ribs. “A-almost…”

“Enough, Jack,” Khadizroth said quietly.

The elf instantly quieted as if a switch had been flipped, straightening up in his seat and folding his hands atop the table. The sudden display of obedience did not improve Basra’s mood; the look she turned upon the dragon was even more wintry than that which she’d directed at Shook.

“I am not very familiar with this city,” Khadizroth said in a courteously calm tone, bowing his head deferentially to Syrinx. “So I’m afraid I have little useful counsel to offer as regards our next move. We await your orders, Inquisitor.”

She held his emerald stare for a moment, then worked her jaw once as if chewing on the idea of him, and finally turned her gaze on the paper lying near her on the table. Scrawled in Khadizroth’s neat hand upon a sheet of enchanting vellum Vannae had been carrying was the short list of locations in Ninkabi where the contact Basra had sent them to meet had said cultist activity could be found. She picked it up, eyes tracking back and forth as she re-read the few lines.

“What was your impression of the contact in question?” Basra asked suddenly.

Vannae and Shook both turned to look at Khadizroth, who opened his mouth to answer.

“Shook,” Basra said curtly. “I want to hear from you.”

Shook hesitated, glancing at Khadizroth and then back to her with eyebrows raised. “Uh, you sure? As you were just commenting, I’m just muscle, here. Big K’s the—”

“Did I ask your opinion, Mr. Shook?”

“Well, yes. You literally just did that.”

“Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said softly. “The Inquisitor is correct. Please don’t add to her difficulties.”

Shook hesitated, then nodded at him. “Yeah, fair enough. My apologies, Inquisitor. Well, there wasn’t a lot to see. Shortish woman, wore Omnist robes with the hood up. Not much of a disguise, since even monks don’t just walk around that way—practically announcing that you’re up to something, walking around like that. But it worked as far as hiding her face, anyway, and it’s not like we came off any less weird, with K having to use practically the same get-up. Acted pretty standard, for an informant who’s not used to playing this game. Skittish, looking over her shoulders a lot. Low-pitched voice, I think might’ve been using a voice-altering charm, but I’m no enchanter. Gave us those locations and then bugged off outta there.”

For the first part of his recitation, Basra had kept a level stare locked on Khadizroth, who was watching Shook attentively, but by the end she had directed her full attention to the enforcer.

“Anything to add to that, either of you?” she asked when he came to a finish.

Vannae shook his head, turning to look at Khadizroth.

“A good description,” the dragon agreed. “I can confirm the presence of a voice-altering charm. More than that I did not discern, as any such measures would by nature be intrusive, and your orders were to get information without spooking or provoking the informant. I assumed you wished to avoid jeopardizing the source, which of course is wise.”

“Where’d you dig up this alleged source, anyway?” the Jackal asked lazily, now balancing his knife point-down on his fingertip.

“You know as much as you need to,” Basra snapped.

“As you wish,” Khadizroth said diplomatically before the elf could respond. “I certainly understand the operational need to control information. As a rule, the more we know, the more effective we are in the field. I must admit I am curious about your choice of agents to send on this particular assignment.”

“Dragon,” Syrinx said coldly, “understand this now: I will not tolerate your attempts to undercut my authority.”

“I apologize if I have overstepped,” Khadizroth said, bowing to her from his seat. “No disrespect was intended. I simply took you for a kindred spirit, so to speak.”

Basra actually betrayed surprise, straightening up suddenly. “I beg your pardon?”

Khadizroth glanced briefly around the table, then unlaced his fingers to spread his hands in a small gesture of self-deprecation with a wry little smile. “You are not far wrong to call us a gaggle of reprobates. Most of us here have nowhere else to go, and assuredly little other prospect of being of use to the world than in the Archpope’s service. Likewise, we face potential…difficulties…with certain parties we have offended, should we find ourselves outside his protection. Forgive me, but I thought perhaps you could relate.”

Her lips drew back to bare teeth in a nearly feral expression. Khadizroth kept right on speaking with truly impressive control, managing to hastily cut off any response without sounding at all rushed.

“Those of us who have been a bit longer in this situation have rather laboriously learned not to take offense when it is inevitably given; it has doubtless not escaped your notice that this is a group of large personalities stuffed into a small space. Despite the obvious conflicts, we are a surprisingly effective unit when we exercise our various skills cooperatively. It seems to me a woman of your formidable reputation makes a significant addition to an already significant array of talent.”

“You seem to be under a misconception,” Syrinx said icily. “I am not joining your little…club. This operation is mine. You lot are simply an asset which has been assigned to me for my use, at my discretion. The sooner and more thoroughly you internalize that fact, the more smoothly this inquisition will go. And you want it to go smoothly. If it does not, I promise you, it will not be I who suffers for the failure.”

“Of course.” Again, Khadizroth inclined his head respectfully to her. “What is our next move, Inquisitor?”

Basra turned away, again studying the page. She paced up and down the short end of the room twice more before abruptly stopping.

“You were wondering why I dispatched the muscle and not the subtlety to meet with an informant.”

“Seemed like a curious choice,” Shook agreed, leaning his head back into Kheshiri’s cleavage while she began kneading his shoulders. “But hey, what do I know. The muscle just goes where the brain says.”

Basra divided a look of withering contempt between the two of them, which earned her nothing but a flirtatious wink from the succubus.

“I risked acting on the assumption that even you had sufficient wits to follow simple directions and not create a complete debacle out of one short conversation. I’m somewhat relieved to have that faith validated. The choice of you three was because I was uncertain of the identity and origin of this…informant. I preferred to deploy the less fragile talents given the potential risks. We are not going to be friends, let us clarify that up front. But that doesn’t mean I intend to be wasteful with your lives. You are, after all, valuable assets. Except Shook.”

The enforcer’s face tightened, but he threw her another sarcastic salute, not shifting from his comfortable position.

“I don’t know any better than you what any of these places are,” Basra continued brusquely, flapping the page once at Khadizroth. “I am going to check with the Holy Legion’s local personnel and decide on our next target, at which time I will have your next orders. For now… Adequate work, so far. Dismissed.”

The group exchanged a round of glances.

“Is that…military speak?” the Jackal asked, scratching his head. “What’s that mean, exactly?”

“I believe it means we can go,” Vannae offered.

“I think there’s a subext that we’re expected to go,” Kheshiri added.

“Correct.” Khadizroth pushed back his chair and stood; as if at that signal, the rest began rising as well. “It is customary to depart upon dismissal. Come, the Inquisitor has work and we will only be underfoot.”

He led the way to the door, the rest filing out after. Behind them, Basra turned her back, making a show of studying the list again, which did not conceal the seething tension that gripped her form.

