The law came knocking a little after lunch.
Fortunately it was Darling who answered the door. This was not happenstance. He and Branwen had taken over the task of dealing with the natives of Hamlet; the idea of Basra or Andros trying to deal with an Imperial Marshal without blowing their whole operation made him break out in a cold sweat.
“Afternoon,” the man on the step said politely when Darling opened the door, tipping his hat. “I’m Marshal Ross. How’re you folks settling in?”
“Splendidly, thanks!” Darling said cheerfully, his mind already racing ahead. He’d prepared for this as best he could, knowing it was coming. “After the big city, Hamlet is a remarkably friendly place.”
“By and large, I find that’s so,” the Marshal said agreeably. “I’ve only lived here a few years myself, but it’s easy to settle in. I wonder, though, how much you know about the history of our little town?”
Darling bit back a snide comment; Hamlet was a picturesque but utterly stereotypical frontier town of not more than three hundred people, all plank buildings and dirt streets, that couldn’t have been here longer than the Empire’s push to the very edge of the Golden Sea sixty years ago. He wasn’t sure “history” was the right word. Luckily, Marshal Ross went on without waiting for a response.
“We’ve had a recent spate of pretty big trouble for such a little place,” he said, hooking his thumbs into his belt, “which is all the harder to bear because this is such a quiet town ordinarily. The demon attack four years ago cost us one of the brightest young spirits any of us knew… June’d be twenty this summer.” He sighed heavily before going on. “Then, a few months back, a good half-dozen townsfolk, neighbors and friends all, got themselves outed as Black Wreath cultists and took their own lives. The shock from that hasn’t even properly started to fade yet. What I mean to say is, we’re all a little edgy about the strange and unexpected around here.”
He glanced past Darling, who half-turned his head to follow his gaze. Branwen was visible in the kitchen, singing as she puttered around the stove. Honestly, she was settling into her role with a little too much enthusiasm to be feigned; he was starting to wonder if she harbored a secret desire to be a housewife. Closer to hand, though, was Andros in the living room. He had a thick book open and had been reading, but was now staring unblinking at the conversation taking place in the door. The huge, hairy, keen-eyed man had never yet managed to look at someone without glaring.
“Four rich folks who are clearly not related renting out the old Moorville house and then settling in on no business in particular… Well, that’s strange and unexpected.”
“Is this an official visit, then, Marshal?” Darling asked mildly.
He shook his head. “As of this moment, this is me stopping by for a friendly chat. I’d love nothing more than some assurance I won’t need to make an official visit.”
“Wonderful! Maybe you wouldn’t mind taking a little stroll with me, Marshal? I’ve seen the sights, but it’s always good to have an experienced guide along.”
The man nodded slowly. “Maybe that wouldn’t be a bad idea.”
Darling thought rapidly as they stepped down from the porch and out into the street, pausing only to close the fence gate. This was complicated by the Archpope’s firm orders that they not reveal their affiliation with the Church. He didn’t want to outright lie to a man who had a direct line to Imperial Command. Between the proliferation of the scrolltower network and the Imperial bureaucracy itself, the Marshal could get confirmation or disproof of any story Darling told him within a few days. Long enough for them to finish their business and go…maybe.
“I can see how it’d be hard for us to slip in and out unnoticed,” he said lightly once they were out in the street. In fact, the main street of Hamlet terminated directly at the front gate of their rented house. Darling would have preferred something a lot more circumspect, but apparently it was the only available space adequate for their needs.
“Old man Moorville had quite the opinion of himself,” the Marshal said, strolling along beside him. “To be fair, he did work his way up from ranch hand to cattle baron without stepping on any more faces than he had to, and it’s thanks to his herds that we even have a town. Always very particular about getting the proper respect, though. Had to have his house right there where everybody had to see it… And then when he got rich enough to envy the lords and ladies of the home province, well, a two-story wooden house just wasn’t good enough anymore, so off he went to join them. To speak the plain truth, he makes a better neighbor when he’s a thousand miles away.”
