“And that’s the perimeter secure,” Rossiter said, heaving a sigh. “On we go.”
“Don’t look so glum,” Alsadi replied as they rounded the corner into the interior halls. “It’s probably nothing, same as always.”
“I’ll look glum if I wanna,” she said without ire. “’Sides…”
He echoed her sigh. “Yeah, yeah. I know.”
Everything and everyone in this sub-level below Dawnchapel was a secret of the highest order, but at least the soldiers of the Holy Legion—the true Holy Legion, veterans trained by Colonel Ravoud, not the shiny-armored popinjays who served to attract attention in the Cathedral—could take off their white uniforms and visit home. They were all fully devoted to the Archpope and his cause, and thus far there had been no breaches of security from them. The others down here, though, were either too distinctive, or too hunted, to show their faces outside except on assignment. There had been no assignments for far too long a span of weeks, and several of them were growing increasingly restive. Mostly the ones whose personalities hadn’t been much to speak of in the first place. Which was most of them.
No sooner had they entered the ring of halls circling the central underground complex than Rossiter’s worst fears were born out.
“Lot of running hither and yon all of a sudden,” Jeremiah Shook commented idly, lounging against the wall with his hands in his pockets. Had he encountered such a man on the street, Alsadi would have gripped his weapon and increased his pace—or, if he’d been on duty, stopped to demand an explanation for his presence. Everything about the guy screamed thug, which was an aspect Shook cultivated deliberately and with skill. Not that it did him much good down here. “What’s got you lot so stirred up, hm?”
He addressed himself directly to Rossiter, allowing his eyes to flick below her collar for a moment, though at least he had the restraint not to give her the full once-over. This time.
“An irregularity in the wards, sir,” Rossiter replied with admirable composure. “There’s a possibility of incursion. The squad is doing a full sweep.”
At that, Shook straightened up, his leer vanishing. “What? Intruders? Why wasn’t I told?”
“It’s almost certainly nothing,” said Rossiter. “This has happened before, usually caused by a telescroll passing overhead in just the wrong way, or a nearby factory firing up new equipment. It’s common; wards are finicky in a city with this much active enchantment. You and the high-value assets are safe, rest assured.”
Not, Alsadi noted, you and the other high-value assets. Rossiter had spoken completely deadpan, but he knew her well enough to know the omission was deliberate. His own face betrayed a smile, though, which made him the focus of Shook’s glare. The man tensed up, bunching his fists and flushing, as if somebody had just insulted his mother. What a charmer.
“We need to continue our sweep and report in, sir,” Alsadi said politely, saluting. “Good evening.”
He and Rossiter turned and marched off down the hall. He had half-expected Shook to follow and try to make something of it—which wouldn’t have been the first time—but there was no sound of footsteps from behind them, thankfully.
“Gods, I hate that guy,” Rossiter growled once they’d rounded the corner. “What’s he even doing down here? The others I understand, but he’s just some sleazy…”
Alsadi gave her a sympathetic look. She was the only woman in the unit attached to Dawnchapel, which, Shook being Shook, made her the frequent focus of his attention. The Holy Legion suffered the same imbalance as the Imperial Army, but far worse: most women who wanted to be soldiers enlisted in the Silver Legions. The Army was barely forty percent female, and the Holy Legion less than one in ten, since women who were of both martial and religious inclination especially preferred the Silver Legions.
“At least the succubus leaves you alone,” he offered. “She’s tried to get in everybody else’s pants. I don’t think she even wants to, really. She’s just bored.”
