“Hey, Sweet,” said the woman in the leather coat, stopping in surprise. “They’ve got you doing enforcer duty?”
“Nah,” Sweet said airily. “I have rank enough to get around the curfew, is all. I thought this would be a good educational opportunity for the ducklings.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Flora and Fauna, who rolled their eyes in unison. Of course, he couldn’t see them doing it, but he knew very well they were.
“If you say so,” the Guild enforcer replied, shrugging. Beside her, her more taciturn partner tapped his foot impatiently. “I’ve gotta say I don’t see it, though. It’s not a good time to try pulling a job; everybody’s inside, where the loot is, and even if you pull something off the Boss and maybe the Empire would land hard on you for taking advantage of the situation.”
“Well, I concur with that analysis, Duster,” Sweet replied easily. “But no, we’re not looking to gather up stray valuables. It’s the situation, my friend. This is, to put it mildly, unusual. It’s in a crisis that you see what people are really made of. That’s why you should always find a moment to look around during a crisis. They never let you see it otherwise.”
Duster snorted. “Nothing’s gonna happen. The actual trouble is out on the frontier, where the soldiers are going, and that bawling herald has pretty well spooked everybody indoors. Just a night of creepy quiet streets.”
“Let us hope,” Sweet said gravely. “I’ve got a hunch, though.”
“And we have a route,” the second enforcer said pointedly. “Stay outta trouble, Sweet.”
“You too, Togs,” he replied with a grin. “Duster. Be safe.”
“You bet,” she said, winking, and the two continued ambling along their route. Sweet headed off in the opposite direction, Flora and Fauna pacing silently along in his wake.
“Do you actually have the Imperial rank to break a curfew?” Fauna asked.
“You know, I’m not really sure,” he mused. “Doesn’t really apply in this situation, as me being out in the streets tonight is all part of the plan. Something to wonder about, though.”
“I note that Duster didn’t wonder,” Flora remarked. “Or didn’t care.”
“Well, of course not. She’s a Guild enforcer; I’m a ranking member. Far as she’s concerned, as long as I’m not acting against the Big Guy or the Guild, I can do whatever damn thing pops into my head.”
“Handy,” Fauna grunted.
“Damn skippy,” he said cheerfully.
They fell silent, the only sound his soft footfalls on the sidewalk. Over the last year he’d grown more or less accustomed to the preternatural silence with which elves could move when they chose—which had helped him pick up on the subtle mockery they sometimes employed by slapping their feet down as loudly as humans—but the context brought back all the nervous uncertainty of the first few weeks of them being in his house, when he kept turning around and finding them suddenly there, without warning.
The city’s silence was oppressive. Tiraas was known as a city of lights, and the lights were all still on. In fact, they were even more on than usual; people were huddled together in their homes, and a lot fewer of them than usual at this hour were sleeping. Light blazed from nearly every window they passed, to the point that the streetlamps seemed superfluous. None of it helped. Tiraas, like all cities, was also a place of the constant, thrumming noise of people, and in the absence of it, a terrifying wrongness hung over the streets. The cheerful glow from all quarters only served to underscore how amiss everything was.
Sweet felt an urge to glance back and make sure the girls were still with him. He didn’t, of course.
“What are we doing here?” Flora asked at last.
“This is but the first stop on our evening’s itinerary,” Sweet replied, strolling across the empty square to the facade of the Rail station. “Up we go, girls. I want to show you something.”
Like many Rail stations, the huge structure was a blend of modern architecture—which was to say, enormous expanses of glass in wrought iron frames—and a faux-classical style, replete with ornamental stonework. The former was extremely difficult to scale, even with elven agility, and quite impossible to do so without being seen from within. The latter was an urban climber’s dream, but its odd proportions made it a challenge to ascend the narrow stretches of building that provided handholds while avoiding the huge window-walls. It took them a few minutes longer than was usual, and he had to accept a helping hand from his more nimble apprentices a couple of times, but soon enough they were ensconced on the roof of the station, peering in through another bank of massive windows at what was occurring within.
