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Ingvar was accustomed to relatively quiet evenings in Aspen’s company, their natural rhythms attuned to the cycles of the world around them, and so they were rarely up past dark. It was well into the night, now, and the group remained awake around a hearty fire, but he had decided to leave them to it since they were conversing with apparent harmony and goodwill—traits sorely needed in this fractious group. It was the first promising sign that they could get along and simply find some enjoyment in each other’s company. He decided that was worth more than a couple of hours of sleep.
When Rainwood had stepped over to whisper to him earlier, the rest of the group was mostly too engrossed in Taka’s current anecdote to notice, though Aspen turned her attention to him. Upon rising, Ingvar paused to murmur an explanation to her. Tholi looked up curiously, but Ingvar demurred the attention with a gesture, and so he and the shaman were able to slip off into the trees without disturbing the party.
He returned minutes later at a far more deliberate pace, striding forward to stand in the firelight at the edge of the group. At this entrance, the others all shifted their attention to him with expressions of curiosity.
“I have something important to show you,” Ingvar stated. “Please remain seated. And above all else, remain calm. You are in no more danger here than you create. Be peaceful, and peace will reign.”
“That is pretty ominous,” November commented.
He smiled. “I’m serious, though. Trust me.” Pausing only to sweep a look around at each of them, Ingvar then stepped aside, positioning himself so that he could see both the firepit, the four of them clustered by it, and the spot in the trees from which Rainwood now silently emerged.
The shaman slipped back into their little clearing and immediately moved off to the side, bowing low in the direction of the gap between trees from which he’d come. After a momentary pause, another shape slowly emerged out of the darkness.
There was a sharp indrawing of breath from multiple throats and a rustle as several of them shifted as though to jump up.
“Peace,” Ingvar murmured, keeping his voice low but projecting it firmly. The group stilled at his reminder, watching in wide-eyed silence as she came.
The firelight reflected in her eyes as she approached, a huge dark shape slipping out of the night with two burning points directed at them. In silence, she padded forward, her footfalls precise and stealthy but still audible against the carpet of grass and fallen leaves due to her sheer weight. One deliberate step at a time, the wolf emerged into the circle of light, ears upright and alert; as she came into the illumination, the dark shape she had seemed at first coalesced, revealing the mottled gray and brown coloring of her pelt.
She stopped, just at the perimeter of the light, where they could see her clearly. For several seconds, there was only the sound of the crackling fire, and the crickets in the woods outside. The wolf stared at them, shifting her head only minutely to focus on each of them in turn.
Then, ears still on the alert, she sat down on her haunches.
Taka drew in an unsteady breath. “It’s huge.”
“She,” Ingvar corrected quietly.
“She is like a pony!”
“Not quite,” he said with an amused little smile. “But they are not dogs. Domestication does a great deal to change an animal.”
“To call wolves,” Tholi whispered. “Only the most blessed among the Huntsmen’s shaman have this skill.”
“Wolves are not to be called,” Ingvar said firmly. “And a Shaathist shaman so blessed has not been known in so long that I, and many others, suspect that is nothing but an old story. She has agreed to come visit us. Remember: this is her land, not ours. Her family lives and hunts here. They know the nearby Rangers, and the Huntsmen of the lodge, and keep their distance. Wolves and people have no business with one another. We do not belong in each other’s homes. Only through the auspices of a skilled shaman,” he turned and bowed toward Rainwood, “can they be asked to join our company for a short time. And it is never more than a request. Of the pack which lives in these woods, only she decided to come.”
“Why?” November asked in a bare whisper. The wolf shifted her head to look at her directly.
