Tag Archives: Andros Varanus

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“It is inconvenient timing, of course,” said Andros, frowning into the distance ahead of them. “I have found you a dependable assistant in my dealings with the Church and the other cults. Restraint and careful social judgment are necessary traits in my work, and I’m afraid Shaath’s way does not encourage their development. Whatever aid I find is the result of either happenstance or the god’s blessing.”

“I am sorry to leave you alone like this, and so abruptly,” Ingvar replied. “I will try not to prolong the journey, of course, but this is not going to be an easy hunt. I can’t say even where it will lead me…”

Andros stopped, turning to face him. They stood near the front of the lodge’s main hall, for the most part alone; the few other Huntsmen passing through did not pause to pay untoward attention to a private conversation. The Bishop placed a hand on the younger Huntsman’s shoulder, smiling.

“Forgive me, that was poorly spoken. I didn’t mean to lay any guilt upon you, brother. Remember, we are an order dedicated to the wild and to its god; you have been given a clearly sacred task, and it must take precedence. Being stuck in this city, handling its intrigues, I sometimes worry that I begin to lose sight of the prey for focusing on the hunt. The sacred is always of greater import than the practical.”

Ingvar smiled back, hiking his travel rucksack up onto his shoulder. “Don’t worry, brother, your point was clear. Regardless, I don’t wish to prolong this any more than absolutely necessary.”

Andros frowned slightly. “Be very wary of the Crow, Ingvar. Yes, I know, you obviously would be. She lays plans built of smaller plans, and is no friend to mankind, except perhaps in certain individual cases.”

“That is just one of the things about this matter that trouble me,” Ingvar replied. “There is no way for me to proceed that doesn’t involve becoming a playing piece in her agenda. I shall do my best not to bring any harm upon Shaath’s interests, of course, but I don’t think myself a match for her cunning.”

“That is well,” Andros said firmly, nodding. “Nothing kills faster than arrogance out in the wild. Trust your skills and your instincts, and they’ll serve you well.”

Ingvar nodded in reply. “I’d best move out. Putting this off longer would be a show of weak-heartedness. And besides, I have a caravan to catch.”

“Hunt well, brother,” Andros said, bowing. Ingvar bowed as well, then turned with no more talk and strode out through the lodge’s front doors. So it should be, between men. Too many words were a waste of air.

Andros strode back through the lodge, following its corridors to the residence of the Grandmaster near the rear. He rapped once and waited.

It was only a brief span of moments before the door opened a crack, revealing the face of a pretty young woman peeking up at him curiously. Recognizing him, she immediately bowed and pulled the door wide, stepping aside to let him in. Andros entered, nodding politely at her.

“Sir, the Bishop is here,” Auri said deferentially to her husband, who sat at a desk near the hearth not far away. A very well-mannered young woman, and a fine acquisition for the Grandmaster; Veisroi had been notably less grim in the months since marrying her. Given his position, he could have been swimming in wives, but Veisroi had only the two. He had never had more than two, and for several years since the passing of his first wife, he’d had only his Jula.

Andros heartily approved of this restraint. A woman was a significant responsibility, not a plaything; he worried, sometimes, that the younger generation of Huntsmen did not properly appreciate their women—among their other failings. But then, every generation saw those who came after them as somewhat degenerate, or so he seemed to recall from conversations with his own father. Still, such attitudes caused problems. Had that strutting young cockerel Feldren paid more attention to his Ephanie, she probably wouldn’t be back in the Legions now, finding new ways to be an embarrassment to Shaath.

“Andros,” the Grandmaster said with a hint of annoyance, slapping a sheet of parchment down atop a whole stack of them on his desk. “If you’ve brought me more paperwork, I may have you excommunicated.”

Andros raised an eyebrow at this empty grousing. “Veisroi, when was the last time you took a day to yourself to go hunting?”

“Bah! When was the last time I had time to breathe? Church business, Imperial business, that’s all just the wind in my hair. It’s these wretched lodges, Andros. What a pack of sniveling pups. Can none of these alleged men handle their own affairs? This idiot!” He picked up the letter again, shaking it. “He’s still after me to, and I quote, ‘do something’ about Arachne Tellwyrn. Do something! About Tellwyrn! All because his fool son wanted a drow wife and fell for that Masterson boy’s cruel streak. How many times must I explain this man’s stupidity to him before I have to have him removed as Lodgemaster? I’ve half a mind to call a Wild Hunt on the fool.”

“Wasn’t that Hranfoldt, from the Wyrnrange?” Andros asked. “That one’s politically minded, Veisroi. He might be jockeying to make you look bad—he hasn’t the seniority to try for your position, but I could see him planning ahead.”

“Don’t lecture me, young pup,” Veisroi grunted. “I know what he’s about. I suffer his schemes because the way the world is shaping up, I can’t afford to waste a schemer. Even one with eyes bigger than his belly. Anyway, you haven’t come here an your before lunch to listen to an old man’s griping. What do you need?”

“Merely to bring you an update,” Andros replied, folding his hands. “Ingvar just departed on his quest.”

The Grandmaster turned in his chair to face, him, twisting his thin mouth. “Another promising schemer, now out of reach. And that one is both loyal and sensible. I very much hope the boy’s not getting in over his head. Hrathvin is concerned about him.”

“As do I,” Andros replied, “but I trust Ingvar’s judgment. If he has one flaw it’s that he is too cautious and contained. He won’t be easily goaded into misstepping.”

“Well, it’s out of our hands until he comes home,” Veisroi said. “I’ll burn an offering for him; nothing else to be done from here. Surely that wasn’t all you came to tell me.”

“No, I wouldn’t interrupt your paperwork for that,” Andros replied. “I know how you enjoy it so.”

“I am this close, Andros, by Shaath’s paws!”

The Bishop grinned. “In seriousness, I just received an update by courier from the Archpope. If there’s to be a major move against him in the city, it will likely come soon, and may come here. As of this morning, of his core of trustworthy Bishops, I am the only one left in the city.”

Veisroi narrowed his eyes. “What happened to the Eserite?”

“He has just departed for points unknown. The notice he left said it was on personal business.

The Grandmaster snorted. “That’s what you and the others all said when Justinian sent you to Hamlet.”

“Indeed, and I never assume that what Antonio says has any bearing on what he’s up to. Words are just another layer of his camouflage. I don’t believe this is on the Archpope’s orders, however.”

“Another weapon, out of pocket,” Veisroi murmured, staring into the low fire and absently rubbing his forefinger and thumb together. “At least Snowe is actively working on Justinian’s orders.”

Andros curled his lip disdainfully. “That little bundle of fluff is in his Holiness’s inner circle purely on the weight of her loyalty. I’m glad she’s found some use as a propaganda tool; if not for that, she’d be wasting her calling by not warming someone’s bed.”

“I’ve come to expect a bit more perceptiveness from you, Andros,” Veisroi retorted, staring piercingly at him. “You know what kind of dangerous people Justinian keeps nearest himself. You, that mad dog Syrinx. Even the Eserite—we’ve seen that his foppish act is a smokescreen for something truly vicious. If Branwen Snowe appears useless to you, I suggest you start paying closer attention to her.”


 

Tellwyrn opened the classroom door, stepped in, shut it behind her, and paused inside, studying the room with hands on her hips. The cherry trees and ornamental screens softened up the stark angularity of the room nicely, but she hadn’t come here to admire the décor.

She descended to the dais in the front, stepping up to one of the folding screens. It was beautifully preserved, but clearly old, or at least a masterful reproduction of an old original. This style of ink-painting was no longer popular in Sifan, and newer pieces of such exquisite quality were unlikely to be produced.

“Hmm,” she mused. “Not bad, but could use a splash of color.” A brush tipped in red paint appeared in her hand, and she raised it toward the delicately inked silk. “Maybe right around—”

“All right, all right!” Professor Ekoi snatched the brush away from her from behind. “You can make your point less destructively, you absolute savage!”

“Well, I’m never quite sure with you, Kaisa,” Tellwyrn turned just in time to see the arcane-conjured paintbrush disintegrate into sparks and ashes, swept away by fae magic. The kitsune pulled a silken kerchief out of thin air and carefully wiped off her fingers, grimacing in disdain. “Now that you are here, there’s something I’d like to discuss with you.”

“Bah. Schedules, command performances, discussions whenever it’s convenient. You used to be fun, Arachne.”

“I have no memory of that,” Tellwyrn said, folding her arms. “The students from the morning exercise group brought me an interesting story right before my class. Apparently as they were wrapping up, Trissiny and Scorn sensed the presence of a demon. Scorn insisted it was a child of Vanislaas. Gabriel, Toby, and November were all there and felt nothing; Gabriel’s valkyrie friend did not sense anything, either.”

“Hmm.” Kaisa tucked her hands behind her back, tilting her head and twitching her ears. Her tail began to wave, a sure sign that her interest was caught. “When is an incubus not an incubus?”

“I questioned them closely on that point,” said Tellwyrn. “Trissiny didn’t feel anything quite so distinct; it was only Scorn was thought it was a Vanislaad. And while Scorn may not be the most reliable of witnesses, since I’ve no idea what kind of training she’s had, she is clearly a highborn Rhaazke. They are powerful and perceptive creatures.”

“Perhaps it would be wise to find out what kind of training she’s had, yes?” Ekoi said with a mischievous smile. “And you trust the accounts of the others? Students do love their little pranks.”

“Not this group,” Tellwyrn said, shaking her head. “Half of them haven’t the imagination, and the others at least know better than to mess around with something like this. What gets me, Kaisa, is the differences in opinion. The paladins, at least, should have a fairly uniform perception of demonic activ—”

She abruptly whirled, a gold-hilted saber appearing in her hand, and stared around at the empty room.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Ekoi said airily, “there’s not actually a rawhead here. You see, Arachne, senses can be fooled, if you know the method. That holds true for magical senses as well as mundane ones. I wouldn’t expect you to know, given your disdain for subtler tactics, but there are ways of creating the impression that highly magical creatures are present when they are not. At least, to those attuned to them.”

“Who was it who was just talking about destructive means of getting attention?” Tellwyrn muttered, vanishing her sword and turning back to the kitsune.

Kaisa tittered gleefully. “You’re right, though. It’s very interesting that little Trissiny and big old Scorn would react, when the others didn’t. Almost as if something had been…aimed at them.”

“It remains an open question who would do that, and why.”

“Well, the why is at least partially obvious,” the kitsune said. “If you wanted to rile up those paladins…honestly, which of the three is the most easily riled?”

“That’s all well and good, as far as it goes,” Tellwyrn began. “But—”

“Yes, yes.” Kaisa languidly waved a folding fan which had just appeared in her hand. “There’s a finite list of those who can employ such subtle methods. One must have power—considerable power. Not to mention mastery of the given magical art. This is not a small matter, if it is what it seems.”

“You’re suggesting that a warlock or demon of seriously high rank is playing games with my students,” Tellwyrn said, a dangerous scowl falling across her features.

Kaisa grinned broadly, displaying her elongated canines. “Oh, indeed. And do me the courtesy of not pretending this isn’t exactly why you brought this to me, Arachne. You may consider me interested. If someone wishes to play that kind of game… Well, a lady does need hobbies, no?”


 

While he didn’t generally enjoy pushing through crowds, Ingvar had learned to appreciate the lack of attention people paid him in the busy streets of Tiraas. If anyone so much as glanced his way, it was generally due to his Huntsman gear; nobody stopped and stared, and rarely did anyone seem to note any disparity in his appearance unless he actually talked to them. City living was unnatural and stressful in many ways, but the jaded disinterest of urbanites was a blessing for those who didn’t enjoy attention.

Still, the Rail station was something else again. People were crammed in here like canned sardines, somehow managing to push through one another without acknowledging each other. He kept his bow tucked against his body and his other hand on his backpack, mindful of pickpockets. Allegedly the only such in the city would be operatives of the Guild, who didn’t prey on just anyone (again, allegedly), but Ingvar had been warned that Huntsmen, in their eyes, were not just anyone. He had never personally been targeted, but Andros had had to send requests to the Thieves’ Guild several times for the return of personal objects of spiritual significance, which were often the only things of value a Huntsman carried.

He made his way through the heaving throng to Platform 6A, where Mary had directed him to meet the companions she was sending along on his journey. She had said they would be individuals who would benefit personally from being along on his quest, and not simply hired muscle, which was fine as far as it went. Ingvar did not have a good feeling about this, however. He had excellent reason to be mindful of his privacy, and wasn’t enthused about the prospect of going on a long journey with complete strangers. If he had to have anyone along for this, he’d have much preferred known and trusted Huntsmen from the lodge.

Mary, clearly, had no interest in what he preferred. And he had no option but to cater to her plans. She hadn’t even told him where he would be going, only where to meet his new companions. It was a very neat way to get him out of the city without letting him catch his balance, which didn’t bode well for this whole enterprise.

The platforms were clearly labeled, at least, and 6A was in a quieter end of the station. According to the sign he passed, that was because these tracks were for specifically chartered caravans, not the regularly scheduled ones. Well, the Crow probably didn’t lack for funds after however many thousands of years she had been operating. Then again, Ingvar wouldn’t put it past her to have made one of the others pay for the trip.

Hopefully she wasn’t expecting him to. He had a little money, but not the kind of money that would charter a Rail caravan. He hadn’t even been given a ticket before coming her.

The platform was positioned behind wooden privacy screens—apparently the people who chartered private caravans could not be expected to mix with the common public any longer than they absolutely must. Ingvar paused to make sure he had the right one. Yes, 6A, this was it. He stepped into the space and froze.

There were two other men present—well, a man and a boy. The youth looked to be in his mid-teens, and was wearing a hat and duster of clearly expensive make over a dark suit, with a bolo tie inset with a large piece of tigerseye. Two wands were holstered at his waist on a leather belt bulging with pockets. He was lounging against the wall with his arms folded, and looked up upon Ingvar’s arrival. The Huntsman took in the boy at a glance before fixing his startled attention on the other man present.

Dressed in a slightly scruffy suit over a loud red shirt and scuffed snakeskin boots, occupying himself by doing tricks with a doubloon, there stood Antonio Darling. He looked up, grinned broadly and exclaimed as though delighted, “Ingvar!”

Ingvar stared at him, then very carefully backed up and looked again at the sign outside the platform. Yes, 6A.

Darling laughed. “Yes, yes, not what you were expecting, I take it?”

“That…is putting it mildly,” Ingvar said very carefully. Somehow, and he had no idea how, he was going to make the Crow pay for this.

“Well, c’mon in, don’t be shy,” Darling said cheerfully. “Let me introduce everyone around. Ingvar, this is Joseph Jenkins, who you may know as the Sarasio Kid.”

“Pleasure,” said Jenkins, tipping his hat. Ingvar nodded back, mind whirling. The Sarasio Kid? Legends of frontier wandfighters were popular among Shaath’s followers; frontier folk in general were well thought of in the cult. He was definitely familiar with the name.

“Joe,” Darling went on, “this is Brother Ingvar, Huntsman of Shaath and the reason for this little outing of ours.”

Ingvar managed not to grind his teeth. Little outing. “Why would you want to come along on this journey, your Grace?” he asked somewhat curtly. “I thought you were principally a creature of the city.”

“Oh, that much is definitely true,” Darling said lightly. “Everybody needs a change of scenery once in a while, though, don’t you think?”

“If you can manage to get a straight answer out of him about anything,” said Jenkins in a distinctly dry done, “I will be immensely impressed.”

So. There was already some mistrust here. Ingvar’s opinion of Jenkins rose further.

“Now, no need to be like that, Joe,” Darling said cheerfully. “In seriousness, Ingvar, I took some convincing when Mary asked me to come along, but honestly, even aside from the case she made, I do have an interest in this. It’s past time I got out and got my own hands dirty again—too much politics is turning me soft. Besides, Joe and I both have some recent business to follow up on in our first destination. Ah, speak of the Dark Lady!”

Ingvar’s hair tried to stand up as the Rail itself began to glow a fierce arcane blue. The caravan arrived, barreling into the station at terrifying speed and decelerating similarly swiftly. In mere seconds it had hissed to a stop alongside the platform, one compartment lining up neatly with the short ramp extending from beside them. A moment later, the door hissed open with a soft sound like escaping steam.

“It just…goes?” Ingvar said doubtfully. “It doesn’t need to stop for…fuel, or maintenance, or something?”

“Nah, they fix ’em up overnight,” Darling said brightly, bending to pick up the suitcase sitting by his feet. “We can chat more on the way—no sense in wasting time! All aboard for Veilgrad!”


 

They had to leave the carriage at a farm at the end of the road. The Old Road ran out of Viridill all the way to the dwarven kingdoms in the mountains at the northernmost end of the continent, but that road quite deliberately passed between patches of forest rather than through them; going into the Green Belt meant taking a smaller road which did not go all the way there. The elves would never have tolerated that.

“Are you sure it’ll be okay?” Schwartz huffed, not for the first time. “I mean…they were nice enough, but they’re just folks. It’s not as if we were parking it in an actual garage…”

“Where, in this country, would you expect to find a garage?” Basra asked. She led the group, plowing through the fields toward the forest up ahead. The road and the farm were lost to the distance behind them; they had already passed out of cultivated fields of barley and corn and were hiking through a patch of prairie. Rather than the clean tallgrass of the Great Plans, this was a scrubby kind of prairie, filled with rocks, thorns, and hefty bushes that sometimes neared the status of trees. It wasn’t easy going, but Basra did not slow her pace despite Schwartz’s discomfort. “You saw how taken they were with the vehicle. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

“Well, that’s sort of it,” he panted. “I mean… Who knows what they’d…”

“They will not damage it,” she said curtly. “We made it clear it was Legion property. They wouldn’t dare.”

“Also, they’re not animals,” Covrin added. “Not a sophisticated class of people, to be sure, but even the peasants in this province are a respectful lot.”

“If you say so,” Schwartz said, then fell silent, having to concentrate on walking and breathing. Meesie had clambered up to perch atop his head, where she peered about, whiskers twitching. Now that it was clearly visible, Basra could tell the creature wasn’t quite a rat—in shape she was a bit more like a weasel, but with overlarge ears and dextrous little hands, not to mention a long, tufted tail. Actually, it was rather cute, in a garish way.

“All right there, Covrin?” she asked. “I know you weren’t planning a hike in that armor.”

