“I saw it!”
Wandshots cracked through the falling snow; a katzil demon squawked in pain as it was cleaved out of the air. Weaver kept up his fire, taking fragments off the eaves of the building over which the creature had been trying to escape, and then it was lost to sight behind the structure.
Joe was the first around the corner; his boots skidded on the light dusting of snow dancing down the street. Between that and the sharp wind he might have lost his footing, but he was too in tune with his body and environs to overbalance. This was the first he’d seen of the snow actually reaching the ground and staying there; he factored it into his calculations without a conscious thought.
The demon raised its head and hissed at him, an orange glow rising within its mouth. His wandshot pierced its skull before it could spit fire at him, and the katzil flopped back to the ground, thrashed once, and fell still. Immediately, it began to disintegrate into foul-smelling charcoal.
Weaver arrived, wands up, and came a lot closer to slipping than Joe had. He caught himself on a lamppost, however, scowling at the remains of the demon. “Right, good. There’s that one dealt with. Have you seen…”
They both lifted their heads at the distinctive sound of Billie whooping. In the next second, a flare arced into the sky from the next street over. It was quickly caught and blown off-course by the winds, but fizzled out before it could land on anything and start a fire.
Joe and Weaver set off without a word.
They were slowed by an accumulation of trash in the middle of the alley down which they had to travel, but in less than a minute were stepping out the other side, to find two of their party standing back-to-back in the middle of the street. McGraw still held his staff in a wary position, peering around at the rooftops; Billie was sliding something long and metallic into one of her pouches. Five large clumps of charcoal lay in the street around them, crumbling and blowing away. The acrid stink of them was almost painful, even carried off by the wind as quickly as it was.
“There y’are,” the gnome said cheerfully. “Turns out we didn’t need the rescue, but glad to see ye nonetheless. Best not t’get separated.”
“Good thinking,” Joe agreed. “We had to chase after that bird-serpent thingy, though. No tellin’ what havoc it would cause, loose in the city.”
“Not that much,” McGraw said, resting the butt of his staff against the cobblestones and straightening up, apparently satisfied the danger was past. “Katzils rarely attack people unless ordered by a warlock. You can usually tell one’s in the area by scorched rooftops and a sudden absence of rats, cats and small dogs in the neighborhood. Those khankredahgs were a bigger priority,” he added, nodding toward one of his erstwhile targets, by now little more than a black smudge on the pavement. “They do attack people. You see any of those, take ’em out first.”
“Duly noted,” Joe said, nodding.
“You have missed one, nonetheless,” Mary announced, appearing beside them. They hadn’t even heard her approach in bird form this time, what with the shrieking wind, but none of them were startled by her comings and goings anymore. “Above that apartment complex to the west.”
“I just had a wild thought,” Weaver said. “Being that you’re by a wide margin the most powerful person here, it seems like you could be doing a lot more than recon.”
“The key to having power is to know how it is used,” Mary said, unperturbed as always. “I find the most potent way to influence the world is through information. For instance, rather than running around to a side street after the katzil, you can pass through the public house in the base of the building. It has entrances on both sides and is currently unlocked.”
They turned to look at the door toward which she nodded; only the sign labeling it “The Shifty Midget” revealed it was a pub. The door was shut tight, the windows darkened, its silence in keeping with the crisis in the city, but still somehow even more eerie. Pubs were meant to be places of laughter and vitality.
“You sure?” McGraw asked uncertainly. “Looks buttoned up pretty tight from here,”
“I assure you,” the Crow replied, “I have observed the entrances in use. Time is short.” She ascended toward the roof of the building with a raspy caw, her dark little wings seeming to have no trouble in the wind.
“And there she goes, not through the pub,” Weaver muttered. “I have a personal rule against taking directions from people who don’t follow their own.”
“Obvious, innit?” Billie said cheerfully. “Somethin’ in the pub she wants us to see. If you think the Crow’s out to get us, by all means sit here an’ freeze. Me, I think it’s worth havin’ a look at.”
They started toward the pub’s closed door, McGraw muttering as they went. “I didn’t see a katzil head off in that direction. Reckon there actually is one?”
Joe made no reply. Billie was first to reach the door, but she stepped aside, allowing him to grasp the handle and pull it open.