“That is her business,” he said. “I can tell you this much, though. There are a number of myths about the world’s creation that seek to explain wolves; Aspen and I have gathered a few in our recent travels. The Huntsmen have their own story… Which I have learned, to my own very great chagrin, is a falsehood.” Tholi’s head snapped around to stare at him, but Ingvar simply continued in the same even tone. “I think the story told by the elves is the most likely to be true. They claim that it happened on another world far away, that none of our kinds are native to this world but were brought here by the Elder Gods. In their version, in the unthinkably ancient past, the first humans all lived as we are tonight: in small bands, hunting to survive off the land, clustering around their tiny fires at night. Over countless years, they tamed and bred wolves, developing them into the dogs we have today, creatures uniquely responsive to human beings because they were made for and by human companionship. But it all began with exactly what you see here.” He turned toward the wolf, inclining his head deeply to her. She looked at him then resumed her slow study of the rest of the group while he spoke. “One who was curious, and brave, and willing to extend a little trust. We will not be domesticating our visitor tonight, I can tell you that much. But you should also know this moment for what it is: a moment that, if we chose to make it so, could start this ancient process anew. This is a rare thing, a pivot point which we could seize, and initiate the process of making a slice of the wild our own.”
He hesitated, letting the pause hang.
“What makes us who we are, who we have gathered to become, is that we shall not do this, even as we respect the possibility.”
Ingvar shifted his focus to study each of them in turn, as the wolf was doing. The three humans looked exactly as he hoped, now that the initial shock had abated: all three were gazing at the wild creature avidly, their faces matching pictures of awe and wonder. Even, he was faintly surprised to observe, Taka. Perhaps the gods had indeed sent her to this group on purpose. Aspen, of course, was much less impressed by a wolf, but was regarding the creature with an expression of calm thought, her head cocked to one side as she did when mulling over something he had just explained to her.
“There is an awkward dichotomy to Shaathism,” Ingvar continued after the pause, again turning to regard the great beast among them. “Outsiders to the faith often use it to deride the Huntsmen. Shaath is the god of the wild, and so it is the wild that we take as both mission and guidance. We revere the example of the wolf—or at least, the Huntsman claim to, though they suffer from several severe misconceptions about wolves in the process.” Again, Tholi glanced sharply at him, but resumed gazing at the wolf as Ingvar kept going. “But that always leads back to the question: at what point must we stop being wild, and be tamed? If we truly immersed ourselves in the way of the wild to the utmost degree, we would simply be running naked through the woods scavenging for berries. Obviously, the Huntsmen do not seek to do this. And though I have been called specifically to correct them to the path from which they’ve strayed, I have no intention of doing so, either.”
He paused, drawing in breath and just looking at the wolf, drinking in her presence. She moved her head again, meeting his eyes.
“This is the balance the Huntsmen seek…that we must seek. If you, living in this moment, can feel the weight, the sacredness of what you are experiencing, then this is a path you can walk. This is what it means to be guardians of the wild. We sit here with our fire and our weapons, our clothing and our magic, our complex language and philosophies. But we do so out in the wild space, knowing—and respecting—that we are not the masters here. We invite the wild to sit at the edge of our fire, and are honored by her presence.
“We are not wild, nor tamed. We stand between two things and apart from both. Protecting them, from themselves and from each other.”
He fell silent, and no one spoke this time. The night stretched out, none of them willing to interrupt the reverence of the moment.
Until, fittingly, it was interrupted from outside. In the distant darkness, a single voice arose: the long, lonely howl of a wolf. Immediately it was followed by another, and then a third, singing together in harmony.
Right in front of them, the wolf at the edge of their firelight raised her own head and howled in reply. That close, her voice was almost piercing, but it was no less musical for that. She let out a single long note, ending it on a soft warble.
Then she stood up, turned around, and padded off into the darkness, in the direction of the family calling her back.
All of them stared into the night after the departing visitor, while wolves continued to cry from deep in the darkness beyond.
“We will meet her again,” Ingvar said quietly. “We have business with three packs in this area before it’s time for us to move on: the Huntsmen, the Rangers, and the wolves. Now that we are acknowledged by all three, we can truly begin tomorrow. It is from the wolves that we, and the other two, must learn the truth of the wild. It is a truth that I suspect they will not like. But they will hear it.”