“Perfectly, ma’am,” Covrin said crisply. Basra had guided her cadet experience toward more political than military training, but they didn’t graduate someone to the rank of Legionnaire unless she was in good shape. “We may want to stop, though. Mr. Schwartz is clearly not used to this kind of exercise.”

“Oh, no, don’t worry ’bout me,” Schwartz wheezed. “Onward and upward!”

Basra did come to a stop, turning to study him critically. The man was half-staggering now, clearly tired and out of breath. Useless boy… So far he’d contributed nothing to the mission. The last thing she wanted was delay, but if he collapsed out here it would slow them down a great deal further.

“It’s not quite noon, yet,” she said, carefully moderating her tone and expression. “We shouldn’t need to push ourselves to make good time. And I suppose it’s wise to give the elves time to prepare for our approach; they likely appreciate abrupt visits even less than visits in general.”

“Well, when you put it that way, I suppose,” Schwartz said gratefully, sinking down to sit on the ground right where he stood. Whether by accident or design, he ended up perched on a large rock rather than sprawled in the dirt. He slumped there, head hanging and struggling to catch his breath. Meesie hopped down to his shoulder and reared up, sniffing at his head in concern.

Basra sighed, shaking her head in disgust, and began pacing slowly in a wide circle around him. More by reflex than because she expected any kind of attack, she studied their surroundings. The scrubby plain stretched out in all directions, leading to the forest up ahead and Viridill farmland behind, with the mountains themselves rising not far to the west; insects and birds sang, but there was no sign of any large animals, much less other people. They might have been an island in the utter wilderness, rather than a few hours’ walk from civilization.

Completing a circuit, she paused next to Covrin, who was standing still and gazing at the distant forest.

“Do you think they’ve spotted us yet?” she asked quietly.

“Almost certainly,” Basra replied. “Elves are prickly about their borders. They know we’re here and that we’re headed right toward them. For all we know there are a dozen crouched in the grass all around us.”

Covrin’s eyes darted back and forth. “That’s…surely not.”

“It’s a possibility,” Basra said mildly, watching the increasing unease on the girl’s face with satisfaction. “The stories about elves are not exaggerated; they don’t need to be. If anything, popular fiction undersells them, because some of the facts simply aren’t believable.”

The Legionnaire unconsciously lowered a hand to the hilt of her sword, and Basra had to repress a grin. “Don’t worry,” she said, patting Covrin on the back of her breastplate. “Elves are persnickety, but the woodkin aren’t violent unless provoked. Whatever they’re doing or thinking, they are very unlikely to attack us.” She paused, stepping up close from behind, and leaned in, near enough that Covrin would feel her warm breath on her ear, to whisper. “You’re safe with me, Jenell.”

From that angle, she just barely caught the twitch at the corner of the girl’s eye, and she stepped back, marshaling her expression against the thrill of amusement it brought her. That had yet to get old.

Basra turned and stepped back to Schwartz, who was sitting there playing with his fire-rat and looking generally more at ease. “Feeling better?”

“Much, thanks!” he said immediately. “Just a quick spell to lighten the fatigue—uh, oh, not that I was doing particularly poorly, of course,” he added hastily. “It’s just…general principles, you know. When out on a hike. Um, if you like I could…?”

“No thanks,” she said wryly. “I believe I’m doing fine. Come on, we had better keep moving.”

“Of course, of course,” he said, groaning very faintly as he stood up. Meesie clambered back up to the top of his head, ears twitching.

They set off again, Schwartz quickly falling behind again to lag in the rear. Basra, after a quick mental debate, slowed her pace, despite her annoyance. There would be no end of trouble if she let actual harm come to him.

Glancing over her shoulder, she started to speak, but suddenly figures materialized out of the grass around them.

The five elves were arranged in a neat semi-circle between her group and the forest ahead. Those on the flank were even with Basra; they had been about to blunder right into their formation. Clearly this had been arranged ahead of time. Despite her reassurance to Covrin, all of them were armed with a mix of bows and tomahawks, and three had arrows nocked and aimed at them.

The one in the center carried a staff in one hand and two tomahawks hanging from his belt; he was the only one without a bow. He stared flatly at Basra.

“You can go no further.”

She inhaled softly, gathering her composure, and bowed. “Good day. My name is Basra Syrinx; I am Bishop of the Sisterhood of Avei.”

“Well met,” the elf said, nodding. “You can still go no further.” His companions made no move to lower their weapons.

“I’m here on a matter of importance,” she said, still speaking calmly. “Believe me, the Sisterhood respects the privacy of the elves, and we would not trouble you were it less than urgent. It was my understanding that the people of Viridill and those of the groves were on good terms. Have we offended you?”

“I know why you’ve come, Bishop Syrinx,” said the elf. “And you are welcome in our forest. What you bring with you is not.”

Slowly, Basra and Covrin turned to stare at Schwartz, whose eyes widened.

“Oh, I say,” he squeaked. “Surely you don’t mean—”

Abruptly Meesie let out a shrill squeal, puffing up her fur, and scampered down his face to dart into the collar of his shirt and hide.

Behind him, darkness itself rose up from the grass.

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Everything slowed down at night, but Tiraas never truly slept, nor slackened its pace to any great degree. Different kinds of business were done after dark in the Imperial city, but not much less business. Obviously, the more rural areas surrounding the city were a great deal sleepier once the sun was down, removed as they were from the capital’s omnipresent modern lights, but even there, human activity continued at all hours.

Consequently, while there wasn’t a great deal of traffic through the city gates at the late hour at which the mixed party of Huntsmen and Legionnaires finally reached them, the gates themselves were opened and manned. That, in fact, caused them a very minor delay.

The soldier standing on the right side of the road at the huge outer gate stepped forward, lowering his staff casually to extend in front of him—not blocking their way, but tacitly signaling for a stop. “Everything all right, ladies?” he inquired politely, pointedly ignoring the ring of Huntsmen and directing himself to Ephanie, who was the nearest Legionnaire to him.

“Everything is fine, soldier,” Andros rumbled, pausing and folding his arms. The uniformed man glanced at him momentarily, then returned his gaze to Ephanie. It was indeed a peculiar mix of people to the eyes of anyone who knew anything about either cult, but there was also the unmistakable fact that the Huntsmen had arranged themselves in an escort formation around the Legionnaires. In the absence of other cues, that could be taken as a sign of honor, or one of hostility. Altogether they made a strange enough sight to invite comment.

“Couldn’t be better!” Principia chirped. “These gentlemen were just guiding us back from a field exercise. You can’t ask for a better escort in the woods than a Huntsman, after all.”

The soldier eased back, slight but noticeable tension fading from him. “All right, then, Blessings, ladies, gentlemen.”

They passed through the gates into the wide square beyond, several nodding to the guards as they went.

“Arrogant pup,” Tholi grumbled. “You should’ve just told him who you were, Brother Andros.”

“Throwing force around is seldom the smart solution to a problem, Tholi,” the Bishop replied. “That is true socially as well as physically.”

The little towns at the foot of each bridge to the city were clustered around a fortification protecting the road itself. Inside the walls was a broad square, lined with shops and offices (now closed), and beyond that, the foot of the bridge itself.

Their mixed party had to reorganize itself somewhat upon reaching the bridge; most of its width was marked off for vehicles, and though there was comparatively little traffic at this hour, spilling out of the pedestrian lanes would have been grounds for a citation even if nobody was run over. In any case, there were stone barriers between the two, and the foot lanes were raised a good three feet higher, looking over the edges of the bridge itself. The view this afforded of the huge canyon with its churning river far below was both stunning and terrifying. They were protected from the drop by low stone walls surmounted by much taller iron fencing; people did still fall off, occasionally, but not by accident, and indeed it took some doing. The soldiers who regularly patrolled the bridges were on the lookout for would-be jumpers more than any criminals or threat to the city itself. Somehow, after reshuffling themselves into a space where no more than five could walk abreast, Principia wound up in the front rank with Andros and Ingvar, with Tholi and the rest of Squad Thirteen right behind, the remainder of the Huntsmen bringing up the rear.

Tiraas, approached this way, was a sight worthy to compete with the view over the chasm. Its walls were lit deliberately, powerful directed lights illuminating every inch of their exterior, their towers blazing from every window. Beyond that, structures rose into the distance, many also alight, with the crackling of factory antennae and pulsing of scrolltower orbs topping off the ambient glow of the city itself. As the group proceeded, a Rail caravan flashed past them down the fenced-off center lane of the bridge with a roar and a wash of blue radiance. It vanished into a tunnel leading below the main level of the bridge above, where the Rail line would come out in the terminal a few streets removed from the main gate.

The bridges themselves arched over a hundred yards of empty space, supported by nothing. Modern architecture and enchantment could reproduce such a feat, but when they had first been built, the bridges of Tiraas had been a wonder of the world. Their modification to accommodate present-day traffic had been a major project.

“What exactly is the plan, your Grace, if I might ask?” Principia inquired as they set out on the long bridge.

“I intend to speak with High Commander Rouvad about this day’s events immediately upon reaching the Temple of Avei,” Andros rumbled.

“Think she’ll see you?” Ingvar asked mildly.

“In the old days, clerics of Shaath and Avei might have refused to speak to one another. Not so long ago, they might conceivably have insisted any such contact go through the Church. It is too political an age now, however. The High Commander will not snub a Bishop. This one will not, at least; she is more intelligent than some of her predecessors. Insisting upon an audience with her will not gain the Huntsmen any sympathy with the Sisterhood, but I cannot imagine she would refuse outright.”

“Hard to imagine the Huntsmen gaining any sympathy with the Sisterhood anyway,” Tholi muttered. “Or caring.”

“You think Rouvad will call down Syrinx based on your say-so alone?” Ingvar asked. “With respect to our guests, here, we have only their assertion that Syrinx is even responsible for this.”

“First of all,” Andros said, turning his head to glance over his shoulder at the group and raising his voice, “that is not to be repeated in front of the Avenists or anyone else. Brother Ingvar is correct; it is an unproven claim, the repetition of which could be taken as slander. Do not add any arrows to Syrinx’s quiver. With that said, the point is not to have her punished for this on the spot, but to register our complaint immediately and personally, as far over her head as can be reached.”

“Seems the Archpope is even higher,” said Tholi, “not to mention more accessible to you.”

“I will be speaking to him as well,” Andros rumbled. “Consider, Tholi, the fact that I am taking these girls at their word, despite not knowing them, nor having any reason to trust them. When I am told that a snake has been hissing and slithering, I feel no need to be skeptical. Apart from the fact that Basra Syrinx is vicious, underhanded termagant who is more than capable of such as this, there are the facts of the situation. The forests around Tiraas are used by multiple cults for a variety of purposes, and one of the tasks of the Universal Church is to prevent embarrassing and possibly dangerous encounters such as occurred today. Such outings are arranged through the Church, as was your rite, Tholi.”

“I should’ve thought of that,” Principia said, grimacing. “Of course a Bishop would know where we could be sent to stumble across Huntsmen.”

“Apart from that,” Andros added, scowling darkly, “a Bishop would know what the Huntsmen were doing in that region. Even assuming these ‘reports’ of wife-stealing actually occurred, a quick check with the Church, via your cult’s Bishop, would have been the Sisterhood’s first action. It would have ruled out the specific area you were sent to search.”

“Finally,” Merry growled. “Got her dead to rights.”

“I doubt it’ll be that simple, somehow,” Principia murmured.

“It will not,” Andros agreed. “The Syrinx woman is clever enough to have prepared counters to the obvious means by which she would be caught, which is why I am proceeding directly to Rouvad. Those means relate to the Church bureaucracy; I will be very surprised if Syrinx has managed to arrange for interference to be run with her own High Commander. Also, my presence and Ingvar’s will have been a surprise to her. No one outside our lodge was informed of our hunt.”

“How did you happen across us, Brother Andros?” Tholi asked.

“It did not just happen,” Andros rumbled, glancing aside at Principia. “It seems you have an ally against Syrinx, girl. A little black bird led us to your rescue.”

“You have got to be shitting me,” Principia growled.

“What?” Farah asked. “Black bird? What’s he talking about?”

“It is the nature of family to look out for one another,” Andros intoned, looking down his nose at Prin. “Do not spit upon necessary help, whatever tension there is between you.”

“And why does he only talk to Locke?” Farah muttered.

“According to Shaathist dogma,” Ephanie said quietly, “the fae races are of different stock and the laws of the Wild not as applicable to them. We are borderline unholy, being women soldiers, but Locke can do whatever she likes.”

“Story of her life,” Merry said fatalistically.

More soldiers were on duty at the inner gate, of course, but while they gave the peculiar party odd looks (as did everyone they passed), they did not move to impede them. The group crossed into the city proper at a brisk walk; the broad street rose ahead, climbing gently toward the city center, where stood their destination, the Temple of Avei. It was a reminder to all of how tired they were. Legionnaires and Huntsmen alike were in excellent shape, but all of them had been out all day. Of course, none were willing to display the slightest weakness in front of the other group. There were no sighs or complaints, but it was hardly a jovial party.

They also didn’t get far before being ambushed.

Barely were they out of sight of the gate guards when half a dozen armed people in nondescript dark clothing materialized around the group. Their appearance was swift and professional—they stepped smoothly out of alleys before and behind the party, two hopping out of a carriage parked alongside the curb and one even jumping down from a second-story window.

Immediately, Huntsmen and Legionnaires alike dropped into ready stances, hefting weapons. The street around them was hardly deserted, even at this hour; at the obvious signs of an armed clash about to break out, people yelped and bolted, while some less intelligent others stopped to watch avidly.

“Whoah, whoah, keep ’em in your pants,” said a hatchet-faced blonde woman, holding up her hands in a peaceable gesture, but grinning fiendishly. She was the one who’d bounded down from above, and now swaggered forward to plant herself right in front of Andros and Principia. “We’re all friends here, aye? Let’s have a quick chat. You can call me Grip.”

“Speak your piece, woman,” Andros growled.

“You’re Grip?” Principia asked, raising her eyebrows. “Damn. By your rep, I’d picture someone twice the size, with a lot more scars.”

“And by yours I’d picture someone less armored and more smug, Keys,” Grip replied, lowering her hands and adopting a cocky posture. “Anyhow, we’re not here to interfere with you.”

“Then you’ve chosen a strange way to introduce yourselves,” Andros snorted.

“Well, you know how it is. We each have our little dramas to keep up.” Grip produced a shiny new doubloon from inside her sleeve and began rolling it across the backs of her fingers. “In fact, you might say we’ve come to join your hunt.”

“No way,” Principia breathed. “That fast? It’s barely been a day.”

“That fast,” Grip replied, raising an eyebrow. “Apparently Tricks places a high value upon rescuing your perky little butt. Hell if I know why; last I heard, the orders were to haul you back to explain the shit you’ve been up to, posthaste. But what do I know? I’m just a grunt; I go where I’m kicked.”

“We can relate,” Merry remarked.

“You speak in riddles and nonsense,” Andros barked. “Explain yourself!”

Grip eyed him up and down, then pointedly turned to Principia. “Are we explaining ourselves to this guy?”

“This is Bishop Varanus of the Universal Church,” Prin replied. “He is helping us out; kindly be nice.”

“Ah. Good to meet you, your Grace,” the enforcer said, turning back to Andros with just the faintest whiff of respect now in her expression. “I’ll give you the short version, then: when Bishop Darling learned what Bishop Syinx has been doing to this little squad, here, he passed the word along to the Boss, who then demanded to know which followers of Eserion had been helping her do it. One guy came forward immediately; Link is an information man, a professional fixer-upper and greaser of wheels. He identified the back-alley mage Syrinx had employed to scry on this group. We only just got our hands on him, as he’d been out of the city until this afternoon, but that worked out as what he was out doing was setting up the trap you fell into today.”

“A mage decided to accommodate a bunch of ruffians?” Tholi asked scornfully.

“A mage, like anyone sensible, does not want to be the object of the Thieves’ Guild’s ire,” said Ingvar. “Nor should you. Hush.”

“So,” Grip continued with an unpleasant grin, “we’ve got that guy, and subsequently we have a certain Ami Talaari, a Vesker apprentice who was under the impression she’d been hired to participate in a Silver Legion training exercise. She was quite alarmed to learn she had instead been used to goad your squad into a trap.”

A burly man standing silently behind Grip’s shoulder held out a thick leather folder, which she accepted, and produced a sheet of parchment from within, extending it forward. Andros moved to take it; Grip pointedly jerked it out of his reach, handing it to Principia. Prin, with a sigh, accepted and glanced over the letter before handing it off to the Bishop.

“That looks authentic enough as far as I can see,” she said. “Forgery’s not really my thing, but I bet it is. I don’t recognize this officer’s signature, though. I wouldn’t necessarily know whoever would hire a bard, but…”

“Syrinx is not daft enough to place her own seal upon any such document,” Andros growled, handing the letter back to Grip.

“And by the way,” Principia added sharply, “I trust you’re not being too rough with Miss Talaari.”

“Ms,” Casey murmured. Everyone ignored her.

“Oh, she’s being treated like a princess, I assure you,” Grip said dryly. “Annoying one bard is good fun; annoying all the bards leads to unending nightmares. We’re not about to get rough with a Vesker apprentice. No, once we explained to Miss Talaari why it’s in her best interests to cooperate, she’s been an absolute dream to work with. We’ve got signed testimonials from her and the mage, receipts for work done, and,” she added with relish, hefting the folder, “a strongly-worded letter from Boss Tricks to High Commander Rouvad concerning this mess. Our boy in robes already had your scent, Keys…or whatever the magical equivalent is…so we’ve been watching for you to re-enter the city. Scrying doesn’t provide sound on the level he does it, so we weren’t sure what was going on, with all this.” She raised an eyebrow, looking pointedly around at the Huntsmen.

“Had my Huntsmen been the ones to catch that girl desecrating a wilderbag, she might not have fared so well,” Tholi said, scowling.

“Indeed,” Andros nodded. “Syrinx’s actions placed an apprentice of Vesk in immediate danger. That makes three cults she has abused her position within the Church to mortally offend in the space of one day.”

“Holy hell,” Merry breathed. “If we can actually stick this to her, her ass is grass.”

“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” Casey advised.

“She’s a slimy one,” Principia mused, “but she lacks foresight. Bishop Varanus and the Guild are two factors I doubt she expected to intervene, here. His Grace is right; if we take all of this to Rouvad now, Syrinx won’t have much time to weasel out of it.”

“Then time is of the essence,” Andros declared. “Onward we go.”

