“Well, I don’t know what surprises me more,” Tricks said dourly. “You bein’ here on the orders of the Church, or the fact that you’d accuse me of such a thing right to my face.”
“Whoah,” said Sweet, taking a step back and staring at him in consternation. “Where did that come from?”
Behind Trick’s shoulder, Style grimaced, tightening her crossed arms, and Sweet’s bad feeling intensified. There was something very off in the vibe here. They were meeting, as usual, in the counting room beneath the Casino, but there the routine ended. Tricks looked worn out and bitter, Style was being uncharacteristically silent, and now he was on the defensive.
“I’m not accusing you of anything,” he said more quietly. “And this is much less about the Church than it is about the Guild. They’re just questions, and let’s be honest, pretty obvious ones. What’s happening, Boss? You have to know you played right into the Wreath’s hands, sending out the enforcers that way.”
Style let out a lungful of air through her nose, her grimace intensifying, and Sweet started to actually worry. Not about himself—she’d be glaring at him if he were in trouble—but about the whole situation. As the least emotionally contained member of the group, Style was something of a barometer, and her unhappiness was infectious.
“You’re right,” Tricks said wearily, slumping back into the overseer’s chair and propping his head up with one hand. “Sorry, Sweet, that came out more confrontational than it needed to. Yeah, I know. It was pretty damn obvious what the Wreath was playing at; that move was subtle by the standards of the general public, but not by their standards, or ours. If anything, it was weirdly aggressive.”
“So…” Sweet frowned. “…you were weirdly aggressive right back?”
The Boss stared up at him in silence for a moment before speaking. “You’re worried the Guild has been infiltrated.”
“Tricks, I’m almost positive the Guild has been infiltrated, and that’s got little to do with the current crisis. That’s a standing assumption and you know it. The Guild is decentralized enough that it’s not usually a major concern; there’s a limit to the damage a given spy can do. I’m worried that the Wreath’s infiltration has got far enough in to start affecting policy. And now you tell me this wasn’t due to anyone’s influence, but entirely your idea? Boss…you didn’t walk into their trap, you charged headlong.”
“And that makes me Wreath?”
“No, no, I know. Sorry. You’re right.” Tricks waved a hand as if shooing away gnats. “I’m sorry. This has been… Y’know, you once told me that this had to be the cushiest job of its rank among any of the Pantheon’s cults, because the Guild all but runs itself and the Big Guy basically never has any orders to hand out. Remember that?”
“Sure,” Sweet said hesitantly. “Is that somehow relevant to…”
“I’ve gotta ask, Sweet.” Tricks leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees, and stared up at him almost pleadingly. “Were you just fucking with me? Was that some kind of tradition I have to pass on to the next poor asshole?”
“…Tricks, what’s going on?”
The Boss just stared at him. Style looked down at Tricks, her forehead creased in consternation, but held her silence.
“No,” Sweet said finally. “It was the plain truth as I experienced it. The whole time I was Boss I had to seek out the Big Guy’s opinion exactly twice, and got orders from him three times, in that entire span of years. None of it was hugely complicated, though it was never pretty.”
Tricks grimaced, leaning back again. “Well. Dunno if that makes me a better Boss than you were or a shittier one. And no, don’t ask; the Big Guy’s edicts are private, as you damn well know.”
“I think…it may or may not have to do with you,” Sweet said slowly. “There’s also the situation. Shit’s going down, Boss. Justinian’s making a play, Elilial’s making a play, Tellwyrn’s butting the fuck in, the Empire is faltering on multiple fronts… And then there’s shit like Principia’s whatever-she’s-doing. I think you just have bad timing.”
Tricks grunted sourly. “You want your fucking job back?”
“I really, really do not,” Sweet said fervently. “…but, man… If that’s a sincere offer, I think I might have to take it. Dunno if I’d cope any better than you are, but you’re scaring me, Tricks. I hate seeing you like this.”
Style gave a wordless grunt that conveyed emphatic agreement.
Tricks just heaved a sigh. “Nevermind me, I’m just bitching. It’s been two days since I slept and I’m overdue for lunch.”
“You’re overdue for fucking breakfast after the day you skipped lunch,” Style said quietly.
Tricks blinked, twisting his head around to look up at her. “What day is it? No, never mind, doesn’t matter. Soon as we’re done here I’ll eat something, get drunk, find someone to boink my brains out and get some sleep, I promise.”
