Tag Archives: Thumper

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The fully detailed model of Ninkabi, from minarets to canyon depths, hovered in the center of Mortimer Agasti’s study, wrought of pale orange light that was too steady to truly resemble fire, though the dozens of points of purple light scattered throughout it did flicker and pulse. At a gesture from Xyraadi, the model began to slowly rotate in place, giving them all a view of the miniature city from every angle.

“Of course,” Xyraadi said after a weighted pause, “I will have to jump to one of these to be sure, but I can find no error in my analysis of the spells. Mortimer?”

“No, your work is perfect,” the old laywer said, slowly shaking his head, eyes fixed on the model. “I understand why you were confused at first; it’s not like any other portal spell I’ve ever seen. Clearly unconventional methods. But ultimately the effect of a dimensional warp is obvious. The only natural parallel is the gravitational field of the earth itself, or the sun. None of these have found a matching indentation on the other side and so can’t bridge the dimensional barrier, yet, but what they are is unmistakeable. Gods be merciful,” he added in a near whisper. “There must be almost forty of them.”

“According to Kheshiri,” said Natchua, “this is most likely the work of a shadow cult called the Tide, surreptitiously orchestrated by Archpope Justinian. She has a theory about what those actually are.”

All three warlocks turned to look at the succubus, who smiled as if pleased by the attention.

“I still don’t think the intention is to open any actual hellgates,” she said. “Mind you, it is just a theory, but I’m confident in my reasoning. Have I ever told you, Mistress, about the Belosiphon affair?”

Agasti straightened up, his eyebrows drawing together in consternation. “Did you say Belosiphon?”

“Oh, yes,” she replied with relish, her tail beginning to sway. “In point of fact, his skull. Justinian sent me and the rest of his little adventuring party to retrieve it from its resting place up in the Badlands, and quite deftly manipulated Bishop Darling into doing likewise with a rival team he was financing. There was a lot of guerrilla-style back-and-forth, and though I missed out on the final showdown, I understand it was quite the spectacle. Flattened most of a town.”

“Are you saying the Archpope has his hands on the skull of Belosiphon the Black?” Agasti demanded.

“Oh, yes, but as it turns out, he always did, it was never seriously contested, and that is my point. The damn thing was in Veilgrad the whole time—that was why it had that chaos crisis—and he was just using the oracular portent that business kicked off to test two groups of fighters against each other to see how we performed, possibly thin our numbers a bit, and experiment with how well he could plant information to lead Darling on a mockingjay hunt. That is what Justinian does.”

“You suspect these gates are a ruse,” Agasti said thoughtfully.

She nodded. “Justinian likes to control every detail from behind the scenes. A demon invasion is something he couldn’t possibly control. But the appearance that one might be imminent? I mean, Xyraadi may be an exceptional warlock, but she detected this from the other side of the Empire. Others must have spotted it, not least the Inquisition, who are specifically looking. Having the Tide create a credible threat and manipulating several rival factions to move in and destroy them, and probably ‘accidentally’ erase any trace that could link the Tide directly to him? Now, that would be a classic Justinian plan.”

“I see,” he murmured. “Well. Your reasoning seems consistent, but considering the potential stakes, I am not inclined to dismiss the possibility of at least some of these gates being activated.”

“Especially not at the word of a succubus?” she retorted with a wry smirk.

“Correct,” Agasti replied, unfazed. “Also, a person does not attain and hold a position like Archpope while pulling off the sort of schemes you describe by being predictable. Trust me, I speak as an old man who has avoided the long list of people who’ve wanted to knock me down a peg for a good few decades. Never assume a clever man will continue doing the same things he’s done before. Often enough, the point of establishing a pattern is purely to feint one’s enemies into a misstep.”

“True enough,” she conceded lightly. Natchua glanced sidelong at the succubus, noting the surge of sheer irritation that pulsed through her aura. That particular emotion could be in response to any number of things; without having insight into Kheshiri’s actual thoughts, it didn’t reveal much.

“Then the only obvious course I can see is to shadow-jump to each of these sites and try to destroy the portals, one at a time,” Xyraadi said, frowning. “With so few of us, that may be…impractical.”

“Not least because somebody is skulking about in alleys making these things,” Natchua added. “I’m confident you or I are more than a match for whatever bargain-basement warlockery is at play, here, but getting into a magical fight with any rival infernomancer raises its own risks. I doubt very much that you would be able to talk your way out of being apprehended by cult or Imperial personnel, Xyraadi.”

“By the same token, it’s not as if we can report this to the authorities,” the khelminash replied.

Kheshiri cleared her throat. “Cut off the head, and the serpent dies. I can tell you where Syrinx and my old crew are hiding out. They may have gathered more intelligence in the last couple of days, maybe even on where this group is based.”

“What would you say are the odds of that?” Natchua asked.

The succubus smiled, an expression full of malicious amusement. “Frankly, slim. Syrinx is a cornered animal and the rest are alternately falling apart from internal pressure and busy playing political games between Syrinx and Snowe.”

“If we are willing to risk a fight,” said Xyraadi, “apprehending one of the cultists creating these portals could yield results.”

“Unlikely,” Kheshiri retorted. “The Tide in Tiraas weren’t much for talking. The shadow-jumping leaders were a little more coherent but the lot of them were dosed up with something that kept them almost pathologically focused.”

“Well, we have to do something!” Natchua exclaimed.

Agasti inhaled slowly through his nose, staring at the model of the city with both hands clasped atop the crystal head of his cane. He let out the indrawn breath in a single muffled burst of a sigh.

“There is already a hellgate in Ninkabi.”

All three turned to stare at him.

“Excuse me, did you say in?” Natchua asked. “That can’t— Cities have been abandoned due to having one of those too close, let alone inside the walls!”

“This is a secret of the highest order,” he said solemnly, meeting each of their eyes in turn. “One of those secrets kept in part because it is so old. And that, as it happens, is how I happened upon it. My rather unique career has led me to comb through suppressed and nearly forgotten archives of lore with a particular bent for anything pertaining to infernomancy as it is dealt with in history and law. N’Jendo has a long-abandoned but very interesting historical association with the warlock’s craft that almost no one knows about anymore. But yes, Natchua, this gate is within the city proper—and in fact, is part of the reason there is a city here. You may have noticed that ‘across a pair of canyons’ is an odd and awkward place to build a metropolis.”

“Go on,” she said warily.

“Centuries ago,” Agasti narrated, his gaze growing unfocused, “N’Jendo was a land pressed on all sides by enemies. The orcs regularly attacked in force from Athan’Khar, Tidestriders raided from the coasts, there were constant border skirmishes with the tribes in Thakar, and even the Deep Wild occasionally coughed up some fairy madness. Occasional help came through the passes from Viridill, but the Sisterhood then was also pressured by Athan’Khar and Tar’naris, and even the Tira Valley in those days was a morass of warring city-states that demanded their attention. Our distant ancestors turned to dark bargains and desperate measures to protect themselves. In small ways at first, but as the early, careful warlocks met with some success, they eventually moved on to creating a gate, deep within an island plateau separated from the rest of the land by the river canyons. A fortress-temple complex was erected over it, and then, given its secure location, the local amenities necessary to service something like that. Then teaching and training facilities to which other tribes would send warriors and magicians…” He smiled humorlessly, still staring at the floating model without seeming to really see it. “The actual tribal dialect is long extinct, but in my research I encountered mention that the name Ninkabi originally meant something like ‘necropolis.’”

“City of death,” said Kheshiri. “I like it!”

“Of course you do,” Natchua muttered.

Agasti sighed again, and lifted his head, meeting Natchua’s eyes. “Well, I’m sure the full history was very interesting; even the surviving fragments I was able to dig up were quite the ride. But it’s not germane to our concerns, so I’ll summarize, and I suspect you can guess how it goes anyway. The ancient Jendi initially had great success in destroying their enemies; that is the lion’s share of what infernomancy is good for, after all. And then, once it was good and too late, they began to learn the costs. The resolution involved an entire crusade from Viridill, with concurrent missions by the Omnists up in Onkawa. Of course, as you’re aware, an established hellgate cannot simply be closed, and it was decided that trying to seal off and bury the portal would lead to disaster, positioned as it was in a highly defensible position that a demon horde would love to get their claws on. The fortress complex remained inhabited and used, and eventually, the same process occurred; the devastated city was rebuilt in order to provide for its needs. And ultimately, as the secret of what was hidden under it was deliberately suppressed, it evolved into a typical modern city, albeit one with somewhat fanciful architecture owing to its position.”

“I don’t see how something like that could be forgotten, even if established powers tried to make it so,” Xyraadi protested. “Minor hellgates can often be dismissed with a cursory watch, if they are not easily accessible from the other side, but something like what you describe? If factions in Hell knew there was a valuable position on the mortal end they would never cease pressing to retake it. The Sisterhood would practically have to establish a permanent war front around it.”

“In this case,” he said, “the gate itself was…plugged, somehow, by the then Hand of Salyrene. I have not been able to find any record of the method used, and believe me, I looked. Alas, my investigations were hampered by the need not to tip off the Nemitites what I was digging up. In the course of my career I have several times found it necessary not to reveal how much I know; being aware of certain dangerous secrets would give certain entrenched powers the excuse they’ve longed for to land on me. But yes, the gate is…not sealed, I don’t think, but subject to some magical effect that prevents it being a prospect from the other side. Apparently something that required that singularly powerful spellcaster to accomplish, as it hasn’t become standard practice in shutting down hellgates elsewhere. And even so, the site is not buried or abandoned. Its oversight was jointly administered by secretive elements within the Avenist and Salyrite cults. The most recent documentation I found of the gate’s existence was from nearly three hundred years ago, when its administration was handed off to the Universal Church.” He hesitated. “That was when Ninkabi’s central cathedral was built.”

“Oh, let me guess,” Natchua groaned.

Agasti nodded. “Right on top of it.”

“Hmm hm humm hm hmmmm,” Kheshiri murmured, half-stifling a grin by chewing on her lower lip. “You know, just for the sake of argument, if I were going to train and house a super-secret cabal of drugged-up disposable shock troops who know some basic infernomancy, an ancient hidden underground fortress around a secured hellgate would be—”

“Yes, we get it, thank you,” Natchua snapped. “Well, great. That sounds like an incredibly promising lead, but what the hell are we going to do about it? It’s not like any of us can even walk into a Universal Church cathedral, much less root around in its basement looking for a secret and no doubt heavily fortified door to Hell. Something like that would be as close to warlock-proof as anything in the world could possibly be.”

“We are back to needing allies,” said Xyraadi.

“Well, there’s the Inquisition,” said Kheshiri, “but in my opinion that would be a major roll of the dice. Khadizroth and the gang would move on such a facility if they could, but Syrinx is working for Justinian, after all. And I strongly suspect the purpose of putting her in charge of that group is to see how many of them die as a result. I wouldn’t swear she’s actually assigned to do what she claims to be, and I definitely would not assume she’s interested in doing what Justinian wants rather than using him as a cover for her own antics.”

Natchua absently dragged her fingers through her hair, turning away to begin pacing in thought. “Nobody in any position of authority would listen to us. Mortimer, surely you have connections in the government?”

“Oh, yes,” he said. “A fellow in my position could never survive without them. But those are strings not easily pulled. It would take some doing to get any action initiated—and more importantly, time.” He turned his eyes back to the model of Ninkabi, with its dozens of incipient hellgate sites flickering angrily. “I hesitate to assume we have enough time. Unfortunately I don’t have a better idea.”

“I don’t suppose you happen to know of an ancient secret back way into this hidden fortress?” Kheshiri chirped. Agasti just gave her a sardonic look.

“Merde alors,” Xyraadi said with a heavy sigh. “All right… Natchua, you are either going to like this very much or not in the least little bit. I know just who we can call on for help.”


The safehouse wasn’t much less tense for being less crowded. After Bradshaw had shadow-jumped back to Branwen’s Izarite-supplied borrowed residence with Schwartz, Grip, and Jenell in tow, another Wreath agent had been dispatched to serve as the point of contact with the Eserite holdout. Vanessa was less overtly displeased to be there than Bradshaw had been, but she elevated aloofness to an art form, blithely rebuffing even Branwen’s attempts to strike up a conversation. The warlock simply lounged in the most comfortable chair in the front room of the townhouse, reading a penny dreadful and seemingly ignoring the rest of them.

Flora and Fauna lurked in the same room, ostensibly keeping a surreptitious watch out the front windows but making no real effort to conceal that they were taking turns keeping an eye on Vanessa, who continued to ignore them. Shook paced through the house’s rooms and corridors very much like the caged animal he felt like. Branwen, after striking out with Vanessa, had set herself up in the kitchen and begun baking cookies, of all things, filling the room with soft humming and the clatter of utensils against mixing bowls. Sweet just wandered about with a lot less nervous energy than Shook, making idle chitchat with whoever was nearby and even including Vanessa in some of his jokes. She ignored that, too.

There had been a brief period in the early afternoon when it was quiet in the townhouse, as Sweet and his apprentices had gone to the local Guild headquarters to bring the Underboss up to speed on the situation and Shook had hidden himself in a bedroom, disliking Vanessa’s chilly company and not trusting Branwen to make small talk without adding layers of skillful manipulation which he knew himself ill-equipped to outwit.

Now, though, the tension was beginning to simmer, and neither Branwen’s homey act nor Sweet’s lighthearted banter were doing much to diminish it. Any time they were in proximity, the mutual dislike between Shook, Vanessa, and the two elves was like a tangible weight in the air, not lessened by their refusal to engage in overt backbiting.

It was a combination of desperation and boredom that drove Shook to meander over next to Vanessa’s chair and speak to her. “Can I ask you a question?”

She looked up from her book at him and raised one eyebrow, and already that was not going the way he’d expected. The woman had given Branwen a single snide comment and Sweet a couple of disinterested grunts before ceasing to react to them at all; he had honestly not anticipated any response.

“No,” she said evenly before he could speak again, “I will not retrieve your succubus for you.”

Shook grimaced reflexively at the very unpleasant mix of emotions that idea brought up. Unpleasant not least because a part of him still desperately wanted Kheshiri, and no amount of knowing better and despising his own weakness made that little whining voice shut up.

“That is absolutely the last thing I want, thanks,” he said quickly.

“No, I will not summon you another succubus.”

“I don’t want a fucking succubus!” he exclaimed. “I’m lucky I survived the last one!”

“No,” she drawled, “I will not go to bed with you.”

He paused, closed his eyes for a moment, and deliberately breathed in and out. “Look, lady, if the answer is ‘fuck off, I don’t wanna talk to you,’ that’s fine. Understandable, even. You can just say so, no need to make a production of it.”

She stared at him inscrutably for two more heartbeats, and then, to his surprise, closed her book. “What’s on your mind, Thumper?”

Well, shit, he hadn’t actually thought this conversation would be allowed to happen. Shook straightened his lapels unnecessarily, hating himself for being nervous and awkward like some damn teenage virgin, but having come this far he wasn’t about to compound his weakness by running away.

“Hypothetically,” he said, looking at the front window rather than her face, “as a woman, I mean… If some guy had been, uh, checkin’ you out and you didn’t really appreciate it, would… I mean, if you hadn’t even noticed. Would you feel better if he apologized, or wouldja rather just not know?”

The silence stretched out. A moment later, Shook had to look away from the window because the two elves stationed there had turned to stare incredulously at him. He brought his gaze back to Vanessa’s face, which he found chillingly devoid of expression.

She let the awkwardness hang for another handful of seconds before speaking.

“Are you drunk?”

“I wish,” he muttered. “Sorry to bother you.”

Shook jammed his hands in his pockets and turned to retreat. To his chagrin, Sweet was now in the room, standing just inside the door from the kitchen munching on one of Branwen’s fresh cookies. He was holding another, which he offered as Shook slouched over to join him.

“Thanks,” he muttered, accepting it. Still warm; Shook didn’t have much of a sweet tooth, but you couldn’t turn down fresh homemade cookies right out of the oven. “Y’know, talking to women is a lot easier when it doesn’t matter what they think.”

Flora and Fauna both turned to look at him again; he’d kept his voice deliberately low, but they were elves. Shook hid his expression behind a big bite of cookie. It was some kind of citrus and spice confection, surprisingly delicious. He couldn’t decide whether it was incongruous or incredibly appropriate that Branwen Snowe could make great desserts.

Sweet shrugged and swallowed the bite he was chewing. “You do realize where you’re getting tripped up is thinking that talking to women isn’t exactly like talking to everyone else.”

Shook pondered that while chewing. He finally swallowed, then nodded. “Yeah, that tracks. With that in mind, I stand by my observation.”

A faint smile of amusement flickered across Sweet’s mouth. “Still an enforcer at heart.”

“Yup.” Shook nodded slowly, staring at the front door but not really seeing it. “And will be til I die.”

Sweet studied him sidelong, nibbling a bit more of his cookie before speaking again. “Apropos of nothing, Thumper, when you were last hanging out with Khadizroth, did he do any significant magic at you?”

“Like what?”

“Oh, anything,” he said, shrugging. “Just curious.”

“Well…” Shook hesitated, but couldn’t see any reason to dissemble. “There was that night right after I was attacked and lost the reliquary. He used fae magic on me for cleansing, which I figure’s a damn good deal when you’ve been fucked up by warlock shit.”

Vanessa glanced at him sidelong before returning to her book.

“And,” Shook added, frowning in recollection, “I think after that… Yeah, he did a little something to help me sleep. I was pretty worked up, which I think is understandable. K gave me some mojo for calm and rest.”

“I see,” Sweet mused.

Shook frowned at him. “But seriously, why do you ask?”

“Well… When somebody’s had powerful fae magic done at ‘em and then starts showing surprisingly rapid shifts in—”

“Hey, Sweet,” Flora interrupted, turning from the window, “I think we’ve got trouble.”

Sweet immediately straightened and strode across to them; Vanessa set down her book, watching. “What kind of trouble?” the Bishop asked.

Fauna had leaned over to press her ear against the curtained window; Flora took a step away, speaking just quietly enough to be plainly heard. “Large groups of people moving into the buildings opposite us, and both sides of the street out of view of the windows. We figured that was the troops Syrinx was going to bring us… But then, they started talking.”

“It is the troops Syrinx was bringing,” Fauna reported. “Local police, Imperial Army, Holy Legion. She went all out. And…the officers are giving last-minute orders to take this place by force.”

Vanessa shot to her feet, tossing the book aside. “Exactly how much can elves hear?”

“It’s less about what sounds they can detect than how well they can pick out individual noises from the background, especially in a city,” Sweet said, apparently calmly. “You sure, girls?”

“It’s a bit garbled at this distance,” Flora replied. “But…”

“Yeah,” Fauna said, turning from the window to give him a grim look. “We’re sure. They’re primed to storm a Wreath stronghold, specifically.”

“Oh, look,” Branwen said bitterly from the doorway behind him. “Basra helped.”

“Yep,” Sweet chuckled. “That was a bad call on my part. Well, ladies, battle stations, if you please.”

Flora grabbed the fairy lamp fixture by the door and yanked it sideways, causing a loud THUNK to echo through the room as heavy bars hidden in the door frame slid out from above and below into slots in the steel-reinforced door itself, securing it in place. Fauna gave the curtain cord two short tugs and then a carefully measured three-second pull, and a low hum of arcane magic rose in the room, shielding charms in the window frames buzzing to life to reinforce the glass.

A Guild safehouse’s defenses were designed along a “don’t see” philosophy; with the door and window precautions engaged, the fastest way in would be to break down unguarded sections of the walls. Nearly all attackers would waste time trying to force open what were usually the weakest parts of a house’s outer walls.

“Don’t beat yourself up, Sweet,” said Shook. “Your decision made sense at the time. I thought so, and I’m otherwise totally down for the ‘kill Syrinx’ plan.”

“Of course it did,” Branwen said wearily. “This is what she does. In the moment, in that situation, while she was being calm and controlled and her skills were useful, it made perfect sense to let her help. And then this happens.”

“Well, spilled milk,” Sweet said cheerfully. “Vanessa, how many people can you shadow-jump at a time?”

Vanessa was already frowning heavily. “I…can’t, Darling. My shadow-jumping is blocked. That requires some major magical intervention.”

“Why, Basra, you sly minx,” he murmured. “That’s it, I’m definitely killing her next time I have eyes on her, I don’t care if it’s in a room with Justinian himself. But that’s then; this is now! Any measures that block shadow-jumping are pretty targeted, as the large-scale ones like we used in Tiraas a couple years back tend to draw a lot of attention. We just need to get you some distance from this spot. Come along, folks!”

“You want to…hide in the basement?” Vanessa asked warily, even as she trooped along in his wake with everyone else down the kitchen stairs.

“Don’t forget, this is a Thieves’ Guild safehouse!” Sweet replied, still with evident good humor. “Just let me…ah, I believe this is it.”

In the wine cellar, he crossed directly to the far wall, flicked a small fairy lamp on and then back off, and pulled one dusty bottle off a rack.

Immediately, the section of brick wall to which the rack was attached slid backward with a low rumble, leaving a dark gap with another staircase descending into the unknown.

“How did you know that?” Branwen exclaimed. “How much time do you spend in this city, Antonio?”

“Some features are standardized up to a point,” he said, winking. “Come along, down we go. It’ll take them a while to get into the house once they’re ready to move, so we should have a bit of a head start. By the by, on that subject, I don’t suppose any of you happen to hail originally from Ninkabi?”

“Are you serious?” Shook demanded. “Sweet, you’re talkin’ to two elves and the four palest people on this side a’ the mountains.”

“Hey, you never know! We’re all one big happy Empire, after all. I suppose,” he added wryly, “that means none of you happen to know your way around the tunnel system under this city.”

They all stared at him in silence.

From above there came a percussive crash as a lightning weapon was fired at the heavily reinforced front door.

“Welp!” Sweet said brightly, ducking into the tunnel, “I guess this’ll be an adventure.”

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15 – 58

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“Once again, ‘any moment’ is not technically incorrect, but it is overly dramatic,” Bradshaw said with the strained patience of a perfectionist having to continually clarify. “The most accurate description of the situation is that we do not know what the trigger for opening the portals is—yet. I recommend all haste, but not panic. Clearly, something has prevented the portals opening at least this long, and we are working to figure out what.”

“Haste but not panic is the right action in almost any circumstance,” Grip said in a deceptively lazy tone, eyes on the dismantled wand she was cleaning. “Including if, for example, there were twenty-odd demon portals in the city that might open any fucking minute.”

“Grip, play nicely with the other kids,” Sweet reproved. “Bradshaw’s doing us a big solid and these stakes don’t allow for any infighting. What is it you need from us?” he asked the warlock.

“Embras and the dragon simply want to stay in communication,” Bradshaw replied a little less testily. “Khadizroth did mention Mr. Schwartz as a possible assistant in his own efforts. He and the elf seem competent but they are trying to chase multiple leads at once and the aid of another shaman couldn’t hurt.”

“I say, that’s a point,” Schwartz agreed, reaching up to stroke Meesie, who had started squealing in alarm. “Though I’ll admit the prospect of working under a green dragon is both tremendously exciting and rather terrifying.” His familiar bounded onto his head and began gesticulating wildly, keeping up her shrill commentary. “Meesie agrees,” Schwartz added solemnly. “It’s also worth keeping in mind that we have, ah, something of a history. Given what happened last time our paths crossed his…” He trailed off, looking over at Branwen.

“I have found Lord Khadizroth an eminently reasonable being,” she said with a reassuring smile. “He is well aware of what happened that night and bears us no grudge over Ildrin’s actions.”

“Makes sense to keep the finger-wigglers on the same page,” Grip mused. “Well! If that’s how it’s gonna be, I’d like to come along. You, too,” she added to Jenell. “This is an invaluable learning opportunity.”

Jenell opened her mouth, apparently found nothing to say, and shut it. Her tutor grinned wolfishly at her.

“I am of course honored at the opportunity to serve as your personal taxi service,” Bradshaw said in an exceedingly dry tone.

Shook cleared his throat. “For what it’s worth, I agree with the Bishop about Big K bein’ more or less reasonable. He doesn’t flame-broil people who don’t create a need. You, Grip, run a very significant risk of creating a need if you park yourself in a room with him for five minutes.”

She rolled her eyes. “If you can hang around with this dragon without setting him off, Thumper, any actual grown-up with a shred of functional impulse control should be fine.”

He clenched both fists and she grinned again.

“Peace,” Sweet exclaimed. “What did I literally just say about infighting?”

“Right,” Shook agreed, deliberately relaxing and straightening his lapels. “Sorry.”

Sweet gave him a tiny sidelong frown as if perplexed by that, but Schwartz hastily continued the discussion before it could be diverted any further.

“On that note! Just logistically speaking, might it not be best to combine both groups entirely?”

“How about no,” Flora and Fauna chorused. Schwartz turned to them, blinking in surprise, and Meesie sat bolt upright in his hair with her head tilted.

“Actually, the idea has merit,” said Bradshaw. “It is not without issues, though. Syrinx is supposed to be specifically finding Darling and company, and neither Embras nor Khadizroth want her coming at us. Not to tell you your business,” he added directly to Sweet, “but I wouldn’t want her sniffing after you unless you’re accompanied by some heavy-hitters. Also, given the increasing uncertainty and the fact that blithely trusting Syrinx to hold up her end of a deal would be hysterically stupid, it may be a good idea for the two Bishops to try to mobilize whatever there is of their cults in Ninkabi.”

“What exactly are Izarites supposed to do about a possible demon invasion?” Jenell asked scornfully.

“Protect and heal people,” Grip answered. “A priest is a priest, when it comes to demons. There’s value in other talents than yours, apprentice. Do not open your mouth if nothing’s gonna come out of it but ego.”

“So…are you in favor of blending the two groups or not?” Schwartz asked Bradshaw.

The warlock tilted his head from one side to the other in a waffling motion. “Thinking on it, I don’t see how a complete blending is workable. But we may want to reconsider who to station where. And we should definitely try to keep both groups in contact.”

“We are not interested in being under a roof with Khadizroth the Green,” Fauna stated.

“Or Vannae,” added Flora.

The discussion continued, almost immediately veering into argument again and then back, while Shook discreetly wandered around the perimeter for the room to stand next to his own Bishop.