The Guild enforcers fell into step alongside them as they set off again for the Temple, making the party even odder yet. The Guild had no uniform as such, but six heavily-armed, expensively-dressed thugs prowling along with the leonine grace of professional knuckledusters made a distinctive sight that most in the city would recognize. Their inclusion in a mixed group of Huntsmen and Silver Legionnaires made possibly the oddest religious procession that had ever passed through the streets of Tiraas.

Odd, but apparently not overtly suspicious; at least, they weren’t directly challenged by any of the city patrol soldiers they passed, even the two who arrived at the tail end of their conversation, no doubt in response to reports from some of the civilians who had fled the enforcers’ initial arrival.

It was a mostly silent walk the rest of the way to the temple. They were less than a block from the rear annex of the Silver Legion complex attached to the temple itself when Grip spoke again.

“By the way,” she said lightly, once again playing with a doubloon, “we had Syrinx’s pet mage carry on reporting as usual—with a few provisos. Expect to be greeted when we get there.”

“What does she know?” Andros growled.

Grip grinned unpleasantly. “That Squad Thirteen will be returning in the company of Huntsmen. The presence of Enforcers and Bishops will be news to her.”

“Oh, I am almost looking forward to this,” Merry said. Ephanie just shook her head.

The towering battlements of the fortress hove into view above them. For the third time that evening, they approached an armed checkpoint, this one staffed by Silver Legionnaires. The armored women guarding the rearmost gate into the compound’s parade grounds straightened up at their approach, their expressions mostly hidden behind their helmets. That was probably fortunate.

Principia stepped into the lead as the group reached the gates, saluting. “Squad Thirteen of the Ninth Cohort returning from maneuvers, with guests.”

“Guests,” said the guard, her helmet moving slowly as she studied the assembled group. “Right. And what business do they have here?”

“This is Bishop Varanus of the Universal Church,” Principia reported impassively, “and an emissary from Boss Tricks of the Thieves’ Guild, with their respective entourages. Both have urgent messages for High Commander Rouvad.”

“Well,” the gate guard said slowly, “you’d better go on through, then.”

Principia saluted again, then led the way through.

It was nearing midnight; there were Legionnaires patrolling the walls, but the parade ground of the Camp itself was all but deserted, illuminated only by a few fairy lights attached to the cabins. True to Grip’s predictions, a familiar dark-haired figure was cutting across the courtyard toward them even as the disparate group reached the middle of the parade ground, the armored form of Private Covrin right on her heels.

“I trust there is an incredible explanation for this,” Bishop Syrinx stated, stomping to a halt in front of the party. Her gaze panned across the assembled Legionnaires, Huntsmen and enforcers; if she was at all surprised by the group’s composition, no sign of it showed on her face.

Andros folded his brawny arms across his chest. “I will speak with High Commander Rouvad, Basra. Now.”

“About what, Andros?” she demanded.

“That I will discuss with her.”

“You’re a Bishop; you can make arrangements through the Church,” she retorted. “If you intend to bypass the bureaucracy, that can probably be arranged, but I’m going to need more than your say-so first.”

He stepped forward once, glaring down at her; she met his gaze coolly.

“I will speak to the High Commander,” he growled, “about the squad of Silver Legionnaires that was sent bumbling into a holy rite of the Huntsmen of Shaath today.”

Basra pursed her lips, turning after a moment to fix the fives Legionnaires with a flat stare. “And what, exactly, were you girls supposed to be doing?”

“Investigating reports of Shaathist activity, ma’am,” Ephanie said crisply.

Basra scowled. “And you couldn’t do that without interfering with their religious practices? If I’m not mistaken, this cohort is supposed to be training to handle relations with other faiths. Would anyone care to explain this staggering failure?”

“I have little patience for your internal quibbles,” Andros growled. “Are you going to take me to Rouvad, or am I going to wait right here with my Huntsmen until someone more competent comes to address us?”

“We know very well this was all your doing!” Tholi added with a sneer.

Ingvar sighed and shook his head.

“Tholi!” Andros barked. “Silence.”

“Oh, really,” Basra said, her voice deadly quiet. Slowly, she panned her gaze over Squad Thirteen again, this time fixing it upon Ephanie. “And so, having caused an interfaith embarrassment, you decided to weasel out of trouble by pinning the blame on your Bishop? That’s very interesting.” She took a step forward, her eyes boring into Ephanie’s. “And I don’t have to ask which of you little twerps would have the bright idea of siding with the Huntsmen against your own Legion, now do I. Not when there’s someone present with a history of that.”

“That is not what happened, your Grace,” Ephanie said evenly.

“You can explain yourself fully at your court martial, Private Avelea,” Basra shot back.

“Leave her alone,” Principia said quietly.

“Shut up, Locke,” the Bishop spat. “For once, your nonsense is not the center of attention. Avelea, you are to hand over your gear and report to the stockade—”

“You will look me in the eye when I am speaking to you!” Principia roared, stalking forward until Basra had to physically step back from her to avoid being stepped on.

“How dare you—”

“Shut the hell up, you pathetic little bully,” the elf snarled, ripping off her helmet and tossing it aside. “I have had exactly as much of your bullshit as I intend to tolerate, Syrinx. This is over. You are done, is that clear?”

“I’ll have you—”

“Button it!” Principia stepped forward again, physically bumping into Basra and jostling her backward. “You have absolutely no comprehension what you are messing with, Basra. Do you think I let you push me around and talk down to me because there’s something forcing my hand? I tolerate you, y’little punk, because I choose to. Because you are so far from being a threat that your pretensions in that direction are a constant source of amusement to me. I was playing this game when your grandparents were in swaddling, and I’ll be playing when everyone who remembered you is dust. I am so far out of your league your only hope of anything resembling success in the long run is if you manage to annoy me enough to warrant a footnote in my memoirs, and I have to tell you, Bas, you’re not there yet. The fact that you are inconveniencing me yet again is a cosmic insult.

“And let me spell this situation out for you,” she went on in a hiss, pressing forward again; Syrinx gave ground, staring at her with wide, expressionless eyes. “You have utterly failed to understand the long-term consequences of your horseshit, Basra. Nothing you have the capacity to dish out is a serious threat to my well-being. To get rid of me, you’d have to kill me, and you’re simply too weak, too slow, and too stupid to make that happen. You best-case scenario is to get me booted out of the Legions, and believe me, you don’t want that. Because the moment I no longer have to play nicely, the hourglass begins running out for you. Is that perfectly clear? Now pipe down, grow up and start picking on someone your own size, you insignificant little bitch.”

Dead silence fell. The other four members of Squad Thirteen gaped with identical expressions of shock. By contrast, the Huntsmen and Guild enforcers all wore huge grins.

Then, after a long moment, a slow smile crept across Basra’s face.

“I dearly hope you enjoyed that, private,” she whispered.

“Bishop Syrinx.”

Everyone turned at Captain Dijanerad’s voice. She stood off to one side; Grip was next to her, and the folder of Guild papers was in the captain’s hands. She kept her expressionless gaze fixed on Basra.

“You and Squad Thirteen are to report to the High Commander’s office immediately. She wants a word with all of you.”

“I require a few minutes of her time, as well,” Andros rumbled.

Dijanerad looked up at him, her expression not altering. “This may take some time, your Grace. I’m sure she would be glad to set up an appointment for you first thing tomorrow.”

“I will speak with her as soon as she is finished with these,” he declared. “I can wait.”

“Very well,” the captain said noncommittally. “Private Covrin, see that some accommodations are found for our guests, along with whatever they require. Within reason.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Covrin said crisply.

“I believe you can count us out,” Grip said lazily, already strolling back toward the gate. “Just get that stuff into her hands, and our job here is done. The Boss will be eagerly awaiting the Commander’s response. Toodleoo, boys and girls.”

The rest of the enforcers fell into step behind her, making their way languidly out of the courtyard.

“As for the rest of you,” Dijanerad said grimly, dragging her stare across Squad Thirteen to fix it on Basra, “forward march.”

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8 – 19

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Principia caught Ephanie’s eye and tilted her head significantly. The other private straightened up and stepped to the side, where the elf joined her.

Farah was busy tending to the girl’s injuries, which were extremely minor—no more than abrasions from the cords that had bound her wrists and ankles. She wasn’t even bruised, as far as they could see without further disrupting her clothing. She mostly appeared frightened, which was reasonable. Casey knelt beside her, murmuring encouragingly and keeping a steadying hand on her shoulder. Merry stood to one side, lance in hand and eyes constantly roaming.

“What do you think?” Principia asked softly.

“I don’t know what to think,” Ephanie replied in the same tone. “I can’t imagine her story being true, for reasons we’ve been over. But I don’t know how she got in that bag if it wasn’t, or why she would lie.”

Principia studied the shaking young woman critically. The girl lifted her eyes, noticing her stare, and quickly averted her gaze.

“This whole thing stinks,” she murmured. “She didn’t place herself in that bag, obviously. I’m sure the Sisters would have words with me about victim-blaming, but I’m inclined to regard that girl as an accomplice in whatever we’re being herded into.”

Ephanie nodded, her expression dour.

They rejoined the group as Farah was helping the erstwhile captive to her feet.

“Can you tell us what happened, ma’am?” Casey asked. “I know this has been a hard day for you, but we need as much detail as you can remember if we’re going to help the others.”

“I…it was…” She broke off, swallowing, then nodded. “I’ll try.”

“What’s your name?” Farah asked gently.

“I’m Ami. Ami Talaari. I’m a student at the bardic college in Madouris.”

“That’s a good few miles from here,” Principia noted, raising her eyebrows. “Were you abducted from there?”

Ami shook her head. “No, I wasn’t far from here. At least, I don’t think… I was camping in the woods. It’s part of bard training, we do that regularly, but this was my first solo camp. Ah, where are we now, exactly?”

“Half a day’s walk from Tiraas itself, maybe a little more,” Casey replied, pointing. “That way, east by southeast. Or, there’s a longer but safer route; just head due south a couple of hours until you reach the highway and follow that back to the city. Don’t worry, we’ll take you there.”

“But the other girls!” Ami said, her eyes widening. “You can’t leave them!”

“We’re not going to,” Farah said firmly. “Please go on. How did you come to be in this bag?”

Ami swallowed again, closing her eyes and shuddering. “I was just walking, you know, practicing navigating, and they popped up out of nowhere. There were four, all Huntsmen. With the fur and leather, you know, and the bows?”

“Out of nowhere?” Merry asked, still scanning their surroundings.

“Well, I didn’t see or hear anything until they were right on top of me. I guess professional Huntsmen are more capable in the woods than an apprentice bard.”

“Go on,” Casey said encouragingly.

Ami wrung her hands in front of her, keeping her eyes down as she continued. “They wouldn’t talk to me. Just slapped me when I tried to yell or even talk, pushed me along ahead with those bows. They put a blindfold on me so I couldn’t see… It was at least an hour like that, I got completely turned around. But we came to some kind of camp. At least, I could hear more men, and other girls. Crying, mostly.” She swallowed heavily and drew in a shuddering breath. “They hit us again when we tried to talk to each other. Then they put me in that bag, and I could hear the other girls struggling as they were being tied up, too. They brought me out here and…left. That was the last I heard until you came along.”

Casey nodded solicitously. “Well, you’re safe now. We’ll take you back—”

“But the others!” Ami said, raising her head and staring up at her in alarm.

“We will rescue the others,” Farah said firmly, “but we’re not about to abandon you here in the forest, after all you’ve been through.”

“Can you give us any idea which way their camp might be?” Casey asked.

Ami shook her head. “I was in the bag when… I’m sorry, I don’t know.”

“It’s okay. We have trackers, we’ll find ’em. For now, we need to escort you back—”

“But who knows how long they have!” Ami said tremulously. “I don’t even know what they were doing with us. You can’t leave the others that long, they may be gone before you can come back with reinforcements!”

“You want to come with us, then?” Merry asked mildly.

The girl blanched, shaking her head violently. “I can find my own way back, it’s no problem. South to the road, you said?”

“Yes,” Farah said slowly. “But—”

“Got it, that’s easy,” Ami said hastily, taking a step to the side. “South is…this way?”

“Right,” said Casey.

“Good, I’ll be safe once I reach the highway. Please hurry, you have to help the others! And thanks again!”

The five Legionnaires stood watching her as she vanished into the shady distance. The forest was well-cleared of underbrush; there wasn’t much to impede their view of her until she was lost among the trees.

“Well,” said Casey, “that was an abrupt exit. So!” She turned to face the others. “Shall we count all the ways that was full of shit?”

“That story was more holes than story,” Ephanie said, glaring after Ami. “She wasn’t blindfolded and hadn’t been beaten.”

“I’ve only had the basic first aid courses,” Farah added, “but I’m pretty sure she had not been tied in that bad all that long.”

“And Huntsmen wouldn’t use their bows to push someone,” Ephanie said as an afterthought. “Their equipment is fae-blessed and highly personal; they treat it with respect.”

“Seems really peculiar that she’d be so eager to go off alone into the woods after that alleged experience,” Merry commented. “Not to mention the insistence that we go after the other girls right now, specifically without going for reinforcements.”

“Have you found something?” Ephanie asked Principia, who was prowling around the tree to which Ami had been tied, studying the ground.

“Well, the tracks don’t explicitly contradict her story,” the elf said, eyes still down. “At least, not all of it. She was put in the sack here, not dragged here in it.”

“She never said dragged,” Merry pointed out. “Might have been carried.”

“There are two sets of tracks leading to this tree, and one matches her shoes,” Principia replied, pointing at the ground in the direction Ami had vanished. The others peered at the earth, then at each other, having failed to discern any clear footprints—the ground was dry and the springy moss and ground cover not conducive to leaving traces. “Plus… here’s where it was done, against the side of the tree there. And it doesn’t prove anything, strictly speaking, but I do not see signs of a struggle. She got in the bag willingly.”

“Could’ve been under duress,” said Merry. “Just to play demon’s advocate.”

Principia nodded. “So, two possibilities. There is a very slim chance that we are actually dealing with rogue Huntsmen in these woods, but a much greater likelihood that this is a trap aimed at us specifically, in which case that girl has at least one accomplice.”

“Presumably others,” Farah said grimly. “Wouldn’t be much of a trap for the five of us if it’s just one.”

Prin nodded again. “In either case, we need to assume there are hostiles up ahead.”

“What if we broke off here?” Merry suggested. “We’ve got a story from one witness which we can tell is a load of crap. Doesn’t the fact that we know it’s a trap give us cause not to charge into it?”

Ephanie sighed and shook her head. “The fudged details in Ami’s story are consistent with the kinds of things traumatized witnesses often come up with. Considering what’s at stake—half a dozen women allegedly abducted—we’d be considered derelict of duty at least if we didn’t investigate.”

“There is also the fact that this whole thing is stupid and an obvious setup,” Principia added. “If Syrinx can arrange to have us sent out on this bullshit, she can arrange to cast it in the worst possible light if we refuse to go for it. We’d better press on. Remember what I said, ladies: there’s a risk of physical harm, here, but also a very good chance this is a subtler kind of snare. Making us look bad would be more consistent with Syrinx’s pattern and better serve her goals than roughing us up. Still, be ready for anything.”

“Be ready for anything, she says,” Merry groused. “I think that’s the most meaningless statement ever uttered. How can you be ready for anything?”

Principia grinned at her before turning to study the ground again. “All right, well… The tracks come from this way, but after Ami was tied to the tree, they head off to the north… Avelea, fold up that bag and bring it along, will you? It’s evidence at minimum.”

“On it.”

“We’ve got our path before us, then, ladies,” Principia said, slinging her shield over her back. “Stay alert, call out if you spot anything. Keep in loose formation, but don’t spread out too far. Let’s move out.”

As they progressed through the trees, more signs appeared. Principia mentioned and pointed to other tracks in the vicinity, some crossing the one they followed, though only Ephanie could discern any of these, and not all of them. However, there appeared traces which were apparent to all of them in the form of more Shaathist talismans hung on the trees.

“This is alarming,” Ephanie said as they paused to study one of these. “I’m almost certain they’re genuine. Locke, do they have magic in them?”

“Yup, same as the first one.”

Ephanie frowned. “If we’re assuming no actual Huntsmen are working here… Just who has Syrinx hired and how did they get their hands on all these?”

“Can you tell anything about the pattern in which they’re placed?” Casey asked.

“It’s not necessarily done in a specific pattern,” said Ephanie. “Mostly just to define an area… I don’t think that’s what we’re seeing here, though, or we wouldn’t keep spotting them unless we happened to be skirting the perimeter of whatever’s going on…”

“Not impossible,” said Principia, pointing to the barely discernible path of crushed undergrowth she had been following. “We’re following this guy.”

“Also, that assumes this is an actual Shaathist operation,” said Farah, “which I thought we weren’t assuming.”

“Right,” said Ephanie. “But this means there are actual Shaathists at the back of this somewhere. Either corrupt enough to give out their talismans, which I can’t see happening…”

“Or going to be very pissed off when they find out about this?” Casey suggested. Ephanie nodded, her jaw set.

“Keep alert, ladies,” Principia murmured. “Theorizing is fine, but don’t forget to watch the trees.”

Merry rolled her eyes, but nobody offered a reply. They followed her in silence, dutifully scanning the forest. There seemed to be nothing in the vicinity but songbirds.

Less than five minutes later, Principia came to a sudden halt, staring around.

“Um,” said Farah. “Are we there yet?”

“The trail ends here,” Principia said, frowning.

“What do you mean, it ends?” Merry demanded.

“Just that,” the elf said, exasperated. “It ends. Stops. There is no more trail.”

“Are you sure you were following an actual trail, city elf?”

“Yes,” Prin said curtly, now bending forward to carefully examine the underbrush. “Stay back, don’t trample anything…”

“How could the trail just end?” Casey asked. “I mean… There’s nobody here.”

Farah craned her neck back, peering into the trees above them.

With a sigh, Principia straightened up. “Well, there’s a simple enough explanation. Teleporting or shadow-jumping would do it. I was looking for some sign of either, but… It’s actually rare that they cause any after-effects to the environment, and teleportation only leaves arcane traces for a few minutes.”

“Shit,” Merry muttered. “You’re sure there was a—”

“Yes, I’m sure there was a trail!”

“Why go this far from the tree where they tied up Ami and then suddenly teleport out?” Ephanie asked, frowning.

“No telling,” Prin said, then sighed heavily. “But assuming that’s what happened, and I don’t have a better idea, it means there was a mage involved in this. Or a warlock.”

