The Dawnchapel held so much history and significance that its environs, a small canal-bordered district now filled with shrines and religious charity facilities, had taken on its name. Originally the center of Omnist worship in the city, it had been donated to the Universal Church upon its formation and served as the Church’s central offices until the Grand Cathedral was completed. More recently it had done duty as a training facility and residence for several branches of the Church’s personnel, and currently mostly housed Justinian’s holy summoner program.
It was a typical structure of Omnist design, its main sanctuary a sunken amphitheater housed within a huge circle of towering standing stones, of a golden hue totally unlike the granite on which Tiraas sat, imported all the way from the Dwarnskolds along the northern rim of the continent. Once open to the sun, its sides had long ago been filled in with a more drab, domestic stone, which was later carved into niches that now housed statues of the gods. Its open top had been transformed into a dome of glittering stained glass, one of the architectural treasures of the city. Behind the circular center rose a ziggurat, topped with a sun shrine which had been left as a monument sacred to Omnu in gratitude for the gift of the temple itself. Most of the offices, storage rooms and other chambers were either underground or inside the pyramid.
The circular temple sat on a square plot of land, forcing the furtive warlocks to cross a measure of open territory before they could reach its entrance. They went unchallenged, however, and apparently unnoticed; this part of the city was as eerily silent and empty tonight as the rest. Still, despite the lack of opposition, only Embras Mogul strolled apparently without unease.
Two khankredahgs and two katzils accompanied the party, which had to be momentarily soothed as they crossed onto holy ground. They had been warded and phased against it, of course, but this ground was holier than most, and the demons were not immune to the discomfort. There were two hethelaxi escorting the group, both of whom bore the transition without complaint. That was it for demon thralls, the more volatile sentient companions having been dismissed back to their plane rather than risk the outbursts that would result from bringing them here.
Even peering around for onlookers, they failed to observe the small, faintly luminous blue figure which circled overhead.
Mogul himself laid his hand upon the bronze latch of the temple’s heavy front door and paused for a moment.
“Warded?” Vanessa asked tersely. “Cracking it with any kind of subtlety will take too long… Of course, I gather you want to make a dramatic statement anyway?”
Mogul raised an eyebrow, then turned the latch. It clicked, and the door opened smoothly, its hinges not uttering a squeak.
“There’s overconfident,” Mogul said lightly, “and then there’s Justinian.”
He gestured two gray-robed warlocks to precede him inside, accompanied by one of the katzils and the female hethelax.
The sanctuary was not completely unguarded, but the outcry from within was brief.
The voice was silenced mid-shout. Mogul leaned around the doorframe, peering within just in time to see the shadows recede from a slumping figure in Universal Church robes, now unconscious. His attention, however, was fixed on the hethelax, who was frowning in puzzlement.
“Mavthrys?” he said quietly. “What is it?”
“It’s gone,” she replied, studying the interior of the sanctuary warily. “The sensation. Not quite un-consecrated, but… Something’s different.” Indeed, the katzil inside had grown noticeably calmer.
“Justinian’s using this place to train summoners,” said Bradshaw. “Obviously it’ll have some protections for demons now.”
“Omnu must be spinning in his grave,” Vanessa noted wryly, earning several chuckles from the warlocks still flanking the entrance outside.
They all tensed at the sudden, not-too-distant sound of a hunting horn.
“What the hell?” one of the cultists muttered.
“Huntsmen,” Embras said curtly, ducking through the doors. “They won’t hunt in the dens of their own allies. Everyone inside, now.”
As they darted into the temple, the spirit hawk above wheeled away, heading toward a different part of the city.
“This is so weird,” Billie muttered for the fourth time. “And I have done some weird shit in my time.”
“Yes, I believe I read of your exploits on the wall of a men’s bathhouse,” Weaver sneered, taking a moment from muttering to his companion.
The gnome shot him an irritated look, but uncharacteristically failed to riposte. They all had that reaction when they glanced at the figure beside him.