Kheshiri at least waited until they were out in the hall with the door shut before commenting. “Now, that one is wound way too tight. Baiting her is so easy it’s not even fun.”

“Maybe don’t, then?” the Jackal suggested, then giggled shrilly. “Aw, who’m I kidding. You do your thing, doll—me, I have a taste for low-hanging fruit. And I’ve been itching to have a go a that one ever since she and a bunch of her Bishop friends ruined my night a couple years back. Actually it was just before I met the rest of you freaks. And now look! Poor little Basra has come down hard in the world.”

“Peace,” Khadizroth said firmly. “This is neither the time nor the place.”

The Jackal snickered, but followed without further commentary as the dragon led them to the common area around which was clustered the small bedrooms they had been assigned.

Vannae carefully shut the door behind them while the group clustered around the couch and two chairs before their small fireplace. Shook opened his mouth to speak, but Khadizroth forestalled him with an upraised hand.

The dragon produced a bottle seemingly from nowhere, a glossy thing of green glass about as tall as a wine bottle but much thinner. Raising it to his lips, he blew once across the top, producing a soft tone, then handed it to Vannae. The elf did likewise, his breath making a brief puff several notes higher in pitch, then turned and held it out to Shook.

The enforcer took the bottle slowly, frowning, and turned a look on Khadizroth. At the dragon’s encouraging nod, he shrugged and also blew across the lip, then handed it to Kheshiri. They all repeated the little ritual, the Jackal last; he pretended to fumble and almost drop it in the act of handing it back to Khadizroth, snickering at Vannae’s abortive motion as if about to dive to catch it.

Ignoring the byplay, Khadizroth held the bottle up to his own lips one more time, but on this round simply whispered something inaudible. Then he held the bottle out at arm’s length and upended it.

Whispers poured out, slithering voices resonating through the small room and gradually rising. As the sounds grew more distinct, their own voices emerged clearly, raised in an argument. Khadizroth gestured outward once with his hands, and the noise suddenly cut off.

“That,” he said, “is what anyone listening from outside the room will hear. For a few minutes, at least, we can speak in privacy.”

“Nice trick,” said the Jackal. “How come you never used that one before?”

“We are usually under tighter observation, especially in Tiraas, and I prefer not to tip my hand any more than necessary where Justinian might see it. Syrinx has fewer skills, resources, and options. Now time is short—while the spell lasts, let me catch you up.”

“So, shall I assume you were less than forthcoming about your encounter with the good Inquisitor?” Kheshiri asked sweetly.

“The person who came to meet us,” Khadizroth reported, “was none other than Bishop Branwen Snowe.”

The Jackal let out a whistle, but the dragon continued before anyone had a chance to chime in.

“There is, indeed, more going on here than we know—and more than Basra Syrinx knows. This cult, as we suspected, was a weapon of the Archpope’s and our mission here a sham. Snowe does not know what, specifically, Justinian intends by sending us all here, but her stated objective is to destroy Syrinx, whom she regards as unstable, dangerous, and a threat to the Archpope’s long-term plans.”

“Which is good and believable,” Shook added, “by virtue of being the simple truth. I never met somebody who so obviously had ‘crazy bitch’ written all over her.”

“And you’re taking Snowe at her word, are ya?” the Jackal asked wryly.

“Hardly,” Khadizroth replied. “She is, at the very least, going against Justinian’s wishes and seeking the downfall of another of his agents. To have achieved even this much progress toward such a goal, she would have to be far too clever to blithely trust the likes of us with her true intentions.”

“This game is getting better by the minute,” said Kheshiri, her tail beginning to sway eagerly behind her. “So Snowe has inserted herself into the Church’s agents out here to pose as Basra’s source, unknown to Basra?”

“Oh, he hasn’t even gotten to the good part yet,” Shook said.

“Snowe claims she has documentation of this secretive cult’s activities that is more thorough than anything any investigation could possibly turn up, if it were a serious mission,” said Khadizroth. “Evidently—and this should surprise none of you—the full details would be quite incriminating to Justinian, and as such she will not share them all. It appears she is, at least on some level, personally loyal to the Archpope. But she is willing to dole out enough tidbits for us to report back to Syrinx, and sustain the impression that we are actually pursuing this sham of an assignment.”

“While we…?” Kheshiri prompted, raising her eyebrows.

“The intelligence we just turned over is, indeed, about cult activity in Ninkabi,” Khadizroth said evenly. “But the cult in question is the Black Wreath.”

“And what,” the succubus said slowly, “is the Wreath doing here?”

“That she didn’t know,” Shook answered. “Seems like it’d be worth finding out, don’t you think?”

“So you want to conduct a real investigation of the Black Wreath while conducting a pretend investigation of this mystery cult?” the Jackal said, an incredulous note creeping into his customary grin.

“While,” Khadizroth replied, nodding, “playing both ends against the middle between Syrinx and Snowe. We need to learn what each of them is really up to, here, since they are clearly neither telling us anything resembling the truth.”

“And,” Shook added, “the most important part: figuring out how we can best use all of these assholes to bring each other down, before one or some or all of them can do it to us. And what do we call that, kitten?” he added condescendingly, swatting Kheshiri on the rump.

Her grin had stretched to resemble the Jackal’s at his most unhinged. “That, master, we call fun.”

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15 – 6

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The darkness receded, leaving them standing in sunlight and the fresh air of the mountains. The group, which had been clustered together in the Mathenon basement in which they had gathered for the shadow-jump, immediately moved a few feet apart. Mostly because several of them didn’t care for being in one another’s proximity, to judge by the grim stares Jonathan and Hesthri leveled at Melaxyna while stepping to the side.

The succubus was clearly unbothered. She rose up onto her toes, stretching her arms above her head and wings out to both sides, then relaxed with a pleased sigh. “Ah, that’s the stuff. Sun, breeze, and birdsong! I think I’ve had my fill of being indoors and/or underground for another lifetime.”

“Where are we?” Hesthri demanded, turning slowly in a circle to take in their surroundings.

“Veilgrad,” Jonathan answered, pointing at the city stretching away from the western foot of the mountainside upon which they now stood. “Or at least, the hills outside it. The city’s unmistakable. That, however, I don’t know about. A better question is: why are we here?”

He added the last with a frown of puzzlement, turning in the opposite direction. Above them at the pinnacle of the trail loomed the overgrown ruins of a manor house.

“That would’ve been a better question to ask before we jumped,” Melaxyna suggested with a simpering smile.

“Mel,” Natchua warned, “do not start picking at him. Or her, or me, or anyone. This group is already one person bigger than I had planned and we will all have plenty of time to get sick of each other in the days to come without professional help.”