Darling laughed obligingly. The Marshal gave him a keen sidelong look. “So, what brings you to his old home, then?”
“My name is Antonio Darling,” he said. “I’m a member of a council tasked with overseeing Imperial security at the highest level.”
“Omnu’s balls,” the Marshal groaned. “I thought the Empire was done stomping around here.”
“Oh, don’t ask me,” Darling said easily, “I’m on vacation.” It was true, technically; he’d left notice with the Church and the council and everyone that he’d be gone for a week. The Church, of course, already knew (and he’d been more forthright with Tricks and the Guild), but there was merit in leaving the proper paper trail.
“On vacation,” Marshal Ross said flatly, “in Hamlet.”
“Yes, just some friends and I taking a little time away from the rigors of city life to enjoy the local scenery. We have no official business here whatsoever.”
“And unofficial business?”
He was silent for a moment as they strolled along, apparently gathering his thoughts. Truthfully, it was just for dramatic effect; his thoughts were never un-gathered.
“I understand you met Professor Tellwyrn.” This got a noncommittal grunt, so he pressed on. “What’s she like? I’ve always wondered.”
“Quite frankly? Scary. She…has her moments, though.”
Most people might have missed the faint color rising in Ross’s cheeks and the deliberate way he avoided the other man’s gaze, but Darling analyzed people the way most people breathed, and he found himself forced to repress any sign of his amusement. Why, Arachne, you sly dog.
“So she shows up, pokes around the town for half a day, outs and then kills a bunch of cultists, and then takes off the next morning, having left the impression of shock and awe she usually does. Am I more or less right?”
He nodded. “It’s hard to analyze the motives and methods of people like that. You can never put it completely out of your head how beyond you they are… Which makes it tricky to see their weaknesses, unless you go looking for them. The weakness is always there, though, if you do. In Arachne Tellwyrn’s case, it’s her over-reliance on brute force tactics.”
The Marshal made no reply, but glanced at him again, showing his attention. Darling went on in the same blithe tone. “I’m not saying she’s unintelligent, because that clearly isn’t true. But she’s the most powerful known wizard by a wide margin, not to mention a more than competent fighter, and those are the traits she uses the most. Her plans are bluntly straightforward, and subtler things…slip her notice. Like, for example, the rest of the Black Wreath in this town.”
At that, Marshal Ross came to a stop and turned to face him, glaring. They were right in front of the town’s general store; Darling glanced about at the people passing by and failing to conceal their interest in the two. “It sure does get hot out here on the plains,” he said lightly. “You wouldn’t happen to know someplace shady we could continue this chat?”
Ross glanced about, too, clearly taking note of the townsfolk and imagining the result of having this particular discussion in their hearing. He jerked his head to the right and set off again, Darling trailing along behind.
They came to the town jail a few doors down, marked by a hand-painted sign and the Imperial flag. Ross led the way inside, where a young man was lounging behind a desk, smoking a cigarette and reading a magazine.
“Rusty, take a little walk,” the Marshal said curtly. The youth looked up at him, then at Darling—who grinned cheerily—then stood up and slipped outside without a word. Ross closed the front door, then the one opposite it, which led to a hallway lined by cell bars. They were left in a narrow front office, sparsely furnished with battered wood chairs, the big desk, and behind that a wall full of dented file cabinets. Ross stepped around behind the desk and seated himself, setting his hat atop a cabinet.
