She waited, perched on the roof of Clarke Tower, while the moon drifted higher, patches of scraggly clouds scuttling across it now and again. There were many ways to put the tower’s occupants to sleep, but considering the mix of people in there, none were reliable—or wise. Anything that worked on the demons would be nullified by the light-wielders; anything that worked on the fairies risked agitating the demons. It was only one person whose continued wakefulness posed a particular problem, anyway. Poor Trissiny; she’d had a rather stressful night. Or so it seemed, based on the constant, low-key gleam of divine energy burning from within the top room.
Kaisa sat there, calm as a statue but for her languidly waving tail, waiting. Almost an hour passed before the irritating hum of divine magic finally faded from beneath her. The girl was going to be groggy in class tomorrow.
Bursting from her stillness into furious but silent motion, she leaped from the peak of the conical roof to its lower edge in a single bound, grabbing the rain gutter with one hand and swinging downward. For a bare moment she hung outside the window, one pointed ear twitching, then swung herself upward and landed with her dainty feet on the sill, still without a sound.
She didn’t attempt to open the window, for all that the barrier mocked her. There were much more important games to play tonight, and she didn’t need to get inside in order to play them.
As she had suspected, the spell had been designed to respect physical boundaries rather than simply making a beeline for its target. Really good spells did; it took so much more energy to have them phase through any possible barrier, and such modifications made them more vulnerable to magical defenses. Anyone targeting a paladin would craft their spell to have minimal impact on magical shields. Indeed, now that Trissiny’s aura had finally ceased cluttering up the atmosphere with its abrasive jangle, Kaisa could clearly follow the path it had taken. Up the tower, through this window.
She tipped over backwards, spinning about as she fell to impact the stone wall of Clarke Tower face-first, her claws deftly finding purchase in its fancifully rustic stonework. What a silly affectation—the thing was less than fifty years old, there was no need for it not to have smoother walls than this. Then again, there was no need for it to be floating above empty space, either. Ah, well, she did appreciate Arachne’s little whimsies.
The kitsune scuttled lizard-like down and around the side of the tower, with the difference that Shaeine might have been able to hear a lizard’s progress, had she been listening. Kaisa made no sound as she followed the rapidly fading trail. Layer upon layer of stealth, invisibility and deflection hid it from any kind of detection—too many layers. She could not sense the demonic energy within, but all those layers of concealment, that obvious path of nothing… That was like a paved road through the swamp, it stood out so well.
Wreath. So confident in their cleverness. Far too clever for their own good.
The trail didn’t wind around the tower as if needing to climb it physically, but quested back and forth on the way up, apparently having searched for the right window. Following it in reverse, Kaisa swiftly came to the base of the tower, where it rested on that improbably island of floating stone, and peered down at the distant prairie. Clearly, it was not bound to the ground, and had not climbed the mountain directly. She detected the path it had taken up, though she could not sense very far along it. Far enough to get a direction, however. Her own keen eyes were more than adequate to project a path to the ground far below, where it must have launched from. Roughly. It was a rather steep angle.
She considered this for a moment, ears twitching, then abruptly launched herself into space.
Spread-eagled, Kaisa soared outward, grinning gleefully into the wind that rushed past her face. At the point where her arc began to descend, she suddenly exploded into a cloud of smoke and swirling red maple leaves, which danced away on the wind. Her empty kimono continued to fall, making a far slower and more uneven descent as it was caught and played with by currents of air.
The swath of embroidered silk fluttered down through the night air, drifting this way and that, swirling about in circles and generally making a distracted, disorderly trip toward the ground. It did continue downward, however; air resistance could only do so much against gravity. It was several long minutes before the garment neared the end of its lazy descent, its moon-cast shadow sharpening against the tallgrass below. Finally, with a final regretful ripple, it banked a last time on an invisible current and fell the last few feet toward the ground.
A second before it got there, a slim, bare arm darted out from behind a thin stand of tallgrass that couldn’t possibly have concealed anyone, snatching it out of the air. The kimono was yanked behind the stand, and a moment later, Kaisa stepped daintily out from its other side, smoothing it down her body and absently double-checking that her obi was properly straight.