“Portal mages come pretty cheap these days,” said Casey, “especially the less-than-reputable kind Syrinx would have to bribe to scry on us.”

“Well,” said Principia, “we have a couple of options, ladies, and both involve backtracking. We can go back and try one of the trails that crossed this one, which could be anybody at all… Or we can go all the way back to the tree where Ami was and follow her tracks and this one to wherever they came from in the first place.”

“Come on, that’s not a choice,” Merry said derisively. “Second option’s the only one that makes any sense.”

Casey heaved a sigh. “Well… Time’s wasting, girls.”

Indeed, the afternoon was beginning to fade by the time they returned to the tree still carrying scraps of cord which had held up the wilderbag. Principia stopped there, looking critically around.

“I’ve got a feeling we do not want to be out here doing this after dark,” she said.

“Agreed,” Ephanie said emphatically.

“Hang on,” Prin said, narrowing her eyes and turning to stare off into the woods. “Quiet for a moment, please.”

They waited while she stood stock-still, peering into the distant shadows, then suddenly started forward.

“You hear something?” Farah guessed, falling into step behind her.

“Some kind of struggle up ahead,” Prin reported. “Stay alert.”

“We never stopped,” Merry grumbled. “Too much staying alert is going to make my face freeze this way…”

“I bet you’re a joy to serve a night watch with,” Ephanie commented.

The squad fell silent as they proceeded, catching Principia’s intent mood. They naturally slipped back into loose formation, moving through the forest in a rough arrowhead with the elf at its point.

Several minutes before catching sight of it, they could hear sounds from up ahead, in a rather creepy parallel of their initial discovery of Ami’s wilderbag. There was no voice this time, however, and as they came in sight of it through the screen of trees, they found another hanging wilderbag thrashing far more violently than Ami’s had been.

The squad stopped within ten yards of it, studying the bag intently. As they watched, it squirmed again, straining the cords binding it to the tree.

“See or hear anyone else nearby?” Casey asked in a whisper.

Principia shook her head. “Huntsmen have ways around elvish senses. So do the Black Wreath.”

“Gods, don’t borrow trouble,” Merry groaned. “Syrinx and the Huntsmen are enough. Why would the—”

“I was just making the point that my senses may be sharper, but they aren’t infallible,” Principia said shortly. “Come on, same as before. Watch for any traps or ambushes, but don’t dawdle.”

Again she led the way, approaching the bag cautiously with her squadmates fanned out, weapons aimed at the surrounding forest.

“Take it easy in there,” Principia said quietly. “We’re here to help.”

The bag only thrashed harder. She glanced around at the others, then slung her shield on her back, planted her lance and drew her belt knife. When she touched the bag, however, its squirming redoubled, forcing her to step back.

“Calm,” Prin urged, frowning. “We’re with the Silver Legions. Hold still and I’ll have you out of there in a minute.”

If the message was even heard, the prisoner gave no sign, only thrashing harder. She narrowed her eyes, studying the wilderbag. “Avelea… Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

“Can you be more specific?” Ephanie asked, glancing over at her but immediately returning her gaze to the forest.

“I…don’t think this is a person in here. The way it’s moving… Would actual Huntsmen put a live animal in one of these bags?”

“Sure, there are several rites that call for that. It would make a lot more sense than putting women in them.”

“Hm… Have a care, ladies, I’m not sure what’s about to come out of here.”

Tucking her knife back into its sheath, she shimmied lightly up the tree and out onto the branch to which its drawstring was tied, seemingly unhampered by her armor. A few quick strokes severed the cords, loosening the top of the wilderbag.

It was still tied to the tree, but no longer secured at the top. Almost immediately, the thrashing of the bag’s occupant wrenched open its mouth, and a pair a flailing hooves attached to slender legs appeared.

“Yikes,” said Casey, backing away. “Good call, Locke.”

“Should we—” Farah broke off as the fawn got its head out, managing to hook one long foreleg over the lip of the wilderbag. From there it only had to flail for a few more moments before finally dragging itself free and tumbling gracelessly to the ground.

The four Legionnaires on the ground backed further away, Principia remaining on her perch up above, as the fawn rolled to its feet. It took one look at them and bounded off into the woods.

“Aww,” Farah cooed, gazing avidly after the creature. “It’s adorable!”

“You are such a girl,” Merry commented.

An arrow thunked into the tree next to her head.

Reflex took over; instantly they all had shields and lances up, falling into formation facing the direction from which the arrow had come. Afternoon was fading into early evening; the shadows beneath the trees had deepened, revealing nothing of their attacker.

Then Principia hit the ground beside them, her own shield already out; no sooner had she landed than another arrow slammed into it.

“We’re flanked!” she snapped. “Crescent! Form up on the tree!”

She snagged her lance out of the earth and slipped into their line even as it bent backward, wrapping them into an arc with the thick old oak at their backs. It was a purely defensive formation; keeping their shields locked together in a convex arc that tight crammed them so closely together that none had room to draw swords, or even thrust with their lances. This was done only when taking fire from multiple directions, to buy a squad time to identify their attacker’s positions and adjust their formation accordingly. Unfortunately, the size of their squad severely limited their options; five women simply couldn’t form a shield wall large enough to protect in multiple directions.

“You dare?” roared a voice out of the darkness. Another arrow slammed into Ephanie’s shield, followed by more, striking them from three directions.

“Three angles of attack,” Ephanie said tersely. “On my signal, form a long wedge—Locke, you’re point, aimed at the center—” She broke off with a grunt as another arrow thudded into her shield. “Then step left past the tree and retreat. Ready?”

“Wait,” Farah said tersely. “Try talking to them, Avelea! You know something of their ways, don’t you?”

“These can’t actually be Huntsmen—”

Principia hissed in displeasure as an arrow slipped through a minute gap in their shield wall, grazing her helmet. “They’re not elves, and nobody else still handles bows this accurately.”

“Hold your fire!” Ephanie shouted. “Parley!”

“You can parley with the damned, slattern!” snarled the voice which had first spoken.

Immediately after that proclamation, a ghost wolf bounded out of the trees, landing before them with its hackles raised, snarling.

“We mean you no harm!” Ephanie tried again.

“You defile our hunt, and dare claim that?” demanded another voice. Finally, a figure emerged from the dimness. It was a Huntsman of Shaath, all right, or at least appeared to be. He wore a ragged pelt over his sturdy leather armor, carrying a bow with arrow nocked and aimed at them. Beneath a snarling cap made from a bear’s head, his bearded face was painted with lines of green and black.

“Oh, shit,” Principia whispered. “I see what she did.”

“What?” Merry demanded.

“Those who defile the hunt shall become the hunted!” bellowed the first voice, its owner appearing. He was an older man, his beard more than half-gray, but looked no less sturdy than the other, and if anything, more angry. He also had a bow trained on their tiny formation. Around them, other figures began to materialize from the woods.

“Girls,” Principia said tersely, “I need you to trust me, here. If you value your lives, do as I do.”

“I don’t like the sound of that,” Merry grated.

Principia raised her voice. “We surrender!”

With that, she lowered her shield, dropping her lance, and placed her hands atop her helmet.

“We what?” Merry snarled.

Ephanie immediately followed suit, however, dropping her weapons and putting her hands on her head. The Huntsmen slowed, a few of them narrowing their eyes to study the Legionnaires suspiciously.

Farah and Casey exchanged a wide-eyed stare, then slowly followed Principia’s example. Merry was the last, cursing under her breath the whole time. “So help me, Locke, if this gets us killed I’m haunting your ass…”

The five Legionnaires were already down on one knee due to their defensive posture, having braced shields against the ground. With their weapons down, they were in an obviously submissive position, and keenly aware of their vulnerability. At the range into which the encircling Huntsmen now stepped, even their armor might not have stopped one of those arrows, and these archers were more than capable of aiming for exposed flesh through the gaps.

There was also the ghost wolf, which still snarled, but had yet to attack.

The older man stalked forward, baring his teach in a furious growl. “None of your tricks, Avenist harlots! Draw your blades and die like warriors.”

“Stop!” shouted another voice.

From the half-dozen Huntsmen now encircling the Legionnaires, a much younger man stepped forward. Indeed, “man” might have been a generous description; he was clearly well under twenty, with a short and patchy beard. He, too, had an arrow nocked, but unlike his compatriots, his bow was aimed at the ground and not drawn.

“Hold, Grauvan,” the youth ordered. “They surrendered.”

“We are not Avenists, pup!” the old man spat. “We do not accept terms from deviants and defilers. Those who defy the Wild die beneath its fangs!”

“This is my rite,” the young man shot back, stalking right up to him. “That was my catch they despoiled.”

“You be mindful of your elders, boy!” the gray-bearded one roared, turning to face him. “You are in no position to challenge me!”

“I will not be party to the killing of disarmed, kneeling women!” the youth shouted right back, stomping forward and pushing himself into his elder’s face. “Before I see Shaath’s honor defiled this way, I will put an arrow in you myself!”

“You dare offer—”

“ENOUGH!”

Silence fell, and two more figures entered the scene.

The assembled Huntsmen respectfully made way for them, most finally lowering their weapons, though one kept the five Legionnaires covered. A tall, powerfully built man strode straight into the middle of the scene, followed by a beardless fellow, both also carrying bows.

“It seems I am barely in time to prevent a true disgrace,” the tall one growled. “Well spoken, Tholi. Grauvan, you are justly rebuked by the lad—think on that. That we are not soldiers does not entitle us to be monsters. There will be no violence toward surrendered enemies.”

“As you say, Brother Andros,” Grauvan said curtly, stepping back from him. He did not lower his head or eyes, though, holding Andros’s gaze with his own.

The Bishop stared right back at him for a long moment before turning to the young man. “Explain this display, Tholi.”

“We came upon these women interfering with my hunt,” the youth reported, casting a contemptuous glance at the five kneeling Legionnaires. “They destroyed my wilderbag and freed the offering I had placed within. Grauvan and Rhein fired upon them, they made a defensive posture, and then surrendered.” He glanced over at them again, this time more critically. “Apparently without injury.”

Andros turned to study the soldiers. “Do you contest this account?”

“No, your Grace,” Principia said immediately. “However, there’s—” She broke off as he peremptorily held up a hand.

“Remove your helmets,” the Bishop ordered.

Principia did so immediately, prompting murmurs from the gathered Huntsmen as her ears were revealed, followed more slowly by her squadmates. This time, Ephanie was the last to comply.

Andros fixed his gaze on her specifically, a heavy frown falling over his features.

“Ephanie,” he said in a deep tone of patrician disappointment. “Does Feldren know where you are?”

“With all respect, your Grace,” she said stiffly, “it is no longer Feldren’s concern what I do. Or yours.”

“Hnh,” he grunted. “That is clearly not the case if you are interfering in the rites of the Huntsmen. You, girl.” He returned his stare to Principia. “Explain yourself, quickly.”

“We were dispatched to this forest,” she said immediately, “to investigate rumors that Huntsmen had been abducting women.”

“Lies!” Grauvan burst out. Andros held up a hand to silence him, nodding at Principia to continue.

“Earlier today,” she said, “we found a young woman suspended from a tree in a wilderbag—”

“This is slanderous filth! I will not—”

“You will be silent!” Andros roared, turning the full force of his glare upon Grauvan. “I will hear their account before I judge it. Go on, girl.”

“She was in a bag,” Principia said, keeping a careful eye on the bristling Grauvan. “When we cut her loose, she claimed to have been abducted and held against her will by Huntsmen, along with several other women.” Angry murmurs rose from the other men present.

“And where is this girl now?” Andros demanded.

“Absent,” Principia said flatly. “In fact, she was oddly insistent on leaving, alone, as soon as she was freed. Your Grace… We were regarding this assignment as a mere formality to begin with. As Private Avelea explained, the idea that Huntsmen would be taking women was highly improbable.”

“To say the least,” Andros rumbled, giving Ephanie another look.

“The girl we rescued,” Principia went on, “made us revise our assumption. She claimed to have been abused in ways for which she bore no marks, and the fact that she was eager to go off alone in the forest among allegedly predatory Huntsmen was telling. It’s our opinion this is all some kind of trick.”

A few moments of quiet fell, in which mutters were exchanged among the Huntsmen present. Andros simply frowned, studying Princpia in silence. The beardless man who had accompanied him paced forward slowly, examining the kneeling women with a more calm expression than any of his compatriots wore.

Finally, Andros nodded as if coming to a conclusion, and spoke. “Men, lower your weapons. Girls, you may stand, and take up yours.”

“You don’t believe this fairy tale?!” Grauvan burst out.

Andros gave him another withering look. “Know your enemies, Grauvan, and do not assign faults to them that they don’t possess out of your own dislike. That is the path toward defeat. For all their failings, the Silver Legions are not prone toward elaborate intrigues, or deceitfulness in general.” He returned a more contemplative gaze to the five soldiers as they slowly straightened up and retrieved their lances and shields, the last Huntsman having lowered his bow. “I find it no stretch to believe they were tricked. These girls are not our enemy, men. Furthermore, upon realizing their mistake, they offered a proper show of submission, which shows honor and an unusual degree of good sense for Legionnaires.”

“Nice to be appreciated,” Merry muttered sullenly. Ephanie gave her a sharp look and shook her head.

“I don’t know whether this trap was aimed at the Legion or the Huntsmen,” Andros continued, his face falling into a deep scowl, “but whoever the target, someone has taken the Huntsmen of Shaath for fools. This urgently requires correction. Tholi!”

“Yes, Brother Andros?” the young man replied.

“I’m afraid fate has spoiled your rite; it will have to be redone another time. For now…”

“For now,” Tholi said, a grin breaking across his features, “we hunt?”

Andros nodded firmly. “We hunt.”

“WE HUNT!” roared the assembled Huntsmen in unison. As one, they turned and formed into a loose ring, surrounding the five Legionnaires.

“Oh, good,” Farah mumbled warily, “they hunt.”

“Peace,” Ephanie murmured. “Don’t be provocative.”

“Come,” Andros said curtly to the soldiers. “We will return to Tiraas, and seek out the one who has arranged this. Do you know who might attempt such a prank?”

The two groups set into motion, eying each other warily as they walked. The Huntsmen remained in a wider ring, ranging before, behind and to the sides of the group and keeping the Legionnaires encircled in their center.

“That’s a deceptively complex question, your Grace,” Principia said carefully.

He grunted. “No, it isn’t.”

“What I mean,” she said, “is that we’re in a rather tense position. Making anything that might amount to an accusation could have severe consequences for us. Especially since we don’t have evidence to prove one.”

Andros glanced at her. “I am no stranger to the politics of Tiraas, girl. Anything you say to me will go no further. Give me a direction in which to hunt, and I will find the tracks you need. I infer, from your guarded comments, that you know such a direction?”

Prin glanced over her shoulder at her squadmates. Ephanie nodded encouragingly.

“Just out of curiosity, your Grace,” Principia said, “are you acquainted at all with Bishop Syrinx?”

Andros’s frown deepened into a truly fearsome scowl. He drew in a long breath and let it out in an explosive sigh that ruffled his beard.

“So,” he growled, “the plot thins.”

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8 – 18

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“If Avelea has the map,” Merry grumbled, “why is Locke in the lead?”

“Seriously?” Farah gave her a wide-eyed look over her shoulder. “Really? We’re walking in the woods, and you don’t want the wood elf to lead?”

“That,” Merry said accusingly, pointing at Principia, “is a city elf. Deny it, Locke!”

“How about just leaving me out of your little sideshow routine?” Principia suggested.

“Really, though, I mean it. Why is the person with the map not navigating? Knowing how to find your way through the woods doesn’t mean knowing how to find your way to specific coordinates.”

“I already told her where we’re going,” Ephanie remarked from the back of their little column. “And all of you, for that matter. If Locke knows the way, I’m fine with her leading.”

“It isn’t hard,” Principia said reasonably. “I’m quite familiar with these forests, anyway. Being a city girl, and specifically an Eserite city girl, I’ve had all kinds of good reasons to know how to disappear from Tiraas or Madouris in a hurry.”

“Finally, an explanation I can believe,” Merry muttered. “I guess if you’re a hundred years old, you can’t help picking up a few tricks.”

“Two hundred and forty-eight,” Principia corrected. “Wait, no… What year is it? Oh, right, then yes. Two hundred forty-eight.”

Casey let out a low whistle.

“That is so weird to think about,” Farah said in an awed tone. “You were around before the Consolidation. You were alive and working during the Age of Adventures!”

“There’s a lot of difference of opinion concerning when that ended,” Prin commented. “It was already winding down when I started out. Not everybody’s convinced it’s over yet, either. I have it on good authority that some people still go adventuring in the Golden Sea.” She turned to grin at Merry.

“Not smart people,” Merry said with a sigh.

“Shouldn’t much matter who has the map, anyhow,” Casey added. “We’ve all had wilderness survival training.”

“You’ve all had very basic wilderness survival training,” Principia said disdainfully. “I am minimally confident you could manage not to get killed in these extremely tame woods in the time it would take you to reach a settlement. In a real wilderness, what they teach in basic won’t get you very far.”

“Yep, we Legionnaires are constantly being set up for horrible death,” Merry groused. “Oh, no, wait, that’s just this squad.”

“And that’s just basic training,” Ephanie added. “There’s plenty of advanced training available for scouts and others. You have to qualify for that, though, and have a reason you need it.”

“Is that where you learned?” Prin asked.

Ephanie frowned. “Pardon?”

“C’mon, I’ve seen you checking trees for moss, and I know what those herbs you stopped and picked are for.”

Ephanie pursed her lips in displeasure, then sighed. “I…no. I had some training from… From other sources. Yeah, you’re right, though, I’m confident I’d be okay alone in the woods.”

Principia glanced back at her. “That being the case, why don’t you let somebody else hold the map? If we should happen to get separated, it makes sense to add an extra advantage to whoever doesn’t have those skills.”

“That’s a pretty good idea,” Ephanie said, producing a folded sheaf of paper from one of her belt pouches. She lengthened her stride, moving up in the formation, and handed it to Farah. “Here.”

“What? Me?” Farah frowned, but accepted it. “Thanks…I guess. I’m a little bothered you think I’m the most helpless person here.”

“It’s not that,” Ephanie said with a smile. “Locke’s a wood elf and Lang was a frontier adventurer. I figure they have less need. Plus, you and Elwick tend to stick together, so giving it to one of you has a better chance of aiding both.”