“You better,” she warned. “I will enforce that. I’d do it myself, but damn…look at you. I’d break your spine.”
“You never have learned to be gentle, huh?” Sweet asked with a faint grin.
She smirked at him. “You will never know.”
“To drag this back in the general direction of the original point,” said Tricks, straightening in his chair, “no, Sweet, this was not my idea. This came down from the highest level. That much you may feel free to take back to Justinian.” He folded his arms loosely in his lap. “Whatever Wreath have wormed their way into the Guild are not in control. But in the short term… Eserion operates much the way Elilial does, and I can say without breaching his confidence that while he doesn’t take care of our business as a point of principle, he is willing to stir himself to deal directly with her. You said it, Sweet: shit’s going down.” He shook his head slowly. “This is not the first time I’ve been directed to play along with a Black Wreath ploy, and I would love to tell you I expect it to be the last, but I’m just not that optimistic.”
“Master Jenkins, you have a visitor.”
Joe carefully finished tucking the last throwing knife he had just pulled free from the target board into his palm before turning to fact the house. He hadn’t actually cut himself yet, but his introduction to the world of bladed weapons had begun with a long lecture on the safe handling thereof, delivered by two elves who were casually playing with knives like a pair of circus performers the whole time. As in most cases, he had decided the safest policy was to compliment Flora and Fauna on their artistry and then take them at their word.
On the other side of the small, walled garden, Price stood at attention next to the townhouse’s back door, from which Longshot McGraw was emerging, giving him a friendly grin.
“Joe, my boy,” the old mage said amiably. “How’re you holding up?”
“In all honesty, chafing under my house arrest,” Joe replied with a matching grin. “I feel entirely as good as new. What brings you by, Elias?”
“Oh, this is an attempt to ferret information out of our employer, clumsily disguised as a social call,” McGraw said blithely. “But, as the good Bishop appears to be out, I’m glad enough to actually socialize. You get to be my age, and the glittering attractions of the big city start to look less attractive and more annoying; give me a quiet drink with a friend any day. Unless, of course, I’m imposing.”
“Not in the least, I’m goin’ stir-crazy myself,” Joe replied, strolling back over to him. “Sit a spell, Bishop Darling’s stated on record that you and the others are always welcome.”
“Indeed,” said Price. “If you gentlemen would care to make yourselves comfortable, I shall bring refreshments.”
“Very much obliged, ma’am,” McGraw said courteously, pausing in the act of taking out his cigarette case to nod to her.
Price flicked her gaze briefly but deliberately to the case. “It is rare that we have such pleasant weather in Tiraas. By all means, don’t waste the opportunity to pollute the air outdoors instead of in.”
She slipped back inside, leaving McGraw staring after her, not moving.
“I do believe I’ve just received a hint,” he said ruefully, tucking the case away.
“Nah, that just means she likes you,” said Joe with a smile, pulling out a chair from the small wrought-iron garden table set up on Darling’s back patio. “It’s an expression of familiarity and comfort, or so I’ve chosen to believe. I knew I was part of the family the day I left muddy boots in the hall and received a four-second passive-aggressive character assassination that plumb drove the breath outta me.”
“Well, call me overcautious, but I’ve met enough Butlers in my time that I’ve developed a policy of playing it safe around ’em,” said McGraw, seating himself as well. “Learning a new trick, are we?”
Joe sighed, setting the knives carefully on the table. “The girls were kind enough to show me the basics. I’ve been getting in some practice. I think this is the longest I’ve ever gone without practicing with my wands, but…”
“I don’t reckon the neighbors would much appreciate that,” McGraw noted.
“Exactly,” Joe nodded. “The Bishop is a generous host; I rather suspect he would supply me with a magically shielded target if I asked, but… My wands are quieter than the mass-produced variety, but not silent, and there’s really no way to dampen the flash. Besides, you never know who in the surrounding houses might be an arcanist or witch, and would sense the discharge. All it’d take is one of the idle rich to learn some kid was shootin’ off weapons behind the Bishop’s house and there’d be no end of trouble.”
“Indeed,” McGraw said, a twinkle in his eyes belying his grave tone, “you might have to tell ’em all just which Kid you are and become a local celebrity.”