“I’m not sure why that was necessary,” Fauna commented. “I mean, look at the size of these windows. We could’ve gone up the fire escape on that factory across the street and seen in just as well.”
“Practice,” he said sternly. “You never know when you’ll have to climb a building like this.”
“Why would we climb a Rail station?” Flora asked curiously. “You told us not to try robbing Imperial—”
“Enough!” he exclaimed. “Just look!”
It was a sight worth seeing. As they watched, a caravan streaked away, shooting outward through a gap in the city walls and along the Rail line attached to the side of the great bridge arching between Tiraas and the canyon wall far beyond. Immediately, another caravan waiting behind it eased forward and began taking on passengers.
He hadn’t gone to all this trouble to show them caravans, of course. The station was thronged with Silver Legionnaires in full armor, filing into caravans and departing the city.
“I don’t understand,” Fauna murmured, frowning. “The herald said the Avenists were going to be taking part in enforcing the curfew.”
“Yes,” Sweet said glibly, “and tomorrow he’ll be saying how the Black Wreath took advantage of the city’s momentary weakness to launch an insidious attack. Governments, thieves and religions have two things in common, girls: they all steal, and they all lie. Think, now. Why send the Legions away?”
“…in an actual military crisis,” Flora said slowly, frowning in thought, “the Silver Legions would go where the danger is.”
“Especially danger like this,” Fauna added. “Responding to a demonic threat is exactly what they’d do.”
“Telling the populace the Legionnaires are guarding the city…it’s just propaganda. Crowd control. People trust the Legions, even after the ruckus earlier this year.”
“If they knew it’s just the Guild and the Huntsmen in the streets…holy hell, that by itself would start a panic.”
“You know, I haven’t actually seen any Huntsmen either,” Flora noted.
“Very good,” Sweet said, nodding.
“But… Why actually send the Legions away?” Fauna asked, frowning deeply. “Do they not know the gods don’t want them at Last Rock? I thought Avei herself was one of the gods who sent that message.”
“You’re on a productive track,” Sweet said approvingly. “Now continue thinking on it while we proceed to our next stop of the evening. Off we go, girls!”
“You mean, off we go down that difficult climb we didn’t really need to make in the first place?”
“Walk and think quietly,” he suggested.
The small group of five men and women in Universal Church robes with the golden ankh-and-chain logo of the holy summoner corps stitched into their tabards came to a stop in the empty intersection. For a moment, they only stood. Without any specific plan, they had drifted into two groups with a small gap between them; the three actual Church summoners, and the Imperial Intelligence warlocks.
“All right, like we practiced,” the priestess in the lead said finally. Even her hushed voice in the city’s eerie silence was unnerving. “Let us get started, and then you chip in. Bring them across slowly, make sure we can keep them under control.”
“Right,” one diabolist said tersely.
“Remember, our method isn’t like yours. We don’t have as much fine control, but for this we won’t need it, and the tradeoff is that we can keep tabs on more of them at once. The aim is to keep them from harming people as much as possible. Property damage is acceptable. If—”
“We have all been briefed,” the second summoner snapped. “If we’re going to do this lunacy, let’s get on with it before somebody faints.”
“We are not about to faint,” one of the other priests snorted.
“I might,” she said frankly.
“Look, just because you—”
“Enough,” the lead priestess said firmly. “She’s right. The time for talk is over. Slowly, carefully, and keep focused.”
She drew a deep breath and held out one hand. The other two clerics did likewise, all facing away from each other.
They didn’t draw conventional summoning circles; golden rings of pure light formed on the pavement before their outthrust hands, their glow diminished by the fairly lights blazing from all around.
For a long moment there was only more silence, while the clerics concentrated and the warlocks stared nervously.
Then, in the first of the circles, a shape began to emerge from the ground itself, hissing in displeasure at its proximity to the divine light.
“This is madness,” one of the warlocks whispered, rubbing sweaty palms against her robe.
