2 – 15

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“There’s nobody out there now,” Fross reported, buzzing back into the hall, “but there are horse tracks all over. Centaur tracks, actually, I’m assuming. Also…our tracks, which I guess explains how they found us.”

“Stupid,” Trissiny muttered. “I should’ve thought of that. Rafe even has that stuff which hides footprints…”

“Then we’re all equally stupid,” Toby said firmly, “and there’s no point in dwelling on it or casting blame. Let’s deal with our current situation.”

They had moved into the last stretch of hall, leaving the tomb itself, by unanimous agreement. Whatever the spirit of Horsebutt may have thought of them, it simply didn’t feel right to anybody to loiter in someone’s final resting place. Juniper had seemed somewhat nonplussed at this, but had followed the group without comment.

“My original plan stands, then,” said Trissiny, nodding. “Matters are slightly different now that they’ve had a chance to prepare for us, but the canyon remains a good place to hold off a charge. Shaeine, can you put a shield over us to cover while we get in position?”

“Now, hold on,” Rafe protested. “I’m not about to sign off on you kids going to war. Waiting the bastards out seems like a better strategy, since they can’t get in here. We’ve got plenty of food for a few days.”

“We are not equipped for a seige,” she said firmly. “They can hunt and gather up there, quite apart from whatever provisions they have. We don’t even have water. Plus there’s the immediate issue of sanitation.”

“Actually, I can fix that,” he said brightly. “For a day at least; it’s not wise to take back-to-back doses, that can mess up your body chemistry. But a quick sip and you’ll all be fully self-contained biological vessels for the duration!”

“Fucking ew,” Ruda muttered.

“Plus,” Trissiny went on patiently, “there is the immediate matter of the drums.”

They all paused to glance upward. The drumming was muted by rock and distance, but hadn’t let up in the last half hour.

“Do you remember me saying those drums were a weapon?” she continued. “Specifically, they are warlock tools. The war drums induce a state of bloodlust in those already steeped in infernal magic, and create unnatural fear in all others. Stealing emotional energy, in essence, trading our poise for their power. They severely demoralize a foe while strengthening the centaurs themselves.”

“I can deal with that,” said Toby. “The aura of calm is Omnu’s most basic gift to his followers. It should neutralize their advantage completely.”

“That’s great, as far as it goes. But I’m not as much concerned about fear among the rest of us as the drums’ effect on those already steeped in infernal magic.” She turned to stare significantly at Gabriel, the others following her gaze.

“I’m fine,” he said hoarsely, and completely unconvincingly. He was hunched over and breathing hard, as if winded, and refused to lift his head to make eye contact with anyone.

“Oh…shit,” said Ruda.

“I’m fine,” Gabriel snapped.

“Gabriel,” said Trissiny quietly, “look at me.”

“I don’t need your—”

“Look at me!” she barked. He jerked his head up, meeting her gaze.

His eyes were completely black.

“Toby,” said Trissiny calmly, “your aura of calm is divine in nature. It will hurt him if you use it. Do you think it would have a calming effect, even so? Are you willing to subject him to constant pain if it does? And how long can that possibly work even in the best case scenario?” She shook her head. “We can’t stay here. The longer we wait, the more worn out and vulnerable we become. We have to deal with our enemy, and in this situation that means striking first.”

Juniper, who had been crouched against the wall nearest the exit tunnel, stood up, walked over to Gabriel, and wrapped her arms around him from behind, resting her head on his shoulder. He took a deep, shuddering gasp, then straightened slightly. The darkness receded somewhat from the edges of his eyes. “Oh…wow. That’s actually better. What did you do?”

“Cuddled you,” she replied, not moving.

“Juniper is a very high-ranking fae,” said Shaeine. “Fairy magic is disruptive to infernal magic. Have you any active spells you can use, Juniper?”

The dryad shook her head, rubbing her cheek against Gabriel’s shoulder. “Some healing, but it only works on physical wounds. I can talk with animals, and plants, sort of. Nothing…y’know, flashy.”

“It’s better, though,” said Gabe, then actually grinned faintly. “And I can’t say I mind. This is cozy.”

“That’s because I have very nice breasts,” Juniper said matter-of-factly. “I know how you like it when they’re touching you.”

“And that buys us some time, at least,” Trissiny said, her impatience beginning to leak into her voice. “But it doesn’t change our situation!”

