The crow ruffled its feathers and shook itself, emitting a muted croak, but did not stir from its perch in the rafters. Just outside the awning, rain pattered down upon the streets of Tiraas, as rain so often did. It was a cool day, cooler than it had been recently, but not quite cold yet; not quite so bad that the oven and open lamps in the little pastry stand didn’t keep its inside comfortable, despite the fact that the entire front was open to the elements.
“Nice bird,” remarked the boy, peering up at it while rolling a coin across the backs of his knuckles. “Where’d you get something like that?”
“It’s not mine,” said the woman behind the counter. Her face was neutral, her tone polite—too neutral, too polite. They were alone in the stand at present, the rain not being conducive to much foot traffic in the market street, and the tension between them was almost tangible, for all that it ran one way. The young man seemed perfectly at ease. “I give it scraps sometimes and so far it hasn’t tried to steal any. I think it’s somebody’s pet, though. Doesn’t act like a wild crow.”
“You ought to do something about that, then,” he said lazily, then flapped a hand at the bird. “Shoo! Go on, you’re unsanitary!”
The crow hopped to one side, not even bothering to take wing, and tilted its head, watching him. With a shrug, he turned back to survey the hot pastries on display under the glass counter.
“Ah, the hell with it. Do something about it though. I don’t want to see that bird here next time I visit.”
“Anything for a customer,” she replied, her voice weighted with sarcasm.
He smirked. “A bit of an attitude today, eh? Just for that, I believe I’ll have a cream puff along with the meat pie. A little dessert’s just the thing to work off the hurt your sharp tongue has done to my feelings.”
“You know,” she said stiffly, not reaching into the pastry case yet, “I do have to make a living.”
“So do we all, cupcake,” he said, grinning. “A pastry now and then won’t bankrupt you.”
“One of my most expensive pastries every day, on the other hand…”
“Well, that’s what you get for overcharging,” he said glibly. “Chop chop, now. Some of us have better things to do with our time than loiter around a till all day.”
The crow emitted a loud, hoarse squawk, flapping its wings once without lifting off its perch. He half-turned to glance up at it in irritation, then started violently, catching a glimpse of the front of the stall. Two figures now stood there, silent as moonlight.
“Omnu’s breath,” he breathed, placing a hand over his chest, then grinned weakly. “You startled me, ladies.”
“Did we,” said the one on the left. They were elves, dressed in simple blouses and trousers of modest quality, damp with rain. Both stared at him with an utter lack of expression. His grin faltered.
“I… Eh, well, no harm done. I’ll be out of your way in just a moment, as soon as this slowpoke here hands over my breakfast.”
“Will you,” said the other tonelessly. As one, they stepped forward, twice. In the small space this placed them all in very cramped proximity. Ordinarily he’d have felt quite differently about being packed in so close with a pair of pretty, exotic young women, but there was a subtle threat in their cold demeanor.
“I think you can wait,” said the first, then looked past him to the woman behind the counter. “The usual, please, Denise.”
“Keep the change,” added the other, tossing something. Denise caught it awkwardly, clearly not used to such maneuvers, and then boggled down at the well-stuffed coin purse in her hand, its strings neatly sliced. She wasn’t the only one.
“I—wh—hey!” the young man exclaimed, more shocked than angry. “That’s mine!”
“Is it?” said the first elf mildly. “It appears to be hers, now.”
“Now listen here,” he said, outrage welling up on his features. “You don’t know what you’re meddling in, girls. I’m a member of the Thieves’ Guild!”
At that, they both grinned. Broadly. He flinched.
“Are you,” said the second elf.
“Whose apprentice?” added the first.
“W-what makes you think I’m an apprentice?” he stammered, trying to draw himself upright. The crow emitted a coarse chuckling noise, and he ruined the effect he was going for by flinching again.
“First,” said the second elf, “a full member of the Guild would know better than to abuse our privileges in the city. Shopkeepers toss us freebies because we deter pickpockets and cutpurses; a tidbit here and there costs them a lot less than a city full of ne’er-do-wells would. The system is there to benefit everyone. It is not carte blanche for you to walk all over people and do whatever the hell you please.”