“You know she used to wear her hair gelled up in a mohawk?” Melaxyna said, still in that innocently sweet tone. “It looked ridiculous. I’m glad she kept the green stripe, though, that’s actually rather dashing when it’s allowed to lie down properly.”

Jonathan glanced at her only momentarily before returning his focus to Natchua. “Right, well… Belated or not, the answer to my question…?”

Natchua turned and began walking up the road toward the gates of the manor grounds, giving them the option of following or being left behind. “I told you what I am looking for: demons who can be counted on to take action against Elilial, in spite of their own best interests. There are precious few of those, and it’s even harder to track them down since my primary means of doing so is to consult a djinn.”

“Safely, of course,” Melaxyna snickered. “Binding the djinn in question with a contract which prevents her from revealing anything about Natchua or her own plans to anyone. You can guess how much they enjoy that. I have never seen a djinn so piqued as Qadira el-Mafti after Natchua got done lawyering up at her. Of course, there’s no possible way that will ever come back to bite our fearless leader on the ass.”

“I don’t expect to still be alive by the time she finds an opportunity to make trouble,” Natchua said curtly. “Anyway, I have a lead on another prospect, but in the meantime, we are here to secure the other thing this mad little crusade will require: a safe base of operations.”

“Safe, huh,” Hesthri snorted. They had arrived at the head of the mountain road, where the gates still sort of stood. At least the stone pillars flanking them were still there; of the two wrought iron gates, one listed drunkenly from its hinges and the other lay flat on the path inside. Beyond, the spectacle of ruin was even worse than the glimpse visible from below had hinted. Both the long wings of the huge mansion were in terrible disrepair, with virtually every window either boarded up or reduced to a fringe of shattered glass, and the gabled roof was missing fully half its shingles and rent by yawning holes. That was nothing compared to the main entrance hall which stood between them. To judge by the size of its foundation and the height of the one standing corner, it must have been a grand edifice indeed at one point. Now it was merely a huge pile of rubble.

“For all intents and purposes?” Natchua snorted a mirthless little laugh. “Safe enough.”

“Was all this for dramatic effect?” Jonathan asked. “The whole wide approach, I mean. It’s not like there’s a lot to see, here, and it’s probably a better idea not to drop this group out in a public area where anybody might see us arrive. Wiser to bring us in closer to the building, if not inside it. Unless it’s even less safe than it looks, which would be saying something.”

“Nobody ever visits here, I assure you,” Natchua replied, leading them on a long path to the left of the smashed entrance, through the chest-high weeds and brambles which had overtaken the neglected garden. “And the grounds are protected by a very thorough set of infernal wards. Even I couldn’t shadow-jump jump onto the property itself without likely triggering some kind of trap.”

“Even you?” Hesthri drawled, shoving aside a bramble bush without reacting in the slightest to the thorns. “I thought we’d established you’re about the same age as my son. Infernal magic takes time to master, like any kind of magic. Any skill at all, for that matter. More time than you’ve been alive, girl.”

At the rear of the group, Melaxyna laughed aloud. Everyone else ignored her.

“I know very close to everything there is to know about infernal magic,” Natchua stated.

Jonathan cleared his throat. “Look, Natchua, this may seem improbable, but we actually were your age at one point. It’s easy to feel like you know everything when you lack perspective on how much there is to know.”

“Do not talk down to me, Jonathan Arquin!” Natchua finally slammed to a halt at the corner of the manor, whirling to glare at him. The rest of the group stopped as well, Melaxyna lurking at the back with a malicious grin, and Hesthri clinging to Jonathan’s arm. That sight did nothing to improve Natchua’s humor. “When I say I know everything about infernal magic, I mean exactly that. Everything except whatever Elilial withheld to maintain some control, which is still more than any red dragon.”

He squinted in surprise. “Elilial…withheld?”

“Tell me, Jonathan, since you’re so old and wise and know so much,” she spat, “what do you think would happen if the goddess of demons cornered two teenage college students and stuffed their brains full of every detail of infernal lore? Do you think there is the slightest chance of them doing anything productive or responsible with that? With the entire school magic most suited to causing destruction and almost nothing else? And what lifespan would you give those two kids, at a guess?”

“Gods,” Jonathan whispered. Hesthri was staring at her in pure horror, now.

“And the best part,” Natchua said with a bitter laugh, “is we were just tools. Professor Tellwyrn was a little too close to her plans, so Elilial introduced a pair of time bombs to her campus.”

“That hellgate,” Jonathan said, eyes widening.

“Yes, that was Chase,” she said. “You think I’m cruel, or unwise, or just weird? Fine, I’ll own that, but I was the success story. He is now in a cell in Tar’naris, drugged to the gills so House Awarrion can keep him pacified while the matriarch devises a suitable torment for his offenses against her and hers. Frankly, that’s a better end than he had any right to expect. It’s a better one than I expect. There’s no life or future for me, do you understand that? You can’t walk around having this kind of power and knowledge without it seeping out to affect every aspect of your life. And you can’t live using infernomancy without causing chaos and gathering enemies.”

She paused, and none of them found anything to say in reply. Even Melaxyna no longer looked like she was enjoying the conversation.

“That’s why I’m doing this,” Natchua said at last, the anger leaking from her in a long sigh. “I am avenging my murder, Jonathan. Sticking some pain to Elilial will be nice, but the real victory will be ensuring that Gabriel and the other paladins survive whatever she’s planning intact and positioned to keep giving her grief for a good long time. And gods, I wish you hadn’t butted in. I wasn’t planning to have to avenge your death as well.” She turned around finally, rounding the corner. “But if you insist on involving yourself, fine. By the time I’m done there’ll be enough vengeance to redress a lot of sins.”

The group followed her in silence the rest of the way, which fortunately was not far. Tucked around at the back of the house was a small side door opening onto a stableyard which was now the resting place of half a dozen disintegrating carriages, all so far gone it was impossible to tell whether they had been horse-drawn or enchanted. Natchua’s warning about wards on the property had apparently been apt; the little door opened when they were still a dozen yards away, and a man’s head poked out.

He looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties but prematurely balding, his pale complexion marred by a three-day growth of stubble. Though the stableyard was shaded both by the house and the mountain behind it, he blinked in what sunlight there was as though it were a new experience for him.

“Hello, Sherwin,” Natchua said, waving. “Here they are, as promised.”

“What did you promise this guy, exactly?” Hesthri demanded.

The house’s occupant squinted at them, then pointed at Jonathan. “Who’s this, then? You said two demons, Natchua.”

“This is Jonathan Arquin, who has decided to forcibly insert himself into our business,” Natchua said, giving Jonathan an annoyed look over her shoulder. “Sorry to spring that on you; it was sprung on me. Still, he’s trustworthy and actually probably useful. And not to be snippy but it’s not like you don’t have the room.”