“She’s right,” said Ruda. “We’re just gonna get weaker if we try to wait this out; they’ve got all the advantage. With apologies to our resident pacifists, there’s a time when you just gotta go out there and fuck somebody up. It’s that time, people.”

“All right, hold up,” said Rafe firmly. His tone and expression were so different from his normal slack-jawed insouciance that they all looked over at him in surprise. “There’s more to a situation than fight or huddle. Fleeing is also a good option.”

“Those are centaurs,” Trissiny exclaimed. “They run like horses!”

“I didn’t say we should challenge them to a footrace. There’s such a thing as subterfuge, though. All we’ve gotta do is create a little confusion, and I think I know how.”

“And then what? Wait till they run us down again?”

“I was thinking more about making sure they’re in no position to do that. And frankly, Triss, maybe you should acknowledge your own bias. It’s not so hard to conceive that the Hand of War is more inclined to a combative solution, is it?”

“Um, I don’t see how this is anything but a combative situation,” Fross interjected. “Those aren’t creatures we can negotiate with, even I’ve read enough about centaurs to know that. This is almost certain to come to a fight one way or another, and if everyone will please remember, Professor Tellwyrn specifically said we should listen to Trissiny if a fight happens!”

“She is not here,” Rafe said sharply, “and while we’re on the subject, let me tell you about Professor Tellwyrn. She believes in testing people, hard. I would even say cruelly. If she were leading this expedition and you went too long without stumbling into something life-threatening, she would damn well go find or create something life-threatening for you to deal with, just to see how you did. However, she would also stand watch over the proceedings and make sure nobody actually died. End of the day, testing is all well and good, but what matters is getting you kids home alive, and I’m making a decision here. Fifty bloodthirsty centaurs is not an academic exercise, it’s a threat. The trip’s over, we’re getting the hell out of this.”

“Fine!” Trissiny said sharply. “But you still haven’t presented a solid case against fighting them off! We have the capacity.”

“Maybe,” he replied. “Maybe not. If you’re right and we tried it, well, great. If you’re wrong, then we wouldn’t find out until somebody was dead or maimed.” He panned a stare across the whole group. “Going to battle is something you do only when it’s necessary. If I can present a solid plan that’ll get us out if this without it becoming necessary, will you guys agree to go along?”

Nobody answered him; they all turned to look at Trissiny. She folded her arms. “Fine. Let’s hear it.”

“All right. Step one, we have to evacuate our devilkin before those drums get to them. Vadrieny can fly and carry someone, she’s proven this. She needs to take Gabe and get out of range, pronto. You can make it back to Last Rock pretty quick at her flight speed; tell Arachne what’s going on and try to get help in case it’s needed.”

“I don’t…think…the drums are working on Vadrieny,” Teal said hesitantly. “I don’t feel anything… She doesn’t feel anything.”

“She’s a whole other class of demon, Teal. A dozen orders of magnitude beyond a half-hethelax; she’ll be resistant to tampering. That might mean the drums just won’t work, or that they don’t work as well… Or maybe that they won’t work as quickly and the effects will hit all at once later. Frankly, that’s a risk we can’t take. If Vadrieny goes berserk… Two paladins, a cleric and a dryad aren’t going to cut it. She’ll demolish us.”

Teal folded her arms around herself and looked downward, but didn’t offer him any argument.

“If that’s the case,” Toby said slowly, “how many can she carry? I doubt she could take us all out, but…she’s got two hands.”

“Nope,” said Ruda. Toby blinked at her.

“Nope?”

“Nope.” The pirate shook her head. “Nobody else’ll go. Think what we got here: three Light-wielding types, right? Any of you willing to bug out and leave the rest of us to the centaurs?” She raised an eyebrow, glancing around at them. “Didn’t think so. You can add me to that list. I’d never be able to look my papa in the eye if I ditched crewmates in a battle.”

“That still leaves Juniper,” Gabe said, placing a hand over one of the dryad’s, where it pressed against his heart.

“Nuh uh.” Ruda shook her head again. “She couldn’t even fly carrying Juniper. Fae and demon magic, remember? C’mon, we’ve been over this in Yornhaldt’s class; it’s not advanced stuff. Vadrieny doesn’t actually have a body, she’s using Teal’s. So when she…y’know, comes out, that’s all magic. It’s a spell effect. It won’t even work if she’s so much as touching a dryad.”