There was a short entrance hall beyond the door, lined with pegs for coats and stands for heavy overboots, all depressingly empty at the moment. An inert fairy lamp in an old-fashioned wrought iron housing hung overhead, swaying in the breeze admitted by the open door.
They trooped through in single file, weapons at the ready. The hall made a sharp left into the public area, where the group came to an immediate stop.
It looked like it might be a cozy place to have a drink in better times; not large, and with a disproportionately huge hearth along one wall. In addition to the usual tables and benches there were battered old armchairs upholstered in cracked leather arranged in small clusters in the corners. As Mary had said, there was indeed another hall leading from the opposite side of the room, presumably toward the other street. The fireplace was dead and dark, as were the wall sconces. It was not at all dim, however, lit as it was by the glow of the seven alarmed clerics in Universal Church robes who stood huddled in the middle of the room.
The two groups stared at each other in surprise for a silent moment. The priests weren’t armed, at least not visibly, but the glow around them at least partially came from a divine shield covering their party.
“What are you doing out?” a middle-aged woman near the head of the group demanded finally. “There’s a curfew in place!”
“We’re officially deputized for the duration of the crisis,” Joe informed her, holding up the lapel of his coat, to which was pinned the pewter gryphon badge Bishop Darling had given him. “Could ask the same of you.”
“We answer to the Universal Church,” she replied, still studying him warily. “Deputized? How old are you?”
“Collectively, oldern’ the Empire,” Billie said cheerfully. “Look, we can yammer on about who’s entitled to be out, or we could address the more pressin’ matters at hand. There’s demons still on the loose in the street. What’re you doin’ huddled in a dark pub? Could use the help out there.”
An unreadable look made its rounds through the clerics. “We have our orders,” a younger man said cryptically. “If you’re on demon cleanup duty, don’t let us keep you.”
“Now, I might be mistaken,” McGraw drawled, “it wouldn’t be the first time. But ain’t that the insignia of that new summoner corps his Holiness is building? Seems like demons on the loose would be right up your alley.”
“I told you, our orders—” He cut off at a sharp gesture from the older woman.
“Never mind,” she said, speaking to her companions but keeping her eyes on the group standing by the doorway. “This position is clearly compromised anyway, we’ll fall back to the secondary rendezvous. You do what you like,” she added directly to McGraw, “but if you intend to help, keep out of our way.”
They filed rapidly out the other hall exit. In moments, they were gone, and the party stood, listening to the door bang shut behind them. The only sound in the room was the faint sound of wind from without; Weaver had neglected to properly close the door through which they’d come.
“That doesn’t make a lick of sense,” Joe muttered, frowning after the departed clerics. “Holy summoners, hiding in a bar when there’s demons loose in the city?”
“They were not all summoners, holy or otherwise,” Mary remarked. They whirled to find her perched nonchalantly on the edge of the bar. “Did you note the slight divide in their group? Three in one cluster, four in another. Of the four, only one was a priestess. They also included a mage, a witch and a diabolist.”
“…a strike team,” McGraw said, thunking the butt of his staff against the floor. “In the wrong uniform? Well, they’re used for discreet ops often enough.”
Joe’s eyes widened as the equation added up in his head. “…they don’t want the demons un-summoned. They summoned them!”
“Cor,” Billie muttered.
He whirled to look at the group. Billie was frowning in consternation, McGraw in thought. Mary was watching him with the faint smile he associated with a teacher waiting to see if a pupil would understand a lesson. Weaver’s face was uncharacteristically blank.
“We have to tell the Bishop about this,” Joe said urgently. “Which way did he go?”
Weaver heaved a deep sigh. “Kid, this is a pitying expression I’m wearing, in case you failed to interpret it.”
“I told you,” Billie said, scowling. “I said it. That fellow gaining new powers fair makes my hackles rise. Gods only know what he might do with ’em. Not what he told us he was gonna, that much you can bank on.”
Joe’s eyes darted back and forth. “…did you all know about this?”
“Suspected,” McGraw muttered. “Had an inkling. Ain’t exactly the kinda thing one asks one’s powerful employer, though. ‘Scuze me, your Grace, but would you happen to be up to anything especially villainous this evening?’”
Weaver just shrugged.
“We were sent out to, first, attempt to lure the Black Wreath into an ambush, and second, destroy any demons they had unleashed,” Mary said calmly, her eyes fixed on Joe’s. “Ask yourself, why would they unleash demons?”