“Sweet,” he murmured, “can you spare a minute for a talk? In private?”

Sweet looked at him, raising his eyebrows, then shrugged. Saying nothing, he straightened up from his slouched pose against the wall and slipped out through the door. Shook fell into step behind him.

They were ensconced in a safe house used by the local Guild, on loan to Sweet for the time being by Ninkabi’s Underboss. While the argument carried on in the sitting room, Sweet led the way through the kitchen and down the short flight of steps beyond into a dusty but surprisingly well-stocked wine cellar, slapping a switch in passing that made a single dim fairy lamp come on.

“Thanks,” Shook muttered once they were both over the threshold. There was no door, but the distance and intervening halls muffled the conversation out front to a bare murmur. “This is… Okay, there’s obviously more important stuff going on, so shut me up as soon as something interesting happens. But while we got a breather I…” He inhaled deeply and self-consciously straightened his suit again. “I wonder if I could… I mean, you are a priest. I just wanna bend your ear in that capacity.”

Sweet leaned back against the wall next to the door and folded his arms, keeping his expression calm. “Well, you know we don’t have much of a confessional tradition, Thumper, but I fancy I’m a pretty decent listener. What’s on your mind?”

He took a few steps to the end of a wine rack, then turned and paced back the other way. The words were hard to dredge up, but he was keenly aware that this was an inopportune time; the clock was ticking, as assuredly was the Bishop’s patience.

“Spending a couple a’ years with Kheshiri around really fucked me up,” he said abruptly, straightening up and making himself look Sweet in the eye. “I’m… Well, she’s gone, and I’m better off, obviously. Been thinkin’ over a lot of stuff as I have time, getting a handle on how bad she screwed me up an’ trying to undo some of the damage. Khadizroth has helped with that.”

“I will just bet he has,” Sweet said mildly.

Thumper heaved a sigh. “I’m not a moron, Sweet. The dragon’s got an agenda, same as anyone, but in his case… Augh, that’s a whole other conversation. It’s just… Okay, well, first things first: you tried to help me out a lot back in the day an’ I pretty much blew you off. I been thinkin’ back on a lot of real good advice I’ve been given by several people, including you. Better late than never, I guess. So, before anything else happens: thanks, Sweet, for trying. And I’m sorry for wasting your time.”

One corner of Sweet’s mouth turned upward and his eyes softened. He nodded once, gravely. “You are welcome.”

“But what I keep comin’ back to,” Shook went on, turning his head to glare at the wall, “is that… Well, that. All that was long before Kheshiri came along and as bad as she screwed with my head, she wasn’t the start of it. I… Sweet, I’ve fucked up a lot. And looking back, I’m not even sure, a hundred percent, how much of everything I thought I knew was bullshit. I’m pretty sure it’s at least some of it. I dunno where to draw the lines. All I’m absolutely confident of is I’ve really fucked up.”

“Why?”

Thumper snapped his eyes back to him; Sweet was still regarding him with the same bland look. “Huh?”

“Why, specifically, have you habitually fucked up?”

He breathed in, slowly, and back out. The reactive surge of anger was not appropriate. It was a good question. Sweet was trying to help, just as he had years ago.

“That, right there,” Thumper said flatly after a moment. “I get too mad and I don’t handle it well. Better’n I used to, but… I, uh, also think… I absorbed a lot of Alan’s views about the world an’ I’m starting to think some of ’em may be kind of…incredibly wrong.”

“I’ll help you out a bit, since this is progress,” Sweet said evenly. “You have a long pattern of blaming everybody but yourself when you fuck up, Thumper.”

He inhaled and exhaled again. Then a second time, suddenly aware that the anger he was feeling was something he’d summoned, subconsciously, because it was easier to deal with than shame. “Yeah, I see that now. Specially the last couple years… I had it worked around in my head how the Guild had turned against me because of Keys’s lies, and… This thing with Justinian, I thought if I could get some results from him… I dunno.”

“Keys’s report from Last Rock was some seriously troubling shit, Thumper,” the priest stated tonelessly. “You wanna offer me some insight on that?”

Thumper looked away from his eyes again, crushingly aware it was simple cowardice and unable to summon up the strength to do better. “Keys…irrespective of anything else, has always been an insufferable piece of shit and you know it. I’m not gonna cop to anything she said until I hear the full details of it.”

“Well, that is not the response of a man who’s done nothing wrong,” Sweet retorted, and Shook just barely managed not to flinch. “So that tells me what I need to know. The fine details are Style’s problem.”

“I’m…I’m trying to do better, Sweet,” he said helplessly. “I’ve fucked up, I know it. I just…I want a chance to make things right, if I can. How do I get outta this, and earn that?”

Sweet’s shoulders slumped and he sighed. Then straightened up, shaking his head. “If that’s where this is going, Thumper, I don’t have time for it.”

Shook felt the betrayal like a stab in his chest. “But—”

“Has it ever once crossed your mind that there are things you just don’t get out of?” Sweet held his stare, and this time he found he actually couldn’t look away. “You crossed a line with her, Thumper. It’s a universal line everybody in every civilization in all of history knows not to cross, and you did it anyway. There is some shit that is just not excused by a bad upbringing. And then you ran instead of facing the consequences like a man. What you’re asking me now is to keep not facing consequences, and whatever progress you’ve made, that shows me it’s not enough.”

Shook finally lowered his eyes, fully occupied by the plummeting feeling inside himself. Sweet wasn’t done, though.

“I always approve of anybody trying to improve themselves, but in your case, the appropriate time for this was a decade ago. And especially before you interpreted an enforcement mandate as an excuse to get handsy with a fellow Guild member. Redemption is for the bards, Thumper. It’s a pretty story device that works well enough for made-up people in imaginary stories, but in real life? Nothing that’s done can be undone. Actions have consequences. Everybody fucks up and we’ve all got blood on our hands; character is measured by how you face responsibility. And you are still trying to duck out of it.

“You wanna man up, finally? You need to make peace with the fact that the consequences of your actions may be extremely final, Thumper. Facing them might not be something you come out the other side of. And you especially need to internalize the fact that this is what you’ve chosen. If you still don’t have the wits to see how you’ve created your own situation, or the guts to take your medicine…”

Sweet shrugged again, and turned to step into the stairwell.

“You can try running again. Gods know it’d be less paperwork for us. I can’t promise how far you’d get, but it might be far enough. There’s big shit going down, Thumper, and everybody has more important things to deal with than you. It’s your call. But if you’re really serious about doing better, then you know what you have to do. If you’ve got it in you.”

He climbed the stairs in silence. Thumper saw his legs hesitate at the top before he finished ascending, and returned to the others.

Shook turned his back to the doorway. His fists were clenched so hard his nails were cutting into his own skin. Breathe. In, out… Calm. Except this time there was no calm there. He was fighting a losing battle with the anger.

No, he realized, not with anger, not anymore. Sweet, with a few piercing sentences, had managed to take even that from him. Nothing Khadizroth had taught him had left him prepared to cope with shame.

The footsteps on the stairs behind him were softer. Oddly, for once in his life, Shook couldn’t find it in himself to care who was creeping up on him from behind.

“I think that was partly the situation talking,” Branwen Snowe murmured, stepping up into his peripheral view. “I have never known Antonio to be deliberately cruel.”

A bitter laugh tore itself from Shook’s throat, and not just because there were obviously things about Antonio she didn’t begin to imagine. “Ah, hell, ain’t his fault he’s right. I mean…well, you know what I mean. I guess you were listening in on most a’ that?”

“I apologize for intruding on your privacy,” she said with evident sincerity, reaching up to rest one hand against his upper arm. Her blue eyes were soulful and kind; in that moment he could almost forget the dozens of tiny signals he’d picked up over the last few days that Snowe was as cunning a creature as Syrinx in her own way. “Priestesses of my faith experience the emotions of others much the way you do smells in the air. Except I can’t just hold my nose, so to speak. It’s impossibly difficult to be around someone who is in as much pain as you are and not try to do something about it.”

For whatever reason, the conversation was helping. Maybe it just gave him something other than his own inadequacy on which to focus. Shook ran through another breathing exercise, then unconsciously smoothed a hand over his hair. “Yeah, well. Thanks for your concern, Bishop, but I figure I’m all confessed out for the time being. ‘less you have a wildly different interpretation than Sweet did…”

Still gazing up at him, she shook her head slowly. “I’m not going to contradict anything he said. Ironically, an Avenist would have told you much the same; I’ve always been amused by how similar your two faiths are beneath the surface. I do have my own set of biases, though, Mr. Shook. I’m an Izarite.” She laughed softly. “Not a very good one, but still.”

At that, he raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Whaddaya mean, not good? How come they made you the Bishop, then?”

“There’s a reason the Brethren don’t much care for politics,” she said softly. “Izara’s way is to do what good you can, right where you are, for whoever you can immediately reach. Me? I have always been a…big picture person. I believe deeply in the power of love, in how much the world needs more of it. I’ve never been able to content myself with the needs of the moment, though.”

She smiled, an expression so warm and caring he actually found himself believing it. Her small fingers gently squeezed his bicep. “I think, Mr. Shook, you might be an authentically bad person.”

It was truly amazing how much that actually hurt.

“I don’t say that lightly, or about many people,” she went on seriously. “Antonio was not wrong, about responsibility and justice. But I can’t make myself think that is the most important thing. However flawed you are, Jeremiah… I believe you are becoming aware of that, and earnestly trying to do better. And to me, that is what’s important. It’s not my prerogative to speak for anyone you may have hurt. In the big picture, though, I consider the good a person can go on to do more valuable than any punishment that can be levied against them.”

She closed her eyes, shook her head slightly, and let out a tiny huff that was just a shadow of a rueful laugh. “The Guild, the Sisterhood…not many will see it the way I do. But I hope that’s worth something to you, at least.”

Breathe in. Breathe out. Calm was a choice. Surprisingly, he found it more within his grasp now.

Gently, he removed her hand from his arm and stepped back. “Right. Cos I’ve got all these forces circling that’ll take me down, but maybe with you I can still be spared, is that it?”

“Oh, I didn’t mean—”

“Look, your Grace, I already know you’re smarter than you like to appear. I also know you’re hard enough to come all the way out here to try to kill a former colleague of yours. None of that’s a criticism, mind you, because frankly I think it’s a goddamn shame we still haven’t managed to put a knife in Syrinx’s eye. But enforcement is as much about drama and manipulation as force. More so.” He gave her a humorless little smile, noting how blank her face had gone. “Due credit, it was a good recruitment pitch. An’ cos I like you, I’ll offer some free advice: don’t try that again on another Eserite enforcer. They’ll all see through it, an’ some’ll take offense.”

Thumper took a step back from her and inclined his upper body in a shallow bow.

“You really are more than meets the eye,” she said with a rueful smile. Gods, she was still doing it.

“I thank you for the kind words, Bishop. Dunno how sincere they were, but it helps nonetheless.”

Again, that gentle expression. “If I wanted to lie to you, Jeremiah, I would have spared your feelings.”

“Well, then.” He nodded, and turned to head for the stairs. “Best get back, there ain’t much time for screwin’ around.”

Thumper kept his gaze fixed straight ahead as he climbed back up into the kitchen and turned toward the living room and the still-ongoing argument therein. A thought had just occurred which put a little of the steel back into his step.

Unless they all had some very good luck very soon, this city was likely to shortly be filled with a thousand screaming, hell-crazed reasons not to have to go back to the Guild and grovel for Keys, Style, and Tricks. He was aware this was still a cowardly way of thinking, but it was cowardice he could meet with a wand in hand and blood under his nails, and right at that moment, that sounded like a compromise he could accept.

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15 – 55

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“It fits all too well,” Khadizroth murmured, narrowing his eyes to emerald slits of concentration. “In hindsight, I can only condemn myself for failing to anticipate such a development. The entire project of monitoring and interfering with Justinian from within his organization was the Jackal’s idea, and it must be said that our success has always been…limited. Evidently he decided to start over with a different set of co-conspirators.”

“Let’s be honest,” Shook said dryly, “the fact that you and not he ended up calling the shots more often than not had to’ve been at least a factor.”

“Syrinx is an odd choice of ally, considering the assassin threw away some far superior candidates in the process,” Bradshaw remarked.

“Stop, I’m gonna blush,” said Shook, deadpan.

The warlock grimaced at him. “That woman is notoriously unstable and has so grievously offended so many powerful people already that her continued survival is an affront to the laws of probability. And this, if you have not noticed, is a dragon.”

“Indeed, theirs is hardly a match made in heaven,” Khadizroth agreed. “Syrinx and the Jackal have in common that they are creatures of pure self-interest, willing to advance the goals of others only so long as they advance their own by so doing. Ultimately, that places them at permanent cross-purposes, since his goal is explicitly to thwart Justinian in tightening his control over the world, and Syrinx has burned every bridge until Justinian’s protection is the only thing keeping her alive. It is clearly a temporary union, and a reminder that we have merely gained some insight into the underlying mystery, not solved it. Well, in any case.” He turned back to Shook directly. “I am glad you succeeded in having a peaceful discussion; frankly it surprises me that you received a response this quickly, and especially that Darling would come here himself. Was there any sign of the others?”

“Nope, and when I asked about ’em, the news wasn’t great,” Shook said with a sigh. “Sweet says that group might do work for him again in the future, but aren’t formally answering to him anymore and are currently off on some personal business way out of contact. He mentioned the Golden fuckin’ Sea, so I guess we can write that possibility off. Not that it breaks my heart. I’m still not sure why you were actually hoping to get those assholes involved.”

“Our personal grievances with them notwithstanding,” Khadizroth said pensively, “Jenkins, McGraw, and Kuriwa have always evinced personal integrity and a willingness to act for the greater good. The bard and even that ridiculous gnome always seemed willing to follow their lead.”

“And let’s be honest,” Bradshaw added, “at this point we all seem to be taking it as given that we’re in no position to be picky about allies.”

Shook snorted a short laugh of agreement, while Khadizroth nodded gravely to him.

“What of those he did bring?” the dragon asked.

“Grip’s one of the Guild’s best,” Shook answered. “Or worst, depending on how you slice it. I would describe her as a fuckin’ creepy monster, and I say that as a mark of respect. They also brought his and her apprentices—three, between them, and that’s not nothing but I wouldn’t count apprentices for much.”

“I know Darling’s students quite well,” Khadizroth said softly. “Their skills are considerable, though… Well, as we have said, allies are in short supply and beggars can’t be choosers.”

“There was also a witch,” Shook added. “Salyrite kid, name of Schwartz. Looked kind of reedy and bookish, not somebody I would’ve picked for a job like this. Just from that short conversation, though, I could tell he’s got some real deadly spells under his belt, and seems to have a real mad-on for Syrinx.”

“At this point, I’d be astonished to learn that anyone doesn’t,” said Bradshaw.

“Schwartz,” Khadizroth mused. “Interesting. I glimpsed him only in passing, but during the Viridill affair he appeared to be working for Syrinx.”

“Yep, I guess that’d do it,” Shook chuckled. “Sure worked for us.”

“He was the reason they were able to find us so quickly,” Bradshaw added in a more serious tone. “He was able to track Shook based on nothing but that telescroll Bishop Snowe sent with his message. My familiarity with fae magic is only passing, but isn’t that an extremely tenuous connection on which to zero in?”

“Indeed, the boy sounds quite talented,” Khadizroth said slowly. “Now that I am reminded of Viridill, a thought occurs: that entire chain of events was instigated by the Archpope for the specific purpose of lifting Basra Syrinx out of disgrace by arranging for her to do something heroic in the eyes of the Sisterhood.”

There was a beat of silence while they processed this.

“Mother fucker,” Shook said at last.

“Succinctly put,” Khadizroth agreed with a faint smile. “It’s not as if we don’t know this Tide cult is Justinian’s creation. That may be a positive sign, in fact. While those events doubtless appeared out of control and potentially apocalyptic to onlookers, based on the response of the Empire and the Sisterhood, the truth is they were carefully orchestrated—by me, principally—to minimize collateral damage.”

“You’ll forgive me if I’m reluctant to trust the kindness of Justinian’s wizened heart,” Bradshaw snapped. “Or need I remind you what he—and Darling—did in Tiraas during the hellgate crisis?”

“And us!” Shook added helpfully.

“You need not,” Khadizroth assured him. “I merely suggest that we consider all angles and refrain from panic. And on that note, while you gentlemen were out, we have made some progress here, as well. Please, come with me; the others are waiting below, and some of this will be easier to show than to tell.”

He led them toward the stairs of Branwen’s borrowed apartment, which was sizable enough to qualify as a townhouse—at least because it had a second floor and, apparently, a basement. Khadizroth himself had not answered the front door, for obvious reasons, but Vannae had already drifted off in this direction in his discreet way after letting them in.

It wasn’t a large basement, but fortunately had come unfurnished and not storing any of the household goods which would normally clutter such a space, and so worked well enough for the purposes to which it was currently being put. Though Khadizroth bore it with his usual equanimity, Shook and Bradshaw both wrinkled their noses upon descending the steps right into the acrid smell of rot.

“What the fuck—oh, you brought one of those things here,” Shook grunted, drawing a handkerchief from within his suit to hold over his nose and mouth. “In fuck’s name, why?”

“Are you serious?” Embras Mogul asked in a mild tone. “We’re trying to figure out every detail we can about these devices and you’re confused that I’d move one to a controlled space for study? Tricky thing about you, Shook, is I’m never sure when you’re playing dumb and when it’s the genuine article.”

Shook started to breathe in slowly and immediately regretted it, but at least that paused him long enough to push aside his instinctive reaction and deliberately un-tense his shoulders. “You mean the great and wily Black Wreath is havin’ trouble figuring me out? Dear fucking diary. You managed to learn anything from that, then?”

The necromantic altar was looking a little worse for wear, set up on a pair of crates pushed together at one end of the basement; it had partially collapsed, no doubt due to a combination of being delicately constructed mostly of body parts and spare wood, and having been moved across the city. Even if done by shadow-jumping, some dishevelment was inevitable.

“A bit,” Mogul answered. “I brought this one here in case Khadizroth could extract some more detail from it than my people; we’ve got another one in a different location.”

“How did you gentlemen fare today?” Branwen asked. She actually had a bandanna wrapped around her lower face to protect against the stench. Necromancy in an enclosed space was an assault on multiple senses.

“Progress on our intended project was interrupted early on, but the day did yield fruit,” said Bradshaw. “Bishop Darling has graced Ninkabi with his presence, and brought some reinforcements. Not what I gather you were hoping, but something, at least.”

“Antonio is here?” She perked up visibly, despite the improvised mask.

“Not here,” Shook clarified. “In the city, though. In other news… You’re not gonna like this, Bishop, but Sweet and the rest of us have agreed to a…how to put this…”

“We’re back in bed with Syrinx,” Bradshaw said flatly, addressing himself to Mogul. “The short version is that with this group out from under her thumb she has no investigative ability to speak of, especially magically, and even with two Bishops we do not have access to the sheer manpower and resources it will take to clean these up, or even find them all, to say nothing of rounding up the Tide themselves.”

“You don’t need to justify it to me, Bradshaw,” Mogul said with a thoughtful expression. “It is the logical move.”

“And so Basra manages to make herself too necessary to immediately get rid of, the better to sink her claws into everyone’s business and hold on,” Branwen said, her blue eyes eloquently unhappy. “Because that is what she does. I hope I don’t need to point out that she is definitely planning to twist this whole situation toward her own benefit?”

“We’re not morons,” Shook retorted. “I mean, your Grace. Yeah, I don’t doubt she is, but that’s mutual as hell. I got the distinct impression half the people with Sweet specifically want her ass dead even more than you do, Miss Snowe. Sweet’s good at handling people, he’ll keep ’em under control, but a lot of folks here are lookin’ to take her down if they can swing it without knocking over the whole applecart.”

“Including yourself?” she asked in a tone of simple curiosity.

He shrugged. “I don’t have half the personal grudge with Syrinx I’m startin’ to get the impression everybody else does, but I know an evil bitch when I meet one. If the opportunity presents, yeah, I’d put a wandshot through her eye. Can’t really deny that somebody fuckin’ needs to already.”

She nodded once, and though it was hard to tell with the cloth over her face, he had the impression she was satisfied with that answer. “Antonio didn’t come here with you, then?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said, grimacing behind his handkerchief. “The Jackal tried to whack him on the way into town and got chased off.”

Branwen’s eyebrows rose sharply. “Antonio fought off the Jackal?”

“Sweet may be more of a talker than a fighter, but he didn’t get where he is in life by bein’ easy to cut down. Point is, suspiciously soon after that, Syrinx came right to us. We got to putting some hints together, and…”

“The Jackal is still working with her,” Branwen said, her eyes widening. “Of course.”

“Damn,” Shook said approvingly. “Ain’t just a pretty face, are ya?”

She winked at him.

“So we returned here via shadow-jump,” Bradshaw finished impatiently, “so as not to lead either of them to this location. The witch was under the impression that he and you, Khadizroth, would be able to find one another given a little mutual cooperation, if you’re willing to offer it. We have a meeting place to carry an answer back to the Eserites when you have one.”

“That is sensible,” Khadizroth said, nodding. “There are many advantages to keeping these groups separate, and we can mitigate the drawbacks by actively coordinating. I will provide you a token which should enable a competent witch to find me, when you are ready to return. In the meantime, gentlemen, we should bring you up to speed on our own findings, as well.”

“It isn’t good.” Mogul’s tone was as grim as the hard line into which he set his mouth. “Examining these things closely has turned up some more spooky details, but notably not the one I was most curious about. How much do you know about hellgates, Mr. Shook?”

“Why in fuck’s name would I ever need to know anything about hellgates?”

“You mean, aside from the present situation?” Mogul shook his head. “No, sorry, your point is taken. It’s not germane knowledge for most people, luckily. See, the tricky thing about hellgates is you can’t just unilaterally pry one open. They require at least two summoners, one working from each side of the dimensional barrier. To open a hellgate, you not only need to be a pretty competent warlock—”

“Or portal mage, in theory,” Bradshaw commented.

“Yes, yes,” Mogul said irritably, “and also to be in close contact with an equally skilled demon on the other side to coordinate your efforts. That is exactly why they are rare and idiots aren’t prying more open every damn day.”

“Now, wait a second,” Shook protested. “How the hell does that work if these assholes are squirreling these thingies away in apparently every corner of the city… Oh. Yeah, I think I see the problem.”

“Yup,” Mogul drawled. “We have no idea who’s working this on the other side, or how they’re planning to do their part. Some of the possibilities are actually somewhat optimistic. For instance, if they’re deliberately casting a wider net than necessary in the hope that their demon accomplices can find some of the targets, that’d mean not all or even most of these things will actually open. Maybe not more than one.”

“Hell, are we absolutely sure these fuckwits know they can’t open a gate by themselves?” Shook asked. “What if they made a couple dozen because they don’t know why it doesn’t work and just keep trying?”

“Speculation,” said Mogul, “and, I fear, overly optimistic. Not that it’s impossible, but given what’s potentially at stake here I’m still going to plan as best I can for the worst case scenario.”

“Yeah, that’s probably smart,” Shook agreed with a sigh.

“I’m so glad you approve,” Mogul said solemnly, tipping his hat. “Because according to Khadizroth and Vannae’s ongoing efforts, the news is worse than we feared.”

“While you two were out,” said Khadizroth, “we have continued searching via magical means. We have thus observed the number of gate altars continuing to grow.”

“What?” Shook exclaimed. “More? How the fuck many of these things do these freaks need?”

“I get the impression these people don’t grasp the concept of overkill,” said Bradshaw.

“It does present a potential opportunity,” Khadizroth said, “though it also adds considerably to the legwork necessary to shut these sites down. Vannae is upstairs designing a spell we think may be able to catch them in the act of setting up a new altar. If we react fast enough, with a shadow-jumper on hand, we might be able to seize some of their personnel and extract answers more directly. I have also gained insight into the specific mechanism through which they are using necromancy to create dimensional portals, though I have yet to devise a practical use for this knowledge. In theory, with more experimentation, this may yield a method to interfere with the process on a wide scale, though that as yet eludes me.”

“What have you found?” Bradshaw asked.

“In short, they are using death itself as a vector,” Khadizroth explained. “There are several mechanisms through which death links the mortal plane with Hell. The damnation of souls rejected by Vidius, the creation and passage of Vanislaad demons—which, in fact, is how Mr. Mogul first discovered this angle, as there are elements of the incubus summoning spell worked into the basis of the apparatus. Some of the bones and tissues used in its construction are human; we think human sacrifice may be an element in their creation.”

There was a particularly gloomy pause.

“I guess,” Shook said slowly, “with Jackass whittling down the police, they’re both short on manpower and too focused on his bullshit to notice some extra folks going missing. Fuck. This has got to stop.”

“Think so, do you,” Bradshaw muttered. Shook gave him a sidelong glare, but declined to rise to the bait.

“Of course, that presents obstacles,” Branwen added. “Divine ones, specifically. Either of those avenues risks the attention of Vidius or Elilial. Well, at the very least, valkyries or Prince Vanislaas, which should amount to the same thing given what’s at stake. I am assuming, of course, that Mr. Mogul is being forthright with us on the subject of his goddess’s involvement in this.”

“Hey, say what you will about us, but the Wreath has always worked to keep the planes separate and demons on their own side,” Mogul retorted. “The kind of breach we’re potentially looking at here would rival what the Dark Lady achieved during each of the Hellwars, and since she is specifically not planning something like that, this kind of disruption would be as bad for her plans as anyone’s. My goddess doesn’t enjoy being pestered by followers who’ve failed in their tasks any more than the Pantheon’s, but during today’s work I’ve come to the conclusion I have no choice but to petition her directly for aid. I just am not sure enough that we’ve got the means to shut this down before it all activates, and… If I have to embarrass myself in front of her to avert something like this, so be it.”

“Will she help, do you think?” Khadizroth asked.

Mogul tilted his head forward so that the wide brim of his had concealed more of his face. “I can’t imagine she wouldn’t do something. But as to the form that help would take… You never can tell with gods, can you? A lot depends on what exactly is on the other side of the gate. Last I heard there was a khelminash city in this general region on the other plane, which is both good and bad. The khelminash are loyal to Elilial and will send forces to secure the site at her order. But Hell is…well, it’s hell, and since khelminash territory is the safest to be had, lots of unaligned demons will be populating any area where they live. If it was a single gate, they could secure that, no problem. But with multiple portals opening, they’ll come up against the same issue we are.”