Stepping lightly on bare feet, she paced this way and that across the prairie, eyes roving and nose uplifted, until suddenly zeroing in on an invisible point ahead. She bounded forward, landing nimbly on the balls of her feet, and knelt, studying one nondescript patch of ground.
A wide, feral smile stretched her lips, revealing pointed canines to the moonlight. There—perfect. Well, a dozen yards or so off, but considering that jump and the guesswork necessary to find the proper landing spot, that was as good as perfect. But then, of course it was. She didn’t know how to fail.
With a flick of her tail, she dived forward, and in place of a silk-clad woman, a reddish fox with a white-tipped tail dashed along the prairie, moving in bounds that covered dozens of yards each. She streaked through the night, tracking back and forth slightly as she followed the trail, but never slowing from her pace, which could have out run a jackalope or cheetah. Nothing on land could have matched her speed.
A shadow drifted toward her. There were things not confined to land that could outpace anything on legs.
From the tiniest smudge, it grew rapidly to a huge dark blot on the moonlit prairie, keeping behind her so as not to reveal itself. The creature had begun at a dizzying altitude, keen eyes attuned to movement finally spotting her frenetic dash through the tallgrass, and it plummeted into a nearly silent, blindingly fast dive.
A split second before its outstretched beak could have connected, the fox leaped, whirled around on itself, and seemed to vanish into its own tail.
The hunter let out a croak of frustration as it beat its huge, leathery wings once, pulling up and shooting skyward again.
It got all of two yards upward before she deftly seized it by the neck.
Standing over twenty feet tall, Kaisa held her squirming, croaking prize in one hand.
“How very rude,” she admonished. “I am a guest in these lands. You are not even supposed to be here.”
The creature might at a casual glance have been taken for a bird, but it was all wrong. A long, beaked head was surmounted by a bony crest; its beak was filled with jagged teeth. The stunted little legs trailing behind it were clearly not designed to be walked on, though they would serve to hang from a perch, or stabilize it sitting. There were feathers, but accenting it rather than covering its body fully. It was not a bird, but something whose descendents might become birds, millions of years hence.
These things did wander out of the Golden Sea from time to time; settlers either fell prey to them or the reverse. There were a number of time-lost specimens stuffed and mounted in various collections around the Empire. Whatever magic animated the Sea, one simply did not wrench space in that manner without occasionally disrupting time as well.
“Well, I haven’t time to play just now,” Kaisa said, “but I believe I’ll keep you for later.”
With this pronouncement, she was suddenly woman-sized again, the proto-bird correspondingly diminished in size. It let out another agitated cry at the adjustment, struggling in her grip—and in the next instant was a rigid, palm-sized figurine, apparently carved of ivory.
“Perfect,” she said smugly, tucking it into her kimono. With another self-satisfied flick of her tail, she whirled and continued along her path, again a fox.
The mountain at Last Rock was a lump on the horizon by the time she slowed, sniffing the ground around a peculiar circle of trampled grass, sitting in the middle of apparent nowhere, with no tracks leading to or from it.
Kaisa straightened up, folding her arms and studying the patch with a raised eyebrow. It was like looking at a hole in reality, so complete were the protections concealing it from any eyes. Good protections, perhaps the best to be had. They would have worked on nearly anything, even upon the Pantheon… But the Black Wreath were not accustomed to dealing with the fox-goddesses of the Eternal Kingdom. Indeed, the Wreath in Sifan had learned long ago to stay out of the Twilight Forest. There was nothing to be gained, after all, by agitating dangerous creatures who otherwise wouldn’t even consider chasing after them. Kaisa might well be the first kitsune to actually hunt the Wreath past the boundaries of her own home.
The thought brought a vindictive smile to her face.
She held out one hand and languidly made a beckoning gesture at the tallgrass bobbing nearby, past the edge of the area mashed flat by whatever activity had occurred here. It dipped once, as if in a breeze that was not currently blowing, then bent obligingly toward her, its stalks lengthening as they leaned, till a few pencil-thin reeds extended halfway over the flattened circle.
Kaisa leaped nimbly onto them, landing with the balls of her feet on one stalk each. The tallgrass barely flexed under her weight. From her perch, she slowly turned her head in an arc, examining the ground all around. Her left ear twitched repeatedly.