The group were silent, listening to the wolves cry.
“I thought demonology and necromancy were completely separate things,” said Shook.
“Distinct, yes,” replied the stocky warlock introduced to him as Bradshaw, “but if by ‘completely separate’ you mean there are zero points of overlap, then no magical disciplines are completely separate, not even the four cardinal schools. Ultimately it all comes back to subjective physics—”
The woman, Vanessa, cleared her throat loudly.
“Yes, right,” Bradshaw said hastily. “Point being, what we are looking at here is soul magic. That’s not so much a school of magic in itself as a category of things you can do with magic—like necromancy itself, which you can do with infernomancy or fae craft most easily. There are some well-known uses of souls in infernal magic, notably the creation of incubi and succubi. Or those half-assed revenant things the local back-alley warlock is so fond of,” he added with a disparaging scowl. “Soulcraft is also well-known to the caster demons, too. Human souls barred from paradise by Vidius end up in Hell and only a very few impress Prince Vanislaas enough to become his children; the rest tend to get snapped up for use in spells by the khelminash or vrardexi.”
“I am torn between flattery that you think I understand any of this, and annoyance that you seem to think I give a shit,” Shook informed him.
Bradshaw blinked at him once and then turned to Mogul. “Embras, are you absolutely sure we need this clod alive?”
“Let’s show a bare minimum of courtesy to our guest, now,” Mogul said, grinning. “Think of it as setting an example.” The voluptuous, under-dressed woman clinging to his arm tittered, and Shook barely managed not to flinch. What with his recent experiences he was even more jumpy around succubi than a sensible person would be ordinarily. If anything, the fact that Vlesni was more overtly vampish than Kheshiri made him less alarmed by her. It was the innocent, well-behaved facade he feared.
“So,” he said pointedly, pushing down a surge of anger over Bradshaw’s crack at his expense, “these guys are using necromancy to get souls to power their magic?”
“Souls aren’t a power source,” Bradshaw said in a long-suffering tone that would’ve gotten anybody else punched. Shook might have punched him anyway, had there not been two other warlocks and a demon present. “They’re… Ugh. Comparing them to golem logic controllers is horribly inadequate and feels disrespectful, but the principle applies. A soul can process information, which is basically what casting a spell is, and serves as a focus point enabling the use of magic. The ability of a conscious being to observe and determine a reaction is key in any magical effect.”
“What about passive enchantments?”
“Those were made by a conscious caster, the effect is just delayed and tied to secondary stimuli. With a soul, you can do several interesting things. Attach it to something you want to animate, for example, or boost your own spells by adding what amounts to a secondary focus so it’s as if you are two casters working in concert, rather than one. What this does, as near as we can tell by examining the half-made array, is a kind of portal magic.”
“Huh,” Shook grunted, studying the spell circle scrawled in dried blood upon the warehouse floor. Empty warehouse: the best friend of anyone up to urban skullduggery. It was an open question whether the person who owned the place had any inkling what was going on here, much less whether they were complicit, but he didn’t bother to ask. This was the Black Wreath, they had undoubtedly seen and covered all the angles well in advance. “So. Basically, these guys are doing some kind of ritual sacrifice to make portals. Neat, I didn’t know that was possible.”
“All other things being equal, it should only be possible in theory,” said Mogul, patting Vlesni’s hand and then disentangling her from his arm to step forward and join them at the edge of the circle. “Here’s the fundamental problem with soul magic and necromancy in general: it is stepping very directly and aggressively on Vidius’s toes. Theoretically you can achieve almost any end with almost any type of magic, if you’re creative enough and powerful enough. The limits of possibility with necromancy are mostly unexplored, though, because as soon as you start doing necromancy on any significant scale you’ll find yourself ass-deep in valkyries.”