“Not enough warm bodies to throw at the problem,” Shook muttered.

Mogul nodded silently.

“I had just come to the conclusion that I’d better take this to the Imperial and city authorities,” Branwen said with a sigh. “Farfetched as it is, I am still a Bishop of the Universal Church. They cannot simply brush me off.”

“Syrinx is already doing exactly that,” said Shook. “Might be best to let her handle it, your Grace.”

She gave him an extremely level look.

“Hey, don’t get me wrong,” he said, raising the hand not holding his kerchief in place in a gesture of surrender. “Nobody’s saying she’s not a twisted, sadistic fuck who deserves a knife in the neck. But speaking as another one of those, you gotta give us credit for the particular things we’re actually good at. Syrinx is probably a better choice for haranguing people into action when they don’t want to go, and her position with the Church is more martial than yours. Or any Izarite’s, no offense.”

“I hardly take offense at that,” Branwen murmured. “I mislike putting Basra in a key position, is all.”

“Don’t blame you,” he agreed. “But we are bumpin’ up against shit out of options here. Hey, you know your strengths better than me; do what you think is best. I’m just offerin’ my thoughts.”

“Worth considering, I guess,” Mogul commented. “You ready for the worst news yet?”

“There’s more?” Shook groaned. “Fuck. Well, don’t keep us in suspense.”

“What we have not managed to find in this altar or the other one is an activation mechanism,” said Khadizroth before Mogul could answer. “They are functionally operational as is. Well, the intact ones; there will be no demons out of this one, or those you have already disrupted. Once set up, they are simply waiting for activation, which evidently will have to come from the other side.”

“So,” Shook said slowly, “you’re telling me that since we don’t know what the fuck is going on in Hell, these things could pop open and start spraying murder-crazy demons at literally any moment?”

“Too much fatalism is as bad as too much optimism,” Mogul cautioned. “Remember, the issue is we don’t know what’s happening in Hell, yet. I’d advise against making extreme predictions in either direction. The fact it hasn’t started already strongly indicates there’s something holding back the activation of the gates.”

“So you’re telling me,” Shook repeated more loudly, “these things could start spraying demons at literally any moment?”

Mogul hesitated, then nodded once. “Yeah, I guess that’s what I’m telling you.”

Shook dragged a hand roughly down his face. “Fuck.”

“Soooo,” Bradshaw said, “I gather we should rendezvous again with Darling and his coterie? If they’re going to be useful, it sounds as if this is all information they will need.”

“I’d like to come with you,” Branwen said, stepping forward. Khadizroth looked over at her, then nodded slowly.

“Then let us all pray our fortunes improve quickly,” the dragon said, “but pray while continuing to work. The gods help those who help themselves.”

“Hey, you’re talking to a thief,” Shook said, grinning. “Helping myself is my strong suit.”

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15 – 53

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“Touch me and she dies.”

Syrinx already had two wands aimed at her, to say nothing of the knives coming out; that sentence bought her a momentary pause.

“You’re gonna sit there and threaten my apprentice right in front of me?” Grip asked in a dangerously serene tone. “Ballsy.”

“Your…? Oh, Covrin’s here.” Syrinx barely glanced at Jenell in passing. “No, I was referring to Ninkabi. Forgive the dramatic phrasing, but you thugs clearly needed encouragement not to shut down your brains entirely. Now, here’s the situation.”

“Really, holding the entire city hostage?” Sweet said with a derisive little smile. “Well that’s…an approach.”

“Don’t pretend to be stupid, Antonio,” she snapped. “You know very well I am not behind the threats here, but without me you haven’t a prayer of thwarting them.”

“Yeah, that’s bullshit,” said Thumper. “She’s got nothin’, not even her crew anymore.”

“I cannot believe we’re still talking to this woman,” Schwartz exclaimed. “Jenell, do you want to do the honors or may I…?”

“I’ve gotten my pound of flesh from her,” Jenell said stiffly, looking away from Basra. “Knock yourself out.”

Syrinx slapped a hand down on the table, rattling the silverware again. “You’ve got nothing. You have neither the necessary forces to head off the coming attack, nor adequate knowledge of where it will come from. The fact that you’ve invited this into your ranks only proves how desperate you are.”

Bradshaw met her sneer with a raised eyebrow. “Well, I have no personal horse in this race, but if the consensus of the group is that we table other business and char Basra Syrinx down to her skeleton, I’m for it.”

“A person with a scrap of self-awareness would take note that others are more willing to ally with the Wreath than herself and reflect on that,” Grip drawled.

Shook snorted a bitter laugh. “Damn, woman, nobody doesn’t hate you. Even I don’t have a hundred percent aggression rating, and that’s literally my job.”

“Your inability to do your job is another topic, Shook,” Syrinx sneered. “Having to deal with me is the tax you lot will have to pay for this one and his cronies splitting my forces. I know that dragon is helping you track down the summoning sites; had he and you not run off on your own I could be sending troops to each one. But they did, so here we are. You can maybe keep tracking down those portal sites, but the cultists will just keep making more, and you quite simply do not have enough warm bodies to throw at them. Sooner than later they’ll have enough up and running to put their plan into motion while you’re still chasing your tails.”

“Troops?” Sweet asked mildly.

“Oh, come on, you know she has nothing of the kind!” Jenell spat. “This is nothing but a ploy to get us off her back so she can prolong her existence another day.”

“She could have easily done that by not coming here,” Sweet pointed out. “It’s not as if anybody here has time to go hunting her down, we’re fully occupied with shit that matters.”

Jenell slammed a fist on the table in an ironic echo of Basra and started to rise from her seat. “I cannot believe you’d even consider—”

“Covrin!” Sweet did not raise his voice, but projected in a sharp tone that cut her off. “If somebody makes you mad enough to go on the attack without thinking, they’re beating you. Basra, you will either wipe that smirk off your face or Schwartz will burn it off.”

Meesie puffed up like a spikefish, hissing, and Schwartz cracked his knuckles, staring at Basra. Jenell sank more slowly back into her seat, deliberately marshaling her expression. Syrinx smoothed her own as swiftly as if a switch had been flipped.

“We’re gonna do this smart,” Sweet announced, again in a tone of calm. “If Basra has something critical to offer, we’ll get all the available info and decide logically what to do. If what she offers isn’t very good—and I mean, incredibly persuasively necessary—she doesn’t leave this room alive. Agreed?”

A few grudging mutters of assent followed, though most of those at the table just watched Syrinx in silence. She herself curled her lip disdainfully, but nodded.

“All right, then,” Sweet said with an unconvincing little smile. “Let’s hear your pitch, Bas. I assume you wouldn’t have risked coming here if you didn’t have something good.”

“I have the one thing you need and do not have,” she replied. “Men who can follow orders. As a designated emissary of the Archpope, I can take direct command of the Holy Legionaries in the city, and have pull with the local police and Imperial Army presence.”

“You seem to be forgetting that both of us didn’t get de-Bishoped,” he said with a pleasant smile. “I also have—”

“This isn’t Tiraas, Antonio,” she interrupted. “Nobody here knows you—and by the looks of it, you came in your Eserite persona, looking to rummage around in the city’s underground. Sure, you can prove your identity and your status…eventually. Except you’re forgetting that the Tiraan Empire is currently in a state of war footing, which means civilians do not have access to the Rails or telescroll network as of this morning. You were probably among the last people to be able to travel freely to get here. And let’s say the local police recognize you: the Eserite Bishop. We all know how much police love Eserites.”

She smirked again, while he regarded her impassively. Flanking him, Flora and Fauna narrowed their eyes to blue slits.

“How’d you find us here so fast, Basra?” Sweet asked lightly.

“That is not among the things you need to know.”

He shifted his gaze. “Mr. Bradshaw, if I might inquire, how much manpower can your group lend to this effort?”

“I trust you won’t be surprised if I decline to share exact numbers,” the warlock drawled. “But it won’t come as a surprise to anyone here that the Wreath is running low on competent and trusted personnel, since you in particular are the lion’s share of the reason for that, Darling. With shadow-jumping we can cover ground quickly, of course. But we have…let us say a bare handful of warlocks on the ground in Ninkabi, and it would be a very hard sell to get Embras to place them directly at the disposal of you or your pet dragon. We all remember well the last time we tried to protect a city from demon attack while you were involved.”

“I suppose I’ll have to accept that,” Sweet said slowly. He studied Basra for a moment, then Schwartz, and finally met Grip’s eyes. She nodded minutely. “All right. As I see it, this is a matter of weighing risks against each other. We can take out Basra since she’s offered herself up on a plate, and embrace the risk that we just won’t have enough people to stop the enemy from opening multiple hellgates, much less find and shut them down in person. We can agree to work with her, for now, and take the risk of whatever bullshit she’s planning to pull harming us or the effort, because it’s not even in question that she’s scheming something.” Syrinx made a sardonic face at him, but didn’t interrupt. “There is also an inherent risk in cooperating with the Wreath, of course. Even when they act in good faith, they never do so without ulterior motives, as they proved in Veilgrad, and as our new friend Bradshaw pointed out they have good and specific reason to feel unfriendly toward yours truly, and by extension now, the rest of you.”

Leaning forward with his elbows on the table, he interlaced his fingers and turned his gaze on Jenell. “In my judgment, these risks are similar in both likelihood and severity—too close to call, even if we knew all the nuances, and the fact that we clearly don’t is another factor. So in cases like this, where the simple practicalities don’t tell us what to do, we must look to our ethics. And with regard to that, while quite a few of us here have reasons to be annoyed at Basra Syrinx, you have by far the biggest claim. So it’s your call, Covrin.”

Jenell blinked twice, then slowly raised her eyebrows. “I…what?”

“If you don’t want the pressure you can pass it right back to me and no one will blame you,” he assured her. “This is not an obligation. But it is your prerogative. You know the situation, the balance of risks. It comes down to whether this is a monster we can work with, and you’re the one with the biggest right to make that call, if you want it.”

She stared at him for a silent moment, then nodded once, turning her gaze back to Syrinx.

Basra had gone completely rigid in her chair, despite her insouciant pose straddling its back, watching Jenell with a complete lack of expression.

“So,” Jenell said quietly after a long pause, “that makes it twice now I’ve held your life in my hand, Basra. I’m officially ahead, now. Isn’t that a hell of a thing?”

Basra’s left eyelid twitched and she drew in a breath to speak.

“Open your mouth and lose an eye,” Schwartz stated flatly. “You don’t need depth perception to make yourself useful.” Meesie growled in agreement.

Shook pointed at him, and then turned the gesture into a thumbs up. Grip shook with almost-silent laughter.

“Well, apprentice,” she chuckled, “I officially approve of your boyfriend, here.”

“Sweet, do you see any practical concern that tips the scales one way or another?” Jenell asked, turning back to him.

He leaned back against the rear of the booth, pursing his lips for a moment in thought. “I suppose…it’s two gambles against one. With Basra, we risk…Basra. Without her, we’re betting that I can drum up some manpower from the police and military by hook or by crook—definitely without the Holy Legion, because I have no pull at all there—and also that the Wreath will come through. I feel like that’s making it sound simpler than it is, is the thing. This city is crawling with extraneous factors. The Jackal is still jacking around and all of this is contingent on Khadizroth behaving himself, which is a hell of a coin to flip.”

The look Jenell gave Syrinx was purely contemptuous, and caused Basra’s eye to twitch again. “Then I say put her to work. The days when she was important enough to risk the safety of a city over are long past. None of this changes the reality of the sword hanging over Basra’s head. She may as well get to survive a little while longer, if it means she’ll be of some use for once.”

Syrinx shifted her head to face Jenell directly, opening her mouth.

Schwartz raised one hand from under the table and blew across it. A thin streamer of dust wafted forward, caught fire, and coalesced into a single needle of flame which then hovered in the air, pointed directly at Syrinx.

She shut her mouth.

“Well, there you have it!” Sweet said magnanimously. “Once again, Bas, you are the lesser evil, a position I know you find comfortable. How soon can you marshal these boots on the ground?”

She rose smoothly, swinging one leg over the chair and retreated a strategic two steps from the table. “I have Holy Legionaries I can send out immediately. Getting movement from city and Imperial forces is going to take some politicking, as you well know. By the time you and your dragon have useful targets, I’ll have forces ready to move.”

“Splendid,” he said, smiling. “And where shall I look for you?”

“Oh, no, you don’t,” Syrinx retorted, her flat expression a contrast to his languid smile. “I can locate you cretins when I need you. I will decide when it is time to link up again. Just do your job with a minimum of your usual screwing around, and maybe we can prevent this city from being burned to the ground.”

She turned and strode out of the room without another word.

“Son of a bitch,” Thumper whispered.

“Yeah, no kidding,” said Schwartz.

“No, not…her in general,” the enforcer said impatiently. “I think… Sweet, this whole thing where our crew was gonna join up with Justinian to keep tabs on him was the Jackal’s idea, though Big K basically took over leading it by the time it all fell apart. It was the Jackal who suggested I get out from under Syrinx’s thumb right before disappearing himself. He’s been carving up the local police, making damn sure there’s a shortage of manpower to protect the city, right when she’s got Holy Legionaries just where we’ll need ’em. And didn’t you start to say you had a brush with him on the way in, just before that bitch somehow found us here? You seein’ what I’m seein’?”

“Why, Thumper, I think you’re onto something,” Sweet said slowly. “And I was just wondering what the hell the Jackal could possibly be playing at. It seems he and Basra are Ninkabi’s newest power couple.”

Schwartz let out a low whistle.

“Soon as this is over,” Grip said in a resigned tone, “we’re gonna have to go on a serious murdering spree.”


“Thanks,” Merry said, accepting the steaming cup from Juniper. The dryad smiled and handed the other mug to Trissiny, who nodded in gratitude as she accepted it.

“How’s she doing?” Juniper asked, carefully seating herself on the floor beside Merry. They had brought Principia into the building where they’d camped the night before and laid her on a bedroll, covered with a blanket and with a portable fairy lamp resting nearby. In the hours since she had collapsed, Mary had checked on her several times, as had McGraw and Shaeine, but for the most part the others had preferred to respect their privacy. Given the various people assembled here, there was no shortage of conversations to be had elsewhere. Only Merry and Trissiny had remained by Principia’s side steadily.

“Asleep,” Merry said tersely, then offered a thin smile. “According to the Crow, that’s the best thing for her now.”

Juniper nodded again. Sniff padded around behind her and gently inserted himself between his mistress and Merry, making a cooing noise deep in his throat. Juniper smiled and leaned her head against him.

“I feel like I get what it must be like for you, Triss,” she said quietly. “At least a little. Not the same situation, but…I’m seeing parallels.”

“What do you mean?” Trissiny asked.

“Family,” the dryad whispered. “The idea being new…and so much more complicated than I would’ve expected.”

“Well, that definitely sounds like my experience of the last couple of years,” Trissiny replied with a wry chuckle.

“I never thought I was an orphan like you,” Juniper said softly, staring over Princpia’s prone form into the fairy lamp. “I had my mother, and my sisters… It was painful, coming to understand that Naiya only ever thought of any of us as basically pets. That my sisters—just like me—were all immature, selfish monsters who’d never had a reason or a chance to actually grow up. Now, there’s pixies and kitsune and valkyries, and they’re all so strange and…in the case of valkyries, terrifying. But…good? It’s an amazing thing, to be loved by someone who actually understands what that means, just because they feel a kinship with you. Even if they’re a bossy know-it-all like Kaisa, or something like Yngrid who makes my blood run cold just looking at her. And that just reminds me what a cruel thing it was for Naiya to design us to have that reaction. It’s all so… It’s a mess. It’s sweet, and bitter, and generally confusing.”

“Yep,” Trissiny said, nodding and staring into her tea. “That hits the nail on the head. I have different weirdos, is all, but that’s exactly the feeling.”

“You guys are actually making me miss my parents,” Merry commented. “The worst thing they ever were was boring.”

“They sound very nice,” Trissiny said solemnly. Juniper laughed, then Merry did, and finally Trissiny herself had to chuckle. Her expression sobered again, though, as her gaze fell once more on Principia’s face. “I hope you don’t have to sympathize with this, too, Juno. It’s kind of a heck of a thing, finding yourself worrying over someone before you’ve been able to figure out how you even feel about them.”

Juniper heaved a sigh. “Sort of too late, there, too. Over the summer, we… I mean, me, Aspen, Fross, and Kaisa, we went back to the pixie grove.”

Trissiny looked up at her. “Oh. To see… I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten what her name was.”

“Jacaranda. It’s okay. We, uh…” She winced, then shook her head, causing Sniff to chirp softly in comfort. “Well, it was Kaisa’s idea. It seemed kind of harsh, but honesty harsh measures might be the only thing that could help. Even Kaisa wasn’t sure if it would.”

“The Pixie Queen is fully transformed by trauma, right?” Trissiny asked. “What did Professor Ekoi do?”

“We took her to a place where she could be… Kaisa wasn’t exactly clear. Tested, or treated, or possibly imprisoned? You know, she made it all sound very necessary at the time but in hindsight the more I think about it the less sure I am.”

Trissiny straightened up suddenly, setting her tea aside. “Hang on. This summer we also—that is, me, Gabe, Toby, and my brother Herschel—had to visit the Tower of Salyrene.”

Juniper’s eyes snapped back to her. “You did?”

“The talking sword there said something about a kitsune dropping off a transformed dryad.”

“He did?” Juniper herself perked up in excitement. “Did you see her?”

“Sorry, June, when we were there the place was empty. It was just us and Athenos.”

“Oh.” Juniper deflated just as abruptly, and Sniff rubbed his head against her shoulder. “I…hope that’s good. You didn’t see Petal or Bugsy, either?”

Trissiny blinked twice. “…who?”

“The pixie and the imp. They were in the tower when we got there.”

“An imp? Uh…no, like I said, the place was dead empty. Gabe and I encountered some caplings in one of the testing rooms, and Toby and Schwartz said they had to fight a demon. That was it. Nobody who seemed intelligent enough to talk with us except the sword and then Salyrene.”

Juniper chewed on her lower lip. “I hope that means it helped her and she got out. Though that raises the question of where she is.”

“You guys have really interesting lives,” Merry commented.

Trissiny and Juniper both stared at her, then burst out laughing in unison. After a moment, she had to smile along with them.

“Well,” Trissiny said at last, catching her breath, “I really hope Jacaranda’s okay, Juniper. If she went through the Tower and got out, I’m pretty sure she must be at least better. The way it was described to us, the whole point of that place was tests of intellect, character, magical skill…”

“I sure hope so,” Juniper said with a sigh. “It’d be nice to know what happened to her, is all. I’m not sure how feasible it is to get a message to Kaisa all the way over in Sifan but I’ll ask Professor Tellwyrn about it as soon as we’re back home.”

“That sounds like a good idea.”

“And I hope Principia’s all right when she wakes up,” the dryad added.

“Kuriwa seemed pretty sure she would be,” Trissiny said. “Sounded like she just needed some rest.”

“This is jarring,” Merry whispered. “That’s the word. It’s just jarring. This is the least like her I’ve ever seen Locke.”

Both of the others turned their heads to watch her in silence. She stared down at the sleeping elf, her brows drawn together pensively.

“I’ve hated and loved and everything in between this crazy knife ear,” Merry continued at last. “And she’s just always in control. No matter what goddamn thing is trying to kill us on a given week, there she is, all smug and knowing and with a plan. You could look at her and just…just be able to calm down, because Locke was there, and she was working on it, and that was always enough because she always came up with something. The only thing I’ve never seen her pull off before is lose. Whatever happened, she had three schemes in place to meet it, and if something outmaneuvered her even so, she’d pull something else out of her butt and we’d still win, because she’s Principia fucking Locke and that’s what she does.”

Trissiny nodded slowly, also turning her eyes back to the elf.

“Until today,” Merry added in a bare whisper. “Man…she really got twisted around and then smacked down this time, didn’t she? That was… I mean, watching that… I still haven’t sorted out how to feel. Is it weird to be a little bit relieved?”

“No, I think I can understand that one,” Trissiny said with the ghost of a smile. “I’ve seen her vulnerable, too. I think it’s the only reason I’ve been able to give her a chance.”

“It’s still a pretty good record,” Juniper offered. “Getting outmaneuvered by an actual trickster god isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Locke being someone who can scheme her way around anybody except Vesk… That’s plenty impressive.”

“And hey, look at it this way,” Trissiny added with a heartier smile, “maybe it was all part of her cunning plan. Letting herself get outfoxed just so she could look all pitiful in front of us and gain sympathy.”

Merry chuckled, a sound both derisive and rueful.

“Yeah, sure, let’s go with that.”

All of them abruptly leaned forward, setting down drinks, as Principia’s eyes opened. Her voice was hoarse and barely above a whisper, but she still managed a weak grin as she continued.

“I like the sound of it. All according to plan. Omnu’s breath, my head hurts… So, what have I missed?”

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15 – 52

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Once his back was to the temple, Sweet stopped putting so much focus on controlling his expression, allowing a pensive frown to settle on his features. He bounded down the stairs three at a time, perhaps not terribly respectful conduct for visiting a religious sanctuary, but Izarites were hard to offend and his thoughts were already elsewhere.

“Any luck?” Fauna asked as he reached the street level.

“You know, I’m increasingly unsure,” he mused. “Still nobody who’d acknowledge having seen Bran, but this is the third place in a row where I’m starting to get…a mood.”

“Uh oh,” Flora said, widening her eyes. “He’s getting a mood. Where’s Price with a brandy when we need her?”

Sweet playfully swatted the back of her head. “Not my mood, wiseass, from the priests. It’s a pretty subtle thing, just a tension and wariness when I ask after Branwen. I wasn’t convinced I wasn’t imagining it until this place; that dude up there was definitely annoyed by me asking.”

“Huh. Now that’s weird,” Fauna said, also frowning as the three of them set off down the sidewalk, both elves flanking their trainer.

“I didn’t know it was possible to annoy Izarites,” Flora agreed. “We’ve…um, absolutely never tried.”

“Yeah, your not trying has been brought to my attention,” he said dryly. “But the thing is, you’re right, they’re a pretty unflappable lot. And hypothetically, if they were hiding Branwen for some reason, they would definitely not reveal it by betraying emotion when asked. So what’s this about, then?”

“Mmm,” Fauna hummed thoughtfully.

“Wasn’t a rhetorical question,” Sweet clarified. “Let’s hear some theories. Consider it a training exercise.”

The two leaned subtly forward to exchange a glance across him, in one of those brief, silent conversations they were always having. Sweet just waited, keeping to an average walking pace.

“They might react that way,” Flora said slowly, “if someone else had recently been here sniffing around after Snowe.”

“Especially,” Fauna added, “if it was somebody who might make them nervous.”

“Someone like Thumper,” Flora continued, nodding to herself. “Izarites are hard to rattle, but for empaths, being around that guy has to be like getting slapped in the face with a live fish.”

“Nice imagery,” Sweet said with a grin. “Of course, all this is pure speculation, but that was the same thought I had. Glad to hear I’m not the only one following that logic. So, now the question becomes whether this should alter our approach, and if so, how?”

“Well, before you decide on anything, we gathered some new intel for you while you were in there,” said Fauna.

“You two were supposed to be staying within sight,” he reminded them.

“Yes, but there are these wondrous new things called newspapers,” Flora replied sweetly while Fauna handed him one. “I know this must be mind-blowing for someone of your generation, but people actually go out and collect the news! And then they write it down!”

“Y’know what, I’m not even mad. You go ahead and milk this shtick for every drop you can.” Sweet held up the paper and rapidly skimmed the front page article as they walked. “You two’re going to spend a lot longer than I will having people point out how very old you are. Well, this is a hell of a mess. You thinking what I’m thinking?”

They both nodded, their expressions rapidly sobering.

“A bunch of murdered police doesn’t have to be any specific person, by itself…”

“But when we already know the Jackal’s in town, that’s pretty damn suggestive.”

“Plus, the gross things done to some of the bodies.”

“That is exactly that twisted fuck’s sense of humor.”

“Something like this is obviously going to enrage the local cops and trigger a city-wide crackdown,” Sweet murmured, lowering the paper and staring ahead in thought. “That’s too obvious for someone like him not to see it coming. So is it something he’s willing to risk for another purpose, or is it the purpose by itself? Hm. In theory, he answers to Justinian, who I absolutely know is ruthless enough to do such a thing as this, but he’s ruthless with an agenda. I cannot fathom what the hell this accomplishes except making everything he might want to do in Ninkabi a lot more difficult.”

“Makes shady shit difficult for anybody,” Fauna offered.

Flora nodded. “Maybe that was the point? If what Thumper talked about in that scroll was true, it could be beneficial to have an increased police presence.”

“Yeah, but you don’t increase the police presence by reducing the number of police,” said Sweet. “Almost thirty officers so far, if this reporter is right. In a city the size of Ninkabi the local force can maybe absorb that, but…probably not any more. Plus there’s not much in the way of reinforcements available, even if the mayor wants to request them. With the Empire moving to war footing in response to this wolf nonsense, Ninkabi’s getting a detachment like every other city, but after that there are no other soldiers to send. They’ll all be deployed.”

“Thumper was vague,” Fauna mused, “probably cos he doesn’t understand the subject well, but this sounds like more magic bullshit. Could it be related to the wolf dream thing?”

“Worth considering,” Sweet agreed, “but we’re still just speculating. We need some hard info to go with these wild theories. Hmm… Well! You know how I hate to cogitate on an empty stomach. I’m gonna keep heading toward the next temple on the list; think I’ll cut through the alleys across this block…”

“You wanna cut through alleys while there’s a serial killer on a rampage,” Flora said flatly.

“It’s broad daylight and I’m not a cop, and also don’t interrupt. See if you can find a vendor slinging local cuisine, something we don’t see often at home. Tiraas doesn’t import much Jendi food. Catch up when you’ve found us something to nosh while we walk.”

“Really?” Flora protested. “Really? You’re sending us on a snack run?”