“I never thought I would hear myself say this,” she grumbled, “but I don’t have a problem with the demon. At least she keeps him busy. Anyway, she can probably tell I don’t go for girls; I think they have special senses for—”
Alsadi barely registered the black blur that sped at them from behind, crashing into the side of Rossiter’s head and sending her careening off the wall, before an arm was wrapped around his throat, cutting off his airflow and clamping down. He gripped it desperately, but his attacker had the strength of an ogre. Not the weight, though; he was able to shift, trying to throw the assailant, but they moved with astonishing deftness, compensating for his every motion. Not they, she—pressed against his back as she was, he could tell that much, though all he could see was the tip of the elbow clutching his neck. Frantically, he tried to shift his staff to aim behind at her feet, and it was deftly wrenched from his grasp and tossed away. As sparks and darkness encroached on his vision, he scrabbled for his sidearm, only to find his wrist pinned. Gods, she was strong…
Milanda released the soldier, letting him slump to the floor. White uniforms…this was new. They had an understated ankh insignia at the breast, so she was clearly looking at Universal Church personnel.
“Did you hear any of that?” she asked softly, trusting the mask to muffle her voice. Vex had issued them four; the black wrap which concealed everything below her eyes was enchanted so that anything spoken into it could be heard only by someone wearing one of its siblings. Between that and her Infinite Order earpiece, she was audible to the rest of her team and no one else. In theory.
“Uh…maybe a scuffle of some kind?” Finchley’s voice offered. “You okay?”
“As I’ve mentioned, the earpieces are designed to obscure anything but your voice,” Walker replied with her customary calm. “Not perfectly, but… What happened?”
“I overheard some soldiers talking,” Milanda replied, moving lightly back up the hallway in the direction from which they had come. “There’s a succubus down here.”
“Holy shit,” Rook muttered. “On the list of the top ten things an Archpope should not be screwing around with, that’s gotta be numbers two through six!”
“Seems your hunch was right, then,” Finchley added.
“Clear this channel, please,” Walker said curtly. “Milanda, think about disengaging. The only thing you know about that facility is that what’s down there crushed the core of the Black Wreath when they invaded it. Just the intelligence you’ve gathered so far is important. I can have you out the moment you give the word.”
“That’s what makes the difference,” Milanda murmured. “The Wreath couldn’t escape; their shadow-jumping was blocked at the time. Vex says this is where Justinian’s keeping his dark project, and it’s darker than we imagined. Be ready to teleport me out, Walker, but I want to learn more if I can. And possibly break some things.”
“Need backup?” Moriarty offered.
She grimaced behind the mask. The thought of those three loose down here was not comforting. So far, she hadn’t come up with an actual plan for them, though they’d already proved useful to her in keeping in contact with Vex while she visited the old spaceport for supplies.
“Not at the moment,” she said aloud, creeping up to the corner and peering around. No sign of whoever the two soldiers had been talking to. There were living beings present, though, including one which felt remarkably similar to the dryads; she had to get a look at that, at bare minimum. Milanda could have pointed to them in a straight line, but there were walls intervening, and she didn’t know the layout down here.
She had minutes, at most, before this got very exciting. There were two unconscious soldiers lying behind her in the hall, while the facility was apparently in the middle of a security sweep. The only question was whether they’d wake before they were discovered.
Milanda padded swiftly up the hall, silent on enchanted boots. Vex had provided absolutely top of the line charms on all the gear, including actual invisibility cloaks, though ironically she hadn’t been able to bring one of those as the rest of the enchantments she was wearing messed up its function. The cloak she did have on was a more limited version, bearing a chameleon charm; so long as she stood completely still, she would blend into the background, but in motion she became visible again. That was one of the problems with over-reliance on enchantment. The more powerful they were, the more likely to interfere with each other.
She came to a broad doorway, its double doors standing open, and paused for a moment to let the chameleon charm activate before carefully peeking around the frame. Moving slowly enough made her a barely-visible blur; if someone were looking right at the door, they might still spot her, but it was better than nothing.
Beyond lay a very wide circular chamber, its center slightly lowered. It looked like a stadium, actually, which made sense as the Dawnchapel had once been an Omnist temple. Now, though, it had clearly been retrofitted as living quarters, with furniture and decorations scattered about. Doors branched off from multiple sides, with wide double ones in each of the four cardinal directions and smaller ones in between. She sensed living beings behind several of the small ones. So…broad doors leading to outer halls, narrow doors to attached rooms or suites, most likely.
