“Why is it,” demanded the Colonel, “that every time I see you kids, some fresh damn havoc is unfolding?”
“Correlation is not causation,” said Fross, “just for the record.”
“We are bringing you valuable intelligence,” Trissiny said sharply. “It’s not as if we put cultists in the tunnels.”
“Yes, fine, you’re right,” Adjavegh replied. He leaned back in his chair with a heavy sigh. “I do appreciate that. Interesting to finally meet all of you, too.”
“This may very well be exactly the break we need,” Major Razsha said, frowning pensively. “The catacombs, hm. Naturally, we’ve done sweeps of them, but the tunnel systems are plenty large enough to hide in, if somebody were really determined to do so.”
“We’ve not seen any indication we’re dealing with a foe who has that kind of capability,” Adjavegh said, scowling. “At least until very recently. Anyone who could launch a raid on this barracks could evade our admittedly cursory search of the catacombs. And on the subject of which, it seems to me the most likely culprits of that are the Black Wreath, since they seem to be active in the city and admittedly launched an operation against us.”
“I agree,” said Trissiny.
“I’m not sure I do,” Razsha mused. “That Wreath agent’s story is remarkably unconvincing. An organization like that made an admitted attempt on the barracks, and claim they were driven off by chaos cultists? It doesn’t add up.”
“One of us must be getting old, Major,” Adjavegh said sardonically. “You seem to be implying that the Wreath must be innocent because they are obviously lying.”
“I am implying that they may be innocent because their story appears to be a lie. The Wreath are deceivers, and very good ones. If they wanted to tell us a story, it would be a believable and compelling one. I’m not proposing to trust them, obviously… But they do have reason to defer to Vadrieny—and her host—and if they’re as much in the dark as we, it would explain why they don’t have a ready answer to who actually attacked the barracks.”
“Unless that’s what they want us to think,” said Gabriel. “Sorry, Teal—I’ve not dealt with the Wreath, to my knowledge, but I’ve had one good brush with an opportunistic warlock. They’re capable of anything.”
“If they know that we know that they know…” Shaeine shook her head. “That path is a spiral into deeper and deeper confusion. I concur with the Major’s reasoning; the Wreath would be able to point us in the direction they chose, rather than admitting weakness and a lack of information.”
“Hmph,” Colonel Adjavegh muttered. “If this is true, it explains much. The chaos cults have been popping up regularly, and have been strangely consistent in their methodology. If they are all part of the same cult… And operating from the catacombs would account for how they’ve avoided us.”
“It could also explain the apparently greater capability of these chaos agents,” Razsha added. “None of the necromancers we’ve seen so far could do more than raise skeletons. These apparently had an elaborate necromantic construct, and are operating at a higher level of sophistication. They could have been sending up their most erratic offshoots as a distraction while building toward something bigger. Something like attacking the Army.”
A brief silence fell while they all considered this. The meeting was an unbalanced reflection of the three paladins’ earlier session in this office: Adjavegh behind his desk, Corporal Timms discreetly at his shoulder and Razsha standing off to the side. The full group of students made for a crowded space, however, and the rest of Razsha’s strike team was not present this time.
“About those weapons,” Toby began.
“That is classified,” Adjavegh snapped, “and that is all that will be said on the matter.” Major Razsha raised an eyebrow, but offered no comment as the Colonel continued. “Obviously, our next step must be a much more thorough search of the catacombs. Timms, start drawing up shift assignments. I want a sweep-and-harry pattern; if we start at the top and push down, blocking every path out, they’ll have nowhere to run. We’ll find them if they’re down there.”
“Sir,” said Timms, “that isn’t possible.”
“Excuse me?” the Colonel said dangerously, turning to glare at her.
“We simply do not have the manpower, sir,” she said. “Even if all the wounded from the attack were cleared for duty, we wouldn’t. The catacomb system is far too large and complicated, and even we don’t have comprehensive maps. We don’t know where all the exits are, but there are a good many into private residences and businesses.”
“There’s another matter,” said Razsha. “If this is indeed the source of our troubles, it stands to reason the chaos rift is down there somewhere. Going into that… Our soldiers are trained to fight with staves, which are magical. Firing them too close to a chaos rift could be disastrous.”