“And pause for dramatic effect,” Shook said dryly when Mogul did just that. “Next you’re gonna explain how these guys are doing this without pissing off Vidius. Oh, sorry, were you waiting for me to ask that?”
“Why is he here, again?” Bradshaw demanded.
“Oh, calm down,” Vanessa said with an amused little smile. “I like him. Or at least, I would if I knew a little bit less about his personal history.” She winked at Shook, who curled his lip. Vanessa was pretty enough, but he couldn’t get an idea what kind of figure she had thanks to that dumpy gray Wreath robe. Thinking back to Alan Vandro’s advice about women, he was keeping his focus on the fact that she could snap her fingers and boil his blood where he stood. In an ironic way, the conscious effort of reinforcing Vandro’s teachings above the habits Kheshiri had spent the last two years encouraging was helping to keep him grounded and alert.
“That is, indeed, the bloody knife in this little mystery,” Mogul drawled, showing no signs of annoyance at Shook’s attitude. “The last major necromantic event was that disaster at Veilgrad last year, which was caused by a chaos cult. Chaos, of course, fucks up all calculations by its very nature and can indeed be used to obscure the gaze of the gods. Once the Hand of Vidius was on-site, that place was swarming with soul reapers putting down skeletons. Last one before that was Tethloss the Summoner, who we killed because the son of a bitch had somehow got his mitts on a tome of Black Wreath spellcraft and was using our own workings to hide himself from the gods.”
“Hey, I remember that guy,” said Shook, interested in spite of himself. “I was up in Thakar when he got done in. I seem to recall it was the Fourth Legion that did it.”
“Pfft, they cleaned up his lingering summons. Which we left for them, as housekeeping is the proper duty of the Silver Legions once the real work is out of the way.” Mogul waved one hand in a languid gesture of dismissal. “No, the point is that when you see an organized use of necromancy, it always hinges upon some mechanism for hiding its use from Vidius. In this case, we have not identified the specific one, at least not precisely. What we have is circumstantial indication of who is behind this, and that provides a hint.”
“The Tide shall wash away impurity,” Bradshaw intoned, pointing to an arc of demonic runes scrawled around the edge of the circle. “This outer ring of text is in demonic, but it’s not spellcraft; it appears to be just dogma. And mostly gibberish, but…”
“But,” Mogul continued, “it fits. You are here ostensibly to hunt the cult that tried to kill the Emperor and was using some pretty damn advanced necromancy right in the middle of Tiraas.”
“We have no information on who or what that cult is,” Vanessa added, “which is incredibly suggestive. Nobody knows anything about these people, even the Thieves’ Guild and Imperial Intelligence. You know how hard it is to raise up an entire religion full of suicidal shocktroopers without anybody noticing? The very idea is ridiculous. It can be done, in theory, if you’ve got access to the huge amount of resources to keep the whole group—of hundreds, apparently—in total isolation. Plus a willingness to aggressively recruit—by which I mean borderline abduct and then brainwash—a lot of the kind of back-alley undesirables whom nobody will miss from cities all across the Empire. The Universal Church is one of the very few organizations with that kind of funds, and Justinian is probably the first Archpope since Sipasian who has cultivated enough personal loyalty from his clergy that enough of them would be willing to do something so skeevy and keep it under wraps.”
“And,” Mogul finished, nodding, “we’ve known for a while now that Justinian has some means of deflecting the notice of the Pantheon gods from some of his pet projects. Therefore this Tide is his creation.”
“Hn,” Shook grunted. “We more than suspected that already, but it’s nice to have a chain of evidence leading to it.”
“Circumstantial evidence, of course, but still,” Mogul agreed. “And that leads us to you, and as my dear friend Bradshaw keeps incredulously demanding, why I am bothering to bring you into the loop.”
“Pretty curious about that, myself,” Shook admitted. Bradshaw nodded emphatic agreement.
“Let me ask you this,” Mogul said to him in a less jocular tone. “Was the Jackal aware of any of this before he started his killing spree?”