A man in a suit stood next to a bar/kitchen arrangement with his back to her, in the process of mixing a cocktail.
Milanda took stock of this for a bare moment, then slipped inside, moving slowly to remain partially obscured, and dividing her attention between the man with the slicked-back hair and her sense of the lives around. She headed toward the door behind which lay the blazing beacon of fae power; she very much needed to learn what that was. If Justinian had a dryad of his own, her situation with Hawthorn and the others could become complicated.
The shortest path there took her uncomfortably close to the man in the suit, but she kept to it for the sake of speed, watching him closely and prepared to freeze instantly if he turned. It was odd, considering the danger she was in, how calm she felt. One of the gifts of her new status, maybe?
She was so focused on her objective and the surrounding threats that she very nearly missed the other presence in the room.
It was different—subtle, too, difficult to notice, and not life so much as…its inversion. Not like Walker, though. It was its movement that gave it away, and Milanda paused, not turning her head, but focusing her attention. Something off-kilter and wavery was creeping through her perceptions right toward her.
Grimacing behind her mask, she considered her options. The demon clearly knew she was there, and was coming in for a stealth attack. By the same token, the succubus apparently didn’t realize she’d perceived her. Milanda had the element of surprise and was physically more than a match for the creature, she was sure. But engaging would draw attention… Could she get to her objective first? No, the demon was too close, and drawing closer. If there was a fight, the object of her focus might come out to investigate anyway… But if it was something related to dryads or comparably powerful, having it come after her was a very different proposition than sneaking up to peek at it.
Bollocks. Well, any dead demon was progress on behalf of the world, especially if this one was important to Justinian.
Among her equipment was a variety of weapons. Milanda considered them for a moment before deciding to try for one last hope of subtlety.
Knife-throwing wasn’t favored in Viridill, being associated with rogues and ruffians rather than honorable warriors, which was exactly why she had practiced it in her rebellious youth.
Augmented as she was by the craft which made the Hands of the Emperor, the act of snatching a knife from behind her belt and hurling it was so fast even an elf would have been hard-pressed to dodge the attack. That, however, was the extent of the good news. The rapid movement collapsed her stealth, snapping her back into visibility—just as the guy in the suit turned to bring her into his field of view. The succubus, also, was no elf, and while Milanda had never read that children of Vanislaas were noted combatants, her presence in Milanda’s ethereal senses rippled and shifted, and the knife flashed harmlessly past.
“What the fuck!” the man snarled, and despite his phrasing, it was not a question.
Then he dropped his freshly-mixed drink and whipped out a wand, and Milanda lost all control of her body.
Without deciding to move, she was moving, hurtling toward him in a flying leap and spinning about in midair, causing her cloak to whirl dramatically about her. Two wandshots—clean white beams of light, not lightning bolts—flashed at her, but she had successfully distorted her appearance with her approach, and neither connected. Not with her, anyway; both pierced the cloak, and Milanda heard the soft but distinctive crackle of enchantments being disrupted.
So much for stealth.
She landed on him, neatly grabbing him by the wand arm and whipping herself around in a kind of reverse throw, hurling her body instead of his, so that she landed behind him with his arm still in her grip. With, in fact, her hand covering his, and squeezing his finger on the trigger.
Milanda, far stronger than he, shifted minutely, firing the wand at midair. The succubus dodged again, but beams of light were not so easily evaded as thrown knives. With a shriek, she popped into visibility as she spun around, pierced right through the chest.
Would that kill her? Did they even have organs? She was sadly unfamiliar with demonology.
“Kheshiri!” Milanda’s captive shouted. “You fucking who—”
The rest of his imprecation was lost as she shifted her grip, spinning in place, and hurling him forward over her shoulder. He impacted the wall back-first, upside down, and slid down to land on his head before collapsing in an ungainly heap.