In the space between spaces (as Mary had called it), the world was grayed-out and wavering, as if they were seeing it from underwater. The distortion obscured finer details, but for the most part they could see the real world well enough. This one was more dimly lit than the physical Tiraas, but apart from being unable to read the street signs (which for some reason, apart from being blurred, were not in Tanglish when viewed form here), they could navigate perfectly well, and identify the figures of Darling and his two apprentices, and even the little black form of the Crow as she glided from lamp to lamp ahead of them.
None of them had been able to resist looking up at the sky, briefly but long enough to gather an impression of eyes and tentacles belonging to world-sized creatures at unimaginable distances, seen far more clearly than what was right in front of them. Mary had strongly advised against studying them in any detail. No one had felt any inclination to defy the order.
The weirdness accompanying them was far more immediately interesting to the group. She was wavery and washed-out just like the physical world, but here, they could see her. Little of the figure was distinct except that she was tall, a hair taller even than Weaver, garbed entirely in black, and had black wings. She carried a plain, ancient-looking scythe which was as crisply visible as they themselves were, unlike its owner. Weaver had stuck next to his companion, carrying on a whispered dialogue—or what was presumably a dialogue, as no one but he could hear her responses. The rest of the party had let them have their privacy, for a variety of reasons.
The winged figure subtly turned her head, and Joe realized he’d been caught staring. He cleared his throat awkwardly and tipped his hat to her. “Ah, your pardon, ma’am. I didn’t get the chance to thank you properly for the help a while back, in the old apartments. You likely saved me and my friend from a pair of slit throats. Very much obliged.”
The dark, silent harbinger of death waved at him with childlike enthusiasm. It was nearly impossible to distinguish in the pale blur where her face should be, but he was almost certain she was grinning.
“Oddly personable, ain’t she,” McGraw murmured, drawing next to him as Weaver and his friend fell back again, their heads together. “That’ll teach me to think I’m too old to be surprised by life.”
“Tell you what’s unsettling is that,” Billie remarked, stepping in front of them so they couldn’t miss seeing her and pointing ahead. Several yards in front of the group, Darling and the two elves were engaging a group of Black Wreath. Their demon companions were clearly, crisply visible, while the warlocks themselves appeared to glow with sullen, reddish auras. As per their orders, the party was hanging back, allowing the Eserites to handle things on their own until they were called for. In any case, it didn’t seem their help was needed. Darling was glowing brightly, and making very effective use of the chain of white light which now extended from his right hand. As they watched, it lashed out, seemingly with a mind of its own, snaring a katzil demon by its neck and holding the struggling creature in place. In the next moment, a golden circle appeared on the pavement beneath it, and the chain dragged the demon down through it, where it vanished.
“I’ve gotta say, something about that guy equipping himself with new skills and powers doesn’t fill me with a sense of serenity,” Billie mused, watching their patron closely.
“You don’t trust him?” Joe asked. She barked a sarcastic laugh.
“Ain’t exactly about trust,” McGraw noted.
Mary reappeared next to them with her customary suddenness and lack of fanfare. “One can always trust a creature to behave in consistency with its own essential nature. As things stand, Darling is extraordinarily unlikely to betray us.”
“As things stand?” Joe asked, frowning.
The Crow shrugged noncommittally. “Change is the one true constant. In any case, be ready. I believe we will not be called upon to carry out the planned ambush; it likely would have happened already, were it going to. That being the case, we’ll shortly need to return to the material plane and move on to general demon cleanup duty.”
“Fun,” Joe muttered.
“What, y’mean we don’t get to stay and hang out in this creepity-ass hellscape?” Billie said. “Drat. An’ here I was thinkin’ of investing in some real estate.”
Mary raised an eyebrow. “If you would really like to remain, I can—”
“Don’t even feckin’ say it!”
“Hold it, stop,” Sweet ordered. Fauna skidded to a halt on command, turning to scowl at him as a robed figure scampered away down the sidewalk before her.
“Him and all three of his friends!”