There was a moment’s silence while they digested this.

“That’s…very insightful, Ruda,” Toby said slowly.

Ruda grinned sardonically. “Ooh, look, pirate girl has a brain. Stop the fuckin’ presses.”

“So, that’s settled,” Rafe said, drawing their attention back. “Demon-touched safely out of the picture, all we have to do is throw the centaurs into confusion and get ourselves the hell out.”

“I’m still waiting to hear how you intend to do that.”

He grinned. “Wait no longer, then, Trissiny. I think even you’ll like this.”


 

“Are you people insane!?” the man in the cell shrieked. “What are you doing? How?!”

“I see you’re still in a mood,” Darling said solemnly. “That’s fine, I’ll come back later.”

“Of course I’m still in a mood, you fucking imbecile! You were just here a minute ago!”

“All right, well, good chat,” he said cheerily, waving his fingers at the three inmates. “You kids be good, now!”

Whistling jauntily—just to irritate them, because he was not inclined to be the bigger person as a rule—Darling bounced up the steps to the doors of the jail. Aside from the elaborately carved oak door, it looked like any other prison on the inside: stone floors, torchlight, iron bars separating cramped cells. When he slipped out, though, shutting the door behind him on the newest prisoner’s ranting, he was left standing in front of the elaborately carved wardrobe set up in the little house’s basement.

“Have fun eyeballing your little collection?” the demon said snidely from within his circle. Darling just strode past him, still whistling. It didn’t pay to interact with demons any more than was absolutely necessary.

His thoughts were occupied, anyway. That wardrobe had certainly cost more than a comparably-sized prison would have to build. The enchantments on it were state-of-the art, and the power source running it was an enchanted crystal of the sort the archwizards of old had spent lifetimes creating and went to war to steal from each other. The use of pocket dimensions for storage—even of people—wasn’t anything new, but time within this prison was frozen except when a person bearing one of the control runes entered. Thus, the four prisoners had scarcely had time to get their bearings, even two days later Mrs. Harkley had originally been locked in. With the Bishops checking on them every hour and not staying long, she had only been there a few minutes by her own reckoning. As it must have looked to the prisoners like their captors were cycling in and out immediately on one another’s heels, not to mention that the three from the previous night had been collected right behind Harkley, it surely wouldn’t take them long to figure out the basics of their situation. It hardly mattered; the important thing was that they wouldn’t work any infernal magic while actively under a Bishop’s eyes, and couldn’t do anything at all unless one of the Bishops was present.

What troubled him was how this thing had come to be given to them for their mission. It had been delivered shortly after their arrival in the town, with no explanation beyond a description of its function and directions for its use. Such incredibly advanced enchantment was the kind of toy he’d expect Imperial Intelligence to have in its possession, but everything they carried had been provided by the Church, which historically didn’t work very much with arcane magic. Had Justinian established a group of enchanters or mages under the Church’s aegis? Had they somehow appropriated Imperial property? If so, was it with the Empire’s cooperation? Every question spun off into more questions; the only thing he could be certain of was that the extra-dimensional wardrobe showed the Archpope’s resources to be well beyond what he had imagined.

That, needless to say, was disturbing.

He emerged into the kitchen to find it quieter than when he left. Branwen’s mixing bowl was sitting on the counter, still full of batter with her spoon stuck in, but the stove was cool. Darling frowned, unease tingling at the back of his neck. It was a small break from pattern, but a break nonetheless.

“Everything all right?” he asked, stepping into the living room.

“Doesn’t look like it,” Basra replied. She and Andros were by the front windows, holding up the curtains to peer out. Branwen stood near the kitchen door, wringing her hands; she gave him a tense smile as he entered.

“The town is too quiet,” Andros rumbled. “It’s only just sundown; there should still be people about. The street is deserted.”

Darling frowned, striding across the room to join him. Sure enough, Hamlet appeared to be a ghost town. He half expected an iconic tumbleweed to blow across the road. “You suspect our Wreath friends?”

“Who else?”

“This may be their last gasp,” said Basra thoughtfully. “Given the size of the town and the sheer number of those Tellwyrn took out, there can’t have been many left. Strategically speaking… They sent one to investigate our demon, let a night pass after she turned up missing, then dispatched three with more obviously hostile intentions.” She turned to look at him, frowning. “I’d thought that might be the end of them… If it wasn’t, though, we might be about to see the last, desperate act of whoever’s left.”