No one argued.
“That’s thirteen confirmed locations,” Bradshaw reported, turning away from the robed cultist who had rushed over to hurriedly whisper in his ear. Dismissed, the woman melted back into the shadows. “Small groups in Church livery, opening summoning portals and just…letting things wander through.”
“It’s a disaster,” another Wreath member breathed. “It’s insane. What do they think they’re meddling with?”
“All of them are following a consistent pattern,” Bradshaw continued. “The demons they’re calling are non-sentient. Mostly katzils and khankredahgs. Not by themselves a major concern, but they’re bringing them by the dozens. There is no way they can hope to keep them under control.”
“As for why, that is all too painfully obvious,” Embras said, not turning from his perusal of the silent city. The Wreath members were huddled on a balcony above an old clock tower. Ironically, the building below them had once been a Universal Church chapel before being deconsecrated and sold off. “Demons loose in the city? Soldiers conveniently absent from the scene? The Universal Church up to insidious trickery? This looks like a job for the Black Wreath!” He turned, finally, leaning backward against the stone rail, and grinned at his assembled subordinates.
“I did warn you,” Vanessa said reprovingly, lowering her cowl so he could see her scowl at him. “More than half the summoner corps has walked out in disgust over this; Justinian wasn’t shy about revealing his plan. He wants chaos so he can blame the Empire. As soon as the demons have had a chance to wreak some good, solid havoc, the streets will fill with Church clerics and the Holy Legion to restore order and discredit the Silver Throne. There’s no reason to for us to get caught in the middle of this.”
“Vanessa, Vanessa,” Embras said sadly, shaking his head. “For that to happen, the summoners will first have to hide. The Legion will have to muster. Bradshaw, have any of our people reported any such movements?”
“It’s early yet,” Bradshaw replied, “but the summoners are being absurdly brazen. It’s less like a covert operation and more like they’re…taunting. As for the Holy Legion… Not a peep out of them, no. Even if they did muster, those are modern Army soldiers trained to fight with battlestaves in light uniforms, now wearing impractical armor and carrying polearms. Hardly any of them are actually able to draw on the light. They’d do nothing against demons.”
“And that’s just logistics.” Embras winked at Vanessa, who was looking increasingly embarrassed. “One must also consider the personalities involved. Justinian is a spider; he doesn’t strike until his prey is fully ensnared in his web and tired out from struggling. This? This is ludicrous. It’s reckless, destructive and all but guaranteed to backfire on him horribly… If the goal is the one he’s floated to his summoners. No, he’s not making a move against the Empire. This is aimed at someone else who has an interest in demons running amok in the city. Sound like anyone you know, hm?”
“No matter who’s behind it,” Bradshaw said, “it’s awfully aggressive. It’s incredibly risky. There’s no way they can contain the damage this will cause. I’m not even sure how they’ll work out the propaganda afterward; almost any version of the story makes them look bad.”
“There’s a compliment in there somewhere,” Embras noted. “We’ve got them good and panicked, if they’re this desperate to flush us out. Now we just need to survive this little brouhaha with our own plans intact, and we will effectively have our enemies on the run.”
“If, if, if,” Vanessa said sourly. “How are we going to deal with this, Embras? If you’re right and they don’t plan to end it themselves… We can’t just let them do this to the city. Even if it is a trap… We just can’t. They’ve found the one bait we’ll have to spring for.”
“Mm, yes,” he mused, stroking his chin. “…but not in the way they expect. Oh, they have a cleanup plan, I guarantee it. That doesn’t mean we need to remain fully hands-off, though; you’re right, the Lady has given us an obligation, and we must take some steps, at least. Bradshaw! I want the cells spread out; send one to each confirmed summoner site.”
“You want to attack the summoners?” Bradshaw asked.
