“What is she doing?” Bradshaw asked, watching the pixie bob in place at the intersection. A few of the passing townsfolk seemed to have the same question, to judge by the stares they gave her. Some shied away from the bouncing ball of silver light, but clearly Fross was a known quantity in Last Rock, to judge by the number of cheerful greetings she received and returned. Notably, no one actually asked what she was up to. Apparently it was expected that University students would be a little odd.
“This is the fourth place she’s done it, whatever it is,” Embras replied, lounging against the side of the general store. “I didn’t happen to see her place the first one, but I could detect the spell; I’ve been following her since number two. Notably, she’s placing them in a grid around the periphery of the town—it’s a little hard to tell, Last Rock is so small, but I believe she’s covering each point where streets and alleys meet that’s surrounded by the town itself. Nothing out in the prairie, it’s aimed at quartering the village. They’re detection wards, that much I can see at a glance. I’d like your assessment unclouded by my theorizing, though; you are my acknowledged superior in spellcraft. That’s why I poked at you so urgently to jump down here.”
“Hmm…” Bradshaw rubbed at his chin, studying Fross, then glanced up and down the street. “You want to stay and watch where she puts the others first?”
Embras shook his head. “They’re detectable; we can follow up on that later. Best to keep a distance from her, methinks. Follow me, I’ll show you the first one. It’s also the most isolated, which is convenient.”
He straightened, brushing dust from the shoulder of his white suit, and led the way back toward the periphery. Both warlocks passed other people in the street, weaving around them as they went; though the citizens of Last Rock also stepped aside as they would have for anyone else on the sidewalk, none actually noticed their presence.
“Here we are,” Embras said, arriving at a currently unoccupied intersection. It was a T-crossing, where a narrow street terminated against the wall of a large stone barn that had been repurposed for storage, and neither of the other facing buildings had doors nearby. The street itself was mostly there as a boundary between structures, and had no pavement. “Passive and personal silencing only, please; I don’t want to risk casting a concealment over this thing until we’re certain what it does.”
“Good call,” Bradshaw murmured, beginning to pace in a circle around an invisible spot in the center of the intersection. “It’s a ward, all right. And in fact, it looks to be specifically geared toward detecting stealthed demons.”
“How fascinating!” Embras said, smiling broadly in delight. “You don’t suppose she could actually tag us with this?”
“Heavens, no. Far better mages than Fross have tried with no luck; nothing here is a threat to the Lady’s gift. Still, though…”
“Good work?” Embras prompted after he trailed off.
“Mm. Pretty good, yes. In fact, better than that. It’s not the best spellcraft of it’s kind I’ve seen by any stretch of the imagination… But considering this was done by a second-year student arcanist, it’s actually downright amazing. That pixie’s going to be a fearsome sorceress once Tellwyrn and Yornhaldt get done with her.”
He paused and knelt, peering closely at something on the ground, then carefully produced a small lens from an inner pocket of his robe and studied it.
“Hmm hm hmmmmm. This is very tight for student work. Unpolished—there are significant gaps in the frequency coverage, the kind of thing I’d expect from someone who doesn’t know the most probable ways an infernal spell would be hidden. But what she does cover is quite carefully woven. There’s a care and attention to detail there…”
“My goodness, you’re starting to sound positively enamored,” Embras said with amusement.
Bradshaw ignored him. “With the exception of an intersection lattice, here, clearly attuned to divine magic. That’s left wide open. It’s clearly intended to make this ward detectable to someone using a divine perception spell, and that’s necessarily going to create a gap in the ward’s structure. She left it more open than it needs to be, though. Inexperience, or she may be uncertain of the skills of whatever light-wielder is going to be making use of this.” He straightened up slowly, still frowning at the invisible ward.
“Or Arquin,” Bradshaw countered, “who is, himself, an amateur arcanist. Or Caine; keep in mind we still don’t understand what’s going on there. That trick he pulled in Veilgrad is not part of the paladin’s general repertory. However…” He sighed. “Looks like you were right, Embras. They are working together on this. After Veilgrad I really didn’t think they’d pull together that fast.”