“Good,” Andros growled. “I’ll be glad to see the end of this nonsense.”

“How’s our perimeter, Andros?” Darling asked.

“Intact. My wards and traps have not been approached.”

“Mm. Anyone sense any magic at play? Anything that might make the townspeople up and leave?”

“No,” said Basra, “for whatever that’s worth. We’d sense infernal magic, but other branches? Warlocks wouldn’t have access to fae magic, but they’re known to use arcane spells.”

“I don’t sense anything,” Branwen said fretfully. “Even stretching my mind out to its furthest extent. There should be…a buzz, a background noise of people’s desires and passions. There’s nothing. It’s like the townspeople are all asleep.”

“Or gone,” Andros growled.

“Right.” Darling stepped back. “Everybody, gear up. Seems likely something’s about to go down; it’s not going to take us by surprise. Cloaks on, weapons at hand, in position. Andros, you’re on point. Let us know the instant anything gets too close.”

For a wonder, Andros didn’t give him any backtalk about being told to take obvious measures. He and Branwen turned and retreated to their rooms to gather their things; Basra remained on watch until they returned, then she and Darling did the same.

He could feel it in the very air, now. Not something magical, or something tangible, but a tension. A feeling weighing on the back of his neck that this was all finally coming to a head.

He hoped they were ready for it.


 

In the end, they didn’t need Andros’s wards. Their enemy approached openly as the sun fell over the silent town.

Three figures in cowled gray robes stepped up to the front gate of the house and paused. The one in the middle drew back a hand, then hurled it forward as through throwing a ball. At the gesture, the four Bishops felt a spike of diabolic energy and the middle section of the white picket fence exploded into splinters.

“Classy,” Basra snorted.

She stood beside the door; the rest of them were positioned throughout the living room. All four wore their invisibility cloaks—also rare items and proof of the Archpope’s heavy investment in this mission. They watched through the windows as the three attacking Wreath cultists strode forward onto their lawn, and paused again.

Once more there came a huge swelling of infernal energy, though this time the cultists weren’t visibly doing anything but standing there. Immediately, however, the gathering shadows rippled around them like disturbed water, and two additional figures appeared between them.

A serpentine creature wound itself around the cultist on the far left; the length of a python and twice as thick around the chest, its horselike skull contained a flickering green flame that blazed through its open mouth and apparently empty eye sockets, casting an eerie glow along its glossy black scales. Between the middle and right figures, a creature appeared that was the size and roughly the dimensions of a dog. It had enormously burly forelegs like a gorilla, however, and a long snout bristling with teeth, reminiscent of an alligator. With neither fur nor scales—nor apparently skin—along much of its frame, it had preposterously oversized claws on each foot, and spiky plates of bone lining its spine.

Their familiars summoned, the cultists lowered their hoods. Even in the falling light, their features were clearly visible, as were their grimly resolute expressions. Darling couldn’t see his fellow Bishops, but he suspected he wasn’t the only one who reared back in surprise.

They were children.

Well, teenagers, anyway. The boy on the right, the one who rested a hand on the hellhound’s back, couldn’t have been thirteen. On the opposite side was a girl maybe a year or two older, if that, with the taller boy in the center just barely old enough to lie his way into the Army.

Darling held position, though internally he was reeling. Was this the Wreath’s plan? Send someone they’d be reluctant to harm? He had to acknowledge that if that was their game, it was a good one; he wasn’t at all sure he had the stomach to use force against kids that young. What disturbed him more, however, was his certainty that at least one and probably two of his compatriots did.

The three started forward as one, their demons in tow, but stopped just short of the stairs, uncertainty registering on their faces, when Basra silently opened the door. She was still invisible behind her cloak; they stared warily at the suddenly empty space for a moment before the tallest youth, the one in the middle, set his jaw and stepped forward again. Taking his cue, the others came too, visibly re-gathering their courage.

The youngest boy snapped his fingers and pointed at the door; the hellhound let out a hoarse grunt and lunged forward, barreling through.

Basra threw aside her cloak and lashed out with her sword, neatly beheading the demon as it charged past. It plowed into the stairs, already beginning to crumble to ash and let off gouts of sulfurous smoke before it had stopped twitching. The boy who commanded it emitted one short cry of shock.