“Only in my nightmares,” Joe muttered.
“You know, Tiraas does have shootin’ ranges. Not my scene, but I’ve had occasion to visit a few, here and there.”
“I’m aware,” Joe said with a sigh, “and I do plan to frequent them if we’re to stay in the city over the long term. Sadly, my caretaker deems that an unsuitable degree of excitement for me. It’s not so bad, really. Turns out I’ve got a knack for throwing knives, too. The more skills a body has, the better.”
“That’s true, and a wise observation,” the wizard said, nodding. “I must say you seem hearty enough. Why the short leash, if you’ll pardon my askin’?”
Joe shrugged. “Believe me, I’ve asked the same thing. And it’s not like Mary’s shy about explainin’ herself. It’s just…she gets going, and I get lost. I have worked out from context that ‘cardiovascular’ refers to the heart and blood vessels. A cardiac arrest means a heart attack, which apparently I’m still at risk for, or so she claims. There’s also ‘pulmonary,’ which I haven’t quite puzzled out yet.”
“Seems to me there’s a simple enough solution to that,” McGraw said mildly.
“Yeah,” Joe replied, grimacing. “But when she first started in on it, I was too prideful to admit ignorance in front of the legendary immortal. By the time I got more comfortable around her, well… At what point can you fess up to playin’ smarter than you really are for weeks?”
McGraw actually laughed. “These things have a way of runnin’ away with you, I’ll grant. Forgive me for exercising an old man’s prerogative to dispense advice, kid, but the sooner you get over choking on your pride, the happier you’ll be in the long run.”
“I believe you,” he said ruefully. “But it’s not as if I’m under poor care. I grew up a stone’s throw from an elven grove. In my experience, elves know what they’re talking about, especially the elders, and most especially a shaman. Soon as I’m free to roam, I think I’ll go pester the Nemitites for some definitions.”
A soft croak commanded their attention; both turned to behold a crow perched on the garden wall, watching them.
Joe grimaced. “…ah.”
The bird launched itself into a shallow dive, and then Mary landed lightly on the grass, her moccasins making no sound.
“’Pulmonary’ refers to the lungs and their operation,” she said with a faint smile. “Ask questions, Joseph. Ignorance is a fault only if you refuse to correct it.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, chagrined, and only belatedly remembered to stand. By that point she had reached the table, and placed a hand on his shoulder, pushing him gently back down.
McGraw half-rose, doffing his hat to her. “Ma’am,” he said respectfully. “Always a pleasure. I’ve been makin’ a point of keeping in touch with the others, but I hadn’t run across you since we reported back from the mountain.”
“I make it a point not to be run across unless I have specific reason,” she said mildly. “But I, too, have been keeping watch over all of you, and over our host. You came here to inquire when we will be expected to move, yes?”
“That was the idea,” he said with a faint grimace. “I don’t personally feel a great urgency to go out and cross wands with whatever passel o’ horrors we’ll be called on to deal with, but there’s only so much sittin’ around I can take. Most particularly when I know what I now know about what’s loose in the world.”
“I have seen many apocalypses come and go,” she said, calm as ever. “These things happen. Darling is being diligent in his pursuit, but it is, at this stage, a waiting game. To rush it is to court ruin.”
“I think we all understand that,” Joe said with a sigh. “Doesn’t mean it’s driving me any less crazy. Seems like I went straight from being cooped up in a bordello for weeks to being cooped up here. If this is gonna be the pattern…”
“You were cooped up where?” McGraw asked in a tone of great interest.
“Oh, that’s right, I hadn’t told you the story. That was Billie; she’s come to visit every few days. Well, a while back I had occasion to meet the new paladins, along with an assortment of other mightily interesting folk…”
The back door of the house opened at that moment, and Bishop Darling himself strolled through, looking more tired than usual. “You should be glad for your currently limited amount of social contact, Joe; you seem to attract interesting people. They won’t always come with the likes of Tellwyrn or myself to keep them in line.”
“Interesting people do have a way of tearin’ up the scenery,” McGraw said gravely.
Darling pulled out one of the remaining chairs and plopped himself down in it. “Elias, good to see you. Why do I suspect you didn’t bother to come in through the door, Mary?”
“At a guess, because you are a swift learner,” she said serenely. “Welcome home. Have you learned anything interesting?”