Finally she snorted.
“Aw, golly gee shucks,” she said aloud, in Tanglish, and in a scathing mockery of a prairie accent. “Ah’m a big ol’ invisible warlock, Ah don’ need ta bother hidin’ the tracks left by mah big ol’ clodhoppin’ feet, hurr durr burr gurr nurr.”
She bounded to another stand of tallgrass, this one not modified; it bent slightly under her weight, but only as if under the weight of a squirrel.
“Let’s see,” the kitsune continued in a more normal tone, pointing at the ground. “Woman with a limp, who has no idea what constitutes sensible footwear outdoors. Two men…or hefty ladies in men’s shoes.” She paused, sniffed the air twice, and wrinkled her nose. “No, men. Oh, but you, my darling…”
Kaisa hopped to the ground just past the edge of the circle, kneeling to press two clawed fingertips against the print of a bare foot.
“You, I think, are who I came all this way to meet.”
She took two mincing steps forward and folded herself to the ground, sitting in a lotus position at the edge of the circle, heedless of her expensive silk kimono. It was not so much as wrinkled by the motion, anyway. Kaisa rested her hands on her knees, closed her eyes and drew in a long, slow breath through her nose, then let it out slowly.
After that, she didn’t breathe at all.
Lifting the layers of concealment upon the site was careful work—at least, doing it properly was. She could have stripped the lot away with a snap of her fingers, but that would also have ripped up the traces left beneath the concealments, rendering the whole exercise pointless.
Gradually, as she sat motionless in meditation, patterns began to emerge on the ground. Faint shadows at first, they darkened like spreading ink, forming the broken shapes of what had been an extremely complex ritual circle. The circle itself was long gone—in fact, it seemed it was one of those designed so that its components were absorbed physically into the spell being cast, a standard Wreath trick for covering their tracks. It had left marks, though. Marks few could have found.
Ekoi Kaisa, even among her own kind, was one of the few.
The black traces that emerged on the ground resembled burns, fragments of the ritual circle re-inscribed in ash against the dirt and flattened grass. For nearly a full minute after they had ceased to appear, she sat in silence. Finally, however, her eyes snapped open and focused on the ground.
It was only a partial circle—she hadn’t been able to completely reconstruct it. That much was probably entirely impossible. The black remains looked rather as if someone had taken a giant eraser to swaths of it, blotting them out. It had been a hasty erasure, though, not following any deliberate pattern, but merely scrubbing out streaks here and there. Had they taken the time to re-trace the spell’s steps, scrubbing out the fading marks it had left in reality… Well, there were ways to circumvent that, too, but it would have been harder, and the final picture less complete. Now, she didn’t have the whole spell diagram, but enough pieces that she could fill in the gaps with guesswork.
Kaisa rose fluidly to her feet and began pacing in a slow circle around the edges of the black diagram, her dainty steps doing nothing to disturb the tracks left on the ground. Really, this reconstruction probably looked more ominous than the original had—elaborate spell circles were usually rather pretty, having to be made of a variety of materials, some of which were pleasingly sparkly.
“Hm hm hm,” she mused, coming to a stop and kneeling at one edge of the circle. The faint, charred remains of Avei’s eagle sigil were visible within a small containment ring. “Little boys should not play with fire.” She reached out to scrape a finger through one edge of the ring, then lightly tapped the eagle.
A small fountain of sparks flew up, and she yanked her hand back.
“No need for that,” the kitsune muttered. “If you would pay attention in the first place I wouldn’t need to be hunting your prey. Eagles are useless on the ground, no?”
Off in the far distance, toward the east, thunder rumbled faintly.
“No one is impressed,” Kaisa said disdainfully. “Shush, let me work.”
She rose and stepped around to the opposite side, a grin forming on her face. Here was another ring, marked with less aggressive, more precise containment runes. And in the middle of it… A particularly dark blot, where her efforts to create a shadow of the original spell had seized upon something more potent than lines on the ground.
“Ahh. Here you are.”