“Oh, come on,” Basra said, standing in the door and grinning at them. “You’re not even trying.”

The smirk vanished from her face when all three of them pulled out wands and took aim. Basra barely dived out of the line of fire before lightning bolts ripped through the front of the house, blasting the door off its hinges, taking out a chunk of its frame and punching a hole in the staircase.

The serpentine demon—a species Darling didn’t recognize—lunged forward, flying without the benefit of wings, and spat a gout of green fire at her. Basra, cursing, erupted in golden radiance and swiped at the creature with her sword. She was quick and precise, but it spun through the air with unnatural agility, evading every strike. She was forced to retreat through the door to the downstairs bedroom to evade another round of wandfire as the two older kids pushed inside, forcing her back.

Then Andros threw off his cloak. Beneath it, he had a bow ready with arrow nocked; in one smooth motion, he drew back and let fly, and this time it was the Wreath kids who were forced to dive aside. He hadn’t aimed at them, however; the arrow thunked into the lintel above the shattered door, and an eerie blue radiance rose from it. All at once the temperature plummeted in the room. Flakes of actual snow began to appear from the ceiling, flung about by the winds that suddenly sprang up. With the blessing of Shaath suddenly upon the house, its internal weather became a facsimile of that in the frigid Stalrange, contrasting painfully with the heat of the plains. The kids found snow driven into their eyes by winds which whipped their ill-fitting gray robes about as though seeking to tear them right off.

They barely had time to react to this before Andros tossed aside his bow, pulled out a pair of wands, and returned fire. Darling noted with relief that he was aiming to keep them separated and on their toes, not to kill. Even so, every shot blasted a hole in the wooden walls of the house, except those which pulverized furniture instead. Only the frigid winds kept the place from catching fire.

The winds also had the unintended side effect of blowing their invisibility cloaks loose. Darling had the presence of mind to grab at his with both hands and pin its hem to the ground with his feet, but Branwen almost immediately lost hers, winking into view. She wreathed herself in a golden glow, forming a divine shield just in time to absorb a blast from a wand aimed by the youngest boy.

One of Andros’s wandshots clipped the snake demon, sending it careening into the wall with an unnatural screech that grated painfully on the ears. Branwen immediately directed a blast of pure light at it, pinning it against the wall long enough for the Huntsman to level both his wands and unleash a barrage that reduced the creature to ash and that section of wall to kindling.

Meanwhile, the girl finally took aim at the blessed arrow with her own wand, blasting it to oblivion and taking the upper half of the doorframe down with it, causing a section of wall adjacent to the front door to tumble outward, unsupported.

In the sudden absence of howling winds, the house groaned alarmingly.

Darling wasn’t paying attention to this. Still shrouded under his cloak, he was staring at Branwen. For a moment, something had flickered through her golden aura, disturbing it at the moment when it was weakest, when she was directing more power at the snake demon. He glanced around; Basra was still in the other room, apparently the target of the wandshots the tallest boy was firing in that direction, and Andros was in a momentary standoff with the other two. Three warlocks…two demons. There was no way these kids had conjured familiars of that caliber on their own…

He darted over to Branwen, placing a hand on her back and hoping she didn’t jump in startlement. She didn’t react at all, in fact. But then, she had probably sensed his approach.

“Give me ten seconds,” he murmured, “then drop your aura.”

Darling scuttled backward from her, hoping his message was received and accepted; she had the presence of mind not to give away his position by acknowledging it verbally. Sure enough, ten seconds later, she turned to face the two kids in the corner, letting the glow around herself wink out and placing a shield of light between their wands and Andros.

He watched her back intently. A moment…wait for it…could he have been wrong? No, there…the faintest distortion.

Darling lunged forward, reaching out a hand from under his cloak, snatched a heavy pewter candlestick from the mantle. He brought it down with all his strength, apparently into midair; by sheer luck or the favor of Eserion, it was a dead hit. The succubus popped into visibility as the chunk of pewter was slammed down on her skull. Darling threw aside his cloak, dropping the candlestick and reaching out to grab her by the hair as she crumpled. With his other hand, he whipped out his belt knife and drove it into her back, then viciously yanked the blade out sideways, splattering the floorboards with black ichor. The demoness crumpled to the ground, unconscious and bleeding out.