Price had emerged from the house behind him, carrying a laden tray. She set this down on the patio table and began pouring tea and parceling out cucumber sandwiches in silence while they talked.
“Interesting,” Darling said with a sigh, “in the sense of raising more questions than answers, and answers only of the alarming variety. Joe, I know you’ve been somewhat forcibly isolated from events. Are you all aware of the recent ruckus in the city?”
“I do read the paper,” said Joe, nodding. “Several, in fact, to get a balance of editorial slants. I’ve gotta say, it seems out of character, how the Legions acted. There’s a lot of fuss kicked up over it.”
“To say nothing of the Guild’s actions,” Mary added, watching Darling closely.
“That’s not spoken of as openly,” said McGraw, “and certainly not in print, but I’ve not managed to escape the rumors myself. Can’t say I’ve managed to overhear much that’s in favor of the Black Wreath, but a number of the major cults have smudged their good names in comparison recently.”
“I’m operating on the assumption you’re all intelligent enough to work this out for yourselves, but I’ll spell it out anyway,” Darling said grimly. “This—all of it—is a Wreath plot. It’s not yet unfolded enough that I can see where it’s going, but the early stages suggest an effort to discredit the Pantheon’s cults. What troubles me is I can’t envision an endgame to this. In the long term, there’s just no way Elilial can win back the hearts and minds of the general public. If that were on the table, she’d have done it at some point in the preceding eight thousand years.”
“She has, in fact, done so several times,” Mary noted, “sometimes on a fairly considerable scale. I agree, however, that in the current climate, such an outcome is highly unlikely. Which suggests that this is not her long-term goal, but a more immediate one.”
“Which means,” Joe said slowly, “there’s something else coming. Something big.”
“That’s where we’re at, yeah,” Darling agreed, scowling. “And I’ve got Justinian doubtless trying to spin this to serve his own plots, the Guild and the Sisterhood having royally embarrassed themselves, and no one apparently reliable to back up counter-Wreath efforts but the bloody Huntsmen of Shaath.”
“The provincial attitude of the Huntsmen has often overshadowed their effectiveness,” Mary noted. “This would not be the first time the Wreath has underestimated them, either. If I may point it out, you also have us.”
“You lot are, indeed, an ace in the hole,” Darling agreed. “But we are all left in Joe’s position at the moment: stuck waiting. In order to make good use of this massive collection of firepower I’ve so carefully lined up, I need a target, and an environment in which I can safely fire at it. Otherwise I risk furthering the Wreath’s agenda yet again. To the best of my knowledge, they don’t know about the five of you, but I’m not naïve enough to bank on that assumption.”
“Wise,” Mary said, nodding.
“In my experience,” said McGraw, crossing his legs and lounging back in his chair as he sipped his tea, “the defensive is a bad place to be. Being stuck in a waiting position is the proper time to look into unconventional ways to seize the initiative. Something the enemy won’t anticipate.”
“I am, in fact, exploring several possibilities,” said Darling. “Once again, there is you lot; shifty situation or no, you may end up being the tiebreaker. It’s also a good time to research new skills. How’s your knife-throwing coming along, Joe?”
“I daresay I’m very nearly enough to have another contest with Fauna and not quite as severely humiliate myself,” Joe said gravely.
“Mm.” Darling gave him a sidelong look. “Just for your edification, if she finds out you let her win, she’s gonna kick your ass.”
Joe froze, blinking. “Um…pardon?”
“I know only the broad strokes of how your ability works, but it’s not at all a leap to figure out that knife-throwing of all things would come as naturally to you as breathing.” Darling grinned at the Kid’s abashed expression. “Anyhow, I’m looking into branching out myself. It was recently pointed out to me that the Church has a holy summoner program, and training is available. With the Wreath bopping around, maybe a little demonology would be worth picking up.”
“You as a warlock?” McGraw mused. “…I could almost see that.”
“Thanks,” Darling said dryly. “Anyhow, not a warlock, obviously. I’m not much with the divine flash, but I’m still a priest. Too much holy magic stored in the aura makes that impossible.”
Instantly they all turned their heads to him, identical frowns falling across their faces. Darling looked from one face to another and back, his eyebrows climbing in surprise.
“What? What’d I say? What’s that look for?”
“Who told you that?” Mary asked evenly. “About holy magic in the aura.”