“I told you at the time,” Embras replied, “we didn’t divide them, they did. Splitting off the paladins was a tactical decision. It was a bad one, but it was deliberate and not indicative of friction in the ranks, which makes all the difference here. I wouldn’t have taken this approach if I wasn’t confident the others would rally around Trissiny. A Hand of Avei stampeding through the town is no use to anyone who’s not selling insurance; now we’ve a group to work with, several of whom have an education in politics, strategy, and magic. There are handles there that can be manipulated, hooks that Trissiny herself lacks. The question,” he mused, beginning to pace back and forth, “is just which of them we’re working with. The whole sophomore class, that’s a given. But there are all of a hundred people up on that mountain, students and staff, and a community that size is tightly knit by necessity. We lack solid data on a lot of them.”
“This reinforces the point I made in the first place,” said Bradshaw. “If we are dealing with the whole class, you’d better be extremely careful. And what are you going to do when Tellwyrn gets wind of this? They may have told her already.”
“What little they know to tell her isn’t damning, and won’t be,” Embras said. “Don’t worry, I have plans in place for Tellwyrn. Layer upon layer of plans; you don’t make assumptions or take risks with a wild card like her. But no, you’re right—the rest of this campaign calls for exceedingly light touches. We shall be faultlessly polite and playful with the little dears. No direct interference, just signals to point their attention where we want it.”
“So, no more chaining them to trees,” Bradshaw said dryly.
“That was a different matter and you know it,” Embras retorted, pointing a finger at him. “And so do the paladins. Even if Omnu proved interested in countering the disruptors—and really, who could have predicted that?—detaining them that way was for their own good. They won’t admit it, but they understood. No, in an ideal world, the rest of this will unfold on its own, without us needing to take the risk of doing anything at all. We’ve seen Justinian’s plants gearing up their own bags of tricks, and we’ve now got the students with eyes sharp and backs up. Hopefully they’ll do most of our work for us.”
“Snort,” Bradshaw said, deadpan. “This is my disdainful snort. Feel my disdain.”
“Yes, yes,” Embras acknowledged with a grin. “Nothing’s ever that easy. This, I’m afraid, is where the fun part begins; we’ll need to keep a careful watch on those two priestesses, and poke at the kids in such a way that it brings their noses across whatever trails those leave. Gonna be dicey, I won’t lie.”
“We’re still too blind for this,” Bradshaw complained, folding his arms. “We have only general profiles of many of those students and none at all of a lot of them. Only the sophomores and the professors are known quantities. So many ways this can go wrong.”
“Yes,” Embras agreed, nodding. “I’ve already consulted Ali, which is good for starting points. He was full of smug warnings about us becoming the targets of a foxhunt, but aimed me at the most likely interlopers. The new freshman girls, interestingly enough.”
“Hmm.” Bradshaw narrowed his eyes. “Yes, I can definitely see Domingue sticking her nose into this. She is not a fan of ours.”
“I’m honestly more concerned about the Lady Madouri and the drow,” Embras mused, gazing absently at the spot where Fross’s ward was laid. “That girl’s a vicious little snake even by the standards of the aristocracy, and this year’s drow is an An’sadarr—a soldier.”
“Very little scares me less than soldiers.”
“A soldier on her own for you to play games with? No, that’s too easy to be any fun. Here, though, we’re dealing with one who’s been trained specifically to contend with a nastier brand of warlocks than us—and even I don’t want to cross spells with a Scyllithene shadow priestess if I can help it—in the context of far more clever and resourceful individuals who will be actively trying to expose us. I really don’t fancy finding myself in an enclosed space with an irate Narisian guardswoman.”
Bradshaw sighed. “Embras… You know I trust you, but are you sure this is worth it?”
“This is the game, now,” Embras said quietly. “Us and Justinian. We can’t rush the timing till the alignment, and with Snowe’s campaign it’s clear what he’s aiming at—which we already suspected. This is about setting up the board, Bradshaw. We need to arrive at the endgame prepared to beat him there, but we also have to let him get there. And he has to let us get there for the same reasons, and with the same considerations. Yes, this was an attack of opportunity, but it’s too perfect. If we can damage his credibility with the paladins, we’ll have won a significant coup.”