“That is correct,” he said piously. “As is no less than your duty to your spiritual guide and guardian.”

“We should dose him with laxatives,” Fauna suggested.

“Nah, he needs to work today. Tempest peppers will suffice.”

“I’m still hungry,” Sweet said in an annoying singsong cadence.

Both elves groaned and rolled their eyes melodramatically, but turned and slouched back up the sidewalk the way they had come, complaining the whole time. Sweet kept to his course, grinning and tucking the folded paper under his arm.

It was impossible not to feel a swell of pride in the girls. When he’d switched to code words they had played along seamlessly, without reacting or breaking character for an instant. Really, he reflected, they might be coming to a point where he just didn’t have much more to teach them. Sponsored apprentices always studied longer than those who rose through the Guild’s general pool, gaining the benefit both of a particular trainer’s in-depth tutelage and access to their existing connections to get the student started on a career. Of course, he’d always have the benefit of greater experience, but there came a point when the baby birds had to leave the nest. Keeping them under his wing longer than they needed to be could be detrimental to them in the long run. It had been nearly three years, which was about typical for a sponsored Guild apprenticeship. And the girls unquestionably knew their stuff. They were at a point where he was quite comfortable treating them as partners on a job, not just pupils.

But when it came to his two apprentices in particular, there were concerns beyond their command of Eserite philosophy and technique. Obviously, he couldn’t keep a pair of headhunters on short leashes forever. He had extra concerns about setting them loose, though. Sweet more than trusted his girls by now. He’d never fully stop worrying about them, though…

Sweet gently pushed that chain of thought aside to be pondered on at a less urgent moment, redirecting his attention to the city as he strolled through it.

He didn’t have his finger on the pulse of Ninkabi as he did in Tiraas, of course, but some things were universal. The tension in the city was evident in the way people walked and spoke to each other—faster and furtively, respectively. Between the police murders and the night spent listening to howling wolves and trying to rouse people taken by the dreams, this place was steadily rising beyond a simmer. It wasn’t boiling over just yet, but there was only so much tension a city could take.

That had to have been the point of the Jackal’s rampage, but…why? Eserite doctrine made it absolutely clear that you did not fuck with cops; the Jackal was no Eserite, but he was also no fool, and that particular creed was fully rooted in pragmatism. Even when the problem being addressed was a corrupt police force, the Guild dealt with that by cutting into the crooked politicians and other rich figures behind them. Directly attacking police was an open invitation to urban war. He had to know this. What did it gain him, or Justinian?

He picked the clearest-looking alley, a fairly wide one which appeared to cut through the entire block to the main street on the other side, and strolled in without slacking his pace. In fact, he lengthened his stride slightly, as if eager to get through it and out quickly. Of course, a darker, dimmer, and more private space would have suited his purpose better, but for the same reason he couldn’t give the impression that’s what he was up to.

Perhaps nothing would come of it, anyway. It was a long shot, banking on the idea that his poking around among the Izarites had already been noticed, but given that the most likely person to have been doing the same recently was Thumper, it wasn’t improbable that that route was being watched. Still, codewords aside, it had been simple truth he’d pointed out to Flora: it was broad daylight and he wasn’t the preferred target of whoever was preying on police in this city.

Still, he didn’t manage to be truly surprised when, far enough into the long alleyway that the streets in both directions were comfortably out of sight, a sphere of golden light sprang into existence around him, ringing like a bell as it repelled a brutal strike.

“Cheating,” the Jackal complained loudly, already skittering backward and switching his grip on his knife to a defensive posture.

“Smarter than you,” Sweet corrected, turning and giving the elf his most shit-eating grin. The divine shield faded from around him in a perfect invitation—particularly admirable, as it wasn’t under his control. They really were ready. “That was a good try, though! Seven out of ten—points for form, even if you flubbed the landing.”

“I just keep wondering,” the Jackal cooed, grinning right back, “going over and over it in my mind. Why the hell has nobody killed you yet? It really is a cosmic oversight.”

“Didn’t we just go over this?” Sweet replied, rolling up the newspaper to wag it at him reprovingly. “Smarter than you. And also than most people, though I guess that doesn’t necessarily follow. Hey, remember that time in Tiraas when I walked right into a trap you’d set and still ended up kicking your ass?”

“Oh, please,” the elf scoffed, “as if I’d be that easily baited—”

He shot forward mid-sentence with no warning, at a speed which suggested his natural elven gifts had been augmented further in preparation for this. Had he been contending with simple human reflexes it might have worked; Sweet couldn’t have sworn he’d have been able to get another shield up in time to avoid a knife to the throat. As it was, though, the Jackal was adroitly kicking off the golden sphere that had snapped back into place by the time he’d realized what was happening.

And then it was pretty much none of his business as two more forms in dark clothing tore into the assassin. Sweet stood placidly behind his bubble—since he couldn’t actually take it down, the thing having been put there by one of the girls—and watched the three elves scrap in the narrow alley.

It really was something to see, not least because his eyes could scarcely follow it. Three slim blonde figures ricocheted about the alley like billiard balls, bouncing wildly off the walls and each other with impossible agility, slashing with knives and the odd beam of light from Flora’s wand. The pair had subdued the Jackal on their last encounter, assassin though he was, and that was before they’d had two more years of Eserite training.

In seconds the assassin saw which was the wind was blowing and retreated straight up, kicking back and forth off the closely-spaced walls without trouble. In fact, Sweet could have done that; what made it impressive was that with Flora and Fauna still trying to bring him down, all three of them made an erratic path up, down, and sideways, before the moving scuffle finally managed to climb over the lip of one of the facing buildings, four stories up.

Sweet was impressed in spite of himself that the Jackal had managed it, with two trained elven street fighters nipping at his heels. Nothing wrong with that; it was generally a better idea to respect an enemy’s skills than to underestimate them.

Then they were gone, and he was left standing there, effectively imprisoned by the shield.

He’d just had time to make an annoyed face when it flickered out. Sweet sighed, shook his head, and turned to continue on his way. A large part of him wanted to reach for the comforting glow of divine light, just in case the Jackal gave his apprentices the slip and doubled back, but it wasn’t as if he’d be able to put up a shield fast enough should it come to that. Sometimes, you just had to trust your crew. And besides, Eserion didn’t encourage his priests to rely overmuch on magic. What was the point of having wits if you made excuses not to use them?

Nonetheless, and though he kept his physical aspect relaxed and focused, he remained actively worried for the next twenty minutes as he made his way back into a public street and toward the next temple on the list. Not just for himself, either. Flora and Fauna were good, and they’d bested the Jackal before… But he was the Jackal.

Sweet was actually a little proud of himself for managing not to react with open relief when the pair of them emerged silently from a narrow alleyway he passed to fall back into step flanking him.

“Let’s see,” he said, putting on a thoughtful expression and pointing to each of them in turn. “One, two…”

“Yeah, yeah,” Fauna groused. “We lost him, obviously.”

“We could’ve got him, or at least finished him off,” Flora added, scowling, “but not without making a big damn mess.”

Sweet nodded. It went without saying that in truth, the Jackal was not a match for the pair of them, or even probably just one, not if they went all out. Whatever enchanting and alchemy he’d used to augment his stealth, speed, and whatever else, a headhunter would tear him apart like a dog catching a squirrel. If, of course, they used the power available to them.

Unfortunately, Flora and Fauna were hamstrung by the need to conceal what they were. They were fully capable of chasing down incubi, but as they’d discovered after a close call last year, they could be evaded by the simple expediency of their target getting lost in a crowd, which was a trick someone might use to escape pursuit even if they didn’t know their pursuers couldn’t afford to show powers in view of the public. That incident had nearly been a disaster; they’d caught the demon’s trail again by sheer luck, and thereafter only summoned Vanislaads for their hunts far out into the wilderness, where the risk of exposure was minimal.

“You made the right call, then,” he said. “All right, I’m calling this. Change of plans; let’s meet up with the others. Even if we haven’t managed to locate Branwen, we’ve got info they’ll need.”


Notoli’s was one of those establishments which catered to a concept more than a crowd: discretion. Its maze-like main floor was laid out in a series of deeply secluded booths and private rooms, tables serviced by waiters who wore tiny bells on their uniform caps so there was no chance of them accidentally sneaking up on any patron’s conversation. It was the preferred meeting place in Ninkabi of not only visiting Eserites, but numerous other parties who did not want their business known.

Quite coincidentally, the food was very good.

Having cut off their own pursuit a bit early, Sweet and the elves were the first to arrive, and secured a quiet corner booth in one of the larger public rooms; he didn’t think absolute discretion would be necessary given their business, and given the presence of such as Grip and, if the other party proved more successful, Thumper, it might be better to have other diners within view to discourage any unfortunate outbursts. Not that he was really expecting it to come to that. His own quarry should’ve been easier to find, and Grip, for all her strengths, was not a tracker.

In his heart of hearts, though he of course kept it to himself, Sweet was therefore a little bit peeved when, after a shorter wait than he’d expected, a waiter escorted no less than five people to his booth.

“Well, well,” he said as soon as the diffident serving man had departed. “This is quite a haul, Grip.”

“It all went much better than expected!” Schwartz said brightly, sliding into the booth without hesitation. “I won’t lie, I was dubious about our prospects, lacking any direct link to Mr. Shook to use for tracking purposes, but the spirit guides came through! Meesie was quite helpful, of course.” His fire-rat familiar sat upright on his shoulder, squeaking proudly. “I hypothesize that the general disruption in ambient fae magic due to recent events may have worked in our favor instead—”

“Yeah, yeah, best witch,” Grip interrupted, not without a small smile. “I’ll buy you a cookie. Now hush up.”

“Thumper,” Sweet added blandly, “you’re looking well, all things considered.”

Shook grunted and slid himself onto a seat, on the opposite side from Schwartz. Jenell had seated herself next to the witch; now Grip sat down on Thumper’s other side, boxing him in. Sweet was impressed in spite of himself. Both enforcers had to understand fully the logistics of their posture, but the usually prideful and cantankerous Shook had let himself be pinned in without protest or even hesitation. Flora, next to whom he was now sitting, eyed him sidelong but kept her peace.

“I’ll tell you what I told Grip,” Shook said flatly. “I know I’ve got some stuff to account for, but I’ll explain myself to the Boss. Not you two goons.”

“I’ve already pointed out that’s not how it fucking works and he knows it,” Grip added in a bored tone.

“Fine, then there’s no need to keep picking at that scab,” Sweet said soothingly, noting the way Thumper was tensing up. “I believe this time we can defer old business, while we deal with fascinating new business.”

He looked pointedly at the last person to join them, still standing there at the head of the table wearing an ash-gray robe and a sour expression.

Thumper cleared his throat. “Sweet, this here’s my very good buddy Bradshaw, on loan from the…” He glanced casually around the room. There were other diners, in other booths, but the place was designed with heavy fabric curtains and numerous potted plants to muffle acoustics. Still, he lowered his voice significantly before continuing. “…Black Wreath. Bradshaw, this is Bishop Darling and his apprentices.”

“Delighted,” Bradshaw stated in a flat drawl that couldn’t be mistaken for anything but hostility.

“Annnnd…” Sweet deliberately tore his gaze from the warlock to meet Shook’s eyes. “You trust this character?”

Grip snorted loudly.

“Trust ain’t the word,” Thumper said, shooting Bradshaw a neutral look. “I am… I’m gonna say about eighty-five percent confident he doesn’t plan to hex my ass, at least until our current mutual business is taken care of. And assuming that goes well, I’m inclined to give him an’ the rest of his buddies a fair head start before I tell any authorities where I last saw ’em. That’s about as warm and fuzzy as it gets around here.”

“Oh be still, my trembling heart,” the warlock said, deadpan.

“Well, all righty then,” Sweet said congenially. “While your credibility is running pretty thin these days, Thumper, I’m willing to extend a little faith. Gods know I’ve made worse deals with worse people, probably for lesser stakes. Please have a seat, Mr. Bradshaw, and let’s talk about what we all might have in common.”

Bradshaw’s mouth thinned into a disgruntled line and he deliberately peered at each of them in turn.

“Oh, sit down,” Grip exclaimed. “Omnu’s balls, it’s not like you can’t just shadow-jump away the second anything happens you don’t like the smell of. And nobody else here is stuffed to the gills with cancer magic. Don’t act like you’re the one making allowances.”

“My goodness, are you always this charming?” Bradshaw snipped. “And all the way over here I thought you were putting on an act for my sake.”

“Oh, she’s rarely this charming,” Shook said wryly.

“Children, please,” Sweet said in exasperation. “Not at the dinner table!”

Bradshaw shook his head, but finally deigned to perch at the very end of the booth seat next to Jenell, who gave him an extremely neutral look.

“Great, all friends!” Sweet said magnanimously. “I’ll open with a question: Thumper, when’s the last time you saw the Jackal, and are you still working with him?”

Shook grimaced bitterly. “Couple days ago, an’ fuck no. Our whole group’s been pared down to the bone. Somebody stole Kheshiri’s reliquary and she’s gone, and now that demented fuck has finally snapped. At least, that’s my theory, since I can’t conceive of a single goddamn productive goal he could have for the shit he’s been doing. Last I heard he’s taken to offing cops. I don’t have to tell you where that kind of horseshit leads. I think two years of acting like an actual fucking person half the time was too much pressure for all the crazy in his head.”

“Well, how about that,” Sweet mused. “Funny story, we just had a brush—”

On either side of him, Flora and Fauna abruptly tensed and started to rise from their seats. Their sudden movement made Bradshaw half-stand himself, turning to stare suspiciously and raising one hand as if prepared to cast.

“Good, you’re all here.”

A chair was slammed against their table, its back impacting the edge hard enough to make the silverware bounce. Basra Syrinx seated herself straddling it, fixing her eyes on Sweet’s and seeming to ignore everyone else present, though most of them had just drawn weapons on her.

“Shut up and listen,” she ordered. “We don’t have much time.”

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15 – 49

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“Nothing here, either?”

“My particular magic isn’t well-suited for locating people,” Bradshaw reminded him. “I could check more definitively, but not without attracting a lot of attention. But even at a cursory glance… I rather suspect they’ve been and gone here, as well. To judge by the decomposition of this…altar…it seems to have been abandoned for several days, at least.”

Shook wrinkled his nose and took another step back from the now-familiar sight (and smell) of the necromantic construction languishing behind the wall of old boxes at the rear of a dead-end alley. More specifically, he stepped to put some distance between himself and the altar’s cloud of flies.

“The fuckers called themselves the Tide,” he muttered, covering his mouth with the hand not holding his wand. “Gonna wash across the world and cleanse all impurity, you know, standard-grade doomsday cult horseshit. For a primal force of destruction, they sure are shy.”

“Must be low ebb,” Bradshaw quipped. “Well, I rather suspect what we’re dealing with are the paltry leftovers after they expended most of their warm bodies in Tiraas. Tactics like these are a much better idea when one is low on resources and personnel.”

“I guess you’d know.”

“Exactly. I am more concerned that a brainwashed cult is capable of this level of planning. It suggests those in charge are still in charge. Justinian was party to that plan to unleash demons in Tiraas and blame the Wreath for it, along with the Imperial government itself, but that was a far more discreet and controlled action; just a few bands of holy summoners calling up demons one at a time. Opening multiple hellgates in a city is above and beyond even by the standards of that.”

“Uh huh,” Shook grunted. He had also been present at that event in Tiraas; in fact, that was the first time he and Bradshaw had crossed paths, and a source of lingering antipathy between them. Shook was the first to admit he’d not exactly had a good vantage from which to see the intricacies of what had happened that night, but he remained skeptical of the Wreath’s claim that it had been the Church and the Empire actually bringing the demons, especially since his own encounter with them had come when the Wreath had tried to break into Dawnchapel to vandalize the temple. “Well, then, I guess we’re back to the same question. Wreck it or leave it?”

“May I see the map?”

Shook handed it over and Bradshaw frowned at the scrawled markings in the dim light that made it down from the overhead gap between the three-story walls that loomed on all sides.

“Mmm,” the warlock murmured. “All right, look here. This is the site we’re at, reached by a straight walk from a main avenue behind us, see? Next one on the list if we proceed in the same pattern is hidden away in a cul-de-sac well behind several warehouses that looks quite impossible to find by accident. I think we’ll clean this site up and leave that one intact after we’ve checked it. And so on, going forward. If we create the impression we’re operating on foot, by a standard search grid, the planners of this will prepare to counter the wrong tactic and be unprepared for us. I don’t want them to know we have your dragon to sniff out all of their locations.”

“Promise you’ll let me be in the room if you ever call Khadizroth ‘my dragon’ right to his face,” Shook said, grinning. “I really don’t wanna miss that.”

Bradshaw gave him an annoyed look over the top of the map. “Shall I take that to mean you concur with my plan?”

“Hey, I’m just the muscle, here. But it sounds like a solid one, yeah. That bein’ the case, you want me to smash this thing up?”

“I can destroy it far more thoroughly with my magic, you know.”

“Yeah, we both know what hellcraft’s good for. But that’ll reveal they got warlocks after ’em, an’ warlocks with a plan pretty much always means you guys in particular. If the thing just gets fucked up with blunt trauma, could be anybody. More discreet that way, right?”

“Hum. I suppose it needn’t be a complete cleansing, under the circumstances. Enough blunt trauma, as you put it, will render this site inoperable.”

“Blunt trauma is what I do best,” Shook said, holstering his wand and cracking his knuckles. “Take over watchin’ our backs, this won’t take a sec.”

In fact, he didn’t relish the thought of laying his hands on that arrangement of rancid meat, bones, twigs, and tainted enchanting dust. Aside from being disgusting, the thing just looked wrong; he suspected that even the urchins who haunted these back alleys wouldn’t have tried to scavenge the power crystals out of the rotting altar. He was half-tempted to just rake it with wandshots, but Shook didn’t need Bradshaw’s protestations to know that discharging even conventional magic into unknown magic was a bad idea.

Casting about while the warlock stepped past him to watch the head of the alley, he fixed his gaze on the one thing there was to work with. Grinning, Shook picked up one of the crates that had been stacked to obscure the altar from the front of the alley and hurled it right into the center of its mass.

The first hit dislodged the carefully-arranged lattice of old sinew-bound bones and scattered a spray of enchanting dust. That probably would have been sufficient, but Shook grabbed a second crate and smashed it bodily down upon the largest remaining cluster of bones. He broke a third over the altar for good measure, only stepping back to dust off his hands when the ritual array was mangled beyond recognition and full of splinters and old nails to boot.

“There,” Shook said, turning back to Bradshaw with a grin. “I can confidently say any asshole coulda done that; nothing about it’ll scream ‘Black Wreath,’ no matter how smart their handlers are. Where to next?”

“Hold this, if you would,” the warlock replied, handing the map back to him. “I want to place and conceal wards on this site. That is about the limit of what infernomancy can do to detect anyone’s comings and goings, but if they do return here to restore this altar it may enable us to catch them.”

“Sure, take your time.” Shook folded the map and tucked it back into his coat pocket, then drew his wand again and positioned himself to keep an eye both on Bradshaw and the distant mouth of the alley.

In the next moment he began edging away as Bradshaw started making broad gesticulations with his hands and conjuring patterns of sullen orange light out of nowhere. The warlock carefully assembled a spell circle in midair while Shook watched, moved it to lie flush against one of the alley walls at head level, then made it disappear from view and took another few moments to stare at the spot where it had been with one hand upraised and fingers twitching minutely, no doubt adding to its layers of concealment.

Shook wasn’t in the least ashamed of his own discretion; staying the hell away from infernomancy being done was universal common sense, not cowardice. If he was a little phobic about it after having had hellcraft done at his own brain recently, well, that was deserved.

Rather than that, Shook found himself surprisingly bothered by the tense silence that stretched out while Bradshaw moved on to begin conjuring another ward against the opposite wall. He just wasn’t accustomed to awkwardness. For close to two years his whole social circle had been small and predictable: the Jackal was an intolerable pain in the ass, Vannae a diffident non-presence, Kheshiri simperingly submissive and Khadizroth beneficently able to get along with anyone. Aside from various unfortunates they’d been sent to smack around and the odd visit from a barely-tolerated authority figure such as Justinian or Syrinx, that had been it.

And before that, he’d worked with Guildmates. Thinking on it now, he actually couldn’t recall the last time he’d been stuck sharing a job with somebody he didn’t know how to talk to. What did you say to a warlock? Especially since Bradshaw, while he kept it professional on the job, had made it clear from the start that he wasn’t pleased by Shook’s very existence, much less his involvement in this project. Not that Shook was much of a social butterfly either, but even he could see that this was going to lead to trouble if they were going to be the mutual points of contact between the Wreath and what remained of the Inquisition.

Bradshaw finished his second ward and Shook perked up, hoping for an incipient end to this, but the warlock instead began casting a third. He sighed. Well, thoroughness was laudable.

“So,” Shook said aloud, looking the other way up the alley and affecting a nonchalant tone. “That Vanessa, huh? What’s her deal?”

“…deal?” The short pause didn’t bode well, but Shook pressed gamely on. In his experience there was one topic over which any two guys could always bond.

“Yeah, I mean, she’s not hard to look at, am I right?” He turned back to Bradshaw, who had his back to him. “You hittin’ that? Be a shame if somebody isn’t.”

“Ah, yes, that’s right. You have been keeping company exclusively with a succubus. I strongly advise you, Mr. Shook, to rid yourself of any habits Kheshiri taught you before attempting to talk to a real woman again. Any woman, but especially one who can hurl shadowbolts.”

Shook clenched his jaw. Then breathed in deeply, and immediately regretted it; days-old necromancy was surely one of the least pleasant things he’d ever smelled. But at least that helped serve to distract him from the surge of anger Bradshaw was trying to rile up.

“Hey, just sayin’,” he replied finally, deliberately keeping his tone mild. “No need to get all defensive, I’m not about to move in on your territory. It can’t make that much of a difference, anyhow. Trust me, I’m in a position to know: succubi may be particularly sly, but in the end those’re just female traits taken to their logical maximum.”

“Is that a fact,” Bradshaw murmured, starting on a fourth ward. How many of those damn things did he need?

“Come on, don’t tell me you haven’t noticed. Sly is your bread and butter, right? Somehow I don’t think it’s a coincidence there’s a goddess of cunning, and not a god.”

“Where’re you from, Mr. Shook?” Bradshaw asked, his tone also too light to be natural.

Shook narrowed his eyes at the warlock’s back. “What’s it to you?”

“No, wait, let me see if I can guess. The Stalwar provinces or Mathena, somewhere deep into the new frontier. Am I right?”

Breathe, deliberately…without gagging on the smell. “Oh, please, you don’t need to be a cunning warlock to piece that together. Old gnomish surname on a Stalweiss face means frontier stock. Even so, you’re only partly right. The frontiers in Mathena aren’t new. North of the elven forests, people have been pushed out toward the Golden Sea since before the Empire.”

“Ah, yes, of course. I’m revealing my bias; Bradshaw is also an old gnomish surname, after all. But in Calderaan territory, where I hail from, human settlement north of the Green Belt dates barely to the Enchanter Wars.” The warlock lowered his hands, finally, as the last ward faded from visibility, and turned around, wearing a knowing little smile which Shook didn’t like the look of. “And you, obviously, aren’t from Calderaas.”

“That obvious, huh,” he said as evenly as he could.

“You’re right, we tend to pick up sly people,” Bradshaw said lightly, folding his hands. “That’s a lot easier than recruiting idiots and teaching them to be cunning. And you know something, Mr. Shook, you’re not without a point. There is a definite gender imbalance in who tends to seek out the Wreath.”

“Well, yeah,” Shook replied, even as he braced himself for the other shoe to drop.

“Depending, of course, on where they’re from.” The warlock held his gaze, frank and un-intimidated, even verging on aggressive; this was not at all how Thumper was used to people looking at him. “And in country where Shaathist ideas are ascendant, that usually means women. The Stalrange, Mathena, Thakar, Vrandis. Funny enough, in Avenist territory it’s the opposite. We definitely get more men from Calderaas, Virdill, and Onkawa. People are pretty much people, Shook, and the way people develop depends a lot on the kinds of pressures placed on them growing up. Give people the prerogative to stomp around yelling and getting their way with little effort, and they’ll generally do exactly that. Push people aside and deny them a fair chance to participate in society, though, and they’ll not only develop a tendency to be underhanded but also harbor the kind of resentment that makes them ideal recruits for the likes of us. Or, for that matter, the Thieves’ Guild.” He tilted his head back slightly, as if to study Shook from a different vantage. “You say you find women in general to be as sly as succubi? You know what, I believe you. Even allowing for your extremely obvious biases, yes, I could see that. But that’s no reflection on women, Mr. Shook…or even the women you happen to know. It’s a reflection on the way those women were treated by whatever society produced them. Institutionalized power creates its own downfall, in the end. Brutish authority creates cunning, and resistance. Targeting groups of people for abuse creates deadly enemies. If the Pantheon and their followers were the icons of virtue they like to claim, the likes of us wouldn’t just be unnecessary; we would be impossible. And yet, here we are.”

“Huh,” Shook grunted when he finally stopped talking.

Bradshaw’s mouth twisted in a bitter half-smile. “Deeper thoughts than you’re used to, Mr. Shook? I have to wonder what you thought was going to happen here. Do you commonly find you can persuade people you barely know to embrace your prejudices?”

Breathe. Three heartbeats to inhale, three to exhale, ignore the stench. Emotions were just things; just because this guy wanted him angry didn’t mean he needed to be. In fact, it was a good reason not to be.

“Hell, I was just making conversation,” Shook said at last, and was pleased to find his own voice still light and even. “You wanna know my clever scheme? I was thinkin’, ‘this guy clearly hates my guts and we’ve gotta work together for who knows how long.’ Y’know, in normal places, Shaathist, Avenist, or what-the-hell-ever, guys can usually clear the air by chatting about chicks. Sorry, I didn’t realize you were gonna make a whole thing about it.”

Bradshaw stared at him with the expressionless facade of someone who’d just heard something he did not expect and was too self-contained to betray overt surprise.

“You can’t win a conversation, you know,” Shook said when he didn’t reply. “Everybody’s not trying to play brain chess with you. Is that how you people think all the time? Omnu’s balls, man, that sounds fuckin’ exhausting.”