“Second,” said the other, “a full member of the Guild would know better than to announce his membership, in public, to strangers.”
“Third…” The second elf leaned in close to him, her grin broadening to proportions that resembled that of a wolf. “A full member of the Guild who behaved this way would be dragged into the basement of the Guild headquarters and have things broken. Fingers, definitely. Possibly knees. You, clearly, are just some dumb kid who doesn’t yet understand how things work. They’ll probably be more gentle with you. Maybe.”
“Fourth,” added the first elf in an especially silky tone, “and not to blow our own horns or anything, any active Guild member in this city would recognize Sweet’s apprentices. I’m told we’re sort of…distinctive.”
He swallowed, loudly.
“What’s your name?”
“Who’s your trainer?”
“I—I…” He gulped again, finding a small measure of courage. “I don’t know you two. How do I know you are…who you say? I don’t have to tell you anything.”
“We don’t have to ask nicely,” the woman on the right said, her expression growing grim.
Denise cleared her throat. “Um, could you please ask nicely? I really, really don’t need any trouble in my stall, Flora.”
“Of course, my apologies.” Flora nodded to her, then returned her stare to the boy. “It needn’t come to any rough stuff, anyhow. We can simply follow him.”
“Ever been stalked by elves?” the other one said lazily. “You’ve probably read stories about dramatic bison hunts. Bows, staves, unicorn charges, all that. That’s plains elves, though. We’re from a forest tribe.”
“It’s called tela’theshwa,” said Flora. “Persistence predation, according to the scholars who felt the need to name it in Tanglish. No violence at all. We just follow our prey, at a walk, until it drops dead from exhaustion. He’s a robust specimen, Fauna, but I bet he gets tired before we do.”
“You have to go home sometime,” Fauna told him in a singsong tone, grinning. “Us? We can go for days.”
“Weeks,” Flora corrected smugly. “We’re well-fed and well-rested.”
“Randal Wilcox,” he bleated. “I’m apprenticed to Grip!”
In unison, their eyebrows rose.
“You work under Grip,” Fauna said slowly, “and you do something like this?”
Flora shook her head. “Boy, you are almost too dumb to be alive.”
“He’d have been eaten by a cougar in the old country.”
“A cougar? Please, this numbnut would’ve been eaten by opossums.”
“Tell you what, Randy,” Fauna said. “Mind if I call you Randy? Swell. We’re heading back to the Guild ourselves, but not in any great hurry. We just stopped by for a bit of breakfast on the way.”
“I’m sure you noticed this stall is in a really convenient spot,” Flora added. “Nice place to grab a bite you can enjoy on a leisurely stroll.”
“It’ll take us a while to get there, is what we’re saying. Half an hour, maybe?”
“Eh, twenty minutes.”
“Aw, I wanted to feed the ducks!”
“I do not want to feed the ducks. It’s raining. The ducks are under shelter, like all sensible beings.”
“Spoilsport,” Fauna pouted. “Twenty minutes, then. That’s how long you’ve got to either get your ass back there, explain your fuck-up and hope Grip is in a reasonable mood for once… Or get out of Tiraas.”
“It’ll look better coming from you,” Flora added. “If they have to hear about this from us? Well, then Grip will be embarrassed on top of pissed off. Makes her look bad in front of Sweet. Rumor has it she gets really crabby when somebody makes her look bad.”
“Of course, if you—” Fauna broke off, dodging nimbly as Randal shoved past her and took off at a sprint.
“Heh.” Flora leaned out from under the awning to watch him go. “Wait for it, wait for…aw, he didn’t fall. Guess he knows where the slippery patch is.”