Bradshaw opened his mouth to reply, then abruptly stilled and turned to stare at the corner of the old barn. Embras simultaneously straightened, following his gaze.
A moment later, Vanessa limped around the corner, her face drawn in a tight frown of worry.
“Oh, good, you’re here too,” she said by way of greeting, then turned to the high priest. “You’d better get back to Calderaas, Embras. We have a problem.”
“Can you be a little more specific?” he said.
“I’ve spent the morning fielding irate messages from about half our contacts in the city,” Vanessa replied. “They’re rather steamed to find that you’ve been clumsily spying on them.”
“Excuse me, I’ve what?” Embras raised both eyebrows in surprise. “Clumsily? Them’s fightin’ words.”
“They’re complaining that your personal succubus has left a wide trail around their homes and places of business,” she said grimly. “Then they started comparing notes, and it took me so long to prevent that from bursting into chaos that I’ve only just had the chance to cast a few divinations of my own. Vlesni’s tracks are all over the city, Embras. Quite glaringly. It looks like she spent last night futzing around just about every safe house and ally we have in Calderaas, and none of them knew it until they awoke this morning. Naturally, they are not taking it well. About half haven’t discovered it yet—it’s going to be messy when they do. This could well cost us our foothold in the city if it’s not fixed.”
“What the hell?” Bradshaw exclaimed. “Vlesni? Blatant tracks? Even if she’d turned on us, Embras, she’s too good to make such a mess. What could she possibly be up to?”
“Why, isn’t that an excellent question,” Embras replied thoughtfully. “Vanessa, can you kindly nominate a good site for us to investigate that is not currently swarming with pissed-off individuals demanding explanations we don’t have?”
“The nook behind Halisar’s,” she said immediately. “He left the city yesterday. Embras…where is Vlesni?”
“Another excellent question,” he said. “The nook it is. Let’s go have us a little look-see. Not that I doubt you, Nessa, but this is all hard to credit.”
“Oh, I know exactly how you feel,” she said darkly, taking a step back from them. The thin shadow cast by the barn bent, leaning forward, swelling and darkening, and in the next moment she was gone. Bradshaw and Embras rippled immediately afterward, vanishing as well.
In their absence, there was a brief pause, and the shadow shifted a fourth time.
The three warlocks emerged from the darkness in a hexagonal cul-de-sac approached only by one alley, which itself was so cluttered with stacks of broken crates and other detritus that the path there wound through a veritable maze. Walls on all sides rose at least three stories, casting the space in perpetual shadow; old, nigh-inscrutable graffiti lined its walls. The runes hidden within those messages were all but undetectable, both because of the pattern of the fading paint, and because they were partly inscribed in invisible ink. A single door stood in one wall, and several crates and boxes scattered about made convenient if impromptu seats. Despite its quite deliberate atmosphere of disuse and squalor, the area was uncommonly clean.
“All right, here we are,” said Embras, straightening his suit jacket. “Care to point me at—never mind, I think I see it.”
He took a few steps toward the door, staring through narrowed eyes, Vanessa and Bradshaw following along behind. For a moment, all three studied the door and the wall around it.
“That’s…most peculiar,” Embras mused at last. “Most peculiar. She doesn’t leave traces that overt in places she’s actually been. I find Vlesni so useful to work with largely because she is discreet, even for a succubus.”
“Well?” Vanessa folded her arms. “Let’s hear what she has to say for herself.”
“Quite right,” Embras replied, turning back to face the center of the nook, and snapped his fingers.
The demon appeared soundlessly, glancing around in mild surprise overlaid with boredom.
“Really, Embras,” she protested lazily. “A little forewarning is courteous. One of these days you’re going to catch me in the bath.” Grinning, she rose up on tiptoe and stretched her arms above her head, the catlike gesture serving to marvelously highlight her figure. “You know if you want a good look, you need only ask.”