Trissiny coughed discreetly. “Colonel, the Third Silver Legion is stationed in Tiraas; I can have them here by Rail tomorrow. That would considerably bolster your forces, and Legionnaires are trained for hand-to-hand engagements without magical weapons.”
“I appreciate that, Avelea,” Adjavegh said, frowning into space, “but I’ll have to consider it a last resort. Marching a Silver Legion into Veilgrad would signal something serious is afoot at the very least—it’ll rile the populace and send our quarry deeper into hiding. There’s enough Shaathist sympathy in this city that it may very well cause us additional trouble. Omnu’s breath, Timms, stop that throat-clearing! If you have an idea, spit it out.”
“Yes, sir,” the corporal said. “The local Huntsmen of Shaath have numbers and are experienced fighters with non-magical weapons, both hand-to-hand and at range. They are also likely to be more familiar with the catacomb system than any of our personnel, being local.”
“Shaathist weapons have elemental blessings,” said Toby. “Fae and divine magic, both. Could be risky, going up against chaos.”
“Their weapons can be switched out for non-magical ones,” Razsha mused. “That’d be a hard sell, but probably the only difficult part of involving them. Huntsmen love chasing difficult prey.”
“If we coordinate with the lodge,” said Timms, “and approach this as a seek-and-capture operation, I think it has a much better chance of succeeding, sir.”
“Very well,” Adjavegh said with a sigh. “Contact the Master and brief him. Politely; I do not need that strutting rooster adding to my headaches.”
“Now, as for these constructs,” the Colonel continued. “I gather we can expect more. Arquin, can’t you do anything about undead?”
“Not that kind,” said Gabriel, shaking his head. “That was… Well, basically a golem made from body parts. Most of the simpler kinds of necromancy work by establishing a link between the body and the spirit, either of its original soul or another. That can be severed instantly. If they come at us with zombies, skeletons…no problem.”
“But the bigger things you can’t do anything about,” Adjavegh said sarcastically. “How inconvenient.”
“I can do plenty about them, Colonel,” Gabriel retorted. “Can’t turn them off as easy as flipping a switch, but anything breaks if you blast it hard enough.” Ruda chuckled.
“We should consider the possibility of meeting stiffer resistance down there,” said Razsha. “I recommend holding our high-value assets in reserve and using signal runes to enable the search teams to call for help. Between my strike team and the students, we have some very heavy-hitters on hand. Shame to waste them wandering around in random tunnels.”
“I agree with that, as far as it goes,” said Adjavegh, “but all of these assets are magical, which brings us right back to the chaos problem.”
“Our anti-chaos assets include one mithril rapier and three paladins,” said Ariel. “Mithril will not interfere with chaos directly, but any misfired spells caused by it are still magical and can still be neutralized by the metal.”
“Who is that talking?” Adjavegh demanded, sitting bolt upright and glaring around.
“This is Ariel,” Gabriel explained, drawing the sword and holding it up. “She’s a…kind of magical assistant. A little difficult, but it’s wise to listen to her advice.”
Adjavegh’s glare deepened. “Boy, do you know how talking swords are made?”
“I didn’t make her,” Gabriel said flatly.
“If I might continue with information germane to the issue?” Ariel said pointedly. “Thank you. A paladin’s powers are also magical, but they flow directly from a deity, which is consciously aware of their use and can compensate for chaos-induced misfires. Paladins have been instrumental in sealing chaos rifts in previous encounters. The opposite is true for the two fairies; I strongly advise keeping them as far back as possible. If their inherent magic is disrupted they could be destroyed outright.”
Juniper made a small squeak.
“That applies to you, too, Ariel,” Ruda pointed out.
“Indeed. If Gabriel is going to face the rift directly, I don’t object to being carried by someone else for a brief period. Preferably not the dryad.”
“What does that mean?” Juniper demanded.
“I’m not certain whether that applies to Vadrieny’s demon form, or the opposite,” Ariel continued. “It is a spell effect, but it stems directly from a goddess. The nature of her connection to Elilial is uncertain, given the imperfect fusion of archdemon and human. She might be as impervious as the paladins or as vulnerable as the fairies.”