“I keep telling you, just because humans can’t see in the dark doesn’t mean they’re blind. Anyhow!” Fauna smiled winsomely at Denise. “Sorry about all that. Some people, right? I don’t mean to rush you, or anything…”
“Oh! Sorry.” Belatedly, the shopkeeper began loading a couple of meat pies into folds of waxed paper for easy carrying. “Got distracted by all the…well. Um, stop me if it’s not my business, but…what’s gonna happen to him?”
“Not really interested.”
“Not our problem.”
“I can tell you this much,” Fauna added. “If you ever see him in here again, it’ll be so he can deliver an apology, and possibly some monetary remuneration.”
“I wouldn’t make a claim like that against the Thieves’ Guild,” Denise said carefully, keeping her eyes on her hands as she folded the pies up neatly.
“Please,” Flora said earnestly, “make claims like that. That kind of crap makes us all look bad. The Guild doesn’t stand for it; we don’t pick on honest tradespeople who are just getting by. It’s bad for everyone’s business and bad for our rep.”
“I understand if you’re not comfortable going to the casino to talk to somebody,” Fauna said. “The Church is available for that, though. You can leave a message for Bishop Darling at the Cathedral; anybody ever hassles you like this again, do so and he’ll take care of it.”
“I wouldn’t want to be a bother,” she demurred, sliding their wrapped pies across the glass counter. “Here you go, girls.”
Flora caught her hand, gently, and held it until Denise looked up to meet her eyes. She was smiling, an authentically warm expression totally unlike the one she’d given Randal. “You’re safe with Guild members,” she said softly. “The only reason a Guild thief would harm you is if you’d done something to royally deserve it.”
“And, no offense, I have a hard time picturing you being so adventurous,” Fauna added, grinning.
“You’re even safer than most,” Flora said with a wink. “Because now we have something to prove to you.”
Denise gently pulled her hand back, managing a weak grin and an awkward little laugh. “Aha…well… Like I said… Yeah, you’re right, I’m not the pushy kind. I wouldn’t want to be a bother. I’ll tell you what, though, your next visit’s on the house.”
The crow chuckled softly to itself and finally took wing, flapping out into the rain.
“Nineteen,” said Archpope Justinian, “in the last month. I never held out much hope that Asherad’s murder would be an anomalous event; far too much effort had to have gone into it. In the lull that followed, though…” He trailed off, shaking his head.
The four Bishops assembled for his little cabal sat around the conference table in the Archpope’s private study, wearing grim expressions, as the subject deserved.
“I’d say we’re in the opposite of a lull now,” Basra said once it was clear the pontiff had finished speaking. “Four weeks of this is having what I’m sure was the intended effect. It’s getting harder and harder to get any kind of cooperation from individual cults that they don’t absolutely have to offer. They can tell which way the wind’s blowing.”
“And which way is that?” Darling asked. “I mean, what do the victims have in common? Is there a theme here? My Guild hasn’t lost anybody, but we’ve all but stopped operations in the city in the last week. The Boss thinks it’s too risky for any kind of cultist to be operating until something’s done.”
“There’s a theme,” Basra said, glancing at the Archpope. “It’s…sensitive. I’m sure you wouldn’t want—”
“The murdered all have two things in common,” Justinian said gravely. “First, they were individuals of such character that if the world knew what I know, there might not be so much an outcry at their deaths.”
“How can there be that many people like that among the cults of the Pantheon?” Branwen whispered, horrified.
“That many would have to just about cover it,” Darling ruminated. “There are rotten people everywhere, Bran, and not all gods are as compassionate as Izara. But…you’re not wrong, it strains credulity that every cult is so corrupt you can just walk in and kill somebody who deserves it. Which raises a whole host of other disturbing questions…”
“Indeed,” said the Archpope, nodding. “Which reflects upon the second point they had in common: each of these individuals was involved in a corrupt or shady program run by the Universal Church itself.”
There was silence for a moment.
“Such as?” Andros finally said, staring as sharply at the Archpope as he could probably get away with.
“I’ll make full documentation available to each of you if you request it,” said Justinian, folding his hands on the table before him. “However, before we delve into such details, let me pose a question. This is in line with your inquiry, Antonio. How much longer can this go on? Someone is clearly making a considerable effort to clean house. How much more cleaning, in your estimation, is required?”