Kaisa stood over the circle, head tilted and left ear twitching, while she considered. Then, with a pleased flick of her tail, she reached up and plucked a hovering ball of green fire out of the air. Moving her fingers in deft motions, she pantomimed hanging it on a wall peg; when she took her hands away, the fireball remained in place, casting a sickly viridian glow over the area.
The kitsune cracked her knuckles, then held up her hands between the fireball and the ground, positioning her fingers to form a shadow-puppet on the ruins of the spell circle. A bunny.
She giggled sibilantly to herself. “Fufufu!” Next came a dog, and a duck. Then the profile of Emperor Sarsamon Tirasian, whose face was on the current Tiraan decabloon. He opened his mouth a few times, stiffly.
Kaisa continued manipulating her fingers, and the long-dead Emperor became a bird flapping its wings…and then two samurai silhouetted in perfect detail, swords clashing in a silent duel. They broke apart into clouds of exquisitely rendered snowflakes, cast in such detail that their crystalline edges were as precise as the real thing, no two alike.
The snowflake shadows swirled together, making the shape of a rattlesnake, which reared up, parting its jaws to reveal a flickering tongue and extended fangs, the tip of its coiled tail shaking in a silent warning. The shadow snake struck suddenly at the edge of the ring in which it was cast, then again, then a third time, seizing an amorphous dark blob in its mouth. It tilted its head back, throat working in rhythmic pulses, and swallowed down its prey.
Kaisa lowered her fingers, smiling smugly, and the shadow of the rattlesnake dissolved, lifting up from the ground in a slow puff of black smoke. She pointed at it with both forefingers, then twitched her hands apart, and it abruptly separated into two puffs. One of congealed shadow, the other a misty, effervescent purple.
She dismissed the shadow-smoke with a wave of her hand, beckoning the other toward herself. It drifted closer, remaining more coherent than mist was generally wont to do.
“There, there,” Kaisa crooned, “don’t be shy…”
The purple mist hesitated, then began to drift in the opposite direction.
Quick as a striking scorpion, she lunged forward, clapping her hands together over the little purple puff.
Kaisa turned her closed hands so that the right one was on the bottom, and lifted the left away, revealing a silver-bound perfume bottle with an attached spritzer resting on her palm. Within the faceted glass rested a glittering violet liquid.
“So nice to meet you at last, darling,” she cooed. “Oh, the fun we’re going to have together…” She spritzed a little squirt of the perfume onto the inside of the wrist, then lifted it to her nose, inhaling deeply. “Mmmm. A child of Vanislaas…female, aged two centuries, give or take. Recently summoned, I should think, to judge by the dusky notes of hellfire. Now then!” she said more briskly, tucking the bottle into the sleeve of her kimono and turning to peer around. As she studied the surroundings, she plucked a silken kerchief from midair and carefully wiped off her wrist, ignoring the way it burst into blue flames and burned away to ash as she did so. “The question is, where did you little rats scurry off to?”
She again paced in a slow circle around the spell diagram, this time holding her left and out as if trailing her fingertips along a wall. Halfway around the circle she abruptly stopped, her claws catching in an invisible crevice in midair. With another grin and a self-satisfied little hum, she turned to face the spot, sticking the fingers of her other hand against those of the first, and very slowly began to pull.
Where her hands parted, they stretched open a gap in reality, peering into a hazy, off-colored space behind physical existence. The traces left by a shadow-jump were not, under ordinary circumstances, trackable. Few knew the secret, and fewer still were willing to step between the planes to follow them. There were things between the planes that no sensible person wanted to risk going near.
Kaisa the kitsune was wise and clever, not sensible.
Grunting softly with effort, she wrestled open a hole no wider than a dinner plate, revealing a writhing tunnel through spacetime, the shadowed and blurred world of between visible through its translucent walls. Even as she watched, tiny cracks forming in those walls slowly spread. These traces would not last long; every second made the prospect of following this trail more dangerous. Not that she feared being stranded in the space between; she could easily open a way back to the material plane. Or several others, for that matter. The tricky thing was that one had to plan trips between very carefully, or coming back out could deposit one virtually anywhere.