“Let ’em,” he said lightly, peering around at the nearby rooftops with some disappointment. “We were making a spectacle of ourselves, not seriously trying to collar the Wreath. That’s someone else’s job. You notice there are no signs of Church summoners here, despite the presence of the demons they let loose?”
“Everyone’s bugging out?” Fauna asked, frowning. “What’s going on?”
“Seems like ol’ Embras isn’t taking my bait,” Sweet lamented with a heavy sigh. “Ah, well, it was probably too much to hope that he’d do something so ham-fisted. It’s not really in an Elilinist’s nature, after all. Welp, that being the case, onward we go!”
“Go?” Flora asked as he abruptly turned and set off down a side street. “Where now?”
“You know, it would save us a lot of stumbling along asking annoying questions if you’d just explain the damn plan,” Fauna said caustically.
“Probably would,” he agreed, grinning back at them. “But adapting to circumstances as they unfold is all part of your education.”
“You watch it, potty mouth,” he said severely. “I know what that means.”
“Oh, you speak elvish now?” Fauna asked, raising her eyebrows.
“Just enough to cuss properly. It seemed immediately relevant to our relationship.” They both laughed. “Anyhow, just up this street is the bridge to Dawnchapel. We are going to a warehouse facility, uncharacteristically disguised behind the facade of an upscale apartment building so as not to offend the ritzy sensibilities of those who dwell in this very fashionable district. A fancy warehouse, but still a warehouse if you know what to look for, which makes it the perfect spot for what’s coming next.”
“I didn’t realize there were warehouses in Dawnchapel.”
“Just outside Dawnchapel,” he corrected, grinning up ahead into the night. “Along the avenue leading straight out from the less obvious exit from the Dawnchapel sanctuary itself.”
“I don’t know what to hope for,” Fauna muttered, “that this all plays out as you’re planning and we finally get to learn the point of it, or that it doesn’t and you have to eat crow.”
“Well, there was a mental image I could’ve done without,” Flora said, wincing.
“Not that Crow, you ninny. Oh, gods, now I’m seeing it too.”
“Don’t worry your pretty little heads,” he replied. “I know exactly what I’m doing.”
Before any of the obvious responses to that could be uttered, the clear tone of a hunting horn pierced the night.
“Now what?” Flora demanded. “What’s that about?”
“That,” said Sweet, picking up his pace, “is the signal that we are out of time for sightseeing. Step lively, girls, we need to get into position.”
The spectral bird lit on Hawkmaster Vjarst’s gloved hand, and he brought it forward to his face, gazing intently into its eyes. A moment passed in silence, then he nodded, stroking the spirit hawk’s head, and raised his arm. The bird took flight again, joining its brethren now circling above.
“The summoners have retreated to their safehouses,” he announced, turning to face the rest of the men assembled on the rooftop. “Warlocks in Wreath garb are attempting to put down the remaining demons. There is significant incidental damage in the affected areas. No human casualties that my eyes have seen.”
“And the Eserite?” Grandmaster Veisroi asked.
“His quarry has not bitten his lure, but gone to Dawnchapel as he predicted. Darling and his women are moving in that direction. They are now passing through a cluster of demons, and acquitting themselves well.”
Veisroi nodded. “Then all is arranged; it’s time.” The assembled Huntsmen tensed slightly in anticipation as he lifted the run-engraved hunting horn at his side to his lips.
The horn was one of the treasures of their faith, a relic given by the Wolf God himself to his mortal followers, according to legend. Its tone was deep and clear, resounding clearly across the entire city, without being painful to the ears of those standing right at hand.
At its sound, Brother Ingvar nocked the spell-wrapped arrow that had been specially prepared for this night to his bow, raised it, and fired straight upward. The missile burst into blue light as it climbed…and continued to climb, soaring upward to the clouds without beginning to descend toward the city. Similar blue streaks soared upward from rooftop posts all across Tiraas.