“Corruption is a hard thing to pin down across different religions,” Basra said after a pause. “Antonio’s people do things as a matter of doctrinal obligation that’d get anyone thrown out of my Sisterhood.”
“And vice versa,” Darling said wryly. “In fact, we could go clockwise around the table and talk about how everybody’s faith is a tangle of depravity from the perspective of somebody else’s, so let’s take it as given and…not. I think that’s dodging the issue, though. Or, your Holiness, are these people really being targeted over doctrinal issues?”
“I can unequivocally say that they are not,” Justinian said solemnly. “The four slain this week included a known pedophile, and two individuals involved in a Church-run operation which has been financing actual witch hunts along the frontier.”
“People still do that?” Branwen said, aghast.
“In that case,” Andros growled, “perhaps this killer is doing us a favor.”
“Oh, please,” said Basra dismissively. “Making the bad people go away is a child’s solution to improving the world. You can’t fix societal problems through assassination.”
“Besides,” Darling added, “it’s fairly obvious that the thrust of this is to create a stir, not just to get rid of the individuals who’ve been…gotten rid of. A wedge is being driven between the Church and its member cults. I can’t imagine that’s anything but intentional, if not the entire point.”
“And,” said Justinian, nodding, “it carries an additional message to us, who know the secrets of those being targeted. Our foe knows these secrets too, and has the power to penetrate our defenses.”
“The Wreath,” Branwen murmured.
“It almost has to be,” Basra agreed, “but…how? Why now?”
“Why now seems obvious enough,” said Darling. “We just escalated the conflict with them considerably. Specifically those of us sitting in this room.”
“Okay, fine, but that leaves the bigger question,” she said impatiently. “How? If the Wreath had the capacity to do things like this, they’d have been doing them. For a very long time. What’s changed?”
“We changed the rules of the engagement,” said Andros. “It would be poor strategy for them to accept battle on our terms. They are altering the conditions in turn, forcing us to act on theirs.”
“Again,” Basra exclaimed, “how? We can talk whys and wherefores until we’re all blue in the face, but the hard truth is that somebody is slipping through the sturdiest magical defenses in existence and slaughtering people who should be powerful enough to prevent this from happening to them. That should be our biggest concern!”
“The issue,” said Justinian firmly, drawing their attention back to him, “is that in previous times, our engagements with the Wreath have always been that: with the Wreath. They’ve employed outside agents throughout their history when it served their ends, usually as a method of preserving their anonymity, but the actual campaigns of the cult itself have been carried out by Elilinist warlocks. Those are methodologies with stark limitations, which are very familiar to us. What has changed is that they are sending someone else, now. Consider what a temple’s defenses are meant to ward off. Could any of your strongholds deter, say, an Imperial strike team, with professional fighters wielding multiple systems of magic?”
“Most of mine could,” Basra said with a hint of smugness, then added somewhat ungraciously, “probably several of Andros’s, too.”
“But most temples in general, no,” said Branwen. “That being the case…why are we certain that the Wreath is behind this at all?”
Justinian spread his hands in a shrug. “Who else?”
“This was all kicked off by Elilial opening a new project,” Darling said, frowning thoughtfully into the distance. “We may have accelerated her timetable somewhat, but we shouldn’t rule out that some or all of this was planned from the beginning.”
“Just so,” said the Archpope, “and it is for that reason that we are going to continue to let it happen, for now.”
“Excuse me?” Basra said shrilly.
“Andros has raised a couple of extremely pertinent points,” Justinian went on, his calm a stark contrast to her agitation. “Whatever the additional effects, our house is being cleaned, and I would be dissembling if I did not acknowledge some relief. I inherited a huge bureaucracy in this Church, my friends, and some of my predecessors were… Well. Suffice it to say that the Throne does not hold a monopoly on political ruthlessness. Our enemy is hurting us, yes, but they are also destroying dead weight and counterproductive elements, not to mention relieving us of a moral burden by excising corruption. There is an incidental benefit to us in this.”