Finally, she froze, staring about in near-panic. She could never have moved like that. No one could move like that. Scuffling with the dryads had been one thing; this was a total loss of control. Her body just reacted. It had surely saved her life, but it was not an experience she had enjoyed.
Her moment of frantic introspection cost her.
One of the doors burst open, catching Milanda’s attention and bringing her focus back to the other life signs nearby.
An elf stood there, wearing an incongruous pinstriped suit and regarding the scene with an expression of mild surprise. Milanda, cloaked and masked all in dramatic black, standing over the unconscious shooter and with the succubus groaning on the ground nearby. Not dead, curse it all. How did you kill a Vanislaad?
Then the elf smiled, and despite her lack of fear for her physical safety, the expression sent a chill down her spine.
“Now you,” he said cheerfully, “are exactly what I was looking for. Finally, a little fun!”
With that, he vanished from view.
Once again, Milanda was overtaken by the “gifts” of the dryads. She could still sense the now-invisible elf, making a beeline toward her with the speed only his race possessed, and while her instincts wanted her to flee, her body stood in place, swiveling to peer about in an pantomime of disorientation. Only belatedly did she realize what she was doing.
The invisible elf lunged from opposite the direction she was currently looking. Without turning her head, Milanda grabbed him in mid-leap. She felt the bones of his arm break in her grip an instant before she whipped him through the air above her head and slammed him onto the bar.
He yelped, wheezed, and tumbled gracelessly to the ground, again visible.
“I’m fairly certain that was a wandshot,” Walker said in her ear, “and I’m positive I hear scuffling. What’s your status, Milanda?”
“Fine,” she said a little numbly, shaken more by her own loss of control than the violence. “Three hostiles down. How do you kill a succubus?”
To her credit, Walker hesitated only for a moment. “They don’t have biological weak points. Magic weapons, if you brought any, or catastrophic physical damage. Removing the head or destroying at least fifty percent of the torso should suffice.”
At that moment, another door opened. The one toward which she’d been heading in the fist place.
Milanda locked eyes with the new arrival for a bare moment, before she and her newfound battle reflexes found themselves in agreement. Which was to the good, because she might have wasted precious seconds staring in shock before fleeing. As it was, she made it out the door and around the corner before a blast of fire roared after her, splashing against the wall.
So. Not a dryad, then.
“A dragon,” she gasped, pelting down the hall at full tilt. “There is a green dragon down here!”
“Holy fuck!” Rook squeaked. “Lady, get out of there!”
Silence. Milanda carried on down the hall, reaching out with her senses. The dragon had hesitated in the central chamber, probably examining his downed allies. Unfortunately, the path she was taking away from that door was bringing her closer to a large cluster of human life signs. Troops, probably.
“Walker!” she shouted. “Pull me out!”
“There’s a problem,” Walker said in a strained voice. “The wards have been cycled—wait, no. These aren’t passive wards anymore, someone is actively maintaining them. This is real trouble, Milanda. This equipment can outsmart any enchantments currently made, but an actual wizard is another matter.”
“Standard procedure in the event of an incursion like this,” Moriarty said, and oddly enough, his clipped delivery was somehow reassuring. “At least, in the Imperial Army. It stands to reason these soldiers will have similar policies and regulations.”
“All right, give me a minute,” Walker said quickly. “Keep moving and stay alive, Milanda. I’m going to zero in on the wizard, then I’ll direct you to him. Take him out, the wards will lift, and I’ll be able to extract you.”
“Got it,” Milanda said grimly. She skidded to a halt next to the first door she came to; people were running in the halls now, closing on her from multiple directions. Yanking the door open, she dived through, pulling it shut quickly and then holding it at the last instant to avoid a slam.
She very gently finished closing it a second before she sensed the first soldier moving into the hall behind her. There was, blessedly, a lock, which she slid softly home. Only then did she turn to discover the bad news.
“So much for keeping moving,” she muttered.
“What?” Walker demanded.
“I’m in a room with only one exit,” Milanda said irritably. An office of some kind; desks, papers, nothing that looked useful in her situation. “Soldiers in the hall behind me.”