“So what,” he asked grimly, “makes the Empire think there are still Black Wreath in this town after Tellwyrn cleared them out? And why the hell didn’t all the other Imperial agents who’ve been through here in the last two months say or do anything about it?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t presume to know what the Empire thinks about anything,” Darling replied, pulling over a ladderback chair and seating himself. “I’m just a guy on vacation, remember? But, hypothetically, think about it. Wreath cultists are ninety percent dumb, ordinary folks who like feeling naughty but have no idea what they’re screwing around with. Maybe one or two in an entire cell will be an actual diabolist… Not to mention that they keep their numbers low in a given area for obvious reasons of blending in. There’s a lot about the Wreath cell in Hamlet that was strange. There were too many, for one thing, they had been supplied with dwarven technology that even the Empire is only just beginning to implement, every last one of them was willing to sacrifice themselves… That’s not the general run of cultist nonsense. Those were people on a mission, one for which they’d trained and been equipped.”
“I’m still not hearing how this adds up to there being more of them.”
“If you were running a cell of well-trained, well-equipped agents, Marshal, would you throw all of them at the first problem to rear its head?” He gave that a silent moment to sink in, watching Ross’s face grow longer. “I see two scenarios, depending on whether they knew who Tellwyrn was when they struck. Either they didn’t, and she was just some elf needing to be silenced, in which case excessive force wasn’t needed and would have risked drawing attention, or they did, and would never have gambled the lives of every agent they had against her. Hell, I’m leaning toward the former; the Wreath has tended to give her a wide berth when they know she’s coming. She and Elilial have a history.”
“They didn’t know,” Ross said curtly. Darling nodded.
“Then… It hardly makes sense to assume they’re all gone, then, does it?”
“Son of a bitch!” The man slammed a fist down on his desk. “Those people were friends. Neighbors, at the very least. Now you’re telling me that even more of my townsfolk are…”
“I’m telling you it’s likely,” Darling said evenly. “More than that I’m hardly in a position to know.”
“I don’t know how much more this town can take,” he said gloomily, his anger of a moment ago dissipating rapidly, though even as he slumped in his chair, a spark of a glare ignited behind his eyes, directed at Darling. “I’m sure as hell not gonna thank you for bringing more trouble to my town.”
“I haven’t brought anything. Either the trouble’s here, or it’s not. If it’s not, well… My friends and I will spend a relaxing few days enjoying the peace and quiet before we have to head back to our various dull office jobs. If it is… I have a suspicion our vacation will be interrupted very soon.”
The Marshal dragged a hand over his face, staring glumly into the distance. “Fuck.”
“You said you weren’t from here, originally,” Darling said mildly. “I wonder if that means you’d have friends from other parts of the Empire? The sort of friends who are unquestionably loyal to their Emperor, and have wands. You may want to pass along a recommendation from me: it’s a good time of year to take a week or so off, and Hamlet is a surprisingly pleasant spot to spend some free time.”
“You’re suggesting men like that are going to come in handy soon.”
“Men like that always come in handy,” Darling said, smiling disarmingly. “I just have a hunch that pretty soon, Hamlet’s Black Wreath problem will be over, one way or another.”
For some reason, that didn’t seem to make the Marshal happy.
Hearing raised voices even through the door, Darling quickened his pace at the porch, hustling inside. The scene within didn’t surprise him.
Basra and Andros were less than a foot apart, staring each other down. The hulking Shaathist was physically the more intimidating, but even though she had to crane her neck to meet his gaze, Basra didn’t look remotely cowed. In fact, she grinned wickedly into his glare.
“Antonio,” Branwen said in obvious relief, standing in the door to the kitchen. “What happened is—”
“Thanks, love, but I know what happened.”
“What, you were lurking just outside?” Basra said, turning her grin on him. Something about her eyes was just unsettling. “Naughty, naughty.”
“No,” Darling replied evenly, “but I’m acquainted with you two, and neither of you are full of surprises. Bas, go check on our guest.”
Her grin widened. “What’s the magic word?”
“Now.” The grin vanished from her face; he pushed on before she could make another remark. “Have I ever given you a direct order before? Honestly, Bas, usually I can trust you to see what needs doing and do it without having to be told. If you’re going to act like a child, however, I will speak to you like one. That, or we can go back to the previous option, which I liked better. Your call.”