“You can’t be suggesting we don’t do something to deal with this,” Darling protested, then added belatedly, “your Holiness.”
“Indeed I am not, which brings me to Andros’s other point. The rules have been changed on us. I intend to change them again. The Wreath is managing to strike at our strength without engaging us directly; we shall do likewise. To that end, my friends, the time has come for us to put an end to the Age of Adventures.”
There was silence in the room. The Bishops glanced around the table at each other, avoiding the Archpope’s eyes.
“What, nothing?” Justinian actually grinned. “Antonio? Basra? Someone give us the obligatory witticism.”
“That seems a little…belated, your Holiness,” Basra said carefully.
“Quite so.” The Archpope rested his hands flat on the table and leaned forward at them, his face now focused and stern again. “And that makes this project doubly important. Recently, Antonio, your cult was peripherally involved in an engagement with Arachne Tellwyrn which was disrupted by one Longshot McGraw, is that not so?”
“It is,” Darling said slowly.
“McGraw and his ilk, which includes Tellwyrn herself, are the last fading echoes of a long dead era,” Justinian went on. “Civilization as it stands now is not tolerant of people who choose ‘adventuring’ as a career. Those who do so successfully manage because of the degree of their skill. They are, simply put, so dangerous that it is not worthwhile trying to rein them in, so long as they do not cause problems on a massive scale.”
“If you hope to exterminate free spirits,” Andros rumbled, “you will be frustrated.”
“You are quite correct, my friend, we shall always have such characters with us. But there are more of them now in the world than the world needs, and this is the resource the Wreath has leveraged against us.”
“You think this is being done by adventurers?” Basra exclaimed.
“Those who are actually good at that sort of work don’t call themselves such,” Justinian replied. “But…yes. Powerful, dangerous people who make their way in life by wielding that power. The Age of Adventures is long over. We don’t need them in the world anymore. Now, it seems some have allowed themselves to be used against the Universal Church. We will deal with this, solve a societal problem, and deprive the Black Wreath of the resource it is using to terrorize us.”
“The Wreath is a difficult foe precisely because they’re hard to pin down,” Darling said, frowning. “But at least they’re an organization. Adventurers…even the really dangerous ones…are barely even a community. It’s not like we can just round them up.”
“I was hardly suggesting a pogrom, nor would I if such a thing were feasible. Which, as you have rightly pointed out, it is not. We must act carefully. I am not jumping to conclusions, here, my friends; it is based on solid information that I believe the Wreath is contracting exceptional professional individuals to attack our cults. We will do two things: in the broader and longer term, change the environment of the city such that any such people will work at our behest or not at all. And, more immediately, we will identify the perpetrators of these crimes specifically and deal with them.”
“Splendid,” Basra said, smiling. Andros nodded sharply in agreement.
“That’ll stop this from happening, all right,” Darling said. “Assuming was can pull it off. And what then?”
“Basra was correct in that eliminating problematic people is a partial solution at best. I think, perhaps, we can find a better use for our enemies than the Black Wreath can. It certainly will be safest, I believe, not to approach them…confrontationally.”
He met the Archpope’s eyes, nodding slowly in acquiescence, the thoughtful frown on his own face unfeigned. Justinian’s visage was calm, open; his eyes were unthreatening, but glittered with intelligence. They revealed no hint at how much he knew.
“Man…I do not wanna ride this thing,” Gabriel groaned.
“Ask me how much I care what you want,” Tellwyrn said breezily. She turned to stare at him, planting her hands on her hips, and grinned. “Go on, ask. It’ll be funny.”
“Is it absolutely necessary for you to be a jerk?”
“In the long run, Mr. Arquin, you’ll find that few things are truly necessary or in any way meaningful. In the shorter term, I find being a jerk is often an effective way of accomplishing my goals. Now hop to, time and the Imperial Rails wait for no one!”