“Vlesni, my dear,” Embras said mildly, “where’ve you been?”
The succubus lowered her arms, frowning slightly. “What? Why? Did you need something? If you called, I didn’t hear it. That’s never happened before…”
“Answer the question, if you please,” he replied.
“All right,” she said with a shrug. “Right then I was in Ninkabi, watching the local cell as you asked. They’re still not doing anything remotely interesting, by the way, but by the dictates of the bitch goddess Irony I’m sure that’ll start up immediately now I’m gone.”
“And before that?” he said. “Last night?”
Vlesni frowned now. “Last night? I was at the Black Isle, in Razzavinax’s library.”
“Did you do anything of interest?”
“Not terribly. The good books are locked up and I’m not about to mess with his wards; he took Rizlith with him to Tiraas, so there’s not much to do there except read. There’s still stuff worth reading, but that gets dull so quickly.” She smirked. “I did manage to wrangle a threesome with a couple of the students to pass an hour or so. Since you’re so interested in my personal life, there are two of them I’m getting accustomed to that, with various others. The magical anonymity adds a certain spice for them. These two are siblings, neither even aware the other is even at the academy. Next time I’m gonna get ’em in bed together. Of course, I’ll never be able to tell them I got them to boff, Razz’d have my wings for that, but I’ll know.” She grinned fiendishly, twitching her tail like a contented cat. “It’s the little things in life, don’t you agree?”
“Can we please,” Vanessa said in a strained tone, “never, ever hear about her sex life again?”
Vlesni’s grin widened. “It’s all right, Nessa dear, you were drunk. That totally doesn’t count. Ask anyone.”
“Shut up, Vlesni,” Embras said softly, immediately regaining the succubus’s full attention. “Look at that door. Tell me what you see, and then explain it.”
She frowned at him, then shifted her gaze to study the door as directed. Bradshaw had already stepped over to it and was peering about through his lens. Vlesni’s expression melted to one of shock, then morphed to fury; she dashed past Embras, placing her hands against the wall and feeling around the pitted brickwork.
“What the fuck?” the demon snarled. “What—who did this? How? How did they do this? Embras!” She whirled on him, fists clenched and wings fanning out in a menacing display. “Explain!”
“I believe that’s what I just asked you to do,” he said. “It’s not just here, Vlesni. There are traces like this all over Calderaas. Just about everywhere in the city where we can go and feel slightly safe—or could, until this morning. Our friends and contacts who live under your brand new shadow are not pleased.”
“You think I did this?” she screeched. “Me? How? Why? Embras you can’t think—I have no explanation for this! I don’t understand how it could happen!” Tail lashing in agitation now, she seemed almost on the verge of tears.
Embras studied her calmly, visibly unimpressed. “And yet…there it is.”
“Embras!” she wailed. “You know I wouldn’t risk undermining you like this. You think I want to go back to Hell? If I’d been sneaking around on you I’d have a good cover story! I—this—this is insane! I have no idea what—how—who…”
“That actually is a solid point,” he mused.
“Unless that’s what she wants you to think,” Vanessa said skeptically. Vlesni shot her a baleful glare.
“Embras,” said Bradshaw, “look at this. Look at the way this energy is distributed. The quantity of it is purely absurd; Vanislaads don’t leave traces like this unless they bleed all over something. And see where it’s spread?” He pointed with his lens. “Along the walls, the door frame, over the door. Unless you think Vlesni has been running around the city scent-marking walls like a stray cat…this was planted.”
“Even if she were working against us,” Vanessa said grudgingly, “this would be an utterly idiotic thing to do. A priest would be able to pick up on these traces, they’re so outstanding. She’s got a giant target painted on her forehead, now. I cannot see her taking a risk like that for anything.”
Vlesni snarled wordlessly, quivering with rage.
“Yes,” Embras said, nodding slowly. “Yes, I’m inclined to agree. This costs us—one of our most subtle agents has just had her ability to move severely limited. Which, by itself, explains the why of it.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully with a thumb, staring at the marked door. “But…how? And by the same token, who? To do something like this, a person would first have to find discernible traces Vlesni had left—itself a tall order—and then somehow reproduce them. I confess I don’t even know a spell that can do such a thing. Bradshaw?”