“Oh. Well. I guess that makes sense.”

“If it makes you feel better,” Merry said sardonically, “I’m just as helpless in the woods as you are. I was heading into the Golden Sea. The total number of trees there is between zero and one, depending on whether the World Tree is a real thing.”

“It is,” said Prin, “but it’s in the Deep Wild, not the Golden Sea.”

“Well, I guess the knife-ear would know.”

“Whoah,” Casey said, frowning. “Let’s not with the racial slurs, okay?”

“There are regulations about that,” Ephanie added.

“Don’t say that to a plains elf unless you want a tomahawk up your ass,” Principia said, grinning back at them, “but I’m not much bothered by it. Usually when someone insults me, it’s a lot worse and a lot more deserved. That’s just friendly joshing as far as I’m concerned.”

“Do they actually do that with tomahawks?” Merry asked curiously. “Up the ass?”

“Yes,” Principia said solemnly. “Then they scalp you and do a rain dance around their teepees while the squaws make wampum—”

“All right, all right, I was just asking! No need to be a bitch about it.”

“Gendered insults,” Ephanie said mildly. “Also addressed in regulations.”

“There are no regulations in the woods, Avelea.”

“…that’s so wrong I’m actually at a loss how to begin responding to it.”

“Point to Lang, then,” Principia said cheerfully, coming to a sudden stop and then changing course, heading into the trees to their right. “C’mere, there’s fresh water up ahead. It’s nearing noon and we’re a ways off from our search zone yet. Good time to break for rations before we’re in potentially hazardous territory.”

“I don’t hear any water,” Casey said, though she followed Prin without hesitation.

“You also don’t have ears as long as your foot,” Farah said with a smile.

“Yes, okay, fine. Well, the good news is, that’s not the dumbest thing I’ve ever said.”

“Today, even.”

“Oh, up yours.”

They reached a small stream within minutes, but Principia led them onward along its banks until they came to a flat slab of well-worn rock extending partially over it. There was a ring of blackened stones arranged in its center, with fallen logs encircling it as obvious seats; the evidence of a fire wasn’t recent, but hadn’t been there long enough to have been completely washed away by the region’s persistent rains. This was clearly a popular campsite.

The five Legionnaires were in good shape for hiking, but it was still with groans of relief that they seated themselves. They had well-stuffed belt pouches rather than backpacks, so there wasn’t reason to put down their supplies, but this was the first opportunity they’d enjoyed in several hours to set aside their lances. Farah removed her shield, but the others left theirs slung on their backs.

While they chewed dried meat, Casey picked out a small runed charm from her pouch, turning it over in her hand and studying the markings. “This is it, right? The tracking thinger?”

“Yup,” Principia said, idly scanning their surroundings. There was not much to see except trees; the cheerful sound of birdsong and the rushing of the stream below made it a remarkably pleasant place for lunch.

“It’s about noon,” Casey murmured, looking up at the sky through the gap in the trees around them. “Captain Dijanerad said she’d be sending someone out after us as soon as she cleared up the mess with our orders…”

“The captain is not going to rescue us,” Principia said quietly. “We’re on our own out here, ladies.”

“How hard can it be?” Farah asked, frowning. “I mean… Avelea was right, this mission is nonsense. Surely someone in command will see that.”

“That is exactly the problem,” Principia said with a sigh. “It’s blatant nonsense, which means it should, in theory, be simple enough to get it scrubbed out through the chain of command. Therefore, the captain will do that, and run into whatever roadblock Syrinx put up to stop her from succeeding. Because Syrinx is definitely clever enough to do that. The mission is a trap for us; the foolish nature of it is a bait-and-switch trick aimed at the captain.”

“She’s always backed us up before,” Merry pointed out.

“Shahdi Dijanerad is a solid woman and a good soldier,” Principia said. “If we were going into a battle, I’d be glad to do it under her command. But when it comes to shady maneuvering, she just doesn’t have the right mindset to take on Syrinx. I’m just hoping whatever the Bishop’s doing back there is only designed to slow her, not to get her in actual trouble.”

“Again,” said Merry, “she managed before…”

“She had Covrin sneaking her intel before,” Prin said darkly. “I have to say I wasn’t best pleased to learn that. I’d been thinking the captain was savvy enough to hold Syrinx off, but if she was just getting help from a spy… I don’t know. The point is, that’s back there and we’re out here.”

“Locke’s right,” said Ephanie. “Even if Dijanerad manages, it’s best to keep our minds on this situation rather than counting on some outside influence to save us.”

“Which brings us back to the big question we’ve all carefully avoided discussing,” said Casey with a grimace. “Save us from what?”

“Anything we could say about that would be pure conjecture,” said Principia. “So it’s best not to. Keep a clear mind and don’t get attached to any theories; we’ll have a better chance of facing whatever it is that way.”

“Elwick does make a good point, though,” Merry said seriously. “This isn’t Tiraas. There’s nobody out here to witness anything that happens to us. If Syrinx’s stake in getting rid of us is as serious as Darling suggested, we could very well be in actual physical danger, here.”

Principia shook her head. “She won’t go that far.”

“She is fully capable of ordering us killed, or…anything else,” Casey said, grimacing.

“Psychologically, yes, I don’t doubt she is,” Principia agreed. “But the situation isn’t that simple, from her point of view. As I’ve mentioned, these are old and well-traveled woods. The Imperial foresters probably go over every inch of the province every few years. Think what would happen if a squad of Silver Legionnaires went missing around here. Everyone would be sent out to search for us, not just the Sisterhood. Anything dangerous enough to take down five Legionnaires this close to the capital would be an immediate security issue to the Imperial government. There would be no way to hide the bodies that Avenist scouts and Imperial scryers wouldn’t be able to track down.”

“The bodies,” Merry muttered, wrapping her arms about herself. “That’s just fuckin’ lovely.”

“She can’t risk drawing that kind of attention. No, this is more of the same,” Principia said, frowning. “We’re probably in more physical danger—whatever she’s got set up out here is likely something that could hurt us. It would make sense for her to have arranged something to justify this asshat mission after the fact. It’s probably more character assassination, though, not the literal kind. Syrinx isn’t yet cornered hard enough to try something that risky.”

“What do you think she has waiting out here?” Casey asked, staring intently at the elf. “You’re the craftiest of us, Locke. What would you do if you were Basra?”

Prin shook her head again. “No idea. No data. She doesn’t scheme like an Eserite, either; she’s underhanded, but has a very Avenist approach. Find the enemy, smash the enemy. There’s no sense of flair or playfulness like a good Eserite con would have. Anyhow, with the world as her potential arsenal… Just too many options.” She shrugged. “This could be something as simple as having us waste a day wandering in the forest to demoralize us. Since we have good reason to expect a trap, that’s gonna be plenty demoralizing on its own, and if nothing happens, it could serve to soften us up for the real hit later on.”

“Uh huh,” Merry said with a scowl. “And does anybody really think that’s all it is?”

Farah sighed. “About how far are we from our destination?”

“Less than another hour on foot,” said Prin. “From there…”

“It’s a fairly sizable chunk of territory,” Ephanie added. “Standard search protocol would have us split up to comb the area.”

“Yeah, we will not be doing that,” Principia said firmly.

“If it’s another dereliction of duty kind of trap,” Merry began.

“I don’t care,” said Prin. “Should that happen, I’m comfortable taking punishment for failing to adhere to search protocols if it means Syrinx explaining why and how she found out we did. We are not going to set ourselves up to get picked off one-by-one.”

“Even though you don’t think she’s going to try that?” Farah asked.

“Even then,” Principia replied with a grim nod. “We have to make plans based on available information, but any assumptions about what an enemy is or isn’t willing to do should be considered tentative. Any disagreements?”

There were none.


 

He walked in no hurry, simply enjoying the quiet, the openness, the harmony of being surrounded by natural things. In the wild, even a lesser wild such as this, the point was not to get somewhere, but to be somewhere. It disappointed him, the span of minutes it always took to immerse himself in it after departing the pressure of humanity in the city. In his youth, it had been the other way around.

If not for these regular excursions into the forest, Andros sometimes feared he would truly lose himself.

But Tiraas was a crowded and complicated memory, by now, its tensions seeping from him and into the earth. He and his companion walked along over the moss and grass, beneath swaying boughs, listening to the voices of birds and of the wind. They spoke little and only at need; Huntsmen did not fill nature’s stillness with chatter. Talking was for when there was something to say.

They came to a break in the trees, where the land rose up in a small ridge. A low, rounded ridge, to be sure; the ancient hills of the Tira Valley were gently rolling things except along the very edges of the canyon through which the River Tira flowed. Andros stopped, standing still and feeling the mild wind caress his hair and beard. They hadn’t yet gotten around to any actual hunting, the alleged purpose of this trip. But then, it wasn’t as if they needed meat or hides. The hunting was simply a way to reconnect with nature. There were other, smaller ways, and it was worth pausing to savor them.

Ingvar came up stand next to him, gazing down the incline before them to the forest below with the same expression of calm that Andros felt on his own face. He was good company—a good Huntsman, and a good agent even in the treacherous currents of city politics, which was a large part of why Andros had offered him the honor of joining his hunt. Ingvar was a solid enough companion that his beardless face was slightly jarring, though Andros had learned to look past it to the man within. He had succeeded admirably despite his disability. Indeed, that was another mark of a good Huntsman: the men of Shaath turned opposition into strength.

And so, he was a man with whom to enjoy a hunt in the forest, but also a useful tool who’d proven himself able to navigate the politics of Tiraas without losing sight of his own tie to the wild. A contact Andros was taking pains to cultivate. Even here, politics…it was maddening. Still, it was what it was. Complaining was for women clucking around the hearth. A man’s role was to take on the world as it came to him.

“It’s not the true wild,” he mused. “But after the city…”

Ingvar smiled faintly, nodding. “Tiraas makes me miss Mathena Province. I never thought anything could.”

“Unfortunately, your inconvenience is the lodge’s gain,” Andros rumbled. “You’ve done very good work these last months.”

Ingvar smiled slightly more broadly, turning toward him and giving a shallow bow. Then they moved off, down the hill and back into the trees.

They were far enough in, now, that Andros began to look around in seriousness for signs of game. The Imperial foresters had long ago wiped out the bears and wolves of the region, but populations of deer, rabbits and fowl remained. In fact, they thrived, lacking any predators but humans. The meat they provided was important to citizens in rural areas, but even with the native hunters active year-round, the Huntsmen of the city found plenty of prey for their rites and recreational hunts. Rabbits and deer in particular were fecund creatures, requiring substantial pressure from predators to keep their numbers in balance.

It was doctrine for Shaath’s followers that the definition of a tamed land was that all the significant predators were sentient. Such lands were not considered esteemed places to live, by any means, but Huntsmen who found themselves there were expected to do their part to maintain the balance.

Unfortunately, the two Huntsmen were interrupted before finding any promising tracks.

Both men drew to a stop as a black bird fluttered down from the forest canopy, alighting on a low branch just above their heads and cawing furiously.

Ingvar reflexively lifted his bow, but did not nock an arrow, peering at the crow through narrowed eyes. They weren’t good eating, and were very clever; killing crows was done only ceremonially or when individual birds decided to make pests of themselves, as the species sometimes did. On a general hunt, they should be left alone. Still, it was unusual that such a bird would draw such attention to itself, as Ingvar now commented.

“Strange behavior for a crow.” He grasped his bow at one end and used it to poke at the bird. “Shoo!”

The crow hopped deftly to one side, evading the desultory thrust, then turned its head toward Andros and made a disgruntled sound in its throat.

“Very strange,” Ingvar said, frowning. “No wild creature would just stand there…”

“Some corvids might, if they are used to people,” Andros mused, staring at the bird through narrowed eyes. “I think, however, that I know this particular crow. Do I not?”

She bobbed up and down twice, cawed once, then took wing, fluttering off ahead to land on a bush some yards distant. The crow turned back toward them, cawing furiously.

“It wants us to follow,” Ingvar guessed. He turned a questioning expression to Andros. “You say you know this bird. Do you trust it?”

“No,” the Bishop said firmly. The crow clucked to itself in exasperation, ruffling its feathers and staring beadily at them. “No… However, if it is who I think, I have come to no grief and in fact some profit by following her.”

The crow cawed again, hopping up into the air, then fluttered about in a small circle before landing back on the bush and croaking insistently at them.

“Not what I had planned for this outing,” Andros said with a sigh, “but fate cares not for our plans. Come, Ingvar, I think it will prove important to see what she wants.”

They moved off, deeper into the woods, the crow pointedly keeping just in sight ahead of them.


 

“Is it…authentic?” Farah inquired, peering at the talisman.

“You’re asking us?” Merry exclaimed. “You have more book learning than probably the rest of us combined.”

“Not in Shaathist iconography!”

“It’s authentic,” Ephanie said quietly. “At least… It’s accurate. Huntsmen on ritual hunts use these to mark territory in which they’re active. It would take a cleric of Shaath or wildspeaker to interpret this, though. I can’t even tell if it’s magically active.”

“It is,” Principia said. “Or att least, there’s a fae charm on it, but I can’t tell what it does. I do arcane enchantment.”

The talisman pinned to the tree in front of them resembled a small elven dreamcatcher in design: it was a wooden disk, carved with a wolf’s head pictograph, with strings of beads and feathers trailing below it.

“This is creepy,” Merry muttered. “Either Basra’s got resources in places a bishop of Avei has no business being, or there are actually Huntsmen up to something in this area. Avelea… Is there any chance this mission is for real? Could they actually be kidnapping women?”

“The idea is insane,” Ephanie said curtly. “Wife-stealing is a real tradition, but it’s centuries dead. No lodge would do such a thing; an individual Huntsman might, if he were isolated from his fellows for too long, but that’s a good way to become the target of a Wild Hunt. Grandmaster Veisroi is too politically minded to allow any of his people to endanger the whole faith that way.”

“Plus there are the practical concerns,” Principia mused. “Women going missing is the kind of thing that attracts notice, and this is a heavily patrolled area. A Huntsman who went this rogue would have a very brief encounter with a Tiraan strike team before he got around to marking territory.”

“And he wouldn’t mark territory if he were doing something obviously illegal and guaranteed to provoke the local lodge,” Ephanie added, poking the talisman with the tip of her lance. “These are used for ritual hunts. If it’s a true example of its kind, it means there are multiple Huntsmen in the area, and doing something spiritually significant, not just camping in the woods like they like to do.”

“If they were abducting women,” Casey said, frowning, “wouldn’t that be spiritually significant to them?”

“In theory, I suppose,” Ephanie said grudgingly.

“The more I learn of this, the less I like it,” Merry growled.

“Hsst,” Principia said suddenly, straightening up and turning to frown into the distance.

“Did you just hsst me, woman?”

“Will you hush? I hear something! Let me listen.”

They all fell silent, Merry with a scowl, watching their elven companion as she stared fixedly into the trees.

“Come on,” Prin said abruptly, starting forward.

“What do you hear?” Ephanie demanded as she followed.

“Not sure, but it could be a voice. Sounds distressed. Everyone stay alert.”

The range of elven hearing was uncanny; it took many long minutes to draw close enough that the sounds were audible to all five of them, but eventually they did. The squad instinctively drew closer together, falling into formation and fixedly scanning their surroundings as they approached the source of the noise. They were guided as much by the quieting of birdsong as by the sound itself; clearly something up ahead was alarming the local wildlife.

Past a fallen log, over a tiny brook and at the far edge of a small clearing, they came to a stop, staring at a large leather bag tied to a tree. It was bound to the trunk with braided cords, the leather drawstring holding its top shut being fixed to an overhanging branch above. The bag was old, dyed in now-faded but stereotypical Stalweiss motifs of stylized animals, and several charms were affixed to it and the cords holding it.

It was also squirming faintly and emitting the kind of muffled noises a person might make while trying to talk through a gag. The voice, though heavily dampened, was clearly feminine.

“This screams ‘trap,’” Merry muttered.

“It’s a wilderbag,” Ephanie whispered. “Used in some kinds of ritual hunts. Fresh game will be put in it and hung up to attract bigger predators to the meat. Depending on the ritual, the point may be to get at the predators themselves, or to leave it up for a set time and see whether any come for it.”

“There aren’t any predators big enough to go for that in this area,” Principia murmured. “Avelea, if wife-stealing were still an active practice, might a woman be put in one of those bags?”

“It’s sure big enough,” Casey said.

“I don’t know,” Ephanie said, scowling at the writhing sack. “Like I said, it’s a dead custom. I don’t know what the actual practices were. But based on what those bags are used for, I can’t see any reason for it.”

“You know a lot about Shaathist practices,” Farah observed. Ephanie made no reply.

“Well, it doesn’t sound like an animal,” said Casey. “It’s obviously a human woman in there.”

“Or an elf,” Merry pointed out.

“An elf would wriggle out of that without making a loud fuss,” said Principia.

“Ugh, fine, or a dwarf or gnome. You know what I meant.”

Prin nodded, her attention still on the wilderbag. “Well, bait or not, we obviously can’t leave a woman tied up in that thing. Let’s do this smart, ladies. Fan out, approach in a trapground spread, outliers keep weapons up and eyes on the flanks and rear. I’ll take point. Agreed?” She turned to look around at them, waiting till they all nodded. “All right, let’s move.”

The squad armed themselves, moving forward with shields and lances up. Principia, in the front and center of the wide formation, alone kept her shield over her back, drawing her sword and holding her lance in the left hand. The five of them approached the wilderbag in a trapezoidal formation, spread far enough that any trap sprung was unlikely to ensnare them all, facing all directions and ready to call an alarm if they were attacked.

She had to hop to do it, but severing the cords binding the top of the bag to the branch above took Prin only a second. The bag began wiggling and squealing even harder at that, but the slumping of its upper edge wasn’t enough to reveal its contents. After glancing around at the others, who were still watching the forest all around, she sheathed her sword and reached up to tug the remaining drawstring loose and pull the bag open and down.

It revealed the sweaty, gagged face of a young woman with dark hair plastered in streaks to her forehead, eyes frantic but blinking in the sudden light.

“Take it easy,” Principia said soothingly, “we’re with the Third Silver Legion. Hang on, I’ll get that off. Hold your head still, now.”

She had to plant her lance in the ground and draw her belt knife to cut away the gag, but in seconds, the girl was spitting out the wad of cloth that had been held by it in her mouth, and gasping for breath. She was apparently local, a human of Tiraan coloration, not much more than twenty and rather attractive.