“Under absolutely no circumstances,” Embras said firmly. “They’ll be trying to keep whatever they call up under a modicum of control. They’ll fail, of course, but neither Church nor Empire—and I will eat my hat if both aren’t involved in this—would just summon up demons and turn them loose in the city. I want our people to let them have their fun and clean up after them. If a demon slips the lead, they’re to enact standard freerunner protocol. Coax the errant away from prying eyes, then put it down. Give the summoners no hint they’ve been seen. And above all, everyone must be cautious. This is just the opening play; there will be layers to this we’ve not yet seen. Avoid engagement with human foes at all costs.”
Vanessa raised her cowl, settling it over her dark curls. “One cell per site? That leaves a good proportion of our people to…what?”
Embras turned again to study the city, rubbing once more at his chin. A grin stretched across his features. “This, as I pointed out, isn’t like Justinian… Nor Sharidan, or Vex. Nor Eleanora, who’s the power behind both of those two anyway. But I believe I know somebody who would try something like this. When I get my hands on him, I mean to ask how he persuaded so many powerful people to go along with this raging insanity. But! Meantime, rather than indulging the Church in their little hoedown, I think it more fitting to teach them not to do such things in the future.” He turned his head to grin over his shoulder at them. “Don’t you?”
“I don’t like where this is heading,” Vanessa said warily. Bradshaw had already stepped away and was whispering instructions to a small cluster of robed Wreath. They began peeling away and shadow-jumping out.
Embras actually laughed. “While Bradshaw is coordinating that, Vanessa, gather up the remainder. We are going to Dawnchapel.”
She stiffened. “The holy summoner headquarters?”
“Yes, it is,” he said cheerfully. “At least until we get done with it.” Embras turned his gaze back to the skyline, his grin growing brittle, and spoke more softly. “I see your hand in this, Antonio. You do like to sign your name, don’t you? Nice try, my friend, but…not this time.”
“Aww, come ooonnnn,” Flora whined. “There’s nobody there! It’s perfect!”
“Girl, you had better be attempting to make a joke,” Sweet said severely, not slackening his pace. “I hardly know where to begin with what’s wrong with that. First that we are on a mission and you don’t stop for random jobs while working! More importantly, you don’t just up and roll a Vernisite temple no matter how much loot is in there or how unguarded it is.”
“That’s not a Vernisite temple,” Fauna protested, lingering outside the locked iron gates to stare longingly at the looming marble structure. “It’s a bank.”
“Pots and kettles, and you know it. Nobody touches a place answering to Verniselle unless their protection isn’t paid up. And even then, a job like that would go to a senior agent, not a couple of randoms.”
“You’re a senior agent!”
“A senior agent who is busy. Chop chop! Come on, get away from there.”
“You are no fun,” Fauna grumbled as they reluctantly followed him up the street.
“That is an insult and a damned lie, you ungrateful wench. Anyway, put it out of your mind, we have arrived!” Sweet ambled to a stop and leaned against a lamppost.
The two elves made a point of walking past so he could see them expressively gazing around at the completely deserted intersection.
“Very nice,” said Flora. “Quaint.”
“It’s a very classy neighborhood.”
“Still as empty and creepy as everywhere else, though. What are we doing here?”
“Oh, we won’t be long,” he said lightly. “This is just the rendezvous point.”
“Rendezvous with whom?”
A soft croaking sounded from the top of the lamppost on which he was leaning.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Flora grumbled.
The crow launched itself with a soft flutter of wings and glided in lazy spirals toward the ground. Mary flexed her knees slightly as her moccasins touched down on the paving stones.
“Mary, my dear!” Sweet exclaimed, straightening up and throwing his arms wide. “How lovely to see you! And my, don’t you look radiant this evening!”
She raised an eyebrow. “You are charming, Antonio. And you’re clever. Those are not traits I seek in a man. Everything is prepared as agreed.”
“Excellent, the others are all here?”
“As agreed,” she said wryly. “I will repeat it as many times as you require, but I thought time was a factor this evening.”
“What others?” Fauna snapped.