“We need to minimize variables like that in contact with the rift,” Adjavegh said firmly. “And since we’re dealing with an unavoidably porous perimeter, we’ll need to keep tactical assets topside, as well. Paladins will stand by to be called when the rift or other significant resistance is located. Major, your team and the rest of the adventurers will remain up here to deal with any undead or cultists that make it out of other tunnels. That’ll free up more of our personnel to sweep the catacombs.”
“That’s a good strategy, sir,” Razsha agreed, nodding.
“I’m glad you approve,” he said sardonically.
“What about Malivette?” Fross suggested. “I bet she’d help.”
“I want that vampire nowhere near a chaos rift!” Adjavegh exclaimed. “She’s a good enough citizen now, but there’s no telling what would happen if something messed up her curse. All right, people you have your orders. Keep this quiet until we’re ready to move; we don’t want to spook our quarry. Timms, get to the lodge and talk to the Master; the rest of you, be back here at eight hundred hours. We move first thing in the morning.”
“You really think you can set all this up in one night, Colonel?” Toby asked.
“Son,” said Adjavegh, “this is the Imperial Army. We do what we have to, and find out afterward that we could.”
McGraw waved as they approached, leaning on his staff. “There y’are! I wasn’t sure you’d get the message.”
“The whole damn town got the message,” Weaver growled. “As communications go, bright blue signal flares are somewhat less than subtle.”
“Wasn’t goin’ for subtle,” the old wizard said, peering around Weaver’s shoulder at the town in the near distance behind them. “You came alone? I expected some of those Army folks to respond, as well…”
“Lieutenant Taash came partway,” said Joe, “but once we saw it was you, she went back to the station. I think the soldiers are tryin’ not to get mixed up with elves. It’s probably political. Afternoon, ma’am,” he added, tipping his hat to Raea, who smiled in return. The two elves behind her exchanged glances, but said nothing.
“Well, ‘ere we all are, then,” Billie said cheerily. “What’s the good word, Elias?”
“Just been bringin’ our friends up to speed,” said McGraw. “They didn’t see anyone leave the town.”
“So he’s still in the town, then?” Weaver said, glancing over his shoulder. “Fuck a duck, he could be anywhere.”
“No, he left,” said Raea, folding her arms. “We just didn’t see him. Once Elias alerted me, I consulted a spirit companion, who picked up his trail, heading off toward Risk. It was definitely a shaman. Aside from the fact that he is clearly using a quick-travel blessing to boost his speed, no one else could have made it past us undetected.”
“What, shamans can go invisible?” Weaver exclaimed. “Since when?”
“I’m pretty sure the plural of ‘shaman’ is—”
“Shut up, Joe!”
“There are a number of techniques we can use to deflect attention,” Raea said. “I can penetrate most of them myself—if I know to be on the lookout. I’m afraid a shaman who does not wish to be detected usually isn’t, even by other elves, unless said elves are specifically trying. His trail, too, is concealed, but I saw through that easily enough once I knew what to look for. We do not operate from a standard catalog of spells, like wizards,” she added, glancing at McGraw. “Each shaman’s capabilities depend on their alliances, on what they have learned, their sources of power.”
“It’s definitely Vannae, then,” Joe mused, “not the Jackal.”
“Him we would have spotted,” snorted one of the other elves. Like the rest of Raea’s band, he had not bothered to introduce himself. So far, they appeared content to let Raea be the sole point of contact with the adventurers.
“As I understand it,” said Weaver, “not getting spotted is a big part of what he does.”
“Not getting spotted by the likes of you,” the elf said disdainfully. “The Jackal does not prey on his own kind, and not out of any respect for us.”
“You’re pretty confident, for a watchman who just got blazed past in his sleep.”
The elf turned to face Weaver directly, throwing back his shoulders. “Listen carefully, you snub-eared—”
“Friend, don’t,” Joe interrupted. “Just don’t. He’s an aggravating jerk and a lot less killable than he looks; reacting to him won’t do anything but drive up your blood pressure. Ignore him and move on.”