“Room, yes, but rooms…” Sherwin sighed, stepping fully out into the yard and distractedly running a hand over his messy hair. “I’ve cleared out three rooms for you in the south wing. They’re not contiguous, I had to select a few where the floor’s not rotted and there are no major holes in the roof. Oh, well, I’m sure there’s at least one more that can be made to serve. If you’ll vouch for him, I guess that’s fine.”

“Everyone,” Natchua said, stepping aside and gesturing between him and her group, “this is our host. May I present Lord Sherwin, high seat and last scion of House Leduc. He’s more personable than he appears, given time to warm up to you. I’ve been visiting all summer; it’s just a momentary shadow-jump from Mathenon, as you now know. Sherwin, this is the hethelax I told you of. Her name is Hesthri.”

“Delighted, madam,” the scruffy young man said with a perfunctory bow.

“Like…wise,” Hesthri replied warily, doing a very poor job of masking her dubiousness, if indeed she was even trying.

“And this,” Natchua added with a smug undertone, “is Melaxyna.”

“I’ve been so looking forward to meeting you,” the succubus positively purred, sashaying forward with an entirely gratuitous sway in her hips that made Hesthri roll her eyes and Jonathan avert his. Sherwin could only gape at her, mouth slightly agape, even as she sashayed up and twined herself around his arm. “Natchua tells me the most delightful things, my lord. Why don’t you show me around your charming mansion?”

“Oh, well, uh,” he babbled, “that is, it’s really more of a wreck…” The rest was muffled as the succubus deftly maneuvered him back inside and swiftly out of earshot.

“As for what I promised him, Hesthri,” Natchua said, watching after them with a sardonic twist of her mouth. “In a word: her.”

“Huh,” Jonathan grunted. “Spy, warlock, crusader, and now pimp. Your resume just keeps getting longer.”

“Jonathan, have you ever tried to make a child of Vanislaas do something they didn’t want to?” Natchua demanded.

“I’m pretty sure you know I haven’t.”

“Oh? The only thing I know about your history with demons is that you clearly have one.” She shifted her eyes to look significantly at Hesthri. “But you’re not wrong: since you aren’t dead or consigned to an asylum, you probably haven’t run afoul of a Vanislaad. So let me just assure you that your concern for Melaxyna’s virtue, while noble, is misplaced. She is fine, and having exactly as much fun as she suggested. If she wasn’t interested in being a carrot for me to dangle in front of Sherwin, I wouldn’t add to my problems by pressing the issue. Anyway, since they will likely be busy for a while, come on in and let’s see if we can find those rooms he talked about. They’ll be the only three without bats and cobwebs, I bet. And since Mel will likely be doing her sleeping in Sherwin’s, three is really all we need.”

“Natchua,” Jonathan said in a firm tone. “Does this poor guy have any idea what he’s getting involved with, here?”

“More than you do,” she shot back. “Sherwin Leduc needs your pity even less than Melaxyna. Next time you write to Gabe, ask him to recount what he and his classmates caught this poor guy doing. Anyway, I assure you, he’s fine with all of this. I won him over by promising…well, in addition to a playful succubus…a worthy objective to fulfill, like-minded people with whom to talk, and at the end of this when Elilial is royally pissed off and everything inevitably backfires on us, death.” She turned a cold shoulder to him and strode into the door. “So, everything in the world he wants.”

The two of them stood in the yard for a few long moments after Natchua had vanished within.

“I am increasingly surrounded by liars, creeps, and perverts,” Jonathan finally said aloud. “So why is it the thought that keeps coming to mind is ‘gods, that poor kid’?”

Hesthri sighed, stepping closer and resting her head on his shoulder. “I’ve missed you so much.”

They followed the others into the crumbling house, since that was all they could do.


“I am going to kill that bitch.”

Shook delivered the threat in a tone which belied its viciousness; solemn and pensive, his forehead faintly creased as he stared off at the distance in deep thought. Still, even spoken in a relatively calm voice, it was a statement which earned him wary looks from a couple of passersby, not to mention his own companions.

“And what sticks out in my brain,” Shook continued in the same tone of contemplation, “is how immediate and obvious that fact was. Sixty seconds of listening to Basra Syrinx talk and I was all, ‘yep, I’m gonna kill this bitch.’ Which got me thinking along some additional lines, there. For one thing, it’s goddamn unbelievable that…our mutual employer…would put us and her in a small confined space and expect anything but bloodshed.”

“The same thought occurred to me,” Khadizroth agreed, pacing along beside him.

“Because that’s the other thing that jumps out at me,” Shook mused. “There’s no fucking way it isn’t mutual. Considering she’s a disgraced ex-Bishop of Avei, that’s gotta be exactly what she thinks about me, Shiri, and Jack. Plus possibly you, depending on what she knows about your history.”

“Should I feel honored to be omitted?” Vannae asked wryly.

Shook snorted. “Van, you’re about as offensive as milk and cookies. If she’s got a problem with you it means she’s racist on top of…whatever else. Not that a cunt like that needs it to be any less cuddly. Fuck are you looking at?”

The last was delivered in a far more aggressive tone to a passing woman who had turned to stare at their conversation. She immediately ducked her head and hurried on past.

“That is not exactly helping us to blend in, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said gently.

Shook barked a laugh. “Oh, I don’t think we need to worry about that; blending in isn’t gonna happen. You two are basically a walking museum exhibit. Trust me, I know about invisibility, it’s either can’t see, don’t see, or won’t see. When you have no way of being actually hard to notice, the best you can do is make sure people know to mind their own fucking business.”

Vannae did rather stand out; elves weren’t exactly a common sight in Imperial cities, but most urban dwellers would see them fairly regularly, even if his choice of a human-style suit made him memorable. It was Khadizroth who inevitably drew attention. Taller than either of them, the dragon had been forced to conceal his identity through the use of mundane methods which were impossible not to notice: he wore the heavy robes of an Omnist monk, but with a hood pulled up and overhanging his face deeply enough that as long as he kept his chin down, the glow of his monochrome green eyes was not visible. Hardly anyone walked around wearing an all-concealing hood in modern times, unless they were obviously hiding their features.

“Well, fortunately, it should be less of a concern from here,” said the dragon, veering to their left. “Our route takes us this way, ever farther from the well-trod paths.”

They had been walking along one of the walled border roads that ran along the sides of Ninkabi’s central island, with a fall to the river below on their right and the opposite cliff wall beyond. This was already a less-traveled route, three levels down from the surface of the island above, but now Khadizroth led them into a tunnel road which seemed largely disused, with litter drifted in its gutters and no current signs of occupancy. Even the doors lining it were boarded up.