“Right,” Bradshaw said dryly. “Well. I’m finished here, so unless you have something else to say…?”

“Yeah. Now you mention it, I do.” Keeping his expression flat, Shook took a step forward, bringing himself within punching range of the warlock and enjoying how the man tensed up in response. Bradshaw didn’t quite flinch when he raised his hand, but the way he froze was almost as good. Shook just patted him on the shoulder, though. “You’ve given me some shit to think about, Bradshaw. That was a perspective I did not have. So, thanks. All right, where to next?” he added, stepping back again and deliberately altering his posture to the indolent lounging stance common to Guild enforcers seeking to portray a general rather than specific threat.

“The next altar site, obviously,” Bradshaw said tonelessly. “Map, please?”

“You got it.” Shook fished it out of his pocket and handed it over with a bland smile.

This, he reflected while Bradshaw unfolded and perused the map, was fun. Weirdly, he’d never managed to get the hang of it when people had been actively trying to teach it to him, but now that the trick of it had clicked, it was amazingly satisfying to deny a confrontation to somebody who was openly fishing for one. And he hadn’t lied; Bradshaw’s philosophy on women and underhandedness was troubling and deserved some further thought. Not right at the moment, though. Shook did not have time to be pondering such things while busting necromancers in cooperation with somebody he half-suspected was planning to hex him in the back before this day’s work was done.

“All right, I know the place,” Bradshaw stated at last, folding the map again. “Off we go.”

The darkness swelled, then dissipated, and only the particulars of their surroundings changed. A filthy alley was a filthy alley, and there were only so many kinds of places where one could hide illicit dealings in a major city. He was already resigned to seeing a lot more of these today, with possibly the odd empty warehouse or condemned tenement to break up the monotony.

Both men stiffened upon arrival, however, as this alley was a lot less quiet.

It also wasn’t quite straight; they had to creep forward and peek around a corner to locate the little nook behind several buildings in which the Tide’s portal altar had been concealed. This time, someone had beaten them there. Someone who seemed to be on the same mission, to judge by the way she was busy smashing what remained of the altar with a piece of wood that looked like the headless haft of an ax or sledgehammer.

Actually, upon closer look, this individual probably wasn’t on any mission to speak of: she had matted hair trailing from her head in greasy tangles, filthy bare feet, and wore a stained and ragged dress that was more patches than fabric.

Shook and Bradshaw exchanged a resigned look. Wreath and Guild alike did a lot of their business in shady back alleys, and members of both were well-acquainted with a basic rule of urban living: do not interact with crazy street people. This time, though, it seemed unwise to let this pass without at least investigating.

Shook stepped out into the space in the leonine saunter he’d been taught in his apprentice days, keeping one hand casually tucked in his pocket. “Hey there, li’l lady. Whatcha doin’ that for?”

She spun to face him, wild-eyed, and raised the ax handle like a club. Not, he noted, like someone who’d been actually trained to wield a weapon; her stance was imbalanced and had her weight back on her heels. If she tried to swing that thing at him, he gave it even odds that she’d just fall down, and if not it would be child’s play to dodge and push her over. Luckily she was all the way across the grimy little courtyard and well out of range.

“Easy, there,” Shook said in an unimpressed tone. “No need to get all agitated. What’s your name, doll?”

The woman just stared suspiciously at him, her eyes darting to take in his suit, and then the gray-robed Bradshaw stepping into the alley behind him. Blocking her exit, as it happened. She was, Shook noticed, a fairly young woman. Might not have been bad-looking had she not been smeared with dirt and gaunt from more than a few missed meals.

“Name?” he repeated wryly, giving her a half-smile. “You got one? Most people do, I hear.”

She scowled at him, but straightened up after a moment and shifted her improvised weapon to one hand. With the other she patted the base of her throat, opening her mouth wide.

“Oh,” he said sourly. Mute, naturally. Well, street people usually had something wrong with them our they wouldn’t be on the street; just his luck the one he needed to answer questions, couldn’t. She wasn’t missing her tongue, he saw—also, not only did she have all her teeth, none of them were stained blue from glittershrooms. The girl couldn’t have been on the streets long, then. “Now, what would possess you to go whacking at that heap of evil that way? You take a stick to random piece of black magic and you’re likely to end up cursed to a greasy stain on the walls.”

She narrowed her eyes and brandished the stick again.

“No need to take that tone with the lady, Mr. Shook,” Bradshaw admonished dryly. “That’s what we came to do, after all. At least she’s spared us a little bit of work. He’s not wrong, though,” he added to the woman with the stick, who had lowered it again as he spoke. “Getting physically involved with necromancy is extremely dangerous; I don’t recommend making a habit of this. Was there some reason you felt the need?”

She grimaced almost comically, turning a look of pure disgust on the remains of the altar, and kicked away a stray bone that had fallen near her feet. Then spat on it.

“That’s surprisingly hard to argue with,” Bradshaw said, turning to Shook.

“Yeah, I gotta give her that,” he agreed. The girl, having made her point, had begun sidling toward the alley’s entrance, which the two of them were standing in. Shook gave her a thoughtful look. It was doubtful she’d seen anything, and anyhow, getting info out of her would be a giant pain in the ass. Just an unhinged homeless person who wandered into the wrong alley, most likely; that would make a workable disguise, any number of thieves had used that routine, but it wasn’t the method of this Tide or anyone else who had taken an interest in their business. He sighed, stepped out of the way so she could get by, and pulled a doubloon from his pocket, which he tossed at her. “Here. Go eat something, for fuck’s sake.”

The young woman fumbled to catch it, clearly not being the most coordinated, but once she got the coin in her grip her eyes went wide. Then, to Shook’s great discomfort, they filled with tears.

“Whoah—uh uh! No,” he said sharply, stepping back and reaching out to push her off when she ran at him, arms wide for a hug. “This is a tailored suit, you greaseball. You smell as bad as that voodoo you just smashed. Go on, get outta here. Get some lunch that’s not out of a trash pile.”

She pouted at his rebuke, but seemed to decide it was more than worth the doubloon. Pausing only to blow him a kiss, she skittered past them down the alley, actually skipping with no heed for her bare feet and the refuse-strewn floor.

“That was pointless, you know,” Bradshaw commented as she disappeared around the next corner. “There’s a reason you don’t give money to those people. She’ll most likely just buy cheap booze and shrooms.”

“Yeah,” Shook replied with a soft sigh, jamming both hands in his pockets. “Maybe I’m the asshole here, after all. Old teacher of mine used to say givin’ handouts to people like that is almost as bad as stealing from ’em; makes you feel better about yourself and doesn’t change their situation any. Oh, well, whaddayagonnado.”

“Sounds almost like Vernisite doctrine,” Bradshaw said, smiling wryly. “Charity being cruelty in disguise, and all that. Don’t let Embras hear you talking that way, he’s got a real bug up his butt about them.”

“About bankers? Can’t rightly blame a man for that. Well, anyway, I guess your plan’s bungled now; too late to leave this site intact and convince ’em we missed it. Now what?”

“According to your map, we still have thirty sites to visit; we can still lay out the pattern I described, and one anomalous spot shouldn’t make too much difference. It really was an anomaly, too; that was an unpredictable intervention if I ever saw one. Let me just lay wards again and then we’ll move on.”

He handed the map back to Shook, who accepted it silently.

A moment later, though, he turned from his perusal of the alley back to Bradshaw, frowning. The warlock was staring fixedly at a blank patch of wall, not moving to begin casting his wards.

“Something wrong?” Shook asked.

“There’s…a faint residue,” Bradshaw said slowly. “Maybe nothing important, but it’s definitely divine. Somebody used powerful divine magic here at some point not long ago. I wouldn’t think anything of it in most cases, just some nearby priest casting a blessing, but it’s odd to find in proximity to that pile of horror.”

“Hm.” Shook looked over at the wreckage of the necromantic portal altar, then back down the alley. “You don’t suppose she…”

“I really don’t. That was just some garden-variety human with no magic to speak of, or I wouldn’t have let her go. Had we the luxury of time I’d have wanted to hold and question her just for the sake of thoroughness, but we’re working on a solid strategy already, and there’s no telling how close the Tide is to activating these. We don’t even know what they’re waiting for. I don’t think we can spare a few hours to fish for what’s probably nothing. Let’s just…”

He broke off, whirling, as a tiny streak of fire zipped into the cul de sac from the alley along the ground. Shook whipped out his wand by reflex, but didn’t shoot even as the little glowing thing came to a stop, revealing itself to be a luminous read mouse-like creature almost the size of a small cat. It sat up on its haunches, emitting a series of shrill squeaks, and pointed one tiny paw accusingly at Shook. Then, just as quickly as it had come, turned and bolted back out.

“What the fuck,” Shook wondered aloud, staring after it in mystification.

“Trouble,” Bradshaw said tersely. “That was an extremely sophisticated elemental. Creatures like that don’t just wander around cities, they’re familiars of skilled witches. We need to—”

“Well, well, well. I thought I recognized that voice.”

Shook went rigid, bringing his wand up again just in time for three figures to round the corner. He ignored the two on the sides, even the reedy fellow with the red elemental rat now sitting on his shoulder; the teenage girl on the other side was even more uninteresting. His attention was fully occupied by the one in the middle. The one he knew very well, who was now regarding him with her trademark predatory smirk.

“So glad to see you, Thumper,” Grip said. “All kinds of people are interested in having a word with you.”

He allowed himself a small sigh. “Aw, shit.”

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The Shaathists were the last to arrive.

Ingvar had known in advance there would be three; the awareness was a constant tingle in the back of his mind, something to which he was not accustomed. There were six in his own party, and three Rangers had showed up. His learned sense of social and political rhythms combined with instinctive understanding of the balance inherent in nature, and a growing intuition he didn’t quite comprehend yet, to forewarn him of the shape of the thing forming before his eyes. Six of his own followers, six skeptical seekers, and the final party Rainwood had quietly told him was coming—also, he expected, six.

They were in the realm of the spirits, now. These things didn’t just happen. Ingvar was no shaman, could not speak directly to any invisible fae, but there was definitely something guiding him along.

Dimbi had brought two fellow Rangers, both older than she. So far, both Sha and Intima, as they had been introduced, had opted to remain silent and watch, leaving their more garrulous junior to do the speaking. Sha had kept the hood of the Ranger cloak up and clutched her longbow in front of herself as if for comfort, while Intima simply regarded everyone impassively, his broad features schooled into almost meditative stillness. Huge man that he was, a head taller than Ingvar and correspondingly broad, even that was vaguely menacing, but none of them had offered the slightest hostility. They were, after all, here. Had Dimbi or anyone she spoke to wished harm upon this endeavor, they could have just taken the story directly to their leader. Ingvar had to trust that they had come out of sincere curiosity, if only because suspiciously grilling them would just undercut what he was trying to accomplish.

Their location was not difficult to find for anyone remotely skilled in tracking; of the six of them, only Rainwood might have been hard to follow. Specifically wanting to be found, Ingvar had not troubled to walk with care once their daily hunting for necessary food was done, and they had left a veritable highway to this clearing. Now, in the center, there glowed a most unusual bonfire, created by the shaman’s craft from living branches piled with their still-green leaves emerging. The flame was white and put off no heat, but a steady glow not unlike the moon. Rather than the flickering glow of fire, it was as intense and even as a fairy lamp. The quiet blaze produced numerous little dancing lights, which one moment resembled nothing more than the sparks put off by any campfire except in clean white, and the next looked more like glowing butterflied fluttering under their own impetus, but fading from existence before they could be observed closely.

Shortly after full dusk, a lull had fallen, the Rangers exhibiting patience even as their expressions remained cynical; Ingvar had asked them to wait for the last arrivals before commencing the true purpose of this gathering. There was quiet, then, when the Shaathists emerged from the shadows of the trees.

Two of them Ingvar recognized as the youths who had accompanied three full Huntsmen previously, the Tiraan boy Samaan and another whose name he hadn’t heard. It was no surprise that it would be the young who were most curious and adventurous. Unexpectedly, though, they followed a man who was genuinely old, his hair fully white and his posture slightly stooped. He was a full Huntsman, though, carrying a blessed longbow and wearing both a bearskin cape and a bronze wolf’s head pin. Lean, wiry and still tall despite his aged hunch, he stepped fully into the clearing, sweeping a quick stare around all those assembled.

“Well, well,” the old man said aloud, his voice creaking slightly with age but still strong and clear. “It seems we’re expected!”

“Welcome,” Ingvar replied, nodding to him. “You are, indeed. All of us are some degree of surprised to find ourselves here; I simply have the benefit of a little more time to being ushered along by forces I cannot see.”

“And that would make you the famous Brother Ingvar,” the elder Huntsman said, eyeing him critically up and down.

“I suppose I’ll have to get used to being the famous Brother Ingvar,” he replied with a sigh.

“I imagined someone taller,” the old man grunted, then grinned. “But then, that’s exactly what I say every time I pass a mirror.”

“What are you of all people doing sniffing around this apostate, Dantu?” Sha demanded in a growl. “Going to switch sides yet again?”

“Brother Dantu has a bit of a history,” the second Shaathist apprentice, the local boy whose name Ingvar didn’t know, interjected with a wry smile, stepping closer to the eerie firelight and placing a hand on the old man’s shoulder. “He left the lodge in his youth to join the Shadow Hunters, and years later returned to the true path.”

“True path,” Dimbi repeated, her tone precariously heavy with sarcasm.

“That must be a long and remarkable story,” said Ingvar in a deliberately calm tone before more hostility could emerge.

“Right and wrong are usually not as simple as true and false,” Dantu said with a more sober expression. “Sometimes they aren’t even as simple as right and wrong, and that’s when you really have to watch your step. We tend to paint ourselves into intractable moral dilemmas by trying to make things simpler than they are. The Huntsmen say one thing, the Rangers another, and leave nuance to the fairies. Something tells me, Famous Brother Ingvar, you’ve come to make all our lives good and complicated again. I’ve come to see whether the upset you bright might be a solution, or just more problems. The boys, here, tell me you put on quite a show.”

“Oh, he does at that,” Taka agreed. “I’m still not sure how into all this mystic hunter business I am, but I’ve gotta say Ingvar’s never boring.”

“Glad to see you two again,” Ingvar said, making eye contact with each of the lads. “Samaan, and…?”

“How’d you know that?” Samaan demanded, one hand falling to the tomahawk hanging at his waist.

“Easy, there, Sam,” the other urged, smiling faintly. “Last time, you made Djinti call you down by name, remember? I’m Kanatu,” he added, nodding deeply to Ingvar, “the one who remembers details.”

“Oh, shut up,” Samaan grunted. “Very well, you expected us to come looking for you, we’re all impressed. Obviously you’ve gone to some trouble to set all this up. Let’s hear what you have to say, then.”

Ingvar looked over at Rainwood, who nodded to him.

“I have little enough to say,” Ingvar answered. “If it were that simple, all of this would be unnecessary. I’ve warned both of your groups, respectively, that I bring you painful, disruptive truths, and that I’m only a messenger; this business won’t leave you in peace if you drive me off. I wouldn’t have listened to the truth when it was first shown to me. That’s why it had to be shown.”

“Well, we’ve come all this way,” Kanatu said with a shrug, glancing warily over at the three quiet Rangers in their gray-green cloaks. “Say, show, whatever it is, whip it out.”

“Several of you are already well acquainted with this,” Ingvar said, now looking at the Rangers himself. Sha nodded and Dimbi quirked an ironic little smile, though Intima remained impassive as a tree. He made eye contact with Dantu, whose previously animated features had gone inscrutable. Ingvar had known several men like this one during his time with the Huntsmen, free thinkers who skirted the boundaries of tradition, never quite transgressing enough to be called down by the lodgemaster but subtly thumbing their noses at everyone. They were always the most willing to entertain unconventional ideas. Now, he had to wonder how many of those men had learned shocking truths and yet chosen the comfort of faith and community over harsh reality, as Dantu evidently had. “In fact, this is a pivotal moment for those following me, as well. Tholi in particular has been more than patient with my vague hints up till now.”

He paused, feeling the weight of everyone’s expectant stares, and turning his eyes to the mysterious white flame.

“For some of you, this will be a repetition of an old revelation. For others, merely…trivia. But for some, it will be a shock that may strip away everything you understand about the world. I have known tribulation in my time, as you can only imagine. Not every lodge is equally welcoming of a man in my position, and my career with the Huntsmen has been an often painful balance between the path to which I was called and a community that sometimes despised me. Yet I will warn you now that what you are about to see was the thing that hurt me the most. There is no pain quite like having your beliefs carved away. If any of you choose to walk away rather than face this, I will not name them coward.”

The Rangers didn’t react at all; Dantu’s thin shoulders shifted in a soft sigh. Kanatu just folded his arms.

“I’m not afraid of anything you have to show me,” Samaan snorted. “Let’s see you impress, Ingvar.”

Ingvar was positioned near the middle of the row of his own party, lined up along one side of the fire; he now glanced to both sides, taking in their expressions. Rainwood and Aspen both smiled encouragingly, while Tholi looked downright eager. Taka was going out of her way to appear as skeptical as the Rangers, and November just looked reserved. He suspected she was grappling with her own questions about why Avei had sent her into the middle of this business.

“Then I’ll ask you to please be respectful and hold your peace while the last members of this gathering arrive.”

“Who the hell else is coming to this?” Samaan muttered.

“Lad, when you’ll find out just the same whether or not you ask, it’s always better to keep quiet,” Dantu advised.

Ingvar was watching Rainwood sidelong. The elf had closed his eyes, breathing slowly and deeply. He could not feel shamanism at work, at least not explicitly or directly, but that sense was there. Of pressure, of potential, something vast in motion and not related to him but certain to determine the course of his next actions. It was, he reflected, very much like the sense of a thunderstorm rolling forward.

Then they arrived, and he swept all of that from his mind.

Where before only the single female had answered the call, now Rainwood’s entreaties via the spirits had successfully summoned the whole pack. The whole family.

There were six of them, rounding out the formation. Six of Ingvar’s party to start, the three Rangers and three Shaathists making six more, even more obviously now as they shifted away from the new arrivals with gasps and muffled exclamations, forgetting the tension between them to make way for the pack of wild wolves who stepped out of the darkness and up to the firelight.

“The Rangers have a rite for this purpose,” Ingvar said while the assembled group stared in mingled awe and fear at the predators joining them in the firelight. “I lack access to their secrets, and so this is not that. Rainwood has lent us his talents and the aid of his spirit guides to ask these guests for their guidance. In the faith of Shaath, there is no creature more sacred than the wolf. It is their ways which are held up as the ideal of living. The crux of the problem with the Huntsmen today is that they believe things about wolves which are purely untrue. Now, tonight, these honored guests, with the aid of the fae spirits all around us, will show us the truth of their lives. Please, sit.”

He folded himself smoothly to the ground, sitting cross-legged. One by one, the rest followed suit, several obviously reluctant to adopt a less defensible stance in the presence of so many of nature’s perfect hunters. It helped that the wolves appeared to hear his request and themselves sat down in a loose arc around their edge of the fire, all six gazing impassively at the humans with their ears up and alert. One by one, the rest of the party sank to the earth.

“This may be disorienting in its first moments,” Ingvar said quietly, accompanied by an intensifying glow from the white fire. “Rest assured that you are safe here. We meet under a pact of peace; these are friends and companions. What now unfolds is the craft of a master shaman. Still your unease, and trust the process as it comes to completion.”

The fire continued to glow while he spoke, its light beginning to waver almost like a natural fire’s, and mist poured out from its base to wash gently across the clearing in a luminous white carpet. The wolves showed no reaction to this, though several of the two-legged participants in the ritual shifted uncertainly, eyes darting.

Ingvar breathed in and out, deliberately following his own advice. He had checked again with Rainwood before beginning this; the shaman said that the spirits in the world were still agitated, but it was nothing to do with them and should have no impact.

The “should” was worrying. But they were here at the behest of those same spirits, as well as the gods themselves. At a certain point, a person simply had to have faith, and keep going.

In unison, the six seated wolves raised their noses skyward and cried aloud, their mournful howling echoing across the forest. It was a stunning music, and a truly astonishing thing to experience so close. Also, at that proximity, incredibly loud.

This time, none of those gathered made any noises in response, but Ingvar could tell just by glancing across them that they felt what he felt. The howl of a wolf was a call to family, a summons. It stirred, tugged at something inside himself placed there by the magic in which they had all partaken.

The mist rose around each of them, drifting upward in twelve little banks to wash smoothly over them, and then each began to take shape. Around every person, the shadow of a wolf cast in white moonlight formed, raising its head to cry mutely in answer to the call.

Of their own volition, he felt his eyes closing. By the time they had fully shut, the spirits and the wolves had supplanted his vision.


They were a large pack, and an uncertain one, still growing used to one another. They trusted him, though, and he honored that trust, devoting himself to leading them as best he could. He looked after is family, and they did after him. It was not a matter of asserting his will, but simply of the love between them, the same force that bound all living things. If it ever came to be that one of the younger ones would become stronger and a better leader, he would encourage that one to take the role. For now, they lived in an uncertain world, and he was the one with the knowledge and the confidence to guide them through it.

He missed his brothers, at times. The wise, canny older brother with the golden pelt, and the younger, darker one with his piercingly analytical mind. Not only because they were brothers and he wished to be alongside family, as was only natural, but because both were smart, and there were many strange smells in the air. He could have used their support. But what was, was. He was leader, now, and had his own family to look after.

They lived, were conscious, at a fixed point within a spectrum of memory, with the awareness of their lives in this forest stretching away both behind and ahead. It was a strange thing…and yet, not. This was just the world and what it was like to be alive within it, and yet he had the sense, sometimes, that there was something else. That things were supposed to be different. But he put that aside and dealt with the now. It was a good land, and a good life. They hunted in the darkness, and never went hungry. They played together in the shadowy times between day and night, curling up to share warmth and closeness during the sleepy sunlight hours. Games of chasing and scuffling were ways for him to teach the younger ones about the struggles of living.

And yet, there was that scent again. One of those troubling smells, wafting down from the mountains. He paused, raising his head. What was it? It was not food, or friend. Was his family in danger? The smell was new, impossible to place. It was…uneasy. Something about the world that was not what it should be.

No, Ingvar, that’s not the lesson.

He growled softly. Words were just noise, and the more troubling because he could not tell where they were coming from.

Don’t follow that scent. Listen to me, Ingvar. Trust the spirit of the wolf, not the other spirits.

Responding as always to his uncertainty, she stepped up beside him, leaning her bulk against his own in affection and support. His longtime partner, the one most special of all his beloved family, with her wild green eyes and the golden pattern like leaves dappling her pale coat. Her scent always reminded him as much of trees as of family. She raised her head to smell it as well. Beautiful and proud, and no less precious because she was rather unpredictable.

She bared her teeth in displeasure, echoing his soft growl.

Aspen, no! Don’t get involved in that, you’re too—

He snapped his jaws in anger. That was worse. Whatever that smell was, it was pushing at them. Pushing at her. At his family.

As one, they wheeled and gathered up the pack. Something menacing lurked in the wilds, and it was time for them to go. He raised his voice to howl, calling the rest together.

Please, Ingvar, remember peace. Don’t…

She howled alongside him, and her voice echoed through the forests, across the mountains, across the world beyond.

Aspen, NO!

The scent swirled violently, a storm gathering where there was no storm. Suddenly frantic, the whole family howled to one another, gathering together, turning to flee from the tumult. He led them away. He did not know where safety was, or what kind of threat encroached, but they trusted and followed him. They were his responsibility. He would let nothing harm his family.

The pack dashed away from the mountains, seeking safer ground. As they went they called out to one another, making sure no one was lost. The strange scent in the wind followed them, and called back.

And in the distance, on all sides, other wolves answered.


“Twenty-three,” Branwen said with a sigh, making a notation on her map. “I thought he said twenty hellgates?”

“If these people have even the most basic sense, they will have built themselves the most generous margin of error possible,” Khadizroth said absently, his attention focused on the diorama he had built on her dining room table. Assembled from dust he had called seemingly from the air itself, it formed a monochrome scale model of Ninkabi, with swirls of colored light dashing this way and that through its streets and canyons like errant gusts of wind. “Not all of these sites will produce viable hellgates, and they must be planning on at least some being discovered beforehand. It is a good strategy, but it means we must be unfailingly diligent.”

“Yes, the one we miss will be the worst,” she agreed wryly. “Isn’t that always the way… Any sign from your spirit guides of how many of these ritual sites are left to find?”

“As with much fae craft, it unfolds like relentless nature herself,” the dragon replied, giving her a sidelong smile. “It will be done when it is done. For now—”

“My lord!” Vannae said suddenly, shooting upright out of his seat.

“I sense it too,” Khadizroth replied, frowning now in alarm. “What on earth is…”

The entire model of the city shattered into a cloud, swirling chaotically until it formed a new shape.

Now, suddenly, it had made a moving statue of a wolf. The creature raised its head toward the ceiling, and emitted a howl as vivid and loud as if the living animal were right there in the room.

The door burst open and Shook staggered in, disheveled with sleep but brandishing a wand. “The fuck is that?! Everybody okay?”

Khadizroth was staring at the wolf in an unaccustomed expression of shock and disbelief.

“Ingvar,” he whispered. “What have you done?”


It seemed he’d barely had time to drift off to sleep, despite his intention to get an early night in preparation for tomorrow’s plans, but Darling shot bolt upright in bed to find both his apprentices at his sides, clutching his arms.

“Wha,” he burbled, “whazzat, I thought…”

The bedroom door burst open and Price appeared, her eyes sweeping the room.

“It’s okay!” Fauna said quickly. “He snapped out of it.”

“What happened?” the Butler demanded. “I have never heard such a sound. So help me, if you two are keeping a pet coyote…”

“That wasn’t us,” Flora objected. “It was him.”

“I had this dream…” Darling scrubbed a hand across his face. “I swear it was somewhere I’ve been before.”

“There was some serious fairy fuckery clustering around you out of nowhere,” said Fauna. “Seems to have dissipated, though.”

“We got here just before you started howling,” Flora added. “Are you okay, Sweet?”

He blinked twice. “Excuse me, I started what?”