“They…they’re…the Black Wreath,” he said lamely. “Demons are what they do.”
“You cannot afford to be so naïve, Joseph. The Wreath call up demons only to use them. When they find demons otherwise, they put them down. Aimless summons of uncontrolled demons are less likely to be the work of the Wreath…”
“Than an attempt to lure them out,” Billie finished. “Bloody fuckin’ hell, in the middle of the city!”
“Let me just point out,” Weaver said, “before anybody goes on the warpath, that that was a mixed group of Universal Church and Imperial personnel we just saw, who were probably responsible for the demons loose in this neighborhood, if your theory is correct. It may be satisfying to blame Darling, but even if he could organize something this big, he couldn’t enact it on his own. This must’ve been done at the highest level. Bet you anything he’s not the only Bishop playing a part here.”
“There are many forces at work tonight,” Mary said calmly. “Some at cross purposes, most with more than one agenda. Best not to act in haste.”
“Act?” Billie snorted. “As to that…what’re we s’posed ta do, then? Just go back to killin’ demons like nothin’ else is going on?”
“Few things in life are simple,” said McGraw, “but some things are. If there are demons on the loose in the city, no matter who did it or why, killing ’em is a good use of our time.”
“But is it the best use?” Mary asked with a smile. “Joseph, did you still want to know which way the Bishop went?”
Embras managed one step backward before the front door of the warehouse banged shut, then froze.
“Well,” he said with a sigh, “there we are, of course. The question becomes, then, which of you do I attempt to go through?”
Price raised an eyebrow.
The warlock held out one hand, palm-up. “Young lady, if you would be so kind as to step aside—”
A ball of shadow began to form in his palm, then abruptly exploded; Mogul staggered backward, clutching a burned hand and staring around himself at the piles of crates hemming them in. Several of those nearest were emitting a faint golden light through cracks where the boards did not fit together snugly.
“You’ll want to be careful of that, old fellow,” Sweet said cheerfully, strolling around the corner behind him. The two elves paced silently at his sides, their expressions curious. “Want to know what’s stored in this warehouse, a literal stone’s throw from the Dawnchapel? Why, whatever was lying around! Relics of just all kinds, sacred to a whole smorgasbord of gods, that had been cluttering up the temple where Justinian needed to make space for his own projects. Frankly I’ve not idea what most of ’em even do, but I’ve got a pretty good notion what’ll happen if somebody starts trying to throw around infernal magic in here.”
“Yep,” Embras said, taking two steps to the side and angling himself to keep all of them in view. He stuck his burned hand in one of his coat pockets, tilting his head forward so that the brim of his hat concealed his eyes. Only his grin was visible. “I’ve gotta hand it to you, Antonio, this was mighty fine work. Mighty fine work. How’d you manage to arrange all this? One professional to another.”
“Oh, but that’s the best part,” Sweet said, grinning in return and coming to a stop a few feet from him. “I didn’t arrange this! Nor the mess you encountered in the Dawnchapel. In fact, I did my damnedest to get you to come at me, but I guess that was a little too obvious to get a nibble. No, all this was just here; you just ran afoul of Justinian placing his new toys exactly where you were most likely to trip over ’em in the dark.”
“Well, that’s just irritating,” Embras remarked. “I believe I’m gonna write him a very sternly worded letter.”
“Tell you what I did arrange, though,” Sweet continued, his grin beginning to slowly fade. “You’ve already discovered the Shaathist blessing blocking shadow-jumping over the city, I’m sure. You probably deduced the presence of a lot of Huntsmen rounding up your fellows. Here’s what you don’t yet know: those Huntsmen will be herding the Wreath toward the Rail stations, which are right about now being inundated with the Imperial soldiers who were sent to Calderaas earlier in the day. The Third Silver Legion has been re-sorted into squads off site, one of which will accompany every unit of the Army, with shield-specialized priestesses at the front. No doubt a good few of your warlocks will still manage to use those syringes of theirs when they see what’s waiting for them, but enough of them will be pacified on sight that we stand to take plenty alive.”
“How did you manage that?” Embras asked mildly. “You’re talking about hundreds of people. Thousands, even. I don’t mind admitting I haven’t heard a peep about this, and I’ve got eyes and ears in places you wouldn’t believe.”