“This isn’t the first time this has given us trouble,” Shook commented. “You keep saying you can’t disguise yourself with magic and I’m damned if I know why. I thought dragons could do basically anything with magic.”

“Were that true, I would not still be confined by the Crow’s hex,” Khadizroth said evenly. “Dragons are powerful and versatile, yes, but with that come a few…seemingly arbitrary weaknesses. The eyes and hair that distinguish us from mortals at a glance, even in our smaller forms, are an example. It is a side effect of our ability to occupy two forms. That means only two forms, and neither can be obscured.”

Shook grunted. “Seems fishy, how the world’s most powerful spellcasters haven’t found a way around a limitation like that in thousands of years.”

“Ah, but that is it exactly,” the dragon replied with a note of humor now in his voice. “Any of my brethren who devoted themselves to that search would be set upon by the others. We are solitary by nature; the only thing which reliably draws dragons together is the prospect of one of our kind attempting to seize an advantage over the rest. In fact, there have been some who found ways around that petty restriction. Their fate is the reason I’ve never tried.”

“Hm. I wonder how long that’ll stand, with this Conclave of the Winds thing going.”

“A curious question indeed,” Khadizroth said gravely. “They have been…strangely quiet since forming. I surmise that the Conclave is either plotting something which they do not want known, or too paralyzed by infighting to function. Given the nature of dragons, either is believable. I must say,” he added with a sigh, “that functional or not, the Conclave is a more honorable and more strategically viable solution to the problem of ascending Tiraan power than that which I attempted. I only did not try to organize such a thing myself because I never imagined it could be remotely possible. I deeply regret not having the opportunity to be part of it.”

“Mm.” Shook drew one of his wands, glancing around. They were seemingly alone now in the dark tunnel, which had no light at the other end. The only illumination came from a ball of fire Vannae summoned and held above his palm. “Well. Now we’re here, should we address the issue of what obvious bullshit all this is?”

“Do you mean his Holiness setting us to hunt a mystery cult of which he is almost certainly the source?” Khadizroth said wryly. “Or more particularly this tip of Syrinx’s that we are sent to follow?”

“Y’know what, take one of each, I’m a generous kinda guy.” Shook grinned, his teeth flashing in the firelight. “But sure, let’s focus on the immediate. Syrinx’s reasons for splitting up our group are so fucking nonsense it’s downright insulting. I mean, sure, the Jackal tends to stick out, but Shiri is easily the best among us at blending in—and you’re the worst, like we were just talking about. Besides, those are the specific two who should not be confined to a few rooms unless the whole idea is to make them so stir-crazy they give her an excuse to bust out the sword.”

“Basra Syrinx is a noted blademaster,” Khadizroth mused, “but even in hand-to-hand combat I rather think she would not choose to confront the Jackal. His aptitudes too perfectly counter her own. I agree with you, Jeremiah, as to the general thrust of the game being played, but I fear it won’t be so simple as that. This much we can say with relative certainty: our entire mission in Ninkabi is a shallow pretext, and it is likely that the true purpose is to set us against our newly appointed leader.”

“So the question is,” Shook said slowly, “is Syrinx in on it, or were we all just shut in this box together because Justinian wants some of us killed off and doesn’t care which?”

“Well phrased,” the dragon agreed. “The answer to that question will do much to shape the actions we must take in response. Based on what I have learned of Syrinx’s recent history, the Archpope took a political risk in protecting her; it seems unlikely he would then throw her away so swiftly. On the other hand, we have seen that he is inexplicably more eager to cull his own agents than his enemies. What do you think, Vannae?”

“I think,” the elf said softly, “we might consider asking the person following us.”

All three of them stopped and turned, Shook raising his wand. They were deep enough in the darkened tunnel that both ends were lost in shadow; in the flickering light, the shape of another hooded figure approaching from the way they had come was partially obscured.

“That’s far enough,” Shook snapped, taking aim.

The approaching figure raised both hands and spoke in a low, feminine voice. “I mean no harm. I’m the person you were sent to meet. And you are quite right, gentlemen: your task here is a sham, and so is the tip Basra is acting on. She thinks it genuine, though. It was the most convenient way for me to arrange to meet you.”

“And you are?” Khadizroth asked politely.

“A loyal servant of his Holiness the Archpope,” she said, approaching slowly with her hands still up. “But I would draw the important distinction that loyal and obedient are not the same concept. His Holiness is…prone to overestimating his ability to control wild elements, and unfortunately willing to use agents whose involvement will only harm his interests. Sometimes, those of us who believe in his mission and care for his welfare must act…contrary to his wishes. I know who you are—all three of you, and the two who did not come. And I’m here to tell you that between your entire group and Basra Syrinx, it is she who urgently needs to be destroyed.”

Vannae kept his attention on her, fireball upraised; Shook’s wand did not waver, though he and Khadizroth exchanged a meaningful glance.

“Well, madam,” the dragon replied after the tense pause, “you have our attention.”

She finally moved her hands, lowering her own hood to reveal auburn hair and blue eyes set in a pale, heart-shaped face.

“My name is Branwen. It’s well past time we had a talk.”

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15 – 2

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“This has been a long time coming,” Darling said with a forgivable touch of grandiosity, “but we are finally here. I realize that in the end I hardly ever sent you all to do much of anything, but my relatively few requests were the sort of carnage that gets more sensible people than us killed, and you handled them all with skill and aplomb.”

“Even the one that ended with my wand in your face?” Joe said innocently.

“I learn to put those little things behind me,” Darling replied, winking. “I’ll be honest, guys: in the beginning I did toy with the idea of drawing out the process of getting your secrets from the Chamber of Truth, just to have access to your skills longer. Events rendered that moot, however. It has taken me this damn long to drag answers out of those hilariously frustrating gadgets on the amount of time per week I was able to devote to it without rousing suspicion from the Archpope. Anyway, here we are. I apologize for the delay, and have been well pleased with your end of the bargain. As of this, we’re square.”

In the brief pause which followed, Price stepped forward from the corner of the parlor in which she had been standing with a silver tray balanced on one hand. Upon it, resting on a lace doily, were five sealed envelopes. The Butler now stepped forward and began to hand them out to the five of them.

“That begs the question,” McGraw drawled, “what next?”

“Aye, it’s been a fair while since we’ve heard a peep outta Justinian or ‘is crew o’ reprobates,” Billie added. “D’ye think he’s given up on that plan o’ his, to recruit an army of adventurers? Cos I can’t ‘elp noticin’ you an’ he both stopped at five each.”