Kaisa pulled herself forward, flattening her ears back to squeeze her head into the space, which was visibly too small for it. Her shoulders followed, somehow, and then the rest of her body, legs kicking agitatedly in midair as she squirmed through. A bit at a time, her tail slipped into the gap, and at last her bare feet, untouched by the dust of the prairie. The hole snapped shut behind her, reality huffily reasserting itself the moment no one was actively holding it at bay.
On the moonlit prairie, a green fireball hung in midair, casting its weird illumination on the partial summoning circle.
Coming out was a lot easier than going in, though not much more dignified. She was spat out all at once, at an entirely unnecessary velocity; a less nimble creature would have risked injury, or worse, embarrassment. Kaisa bounded off the brick wall at which she was flung, landing nimbly on the balls of her feet and peering around.
Her eyes saw nothing but a dingy, dirty alley. A suitable shadow-jumping point for those not interested in drawing attention; not for nothing were alleys just like this one used for all manner of unsavory purposes in every city in every world. The smells were even less pleasing, and that wasn’t the worst of it. This was clearly a modern city, to judge by the gleaming fairy lights visible in the street up ahead, the noise of traffic and pedestrians—even at this hour, for the moon was in nearly the same place overhead as on the edge of the Golden Sea. Worst of all was the constant, oppressive buzz of arcane magic, absolutely everywhere, in abominable quantity.
Humans and their enchantments.
Ears flat back, bristled tail twitching in dislike, she glared around, looking for someone to blame. The Wreath were long gone, though, and with this much loose magic in the vicinity, she had little chance of finding whatever trail they had taken from here. No matter, anyway; if they were smart (which they were, relatively speaking), they’d have moved physically before moving magically again. Such steps were entirely standard for those seeking to evade pursuit.
I would have been so satisfying if some thugs had risen from the very trash around her with evil designs upon her belongings or her person. Thugs congregated in alleys, did they not? In the stories, that was always the way: random thugs appearing just in time to be brought low by the crafty heroine. Visiting extravagant torment upon some deserving fool would have done much to soothe her affronted sensibilities.
Alas, the stories remained comforting lies, and the alley remained uninhabited.
Kaisa emitted a ladylike snort of disdain, then turned and scampered rapidly up a drain pipe. Three stories up, she reached the roof and paused only for a moment before leaping back across the alley to the face of the taller building on the other side. A few more bounds, from windowsill to tiny windowsill, brought her within reach of the roof, and she swung herself up with one hand. Atop this structure was a sloping roof up which she dashed in seconds to the chimney set at its peak. Kaisa made it to the top of this in one leap, then crouched on her toes on its metal lip, surveying the view. The chimney, blessedly, was dark, silent, and cool. If anyone lit whatever furnace or fireplace lay below it, they were going to suffer unimaginably.
This was far from the highest point of the city, but she could see enough to get a sense of the layout. It was a patchwork of new buildings and old ones—temples and palaces dating back to the styles of centuries ago interspersed with modern factories and warehouses. Flashing scrolltowers rose amid minarets and steeples. Everywhere was the glow of arcane magic, of fairy lights, scrolltower orbs, the lamps on enchanted carriages. And this was surely the quiet hours of the evening; this city must be absolute pandemonium by day.
Its shape was most interesting, though. It was common for cities to be built on hills, with their most important features on the highest point near the center. So it was with Tiraas, and Kiyosan. This one, though, seemed the opposite. The ancient palace rose high from its center, of course, but that was clearly built up by human hands. Overall, it appeared to be in some kind of valley, its ancient walls rising from ground that stood well above the palace, sloping downward toward the center of the city. No…not a valley. A crater. And with that realization, she recognized the palace, illustrations of which she had seen a few times.
Not so far from Last Rock, a goodly stretch of miles south, past the Green Belt and the Mirror Lakes. Here ruled the Sultana who claimed dominion over this province, including Last Rock itself, though if that amounted to more than words on paper Kaisa would wear her tail as a hat. She knew enough of Tiraan history to know that the frontier folk considered themselves citizens of their own little towns first, the Empire second, and their local governments only if they had any attention left over for them.