Weaver grinned unpleasantly at the elf, who glared right back.
“Do you boys need to go find a tree to piss against?” Raea asked dryly. The elf snorted, but turned back to the group, giving Weaver a cold shoulder. The bard looked about ready to burst out laughing, but fortunately didn’t.
“The immediate thing is figurin’ out what we’re gonna do,” said McGraw. “From a cursory look, it appears to me like Khadizroth an’ his crew are aimin’ to set up a long game of sniping back and forth at each other. That bein’ the case, it’s probably best to nip this in the bud.”
“I dunno, though,” said Billie. “That daft prick just attacked two Imperial installations. Seems t’me all we gotta do is sit back an’ let nature take its course—K an’ the rest of his cronies’ll be taken care of within the week.”
“That, if anything, increases the urgency of this matter,” Raea said quietly.
“I agree,” Joe said, nodding. “If the Empire descends on them in force…they’ll also get whatever progress they’ve made toward finding the skull. One of the very first things we established in this business is that the Empire does not need to have that skull. I’m inclined to agree with Khadizroth on one point: while it’s best to keep it out of Svenheim’s hands as well, better them than the Empire.”
“You’re cute when you’re treasonous,” Billie said, grinning. Joe flushed and ducked his head momentarily before regathering his composure.
“Treason is when you deliberately sabotage your government’s operations,” said Weaver. “Keeping something dangerous out of circulation and just incidentally out of the Silver Throne’s greedy hands is another matter—or so a good enough lawyer could argue, if it comes to that. Anyhow, the kid’s got the right of it this time. Anybody disagree?”
“Definitely not,” said McGraw. “The original plan stands. We get the skull, we give it to Tellwyrn.” The other elf snorted, but subsided at a glance from Raea.
“Then Khadizroth has substantially accelerated the timetable,” Raea said. “I cannot help but suspect that was his intention; he is too old and too wise to flail about blindly in a situation like this. You did say that Vannae works for him directly, not simply as another of the Archpope’s lackeys?”
“The nature of their relationship is over our heads,” McGraw replied, “but Vannae was with him before the Archpope got his hands on Khadizroth. An’ I concur with your reasoning, Raea. As I see it, his actions here make sense only in the presence of two other facts: Khadizroth thinks the skull is nearly in his hands, an’ he thinks he can take us in a straight-up fight.”
“How d’ye figure?” Billie asked, scratching behind one of her ears.
“Forcin’ us to move up our timetable might make sense if he wanted to knock us out of the game before goin’ back to lookin’ for the skull,” McGraw explained, “but the way he did it, tweakin’ the Empire’s nose like that, started the hourglass running for all of us. The Empire’s patience with all this hogwash just got a lot shorter; both our groups have in common that we need to have this done and that artifact taken off the table before Tiraan agents get fully involved. That means we gotta act now.”
“And that,” said Weaver, “means the dragon is confident of his chances in a straightforward fight against us, considering that he just provoked one.”
Billie sighed. “Shit. All right, then, what’re we lookin’ at? Khadizroth himself won’t be as dangerous as when we last faced ‘im, not with ‘is powers bound. But he’s still a feckin’ dragon, not somethin’ ta take lightly. An’ the Jackal’s gonna be a right pain in the arse any way ye slice it.”
“The Jackal has the advantage if he has room and time to maneuver,” said Joe. “We fare best against him by striking fast and hard; face to face, he likely isn’t a match for us. What puzzles me is this guy Shook.”
“Thieves’ Guild enforcer,” said McGraw. “What he’s doin’ with this group is doubtless a hell of a tale; the man’s capable of putting together and acting on a good strategy in a tense situation, but at the end of the day, he’s a thug with wands. He’s frankly out of his league with this group.”
“Our watchers have observed him interacting closely with the succubus,” said Raea. “I believe they are connected.”
“That…just raises more questions,” McGraw mused.
“The demon is a non-issue,” said Weaver. “Neither her stealth nor her shapeshifting will fool Yngrid; she so much as shows her face anywhere in the vicinity, she goes straight back to Hell. Considering her absence from the meeting, I suspect she’s aware of that.”