She stared at him for a long moment through narrowed eyes, then turned on her heel and flounced off through the kitchen, shouldering Branwen aside.
“As for you,” Darling said to Andros, who glared mutely at him, “same goes. You’re a grown-ass man, Andros, have some basic self-control. If you don’t respond to her needling, she’ll get bored and quit doing it.”
“I will not be treated with disrespect by that woman,” he growled.
“Yeah, you probably will be. Look at it this way: getting a rise out of you is Basra’s way of asserting dominance. If you don’t let her goad you, she can’t win.”
“Where I’m from, we have ways of dealing with women who won’t learn their place,” the Huntsman rumbled, but his tone was more subdued. After two days, Darling was growing used to the subtle gradients of his growling and snarling, and interpreted this as evidence that Andros had at least absorbed his message. Hopefully it would stick.
“How did it go with the Marshal?” Branwen asked brightly. An unsubtle change of topic, but he’d take it.
“Well enough,” he said. “I managed to deflect his attention without revealing anything. He’s under the impression that we’re here on Imperial business, so nobody do anything to rock the boat.” In truth, he’d somewhat exceeded his mandate in making suggestions as strong as he had, but Darling was the expert in navigating social and political tensions; that was why he’d been placed in charge. This would all be so much easier—and quicker—if they could just reveal that they were agents of the Church, but he had his orders.
The reason behind that particular order was a puzzle he was still teasing out.
“I knew you’d take care of it,” she said warmly, gazing up at him with limpid eyes. Andros snorted loudly and returned to his seat and his book.
“That’s what I do, pet,” Darling replied cheerfully, chucking her under the chin as he slipped past her into the kitchen, and getting a flirtatious giggle in return.
Branwen had begun broadly hinting that if they’d had a little more privacy, she would like to get to know him a lot better. It was flattering, and she was certainly lovely enough to make it an interesting prospect, but he was frankly losing patience with her. Darling had never accused a woman of sleeping her way into a position—for one thing, his life was full of women who’d break his arms for even thinking it too loudly—but he was running out of alternate explanations for how Branwen Snowe had attained the rank of Bishop. Her entire skill set appeared to consist of housewifery. She was an Izarite, a devotee of the goddess of love, and should have been someone he could rely on to help soothe tensions and keep order in their group, but all she ever did when the other two got into it was wring her hands and look distressed.
The solitude and close confines were wearing on all of them. It wasn’t Branwen or even Andros who were causing most of the trouble, though, which frankly surprised him. Despite Andros’s generally surly demeanor and the fact that his cult had deep doctrinal conflicts with all of theirs, the Huntsman was mostly content to be left to himself, working through the surprisingly substantial library that came with the furnished house. Basra, however, was pushing her luck. Where Branwen dealt with stress by baking and Andros by retreating into himself, Basra did so by picking at people until she got a reaction.
The door to the cellar swung open and the Avenist herself stepped out, giving him an ironic look. “Our boy’s snug as a proverbial bug in a rug, no problems with the circle. Same as it’s been every time previously.”
“Smashing. I believe I’ll go have a look.”
“I literally just—”
“Yes,” he said soothingly, “and I don’t doubt your assessment. But we’ve been looking in on him at half-hour intervals for nearly a whole day now. Sshitherossz are trickster demons; I don’t want him getting a handle on any consistent pattern he can try to manipulate.”
“Oh, please,” she scoffed, “what could he possibly manipulate from inside that circle?”
“I can’t imagine, and that’s what spooks me. The first step to getting outmaneuvered by a demon is letting yourself believe it’s not dangerous. Be right back.”
He shut the door behind him as he stepped into the gloom of the cellar, as per their established house rule. Despite Andros’s wards and the general unlikeliness of any of the locals barging in here, there was no limit to the hell that would break loose if anybody found out they were keeping a demon in the basement. Some things were simply not to be risked.