The darkness of unconsciousness faded from his vision, replaced by Mary’s face, her eyes wide with uncharacteristic worry. He was breathing heavily as if he’d just run a mile, he realized, and almost toppled over, spared only by the grip of her slender hands on his cheeks. She was surprisingly strong, for an elf.

“Joseph, it’s all right,” she said soothingly. “You’re safe. Are you back with us?”

“I…” He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, shaking his head. “What happened? I feel like I was just…somewhere else.”

“Damn, son, you scared the life outta me,” said McGraw, looming over him.

“Aye, that was a right wake up an’ no mistake,” Billie agreed, popping up at his side. “I never heard a human throat make a sound like that.”

“A sound like…what?” he asked weakly.

All around their little campsite, the Golden Sea stretched in every direction, seemingly infinite. Out of the darkness, suddenly from every direction there rose distant howls. They reminded him of the familiar voices of coyotes he’d often heard growing up in Sarasio. But…not. Their cries were longer, deeper…

Even more familiar.

“Like that,” said Weaver, standing a few yards distant with his back to the group, gazing at the dark horizon.


He was awakened by Hesthri climbing across him to the other side of the bed. The room was cool, its one window open to admit the evening breeze.

That, and sudden, surprising music from the hills all around Veilgrad.

Natchua already stood at the window, moonlight forming a gleaming corona on the darkness of her skin. Jonathan swung his legs over the side of the bed and followed Hesthri to join her.

“Aren’t there supposed to be werewolves in this area?” he asked, setting one arm across the drow’s slender shoulders while Hesthri laid a hand against her upper back.

“That,” Natchua said quietly, “and the normal kind of wolves. But not so many.”

It was true, he realized. Those howls were seemingly coming from every direction, repetitive and so unrelenting that he could hardly discern where one ended and the next began.

“It’s so beautiful,” Hesthri whispered. “What kinds of creatures are these?”

“Dangerous ones,” Jonathan said, stepping closer and taking advantage of the long reach of his arm to tug both of them against his side, gently squishing Natchua between them. “Though normal wolves hardly ever bother people unless starving or severely provoked. Werewolves are another matter.”

“This is another matter,” Natchua whispered. “I can’t tell what magic is at work here, but…it’s something big. Something in the world just changed.”


Andros Varanus took the risk of barging into the Grandmaster’s quarters without knocking.

Fortunately, the whole household was assembled, and awake, though still in sleeping clothes. Both of Veisroi’s wives turned on him with scowls at this sudden intrusion into their domain, but the Grandmaster himself raised a hand in a mute order for silence before either could upbraid him.

“You too, then, Brother Andros?” he asked, turning away from the fireplace into which he had been gazing.

“And not just me,” Andros rumbled. “Every man in this lodge is awake, due to the same dream. Every man but one. Hrathvin is in a trance from which his apprentice cannot stir him.”

Veisroi’s chest expanded with a long, deep breath. “Give him time. I named him shaman of this lodge for a reason; the man knows what he’s about. If he has not roused by dawn, we will send to the Emerald College for help.”

Andros nodded. “And the dream? You know this can only mean one thing, Grandmaster.”

“In the context of the telescroll I just received from N’Jendo…yes, I do,” the old man said, turning back to the flames. “Damn it all, Andros. I had such high hopes for Ingvar. When he set out on his quest from Shaath himself, I dared to think…”

“Ingvar also knows what he is about. He has more than earned our trust, Veisroi.”

“And how long has it been since we’ve had word from him? And now, just on the heels of warning that he is preaching apostasy in the West…this.” The Grandmaster clenched his jaw. “I hate to do it, Andros, you know I do. But a man does what he must, even when he does not wish to. Right now, do what you can to calm the men, make sure they’re seeing to their wives. It’s always the women who are most upset by things like this. In the immediate turn we will make sure Hrathvin is well. And when that is dealt with, for good or ill…”

“I protest, Grandmaster,” Andros said, as insistently as he could without making it a direct challenge.

“And that is your prerogative, Brother,” Veisroi replied without looking up from the fire. “But protest or not, tomorrow I will summon a Wild Hunt.”


Atop his watchtower on the ancient walls of Shaathvar, Roth stood with his back to the brazier’s warmth, staring out at the cold darkness. All around rose the pine-clad peaks encircling the valley directly below the city itself. And from all sides came the relentless howling.

“How can there be so many?” one of the two younglings assigned to join his watch asked, eyes wide. “Surely there can’t be that many wolves in the valley!”

“There aren’t that many wolves in the whole of the Stalrange,” Roth replied, his voice flat. A man did not flinch even in the face of…whatever this was. “I will keep the watch here; go rouse the captain. And you,” he added to the other, “fetch the barracks shaman. Keep your minds on the task before you, lads. This is a dire omen of something, but omens are a shaman’s work. Don’t borrow trouble for yourself until this has been interpreted by men who know the craft.”

“Yes, Brother,” they chorused, and both dashed off down opposite staircases toward the walls.

Roth just gazed out over the frigid, howling wilderness, wondering what had just happened to the world.


“This is not our business,” Arkhosh insisted, glaring at Mother Raghann. He had to raise his voice to be heard above the ceaseless howling of wolves which split the night all around. “People are agitated enough by this without you riling them up worse. Let the kitsune handle Sifan’s affairs and calm your own people, shaman.”

“This is not the kitsune’s business, either,” the old woman retorted, implacable as always. “These are ripples from a mountain dropped in the ocean, not a pebble in a pool. It began far from Sifan and extends farther still. The agitation of the spirits sings of a world in the grip of tumult, Arkhosh. And that makes it their business, and ours, and everyone’s.”

The other orc blew out a snort of irritation. “We are in no position to worry about the world, woman, or even Sifan as a whole. And we certainly owe the world no favors. It is the kitsune who are our hosts, and Tsurikura which is our business. If action is needed on our part, they’ll ask us for it. For now, we should tend to the walls. I can’t speak for spirits, but I know agitated wolves when I hear them.”

“Have you ever heard this many wolves?” she asked dryly. “What do you think our village walls would do if they took a notion to come here?”

“What say you, Aresk?” Arkhosh demanded, turning to his son, the only other orc gathered with them outside the gate. “Do they howl to us?”

The last and first priest of Khar stared out into the darkness, listening to the cries of wolves. The faintest glow of golden-white light limned him as he attuned to the faded power of their distant god. “Nothing in this tells me it pertains to us directly. But Mother Raghann is still right,” he added, turning to meet his father’s eyes. “We exist in the world, father. I agree that we should not meddle in what is not our business, or exert ourselves to aid those who would not do the same in turn. But waiting around to be told what to do by the kitsune is weakness. And just ignoring the world in the hope that nothing bad will happen is madness.”

Both of them bared tusks at him. Very recently, Aresk would have instinctively yielded to the displeasure of either of his elders, let alone both. But things changed, and he changed with them. It was that, or die.

“I suggest a middle ground. I won’t agree to our shamans rushing out to try to placate…whatever this is. But they should at least do what they can to learn what is happening. Whatever the spirits will tell us. With more information, we can better decide what to do. We should protect and support them in whatever rituals will best accomplish this.”

Raghann grunted. “Well. I can’t say the boy doesn’t talk sense. Very well, it’s at least a start.”

“A good compromise,” Arkhosh agreed, reaching out to squeeze his son’s shoulder. “Very well, Aresk, I concur with your council. We will start there. And then…” He looked sourly at Mother Raghann, and then out into the howling darkness. “…we shall see.”


“Elder?” the young woman asked, creeping up to the mouth of the cave just behind him. “What does it mean?”

The old lizardfolk shaman glanced back at her, and then at the rest of the tribe taking shelter, their eyes glowing in the dimness as they watched the cave mouth for danger.

He turned back around, facing outward and listening to the howls of the wolves, far too many wolves to actually live in this desolate land.

“It’s as I told you: a great doom is coming. This is only the beginning.”


Hamelin Hargrave stood in the open door of his cottage, gazing out at the normally peaceful hills of Viridill, listening to them. The spirits were so agitated he could glean nothing through the Craft; whatever was happening was clearly way over his head.

Tomorrow, he decided, he would make the trip to Vrin Shai and seek help. But not tonight. Magical or not, no matter how civilized an era it was, you didn’t set out on the roads after dark when the wolves were in a frenzy.


“Urusai,” Maru whined, curled up in the fetal position and clutching his head. “Urusai, urusai, urusai!”

“What’s that he’s chanting?” Professor Yornhaldt asked, craning his neck forward to peer as closely as he could without getting in Taowi’s way. She had a sharp tongue for people who interfered while she was tending to a patient.

“It means ‘loud,’” said Tellwyrn, herself standing on the other side of her currently crowded office, but watching closely as the campus healer tended to her prone secretary.

“Really?” asked Rafe. “I thought it meant ‘shut up.’ Kaisa used to say that to me all the time.”

“Language reflects culture,” Tellwyrn said absently. “To the Sifanese mindset, commenting that something is noisy suffices to demand that it stop. Taowi, please tell me that’s not what it smells like.”

“It’s exactly what it smells like, Arachne,” she said impatiently, still coaxing Maru to put the shriveled object she held in his mouth. “It’s worked on the others affected thus far.”

Tellwyrn took an aggressive step forward. “Do you mean to tell me you’ve been feeding glittershrooms to my students?!”

“To your students and to Stew,” Taowi Sunrunner replied, undaunted by the archmage’s ire. “There you go, Maru, don’t forget to chew. It’s affecting everyone fae-attuned, Arachne. What in the hell did you get me dried glittershrooms for if you didn’t think I was going to use them medicinally?”

Tellwyrn snorted. “I figured you’ve been an exemplary healer and as long as it didn’t interfere with your work I wasn’t going to begrudge you whatever you needed to relax.”

Maru was weakly chewing the wedge of dried glittershroom; Taowi took her eyes off him for a moment to give Tellwyrn a blistering look. “The principle harm done by this is simply stress. For most things I would simply apply a sedative, but this is clearly fae in nature and affecting people through the dreamscape somehow. Putting someone to sleep would just trap them in it. You’ll notice I asked you to procure a supply of shrooms right after that clever little fool Madouri did exactly that to herself by combining Nightmare’s Dream potion with the Sleeper curse. Glittershrooms induce euphoria without causing sleepiness; it’s the best spot treatment. Once everyone is stabilized I mean to switch them to sevenleaf oil, but considering how bad some of the reactions are, I advise the potency of shrooms to take the edge off.”

“How is everyone faring?” Tellwyrn asked more quietly.

“It hits fairies worse than witches,” Taowi said absently, her focus again on Maru as she soothingly stroked his fur while waiting for the glittershroom to take effect. “Stew was nearly this bad. Oak says she’s getting the same visions, but they don’t bother her, which makes me feel less worried about Juniper and Fross. Dryads are generally under different rules. With the students…it varies. Most of them welcomed a bit of shroom, but Iris declined. She wants to stay lucid to help keep watch over the others, and frankly I’m grateful for the assistance. She seems to be suffering the least from the effect.”

“And it’s the same for all of them?”

“They report the same visions.” Taowi looked up to meet her eyes. “Wolves howling. More than just the noise, this is hitting them right in the emotional center, as fae magic does. They’ve all said they feel they’re being called to something, but they can’t understand what, much less answer it, and that’s what’s causing the acute stress. This is some kind of compulsion which can’t be fulfilled. There are few things more psychologically excruciating.”

“We unfortunately lack a fae specialist,” Rafe said, turning to Professor Tellwyrn, “since Liari retired and Kaisa buggered off mid-semester.”

“And isn’t that the long and the short of it,” Tellwyrn said, shoving both fists under her spectacles to rub at her eyes. “It’s the area of magic I’m least equipped to analyze, but the geas on this mountain would at least warn me if the effect were targeted here. If it’s a general effect over a wide area, then wherever it’s coming from, we’re not the only ones feeling it. All right. Alaric, keep order here as best you can. Admestus, help Taowi with the afflicted.”

“You have an idea?” Yornhaldt asked.

She grimaced readjusting her glasses. “The only idea I have is begging for help. I’m going to Sarasio to see if Sheyann and Chucky know anything about this. Hold the fort, everyone.”


Rainwood stumbled backward with nothing like an elf’s usual grace, staring at the wolves in the clearing around his snuffed-out faefire.

They were beautiful, but nothing about them appeared natural. Patterns were set in their fur that looked dyed, geometric and clearly designed, and most strikingly, they glowed. Each a different pattern in a subtly different color. Their eyes were glowing wells of power without pupils; even their fur seemed to put off a gentle aura of moonlight.

In the spot where Ingvar had sat, the largest wolf turned to bare fangs at Rainwood, his pure white fur marked with sigils in luminous green and blue on the shoulders and forehead. He raised his head and howled once, and loud as the sound was, it was nothing compared to the metaphysical shockwave it sent out.

Rainwood actually fell backward, landing on his rump and gaping.

The pack gathered themselves and loped off into the trees, heading west toward the sea—though they would reach Ninkabi long before they got to the coast. Seventeen enormous, glowing, unprecedented creatures departed from the wilderness on a collision course with civilization, leaving behind a magical storm that roared outward in every direction, dwarfing the disturbance which had rocked the fae up in the Wyrnrange the previous day.

This one would be felt across every inch of the planet.

“Kuriwa’s going to kill me,” he said aloud, staring after the departed pack. “Literally, this time.”

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15 – 39

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“So you did see him again,” Khadizroth said, leaning forward in his armchair to gaze intently at Shook.

“The one time, yeah,” he replied. “He and I had the same idea, for once: took one look at Syrinx losing the last ounce of her shit and even your famous diplomacy barely managing to keep her in check, and we both fucked off in different directions. He went right out the goddamn window. I take it the asshole never bothered to report back in?”

“As of the time Vannae and I departed, no,” the dragon murmured, frowning now. “Jack’s failure to do so indirectly led to that decision. When you vanished and it became clear to Inquisitor Syrinx that her title now amounted to nothing more than house steward for the two of us, I’m afraid she rather…well.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet she rather,” Shook grunted. “Sorry for leavin’ you guys in the lurch like that. At the time, it sure did look like my last opportunity to get my ass outta there in one piece.”

“It’s quite all right, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth assured him with a small smile. “I see how you would have concluded that—and you may well have been entirely right. She might not have exploded had you stayed, but on the other hand… Well, what’s done is done. You’ve acquired valuable intelligence and we’ve extricated ourselves from Syrinx entirely. In a way, it worked out.”

“You don’t intend to return, then?” Branwen asked.

The dragon sighed softly, looking over at Vannae and then Shook again, then shook his head. The two of them were upright in opposite corners of the small parlor in the Bishop’s temporary residence, Snowe herself seated on the loveseat adjacent to Khadizroth.

“I have dealt with people sharing Syrinx’s particular disability a number of times over the years,” Khadizroth stated. “In fact, that is the core of what is wrong with the Jackal, though every manifestation is somewhat unique and naturally he is a distinct aberration from Syrinx, or any other anth’auwa. The outbursts of temper are explosive, but usually brief; most of the time they are quite unemotional and often focused. In Syrinx’s case, they have been coming closer and closer together, and growing more severe with each, which is a major warning sign. As the Inquisition has been shedding personnel and making no progress, her resources and options have continued to close in on her like the walls of a cell. Coming on the heels of her lost career in Tiraas…”

“This is bad,” Branwen muttered. “Steadily increasing pressure is one of the worst things for people like that. They need stimulation and variety to… Someone is going to be hurt.”

“I fear you are correct,” Khadizroth agreed, nodding. “With no outlet for her aggression and no other way to exercise her will, she will seek out or create a target. I deemed it best that this not be Vannae or myself. Unfortunately… I think we must all face the facts that our goals here have ended in failure. The smart thing for Syrinx to do, and the best outcome for everyone, would be for her to return to the Archpope and report the Inquisition’s failure. Any of her other options will bring her swiftly afoul of established powers in Ninkabi. Either way, it would seem our window of opportunity to silence her for good has closed.”

“Well, I dunno,” Shook said dryly. “I figure one of the things Jack is likely to do next, when he gets tired of picking on hapless city guards, is go after his own former team. And of the lot of us, Syrinx is both the most reachable and probably the most interesting physical challenge.”

“Do you really think that’s going to be his next move?” Branwen asked.

“I am glad to report I have zero fuckin’ clue what goes through that nutjob’s brain, Bishop. At his best, he’s only ever kept his crazy at a low simmer with a lid on top. Now? I think the pressure’s just built up till he couldn’t contain it anymore, and he’s just gone off on a wild-ass spree.”

“In this case, I don’t think I agree,” Khadizroth said pensively. “I can scarcely guess what he actually is trying to accomplish, but I suspect it is still goal-directed. Your assessment of the Jackal’s character lines up well with mine, but consider that he has kept it at a simmer for the two years we have known him. Unlike Syrinx, he has shown no pattern of increasing instability. And remember: the entire idea of our group was his. He not only brought us together and made his case for keeping ourselves close to Justinian, but it was he who laboriously laid the groundwork with the Archpope himself beforehand.”

Shook raised his eyebrows, glancing at Branwen. “Uh, K…”

“I think we are past the point of dissembling, Jeremiah,” the dragon said wryly. “The good Bishop has made no secret of her loyalties. In the worst case she can report this conversation to Justinian, who I assure you is already well aware that we have only endured his control for our own ends and bear him no goodwill. Now? That, too, appears to have ended in failure. He’s managed to make some use of our abilities and it seems the time has come for us to discreetly depart from his service.”

“So you’re saying he won?” Shook growled.

“I am afraid he has,” Khadizroth agreed, himself baring teeth for a moment in displeasure. “Sometimes, as the saying goes, the bear eats you. Now, at any rate, we are no threat to him and so our antipathy would appear to matter little. We are still here, in a city beleaguered by the Black Wreath, this mysterious cult which Justinian himself set up, and at least three of our own former compatriots gone dangerously rogue. Bishop Snowe is still an ally, at least for the moment, and our list of such has dwindled sharply. Let us all continue to get along.”

“It goes without saying that it would be a mistake to take anything the Wreath said to you at face value,” Branwen added, turning to Shook, “but if they were more or less correct, I consider this evidence that this cult is no longer under his Holiness’s control. I have already made it plain that I disagree with some of his methods—that is, after all, why I’m here—but I cannot believe he would do such a thing as open hellgates in a major city. There is no possible benefit to anyone in such an action.”

“Except, perhaps, an apocalyptic cult,” said Khadizroth. “Several extant hellgates were originally the work of such. If this is indeed what this lot are up to, they appear to be more ambitious than most.”

“Fuck,” Shook said feelingly.

“I understand you gentlemen are all rather short on options,” Branwen said with every appearance of genuine worry, looking at each of the three of them in turn. “Where will you go after this?”

Shook glanced for a moment at Vannae, who met his eyes, and then both turned back to her with matching fatalistic shrugs, both savvy enough not to betray anything by looking to their de facto leader for confirmation. Snowe might be an ally for the moment, but she was still directly in the Archpope’s camp and there was no reason at all for her to know about the other allies Khadizroth had already begun discreetly gathering at his old hidden lair. Even their little pantomime of conceding defeat to Justinian had been a bit of impromptu misdirection; one of the things Shook most enjoyed about working with the green dragon was how on the ball he was about things like that, even stuff he’d only have expected fellow thieves to have practiced. Khadizroth might still be acting against the Archpope out of a sense of duty, but for Shook’s part, he was bound and determined to make something stick to Justinian before all this was over. And it was not over, not as long as they still weren’t dead.

The dragon sighed heavily, rubbing his forehead with one hand and generally making a very convincing show of his quiet despair over this state of affairs. “I hope you won’t judge me too harshly if I choose to procrastinate dealing with that, your Grace. I even dare to hope something may come up while we are addressing the present urgency.”

“Of course,” she said with a warm smile, reaching forward to pat the dragon’s knee. Shook and Vannae again locked eyes, this time sharing a different silent message. “Well, for the time being at least, you are all more than welcome to whatever hospitality I can offer. I guess what we need to figure out now is what to do next.”

“Well, I know both my uses and my limits,” said Shook, folding his arms and leaning against the wall, “and playing brain checkers with the Black fuckin’ Wreath is beyond both. I brought you every detail I can remember, so forgive me if I leave it to wiser heads to suss out how accurate their song and dance was.”

All of them turned to look at Khadizroth.

“I know little of dimensional mechanics,” said Branwen, “and even less of necromancy. It sounds implausible, but…could something of the kind be done, Lord Khadizroth?”

The dragon had folded his hands and was staring into space with his eyes narrowed in thought. “The difficulty in answering that question is that necromancy is not a school of magic. There are several ways it can be approached, utilizing all four schools, most requiring heavy alchemy and minor shadow magic to boot. In theory? The answer is usually ‘yes.’ Magic is applying a localized subjectivity to physical reality. The highest possible application of any school of magic is the transcendence of its limitations. Mastery is often defined as performing any possible task with those originally limited tools.”

“So,” she said, equally pensive in expression, “the question becomes one of psychology and capability rather than magical theory. Can they do this?”

“Well said,” he agreed, nodding to her with a smile. “Unfortunately, we suffer a near total lack of data on this particular cult. I realize you are protective of his Holiness’s secrets, Branwen, but can you shed any light on this?”

“I’m afraid I have already shed what I have,” she said with an apologetic grimace. “I am only reasonably sure that the project was his Holiness’s. The Church has records of them and there are few other organizations which could create such a thing, the other main candidate being the Empire, which is contradicted by the group’s use to attack the Emperor. Circumstantial, but compelling. But that is the best I can offer.”

“Then all we have left to analyze is the Wreath,” Khadizroth mused.

He fell silent, and they all stared at him, the tension in the room creeping upward. The dragon just gazed narrowly at the wall, seemingly undisturbed by the weight of their combined attention.

“Nothing can be certain,” he said at last, so suddenly into the long silence that Shook and Branwen both twitched. “But based upon the available evidence, I am inclined to think they were serious, and at least as much as can be expected, honest.”

“Okay,” Shook said simply. “How so?”

“It is counter-intuitive,” the dragon continued, “but I have found over my long years that when clever people with a penchant for deception tell you something wildly implausible, they are more often serious than not. The logic is there, if you look closely. Deception hinges on fitting a piece of false reality into established patterns so that a victim does not look closely or think deeply. The last thing a deceiver wants is for you to stop and consider what is going on.”

“Hell, I can vouch for that much,” Shook agreed, nodding. “I’m no con artist by trade, but every Guild member knows the basics. You wanna con somebody, you gotta show ’em something that makes sense in their eyes, something they’ll expect.”

“Just so,” Khadizroth said. “And the Black Wreath is more than a rival crew of deceptive operators. They contain demons and prevent the opening of hellgates as a matter of religious duty; it is the reason for what little tolerance is extended to them by mortal governments and the other cults. Be assured, they absolutely would not scruple to take advantage of such events if they were already unfolding and the opportunity existed. But they are on record, very long and consistent record, taking these matters with the utmost seriousness. If they are concerned enough about this to seek help, the most probable explanation is that they need help.”

“That, at least, we can verify,” Vannae said quietly.

“Yes,” the dragon mused, folding his hands in his lap, “now that I know to look for an intersection of necromancy and dimensional warping, I can seek such through the flows of magic. There will be an element of chance at first, but if the Wreath has told the truth about this, once I have found one such and identified the workings used in its creation, I can locate any others with greater ease.”

“And…” Shook deliberately un-clenched his fists, flexing his fingers. “…what happened to me? The Wreath claimed not to have been behind it.”

“About that, I would be less sanguine,” Khadizroth said gravely, turning to him. “They do have reason to deceive you, and no reason not to; if they seek allies and had identified you as connected to the Inquisition, it would hardly serve them to admit they had assaulted you and confiscated Kheshiri’s reliquary. In addition, the alternative is that there is yet another player active in Ninkabi, who is capable of feats of infernal magic which the Wreath have never been able to manage before. That seems implausible…as does the alternative. Remember that Kheshiri was outside the reliquary for a time after its seizure, and for reasons I just went over, the Wreath would have immediately sealed a daughter of Vanislaas had they the means. This is a dangerous dilemma,” he said, leaning forward to gaze intently at Shook. “If there is such an additional party, their presence changes every equation and leaves us blind and vulnerable until we identify them. If not, the Wreath has not only increased their capabilities beyond what I knew, but has proven themselves willing to attack and curse even those to whom they turn as allies.”

“Damned if they did, damned if they didn’t,” Shook said, and blew out a breath of pure frustration.

“Well put,” Khadizroth agreed with a tiny smile of dark amusement. “At the very least, we should keep it in mind as a reminder of two things: the Wreath cannot be trusted, and we do not fully understand what is happening here.”

“So, you tracking our quarry to one of these portal sites is a starting point,” said Branwen. “I can provide transportation, since your movements in the city must obviously be discreet. Beyond that, though? If these people are sufficiently numerous and equipped that even the Wreath is desperate enough to seek help in dealing with them… Even with your aid, Lord Khadizroth, I’m concerned that adding ourselves to the effort is simply…not enough.”

“Who else is there?” Vannae all but whispered.

“Ain’t like we can go to any legitimate authority,” Shook grunted. “What the hell would we tell them? A tale like this…even if the Bishop blows her cover, I figure this is as likely to just damage her credibility as it is to add it to the claim.”

“Well, I can call in aid from the Church,” Branwen said slowly, pausing to chew her lower lip. “But… The Church is already involved in this. And they may not know what this cult is doing or why, but if they think they know, revealing that we are on their tail…”

“We were sent explicitly to hunt this cult,” Khadizroth added, “with the aid of this Inquisition. Two Church-aligned forces which cannot officially be acknowledged to exist, set directly into conflict. As far as the Church goes, all we can know for certain is that the left had doesn’t know the right exists, much less what it is doing. To seek official backup from that source would be, at best, a roll of the dice.”

“Especially since we’re all AWOL from our official backup,” Shook added. “So, can’t count on the Church. The Empire wouldn’t listen to us. What else we got?”

“The Guild?” Vannae suggested, looking at him.