“Who?” Joe frowned. Weaver gave him a scathing look.
“His valkyrie, innit?” said Billie. “Anyhow, I’m inclined to agree. Either the demon’s under control, in which case they won’t waste an asset like that by lettin’ her near a reaper, or she’s not, in which case she’ll protect her own hide by buggin’ out.”
“So,” Raea mused. “The dragon, the shaman, the wandfighter, the assassin… And their dwarven allies. This will not be an easy engagement.”
“How soon should we move?” Joe asked. “They’re clearly baiting us to strike quickly…”
“I’m afraid it’s bait we’re better off takin’,” McGraw said grimly. “The more time they have to position themselves, the harder this’ll be.”
“We can be there by dawn,” said Raea. “The blessings I can lay on you all will enable you to make the distance that quickly, and arrive untired. And my people, of course, are already in shape to make the run and fight at the end of it.” She smiled at the elf who had nearly started an altercation with Weaver; he nodded grimly back.
“This’d be a really good time fer Mary ta come back from wherever she’s gallivanted off to,” Billie sighed.
“Darling knows to send her our way if she turns up back in Tiraas,” said McGraw. “No point wastin’ effort on wishful thinkin’. We’d best get our butts on the move.”
“I can’t shake the feeling this is a mistake,” Joe muttered.
“It may well be,” Raea agreed solemnly. “We are certainly being manipulated. But there are some mistakes, Joseph, that simply must be made—and if you must do a thing, it is best to do it quickly.”
“Well, that’s a hell of a pep talk,” Weaver snorted. “I like the classic line better: let’s go kick some ass.”
“Ah, there you are!”
Bishop Shahai intercepted the squad as they were trooping back toward their cabin. They halted and turned to her, saluting.
“Ma’am,” said Principia. “Everything all right?”
“You look…rather tired,” Shahai observed, coming to a stop and studying them. Indeed, all five of them were sweaty and somewhat disheveled. “I trust the facilities I arranged were satisfactory?”
“Quite so, your Grace,” said Princpia. “And thank you again for doing it. I’m impressed how quickly you managed that.”
“Getting things done is simple enough in a well-run organization,” Shahai said with a smile. “How did your…practice go?”
“I think we’ll have something impressive to show the High Commander very soon,” Principia said slowly. “Excuse me, ma’am, but all of us could use a turn in the baths. Did you need us for something?”
“I’ll keep it brief,” the Bishop said, her smile fading. “You had a visitor while you were below, Locke.”
“Why does Locke get all the visitors?” Merry muttered.
“Considering the kind of people who come looking for her, I’m content being less popular,” Farah replied.
“Hush,” Ephanie said curtly. “Sorry, your Grace.”
Shahai smiled at her and continued. “Our friend Saduko came around—through the front door, this time—asking to speak with you. She seemed pressed for time; at any rate, when told you were busy and unavailable, she was willing to convey her message to me.”
“Message?” Principia narrowed her eyes.
“Saduko hinted as heavily as she could without saying it outright that she was giving this information without Zanzayed’s orders and possibly against his wishes,” Shahai said. “It was a tip. There is a meeting of this anti-dragon society taking place tomorrow morning. The Conclave is aware of it, but not able to move against them for obvious political reasons.”
“Yes, them laying one scaly finger on Imperial citizens in Tiraas would pretty much explode their talks with the Throne,” Principia murmured. “Well, this is all astonishingly convenient, isn’t it?”
“Indeed,” Shahai said gravely. “The High Commander hasn’t been able to see me since I finished talking with Saduko—which has been only a few minutes—but I do have authority in this matter, and I believe this is an appropriate time to send your squad out. You will interrupt the meeting in question and attempt to apprehend some or all of the activists.”
“What happened to using us as bait, ma’am?” Principia asked.
“This is a variant on the same plan, Locke. When we last spoke, we hadn’t so much as a hint of when or where we might find these people gathered. Now…”
“Excuse me, your Grace,” said Casey, “but…with all due respect…this could not more obviously be a trap.”