This was clearly a cold trail. There would be no tracking the Wreath in this city; tracking in cities by mundane means was a steep challenge even for her, and this wasn’t like Sifan, where even warriors of the Queen would give kitsune a respectful amount of space and stay firmly out of their business. In her true shape, here, she would be a magnet for attention; in any disguise, she would be someone snooping about, which was a magnet for different kinds of attention. And tracking magically was absolutely out of the question, unless she could convince every inhabitant of the city to turn off their damnable enchantments for a few hours. Or force them to.
Kaisa considered that for a moment, then regretfully shook her head. The Sultana would be irate, then Arachne would be irate, and poor Prince Sekandar would be embarrassed in class. That would be a shame; he was so much more respectful than most of his oafish Tiraan classmates. Not to mention prettier.
She waved her tail slowly in thought, staring out over the city. Shame to come all this way for nothing… If the Wreath weren’t still here (they probably weren’t), they chose this city as a jumping-off point for a reason.
A slow, crafty smile spread across her face.
Kaisa reached into her kimono, pulling out the ivory proto-bird figurine, and held it up before her, staring deeply into its tiny carved eyes.
“Look for me,” she whispered. “Lend me the sharpness of that gaze, through the subtlety of my own.”
She flung the figurine skyward, and it expanded above her to full size. Not as flesh, though; she grabbed the trailing string of the oddly-shaped kite, expertly guiding it as it ascended on the updrafts of the caldera city. With a little aid from her own breath, it climbed far higher and faster than the simple night air would normally impel it. In minutes, she held the reins on a kite so distant above that only to her own keen eyes was it visible. Well, hers, and any elves who happened to be in town and looking upward, but she didn’t much care what elves thought. Unlike most humans, they knew to mind their own business.
Kaisa closed her eyes, re-focusing her vision through the charmed proto-bird’s. Yes… Up there, the haze of arcane magic was much, much thinner. Looking downward, it still formed a huge blur over the city itself, but with the kite’s eyes being above it, she had the space necessary to weave her own countermeasures without interference. The fog could be seen through, as long as one wasn’t looking from the middle of it.
That done, spotting the passage of demons through the city was as simple as spotting prey on the ground would have been for the proto-bird. To such as she, demons were prey.
Humans would have been surprised how many there were in their cities. Bruise-colored tracks made a thick spiderweb through the cold blue glow of the arcane. Most of those she ignored, focusing on the nexi where many of them came together. Not very many…but enough. In fact, just the right amount. There would be time to have a little fun tonight, and still make it back to her classes in the morning.
In seconds, Kaisa’s nimble mind formed and filed away a sketch of the city’s layout, with the locations of concentrated demon activity marked for reference. Humming eagerly to herself in anticipation, she reeled in the kite. That took longer than sending it up had, but the proto-bird was turning out to be a useful pet—not to mention a very rare catch—and she had decided to hang onto it. Once it was within arm’s reach above her, she gave it one last yank on the string, and the ivory figurine dropped into her waiting palm.
Three seconds later, she was back on the street, making a beeline for the first spot marked in her mind.
It would not do to agitate the Calderaan too much; she took the precaution of concealing her ears and tail. A Sifanese woman in a kimono was still an unusual sight in this city, particularly one striding along at a businesslike pace after midnight, but no one bothered her. City folk left each other alone as a rule, and Calderaas was as cosmopolitan as Tiraas—perhaps moreso. Sifanese faces would not be unknown here.
As for the element which tended to come out at night and intercept women walking alone, none showed themselves. By instinct or design, or both, they targeted the vulnerable, and she didn’t need to bother communicating to make it plain that she was not prey.
The first warlock haunt was, unsurprisingly, a magic shop. A perfectly legitimate one, to judge by its signage and window displays, for whatever little that was worth. Kaisa tittered to herself as she stopped outside its doors and withdrew the perfume spritzer from her sleeve.
It was the work of moments to lightly decorate the doorframe, overhanging sign, and windows with eau de succubus. There was, of course, no scent, but any number of magically sensitive people or creatures would pick up on the residue. Quite a few of those would sense exactly what it was, if not how it got there.
Alternately humming and giggling, she turned and glided off toward her next target. By dawn, the Black Wreath’s pet succubus would have left blatant tracks all over Calderaas.
Oh, was she going to be surprised.