Tag Archives: Vannae

15 – 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would you stop threatening her?” Jonathan exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I—”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rrrrright back atcha.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Enough, Jack,” Khadizroth said quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did I ask your opinion, Mr. Shook?”

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

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

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

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

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

Vannae shook his head, turning to look at Khadizroth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The group exchanged a round of glances.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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15 – 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He squinted in surprise. “Elilial…withheld?”

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

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

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

“That hellgate,” Jonathan said, eyes widening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m pretty sure you know I haven’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“I am going to kill that bitch.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you are?” Khadizroth asked politely.

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

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

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

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

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

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15 – 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary smiled thinly, still gazing at Darling.

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

Slowly, she raised one eyebrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As the actress—”

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

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

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

Everyone turned to frown at him.

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

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

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

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

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

“Less than five, thank you.”

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

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

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

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

“I need your help.”

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

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

“With Jenny, yeah,” Joe nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weaver narrowed his eyes. “Why.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was met by a cluster of unimpressed expressions.

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

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

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

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

“Well?” Shook demanded.

“It’s a trap,” the succubus reported.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Vampires?” Finchley squeaked.

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

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

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

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


“Here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s out there,” Maureen whimpered.

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

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

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

“Wasn’t gonna,” he muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here it comes,” Tellwyrn muttered.

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

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

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

“What’s that mean?” Gabriel exclaimed.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Which one’s talking?” Finchley whispered.

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

The Jackal barked a laugh. “No bet.”

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

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

“You cannot stop the—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The accompanying smell was truly unspeakable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Flora, no!” Sweet shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“STOP!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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12 – 57

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They emerged from the alley into more trouble.

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

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

“Holy shit,” Finchley said somewhat tremulously.

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

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

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

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

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

“Whoah, hey!” Rook protested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I said better reason,” she said dryly.

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

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

“Vanislaad,” Joe said shortly.

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

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

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

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

“Oh, great,” Joe muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll be trapped—”

“Trust me, now!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Vannae,” Joe said stiffly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, are you okay?” Shook asked him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, is that all,” Finchley muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck this whole business,” Shook muttered.

“Amen, brother,” Rook agreed.

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

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

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

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

There was a beat of silence.

“Seriously?” Moriarty exclaimed at last.

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


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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, it was also making them angry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Professor Tellwyrn!” Toby exclaimed in clear relief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can confirm that,” the dwarf added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There are serious matters of principle—”

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

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

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

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

“Yes!” chorused half a dozen people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

Toby sighed. “Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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9 – 38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“BEHOLD!” Scorn shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, really,” Tellwyrn said flatly.

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

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

“Excellent advice,” Shaeine agreed.

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

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

“Me, too,” Juniper added.

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

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

“Not kill?” Scorn inquired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get the hell out.”

“Aye aye, fearless leader!”

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

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

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

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

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

“You know exactly what I mean.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shook began cursing monotonously.

“Well said!” the Jackal said brightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Give it time,” he murmured.

“Message?” Vannae inquired.

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would that make you happier?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weaver groaned loudly and clapped a hand over his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

“They seem pretty evenly matched…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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9 – 36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And did you ever follow that advice?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mary,” Joe said tersely, “that man—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a beat of silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hm,” Shook muttered, frowning at nothing.

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

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

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

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

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