“Oh, thank the gods. Please, get me down from here before they come back!”

“Before who comes back?” Ephanie asked tersely while Principia got to work on the cords.

“Huntsmen,” the captive babbled. “There are others! All over this forest! I don’t know what they want, but they have half a dozen of us! Please, you’ve got to save everyone!”

Principia made no comment, continuing to cut the bag loose. The other soldiers glanced at each other uneasily.

“Sounds positively textbook,” Farah said quietly. “Imprisoned young women, villainous kidnappers, and heroic Legionnaires to the rescue. It’s right out of a bard’s story.”

“And that,” Casey said grimly, “is how you know we’re being played.”

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8 – 15

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The hatch opened with a hiss, sliding upward, and Sheyann stepped lightly out, moving to the side to allow the other passengers to disembark. None seemed in a hurry to do so; lacking her relfexes and agility, most of the human passengers had been badly slung about by the Rail ride. The new caravans, she had been told, were a great deal safer and more comfortable than the old, thanks to the addition of safety harnesses, an apparent luxury of which she had not availed herself. Her fellow travelers had thus been furiously jolted against their own bindings, probably hard enough to bruise, while she had nimbly shifted in place, bracing herself against the walls and opposite bench at need.

The design of the Rail caravans was a puzzle. The ingenuity that led to their creation could surely have made them safer in a variety of ways, so why had it not been done? Despite the maunderings of Shiraki and some of his ilk, Sheyann had never found humanity to be institutionally stupid, incompetent or obstreperous—at least, not more than any other race, and never on a huge scale for any length of time, without suffering the inevitable consequences. The Empire had made the Rails this way for a reason. She couldn’t guess what, but the possibilities were rather ominous.

Only two people had been in her compartment, and they only because the other seats had filled. Sheyann was not offended by their reluctance to sit with an elf in obviously tribal attire; her own people’s reclusiveness had plenty to do with the problem. With any luck, the ongoing meetings between tribes and with the Narisian representatives would move toward remedying the issue, if they did not exacerbate it first.

She studied the station carefully. Despite Tiraas’s greater importance to the Empire, it was much smaller than its counterpart in Calderaas, though no less busy. Of course, that was due in part to its more efficient design. Tiraas had four Rail depots, two corresponding to each of its landward-facing gates, while Calderaas had only the one central terminal. Also, the city itself was physically smaller, constrained as it was by the available space on the island.

“Need any help, miss?” a slightly graying, slightly portly man in an Imperial Army uniform asked politely, tugging the brim of his cap in her direction. Beside him, a younger woman in the same uniform regarded her with a neutral expression. She never had bothered to learn what the different Tiraan insignia meant, but presumably the elder human was the superior officer.

“In fact,” she said, deciding this was as good a starting point as any, “I am looking for someone in the city. A Bishop of the Universal Church.”

The older officer raised his eyebrows. “Oh? What business would an elf have with the Church?”

Sheyann gazed at him in silence, wearing a small, fixed smile.

“No business of anybody’s but hers,” the female soldier said, nudging her companion with an elbow, and Sheyann mentally revised their relationship. The insignia wasn’t the same, but they were either very comfortable together or quite close in rank.

“Yes, right, of course,” the man said hastily. “Well, miss, the Bishops are a disparate lot; they all have their own business to attend to. I’d say your best bet is to look either at the Grand Cathedral or the central temple of whichever faith your Bishop represents. You may not find him—uh, or her—there, but there’ll likely be someone who can point you to them.”

“I see,” she said gravely, nodding. “Thank you. Would you know where the central temple of the cult of Eserion is located?”

At this, the two soldiers exchanged a look, their expressions growing almost imperceptibly grimmer.

“I could point you to the location,” the man said slowly, “but the Eserites aren’t going to let anyone into their actual temple. You could try your luck at the casino they run above it, but… They also don’t like people asking questions on their property. And…with all due respect, miss, you’d rather stand out.”

“I see what you mean,” she said thoughtfully. “Well. The warning is certainly appreciated.”

“I’d really suggest trying your luck at the Cathedral,” he went on in a more welcoming tone, turning to point at the great glass wall along the front of the station, beyond which was a busy street. “Just go outside onto the avenue, hang a left and keep walking uphill till you reach the city center. You can’t miss the Cathedral; it’s the building that isn’t the Palace and isn’t plastered with the insignias of Avei or Omnu.”

“By which he means,” the woman said dryly, “it’ll be the one on the left. North side of Imperial Square.”

“Yes, of course, right,” the man said, giving her a slightly exasperated look.

“Thank you very much,” Sheyann said courteously, bowing to them. “You have been tremendously helpful.”

“All part of the job, ma’am,” the man replied with a smile, tipping his cap again. “Welcome to Tiraas. I hope you enjoy your stay.”

She smiled, nodded, and glided off toward the exit. Even with the noise of the crowd and the Rail caravans washing over her, she could plainly pick out their voices as the throng closed behind her.

“Are you sure that was all right?” the woman asked. “Some random elf just tumbled out of the fairy tree, doesn’t know the first thing about the city, has business with the bloody Thieves’ Guild, and you point her right at the Church?”

“Omnu’s breath, Welles, you need to read fewer novels and more of your encounter manual. She’s not going to scalp somebody; elves are exactly as savage as anyone else, no more, no less. And she wanted the Eserite Bishop, not the Guild. If she wanted the Guild she’d no need to beat around the bush. Talking with Eserites isn’t illegal. Plus, she was polite. Always refreshing to see a young person with some respect, unlike some I could name.”

“She’s an elf, Lieutenant. She could be older than you.”

“Nah, the old ones are more standoffish. They hardly even breathe. Trust me, I’ve been around elves. I can tell.”

Sheyann permitted herself a smile of amusement as she slid through the crowd and out the doors into the Imperial capital.

There she had to stop, staring.

She had grown steadily accustomed to the faint, unpleasant buzz of arcane magic everywhere since passing through Calderaas. Tiraas, though, was…taller. Buildings seemed piled atop each other, climbing skyward in a way it would never have occurred to her to construct a dwelling. Many of them were taller than trees. Not to mention that a good few in the distance were surmounted by towers bearing the flickering orbs of telescroll transmitters, or branching antennae which crackled with artificial lightning. Artificial lights were everywhere, lit even in the day due to the gloomy sky overhead, some hovering in midair rather than supported by poles. Vehicles passed in the street, only a few drawn by animals. The horseless carriages emitted a thin hum of magic at work, their voices blending together into a constant, oscillating whine that bored unpleasantly into her ears.

So much they had done, in such a short time. So much glory and progress…such potential for carnage.

Her work with the other tribes and the drow was even more urgent than she had realized. The ancestors send that they were not already too late.

Sheyann turned left and set off down the sidewalk at a brisk pace.


 

Even in the relative quiet of the Grand Cathedral, Sheyann drew suspicious looks. She ignored them as she had all the others, pacing slowly down the central aisle of the enormous sanctuary, her moccasins silent on the threadbare carpet. It looked like it had been expensive, but this room must see vast amounts of traffic. It was a suitably vast space for it, the ornately carved stonework and beautiful stained glass almost lost beyond the cavernous emptiness.

Nearly her entire grove could have been squeezed into this room. And if she was any judge, it was far less than half the total volume of the cathedral complex.

There were two smaller aisles on the other sides of the long rows of pews; only a few people slipped between the benches to walk there rather than having to pass her, but they were not subtle about it. One woman made the action quite ostentatious, her nose firmly in the air. Most of the people present, however, either paid her no mind or just nodded quietly to her. This place, it seemed, encouraged a quieter way of being, which came as a relief after the city, the Rails, and the other city. What a day this was turning out to be; she was already thinking fondly of the relative serenity of Arachne’s University.

A few people strolled, admiring the stained glass, while several dozen more were scattered throughout the pews in individual prayer. At the front of the chamber, though, was an open area below the wide steps to the main dais towering over it all. Looming behind it was a huge golden statue of the Universal Church’s ankh symbol, with behind that towering stained glass windows depicting Avei, Omnu and Vidius, with the other gods of the Pantheon represented around their borders. Sheyann gave this ostentation only a glance, however, before turning toward a smaller lectern tucked off to the side, at which stood an officious-looking Tiraan human in the long black coat of a Church parson.

She waited calmly while he finished speaking with a well-dressed woman, politely declining to hear their conversation. This, a basic social skill in elven societies, seemed to be quite above the capability of most humans. They finished within a few minutes. The woman jumped and gasped softly when she turned and beheld Sheyann standing there.

The Elder gave her a smile and a deep nod, and got only a wary look in return before the woman scurried off.

The parson was regarding her with more calm, but not any kind of friendliness. Of course, a cleric would comport himself with serenity. That he was not seemingly interested in reaching out to her gave Sheyann a sense of how this conversation was going to go.

“May I help you?” he asked politely.

“I would like to speak with Bishop Antonio Darling,” Sheyann replied, folding her hands.

A beat of silence passed. The parson’s expression did not waver, but the pause communicated his surprise quite effectively.

“And whom may I tell Bishop Darling is seeking him?” he finally inquired.

“He does not know me,” Sheyann said. “I was directed to him by a mutual acquaintance.”

“And…with regard to what do you wish to see him?”

“That business is personal,” she said evenly.

“Ah,” the parson said, lowering his eyes to shuffle a few pages on his lectern. Sheyann didn’t need to see his hands to know he was creating meaningless background noise. “Your pardon…madam…but as I’m sure you can understand, the Church must safeguard the time and attention of its highest officials. So, you do not know Bishop Darling, yet you have unnamed personal business with him?” He raised his eyes, re-affixing his polite smile. “I don’t suppose you can offer anything more than that?”

“The rank of Bishop…” she mused. “It exceeds your own?”

He blinked, then his lips twitched in a quickly repressed smile. “Ah…considerably, yes.”

“And yet, you seem to be making judgments concerning the use of his time,” she said, matching his emptily courteous tone exactly. “Why not, instead, tell me where I might find him, and if he does not wish to speak with me, allow him to make that determination himself?”

The parson’s lips thinned, irritation finally beginning to show on his face. “And you are?”

“I am Elder Sheyann.”

“I see.” He fussed pointlessly with the papers again. “Well, Elder, Bishop Darling is not here. He is an extremely busy man, between his various responsibilities to the Church, to his own cult and the Imperial government. I can have a message conveyed to him if you like.” The faint smile returned, noticeably smug now. “I cannot, however, make any guarantees about how quickly he will receive it.”

Sheyann permitted herself a small sigh. “Perhaps my time would be better spent making inquiries at the Imperial government. I am given to understand the Empire boasts a generally competent bureaucracy. To which office, specifically, should I direct my attention?”

“I’m sure I do not know,” the parson said, all pretense of friendliness gone from his face now. “As you so kindly pointed out, Elder, it is not my place to monitor the comings and goings of the Church’s Bishops. Perhaps if you had specific business with him, of which he was made aware beforehand, you might find this encounter more productive.”

Behind her, a passing man suddenly stopped, turning toward them.

“Which Bishop are you looking for, shaman?”

She turned, studying the new arrival. He was huge—barrel-chested and towering head and shoulders over her, his hair slightly unruly and much of his face and chest hidden by a luxuriant beard. Sheyann did not need to see the wolf’s-head brooch pinned to his shoulder to know him for a priest of Shaath; she could feel the faint tug of fairy energies floating about him, mixing incongruously with the divine. Most interestingly, he wore a white robe under a tabard, a uniform she had already been prompted to watch for.

“Antonio Darling,” she replied, “of the cult of Eserion.”

The Shaathist Bishop raised one eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Are you acquainted with him, sir?” she asked politely.

“Antonio and I have worked together.” He bowed respectfully. “I am Andros Varanus, Huntsman of Shaath and a fellow Bishop. Your quarry is not present now, and he ranges widely. There are places where you can wait for him without likely being kept too long.”

“So I have been told,” she said mildly. “Government offices and the Thieves’ Guild’s casino.”

“The Imperial offices are closing soon for the day,” he replied, his beard twitching with a hidden expression she could not identify. “And the thieves would entertain themselves by making you wait for no reason, or send you out to hunt mockingjays. However, I can direct you to Bishop Darling’s home. He will likely be returning there soon, and his Butler provides excellent hospitality, even in his absence.”

Ah, a Butler. What an interesting man this Darling was shaping up to be. Also, that answered one of her newfound questions about this fellow’s willingness to assist her; a Butler’s presence would mean even a mysterious visitor such as herself would be unlikely to pose a threat.

“You are extremely helpful, sir,” she said, bowing in return. “Forgive me, but I am unaccustomed to such courtesy from Huntsmen. Those I have met seemed rather put off at being forced to address a woman.”

At that, even his beard could not hide Varanus’s sneer. “Some men, even in Shaath’s service, are weak of mind. Not all follow Shaath’s ways; it is a weak-willed man indeed who feels threatened by the existence of other ideas. A Huntsman should be many things, but never weak. I will provide you with Antonio’s address, shaman. Paper and a pen,” he added curtly to the parson, who immediately scrambled to produce the requested objects.

“Thank you,” Sheyann said moments later, studying the names and numerals on the sheet of paper she had just been handed. “Hm…forgive me, but this street name. Where will I find this?”

Varanus blinked, then his beard rippled in a short exhalation that might have been the lesser part of a laugh. At the least, his eyes crinkled in amusement. “You are new here, then. Forgive me, I should have considered that. I am even now on my way out of the city, and expect to be gone for some time. More paper,” he added to the parson in a flat tone which made her suspect he had overheard more of their earlier conversation than he let on, then turned back to her with a more respectful expression. “I will draw you a map.”


 

Darling paused inside his front door, as was his custom, letting out a sigh and luxuriating for a moment in the quiet.

“Good evening, your Grace,” Price intoned. “You have a visitor.”

He scowled and opened his mouth to deliver a complaint, but she swiftly raised one finger to her lips, then pointedly tapped the upper edge of her ear. He was tired; it had been a long day even before he’d met with Principia’s squad, and the subsequent unpleasant conversations at the Guild had left him drained. It took him an embarrassing two seconds to catch her meaning.

An elf? What the hell now?

“Well, by all means, let’s not keep them waiting any longer,” he said lightly. “The downstairs parlor?”

“Of course, your Grace.”

He didn’t allow himself to sigh as he stepped past her. An elf would hear even that. He’d developed a rather nuanced understanding of the range of their senses over the last year.

The reasons for this were also present in the downstairs parlor, in their severe black frocks that went with the guise of housemaids. Flora and Fauna weren’t doing anything in particular, however, just standing against the far wall, staring flatly at their visitor in a manner that made his hackles rise. The new elf, in turn, was regarding them with a similarly direct look, which she did not lift immediately upon his entry. Only after a few heartbeats did she turn to face him.

She was a wood elf, her ears a different shape than his apprentices’, and dressed in stereotypical costume, a simple green skirt and blouse dyed with shifting patterns, and a plain leather vest over that. Her moccasins were elaborately beaded, but looked well-worn, and she carried a belt with a large horn-handled knife as well as several heavy pouches. Well, no tomahawk; that was something, anyway.

“Good evening,” he said cheerfully. “I’m terribly sorry to have kept you waiting; I had simply no idea anyone was here to see me!”

“Not at all, your Grace,” she replied in a calm tone, bowing without taking her eyes off his face. “I apologize for my abrupt appearance. I will try not to take any more of your time than I must.”

“Nonsense, you’re a guest; my time is yours, Miss…?”

“Sheyann,” she said, still staring at him with an even look that was beginning to be unsettling. “I was directed to you by Arachne Tellwyrn.”

“Oh?” he asked mildly, increasingly intrigued. “And you are…a relative of hers?”

Sheyann raised one eyebrow. “We are all of us kin, Bishop Darling. The mightiest dragon and the meanest algae all rose from common ancestors, in the infinite mists of the deep past. With that said… No. No, I am not. However, Arachne and I have an acquaintance in common, whom I find myself needing to contact and not knowing how. Apparently you are the last to have had regular interaction with her.”

Darling sighed in spite of himself. “Oh, don’t tell me…”

The elf nodded. “You would know her as Mary the Crow.”

“Yes, that’s what I was afraid I would know her as.” He chuckled wryly, shaking his head. “Well, it’s bad news that I’m the likeliest contact, as I’m not sure how much help I can be. I do speak with Mary on a semi-regular basis, but she decides when and where.”

“I see,” she said, permitting herself a small smile. “I somewhat anticipated that; it would be consistent with her general patterns. If I may ask, how recently have you seen her?”

“Quite recently, in fact, no more than two days ago. I don’t actually know why; she popped in on me at the Temple of Izara, hovered around for a few minutes and took off. I couldn’t even tell you what that was about. I’ve learned not to ask.”

“And…you have no way of contacting her directly?”

Darling grinned. “Well. I’ve twice got her attention by placing a scarecrow on the roof. The third time, though, it disappeared and then I didn’t see her for two weeks.”

“A…scarecrow.”

“An improvised one,” he admitted. “I’m afraid we sacrificed some of my old clothes and one of Price’s favorite brooms, not to mention that lovely pumpkin Flora and Fauna here had such fun carving.”

She smiled broadly at that, her eyes creasing with genuine amusement. “I am somewhat embarrassed that I never thought of that.”

“If I might ask a prying question,” he said, “does Mary know you, Sheyann?”

“Oh, yes,” she said, her smile fading. “We have been acquainted for a long time.”

“I see. Well, I find that Mary seems to keep herself appraised of my comings and goings. Not in any great detail—I hope—but she does always seem to know when someone especially interesting comes to my door. It’s possible she’s already aware you’re here, or will be soon.”

“Hm… That, too, would be characteristic of her. Well, then.” She bowed again. “I will take no more of your time this evening, Bishop Darling. It seems I had best make arrangements to stay the night in the city, and possibly for some nights to come. It would be better if I were able to find and speak with her quickly, but… One must, unfortunately, make allowances for the Crow.”

“That one must,” he agreed gravely, nodding. “If it helps, I will certainly tell her you’re looking, should she happen to visit me again.”

“I would appreciate that,” she said politely. “And I may call on you again if my quest is not immediately fruitful.”

“By all means, feel free! My door is always open.”

Ushering her out was a blessedly quick affair; elves, he had found, were not prone to linger over small talk and needless pleasantries. Darling ordinarily enjoyed small talk and needless pleasantries, but it was getting late and he was just as glad to get the mysterious elf out of his house.