“Well, I sure as fuck wasn’t, and I don’t think any of the rest of my crew were,” Shook said thoughtfully, “though Syrinx obviously has information she’s keeping from us. I don’t think Jacko was ever out of our sight before today enough to pick up details but…fuck if I know. Why?”
“Because this is the only example we’ve found of this Tide actually trying to do something magically constructive. Every previous indication was merely the site of a ritual sacrifice, where they murdered someone in a back alley to capture their soul. You said the Jackal is trying to rile the police; what he’s doing looks an awful lot like what the Tide were doing, only they were at least trying to be careful. He’s being the opposite.”
“Maybe,” Shook said reluctantly. “I have no reason to think so, specifically. That explanation does make sense, but honestly that twisted fuck might just as well be doing this because he thinks it’s funny.”
“What charming company you keep,” Bradshaw said flatly.
Shook pointedly turned to look at Vlesni and then back at him. “You don’t get to criticize, petunia.”
“The reason I’m showing you this,” said Mogul, “is so you can go back and inform your cronies. Because it doesn’t seem they have any idea what is happening here, and they really need to. Not that I trust most of your lot to buckle down and do what’s sensible, but you and Khadizroth, at least, I believe have that much basic intelligence. Plus that other elf who follows him around. Victor, was it?”
“Vespa,” Vanessa corrected.
“Vincent,” said Bradshaw.
“Close enough,” said Shook.
“This isn’t about trust, you see,” Mogul continued. “Syrinx, the Jackal, and Kheshiri neither know sense when it bites them on the nose, nor would they let it restrain them from scheming for their own advantage even if they recognized it. You, Khadizroth, and I think Snowe are another matter. I don’t mean to underplay the many, many currents blowing here, but this is more important.”
“Yeah?” Shook said warily, again reminding himself how dramatically untrustworthy these people were. It was an important reminder; Mogul was a very compelling speaker when he tried to be. “What the fuck is this, specifically?”
“That,” said Mogul, pointing to the scrawled circle, “is incomplete, but it is clearly intended to use a captured soul to open a dimensional portal, and its guidance runes are scribed in demonic. We have identified a dozen ritual murder sites where souls have been stolen and are assuming there are at least twice that out there since we haven’t once caught one of these bastards in the act. When I said twenty hellgates, Thumper, I wasn’t just trying to give you an example of the scale of the problem. I strongly suspect that that is the literal, specific plan.”
Shook let out a long, low whistle. “Why the fuck would anybody want to do a dumbass thing like that?”
“As for these Tide people, there’s this bit about washing away corruption,” said Bradshaw, wrinkling his nose as he stared down at the circle. “That’s bog standard doomsday cult horseradish. The world is corrupt, the world must be cleansed, yadda yadda. The kind of thing the ignorant think we set out to do.”
“But they’re just pawns,” Vanessa said quietly.
“What concerns me here is Justinian’s motivations,” Mogul agreed. “Unleashing huge amounts of random destruction is the desperate act of someone who considers himself cornered and urgently needs to upset the whole board. Believe me, I know. I’ve found myself repeatedly backed into that corner in the last few years. Why do you think I was willing to put a creature like Kheshiri into the hands of a creature like you?”
“No offense taken,” Shook said flatly.
Mogul grinned at him, but his expression just as quickly sobered. “What worries me, old boy, is what it means if Justinian feels he’s in that position. He’s one of the most powerful men in the world, and if we’re reading this right, he is willing to burn down a major city and unleash demons across half of N’Jendo just to create a distraction. The question is why, and no possible answer isn’t terrifying.”
“A great doom is coming,” Bradshaw murmured.
“Or,” said Shook, “to put it less pretentiously, shit’s about to get real.”
Merry emerged from the darkened old structure to creep up behind Principia. Trying to keep quiet was simple respect for their surroundings and the late hour; she was under no illusion that she was capable of sneaking up on an elf.