“Someone who’d taken advantage of the aforementioned training,” he said slowly. “Why?”
She raised one eyebrow. “I’m afraid they misled you.”
“It’s just…startling,” Joe said carefully, “hearin’ that from a priest. Usually magic-users of any stripe are better versed in the Circles of Interaction.”
“I’m an Eserite,” Darling said, a note of impatience creeping into his voice. “My god does not encourage the use of magic when mortal skills will suffice. Would someone care to explain the issue, please?”
“You two mind if I take this one?” McGraw asked, setting down his tea and straightening. When they both nodded to him, he turned to face Darling. “Specializing in one form of magic can inhibit you in learning the others, but not to any great degree. Except in very rare cases, magic is something you do, or have, not something you are. All four schools have in common that magical power grows with time and use, which is why the older casters are nearly always the stronger. But the nature of that barrier is different for each school. What you describe, storing power in the aura…that’s arcane magic that works that way. Storage capacity’s like a muscle that gets stronger the more it’s flexed. With divine magic, the barrier’s in handling the power safely.”
“Users of holy magic do not store or produce it themselves,” Mary said, “but rather channel it from an outside source. The divine burns if drawn upon too deeply. You build up a tolerance, not a capacity, and that tolerance does not inhibit the use of other schools. I have seen Scyllithene priestesses hurl shadow blasts from behind sacred shields, and call upon divine light to heal their wounded demon thralls.”
Darling’s frown had grown progressively deeper as she spoke, and he switched his gaze from an abstract contemplation of the distance to her face at that last. “You meet a lot of Scyllithene priestesses?”
“Hardly a lot,” she said calmly, “but I have lived a long time, and been many places.”
“Whoah, hang on,” Joe interjected. “Doesn’t holy magic kill demons by nature?”
“You confuse nature with source,” she said. “The holy magic to which you are accustomed would, because it is channeled through the gods of the Pantheon. Their rules demand that their power be harmful to demonkind. Clerics of other gods, for example Themynra, have fewer restrictions. Then, too, the dwarves are often able to call on divine energy without the aid of any god. There are many ways to drink from that well.”
“So…that might not have been completely wrong?” Darling asked thoughtfully. “Given the source of the power I’d be using, having it around could inhibit using infernal magic?”
“Only if you tried to use them concurrently,” said Mary. “And by the way, while I do advocate a broader understanding of demonology, I strongly suggest you stick to learning theory and whatever practical applications you can use via divine methods, which are several. Please do not attempt to handle infernal power directly.”
“I’m not an idiot, Mary.”
“No,” she said evenly, “you are a man who has safely picked up weapons that others feared to touch in the past. The infernal is not a weapon, it is a poison. The barrier to its use is, as with divine magic, in handling it safely.”
“That’s why you never meet an elderly warlock,” McGraw said with a grin. “You can pull down any amount of hellfire you want on your first try, provided you’d bonded with a powerful enough demon. It’s just that you’ll find your body and spirit so badly twisted by the effort you may not be able to feed yourself afterward, much less bust out more magic. Difference is, the gods’ll usually stop their servants from burning themselves out. Demons are typically divided between those who don’t care if their warlocks riddle themselves with cancer and mutation, and those who find it hilarious when they do.”
“I am beginning to rethink this whole enterprise,” Darling said solemnly.
“Do,” Mary agreed, nodding. “At the very least, until you acquire more accurate information. It might also be worth determining whether your source intentionally set you up for that fall. If not, they themselves may be in danger.”
“Mm…” he mused. “I doubt Justinian would let one of his favored servants make that kind of mistake. On the other hand, I can’t think of any motive Bishop Snowe would have for letting me do so, especially when…”
“You know Bishop Snow?” Joe cut in, straightening up and smiling. “Think you could get me her autograph?”
Darling stared at him. “…I’m sorry, what?”
“I didn’t realize y’all were acquainted,” McGraw added. “That’s one sharp lady. You hear she’s got a book coming out?”
“Of course, I read her column,” Joe said, nodding. “Planned to get a copy, assuming I’m allowed to visit something as exciting as a bookstore.” He gave Mary an accusing look.
“Bookstores are not, generally speaking, stimulating environments,” she said calmly. “Matters become different when a local celebrity is launching a debut book.”
Darling could only gape at them.