Where they touched the clouds, the city’s omnipresent damp cover darkened into ominous thunderheads in the space of seconds. Winds carrying the chill of the Stalrange picked up, roaring across the roofs of the city; Vjarst’s birds spiraled downward, each making brief contact with his runed glove and vanishing. Snow, unthinkable for the time of year, began to fall, whipped into furious eddies by the winds.
The very light changed, Tiraas’s fierce arcane glow taking on the pale tint of moonlight as the blessing of Shaath was laid across the city.
“Brother Andros,” Veisroi ordered, “the device.”
Andros produced the twisted thorn talisman they had previously confiscated from Elilial’s spy in their midst, closed his eyes in concentration, and twisted it. Even in the rising wind, the clicking of the metal thorns echoed among the stilled Huntsmen.
Absolutely nothing happened.
Andros opened his eyes, grinning with satisfaction. “All is as planned, Grandmaster. Until Shaath’s storm abates, shadow-jumping in Tiraas has been blocked.”
“Good,” said Veisroi, grinning in return. With his grizzled mane and beard whipped around him by the winds, he looked wild, fierce, just as a follower of Shaath ought. “Remember, men, your task is to destroy demons as you find them, but only harry the Wreath toward the Rail stations. Yes, I see your impatience, lads. I know you’ve been told this, but it bears repeating. A dead warlock may yield worthy trophies, but he cannot answer questions. We drive them into the trap, nothing more. And now…”
He raised the horn again, his chest swelling with a deeply indrawn breath, and let out a long blast, followed by three short ones, the horn’s notes cutting through the sound of the wind.
Four portal mages were now under medical supervision in the offices of Imperial Intelligence, recuperating from serious cases of mana fatigue from their day’s labors, but they had finished their task on time, as was expected of agents of the Silver Throne. Now, from dozens of rooftops all across the city, answering horns raised the call and spirit wolves burst into being, accompanying the hundreds of Huntsmen of Shaath gathered in Tiraas, nearly every one of them from across the Empire. They began bounding down form their perches, toward lower roofs and the streets, roaring and laughing at the prospect of worthy prey.
“And now,” Grandmaster Veisroi repeated, grinning savagely, “WE HUNT!”
The three of them hunkered down behind the decorative stone balustrade encircling the balcony on which they huddled, taking what shelter they could from the howling winds and snowflakes. Uncomfortable as it was, they weren’t as chilled as the weather made it seem they should be. The temperature had dropped notably in the last few minutes, but it was still early summer, despite Shaath’s touch upon the city.
Directly across the street stood the warehouse Sweet had indicated. It had tall, decorative windows in sculpted stone frames, shielded by iron bars which were wrought so as to be attractive as well as functional. Its huge door was similarly carved and even gilded in spots to emphasize its engraved reliefs. It was, in short, definitely a warehouse, but did not stand out excessively from the upscale townhouses which surrounded it, or the shrines and looming Dawnchapel temple just across the canal.
“More information is always better,” Sweet was saying. His normal, conversational tone didn’t carry more than a few feet away, thanks to the furious wind, but his words were plainly audible to the elven ears of his audience, who sat right on either side of him. “When running a con, you want to control as much as you can. What you know, what the mark knows, who they encounter… But the fact is, you can’t control the world, and shouldn’t try. There comes a point where you have to let go. Real mastery is in balancing those two things, arranging what you can control so that your mark does what you want him to, despite the plethora of options offered to him by the vast, chaotic world in which we live.”
“And you, of course, possess true mastery,” Fauna said solemnly. She grinned when Sweet flicked the pointed tip of her ear with a finger.
“In this case, it’s a simple matter of what I know that Embras doesn’t,” he said, “and what Justinian doesn’t know that I know. This part of the plan wasn’t shared with his Holiness, you see; he’d just have moved to protect his secrets. That would be inconvenient, after all the trouble I went to to track them down, and anyway, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make use of it tonight.”
“What trouble did you go to?” Flora asked. “When did you find time to snoop out whatever it is Justinian was hiding from you on top of everything else you’ve got going on?”