“I’ll take over,” she said softly, coming to a stop at the lieutenant’s shoulder.
Principia shook her head slowly, still staring across the flat plateau at the place where the eight students and their animal companions were arranged around the bonfire they’d built. “That’s okay, Lang. Go back to sleep, I’ve got this.”
“You need sleep too, LT.”
“Less urgently. I’m an elf.”
“Yeah, an elf who forgets I’ve got Shahai to fact-check your bullshit stories with. You need less food and air, not less sleep.”
“That sideways-eared race traitor,” Principia grumbled without rancor.
“Prin,” Merry said very quietly. “Go rest. Nothing’s gonna happen here. I can keep watch.”
“You know what they’re doing?”
Merry shifted her gaze to the students. The eight of them had arranged themselves in an equal formation around the bonfire, and were still awake despite it being well past midnight. Since coming back from the tree yesterday and arranging themselves thus, they hadn’t kept any specific pattern, for the most part staying in their assigned places, though they all moved around a fair bit. Sitting and kneeling in a variety of meditative postures, in some cases pacing (or in Fross’s case, hovering) back and forth in apparent thought. Occasionally they had crossed to one another’s positions for quiet exchanges, though they always returned to their assigned places.
Right now, Toby and Juniper were talking softly with their heads together, the only two currently out of position. Teal and Shaeine were both kneeling, eyes closed, facing each other across the distance between their specific spots around the edge of the firelight, F’thaan belly-up and fast asleep in the drow’s lap. Gabriel lounged on the ground, frowning at the horizon, while Trissiny stood at parade rest, staring at the Great Tree in the near distance with her hands behind her back. Ruda was pacing back and forth, absently swishing her jeweled rapier through the air and muttering to herself. Fross, for a wonder, was actually sitting on the ground at the moment, almost invisible in the firelight.
“Can’t say I do,” she said at last, “though it sure does look a lot more goal-directed than most of what they’ve done since Last Rock.”
“It’s a vigil,” Principia said quietly. “This is some Vidian thing Arquin suggested. They are going to do a ritual at dawn. Dusk and dawn are the powerful moments in Vidian ritual magic, boundaries between the two phases of the day. But first, an all-night vigil. It’s time to watch, to contemplate…to prepare.” She paused, then finished in a whisper. “I’m not sure what exactly they are keeping watch for, but I’m holding my own. I am not going to sleep, Lang. You may as well; there’s no sense in both of us being up all night. I’ll get a nap tomorrow, while they’re off at the tree.”
Merry stood behind her for several drawn-out seconds, studying the University students thoughtfully. Then she stepped forward and sat down at Principia’s side.
The elf shot her a sidelong frown. “Corporal…”
“I’m gonna crawl way out on a limb and guess they didn’t ask you to keep watch over them tonight,” Merry stated. “This is more one of those things you get to do because you avoided them telling you not to by not asking permission, right?”
Principia made an annoyed grimace at her.
Merry leaned over to bump the elf with her shoulder. “I’m not asking you, either.”
Principia shook her head, but didn’t protest any further. The plateau was quiet, then, as they all kept their vigil.
Dawn as always brought warmth, which was confusing when she opened her eyes, because it was not dawn. Yesterday she’d been awakened by sunlight streaming through the window right onto her bed, as the ramshackle old room in Leduc Manor lacked shutters, or even curtains. The sky outside was still just barely gray, though, at least an hour before sunrise. But it was so warm…
Hesthri stirred in her arms, and Natchua went fully rigid as memory and wakefulness crashed down on her. The demon mumbled in her sleep, burying her face back in Natchua’s collarbone. She was so warm, and surprisingly soft where she wasn’t armored, the texture of her skin smooth but patterned, almost like a snake’s. All of her skin, pressed close to all of Natchua’s.
The two of them entangled on one side of the wide bed, because the other was still a big damp patch where they’d…
Natchua squeezed her eyes shut again as if that would blot out the evidence of her most recent stupidity.