“Hey, uh,” Rook said hesitantly, “can you get us into there? Maybe we can help her…”
“Not with that wizard working!” Walker snapped. “Be quiet, let me concentrate!”
Milanda stood in place, focusing. Soldiers were now moving in the halls behind her… But not on the other side of the wall opposite the door. In fact, there was no one in the immediate vicinity on that side. Was she strong enough to punch through a wall, now? Not quickly or cleanly—that would take time and draw attention.
The dragon was moving, now. Could he sense her this way, or similarly? Who knew what a green dragon could do?
“I need another exit,” she said aloud.
“I can’t help you there,” Walker said somewhat plaintively. “I’m working, Milanda! Soon as I have something, I’ll direct you, but you’ll have to find your own way through the soldiers.”
“You’ve got this, ma’am!” Finchley said encouragingly. “You faced down a succubus and whatever else, you can do it!”
She wasn’t listening. Milanda had reached into the largest pouch attached to her belt, and with some difficulty extracted the object she’d stowed there earlier. Finally she had to jerk it free. It hadn’t wanted to fit in the first place; this wasn’t part of the kit Vex had issued her.
A quick press of the switch, and the room lit up a pale, arcane blue, suddenly filled with a deep buzzing.
“What was that?” Walker said sharply.
“Oh, that you heard,” Milanda muttered, then crossed the small room in two strides and pressed the glowing blade against the wall.
It sank through as if she were cutting cheese. Sparks flew from the masonry, flames flickered along the scorched edges of wood paneling, but the weapon carved neatly through. She began drawing a vertical line, attending to the motions of people around her. Still nobody in the space beyond, but there was movement on the periphery… Nothing else for it now; it would likely only be moments before they thought to check this door.
“Milanda,” Walker said shrilly, “that sound had better not be what I think it is!”
She pulled the blade free from the wall, and began carving a vertical line to form the top of her improvised door. “I’m afraid it is.”
“You—how could you!? Did I not emphasize how dangerous those—put that fool contraption down before you kill yourself!”
“I know what I’m doing, thank you.”
“Uh, what’s going on?” Rook asked nervously.
“You shut up!” Walker barked. “Milanda, put that thing away! Aside from the risk to you, what do you think will happen if anybody sees the saber? You might as well advertise where you got it in the papers!”
Milanda paused before starting on the other vertical cut. “If anybody sees the what?”
She frowned at the straight, glowing blade. “This is clearly not a saber. If anything, it’s a longsword.”
The buzz and crackle of the sword going back into the wall was augmented this time by a repeated, muffled thumping from her earpiece.
“Walker, don’t hit your head on things. That equipment is ancient.”
Finally, she withdrew the blade again and switched it off, though she kept it in her hand rather than trying to cram it back in the ill-fitting pouch. Her improvised doorway smoldered and put off acrid smoke. It also wasn’t particularly even, but it would do.
She stepped back, shifted position, and slammed her foot against it.
Ordinary human strength probably wouldn’t have sufficed, but the cut section of wall cracked and buckled at its base, then toppled outward into the space beyond. Milanda immediately stepped after it.
She was now in what appeared to be a mess hall—long tables and benches, broad doors at either end. Oh, just perfect. Thankfully the soldiers were still chasing her around, rather than occupying their own living quarters, and clearly didn’t expect to find her here of all places. Perhaps their section of the facility down here wasn’t connected to the space where the serious assets were kept.
But no such luck.
“What was that?” a man’s voice shouted from beyond the door to her left.
Milanda paused to concentrate on her senses. No… If anything, she’d managed to pin herself even more thoroughly. Humans were clustered in the space to the left side. Worse…
The dragon was approaching. Not quickly, but exiting the right-hand doors would bring her in his direction.
“Shit,” she muttered.
“Well said!” Walker snarled.
Milanda glanced rapidly back and forth, then drew a wand from its holster at her belt with her other hand. Wand and sword at the ready, she made her choice and flew into motion.