“I asked Mary to do it,” he said frankly, grinning. “Now pay attention across the bridge, there, girls, you are about to see a demonstration of what I mean.” He shifted position, angling himself to get a good look down the street and across the canal bridge at the Dawnchapel. “When you know the board, the players, and the pieces…well, if you know them well enough, the rest is clockwork.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Embras said sharply as his people clustered together, peering nervously up through the glass dome at the storm-darkening sky. “It was a good move on Justinian’s part, but they’ll be hunting out there. This is probably the safest place in the city right now. Focus, folks, we’ve got a job to do.” He pointed quickly at the main door and a smaller one tucked into one of the stone walls. “Ignore the exterior entrances, we’re not about to be attacked from out there. That doorway, opposite the front, leads into the temple complex. Sishimir, get in there and shroud it; I don’t want us interrupted by the clerics still in residence. Vanessa, Ravi, Bradshaw, start a dark circle the whole width of the sanctuary. Tolimer, Ashley, shroud it as they go. You’re not enacting a full summons, just a preparatory thinning.”
“Nice,” said Vanessa approvingly. “And here I thought you just wanted to smash the place up.” She moved off toward the edge of the sanctuary, the rest of the warlocks shifting into place as directed, Sishimir ducking through the dark entrance hall to the temple complex beyond. The two hethelaxi took up positions flanking the main doors, waiting patiently, while the non-sentient demons stuck by their summoners.
“Now, Vanessa, that would be petty,” Embras said solemnly. “It’ll be so much more satisfying when the next amateur to reach across the planes in training tomorrow plunges this whole complex straight into Hell. Perhaps they’ll think with a bit more care next time someone suggests fooling around aimlessly with demons.”
“Ooh, sneaky and gratuitously mean-spirited. I like it!”
Everyone immediately stopped what they were doing, turning to face the succubus who had spoken.
“Not one of ours,” Ravi said crisply, extending a hand. A coil of pure shadow flexed outward, wrapping around the demon and securing her wings and arms to her sides; she bore this with good humor, tail waving languidly behind her. “Who are you with, girl? The summoner corps?”
“Justinian’s messing around with the children of Vanislaas, now?” Bradshaw murmured. “The man is completely out of control.”
“Why, hello, Kheshiri,” Mogul said mildly, tucking a hand into his pocket. “Of all the places I did not expect you to pop up, this is probably the one I expected the least. You already rid yourself of that idiot Shook? Impressive, even for you.”
“Rid myself of him?” Kheshiri said innocently. “Now why on earth would I want to do something like that? He’s the most fun I’ve had in years.”
“Change of plans,” Embras said, keeping his gaze fixed on the grinning succubus. It never paid to take your eyes off a succubus, especially one who was happy about something. “Vanessa, Tolimer, cover those doors. Sishimir, what’s taking so long in there?”
The gray-robed figure of Sishimir appeared in the darkened doorway, his posture oddly stiff and off-center. His cowled head lolled to one side.
“Everything’s okey-dokey back here, boss!” said a high-pitched singsong voice. “No need to go looking around for more enemies, no sirree!”
The assembled Wreath turned from Kheshiri to face him, several drawing up shadows around themselves.
Two figures stepped up on either side of Sishimir, a man in a cheap-looking suit and a taller one in brown Omnist style robes, complete with a hood that concealed his features.
“That is absolutely repellant,” the hooded one said disdainfully.
“Worse,” added the other, “it’s not even funny.”
“Bah!” Sishimir collapsed to the ground; immediately a pool of blood began to spread across the stone floor from his body. Behind him stood a grinning elf in a dapper pinstriped suit, dusting off his hands. “Nobody appreciates good comedy anymore.”
“I don’t know what the hell this is, but I do believe I lack the patience for it,” Embras announced. “Ladies and gentlemen, hex these assholes into a puddle.”
Kheshiri clicked her tongue chidingly, shaking her head.
A barrage of shadow blasts ripped across the sanctuary at the three men.