“Simple operational control, old man. All of those soldiers and Legionnaires were kept in the dark; they were ordered to respond to the crisis on the frontier, and when they got to Calderaas telescrolled orders sent them right back here. The Huntsmen have been sequestered on rooftops all afternoon, in parties constantly watching each other.”
“Hnh,” Mogul grunted. “At what cost? I do know that hellgate in Last Rock isn’t a feint. Are you really so obsessed with capturing me you let that thing stand open? My people weren’t behind it, nor was my Lady. There is no telling what’s gonna come boiling out.”
“Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that,” Darling said condescendingly. “That’s being taken care of. Worry about the here and now.”
Mogul finally lifted his head, meeting Darling’s eyes. “Take a good look at yourself, Bishop. The bards lie about a lot, but they tell a few solid truths. The man standing over a well-executed trap giving a soliloquy is seldom the hero of the piece.”
“You’re just stalling, now,” Sweet said, stepping forward. Behind him, Flora and Fauna moved to flank. Price held her position, watching with perfect poise. “Obsessed I may be, but I’m not the one with a foot in the snare.”
“Fair enough,” Embras agreed, adjusting his tie. “Well, relics or no relics, I do hope you’re not expecting me to stand here politely while you—”
“Oh, keep it in your pants,” Darling said scornfully. “I didn’t go to all this trouble to kill you. No, I don’t intend to capture you, either.”
“Oh? I confess to some curiosity. That would seem to exhaust all the likely ambitions you might have toward my person.”
“Remember who you’re dealing with,” Darling said grimly, taking slow steps forward. “I am, first and foremost, an Eserite. I brought you here, Embras, to take something from you. Something you’ll be hard pressed to do without. Something you will never get back, until you finally submit yourself to my will.”
He came to a stop finally, with barely a foot separating the two men. Mogul withheld comment, simply staring challengingly into Darling’s eyes.
Suddenly Sweet grinned and swiped his hand across the space between them. Embras reflexively twitched backward, disarranging his hat as the brim thumped against the crates behind him. Grinning madly, Darling held up his fist, with the tip of his thumb poking out from between two fingers.
“Got yer nose!”
Embras gaped at him.
“All right, that’s a wrap,” Sweet said cheerfully, turning around and swaggering back toward the path between the crates. “Pack it up, ladies, we’re out. Embras, old man, you’ll wanna take the first left on the path out the other side, it’ll lead you straight toward the administrative offices. Past the secretary’s desk is the manager’s, and past that is a cleaning closet. Sewer access is in there. You have a good evenin’, now!”
Price caught up as he reached the crates and they stepped out into the shadows side-by-side, leaving the lamp behind. Flora and Fauna, however, hadn’t moved. They were staring after their tutor with expressions very similar to Mogul’s.
“What. The. Hell.”
“Are you ever gonna actually fight this guy?” Fauna demanded shrilly.
“Look, if you just want somebody to play practical jokes with, we can find you a friend.”
“Hell with that, let’s find him a girlfriend. He’s clearly pent up.”
“All the way up to the skull!”
“Girls, girls,” Darling soothed, turning to grin at them. “Not in front of the mark, please. I know exactly what I’m doing, as always. Embras knows, too. Or he will once he’s had time to think it all over. He’s having a stressful night, poor fellow. We’ve got exactly what we came for, now it’s time to go. Chop chop, our guest has a stealthy exit to make. Respect the exit.”
He strolled off again into the shadows. With a last, wary glance at the completely nonplussed Embras Mogul, the girls finally followed him. There really wasn’t anything else for them to do.
“I swear,” Fauna muttered as they wound their way through the dark maze of crates back to the entrance, “if I don’t hear a full explanation of all the aimless running around we’ve done tonight, I’m gonna kill somebody.”
“That would carry a lot more weight if it wasn’t your response to everything,” Darling said cheerfully. “Thank you, Price.”
“Sir,” she said, pulling the door open and stepping aside to hold it while Darling strolled out into the windy streets.
He came to an immediate stop, the glowing tip of a wand inches from his face.
“Evenin’, Joe,” he said mildly. “Something on your mind?”
“Lemme see if I’ve got this straight,” Joe said, glaring at him. “You send all the troops away and have summoners call up demons in the city, creating a crisis only more summoners can fix. And then, when the Black Wreath shows up to help the civilians you’ve put in danger, you land on ’em with Huntsmen and whatever else. That about the shape of it?”