“Sure you do,” Bradshaw replied. “Not exactly like this, but we were just doing basically the same to Trissiny Avelea. The difference is, that was the tiniest whisper of a trace, and it took a physical sacrifice from Vlesni to do it. This… Someone did the opposite, working from the merest hint of her residue to produce sizable quantities. That is the mind-boggling part. I don’t know any infernal craft that could do such a thing. The Lady could, a couple of the archdemons could have. Prince Vanislaas surely could. But those are inherent gifts, not any spellwork. Also, Elilial and Vanislaas have much better things to do than footle around Calderaas making life difficult for their own servants.” He shook his head. “I’m at a loss.”
“This is your fault!” Vlesni screeched, pointing accusingly at Embras. “You and that damned paladin-taunting spell of yours! So help me—”
“What?” Embras said flatly, staring at her. “No, really. Go on and finish that sentence, Vlesni. I’m curious.”
She pantomimed a throttling motion at him, baring her teeth.
“Embras, take it easy,” Vanessa said reprovingly. “She’s no more irritating than most of her kind, and she’s also got a point. I would be very surprised if this weren’t connected to that business somehow. It’s all too convenient.”
“Foxhunt,” Bradshaw said suddenly.
Embras turned to him. “What’s that?”
“Remember, you were telling me about Ali’s warning?” Bradshaw said, staring intently back. “You used the word ‘foxhunt.’ Was that his word, or yours?”
“His,” Embras said slowly. “I noted it at the time. It’s not a word that comes up in general conversation, and Ali does love his wordplay.”
“Oh, forsaken gods,” Vanessa whispered. “Embras, Tellwyrn brought a kitsune onto that campus.”
Vlesni groaned and sagged against the wall. “Just put a wandshot in my head right now. Let’s not drag this out.”
“Could a kitsune do something like this, is the question?” Embras asked, again frowning at the wall.
“That’s…a very good question,” Vanessa replied. “It’s hardly clear what they can do. I only know of a handful of instances of them ever leaving Sifan.”
“Are we jumping to conclusions?” Bradshaw asked cautiously. “The connection seems rather specious.”
“No, it fits,” Embras said. “We’ve got a mean and impressively impossible prank on our hands, the sudden proximity of a powerful fairy of unknown capability—whose students we are actively taunting—and Ali’s warning to link the two. Trust me, I know him; the only thing he loves more than sneaky wordplay is sneaky wordplay that’s only obvious in meaning when it’s too late.”
“Well,” said Bradshaw, tucking the lens back into his robe, “if that fox-woman is capable of doing something like this, it goes without saying that she’s a nasty piece of work. The complexity of this, the power necessary… She clearly ranks close to Tellwyrn herself as a threat.”
“And she’s the newest faculty member, of course,” Embras murmured. “The one about whom we know almost nothing.”
“Right,” Bradshaw said worriedly. “I think we’d better fix that immediately.”
“Quite so,” Embras replied, suddenly brisk. He clapped his hands together, then rubbed them vigorously. “All right! To arms, people. Vanessa, I’m delegating the mess in Calderaas to you, with apologies. This is where your talents shine, however. I want your silver tongue put to work smoothing all these ruffled feathers.”
“Well, that was an entertaining visual,” Vlesni muttered.
Embras ignored her, still addressing himself to Vanessa. “Do what you have to to keep everyone happy—the local cell is under your command for purposes of this assignment. However, before that, I want you to jump to Rodvenheim and get Svalthram in on this. We are obviously being hunted, and I’m not going to risk you without insurance. Explain the situation to him, and make sure he’s looking over your shoulder the whole time.”
“Svalthram?” she queried, raising her eyebrows. “Well, it can’t be said that you’re not taking this seriously.”
“Oh, I am dead serious,” he said darkly. “Anybody tries to take advantage of this to move against you, I want them put down viciously.”