The robed man raised one hand, and every single spell flickered soundlessly out of existence a yard from them.
Bradshaw was interrupted by a burst of light; the wandshot, fired from the waist, pierced Ravi through the midsection. She crumpled with a strangled scream, the shadow bindings holding Kheshiri dissolving instantly.
“Keep your grubby hands off my property, bitch,” Shook growled.
The robed figure raised his hands, finally lowering his hood to reveal elven features, glossy green hair, and glowing eyes like smooth-cut emeralds.
Khadizroth the Green curled his upper lip in a disdainful sneer.
“I do not like warlocks.”
“Almost wish I’d brought snacks,” Sweet mused as they watched the dome over the Dawnchapel flicker and pulse with the lights being discharged within.
“I wouldn’t turn down a mug of hot mead right now,” Flora muttered, her hands tucked under her arms.
“Hot anything,” Fauna agreed. “Hell, I’d drink hot water.”
“Oh, don’t be such wet blankets,” Sweet said airily, struggling not to shiver himself. “Where’s your sense of oh wait there he goes!”
He leaned forward, pointing. Sure enough, a figure in a white suit had emerged from the small side entrance to the temple’s sanctuary and headed toward the bridge at a dead run.
“Clockwork, I tell you,” Sweet said, grinning fiercely, his discomfort of a moment ago forgotten. “Confronted with an unwinnable fight when they weren’t expecting one, the cultists naturally huddle up and create an opportunity for their leader to escape. The rest of them are losses the Wreath can absorb; he simply can’t be allowed to fall into Justinian’s hands. And so, there he goes. But whatever shall our hero do now?”
Embras Mogul skidded to a stop at the bridge, glancing back at the Dawnchapel, then forward at the warehouse. He started moving again, purposefully.
“So many choices, so many direction to run,” Sweet narrated quietly, his avid gaze fixed on the fleeing warlock. “The Wreath’s first choice is always to vanish from trouble, but with their shadow-jumping blocked, his options are limited. But what’s this? Why, it’s a warehouse! And all warehouses in this city have convenient sewer access. Once down in that labyrinth, he’s as good as gone. As we can see, he is slowed up by the very impressive lock on those mighty doors.”
“Amateur,” Flora muttered, watching Mogul struggle with the latch. After a moment, he stepped back, aimed a hand at the lock and discharged a burst of shadow. With the snowy wind howling through the street, they couldn’t hear the eruption of magic or the clattering of pieces of lock and chain falling to the ground, but in the next moment, Mogul was tugging the doors open a crack and slipping through, pulling it carefully shut behind him.
“You weren’t going to ambush him there?” Fauna asked, frowning.
“What, out here in the street?” Darling stood up, brushing snow off his suit. “Where he could run in any direction? No, I believe I’ll ambush him in that building which I’ve prepared ahead of time to have no useable exits except the one I’ll be blocking.”
“One of these days your love of dramatic effect is going to get you in real trouble,” Flora predicted.
“Mm hm, it’s actually quite liberating, knowing in advance what your own undoing’ll be. The uncertainty can wear on you, otherwise. All right, girls, down we go. We’ve one last appointment to keep tonight.”
Embras strode purposely forward into the maze of crates stacked on the main warehouse floor, scowling in displeasure. This night had been an unmitigated disaster. He only hoped his comrades had had the sense to surrender once he was safely away. For now, he had to get to the offices of this complex and find the sewer access—there always was one—but in the back of his mind, he had already begun planning to retrieve as many of them as possible. It was a painful duty, having to prioritize among friends, but Bradshaw and Vanessa would have to be first…
He rounded a blind turn in the dim corridors made by the piled crates and slammed to a halt as light rose up in front of him.
The uniformed Butler set the lantern aside on a small crate pulled up apparently for that purpose, then folded her hands behind her back, assuming that parade rest position they always adopted when not actively working.
“Good evening, Master Mogul,” Price said serenely. “You are expected.”
Embras heaved a sigh. “Well, bollocks.”