“His Holiness hasn’t deigned to discuss that with me in any detail in some time,” Darling said with a slight frown, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the arms of his chair. “I’m still involved in some of his more sensitive operations, and while he does an admirable job of keeping his various plots separate from each other, I can read between the lines. Thumper and that milquetoast Vannae can’t be much of a challenge to handle, but the succubus and the assassin are both the kind of crazy that starts climbing the walls if not kept constantly entertained. And Khadizroth, from what I’ve learned of him, is exactly the same kind of mind Justinian is.”

“Yes,” Mary agreed quietly, steepling her own fingers. “Charismatic, a natural leader and long-term planner. I have managed to learn almost nothing of his progress while upon Justinian’s leash, but I know him. He will have been, at the very lest, vying for control of that adventurer group, and likely trying to gain some influence among Justinian’s other followers.”

“Right,” Darling nodded, “so in short, those people are inherently less stable than you lot, and also being kept under wraps. Which means managing them has to be a constant nightmare. It doesn’t surprise me much that Justinian has held off on expanding that program. What it does tell me is that he has plans for them still, otherwise he’d have cut his losses long ago.”

“Funny thing about that guy,” McGraw mused. “I’ve crossed wands with all manner of corrupt, powerful bastards, but I don’t think I’ve ever met one who was so much more eager to kill off his own servants than his enemies.”

“Wait, he what?” Billie tilted her head, one ear twitching and the envelope dangling unopened in her hands. “Did I miss something?”

“Elias visits me socially,” Darling said pointedly. “We swap stories. Yeah, you’ve missed some details, but that is definitely one of Justinian’s patterns. At this point I think half the people still in his organization are just there trying to work out what exactly it is he’s up to in the long term. He’s too sly and too capable to be doing the kind of inane chapbook-villain nonsense it looks like he is.”

Price cleared her throat softly, still holding out the last envelope to Mary, who had been ignoring it. At that, the elf glanced over at the Butler, then returned her stare to Darling.

“Thank you, Price, but I think I would rather hear my answer orally.”

“As the actress said to the bishop,” Billie chimed, her eyes now on the contents of her own envelope.

“Is this another of your amusing little games, Mary?” Darling asked in his driest tone. “Did Joe ever tell you guys about the time she drugged us into a surprise vision quest?”

“It was the Rangers doin’ the drugging, to be fair,” Joe added. “But yeah, her idea. All due respect, ma’am, these mysterious antics are less charming than you seem to think.”

“I have never found much utility in charm,” Mary replied placidly.

“We know,” Weaver snorted, scowling at his own letter.

Darling sighed, then shrugged. “Well, if you want. Our dear Ms. The Crow asked for an answer from the oracles on how to finally achieve vengeance against the Tiraan Empire for its crimes against her kin.”

“What?” Joe exclaimed. “Why is that something you wanna hash out in front of everybody?”

“Obvious, innit?” Billie replied cheerfully. “She wants ta watch an’ see whether any o’ us might care t’jump in an’ help ‘er with it! I’ll tell ye straight up, Mary, I’m not gonna shift me bum to protect the Silver Throne, but I also ain’t lookin’ ta start a scrap with it. Empire’s a big ol’ nuisance of an enemy, one I can do without.”

“Ain’t like any of us are renowned for our Imperial patriotism,” McGraw chuckled. “Well, I confess, now my own curiosity’s piqued.”

Mary smiled thinly, still gazing at Darling.

“Right,” he grumbled. “See if I ever spend time writing you a carefully-worded letter again. Well, the short version is, you can’t.”

Slowly, she raised one eyebrow.

“And for your edification,” he continued, pointing at her, “you are the reason this took so damn long. Because I knew that answer wouldn’t satisfy you, so I kept digging. Have you ever tried to drag answers out of an oracle after it told you to bugger off?”

“Yes, in fact,” she said, raising both eyebrows now. “I confess, Antonio, you impress me. That is a significant achievement, for a non-practitioner.”

“Well, I could’ve told you what the oracles told me in the first place if you’d just asked,” he sighed. “Your whole problem is that you are too late. The Empire that wronged you is gone. What was built after the Enchanter Wars uses a lot of the same iconography as the Tiraan Empire that existed before it, and deliberately claims that shared history to give itself legitimacy, but it’s not even remotely the same thing. The old Empire was an absolute monarchy; the new one is a feudal aristocracy with—though the Throne will deny it—a lot of characteristics of a republic in how its bureaucracy is structured. Hell, it’s just political happenstance the capital is in the same place; there was a real chance of the Silver Throne itself moving to Onkawa near the end of the war. In short, lady, you took too long and blew your chance.”

“And,” she said quietly, “is that the answer it has taken you all these months to extract?”

“No, that answer is actually somewhat instructive, though honestly I don’t think it’s any more useful.” He shook his head. “The oracles finally yielded two possibilities for you to pursue, and interestingly enough, both are the same one: take it up with Arachne Tellwyrn.”

“Oh?” Mary prompted in a calm tone that made everyone else in the room edge warily away from her. Everyone but Price, and Weaver, who was glaring at his letter as if oblivious to everything else happening.

“First option,” said Darling. “Not one that would’ve occurred to me personally, though after a lot of pestering the Book of All Tales finally spat it out. In some older cultures there are entire codes of how to seek vengeance—”

“Don’t Eserites have a code on that, too?” Billie interrupted.

“Yes, and the Eserite advice is in most cases ‘don’t.’ But as I was saying, there is an idea in several ancient creeds that if you are robbed of your revenge by someone killing your target first, you can satisfy the demands of honor by killing that person instead. In your case, Mary, it happens that the person who killed Emperor Avrusham and ended the Ravidevegh Dynasty is still alive.”

“Arachne,” Mary said in a flat tone, “exists in a constant state of needing to have her ears boxed, but she has done nothing for which I would seek her death. And I certainly will not be manipulated into attacking her by the whispers of an old book.”

“That’s a relief to hear,” McGraw drawled. “I don’t think the continent would survive you two goin’ at it for serious.”

“As the actress—”

“Come on, Billie, every time?” Joe interrupted in exasperation.

“And what is this second piece of advice that also points to Arachne?” Mary asked.

“Even sillier,” Darling said, grimacing. “Time travel.”

Everyone turned to frown at him.

“What’s that got to do with Tellwyrn?” McGraw asked.

“Hell if I know,” Darling replied with a shrug. “It raises some intriguing questions, doesn’t it? But that’s what the ruby mirror, the gong of Guan Sho, and the oracular koi all pointed to. Since your chance for revenge is in the past, if you want to achieve it, you must go into the past. And for some damned reason, Tellwyrn’s who you should ask about that.”