After seeing her to the door, he made his way back to the parlor and watched through the window as Sheyann departed down the street. Only when she was out of view did he turn back to Flora and Fauna, who had remained unmoving the entire time.

“All right. Just what was that about?”

“She was looking for Mary the Crow,” Fauna said woodenly.

“Don’t get smart with me when I’m looking for simple,” he snapped. “And don’t look at me like that, I know damn well you can tell the difference. You and that woman were glaring at each other like a box of strange cats.”

“She knows,” Flora said darkly. “About us. What we are.”

That brought him up short. “You’re sure? She said as much?”

“Not in terms that would hold up in court,” Fauna said, scowling. “But she hinted strongly and made it pretty plain.”

“I don’t know how she can tell,” Flora added. “Even a shaman shouldn’t be able to just spot it like that!”

“No need to reach for magical explanations when mundane ones will do,” he said wearily, dropping himself into the armchair. “Price! Fetch me a—oh, bless you.” He took the brandy from her proffered tray and downed half of it. “Mhn, that hits the spot. Anyway, she came from Tellwyrn, who you said was able to sniff you out as well.”

“Don’t know how she did it either,” Fauna said sullenly.

“So did Mary, for that matter,” Darling mused. “Tellwyrn is to mages what Mary is to shamans; best not to assume anything about the limits of either of them. In fact, this is what concerns me. Now we’ve got an elf foofling about my city who not only knows a secret that could get us all sent to the gallows, but learned that secret because she is apparently a trusted link between Tellwyrn and Mary. Just there being a link between those two is going to cost me some sleep.”

“What do you want to do?” Flora asked quietly.

He sipped the brandy once more, frowning at the far wall. “…is it too late for you to tail her?”

Fauna shook her head. “We can track her down easily enough. In fact, it’s probably best to give her a bit of a head start. Less likely she’ll be looking for us that way.”

“We can also hide from her, no matter what kind of shaman she is,” Flora added. “But if she actually meets with the Crow… Well, it’s like you said. No telling what she can or can’t do.”

“We actually snuck up on her once…”

“…or so we thought. There’s no guarantee she didn’t let us.”

He nodded. “Well, be careful, but do your best. I’d like you to keep an eye on Miss Sheyann while she’s in town—find out who she talks to, what she says to them and what she does about it. If the Crow becomes a factor, be discreet. Don’t get confrontational with that one.”

“We’re not idiots,” Fauna muttered. “Though for the record I think we could take her.”

Flora nudged her with an elbow. “Not without outing ourselves and wrecking a whole lot of real estate.”

“Please don’t do that,” he said fervently. “This is a priority for now, though; there’s too much at stake to leave it unattended. I’ll speak with Style and have your training appointments for tomorrow put on hold.”

“We’ll head out, then,” Fauna said, grinning.

“Wait.” He held up a hand. “While we’re here and discussing risky business, there’s something else I want to bring up with you. It’s been a good few months since you told me your spirits would probably be satiated for close to a year. How’re we doing on that?”

The elves exchanged on of their fraught looks. “Some…faint twinges,” Flora said reluctantly. “It’s nowhere near a dangerous level yet. We’d tell you long before it got to that point.”

“Attagirl,” he said, nodding. “I mention it because something’s come up that may be relevant to that, at least potentially. The Guild’s ongoing search for Thumper has hit a wall in Onkawa. Webs is holding it up.”

“Who’s Webs?”

Darling sighed, idly swirling his drink. “An operations man, and Thumper’s Guild sponsor and first trainer. He’s being difficult, to the surprise of absolutely no one. His loyalties have always been more to his personal contacts than the organization. Webs is…a theological purist. He’s got a loudly poor opinion of the Guild’s current structure.”

“A renegade?” Flora asked, intrigued.

Darling shook his head. “An objector. Tricks mostly leaves him alone; I encouraged him. The Guild needs dissenting opinions to keep its management honest and on their toes. It becomes inconvenient at times like this, though, when we need specific cooperation and he’s of the opinion we don’t deserve it. Right now, he’s trying to pitch the idea that Thumper’s presence in Onkawa and the shitstorm left in the wake thereof were due to a succubus called Kheshiri.”

Both elves perked up visibly. “A succubus?” Fauna asked.

“Webs is covering for Thumper, that much is certain,” Darling said, leaning forward, “but the succubus’s presence there has been confirmed by other, more trusted sources. This bitch is bad news, even for a demon. She’s got thick files with both the Church and Imperial Intelligence. Even the Black Wreath has put an effort into getting her out of circulation in the past. It doesn’t seem to have stuck. What the hell she is doing with a goon like Shook is a complete unknown, but there are no possibilities that aren’t terrifying.”

“Vanislaad demons are good hunting,” Flora whispered. “The spirits were very happy with that incubus you got for us.”

“Yeah, well, that’s the issue from one angle,” Darling said grimly, pausing to take a much-needed sip of his brandy. “From another… If this Kheshiri is the piece of work it seems like she is, it might take a pair of headhunters to bring her down. Should it come to that, I want you two ready.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Fauna said with a predatory smile. “We always are.”

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7 – 8

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The Dawnchapel held so much history and significance that its environs, a small canal-bordered district now filled with shrines and religious charity facilities, had taken on its name. Originally the center of Omnist worship in the city, it had been donated to the Universal Church upon its formation and served as the Church’s central offices until the Grand Cathedral was completed. More recently it had done duty as a training facility and residence for several branches of the Church’s personnel, and currently mostly housed Justinian’s holy summoner program.

It was a typical structure of Omnist design, its main sanctuary a sunken amphitheater housed within a huge circle of towering standing stones, of a golden hue totally unlike the granite on which Tiraas sat, imported all the way from the Dwarnskolds along the northern rim of the continent. Once open to the sun, its sides had long ago been filled in with a more drab, domestic stone, which was later carved into niches that now housed statues of the gods. Its open top had been transformed into a dome of glittering stained glass, one of the architectural treasures of the city. Behind the circular center rose a ziggurat, topped with a sun shrine which had been left as a monument sacred to Omnu in gratitude for the gift of the temple itself. Most of the offices, storage rooms and other chambers were either underground or inside the pyramid.

The circular temple sat on a square plot of land, forcing the furtive warlocks to cross a measure of open territory before they could reach its entrance. They went unchallenged, however, and apparently unnoticed; this part of the city was as eerily silent and empty tonight as the rest. Still, despite the lack of opposition, only Embras Mogul strolled apparently without unease.

Two khankredahgs and two katzils accompanied the party, which had to be momentarily soothed as they crossed onto holy ground. They had been warded and phased against it, of course, but this ground was holier than most, and the demons were not immune to the discomfort. There were two hethelaxi escorting the group, both of whom bore the transition without complaint. That was it for demon thralls, the more volatile sentient companions having been dismissed back to their plane rather than risk the outbursts that would result from bringing them here.

Even peering around for onlookers, they failed to observe the small, faintly luminous blue figure which circled overhead.

Mogul himself laid his hand upon the bronze latch of the temple’s heavy front door and paused for a moment.

“Warded?” Vanessa asked tersely. “Cracking it with any kind of subtlety will take too long… Of course, I gather you want to make a dramatic statement anyway?”

Mogul raised an eyebrow, then turned the latch. It clicked, and the door opened smoothly, its hinges not uttering a squeak.

“There’s overconfident,” Mogul said lightly, “and then there’s Justinian.”

He gestured two gray-robed warlocks to precede him inside, accompanied by one of the katzils and the female hethelax.

The sanctuary was not completely unguarded, but the outcry from within was brief.

“Who are—hel—”

The voice was silenced mid-shout. Mogul leaned around the doorframe, peering within just in time to see the shadows recede from a slumping figure in Universal Church robes, now unconscious. His attention, however, was fixed on the hethelax, who was frowning in puzzlement.

“Mavthrys?” he said quietly. “What is it?”

“It’s gone,” she replied, studying the interior of the sanctuary warily. “The sensation. Not quite un-consecrated, but… Something’s different.” Indeed, the katzil inside had grown noticeably calmer.

“Justinian’s using this place to train summoners,” said Bradshaw. “Obviously it’ll have some protections for demons now.”

“Omnu must be spinning in his grave,” Vanessa noted wryly, earning several chuckles from the warlocks still flanking the entrance outside.

They all tensed at the sudden, not-too-distant sound of a hunting horn.

“What the hell?” one of the cultists muttered.

“Huntsmen,” Embras said curtly, ducking through the doors. “They won’t hunt in the dens of their own allies. Everyone inside, now.”

As they darted into the temple, the spirit hawk above wheeled away, heading toward a different part of the city.


“This is so weird,” Billie muttered for the fourth time. “And I have done some weird shit in my time.”

“Yes, I believe I read of your exploits on the wall of a men’s bathhouse,” Weaver sneered, taking a moment from muttering to his companion.

The gnome shot him an irritated look, but uncharacteristically failed to riposte. They all had that reaction when they glanced at the figure beside him.

In the space between spaces (as Mary had called it), the world was grayed-out and wavering, as if they were seeing it from underwater. The distortion obscured finer details, but for the most part they could see the real world well enough. This one was more dimly lit than the physical Tiraas, but apart from being unable to read the street signs (which for some reason, apart from being blurred, were not in Tanglish when viewed form here), they could navigate perfectly well, and identify the figures of Darling and his two apprentices, and even the little black form of the Crow as she glided from lamp to lamp ahead of them.

None of them had been able to resist looking up at the sky, briefly but long enough to gather an impression of eyes and tentacles belonging to world-sized creatures at unimaginable distances, seen far more clearly than what was right in front of them. Mary had strongly advised against studying them in any detail. No one had felt any inclination to defy the order.

The weirdness accompanying them was far more immediately interesting to the group. She was wavery and washed-out just like the physical world, but here, they could see her. Little of the figure was distinct except that she was tall, a hair taller even than Weaver, garbed entirely in black, and had black wings. She carried a plain, ancient-looking scythe which was as crisply visible as they themselves were, unlike its owner. Weaver had stuck next to his companion, carrying on a whispered dialogue—or what was presumably a dialogue, as no one but he could hear her responses. The rest of the party had let them have their privacy, for a variety of reasons.

The winged figure subtly turned her head, and Joe realized he’d been caught staring. He cleared his throat awkwardly and tipped his hat to her. “Ah, your pardon, ma’am. I didn’t get the chance to thank you properly for the help a while back, in the old apartments. You likely saved me and my friend from a pair of slit throats. Very much obliged.”

The dark, silent harbinger of death waved at him with childlike enthusiasm. It was nearly impossible to distinguish in the pale blur where her face should be, but he was almost certain she was grinning.

“Oddly personable, ain’t she,” McGraw murmured, drawing next to him as Weaver and his friend fell back again, their heads together. “That’ll teach me to think I’m too old to be surprised by life.”

“Tell you what’s unsettling is that,” Billie remarked, stepping in front of them so they couldn’t miss seeing her and pointing ahead. Several yards in front of the group, Darling and the two elves were engaging a group of Black Wreath. Their demon companions were clearly, crisply visible, while the warlocks themselves appeared to glow with sullen, reddish auras. As per their orders, the party was hanging back, allowing the Eserites to handle things on their own until they were called for. In any case, it didn’t seem their help was needed. Darling was glowing brightly, and making very effective use of the chain of white light which now extended from his right hand. As they watched, it lashed out, seemingly with a mind of its own, snaring a katzil demon by its neck and holding the struggling creature in place. In the next moment, a golden circle appeared on the pavement beneath it, and the chain dragged the demon down through it, where it vanished.

“I’ve gotta say, something about that guy equipping himself with new skills and powers doesn’t fill me with a sense of serenity,” Billie mused, watching their patron closely.

“You don’t trust him?” Joe asked. She barked a sarcastic laugh.

“Ain’t exactly about trust,” McGraw noted.

Mary reappeared next to them with her customary suddenness and lack of fanfare. “One can always trust a creature to behave in consistency with its own essential nature. As things stand, Darling is extraordinarily unlikely to betray us.”

“As things stand?” Joe asked, frowning.

The Crow shrugged noncommittally. “Change is the one true constant. In any case, be ready. I believe we will not be called upon to carry out the planned ambush; it likely would have happened already, were it going to. That being the case, we’ll shortly need to return to the material plane and move on to general demon cleanup duty.”

“Fun,” Joe muttered.

“What, y’mean we don’t get to stay and hang out in this creepity-ass hellscape?” Billie said. “Drat. An’ here I was thinkin’ of investing in some real estate.”

Mary raised an eyebrow. “If you would really like to remain, I can—”

“Don’t even feckin’ say it!”


“Hold it, stop,” Sweet ordered. Fauna skidded to a halt on command, turning to scowl at him as a robed figure scampered away down the sidewalk before her.

“He’s escaping!”

“Him and all three of his friends!”

“Let ’em,” he said lightly, peering around at the nearby rooftops with some disappointment. “We were making a spectacle of ourselves, not seriously trying to collar the Wreath. That’s someone else’s job. You notice there are no signs of Church summoners here, despite the presence of the demons they let loose?”

“Everyone’s bugging out?” Fauna asked, frowning. “What’s going on?”

“Seems like ol’ Embras isn’t taking my bait,” Sweet lamented with a heavy sigh. “Ah, well, it was probably too much to hope that he’d do something so ham-fisted. It’s not really in an Elilinist’s nature, after all. Welp, that being the case, onward we go!”

“Go?” Flora asked as he abruptly turned and set off down a side street. “Where now?”

“You know, it would save us a lot of stumbling along asking annoying questions if you’d just explain the damn plan,” Fauna said caustically.

“Probably would,” he agreed, grinning back at them. “But adapting to circumstances as they unfold is all part of your education.”

“Veth’na alaue.”

“You watch it, potty mouth,” he said severely. “I know what that means.”

“Oh, you speak elvish now?” Fauna asked, raising her eyebrows.

“Just enough to cuss properly. It seemed immediately relevant to our relationship.” They both laughed. “Anyhow, just up this street is the bridge to Dawnchapel. We are going to a warehouse facility, uncharacteristically disguised behind the facade of an upscale apartment building so as not to offend the ritzy sensibilities of those who dwell in this very fashionable district. A fancy warehouse, but still a warehouse if you know what to look for, which makes it the perfect spot for what’s coming next.”

“I didn’t realize there were warehouses in Dawnchapel.”

“Just outside Dawnchapel,” he corrected, grinning up ahead into the night. “Along the avenue leading straight out from the less obvious exit from the Dawnchapel sanctuary itself.”

“I don’t know what to hope for,” Fauna muttered, “that this all plays out as you’re planning and we finally get to learn the point of it, or that it doesn’t and you have to eat crow.”

“Well, there was a mental image I could’ve done without,” Flora said, wincing.

“Not that Crow, you ninny. Oh, gods, now I’m seeing it too.”

“Don’t worry your pretty little heads,” he replied. “I know exactly what I’m doing.”

Before any of the obvious responses to that could be uttered, the clear tone of a hunting horn pierced the night.

“Now what?” Flora demanded. “What’s that about?”

“That,” said Sweet, picking up his pace, “is the signal that we are out of time for sightseeing. Step lively, girls, we need to get into position.”


The spectral bird lit on Hawkmaster Vjarst’s gloved hand, and he brought it forward to his face, gazing intently into its eyes. A moment passed in silence, then he nodded, stroking the spirit hawk’s head, and raised his arm. The bird took flight again, joining its brethren now circling above.

“The summoners have retreated to their safehouses,” he announced, turning to face the rest of the men assembled on the rooftop. “Warlocks in Wreath garb are attempting to put down the remaining demons. There is significant incidental damage in the affected areas. No human casualties that my eyes have seen.”

“And the Eserite?” Grandmaster Veisroi asked.

“His quarry has not bitten his lure, but gone to Dawnchapel as he predicted. Darling and his women are moving in that direction. They are now passing through a cluster of demons, and acquitting themselves well.”

“How close?”

“Close.”

Veisroi nodded. “Then all is arranged; it’s time.” The assembled Huntsmen tensed slightly in anticipation as he lifted the run-engraved hunting horn at his side to his lips.

The horn was one of the treasures of their faith, a relic given by the Wolf God himself to his mortal followers, according to legend. Its tone was deep and clear, resounding clearly across the entire city, without being painful to the ears of those standing right at hand.

At its sound, Brother Ingvar nocked the spell-wrapped arrow that had been specially prepared for this night to his bow, raised it, and fired straight upward. The missile burst into blue light as it climbed…and continued to climb, soaring upward to the clouds without beginning to descend toward the city. Similar blue streaks soared upward from rooftop posts all across Tiraas.

Where they touched the clouds, the city’s omnipresent damp cover darkened into ominous thunderheads in the space of seconds. Winds carrying the chill of the Stalrange picked up, roaring across the roofs of the city; Vjarst’s birds spiraled downward, each making brief contact with his runed glove and vanishing. Snow, unthinkable for the time of year, began to fall, whipped into furious eddies by the winds.

The very light changed, Tiraas’s fierce arcane glow taking on the pale tint of moonlight as the blessing of Shaath was laid across the city.

“Brother Andros,” Veisroi ordered, “the device.”

Andros produced the twisted thorn talisman they had previously confiscated from Elilial’s spy in their midst, closed his eyes in concentration, and twisted it. Even in the rising wind, the clicking of the metal thorns echoed among the stilled Huntsmen.

Absolutely nothing happened.

Andros opened his eyes, grinning with satisfaction. “All is as planned, Grandmaster. Until Shaath’s storm abates, shadow-jumping in Tiraas has been blocked.”

“Good,” said Veisroi, grinning in return. With his grizzled mane and beard whipped around him by the winds, he looked wild, fierce, just as a follower of Shaath ought. “Remember, men, your task is to destroy demons as you find them, but only harry the Wreath toward the Rail stations. Yes, I see your impatience, lads. I know you’ve been told this, but it bears repeating. A dead warlock may yield worthy trophies, but he cannot answer questions. We drive them into the trap, nothing more. And now…”

He raised the horn again, his chest swelling with a deeply indrawn breath, and let out a long blast, followed by three short ones, the horn’s notes cutting through the sound of the wind.

Four portal mages were now under medical supervision in the offices of Imperial Intelligence, recuperating from serious cases of mana fatigue from their day’s labors, but they had finished their task on time, as was expected of agents of the Silver Throne. Now, from dozens of rooftops all across the city, answering horns raised the call and spirit wolves burst into being, accompanying the hundreds of Huntsmen of Shaath gathered in Tiraas, nearly every one of them from across the Empire. They began bounding down form their perches, toward lower roofs and the streets, roaring and laughing at the prospect of worthy prey.