The only light now came from the glowing circle. It was adequate to navigate the room, though the effect was eerie.
“What’s this?” the occupant of the circle asked wryly, not getting up from his seat on the ground. “Two for one? Why, I’m downright flattered! Oh, it’s just the poncy one, though. I was hoping for that chesty redhead again, but eh… You’re not bad.” He grinned viciously and made a twirling motion with one clawed finger. “Spin for me, let me get a good look.”
Darling made a show of pacing around the circle slowly, studying it. Despite being made of fine powder that should be easily disturbed by the faintest breeze, it was intact and unchanged. Once imbued with the kind of magic that coursed through it, it took on a solid integrity of its own. Not that he couldn’t wreck the whole thing with a carelessly placed foot, of course.
“I think you’re the one they all hate the most,” the sshitherossz went on airily. “Ah, the burdens of leadership! I wonder how long it’ll be before they—” He broke off as Darling burst out laughing.
“Oh, please. Really? ‘They’re all plotting against you?’ I’m almost insulted. Tell you what, skippy, you can go back to sitting alone in the dark and think about your tactics. Next time I come down here, I want to hear some quality manipulation.” He turned his back on the creature and began ascending the ladder.
“What do you want?” the demon snarled, its calm facade shattering. It bounded upright, slamming both fists against the invisible barrier and causing them to spark. “Who the fuck summons a devil and doesn’t do anything with him? Damn it, don’t just leave me sitting in here!”
Darling paused at the top of the ladder and turned to wink at him before climbing out and shutting the door. Behind, the creature cursed him at the top of its lungs. He didn’t need to speak its infernal language to recognize cursing.
“Ooh, cookies! Ow!” he rubbed his knuckles, staring reproachfully at Branwen as she waggled the spoon with which she’d rapped them.
“You let those cool or you’ll just burn yourself. You can wait fifteen minutes, Antonio.”
“Ah, how we suffer,” he sighed. Standing in the doorway to the kitchen, Basra snorted.
“If I were going to complain—”
“You? Perish the thought.”
“—I wouldn’t start with the cookies. We’re all going nuts here, Antonio. How much longer are we just going to sit on our hands?”
“I’m giving it three days,” he said. “It’s a nice round number.”
“Three is not a round number.”
“A significant one, then. Any practicing diabolists in this town would have been aware of the summoning when we cast it. That’ll give them time to organize and investigate. They’ll be keeping their senses alert and the circle doesn’t block scrying, so they’ll know the creature is still on the premises. If we haven’t been approached, one way or another, within three days, we’ll give up this spot and try our luck at the next attack site.”
“I don’t understand why we didn’t start with the one where the Falconer girl was taken,” she said. “Nobody ever found the cultists in that region, but they’ve got to be there. They succeeded, which means they’re the best of the lot, the most likely to be useful.”
“And the most likely to be dangerous,” Branwen murmured, working her spoon in a bowl full of batter. Gods above, was she baking something again?
“That,” Darling said, nodding, “plus the fact that they succeeded changes the game. Vadrieny was looked over by several actual deities in addition to Church priests, and her amnesia appears to be genuine. We want to move very carefully in areas where we may trip over whatever strings still tie her to Hell. The Church is assuming that the deaths of the other six archdemons means the Wreath failed to provide adequate hosts, and that Vadrieny’s trauma is more of the same. However, it’s not impossible that her memories are meant to be restored later.”
Basra grinned crookedly. “All the more reason to set that off now, rather than wait for them to be ready. Let the demon be Tellwyrn’s problem; I wish I could be there to take bets.”
“You’re a bloodthirsty little thing, aren’cha?”
Her grin widened. “Watch who you’re calling ‘little.’”
“Oh,” he assured her, smiling calmly, “I am.”