Gods in the sky, a succubus. Not even a warlock would be crazy enough to give teenagers access to a succubus. This was all wrong.

With the younger two distracted, the tall boy was suddenly alone and found himself in the sights of both Andros’s wands. He turned, wide-eyed, raising his own weapon at the Huntsman.

Basra whipped around the corner, commanding his attention again, but before he could swivel his wand back around to aim at her, she closed with him and drove her sword into his belly just below the ribs.

“Andy!” the girl shrieked in anguish. The boy dropped his wand, gaping at Basra, who winked at him, then yanked her weapon free. He crumpled soundlessly.

“Damn it!” Darling swore.

“You didn’t need to do that!” Branwen exclaimed, rushing to the side of the fallen boy. Her shield over the other two winked out, but Andros immediately swiveled both his wands to cover them.

“Drop the weapons,” he snarled. Both kids, tears pouring down their faces, did so.

Meanwhile, Basra was wiping blood from her short sword with a piece of curtain that had been badly scorched by wandshots. Her eyes flicked between Darling and Branwen, narrowing. “I don’t tell you two how to pick pockets or suck dicks. Do not tell me how to end a fight.”

Branwen had placed her hands over the boy’s wound. While light blazed around her, Darling eased over to the other two and collected their wands. Stepping back, he peered critically around the room.

The stairs had been pulverized, the front door was completely gone… Holes had been blasted in all four walls and the ceiling, and most of the furniture was nothing but scraps of kindling and scorched fabric. He winced at the sight of all those books, burned to ash and fragments, their pieces strewn about by Shaath’s winds. The entire front of the room was more open space than wall at this point.

“Something tells me we’re not getting our security deposit back,” he said.

“Still too quiet out there,” Andros grunted, then raised one wand to point directly at the girl’s face. “You. Explain.”

She tore her eyes from the spectacle of Branwen trying to heal her fallen friend. Tears still ran down her face, but the glare she directed at Andros was pure hatred. She answered, however, her voice thick with barely controlled emotion. “It’s a spell. Arcane. The elders set it up long ago in case we needed to…to…” She paused, swallowing down a lump in her throat. “Everyone’s asleep, but they’re fine. They’ll wake up fine. We don’t harm innocents,” she spat.

Andros grunted. “How many more of you?”

“We’re it, moron!” the younger boy said shrilly. “Do you think they’d send kids after you? There’s nobody else left. You killed our parents, you bastard! We called up their familiars and came to—to—to…” He trailed off, squeezing his eyes shut, and choked back a sob. The girl wrapped both her arms around his thin shoulders.

“To what?” Basra asked dryly. “Get revenge? Well done.”

“Enough,” Darling said sharply. Turning to the kids he moderated his tone. “Nobody’s been killed, no thanks to you. Your parents, if that’s who paid us an unannounced visit last night, are fine. They’re about to go to Tiraas, but the good news is you’ll be going too. Branwen, how’s it look?”

She had just let the glow around her fade, and sat back on her heels, looking exhausted. “I’m really not a healer. I think… I think he’s stable. But it’s not a good stable… He’s lost blood, which I can’t do anything about. Might be in shock, too.”

“Right…” Darling looked around again at the destroyed house, the eerily silent street, their beaten and traumatized underage foes. “Well then, not only is our mission accomplished, but I think we’re about to be very unwelcome in this town. Time to be moving along. Andros, Branwen, get these three into the cells. The stasis should keep the lad stable until we can get him to an actual healer. Basra, we’re done with the…thing…in the basement. Be so kind as to kill it.”

“Excellent,” she said, already grinning and fondling her sword lovingly as she shouldered past Andros into the kitchen.

“I’m going to make a break for the scrolltower office, while the town’s asleep,” Darling said, already starting for the door. “We can’t take that wardrobe on the Rails; we’ll need transport out of here as quick as possible. Andros, I don’t anticipate more trouble, but keep everything stable here till I get back.”

The Huntsman nodded to him. Confident this situation was as under control as it could be, Darling exited through the gaping hole roughly where the front door had been and bounded down the steps.

Hamlet was downright creepy like this. The last redness of sunset had faded while they were occupied shooting up the house, but even in the darkness, the town felt dead in a way that no town should. He had an irrational thought that the residents might not be merely asleep, and made a mental note to double check on them—or at least some of them—once his immediate errand was done. Gods knew they’d have time while they waited for a coach to get out here.