So saying, she clambered into the lead car of the Rail caravan waiting for them on Last Rock’s platform. Gabriel grumbled under his breath, but went to help Toby and Ruda finish stowing their baggage in the cargo car at the rear.
Trissiny drew in a deep breath, looking with some trepidation at the assembled caravan. Her own journey along the Rails was a vivid and uncomfortable memory. They had three cars to themselves, which was a little bit excessive with only nine people (one of whom was a pixie), but condensing their party into two would have been cramped indeed—and a cramped party on the Rails was a bad idea.
“I can’t decide if this’ll be better or worse than our last excursion,” Teal murmured, standing just behind Trissiny with Shaeine. “I mean…we’re going someplace civilized instead of into the wilderness…”
“Yeah, I’m worried about that, too,” Juniper admitted, chewing her lower lip. “In the wilderness you know what to expect. There are rules. Civilized people might up and do anything at all. But hey, we won’t be alone! We’ve got a teacher with us.”
“That, I believe, is Teal’s other concern,” Shaeine said, glancing at Teal with a raised eyebrow. The bard grinned back at her.
“You know me so well.”
“Well, anything’s bound to be better than Rafe,” Trissiny said grimly. “And Tellwyrn…isn’t without redeeming qualities.”
“Aww,” came Professor Tellwyrn’s voice from the open hatch of the lead car. “Dear diary!”
Trissiny sighed, gritting her teeth.
“Welp, that’s about all the procrastination we can squeeze into this,” Gabriel said, dusting off his hands as he rejoined them. “Everything packed away and nothing left to stop us from hopping into this demented death machine on our way to Sarasio. Wherever the fuck that is.”
“It’s a frontier town,” said Teal, “not so much like Last Rock and more like the ones you read about in cowboy novels. Cattle raids, attacks by tribes of wild elves, wandfights in the streets. All that good stuff.”
Gabe snorted. “And she expects us to what? Burn it to the ground?”
“I suspect we will learn her intentions in due time,” Shaeine said evenly. “Considering how much of our final grades are resting on the outcome of this expedition, I do not imagine it will be anything so…simple.”
“Not that we’d burn down a town anyway,” Toby said firmly.
“All right,” said Trissiny, “given the makeup of our group, I think we should split up healers. Juniper, Shaeine and Gabriel should ride together; their healing won’t hurt him if he gets hurt, and they can heal each other or themselves.”
“I won’t get hurt anyway,” Gabriel grumbled. “I’ll just get motion sickness so bad I wish I was dead.”
Trissiny glanced at him, then at Shaeine, then at Teal. “Teal, you should go with that group. You’re also pretty durable…”
“Pretty much indestructible, actually.”
“…but if the unforseeable should happen, you’ll still be with the healers who won’t hurt Vadrieny by using their magic.”
“Sounds good!” Teal said with a broad grin, edging closer to Shaeine. “Shall we then?”
“That was nicely handled,” Toby murmured to her as the four of them trooped into the middle car and began ducking inside, one at a time. Even lowering his voice he was well within Shaeine’s earshot; the significant look he gave her and Teal was the only hint to Trissiny of what he really meant. She met his smile with a wink.
“Strategic planning isn’t new to me.”
“Aw, you mean you didn’t set this up just for more quality time with me, roomie?” Ruda said, grinning. “I’m hurt. Really, I might cry.”
“Eh, that’s kind of reaching,” Trissiny said. “You’re not at your most cutting this early in the morning, are you?”
“Oh, you are asking for it, kid,” the pirate shot back, but she was still grinning. “Welp, we’re the last ones out. C’mon, Fross, let’s grab a seat.”
“I don’t really need a seat,” the pixie said, fluttering along obediently behind her. “I’ve never ridden in one of these before, though! I’m very curious!”
“Me either. I bet it’s gonna suck!”
Trissiny smiled at Toby. “Well, then. Onward to glory.”
He laughed, and her smile broadened. His laugh did that to her.
Alone in the lead car, Tellwyrn was smiling, too. Fortunately none of them could see it.