Darling held up a hand at his side; Flora and Fauna halted, having been about to dive past him at the Kid. Behind Joe, the rest of his party stood in a semicircle a good few yards back, dissociating themselves from him with distance.
“You have the aspect of someone who’s just made several assumptions,” Darling said, “and plans to make a few more.”
“I asked you a question.”
“Joe,” Flora warned.
“That’s about the shape of it, yes,” Darling said, nodding. He kept his eyes on Joe’s. “Minus a number of highly significant details.”
“That,” Joe said flatly, “is easily one of the more evil things I’ve ever heard of.” He shifted his grip subtly, the wand’s tip glowing a touch brighter; Flora and Fauna stepped forward once. “And you made me a part of it.”
“Did you see those crocodile-lookin’ things with the gorilla arms?” Darling asked. “Yes? Those are called khankredahgs. One of them killed Bishop Snowe’s servant in her own home a few weeks back. The same night the Wreath attacked us in my house, remember?”
“That has noth—”
“There’s something called the Rite of Silencing,” Darling pressed over him, “it’s what the Wreath does to members who try to betray the group. See, what they do is, they get the traitors in a pit that’s been made into a summoning circle. They’ve bound them beforehand, you see, so they can’t use any magic they possess. And then they call up khankredahgs in the pit with ’em, and the whole cell stands around above and watches them get eaten alive.”
He took a step forward, then another; Joe actually stepped back to avoid jabbing him in the eye with the wand, but did not lower his arm. “And not just the would-be traitor, either,” Darling went on, staring him down. “Anyone deemed close enough to them. Spouses, siblings, children. The exceptions are any children considered too young to be responsible. Those join the onlookers, and get to watch their families being torn apart. These are the people we’re talking about, Joe.”
“What they do has nothing to do with what we do about it,” Joe growled. “If we can’t be better than them, then what’s the point of fighting ’em?”
“I only wish I could tell you how close the Black Wreath was before tonight to overthrowing the Empire,” Darling said. At that Joe’s eyes widened and his hand wavered a fraction. “I can’t, though; the pertinent parts are actually Sealed to the Throne, and most of the rest is merely classified. But yes, Joe, we’ve been walking the knife’s edge for months now. The prospect of an Elilinist government coming to power is a real and extant one even still. This night’s work has broken the Wreath’s spine in Tiraas, but they are not dead, and Elilial certainly isn’t. They’ll be back. They’ll never stop. Have you ever given any thought to what life would be like in a country ruled by the Black Wreath?” He paused for a moment, giving Joe a chance to answer. He didn’t. “I have. And I, and others in the government, the Church and the cults, have had to consider what is appropriate, and what is necessary, to stop that from happening.”
“Appropriate?” Joe all but whispered.
Darling slowly lifted his hand and pushed aside the wand. Joe offered no resistance. “I won’t know for a few days exactly how many people were hurt or killed due to our scheme tonight,” he said quietly. “We’ll probably never have a full accounting of the damage. But this is something that was carefully considered at the highest level. The Emperor, the Empress, the Archpope. Myself, the head of Imperial Intelligence, others. Not one of us are going to sleep well for a good while, if ever. And someday, Joe, when you have had to make a brutally hard choice like that, then you will be in a position to make judgments about those who have. They probably won’t be correct judgments, but you’ll have earned the right to make ’em.” He pursed his lips, and shook his head. “Till then… Grow up.”
Darling turned and walked off up the street. Flora and Fauna paced after him, staring at Joe in passing as he slowly lowered his wand to point at the ground. Price brought up the rear, seeming totally unperturbed.
A small hand touched his leg just above the knee. He looked down to meet Billie’s eyes. She jerked her head significantly at the two elves, then very clearly mouthed “Not now.”
They listened, for a long moment, to the wind, and the sound of distant hunting horns.
“Welp,” McGraw said finally, “I guess we won.”
“What is victory?” Mary mused aloud. “And who are ‘we?’”
“Just in case you were wondering,” Weaver told her, “that inscrutable act of yours isn’t impressive. It’s just annoying.”
“I can live with that,” she said with a smile. “Annoying I may be, but I have achieved exactly what I set out to, tonight. I wonder who else can say the same?”