“Leaving out that the Guild would haul me into a dark room for disciplinary thumping before they even thought about listening to what I had to say, we happen to be in one of the worst places for it. Guild presence in Ninkabi is just about as abnormal as it gets this side of Sifan. This is where the Fount of the Fallen is, one of our few actually holy sites. More Eserite priests here than almost anywhere else per square mile…which might be specifically applicable to this problem, sure. But that’s still not many, and there’s a lot less in the way of Guild muscle on hand than in basically any other major city.”

“I face a similar dilemma,” Khadizroth acknowledged, grimacing. “Here it is, an unprecedented moment in history when, for the first time, I could actually call upon other dragons for aid. But only in theory; in practice, I fear the Conclave of the Winds regards me very much as the Thieves’ Guild does you, Jeremiah. Inviting their attention would likely result only in my own removal from the scene. If I could persuade them to lend aid, just the persuading would surely take longer than we can spare.”

“My tribe is long dead and scattered,” Vannae murmured.

“Well, isn’t this cheerful as all fuck,” Shook growled, straightening up. He turned and began to pace up and down one side of the room.

“Are you all right?” Khadizroth asked, suddenly intent on him. “If you feel manic or unsettled, Jeremiah, please let me know. That can be a side effect of the magic that eased your weariness.”

“I’m fine,” Shook said, giving him a tight smile in passing. “Thanks, but this is just my thinkin’ posture. Not that I’m the best thinker in this outfit, but every little bit helps.”

“Very well. Do be sure to get actual sleep when you can, my friend. I can only ease the symptoms of weariness; your brain still needs rest.”

“I’ll get a nap while you’re hunting down necro-portals. Not like I’m any damn use for that. Shit, who else is there? The Wizard’s Guild?”

“Even less likely to listen to us than the Empire,” Branwen said a little morosely. “Oh! The Order of the Light?”

Shook barked a derisive laugh.

“Severely lacking in personnel in this day and age,” Khadizroth said more gently. “And no longer able to defy governments and move with impunity through their territory; that would leave us back at needing to persuade the Empire. I suppose, if we are desperate, I could try sending a telescroll to Last Rock. I understand Arachne has taken to using real world crises as testing grounds for her students. If she took me seriously it might get a party of young adventurers out here. I have found those to be surprisingly effective, when they are not amazingly ineffectual.”

“That’s twice now we’ve reached for solutions from the last century,” Shook grumbled, still pacing. “Is this the point where we officially acknowledge how fucked we are?”

“It’s worse than needing more help,” Branwen said, frowning deeply. “It’s the existing help. Talking of Last Rock… I don’t have privileged access to military records, but I have access to people who do, and I’ve learned that the Black Wreath was allowed to ‘help’ during the chaos crisis in Veilgrad. Apparently they did render material aid, and overall made the whole thing worse by causing more chaos effects with their demon summonings and then deliberately incapacitating all three paladins. And then it seems they tried to steal Imperial equipment as soon as the matter was resolved and only failed in that because the local vampire intervened. You are quite correct, Lord Khadizroth. Even if the Black Wreath helps in good faith, they will find a way to manipulate events and people to further their own goals. Furthering the Wreath’s goals is the absolute last thing I want.”

The dragon drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, then reached over to take her hand. “Then the question we must ask ourselves is whether that prospect is worse than the alternative. If they are correct… Twenty hellgates, Branwen. Ninkabi would be a complete and permanent loss. Most of N’Jendo would be rendered uninhabitable.”

Shook came to an abrupt halt. “Hey, your Grace. Two questions. One, you got a pen and paper anywhere around here?”

“Of course,” she said, turning a quizzical frown on him. “Anything you need, Mr. Shook. You have an idea?”

“Probably not a very good one, but I guess we’re down to that point now. Which leads to my second question.” He grinned. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to loan me some money?”

Branwen raised her eyebrows. “That would depend. It might be more practical for me to buy whatever it is you need.”

“Yeah. Yeah, actually now you mention it, that’s absolutely right. Yeah, I’m a dumbass for not thinking of that up front, it’s obviously gotta come from you.”

“It?” she asked pointedly. “From me?”

“Right, it’s like this.” He stopped right behind the couch, leaning both arms against it to stare at the group with a grin even he could feel was a little unhinged. “We’ve got no resources and no credibility among the kinda dangerous people we need—but we all know somebody who does. And he may not wanna hear from most of us, but if we piggyback a little o’ my know-how on some of her Grace’s credibility, I bet we can get some real shit started.”


“I very much appreciate this, Antonio,” Bishop Ferdowsi said, his voice trembling just slightly. “I realize it verges on exploiting our professional connection…”

“Not in the least little bit, Mehmed,” Darling assured him, laying a hand on the older man’s thin shoulder. “This is exactly why we have a Universal Church: to help one another out in situations like this. I will take this directly to Boss Tricks, and we’ll get people on it at once.”

“Please understand, it’s not my intention to get anyone in trouble. We just want the Codex back. It is entirely irreplaceable.”

“It would be easiest and fastest if one of our people had taken it,” Darling said seriously, “since we could just get it back from them in that case. I have to warn you though, Mehmed, that’s a lesser possibility. Guild thieves are not to mess with the other cults unless on the Boss’s direct orders and under exceptional circumstances, and even then it’s usually the Vernisites. That rule is fiercely enforced. But we can still help a great deal. There aren’t so many people in Tiraas who would even want a five hundred-year-old illuminated manuscript, and any of those who are willing to receive stolen property will already be known to us. I’ll lay even odds we find it before the police do.”

“I understand. Regardless, I remain deeply grateful, Antonio, as does the entire Archive.”

“You can assure the Curator that we’re on it,” Darling said kindly. “I’ll head right to the Guild; I was going there anyway this afternoon. Thieves work best at night, so I dare to hope I may have something to tell you by tomorrow.”

He was frowning as he finally parted from the Nemitite Bishop, his steps quickening nearly to the point of breaking the serene gliding gait which helped characterize his ecclesiastical persona. He hadn’t had the heart to say it to the old man, but this was very likely to have been an inside job. Such things usually were, and honestly, who but a librarian would even think to steal a rare scroll? One thing he could be sure of: if this had been some rogue Eserite, he just might tell Flora and Fauna to work them over before Style got a chance. They’d do it, too. All three of them had felt rather protective of the Nemitites ever since that ugly business with Aleesa Asherad.

“Your Grace.”

Darling snapped out of his reverie, focusing his gaze on one of the last people he’d expected to meet in the Grand Cathedral.

“Price?”

“I apologize for disturbing you here, your Grace,” his Butler said crisply. “You received a telescroll at the house, brought by specialty courier, and I deemed it urgent. It came on a Universal Church priority signal, bearing Bishop Snowe’s name, from Ninkabi.”

Darling blinked. It was a forgivable lapse; they were alone in that corridor, Ferdowsi having vanished around a corner in the other direction.

“What the hell is Branwen doing in Ninkabi? She’s supposed to be…” Now that he thought of it, he hadn’t seen her in a few days.

Price produced the scroll from within her coat, folded and flattened by transit. “It is an unusually long communique, your Grace, and only the first line is from Bishop Snowe. The rest is in a Thieves’ Guild cipher, signed by Thumper.”

“What?!” He snatched it from her, raking his eyes across the row after row of scrambled letters as fast as he could without losing the thread. It was an older code and a simple one, but well, if it actually was Thumper, that made sense.

Darling read the while thing again, more slowly, just to be sure he had it right, before finally raising his head to stare at the vaulted marble ceiling.

“Price.”

“Your Grace?”

“Is there even the slightest chance my five adventurer friends haven’t vanished into the Golden Sea by now?”

“They have, at least, vanished from the city, your Grace. Beyond that, I regretably seem to have left my pocket oracle in my other trousers.”

“All right. Welp. I had to head down to the Casino anyway.” Sweet stuffed the telescroll into his sleeve and turned, striding down the hall with no regard at all for Bishoply poise. “C’mon, let’s go ruin Tricks’s entire week. I’ll be damned if I’m the only one who has to suffer.”

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15 – 38

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No one ever made it more than a few steps into an Izarite temple without being approached by a priest, but given the way he looked by that hour of the morning, Shook couldn’t blame them for being particularly on the ball. He was still in a tailored suit, at least, and had made sure his hair was still slicked back with the aid of his pocket comb and the tin of Sly’s Gentleman’s Cream he always carried—plus a judicious use of his reflection in store windows—but after the night he’d had, he was unshaven, hollow-eyed from lack of sleep, and teetering on his feet. As such, he didn’t even make it fully in the door before a priestess materialized seemingly out of nowhere and gently took him by the arm.

“Welcome,” she said in a soft tone, leading him to the side out of the doorway. “This is a safe place; you can rest here. We’ll take good care of you. What’s your name?”

“Uh…call me Jerry,” he stammered, embarrassingly unprepared for that simple question. With, by this point, Syrinx and her bullshit Inquisition doubtless added to the list of people hunting for his head, which already included the Sisterhood and the Guild, neither his full name nor his tag were safe things to throw around. Of course, in the last couple of years he’d almost never had to interact with the general public, except briefly and in passing, and usually Kheshiri had handled that.

“Jerry,” the woman said, smiling up at him warmly as though she were genuinely delighted to make his scruffy acquaintance. His customary annoyance at the two-faced trickiness of women in general started to well up, but he deliberately pushed it away. She was Izarite, after all; the expression was probably genuine. They were a bunch of feather-headed nutbars, but it was impossible to hate them for it. “I’m Nakhi, and I’m so glad you came. Come sit with me for a moment, and let’s talk.”

“Yeah, about that.” He planted his feet, causing her also to stop, still with a light grip on his arm. “I’m not lookin’ for the usual run of TLC, here. Who’s in charge of this temple?”

Nakhi looked quizzically up at him, stepping closer. “Brother Lokoru is the head priest, but he’s usually not up at this time of morning. We keep unconventional hours here, as you may have heard. But I’ll be more than glad to help you with anything, Jerry. Whatever’s going on, I can tell it has you under a lot of pressure. You’re in exactly the right place to have that turmoil relieved. That is what we do in Izara’s name, after all.”

She gave him that warm, gentle smile again, and he noted she was actually sort of pretty. Not a woman he’d have looked twice at on the street, but Izarites had a way about them; something about that relentless kindness of theirs was irresistibly attractive regardless of what they looked like.

“Thank, doll,” he said, gently extricating his arm from her grip. “Look, I know you got a job to do and I’m sure you’re good at it, but I’m gonna have to pass on having that turmoil relieved. I’m still using it. Can you maybe answer a couple questions about Izarite business in Ninkabi?”

“Well…it depends on the questions,” the priestess replied, her expression growing concerned. Exactly like a nurse whose patient wouldn’t take their medicine. “Obviously, we place a high value on privacy here. I would never repeat anything you shared with me in confidence, and I can’t betray any other guest’s confidence to you, either. But the cult itself doesn’t have many secrets. I meant what I said, Jerry: if there’s anything I can do to help you, then that’s what I’m here for. Are you in some kind of trouble?”

Omnu’s balls, was he in some kind of trouble. Nothing she could actually help with, though, and trying would likely just land him in hot water with the Church or one of the Pantheon cults with which he was already having problems.

“If there was some higher-up in town,” he said, evading the question, “some big important Izarite personnel from the capital, and they were being discreet and didn’t want their presence known, what’d be my best chance of meetin’ up with ’em?”

Nakhi blinked twice. “I’m…not sure I understand the question, Jerry. If somebody important were here and specifically wanted to avoid being known or seeing anyone, then it sounds like you couldn’t meet them. And I probably couldn’t, either, for that matter. I’m definitely not aware of anybody like that being in Ninkabi.”

“And if you were, you couldn’t tell the likes of me, anyway. Well, it was worth a try. Thanks anyway.”

“Are you looking for someone in particular, Jerry?” she asked. “We just don’t have a lot of celebrities or important officials within the Brethren. I can’t think of anybody who might match your description other than High Priestess Delaine or Bishop Snowe, and they’re both in Tiraas.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it,” he said, forcing a grin. “Sorry to waste your time, sister. Have a good one.”

He turned to go, but she reached out and caught his arm again. Anger surged; he did not appreciate being grabbed.

“Are you sure you won’t stay and talk for a while?” Nakhi asked, her voice as tender as a doting mother’s. “Whatever else is going on, Jerry, it’s obvious you could do with some rest, and probably a hot meal. We can provide both. And even if you weren’t looking to unburden yourself, I bet you’d be amazed at the difference it can make.”

Fucking whore, exactly like all the rest of them, looking to ferret out whatever secrets she could exploit. Izarites were supposedly empathic as a gift of their goddess; she had to be aware of how angry she was making him, but there was no sign on her face of any concern. As if to prove she was operating on some hidden agenda…

Breathe. Let it go.

Everyone is absolutely out for themselves, Sweet’s advice whispered in his memory, but you have to put yourself in their perspective, think about what they want. People are social animals, Thumper. You’d be amazed how many of their selfish agendas will actually impel them to do nice things for others and except nothing in return.

She was an Izarite. This was her hidden agenda. Losing his cool over this was his own weakness, exactly the thing his teachers had tried to get him past, and Kheshiri had worked so hard to exacerbate. It was past time he paid due honor to the men who’d been actually trying to help him.

“I appreciate it, honey,” he said, once more removing her hand from his arm as gently as he could. She didn’t resist, giving him no reason to handle her at all roughly. He patted her hand once before letting it go. “You’re a sweetheart, but you don’t have what I need. Take care, now.”

Shook turned and strode back outside into the sunlight before she could try again to dissuade him, not slowing his steps to a more typical walking pace until he had rounded the temple’s corner and was pacing down its length on the sidewalk.

It wasn’t much of a play, but it was the best he could think of on short notice. It was pretty clear that going back to the Inquisition wasn’t an option. With Kheshiri run off and the Jackal himself evidently having snapped under the pressure of his own scheme, to say nothing of that rabid loon Syrinx now holding the reins, he had to face the fact that this entire keep-tabs-on-the-Archpope plan had gone belly up without producing any results.

That pretty much left him with Khadizroth as the only person to turn to. He already knew it was within K’s power to locate him in the city, and didn’t know why he hadn’t yet done so, though he could think of several possibilities. The least dismal was that the dragon was just too preoccupied keeping Syrinx from burning Ninkabi the fuck down to come looking; it was also possible he knew Shook had spent the night with the Wreath and assumed the worst about him. That left him with one, more slender hope.

Khadizroth was of the opinion that Snowe was a much cleverer operator than she let on, and Shook respected his opinion highly. She’d pretty much have to be, anyway, to have come out here in order to put Syrinx down—itself a worthy goal in his view. He was gambling that she was sufficiently on the ball to make sure she’d be informed of interesting developments in whatever city she was in. Such as a scruffy person matching his description sniffing around for her at Izarite temples, for example.

He pulled out the pamphlet he’d acquired at a small Universal Church chapel, which gave the addresses of all the temples of Izara in Ninkabi, double-checking the next on the list. Yep, he was heading the right way, at least if his recollection of the street layout was solid.

Now there wasn’t much left but to hope Snowe found his trail before the Inquisition, the Guild, or the Avenists did. Or the Wreath. Or the Jackal, since the gods only knew what that demented fuck was up to right now and given his personality, killing off his former allies was an ample likelihood. Or this mysterious necromantic cult of Justinian’s, since that was evidently a real thing and was actually up to big trouble in this city.

Nothing could ever be easy, could it.


It was her own fault for leaving Kheshiri unsupervised for five minutes, Natchua reflected when she returned to the kitchen to find everyone assembled and the whole group in the process of exploding.

The entire story was obvious at a glance. The bit players had carefully removed themselves to three corners of the room: the three hobgoblins huddled together with their heads down in one, Sherwin in another watching the unfolding show as avidly as a theater patron during the fight scene, while Xyraadi perched daintily on a stool near the fireplace, sipping tea from a cracked mug with the aloof aspect of someone who wanted something to occupy her hands and mouth a lot more than she wanted tea.

It was just in front of the hall door, opposite the external door through which Natchua and Melaxyna emerged, that the real drama was playing out. Jonathan and Hesthri faced each other across the gap, he with his fists clenched and apparently on the verge of lunging at her, she just looking resigned. Natchua was in no way worried about that; aside from Hesthri’s physical invulnerability, she knew Jonathan Arquin would never get any closer than that to striking someone he cared about, especially a woman. That it had gone this far was a testament not only to how upset he was, but how suddenly the provocation must have come on, clearly before his prized self-control had a chance to re-assert itself.

And between them, just far enough back in the doorway not to obstruct their view of each other, Kheshiri looked confused and worried, glancing back and forth as if this outcome were a complete surprise to her. Given who and what she was, that was unlikely to be fooling anyone. It was certainly not fooling Natchua, who could read the malicious glee coursing through her aura like a newspaper headline.

Well, Mel had warned her Kheshiri’s campaign would begin with deliberately making a nuisance of herself.

“Oh dear,” Kheshiri said worriedly, wringing her hands. “Should…I not have said anything? I’m sorry, I don’t know all the history here…”

Jonathan tore his eyes from Hesthri to turn an incredulously furious stare upon Natchua. “Is this true?”

“Is what…” He physically swelled, and she broke off, shaking her head. “No, Jonathan, I am not being disingenuous. I’m pretty sure I know what this is about, but since the rogue succubus obviously started it, I’m not willing to assume.”

“That’s what this is about,” Hesthri said quietly. “And yes, Jonathan, it’s true.”

Amazingly, he managed to puff up even further, his face flushing almost crimson with the pressure of not lashing out. At least he managed to keep it strictly verbal.

“What is wrong with you?” he roared, addressing himself to the ceiling.

Natchua chose to assume, regardless, that it was directed at her.

“Well, if I knew the full answer to that, I’d already be at work fixing it, now wouldn’t I?” she asked wearily. “Nothing you don’t already know about, really. And I did try to warn you.”

“Nothing is wrong with me,” Hesthri said, her voice still soft. “Not now that I’m with you, and safe from my former mistress, and able to help Gabriel. All of it thanks to Natchua. What’s more,” she added in a firmer tone, stepping forward to compel his attention, “a lot less is wrong with Natchua than either she or you thinks, and none of it able to be addressed by carrying on this way. This isn’t how I wanted to you find out, obviously, but I was also not going to hide it from you, Jonathan. Since this is how it’s begun, though, let’s talk about it.”

“You want to talk.” He clutched his head for a moment, fingers clenching into bloodless claws. “…no. This is more shit than I can deal with.”

“Jonathan,” Hesthri said urgently as he rounded on Kheshiri. “Please, you can’t—”

“Later,” he snapped, not looking at her. “I can’t even look at you right now. Get out of the way!” he roared at Kheshiri, who quailed backward, still blocking the door.

The nigh-hysterical mirth roiling in her aura rose to such a pitch that Natchua was honestly impressed she managed to keep acting, but indeed she did, quivering and stammering and giving a very good impression of a woman too panicked by the sight of the man cornering her even to flee.

Natchua wasn’t sure what would result from the succubus continuing to antagonize Jonathan right now, but was not about to indulge her. A simple extension of her will caused the shadows to flicker and gather, sweeping Kheshiri away to stand at the opposite side of the room, well out of his path.

“Jonathan,” Hesthri said as he stomped out down the corridor toward the ruined great hall. She only spoke his name, though, not raising her voice or trying to call him back.

“Mistress, I’m so sorry,” Kheshiri burbled frantically, “I didn’t realize—”

“Silence,” Natchua ordered with neither emphasis nor inflection. “I’ll deal with you in a moment. Melaxyna, would you please go make sure Jonathan doesn’t do anything…unwise?”

“He will not,” Hesthri stated, turning to her. “And he definitely doesn’t want to be hovered over. Just let him calm down on his own time.”

“I agree,” Natchua replied. “Which is why I asked Melaxyna, whose presence he won’t detect if she doesn’t wish it. I trust Jonathan, but I’ve never seen him that angry, and the woods around Veilgrad are not safe even by the standards of woods in general.”

Hesthri nodded at that, as did Melaxyna, pausing only to squeeze Natchua’s shoulder once. She slipped across the room, diverting momentarily to the corner to peck Sherwin on the cheek, then departed silently into the hallway, fading to invisibility as she went.

“Xyraadi,” Natchua said, turning to the khelminash, with a deep bow of her head, “this is more menial than the work you’re used to, I know, but can I ask you to supervise the horogki’s work today?”

“Pas de probleme,” Xyraadi assured her, rising smoothly and setting her cup on the mantle. “After helping Mortimer in Second Chances, I fancy I have acquired a knack for administration.”

“Oh, uh, about that, boss lady,” Pizzicato squeaked. Natchua turned to find her hunched as if expecting to be kicked; Glissando and Staccato were actually trying to hide behind her. “We, uh, sorta need some quality time with Mr. Moneybags, here. We gotta see about orderin’ some stuff to work with—stone, lumber, glass, tools, nails an’ shit. Cleanup’s well and good and a lotta that rubble is reusable but not even we can rebuild a house outta good intentions and slobber.”

“That’s Lord Moneybags, actually,” Natchua corrected her, smiling in spite of herself.

“Hey, just Sherwin’s fine,” he demurred. “The House of Moneybags doesn’t stand on formality. What’s left of it. And anyway, uh, I don’t really know what to tell you. I have my lawyers arrange for my supplies and stuff. If I need something in particular that’s not on the regular delivery I have them order it. If you just write down what you need…”

“I can certainly attend to that myself,” Xyraadi said, smiling. “If you girls will just tell me what you need, I shall arrange a full list for Sherwin to deliver to his steward.”

“Oh,” Pizzicato croaked, looking less than reassured. “Well, then. Great. Okay.”

“Is there a problem?” Natchua asked.

All three of them suddenly straightened up, frantically waving. “No, no! No problem! Everything’s fine and dandy!”

“There is not a problem,” Hesthri interjected, “but I see why they would fear otherwise. Girls,” she went on more gently, turning to the hobgoblins, “Xyraadi is not like the other khelminash. She fled from their cities and from Hell itself to come here and live free of them. I have found her to be kind and entirely reasonable; she won’t treat you the way the mistresses back home did. Right?” she added, turning a pointed look on Xyraadi.

“Oh, absolutement,” Xyraadi agreed hastily. “I apologize, ladies, for failing to consider your perspective. I, of all people! No, we are all five of us exiles from the same nightmare, are we not? And good riddance to it. I see no reason we cannot all be friends; it is not a hard thing to treat one another with a little basic respect.”

“Xyraadi has my trust as well,” Natchua added, seeing that the three hobs looked less than convinced. It would likely take time and exposure to bring them around; she just needed to apply a little encouragement to get them started. “But if anyone here has any problem with anyone else, you bring it right to me and I will take care of it. Okay? You’re not slaves here. It’s not possible for you to leave and roam this plane, I’m afraid, but if you wanted to go back to where you came from, I’ll arrange it.”

That prompted another round of frantic demurrals, and Hesthri winced.

“I’m sorry,” Natchua said ruefully, “that sounded like a threat, didn’t it? I promise it wasn’t. Don’t worry, girls, I’m not going to banish you unless you ask me to. I just mean, this is a small community and we need to get along. So long as everybody pulls their weight, I will make sure you’re treated as well as I can reasonably arrange. Fair?”

“Come, why don’t you show me what you have done so far?” Xyraadi suggested, smiling at the quailing hobgoblins and gesturing toward the door. “I would be delighted to hear your plans for the ongoing repairs.”

“Hes,” Natchua said, “would you mind going along? Not that I think they need more supervision, but they might feel better with you there.”

“Not at all. In fact, I’d be grateful to have something to do with myself right now.” She gave Natchua a warm smile before gently shepherding the still-uncertain horogki toward the great hall.

Sherwin cleared his throat as Xyraadi followed them out. “Well! I guess I’ll, uh…”

“That’s okay, Sherwin, it’s your room, after all. Don’t put yourself out; I’ll just get the rest of this mess out of your hair. Come, Kheshiri.”

The sunlight wasn’t as glaring as it had once been; the actual shadow spell to protect her eyes from the brilliance hadn’t been part of the repertory of infernomacny Elilial had given her, but it had been easy enough to work out. She didn’t even need dark glasses anymore.

“Mistress, I apologize,” Kheshiri said demurely. “It seems I misread the situation and spoke out of turn. If any trouble has resulted—”

“Yes, I know,” Natchua interrupted in a disinterested tone. Narisian reserve didn’t exactly prepare her for this kind of playacting, but she made do by trying to channel the attitude she felt best fit her needs: Tellwyrn’s. One of Tellwyrn’s specific attitudes, in fact, the slightly irritated dismissal she showed to problems that were only just barely worth addressing. As if this pivotal conversation with this highly dangerous individual were a fleeting annoyance, beneath her attention. “You’ve only seen me using brute force to solve problems, so you assumed that was the only trick I had, and therefore assumed you’re smarter than I. And that was fine, while you were an unwanted stray I had to gather up. Now, however, I have a task for you, and so it’s time for you to learn some things.”

“Oh?” Kheshiri murmured. “I will be glad to serve you in any way I can, mistress.”

Her expression, now, was surprised and intrigued, and for once the emotion in her aura was exactly the same.

The thing was, Kheshiri absolutely was smarter than she, and had to at least suspect it. But if she thought Natchua was dim enough not to recognize the disparity in their scheming ability, she might relax her efforts enough to make a mistake. Plus, by taking a leaf out of Hesthri’s book and abruptly changing her entire demeanor every so often, apropos of nothing, she might stave off the succubus from getting a true handle on her actual personality.

Gods, this was going to be exhausting.


By the time early afternoon rolled around, Shook was seriously considering trying to catch a nap in an alley like some kind of bum. Keeping moving the whole day was exactly the exhausting icing his already exhausting cake did not need; after visiting every Izarite temple in Ninkabi to sow the necessary seeds of suspicion, he had carried on a gradual circuit of the city, pacing between the temples in the hope that anybody who came looking for him would be less likely to catch him unawares as long as he was moving. If he got the first look, he could meet up with Snowe or Vannae if it was one of them, or flee from anyone else. But gods, he was about ready to drop right where he stood. It wasn’t like this was his first all-nighter, but it also wasn’t as if he were as young as he’d once been.

And ultimately it didn’t even work. He was shambling along, too out of it even to register where he was going anymore, much less what was happening around him, when a luxury enchanted carriage driven by a man in nondescript livery pulled up to the curb alongside him.