“Probably has an in with Vemnesthis,” Weaver grunted, still frowning distractedly at the letter that had been in his envelope. “Her main project for three thousand years was getting an audience with every god there is, and since she eventually stopped it to found the University, apparently she got ’em all. It really wouldn’t surprise me if Arachne was the only living person who could actually talk to the Scions and not get press-ganged or murdered.”

“I see,” Mary murmured, finally lowering her eyes to stare distantly at the low table between them. “…thank you, Antonio. You are right, it is not a satisfying answer. But I respect the effort to which you went in obtaining it. I consider your end of our bargain upheld. In truth…I suppose there is no satisfying answer.” An ironic little smile quirked at her lips, and she lifted her gaze to meet Darling’s again. “A friend told me not long ago that I need to grow up. Perhaps this is confirmation.”

“Aren’t you, what, ten thousand bloody years old?” Billie demanded.

“Less than five, thank you.”

“Oh, aye, a real spring chicken, you are.”

“Jenkins,” Weaver said abruptly, standing up. “A word?”

“Uh…sure,” Joe replied slowly. “You mean in private? I guess so,” he muttered belatedly, rising and following the bard, who was already out of the room. “Scuze us, folks,” he said at the door, turning and nodding to them.

Weaver had retreated all the way to the foyer, where he was standing with his hands jammed in his coat pockets, the rumpled letter half-emerging from one. At Joe’s arrival, he turned from staring out the window by the door.

“I need your help.”

“Oh?” Joe tilted his head. “This have somethin’ to do with your…answer?”

“You mentioned when we first met that you’ve traveled to the center of the Golden Sea,” Weaver said almost curtly.

“With Jenny, yeah,” Joe nodded.

“And I’m given to understand that the center can only be reached by someone who has already been there. Or, apparently, someone traveling with them.”

“That’s what Jenny told me…” Joe narrowed his eyes. “Okay, hold up.”

“I realize you do all right for yourself financially,” Weaver said, his eyes cutting to the large piece of tiger’s eye gleaming in Joe’s bolo tie, “but whatever your price—”

“Now hang on a second, I’m followin’ this trail back to its source,” Joe interrupted, holding up one hand. “Lemme see if I’ve connected these dots right. You need to get to the center of the Sea for some reason, where there is a gigantic, permanent dimensional rift which I know has properties no hellgate or portal does, since Jenny could use it to leave this entire reality. I distinctly remember when Darling was first pitchin’ this devil’s bargain o’ his he said you were lookin’ to spit in a god’s face. And it occurs to me that you’ve got some kinda complicated relationship with a valkyrie, who is not supposed to be on the physical realm by edict of Vidius. I add those things up and the sum is big trouble.”

Weaver inhaled slowly and deeply through his nose, then just as slowly let the breath out. When he finally spoke, his tone was taut but even. “Yes, I suppose it’s all fairly obvious to someone who has the requisite amount of sense. And credit where it’s due, you’ve got more than the minimum, Jenkins. Look, I…don’t know what to say to persuade you. It’s not like I’ve gone out of my way to be friendly up till now. This is the one thing in life I am most determined to achieve, and if what I’ve just learned is correct, you are the one person in the world who can help me do it. The only person who has ever been to the center of the Sea. There’s nothing I won’t pay to secure your aid.”

“Weaver, I’m not tryin’ to gouge you, here,” Joe said, frowning. “This ain’t about money, or payment of any kind. What I gotta debate with myself is whether I wanna spit in a god’s eye. An’ quite frankly, I’m havin’ a hard time findin’ an angle to come at that question that doesn’t end up at ‘no.’”

“There is a heavily moderating factor, if you consider with a bit more care, Joseph,” Mary said smoothly, gliding into the foyer.

Weaver threw up his hands. “Aaaand there she is. I dunno why I even bothered to try and have a private conversation.”

“Yeah, I don’t either,” Darling said from the hall behind Mary. “Give her some credit, she’s the only eavesdropper not trying to be surreptitious. Well, this is none of my business, so I’m gonna visit the kitchen and put together a sandwich. You guys want anything?”

“Y’got any beer?” Billie’s voice piped up from just around the corner.

“The hell kind of establishment do you think I’m running, here?” Darling demanded in an affronted tone. “Of course I’ve got beer.”

“Your previous excursion into the heart of the Sea was at the behest of your friend Jenny,” Mary continued while Darling puttered off to the kitchen and McGraw and Billie crept around the corner, the old wizard at least having the grace to look abashed. “A creature known elsewhere as the Shifter. Were you aware that she has often been associated with Vesk?”

“She has?” Joe frowned. “When? Where?”

“Jenny Everywhere is mentioned obliquely in a number of old stories,” Mary replied, glancing at Weaver. “Going back…a very long way. To my knowledge she has not been directly connected to Vesk. But any being who pops up in multiple unconnected sagas will eventually raise the question of how she is related to the god of bards. And now, one of Vesk’s bards has a need to visit the Golden Sea, to achieve an end of great personal importance to him. Now that he knows this, it also turns out that an established acquaintance of his is the one person who can lead him there.” She smiled and blinked slowly, an expression that made her look remarkably like a pleased cat. “And your ability to do so is the direct result of…given the circumstances, let us call it ‘foreshadowing’…by an unearthly being widely suspected of being an agent of Vesk’s. This project may be an affront to Vidius, but it has implied endorsement from another god of the Pantheon. And those two are not known to crush mortals between them in great clashes. There has been none of that among the Pantheon since Sorash was destroyed.”

“It does sound downright bardic, when she puts it that way,” McGraw mused.

“If you decide to do this,” Mary said, glancing between Weaver and Joe, “I would like to come along.”

Weaver narrowed his eyes. “Why.”

“To see the center of the Golden Sea? Is that not reason enough?”

“Aye, same!” Billie chirped. “That there’s an adventure an’ no mistake! Ashner’s britches, the braggin’ rights! I’d never ‘ave ta pay fer drinks again!”

“Now, I might be mistaken,” McGraw added, “it wouldn’t be the first time. But it’s been my observation over the years that the world’s pretty much wall-to-wall danger. Death an’ suffering are around every corner. Comes a point where it doesn’t profit a body to worry excessively about repercussions, long as you don’t rashly seek ’em out. What matters in life is livin’ with honor, and bein’ true to the people who’re true to you. Here’s the truth: we may not get to see Yngrid much, or basically ever, but she’s been around us the whole time Weaver has. She’s pretty explicitly saved our butts, like the first time we fought Khadizroth. Now, if Weaver and Yngrid have gotta offend Vidius to be together…” He shrugged. “In my book, that makes it worth doin’. You want my help, Weaver, you got it.”