“Well, that is an interesting consideration,” Shahai said, nodding. “Locke, Saduko strongly implied her motives were pursuant to your shared membership in the Thieves’ Guild, and her personal feeling that she owed you some help for the trouble she has caused you. Any thoughts on that?”
“It’s…plausible,” Principia said slowly. “Saduko hasn’t done anything harmful to me, exactly; if she did, she’d be in big trouble with the Guild. Eserites are encouraged to con and prank each other, but there are limits. You don’t get a fellow Guild member into trouble with outside forces. Still, that’s a slender thread to hang all this on.”
“Quite so,” Shahai agreed. “Saduko is a woman of complex and perhaps contradictory loyalties, from what we have learned from Bishop Darling, and whatever attachment she claims toward you, the Sisterhood is an organization toward which her fondness must be at its thinnest. It would be a critical mistake, I think, to take her at face value. As such, I’m going to try to make this a joint operation with the Guild.”
Merry began grinding her teeth.
“By…tomorrow morning, ma’am?” Ephanie asked hesitantly. “Is that…feasible?”
“That’s the question, is it not?” Shahai replied briskly. “I need to head to the Cathedral and try to locate Darling; if he’s not there, it may be challenging to track him down. I understand he likes to remain highly mobile in the city. Considering the timetable, if Darling is not at the Cathedral I will likely proceed directly to the Imperial Casino and try to get an audience with Boss Tricks.”
Casey let out a low whistle.
“Don’t eat or drink anything they give you,” Principia advised. “They won’t hurt you, but embarrassing you would be another matter.”
“I have dealt with Eserites before, Locke,” Shahai said dryly. “In any case, I came to bring you into the loop; now, you’ll be wanting your baths, and I have an errand to see to, myself. I’ll speak with you again tonight with more detailed orders.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said, saluting again. The rest of her squad followed suit.
The Bishop nodded deeply to them. “Be wary, ladies. All of this, as I’ve said before, is developing far too fast. Populist movements simply do not assemble so quickly, much less organize themselves as effectively as this one has. I strongly suspect these activists are being manipulated by an outside force—one which may be more willing than the average citizen to harm Legionnaires. You are the bait in this trap, but if I cannot gain the aid of the Guild, the operation is off. I’m not sending you into this alone, not when we know so little. I’ll speak with you again soon.”
She turned and glided away toward the front of the complex, leaving Squad One staring worriedly after her.
“Sarge?” Farah asked hesitantly.
“Inside,” Principia said curtly, turning and leading the way into their cabin.
Once they were all in and Principia had shut the door and double-checked the charms she had placed on every window, she turned to them with a grim expression.
“I’ll be blunt, girls: Nandi Shahai is probably my favorite of the people we’ve had in charge of us since coming here. She reminds me a lot of myself, and that is what warns me not to trust her absolutely.”
“You think the Bishop has it in for us?” Casey exclaimed.
“Not that one, no,” Principia replied, shaking her head. “In fact, I think she’s willing to have our backs, to a great extent. However, I also think she has different ideas than we about what constitute acceptable losses. If it comes down to the mission or us, we may very well find ourselves the more expendable side of that equation. We’ll follow our orders, and her lead…but with every ace we can cram up our sleeves. Shahai is right that all this makes no sense. Everyone is lying to everyone else, and we’re the ones putting our necks on the line. When we assemble tomorrow for the mission, I want you in the new equipment I provided.”
“What?” Merry exclaimed. “We just started practicing with that! We’ve had one set of drills, for barely an hour!”
“And we will do our best not to be in a position where we need to use any of it,” Principia said firmly, “but let’s be honest: that’s out of our hands, and always was. It’s like the Bishop said: every step of this is coming too fast. Everything that’s happened has been way ahead of any reasonable kind of schedule. The fact that tomorrow’s events should not escalate into something truly dangerous at this stage of the game is what makes me suspect they may.”
“Bloody hell,” Merry spat.
“Well said,” Principia said dryly.
“Are we ready for this, Locke?” Ephanie asked quietly.
“We’re going to be as ready as we possibly can,” Prin replied. “For anything. All right; everyone gear off and head toward the baths. I want you to get as much rest as you can tonight. Tomorrow is gonna be…interesting.”