One of its windows swung outward, and Branwen Snowe’s face appeared in the gap. “May I offer you a ride, Mr. Shook?”

He was too tired to hesitate or even upbraid himself for being snuck up on after all his preparations. He just turned toward the carriage and grasped the door handle, Snowe already retreating along the seat. Shook clambered in and slumped against its plush cushions, only belatedly remembering to pull the door shut.

“Gods, am I glad to see you, lady,” he said as the carriage pulled smoothly back into traffic. “How’d you find me?”

“Khadizroth has been instrumental in tracking you. I must say, though, your plan to draw my attention was impressively clever. I’ve already had several confused reports of your movements. I’d like to think that even without our dragon friend, I would have been sharp enough to locate you.”

She smiled, and it was even better than the smiles he’d been getting from Izarite priests all morning, for all that it had that same ineffably gentle Izarite quality to it. The difference, he figured, was that Branwen Snowe was also out and out gorgeous, and clearly worked at it. None of the others had worn cosmetics, or applied more to their hair than water and a comb. She looked like she was on the way to one of her book signings or public addresses. He’d known plenty of women like this; they always looked that way.

“So K’s with you,” he said wearily. “Good. Makes this a lot easier.”

“Yes, it will be good to have everyone’s information in the same room,” she agreed. “I gather you must have had a very interesting night. And Khadizroth will be able to update you on events within Basra’s Inquisition since you slipped out.”

Shook grunted. “I bet Syrinx is about ready to chew her fuckin’ foot off.”

“She was close to that point before all this started.”

Despite the fatigue, he studied her face closely. “I guess that’s the best news you’ve had all week, right? You must really hate the bitch to go to all this trouble.”

Snowe sighed very softly, turning her blue eyes to the passing scenery outside the window. “Even if I were inclined toward hate…no. That seems like an emotion for enemies. Other people. Basra Syrinx is just a mad, deadly thing which has run amok for far too long. All I feel is pity for those she has harmed, and…remorse. This summer I stood in the Grand Cathedral while the paladin of her own faith demanded she be brought to justice, and heard the fellow Bishop whose opinion I respect the most point out something which has stayed with me ever since: all those of us who tolerated Basra because she was politically useful, even knowing what a monster she is, are complicit in her crimes. Her destruction is redemption, to me. That’s all.”

“I can respect that,” he said, nodding and letting his eyes close of their own accord. Shook was just too bone-weary to dissemble; that actually was a sentiment to which he could relate. “Oh…right. You’d best not bring me to whatever safe house you’re using, Bishop. Among the shit I need to bring everybody up to speed on, I spent the night with the Black fuckin’ Wreath. I’d bet my left nut they’re still tracking me. They damn sure can, and they’d be pretty stupid not to.”

“I see,” she said, turning back to him with her eyebrows raised. “Well… Thank you for the warning, but we must go where we are going regardless. That is where Khadizroth awaits us. After that, however, I’m confident he can erase any trace the warlocks can lay upon you, and my own roots in this city are shallow. We can move to a new, safer location easily enough.”

He just nodded. Sounded like good sense.

“I’m proud of you, Mr. Shook,” she said quietly.

He opened his eyes. “Excuse me?”

“I know nothing except what I cannot help but sense,” Snowe said, again giving him that Izarite smile. “But it is…familiar to me. You are a man struggling with inner demons, and slowly but surely, rising above them. Forgive my presumption; I just wanted you to know that I honor the effort.”

Shook stared at her for a moment. It seemed that this was the sort of thing that usually made him angry. Right at that moment, though, he just didn’t have the energy.

He leaned his head against the window and let his eyes drift shut again.

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15 – 29

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Ingvar was accustomed to relatively quiet evenings in Aspen’s company, their natural rhythms attuned to the cycles of the world around them, and so they were rarely up past dark. It was well into the night, now, and the group remained awake around a hearty fire, but he had decided to leave them to it since they were conversing with apparent harmony and goodwill—traits sorely needed in this fractious group. It was the first promising sign that they could get along and simply find some enjoyment in each other’s company. He decided that was worth more than a couple of hours of sleep.

When Rainwood had stepped over to whisper to him earlier, the rest of the group was mostly too engrossed in Taka’s current anecdote to notice, though Aspen turned her attention to him. Upon rising, Ingvar paused to murmur an explanation to her. Tholi looked up curiously, but Ingvar demurred the attention with a gesture, and so he and the shaman were able to slip off into the trees without disturbing the party.

He returned minutes later at a far more deliberate pace, striding forward to stand in the firelight at the edge of the group. At this entrance, the others all shifted their attention to him with expressions of curiosity.

“I have something important to show you,” Ingvar stated. “Please remain seated. And above all else, remain calm. You are in no more danger here than you create. Be peaceful, and peace will reign.”

“That is pretty ominous,” November commented.

He smiled. “I’m serious, though. Trust me.” Pausing only to sweep a look around at each of them, Ingvar then stepped aside, positioning himself so that he could see both the firepit, the four of them clustered by it, and the spot in the trees from which Rainwood now silently emerged.

The shaman slipped back into their little clearing and immediately moved off to the side, bowing low in the direction of the gap between trees from which he’d come. After a momentary pause, another shape slowly emerged out of the darkness.

There was a sharp indrawing of breath from multiple throats and a rustle as several of them shifted as though to jump up.

“Peace,” Ingvar murmured, keeping his voice low but projecting it firmly. The group stilled at his reminder, watching in wide-eyed silence as she came.

The firelight reflected in her eyes as she approached, a huge dark shape slipping out of the night with two burning points directed at them. In silence, she padded forward, her footfalls precise and stealthy but still audible against the carpet of grass and fallen leaves due to her sheer weight. One deliberate step at a time, the wolf emerged into the circle of light, ears upright and alert; as she came into the illumination, the dark shape she had seemed at first coalesced, revealing the mottled gray and brown coloring of her pelt.

She stopped, just at the perimeter of the light, where they could see her clearly. For several seconds, there was only the sound of the crackling fire, and the crickets in the woods outside. The wolf stared at them, shifting her head only minutely to focus on each of them in turn.

Then, ears still on the alert, she sat down on her haunches.

Taka drew in an unsteady breath. “It’s huge.”

“She,” Ingvar corrected quietly.

“She is like a pony!”

“Not quite,” he said with an amused little smile. “But they are not dogs. Domestication does a great deal to change an animal.”

“To call wolves,” Tholi whispered. “Only the most blessed among the Huntsmen’s shaman have this skill.”

“Wolves are not to be called,” Ingvar said firmly. “And a Shaathist shaman so blessed has not been known in so long that I, and many others, suspect that is nothing but an old story. She has agreed to come visit us. Remember: this is her land, not ours. Her family lives and hunts here. They know the nearby Rangers, and the Huntsmen of the lodge, and keep their distance. Wolves and people have no business with one another. We do not belong in each other’s homes. Only through the auspices of a skilled shaman,” he turned and bowed toward Rainwood, “can they be asked to join our company for a short time. And it is never more than a request. Of the pack which lives in these woods, only she decided to come.”

“Why?” November asked in a bare whisper. The wolf shifted her head to look at her directly.

“That is her business,” he said. “I can tell you this much, though. There are a number of myths about the world’s creation that seek to explain wolves; Aspen and I have gathered a few in our recent travels. The Huntsmen have their own story… Which I have learned, to my own very great chagrin, is a falsehood.” Tholi’s head snapped around to stare at him, but Ingvar simply continued in the same even tone. “I think the story told by the elves is the most likely to be true. They claim that it happened on another world far away, that none of our kinds are native to this world but were brought here by the Elder Gods. In their version, in the unthinkably ancient past, the first humans all lived as we are tonight: in small bands, hunting to survive off the land, clustering around their tiny fires at night. Over countless years, they tamed and bred wolves, developing them into the dogs we have today, creatures uniquely responsive to human beings because they were made for and by human companionship. But it all began with exactly what you see here.” He turned toward the wolf, inclining his head deeply to her. She looked at him then resumed her slow study of the rest of the group while he spoke. “One who was curious, and brave, and willing to extend a little trust. We will not be domesticating our visitor tonight, I can tell you that much. But you should also know this moment for what it is: a moment that, if we chose to make it so, could start this ancient process anew. This is a rare thing, a pivot point which we could seize, and initiate the process of making a slice of the wild our own.”

He hesitated, letting the pause hang.

“What makes us who we are, who we have gathered to become, is that we shall not do this, even as we respect the possibility.”

Ingvar shifted his focus to study each of them in turn, as the wolf was doing. The three humans looked exactly as he hoped, now that the initial shock had abated: all three were gazing at the wild creature avidly, their faces matching pictures of awe and wonder. Even, he was faintly surprised to observe, Taka. Perhaps the gods had indeed sent her to this group on purpose. Aspen, of course, was much less impressed by a wolf, but was regarding the creature with an expression of calm thought, her head cocked to one side as she did when mulling over something he had just explained to her.

“There is an awkward dichotomy to Shaathism,” Ingvar continued after the pause, again turning to regard the great beast among them. “Outsiders to the faith often use it to deride the Huntsmen. Shaath is the god of the wild, and so it is the wild that we take as both mission and guidance. We revere the example of the wolf—or at least, the Huntsman claim to, though they suffer from several severe misconceptions about wolves in the process.” Again, Tholi glanced sharply at him, but resumed gazing at the wolf as Ingvar kept going. “But that always leads back to the question: at what point must we stop being wild, and be tamed? If we truly immersed ourselves in the way of the wild to the utmost degree, we would simply be running naked through the woods scavenging for berries. Obviously, the Huntsmen do not seek to do this. And though I have been called specifically to correct them to the path from which they’ve strayed, I have no intention of doing so, either.”

He paused, drawing in breath and just looking at the wolf, drinking in her presence. She moved her head again, meeting his eyes.

“This is the balance the Huntsmen seek…that we must seek. If you, living in this moment, can feel the weight, the sacredness of what you are experiencing, then this is a path you can walk. This is what it means to be guardians of the wild. We sit here with our fire and our weapons, our clothing and our magic, our complex language and philosophies. But we do so out in the wild space, knowing—and respecting—that we are not the masters here. We invite the wild to sit at the edge of our fire, and are honored by her presence.

“We are not wild, nor tamed. We stand between two things and apart from both. Protecting them, from themselves and from each other.”

He fell silent, and no one spoke this time. The night stretched out, none of them willing to interrupt the reverence of the moment.

Until, fittingly, it was interrupted from outside. In the distant darkness, a single voice arose: the long, lonely howl of a wolf. Immediately it was followed by another, and then a third, singing together in harmony.

Right in front of them, the wolf at the edge of their firelight raised her own head and howled in reply. That close, her voice was almost piercing, but it was no less musical for that. She let out a single long note, ending it on a soft warble.

Then she stood up, turned around, and padded off into the darkness, in the direction of the family calling her back.

All of them stared into the night after the departing visitor, while wolves continued to cry from deep in the darkness beyond.

“We will meet her again,” Ingvar said quietly. “We have business with three packs in this area before it’s time for us to move on: the Huntsmen, the Rangers, and the wolves. Now that we are acknowledged by all three, we can truly begin tomorrow. It is from the wolves that we, and the other two, must learn the truth of the wild. It is a truth that I suspect they will not like. But they will hear it.”

The group were silent, listening to the wolves cry.


“I thought demonology and necromancy were completely separate things,” said Shook.

“Distinct, yes,” replied the stocky warlock introduced to him as Bradshaw, “but if by ‘completely separate’ you mean there are zero points of overlap, then no magical disciplines are completely separate, not even the four cardinal schools. Ultimately it all comes back to subjective physics—”

The woman, Vanessa, cleared her throat loudly.

“Yes, right,” Bradshaw said hastily. “Point being, what we are looking at here is soul magic. That’s not so much a school of magic in itself as a category of things you can do with magic—like necromancy itself, which you can do with infernomancy or fae craft most easily. There are some well-known uses of souls in infernal magic, notably the creation of incubi and succubi. Or those half-assed revenant things the local back-alley warlock is so fond of,” he added with a disparaging scowl. “Soulcraft is also well-known to the caster demons, too. Human souls barred from paradise by Vidius end up in Hell and only a very few impress Prince Vanislaas enough to become his children; the rest tend to get snapped up for use in spells by the khelminash or vrardexi.”

“I am torn between flattery that you think I understand any of this, and annoyance that you seem to think I give a shit,” Shook informed him.

Bradshaw blinked at him once and then turned to Mogul. “Embras, are you absolutely sure we need this clod alive?”

“Let’s show a bare minimum of courtesy to our guest, now,” Mogul said, grinning. “Think of it as setting an example.” The voluptuous, under-dressed woman clinging to his arm tittered, and Shook barely managed not to flinch. What with his recent experiences he was even more jumpy around succubi than a sensible person would be ordinarily. If anything, the fact that Vlesni was more overtly vampish than Kheshiri made him less alarmed by her. It was the innocent, well-behaved facade he feared.

“So,” he said pointedly, pushing down a surge of anger over Bradshaw’s crack at his expense, “these guys are using necromancy to get souls to power their magic?”

“Souls aren’t a power source,” Bradshaw said in a long-suffering tone that would’ve gotten anybody else punched. Shook might have punched him anyway, had there not been two other warlocks and a demon present. “They’re… Ugh. Comparing them to golem logic controllers is horribly inadequate and feels disrespectful, but the principle applies. A soul can process information, which is basically what casting a spell is, and serves as a focus point enabling the use of magic. The ability of a conscious being to observe and determine a reaction is key in any magical effect.”

“What about passive enchantments?”

“Those were made by a conscious caster, the effect is just delayed and tied to secondary stimuli. With a soul, you can do several interesting things. Attach it to something you want to animate, for example, or boost your own spells by adding what amounts to a secondary focus so it’s as if you are two casters working in concert, rather than one. What this does, as near as we can tell by examining the half-made array, is a kind of portal magic.”

“Huh,” Shook grunted, studying the spell circle scrawled in dried blood upon the warehouse floor. Empty warehouse: the best friend of anyone up to urban skullduggery. It was an open question whether the person who owned the place had any inkling what was going on here, much less whether they were complicit, but he didn’t bother to ask. This was the Black Wreath, they had undoubtedly seen and covered all the angles well in advance. “So. Basically, these guys are doing some kind of ritual sacrifice to make portals. Neat, I didn’t know that was possible.”

“All other things being equal, it should only be possible in theory,” said Mogul, patting Vlesni’s hand and then disentangling her from his arm to step forward and join them at the edge of the circle. “Here’s the fundamental problem with soul magic and necromancy in general: it is stepping very directly and aggressively on Vidius’s toes. Theoretically you can achieve almost any end with almost any type of magic, if you’re creative enough and powerful enough. The limits of possibility with necromancy are mostly unexplored, though, because as soon as you start doing necromancy on any significant scale you’ll find yourself ass-deep in valkyries.”

“And pause for dramatic effect,” Shook said dryly when Mogul did just that. “Next you’re gonna explain how these guys are doing this without pissing off Vidius. Oh, sorry, were you waiting for me to ask that?”

“Why is he here, again?” Bradshaw demanded.

“Oh, calm down,” Vanessa said with an amused little smile. “I like him. Or at least, I would if I knew a little bit less about his personal history.” She winked at Shook, who curled his lip. Vanessa was pretty enough, but he couldn’t get an idea what kind of figure she had thanks to that dumpy gray Wreath robe. Thinking back to Alan Vandro’s advice about women, he was keeping his focus on the fact that she could snap her fingers and boil his blood where he stood. In an ironic way, the conscious effort of reinforcing Vandro’s teachings above the habits Kheshiri had spent the last two years encouraging was helping to keep him grounded and alert.

“That is, indeed, the bloody knife in this little mystery,” Mogul drawled, showing no signs of annoyance at Shook’s attitude. “The last major necromantic event was that disaster at Veilgrad last year, which was caused by a chaos cult. Chaos, of course, fucks up all calculations by its very nature and can indeed be used to obscure the gaze of the gods. Once the Hand of Vidius was on-site, that place was swarming with soul reapers putting down skeletons. Last one before that was Tethloss the Summoner, who we killed because the son of a bitch had somehow got his mitts on a tome of Black Wreath spellcraft and was using our own workings to hide himself from the gods.”

“Hey, I remember that guy,” said Shook, interested in spite of himself. “I was up in Thakar when he got done in. I seem to recall it was the Fourth Legion that did it.”

“Pfft, they cleaned up his lingering summons. Which we left for them, as housekeeping is the proper duty of the Silver Legions once the real work is out of the way.” Mogul waved one hand in a languid gesture of dismissal. “No, the point is that when you see an organized use of necromancy, it always hinges upon some mechanism for hiding its use from Vidius. In this case, we have not identified the specific one, at least not precisely. What we have is circumstantial indication of who is behind this, and that provides a hint.”

“The Tide shall wash away impurity,” Bradshaw intoned, pointing to an arc of demonic runes scrawled around the edge of the circle. “This outer ring of text is in demonic, but it’s not spellcraft; it appears to be just dogma. And mostly gibberish, but…”

“But,” Mogul continued, “it fits. You are here ostensibly to hunt the cult that tried to kill the Emperor and was using some pretty damn advanced necromancy right in the middle of Tiraas.”

“We have no information on who or what that cult is,” Vanessa added, “which is incredibly suggestive. Nobody knows anything about these people, even the Thieves’ Guild and Imperial Intelligence. You know how hard it is to raise up an entire religion full of suicidal shocktroopers without anybody noticing? The very idea is ridiculous. It can be done, in theory, if you’ve got access to the huge amount of resources to keep the whole group—of hundreds, apparently—in total isolation. Plus a willingness to aggressively recruit—by which I mean borderline abduct and then brainwash—a lot of the kind of back-alley undesirables whom nobody will miss from cities all across the Empire. The Universal Church is one of the very few organizations with that kind of funds, and Justinian is probably the first Archpope since Sipasian who has cultivated enough personal loyalty from his clergy that enough of them would be willing to do something so skeevy and keep it under wraps.”

“And,” Mogul finished, nodding, “we’ve known for a while now that Justinian has some means of deflecting the notice of the Pantheon gods from some of his pet projects. Therefore this Tide is his creation.”

“Hn,” Shook grunted. “We more than suspected that already, but it’s nice to have a chain of evidence leading to it.”

“Circumstantial evidence, of course, but still,” Mogul agreed. “And that leads us to you, and as my dear friend Bradshaw keeps incredulously demanding, why I am bothering to bring you into the loop.”

“Pretty curious about that, myself,” Shook admitted. Bradshaw nodded emphatic agreement.

“Let me ask you this,” Mogul said to him in a less jocular tone. “Was the Jackal aware of any of this before he started his killing spree?”

“Well, I sure as fuck wasn’t, and I don’t think any of the rest of my crew were,” Shook said thoughtfully, “though Syrinx obviously has information she’s keeping from us. I don’t think Jacko was ever out of our sight before today enough to pick up details but…fuck if I know. Why?”

“Because this is the only example we’ve found of this Tide actually trying to do something magically constructive. Every previous indication was merely the site of a ritual sacrifice, where they murdered someone in a back alley to capture their soul. You said the Jackal is trying to rile the police; what he’s doing looks an awful lot like what the Tide were doing, only they were at least trying to be careful. He’s being the opposite.”

“Maybe,” Shook said reluctantly. “I have no reason to think so, specifically. That explanation does make sense, but honestly that twisted fuck might just as well be doing this because he thinks it’s funny.”

“What charming company you keep,” Bradshaw said flatly.

Shook pointedly turned to look at Vlesni and then back at him. “You don’t get to criticize, petunia.”

“The reason I’m showing you this,” said Mogul, “is so you can go back and inform your cronies. Because it doesn’t seem they have any idea what is happening here, and they really need to. Not that I trust most of your lot to buckle down and do what’s sensible, but you and Khadizroth, at least, I believe have that much basic intelligence. Plus that other elf who follows him around. Victor, was it?”

“Vespa,” Vanessa corrected.

“Vincent,” said Bradshaw.

“Close enough,” said Shook.

“This isn’t about trust, you see,” Mogul continued. “Syrinx, the Jackal, and Kheshiri neither know sense when it bites them on the nose, nor would they let it restrain them from scheming for their own advantage even if they recognized it. You, Khadizroth, and I think Snowe are another matter. I don’t mean to underplay the many, many currents blowing here, but this is more important.”

“Yeah?” Shook said warily, again reminding himself how dramatically untrustworthy these people were. It was an important reminder; Mogul was a very compelling speaker when he tried to be. “What the fuck is this, specifically?”

“That,” said Mogul, pointing to the scrawled circle, “is incomplete, but it is clearly intended to use a captured soul to open a dimensional portal, and its guidance runes are scribed in demonic. We have identified a dozen ritual murder sites where souls have been stolen and are assuming there are at least twice that out there since we haven’t once caught one of these bastards in the act. When I said twenty hellgates, Thumper, I wasn’t just trying to give you an example of the scale of the problem. I strongly suspect that that is the literal, specific plan.”

Shook let out a long, low whistle. “Why the fuck would anybody want to do a dumbass thing like that?”

“As for these Tide people, there’s this bit about washing away corruption,” said Bradshaw, wrinkling his nose as he stared down at the circle. “That’s bog standard doomsday cult horseradish. The world is corrupt, the world must be cleansed, yadda yadda. The kind of thing the ignorant think we set out to do.”

“But they’re just pawns,” Vanessa said quietly.

“What concerns me here is Justinian’s motivations,” Mogul agreed. “Unleashing huge amounts of random destruction is the desperate act of someone who considers himself cornered and urgently needs to upset the whole board. Believe me, I know. I’ve found myself repeatedly backed into that corner in the last few years. Why do you think I was willing to put a creature like Kheshiri into the hands of a creature like you?”

“No offense taken,” Shook said flatly.

Mogul grinned at him, but his expression just as quickly sobered. “What worries me, old boy, is what it means if Justinian feels he’s in that position. He’s one of the most powerful men in the world, and if we’re reading this right, he is willing to burn down a major city and unleash demons across half of N’Jendo just to create a distraction. The question is why, and no possible answer isn’t terrifying.”

“A great doom is coming,” Bradshaw murmured.

“Or,” said Shook, “to put it less pretentiously, shit’s about to get real.”


Merry emerged from the darkened old structure to creep up behind Principia. Trying to keep quiet was simple respect for their surroundings and the late hour; she was under no illusion that she was capable of sneaking up on an elf.

“I’ll take over,” she said softly, coming to a stop at the lieutenant’s shoulder.

Principia shook her head slowly, still staring across the flat plateau at the place where the eight students and their animal companions were arranged around the bonfire they’d built. “That’s okay, Lang. Go back to sleep, I’ve got this.”

“You need sleep too, LT.”

“Less urgently. I’m an elf.”

“Yeah, an elf who forgets I’ve got Shahai to fact-check your bullshit stories with. You need less food and air, not less sleep.”

“That sideways-eared race traitor,” Principia grumbled without rancor.

“Prin,” Merry said very quietly. “Go rest. Nothing’s gonna happen here. I can keep watch.”

“You know what they’re doing?”

Merry shifted her gaze to the students. The eight of them had arranged themselves in an equal formation around the bonfire, and were still awake despite it being well past midnight. Since coming back from the tree yesterday and arranging themselves thus, they hadn’t kept any specific pattern, for the most part staying in their assigned places, though they all moved around a fair bit. Sitting and kneeling in a variety of meditative postures, in some cases pacing (or in Fross’s case, hovering) back and forth in apparent thought. Occasionally they had crossed to one another’s positions for quiet exchanges, though they always returned to their assigned places.

Right now, Toby and Juniper were talking softly with their heads together, the only two currently out of position. Teal and Shaeine were both kneeling, eyes closed, facing each other across the distance between their specific spots around the edge of the firelight, F’thaan belly-up and fast asleep in the drow’s lap. Gabriel lounged on the ground, frowning at the horizon, while Trissiny stood at parade rest, staring at the Great Tree in the near distance with her hands behind her back. Ruda was pacing back and forth, absently swishing her jeweled rapier through the air and muttering to herself. Fross, for a wonder, was actually sitting on the ground at the moment, almost invisible in the firelight.

“Can’t say I do,” she said at last, “though it sure does look a lot more goal-directed than most of what they’ve done since Last Rock.”

“It’s a vigil,” Principia said quietly. “This is some Vidian thing Arquin suggested. They are going to do a ritual at dawn. Dusk and dawn are the powerful moments in Vidian ritual magic, boundaries between the two phases of the day. But first, an all-night vigil. It’s time to watch, to contemplate…to prepare.” She paused, then finished in a whisper. “I’m not sure what exactly they are keeping watch for, but I’m holding my own. I am not going to sleep, Lang. You may as well; there’s no sense in both of us being up all night. I’ll get a nap tomorrow, while they’re off at the tree.”

Merry stood behind her for several drawn-out seconds, studying the University students thoughtfully. Then she stepped forward and sat down at Principia’s side.

The elf shot her a sidelong frown. “Corporal…”

“I’m gonna crawl way out on a limb and guess they didn’t ask you to keep watch over them tonight,” Merry stated. “This is more one of those things you get to do because you avoided them telling you not to by not asking permission, right?”

Principia made an annoyed grimace at her.

Merry leaned over to bump the elf with her shoulder. “I’m not asking you, either.”

Principia shook her head, but didn’t protest any further. The plateau was quiet, then, as they all kept their vigil.


Dawn as always brought warmth, which was confusing when she opened her eyes, because it was not dawn. Yesterday she’d been awakened by sunlight streaming through the window right onto her bed, as the ramshackle old room in Leduc Manor lacked shutters, or even curtains. The sky outside was still just barely gray, though, at least an hour before sunrise. But it was so warm…

Hesthri stirred in her arms, and Natchua went fully rigid as memory and wakefulness crashed down on her. The demon mumbled in her sleep, burying her face back in Natchua’s collarbone. She was so warm, and surprisingly soft where she wasn’t armored, the texture of her skin smooth but patterned, almost like a snake’s. All of her skin, pressed close to all of Natchua’s.

The two of them entangled on one side of the wide bed, because the other was still a big damp patch where they’d…

Natchua squeezed her eyes shut again as if that would blot out the evidence of her most recent stupidity.

“Ssssshit.”

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