Joe drew in a slow breath of his own. “Y’know… I have been wanting to have a second look at that portal. When I was there it didn’t seem like there was much to see except for old ruins and a big magical hole in the world. Knowin’ what I do now, though, and considerin’ the fact that the Golden Sea is widely thought to have a mind of its own, I gotta wonder if there’s somethin’ else there I just didn’t know to look for.” He met Mary’s eyes. “A purple man who lives in the walls. Somebody who I bet could answer some big questions.”

“Did that sound less crazy in yer head before it spilled outta yer mouth?” Billie asked.

“Not really,” Joe said ruefully. “But I stand by it. All right, Weaver, I guess I’ve been swayed, and not by your offer of payment. I’m in.”


“And isn’t this just the most absolutely typical thing?” the Jackal complained stridently from the head of their little procession. The elf was stalking along, taking huge steps and swinging his arms widely in a comical gait that made him resemble a child playing soldier. “Here we are, visiting scenic Ninkabi! The highest and lowest city in the Empire! Famed for its soaring towers and fathomless ravines, for graceful bridges and rooftop gardens! With stunning views of the mighty Wyrnrange, the distant sea, and on a clear day the very forests of Athan’Khar! And where do we end up?” He came to a stop, turning to face the right wall of the hallway along which they were being led, and brandished both hands at is as if casting a spell. “Underground. Under! The fucking! Ground!”

“Yeah, you whining about it makes the whole thing a lot less claustrophobic,” Shook grunted. “Move your skinny ass, wouldja?”

“Oh, it’s always the ass with you, isn’t it,” the Jackal simpered, turning to him. “If you want a peek, handsome, all you gotta do is ask. What, isn’t that pet of yours keeping you adequately drained?”

“If you want his throat slit, master,” Kheshiri purred, pressing herself against Shook from behind, “all you have to do is give the order.”

“I would be so much more alarmed if I didn’t know that was your idea of foreplay,” the elf replied, waggling his eyebrows at her. “How about you and me, sugar tits? You can take any shape, right? Can you do Jerry, here?”

“Enough.”

Khadizroth’s voice, as always, cut off their bickering. The dragon walked at the rear of the line, Vannae hovering silently at his side. The three of them turned to scowl at him as he lowered the hood of his robe to reveal his luminous green eyes.

“You have plenty of time to indulge in your unique banter. Let us not keep our hosts waiting, nor terrorize the staff excessively. Neither is a positive first impression. My apologies, Lieutenant,” he added to the sole Holy Legionary accompanying them, who had stopped several yards ahead and was watching them with a noticeably pale face. “Please, proceed.”

The man swallowed once, visibly. He wasn’t part of the detachment stationed at their headquarters beneath Dawnchapel, and thus not accustomed to them; in particular, he seemed to have trouble keeping his gaze off Kheshiri, and the fact that his eyes held naked fear didn’t stop them from wandering below her shoulders. Which, of course, irritated Shook as much as it amused the succubus.

“Uh, right, um…sir,” the lieutenant said after an awkward pause. “It’s, ah, just through here.”

The right-hand wall at which the Jackal had gestured was, in fact, lined with windows, but there was not much to see. This complex was carved out of the living rock along the lower wall of one of Ninkabi’s canyons, not far above the river itself; the roar of the rapids was actually audible below. What little fading afternoon light remained did not reach down this far, and the only illumination in the hall came from its fairy lamps.

The beleaguered soldier led them the last few yards to the only place there was to go: the hall terminated in a single door. He opened this and then hesitated, dithering. Appropriate protocol called for him to pull it open and stand aside, but the man clearly felt visceral unease at the prospect of the five of them filing past him in close quarters. After a moment’s waffling, he ducked through the door ahead of them and kept going, putting a few yards between himself and the entry.

Kheshiri and the Jackal both snickered. Fortunately, neither said anything.

The room beyond was a conference chamber, predominated by a long table. Their door opened onto the rear end, with the front some ten yards distant to their left. At that end, there was a wooden lectern, currently moved off to the side to reveal a view of the far wall, on which were hung a series of maps of the different levels of Ninkabi.

As soon as they had all entered, the soldier darted back out behind them, putting on an extra boost of speed when the Jackal blew him a kiss. The elf cackled as he slammed the door shut, but everyone else was focused on the other in the room.

Before the wall, a woman with short dark hair stood with her back to them, studying the maps, hands clasped behind her. She wore a long white coat clearly tailored to her lean figure, with a silver-tooled belt from which hung an ornate short sword.

“All right, let’s get the obvious questions out of the way first,” she said brusquely, turning to face the group. Her features were sharp and her expression entirely unimpressed by them, in stark contrast to the frightened Legionary. “During a recent kerfuffle in Tiraas which briefly imperiled the life of the Emperor himself, a sizable cult appeared and engaged in a pitched battle with soldiers and adventurers. I’m told you lot in particular were involved.”

“Oh, hey, I remember those guys!” the Jackal said brightly.

“Do not interrupt me when I am briefing you,” she snapped. “The Universal Church has been trying to identify that group ever since. They were numerous, followed no known doctrine, and appeared evidently from nowhere. There is no record of any such organization operating within the Empire. Obviously, it’s disturbing that such a sizable threat could appear with no warning and vanish without a trace. What few leads have emerged have brought us here, to Ninkabi. You are here to hunt these cultists down, learn everything that can be learned about them, and take whatever action is then deemed appropriate.” She paused, then smiled very thinly. “Until compelling indications otherwise emerge, I will be proceeding upon the assumption that the appropriate action will be to exterminate whatever is left of them.”

“Very well,” Khadizroth said, inclining his head. “But would not an introduction have been a more appropriate place to start?”

“Yes, that is the other thing,” she replied, her smile widening enough to show hints of teeth. “The five of you represent what was not meant to be a long-term project. For…a variety of reasons…it seems his Holiness the Archpope has decided to keep you on. As such, your status must be considered, and your group integrated into the hierarchy of the Church. To that end, his Holiness is resurrecting a long-discarded office of the Church under which—under me—you shall work. One which respects your need for secrecy, and grants broad discretionary powers in dealing with whatever threats may emerge. Welcome, lady and gentlemen, to the Inquisition.”

“Whoah, hang on a sec,” Shook said, frowning. “Those were the witch-hunters from before the Enchanter Wars. I’m pretty sure that shit’s even more illegal than most of what we do.”

“Not to mention…provocative,” Khadizroth murmured. “Reminders of those dark days have a way of calling down preemptive retribution.”

“That is for me to worry about; it’s for you to follow my orders.” The woman paced forward three steps to lean both hands on the table, her grin broadening to become a fierce expression that held more than a hint of a snarl. “I am Grand Inquisitor Syrinx, and as of now, you freaks are mine.”

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