“Very well,” she agreed. “I’m on it. I’ve been on it most of today already; hopefully I’ve laid sufficient groundwork already to keep this from swelling any further.”
“Attagirl,” he said approvingly. “Meanwhile, we face the simpler but no less daunting of rustling up some solid information about kitsune, and Kaisa Ekoi in particular.”
“Ekoi Kaisa,” Vanessa corrected him. “They put the surname first in Sifan.”
“Quite right, thank you.”
“I’m not sure it’s all that daunting,” Bradshaw objected. “There’s a language barrier, but Sifan’s only a moment away by shadow-jump—I’m sure they have libraries…”
“No!” Vanessa cried in alarm. “Absolutely not, you don’t just go to Sifan and start poking around—especially about kitsune, of all things! There’s a reason we don’t have cells there!”
Bradshaw blinked in surprise. “I thought… It was my understanding the reason was none of the cults have a solid presence there. We’re not exactly useful where there are no Pantheon gods to oppose.”
“It’s not that simple,” Embras explained. “Religion in Sifan is…different. Many of the cults are indeed completely absent, including ours. It’s positively crawling with Eserites and Veskers, but they answer to the Queen as much as to their own organizations, if not more so. There’s a local Avenist sect that has no actual ties to the Sisterhood at all. And not to put too fine a point on it, Bradshaw, but kitsune and similar local phenomena are also part of the reason we don’t act there. We have no business in the place, and there are things in the Twilight Forest which would hunt us like rabbits. No… In general I prefer firsthand information, but in this case, we had better stick to what can be gleaned about kitsune from Tiraan sources. Asking prying questions about anything related to demons, fairies, or anything remotely sensitive is a quick way to get a visit from what passes for the local Thieves’ Guild. And if you think the Guild in Tiraas is nasty, just hope you never have to contend with the shinobi. There’s a very good reason all our Sifanese members were recruited after leaving the Eternal Kingdom itself.”
“Hm.” Bradshaw frowned pensively. “Is Hiroshi still in Puna Shankur?”
“If he’s not, the cell there will know where he went,” Vanessa replied. “That’s probably our best starting point, though, you’re right. Puna Shankur itself is off the beaten path and outside Tiraan authority, and Hiroshi is remarkably well-read.”
“Someone has a crush,” Vlesni muttered, too sullen still to be properly snide. Vanessa ignored her.
“Embras,” Bradshaw said, “until we’re on better footing with regard to this, Last Rock…”
“Way ahead of you,” Embras said fervently. “That will have to manage itself for a day or two at least, until we know what we’re dealing with, and how to deal. I’m not taking chances with an unknown quantity this apparently dangerous.”
“And if it turns out we can’t deal?” Bradshaw prompted insistently.
Embras sighed. “Then… Yeah, I’m afraid we’ll have to consider dropping that campaign, if this fox-woman proves too much to contend with. It’s a priceless opportunity, but after Darling’s hilarious little prank in Tiraas this spring, we cannot afford to risk people. Bad enough we don’t have time to rebuild our numbers before our date with Justinian. For now, we’ve got our assignments. Let’s hop to, people. Vlesni, you’d better stick with me for a while, at least until Vanessa manages to cover your tracks.”
“They aren’t my tracks,” the succubus snarled. “And hell yes, I’m with you. If this kitsune can be killed…dibs.”
She remained blissfully unaware of the tip of the scythe hovering mere inches from the back of her skull, the slightest cut with which would have removed her instantly from the mortal plane.
Alydren loomed invisibly over them, staring balefully down at Vlesni, whose image was glaringly sharp to her even across the watery barrier between planes. Regretfully, the valkyrie pulled back her scythe, mindful of the strategy of the situation. Alarming the warlocks by dispatching their pet succubus would mean she wouldn’t learn anything further. For now, she waited. Watching.
Vanessa was the first to depart; Alydren studied the dimensional pathways carved by her shadow-jump for a moment, but turned her back on them to follow Embras, Bradshaw and Vlesni. They were going after more information on the fox-goddesses. That, in her estimation, was much more interesting.
For several reasons.