It happened faster than he could react.

One instant he was disturbingly alone in the silent town, the next, the moon-cast shadows seemed to blossom all around him, spitting out half a dozen figures. All but one of them wore ash-gray robes.

Darling skidded to a stop, completely encircled. Directly in front of him, a man in a dapper white suit and matching boater hat stepped forward. His face was dark brown, homely, and brightened by an amiable smile.

“Evenin’,” he said lightly, tugging the brim of his hat. “It’s Sweet, isn’t it? I do believe you have something of mine.” That mild-mannered grin widened, and the cultists began to close in. “Well…something of my Lady’s, that is.”

“Ah,” said Darling mildly, glancing around. No gaps to exploit. “Well, you know how it is, one picks things up. What are you missing, exactly?”

“Four members of my cult.” The man’s smile faded into grimness. “And their children.”

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15 thoughts on “2 – 15

  1. If you support Sweet’s suddenly sour situation, vote for The Gods are Bastards!

    As of this writing, we’re at 27 active votes out of the 40 designated as the threshold for the first bonus chapter!

    So, the art of writing is a things that comes and goes. Sometimes the words just flow; sometimes they have to be struggled for. By and large, my experiences in writing TGaB have been uniformly wonderful. This story pours out, wanting to be told; each chapter has been fun for me to create. It doesn’t feel so much like me making something as channeling something fully formed in the ether, just waiting for me to write it all down.

    This chapter was the first one that gave me the opposite feeling.

    I really had to fight this one every step of the way. I don’t know what made the difference, but it was a struggle. In the end, reading back over it, I’m pretty pleased with what came out, but damn… It took me longer than it should have to get through, and it was an almost painful process. Once again, I’m feeling lucky that today’s update didn’t go up late. For a while there I was sure I’d never get it out in time.

    As long as the end result is satisfying, though, all’s well. Let’s hope subsequent chapters are more like previous ones. I guess everybody has an off day once in a while.

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      1. Yeah, we’re moving into a more action-heavy phase. The remainder of Book 2 is gonna be fairly non-stop. Overall I like the pacing of this more than Book 1, which, in hindsight, had entirely too much standing around talking.

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  2. Just caught up.
    Very good tale so far and I love high fantasy with a twist.
    Nicely done, I will be around to read more and support your efforts as much as I can.

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  3. Just doing the math:
    Nine cultists in the prologue. Four cultists caught prior to this chapter. Three junior cultists caught this chapter. Six new appearances. Twenty-two cultists in town. That’s a huge cell, which is probably why Sweet was caught off guard. But that makes little sense for an out-of-the-way town like Hamlet unless there is some serious reason for it.

    In the longer term picture, I am expecting the high priest(ess) of Elilial to be in Tiraas. It is where all of the political action is that Elilial is involving herself in and with their gift of stealth they can probably walk around clerics all day without getting noticed as cultists (as long as they don’t use infernal magic of course).

    And as far as the students, it makes tactical sense to split the party in these circumstances, but it is such an unusual move from a story standpoint that it threw me when it was actually suggested and agreed to. Rafe as the voice of reason was actually less bizarre to me than the split-the-party idea.

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    1. I’d lay 3:1 odds that the guy in the suit is the High Priest of Elilial and none of the cultists that just teleported in are from Hamlet

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      1. Yeah, that does seem like a solid possibility. But, high priest or not, perhaps we are seeing old man Moorville, the original owner of the house?

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  4. And, since I can’t help but use the puns, Sweet-talking may work in Tiraas where Antonio is everyone’s Darling, but that silver tongue is at a serious disadvantage in this situation.

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    1. I was thinking it was a stupid move for a different reason:
      To kill it you have to break the circle. Even with a deific aura there is a chance it can hurt you, perhaps seriously. For example, throw objects that go through the aura and hope to hit an eye or similar, and they are apparently short on healing-competent clerics.
      But there is worse than that – they summoned an intelligent demon who has seen their wardrobe trick. So, if it is smart and vindictive (yes and yes, btw) and it decides it has nothing to lose because it is being killed, it might attack the wardrobe. Destroying high-power magic items is almost guaranteed to have nasty side effects. The cultists could pop out unharmed and ready for round two.

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