“The remaining members of our…team,” Mary said, glancing unreadably at Darling. “The Tinker, the Kid, the Longshot and Gravestone. I have shifted them slightly out of phase with this reality; they will not be discernible from the mortal plane, but they can move through and react to it, able to follow along until needed. I will call them back forth when we meet the enemy.”
Flora frowned. “Hm… Couldn’t the Wreath spot that? I mean, they’re summoners. Their whole shtick is crossing the planes.”
“The nature of the infernal arts creates a blind spot of sorts,” Mary said calmly. “Warlocks are especially vulnerable to otherworldly influences, unless they take rigorous measures to shield themselves, which all competent warlocks do. The Black Wreath does not employ any who are less than competent. They might, possibly, catch a glimpse of our compatriots in the brief moment of casting a summons… But the space between the planes is full of dimly-glimpsed things which are best ignored, as paying them attention tends to earn their attention in return.”
“That’s where you stuck your friends?” Fauna demanded.
“They are not all my friends. Anyway, nothing that lurks between the planes will challenge what lurks alongside them.”
“What does that—”
“Anyway!” Sweet said loudly. “If that’s all settled, we are ready to move out.”
“Perfect,” Flora sighed. “Where now, then?”
“Oh, nowhere in particular,” he breezed. “It’s just such a pleasant night for a stroll, don’t you think?
“Do you seriously believe you’re funny?
“You are mistaken.”
Sweet shook his head despairingly. “Girls, girls, you have got to learn to embrace the banter. It’s a vital skill in the business; no other Guildies will take you seriously if you can’t hold up your end of a pointless, irritating conversation. But since you are clearly under excessive stress already, I will explain. Walk and talk, ladies, walk and talk.”
Mary fluttered back upward without another word, and Sweet set off down the street at a lazy pace.
“Embras is far too clever an operator to blindly snap at the bait we’ve set,” he explained as they strolled along. The Crow drifted silently above them; Flora and Fauna kept shooting her dirty looks. “He won’t play the game I’ve set him up to play. No, in his position, the only thing to do will be to seize back the initiative and strike us where we don’t expect.”
“But you do expect?” Fauna asked.
Sweet grinned broadly. “It’s all about what he doesn’t know, my dears. There are two likely targets of his ire tonight, and none of them are our hapless summoner cabals. Both are alluringly undefended, or so it will seem to him. One is us.”
“Ah,” Flora murmured, glancing up at the Crow again. “Less undefended than all that, I see.”
“Exactly,” Sweet said cheerfully. “The other… Well, hopefully it won’t come to that, as it’ll mean more walking and an extra stop. Or not; I’ll need to finish this up at the prepared location anyhow, but there’s no point in… Ah, never mind, all that may not become a factor. For now, we are going to go visit one of the summoner cells.”
“Because near them there will be warlocks. And I think I know just the way to get their attention!”
He clenched his right fist, and with a flash of gold, a chain made of pure white burst into being, snaking its way around his arm all the way up to the shoulder.
Both elves came to a stop, staring at it. Above them, the Crow let out a hoarse caw.
“Whoah,” Flora said, wide-eyed. “When did you learn to do that?”
“Last week!” Sweet grinned hugely at her. “Branwen suggested I should take advantage of the free summoner training available to Bishops, and I’ve followed her advice. Something tells me it’ll come in very useful before the night is out.”
“So the plan is for you to make yourself a target,” Fauna huffed. “Thanks so much for inviting us along with you.”
“I’m glad you’re having fun,” he told her with a wink, then turned to resume his course. “I put the odds at fifty-fifty that Embras and company will swoop down on us. It’s not exactly the smarter of his two options, but…it may be the more tempting.”
“You and that guy are developing an unhealthy relationship,” Flora commented.
“Yeah, but maybe that’s the point,” Fauna added. “If he’s half as obsessive, he’s probably on the way here right now.”
“We’ll see,” Sweet murmured, staring forward into the brightly lit, silent night. His smile remained in place, but grew hard. “You know I’m here, Embras. I know you’re watching. Come and get me, you son of a bitch.”