In the dead of night, the door creaked. A slim crack of illumination opened at the top of the steep steps, though between the darkness of the silent house and the burning circle in the basement, the difference was barely noticeable. A dark shape blotted out the light in the crack for a moment, then the door eased the rest of the way open, and it stepped down onto the stairs.
She was a plump woman in her middle years, clad in a simple dress suitable for a farmwife, clutching a candleholder on which stood a single unlit taper. Her broad, plain face was clenched in a mask of suspicion; she peered carefully around the dark cellar, not reacting to the spell circle or its occupant.
It was an almost empty room. Aside from the circle, there was only an upturned shipping crate against the far wall with one of the kitchen chairs dragged over beside it, and an oversized armoire against the right wall from the steps, its glossy finish and ornate carvings incongruous in the plain, dusty basement. Apparently satisfied with what she saw, she began descending the stairs.
“It’s a traaaa-aap,” the demon sang, grinning at her.
“Silence,” she hissed, pausing on the upper steps to glance back through the open kitchen door. “Where are your masters?”
“In Hell,” he replied with a chuckle. “In about three seconds when you’re feeling really stupid, remember I did warn you.”
“Wh—” She broke off with a cry, receiving a hard shove from behind, and tumbled forward down the steps.
“Careful,” Darling protested, popping into view as he threw aside the shroud that had covered him. “We need people able to answer questions! That means with unbroken necks.” There came a characteristic grunt from Andros at the top of the stairs.
“Oh, she’s fine,” Basra said dismissively, likewise appearing in the opposite corner and striding over to the fallen woman. Branwen joined them from the back of the room, draping her cloak of concealment over the crate.
“Oh, hey, it’s Mrs. Harkley!” Basra said cheerfully, having grabbed a fistful of the woman’s hair and wrenched her head back to reveal her face. With her other hand, she had adroitly twisted one of her captive’s arms and was effortlessly holding her down. “You remember, the nice lady who brought us the cherry pie? Come to borrow a cup of sugar, neighbor?” She grinned far too broadly. “We’ll forgive you the late hour. I’m sure you have lots of fascinating things to tell us.”
“I’ll tell you nothing!” Mrs. Harkley spat.
“You’re mistaken,” Basra said gleefully. “And I’m disappointed. What, no attempts to dissemble? You heard a noise and were investigating, fearing for our safety? You’re not even gonna try? Come on, there are traditions to this game! It’s no fun if you won’t play.”
The woman spat a word in a harsh, guttural language, and the darkness around her intensified, then solidified, forming into spikes.
Just as quickly, it shattered and disintegrated as the three of them, and Andros at the top of the stairs, blazed with divine light, driving every shadow from the room.
“Hey!” the demon protested, shielding his eyes with an oversized hand. “Do you mind? Do you know what time it is? People are trying to sleep, here!”
“All right, that’s enough of that nonsense out of you,” Darling said lightly, crouching beside Mrs. Harkley’s head on the floor and meeting her dumbfounded stare. “I don’t suppose you’d like to be helpful and tell us how many of your cell are still in this town?”
Her expression of shock melted into one of pure stubbornness. She clamped her lips firmly shut.
“Ah, well, it was worth a try.” With a regretful sigh, he stood, brushing off his knees. “Into the box she goes, ladies.”
“You think I’m afraid of you?” Mrs. Harkley spat. “You’re not the first clerics who came to this town looking for trouble. There’s more trouble here for you than you can handle.”
“You should worry about the trouble elsewhere,” Darling informed her. “Nobody here will harm you.”
“Nobody,” he repeated firmly, giving Basra a flat look. “No, we’re just going to put you on ice, so to speak, till we’re ready to transport you back home. The people who’ll be asking the questions are very good at getting answers.”
“The others will come for me!” she shrieked, unable to keep the panic out of her voice.
“Of course they will, duckling,” he said soothingly. “Really, I’m not being sarcastic—I fully believe your friends will come. And unless they’re a lot smarter than you are, we’ll be returning to Tiraas with a full set.”