“And now,” Grandmaster Veisroi repeated, grinning savagely, “WE HUNT!”


The three of them hunkered down behind the decorative stone balustrade encircling the balcony on which they huddled, taking what shelter they could from the howling winds and snowflakes. Uncomfortable as it was, they weren’t as chilled as the weather made it seem they should be. The temperature had dropped notably in the last few minutes, but it was still early summer, despite Shaath’s touch upon the city.

Directly across the street stood the warehouse Sweet had indicated. It had tall, decorative windows in sculpted stone frames, shielded by iron bars which were wrought so as to be attractive as well as functional. Its huge door was similarly carved and even gilded in spots to emphasize its engraved reliefs. It was, in short, definitely a warehouse, but did not stand out excessively from the upscale townhouses which surrounded it, or the shrines and looming Dawnchapel temple just across the canal.

“More information is always better,” Sweet was saying. His normal, conversational tone didn’t carry more than a few feet away, thanks to the furious wind, but his words were plainly audible to the elven ears of his audience, who sat right on either side of him. “When running a con, you want to control as much as you can. What you know, what the mark knows, who they encounter… But the fact is, you can’t control the world, and shouldn’t try. There comes a point where you have to let go. Real mastery is in balancing those two things, arranging what you can control so that your mark does what you want him to, despite the plethora of options offered to him by the vast, chaotic world in which we live.”

“And you, of course, possess true mastery,” Fauna said solemnly. She grinned when Sweet flicked the pointed tip of her ear with a finger.

“In this case, it’s a simple matter of what I know that Embras doesn’t,” he said, “and what Justinian doesn’t know that I know. This part of the plan wasn’t shared with his Holiness, you see; he’d just have moved to protect his secrets. That would be inconvenient, after all the trouble I went to to track them down, and anyway, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make use of it tonight.”

“What trouble did you go to?” Flora asked. “When did you find time to snoop out whatever it is Justinian was hiding from you on top of everything else you’ve got going on?”

“I asked Mary to do it,” he said frankly, grinning. “Now pay attention across the bridge, there, girls, you are about to see a demonstration of what I mean.” He shifted position, angling himself to get a good look down the street and across the canal bridge at the Dawnchapel. “When you know the board, the players, and the pieces…well, if you know them well enough, the rest is clockwork.”


“Don’t worry about that,” Embras said sharply as his people clustered together, peering nervously up through the glass dome at the storm-darkening sky. “It was a good move on Justinian’s part, but they’ll be hunting out there. This is probably the safest place in the city right now. Focus, folks, we’ve got a job to do.” He pointed quickly at the main door and a smaller one tucked into one of the stone walls. “Ignore the exterior entrances, we’re not about to be attacked from out there. That doorway, opposite the front, leads into the temple complex. Sishimir, get in there and shroud it; I don’t want us interrupted by the clerics still in residence. Vanessa, Ravi, Bradshaw, start a dark circle the whole width of the sanctuary. Tolimer, Ashley, shroud it as they go. You’re not enacting a full summons, just a preparatory thinning.”

“Nice,” said Vanessa approvingly. “And here I thought you just wanted to smash the place up.” She moved off toward the edge of the sanctuary, the rest of the warlocks shifting into place as directed, Sishimir ducking through the dark entrance hall to the temple complex beyond. The two hethelaxi took up positions flanking the main doors, waiting patiently, while the non-sentient demons stuck by their summoners.

“Now, Vanessa, that would be petty,” Embras said solemnly. “It’ll be so much more satisfying when the next amateur to reach across the planes in training tomorrow plunges this whole complex straight into Hell. Perhaps they’ll think with a bit more care next time someone suggests fooling around aimlessly with demons.”

“Ooh, sneaky and gratuitously mean-spirited. I like it!”

Everyone immediately stopped what they were doing, turning to face the succubus who had spoken.

“Not one of ours,” Ravi said crisply, extending a hand. A coil of pure shadow flexed outward, wrapping around the demon and securing her wings and arms to her sides; she bore this with good humor, tail waving languidly behind her. “Who are you with, girl? The summoner corps?”

“Justinian’s messing around with the children of Vanislaas, now?” Bradshaw murmured. “The man is completely out of control.”

“Why, hello, Kheshiri,” Mogul said mildly, tucking a hand into his pocket. “Of all the places I did not expect you to pop up, this is probably the one I expected the least. You already rid yourself of that idiot Shook? Impressive, even for you.”

“Rid myself of him?” Kheshiri said innocently. “Now why on earth would I want to do something like that? He’s the most fun I’ve had in years.”

“Change of plans,” Embras said, keeping his gaze fixed on the grinning succubus. It never paid to take your eyes off a succubus, especially one who was happy about something. “Vanessa, Tolimer, cover those doors. Sishimir, what’s taking so long in there?”

The gray-robed figure of Sishimir appeared in the darkened doorway, his posture oddly stiff and off-center. His cowled head lolled to one side.

“Everything’s okey-dokey back here, boss!” said a high-pitched singsong voice. “No need to go looking around for more enemies, no sirree!”

The assembled Wreath turned from Kheshiri to face him, several drawing up shadows around themselves.

Two figures stepped up on either side of Sishimir, a man in a cheap-looking suit and a taller one in brown Omnist style robes, complete with a hood that concealed his features.

“That is absolutely repellant,” the hooded one said disdainfully.

“Worse,” added the other, “it’s not even funny.”

“Bah!” Sishimir collapsed to the ground; immediately a pool of blood began to spread across the stone floor from his body. Behind him stood a grinning elf in a dapper pinstriped suit, dusting off his hands. “Nobody appreciates good comedy anymore.”

“I don’t know what the hell this is, but I do believe I lack the patience for it,” Embras announced. “Ladies and gentlemen, hex these assholes into a puddle.”

Kheshiri clicked her tongue chidingly, shaking her head.

A barrage of shadow blasts ripped across the sanctuary at the three men.

The robed man raised one hand, and every single spell flickered soundlessly out of existence a yard from them.

“What—”

Bradshaw was interrupted by a burst of light; the wandshot, fired from the waist, pierced Ravi through the midsection. She crumpled with a strangled scream, the shadow bindings holding Kheshiri dissolving instantly.

“Keep your grubby hands off my property, bitch,” Shook growled.

The robed figure raised his hands, finally lowering his hood to reveal elven features, glossy green hair, and glowing eyes like smooth-cut emeralds.

Khadizroth the Green curled his upper lip in a disdainful sneer.

“I do not like warlocks.”


“Almost wish I’d brought snacks,” Sweet mused as they watched the dome over the Dawnchapel flicker and pulse with the lights being discharged within.

“I wouldn’t turn down a mug of hot mead right now,” Flora muttered, her hands tucked under her arms.

“Hot anything,” Fauna agreed. “Hell, I’d drink hot water.”

“Oh, don’t be such wet blankets,” Sweet said airily, struggling not to shiver himself. “Where’s your sense of oh wait there he goes!”

He leaned forward, pointing. Sure enough, a figure in a white suit had emerged from the small side entrance to the temple’s sanctuary and headed toward the bridge at a dead run.

“Clockwork, I tell you,” Sweet said, grinning fiercely, his discomfort of a moment ago forgotten. “Confronted with an unwinnable fight when they weren’t expecting one, the cultists naturally huddle up and create an opportunity for their leader to escape. The rest of them are losses the Wreath can absorb; he simply can’t be allowed to fall into Justinian’s hands. And so, there he goes. But whatever shall our hero do now?”

Embras Mogul skidded to a stop at the bridge, glancing back at the Dawnchapel, then forward at the warehouse. He started moving again, purposefully.

“So many choices, so many direction to run,” Sweet narrated quietly, his avid gaze fixed on the fleeing warlock. “The Wreath’s first choice is always to vanish from trouble, but with their shadow-jumping blocked, his options are limited. But what’s this? Why, it’s a warehouse! And all warehouses in this city have convenient sewer access. Once down in that labyrinth, he’s as good as gone. As we can see, he is slowed up by the very impressive lock on those mighty doors.”

“Amateur,” Flora muttered, watching Mogul struggle with the latch. After a moment, he stepped back, aimed a hand at the lock and discharged a burst of shadow. With the snowy wind howling through the street, they couldn’t hear the eruption of magic or the clattering of pieces of lock and chain falling to the ground, but in the next moment, Mogul was tugging the doors open a crack and slipping through, pulling it carefully shut behind him.

“You weren’t going to ambush him there?” Fauna asked, frowning.

“What, out here in the street?” Darling stood up, brushing snow off his suit. “Where he could run in any direction? No, I believe I’ll ambush him in that building which I’ve prepared ahead of time to have no useable exits except the one I’ll be blocking.”

“One of these days your love of dramatic effect is going to get you in real trouble,” Flora predicted.

“Mm hm, it’s actually quite liberating, knowing in advance what your own undoing’ll be. The uncertainty can wear on you, otherwise. All right, girls, down we go. We’ve one last appointment to keep tonight.”


Embras strode purposely forward into the maze of crates stacked on the main warehouse floor, scowling in displeasure. This night had been an unmitigated disaster. He only hoped his comrades had had the sense to surrender once he was safely away. For now, he had to get to the offices of this complex and find the sewer access—there always was one—but in the back of his mind, he had already begun planning to retrieve as many of them as possible. It was a painful duty, having to prioritize among friends, but Bradshaw and Vanessa would have to be first…

He rounded a blind turn in the dim corridors made by the piled crates and slammed to a halt as light rose up in front of him.

The uniformed Butler set the lantern aside on a small crate pulled up apparently for that purpose, then folded her hands behind her back, assuming that parade rest position they always adopted when not actively working.

“Good evening, Master Mogul,” Price said serenely. “You are expected.”

Embras heaved a sigh. “Well, bollocks.”

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6 – 32

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“Ah, perfect.” Mogul calmly adjusted his lapels as he stepped out of the shadows onto the latest rooftop. Carter landed beside him, for once without stumbling, and had to repress a moment of pride at how well he was adapting to shadow-jumping.

Their new perch was an especially narrow structure four stories tall, facing what had clearly once been a park before being piled with trash and the debris of preliminary deconstruction of some of the district’s buildings. The piles of rubbish were short, though, affording them a view of both the street leading to the bridge out of the empty district, and a side street which intersected it, down which a small party of people was now moving at a good clip.

“That’s them?” Carter asked, stepping up to the edge of the roof. He couldn’t see identifying details at this distance, but it pretty much had to be. The only other people around were Wreath warlocks, who were in hiding, and the four were clearly fleeing away from or toward something.

“Mm hm,” his guide murmured in reply, turning his back to the scene below.

“You called?” said a new voice from behind them. Carter embarrassed himself by jumping in surprise, then whirled to face the speaker. He might as well not have bothered; it was another figure shrouded in the gray anonymity of their ceremonial robes. Definitely male, possibly of a large build.

“There you are,” Mogul said, cheerful as ever, leaving Carter wondering by what mechanism he had called the man. “How’s it look out there?”

“You can see the Bishop and his servants nearing the square,” the warlock replied, nodding his hood in the direction of the street beyond. “There’s also activity just over the bridge. Looks like reinforcements coming to meet him.”

“All expected,” said Mogul. “What’d he bring?”

“His Butler, a pair of elves in…what I guess might be Eserite garb, or maybe they’re just stupid. Also two Huntsmen of Shaath.”

“That is interesting!” Mogul sounded delighted. He turned to look at Darling’s group and then at the bridge. Carter couldn’t see figures at that distance, but he wasn’t about to make assumptions regarding the warlocks’ capabilities. “Why, this is all shaping up marvelously. The timing is impeccable! The Lady smiles on us tonight. All right, you know the plan. Get started. Unleash the demons at both groups. Carefully, stagger the attacks so as to give them a sporting chance. If it isn’t too difficult to manage, do try to time it so that they meet up about as the demons run out.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” The robed figure put his hands together; there came a soft clicking noise, and he vanished in a swell of darkness.

“How many of those talismans do you have?” Carter asked.

“As many as we need, and a few extras to play with.”

“I must say that’s…oddly generous. That bit about giving them a sporting chance. These are your enemies, aren’t they?”

Mogul half-turned to give him a knowing smile. “And why waste a perfectly good enemy? I’m just getting to know this one. As soon as you kill the bastard you’re used to, you’ll find yourself hip-deep in an unknown quantity. Anyhow, I am taking the opportunity to…clean house a bit.” He turned back to watch the street. Darling’s party had slowed as they neared the square; suddenly there were flashes of fire and the white sparkle of wandshots from their vicinity. Infuriatingly, their path had taken them behind as shattered old clock tower, leaving Carter with no idea what was happening.

“The demons I’ve brought to this little hoedown are…troublesome sorts,” Mogul continued, idly gazing down on the street as if he could see the action. Nothing was visible except the odd flash of light. “Some of the more animalistic ones who just aren’t taking their training… Some sentients who seem determined to use the Wreath to scheme toward their own ends. Exactly the sort of thing we are on the mortal plane to put a stop to. Of course, we have our own methods, but when fortune gives me a squad of bloodthirsty Church enforcers, why waste the opportunity?”

“I see,” Carter said, frowning.

“Come now, Mr. Long, why do you imagine I really allowed Darling to finish his little obstacle course and get himself set up where he wanted to be? He needs to be in a position of strength if I’m to let him get out of this alive.”

“In that case…I’m afraid I don’t see,” Carter admitted.

Mogul laughed. “It’s all about expectations. As I told you earlier, I want to have a few words with Mr. Darling this evening, but following that, he can go home and do whatever it is Eserites do when not cutting purse strings. If I simply offered them the chance to leave unmolested, they would either suspect a trap and attack, or see it as a sign of weakness…and attack. If they’re going to attack anyway, I’d rather they be tired out mowing down the fodder first. Then we’ll have a nice, polite little stand-off and they can leave believing they forced us to a truce.”

“You’re that certain they’ll be so aggressive?”

“I am, as I said, cleaning house.” Mogul gave him a considering look. “I began this sequence of events by sending some of my less reliable members to visit the Church. Warlocks who, like the demons below, have been scheming on their own to amass personal power through the infernal arts, at the expense of their duties. Now, we attract all manner of miscellaneous oddballs and I’m quite indulgent of eccentricity in the ranks, but abuse of power is absolutely not to be tolerated. Ours is a sacred calling. So off went the ne’er-do-wells, and not a one came out alive. That’s what the servants of the Pantheon do when they catch someone who doesn’t bend knee to their power.”

“I’m not aware of Church personnel behaving that way, as a rule,” Carter said very carefully.

Mogul grinned bitterly. “I encourage you not to take my word for it. Look into the events of warlocks being killed by Bishops recently. They have floated the official story that the Wreath attacked them, and frankly I doubt there will be any contradicting evidence left intact. But have a long, deep look at the histories of the Bishops in question. Things may become more clear to you then.”

“This is all…absolutely byzantine,” Carter said, shaking his head.

“Demons are a responsibility, and an occasional means to an end,” Mogul replied. “They’re not the point of our faith; we serve the goddess of cunning. Who, through no fault of her own, was consigned to a dimension full of demons by her own family, and even still took it upon herself to defend the mortal world by disposing of the last hostile Elder Goddess. You don’t think it interesting that the only other deity who bothers to keep Scyllith away from our civilization is Themynra, who also is not of the Pantheon?”

Carter frowned, deep in thought. Below, Darling’s group moved out from behind cover, at a more cautious pace than before, but he barely saw them.

“Welp, looks like matters are coming to a head,” Mogul said cheerfully. “Come along, Mr. Long. Let’s go have us a chat.”


 

The third and final katzil demon rebounded off the wall against which Weaver’s wandshot had smashed it, emitting an aimless puff of flame from its mouth at the impact. The feathered serpent shook itself, barely staying aloft, and opened its fanged maw to direct another blast at them.

Joe fired a bolt of light straight down its throat. Soundlessly, the creature flopped to the pavement, where it immediately began to crumble to dust and charcoal, as the other two had.

“You seein’ what I’m seein’?” Joe asked, warily scanning the streets with his wands up.

“I see fucking demons!” Peepers practically wailed. She was trying to hide behind Darling, who had a throwing knife in each hand, but had let the two men with wands take the lead against the onslaught.

“Yeah,” said Weaver. “Small groups, one at a time. No warlocks, just demons. Not hitting hard enough to herd us away… We’re being softened up. Wonder what’ll be at the end after we mow down the disposables.”

“Hard to say what is and isn’t disposable with these guys,” Darling noted. “This whole thing started with them sending twelve trained spellcasters to their certain deaths. It’s odd that they’d do this now, when we’re close to the edge of the district. That’s not a smart place for the Wreath to set up a confrontation. Any ruckus kicked up in sight of the public will bring the Army down on them.”

“So, basically, we don’t know what the fuck is going on,” Weaver snorted. “Situation normal.”

“Standard procedures, then!” Darling proclaimed. “Forward! There’s a somewhat reasonable chance we’ll be having help soon.”

“Hate you so much,” Peepers growled.

“He’s right, to the extent that we can’t exactly stay here,” said Joe. “Exit’s just up ahead. How’s it look, Weaver?”

“Actually…” The bard tilted his head in that way he did when listening to his invisible friend, then smiled. “Well, fuck me running. Looks like Twinkletoes’s non-plan is actually working.”


 

“Stay back,” Price said in a clipped tone, simply striding forward, the clicking of her shoes on the pavement lost in the thunder of the charging demon’s footsteps.

“You can’t—”

“What can two little elves do about this?” The Butler gave Flora a sharp sidelong look before returning her attention forward as the baerzurg reached her.

She sidestepped neatly, allowing it to charge several steps past. Roaring in fury, the hulking, bronze-scaled brute rounded on her, striking out with a ham-sized fist. Price calmly stepped inside the swing of its arm, grasping it as it went past. Her hands looked absurdly tiny against its forearm, which was as thick as her waist. At that moment, however, there came a tiny golden flash as the creature stepped on the small holy charm she had dropped the second before. With a bellow of pain, it staggered into the impetus of its own punch.

The movement of its body momentarily hid the Butler from view; they didn’t see exactly how she did it. In the next second, however, the huge creature had been spun to the side, staggering back against the bridge’s railing. This came only just past its knees, and scarcely served to stop the baerzurg. It teetered at the edge, flailing with its arms.

Price took two running steps forward and vaulted, landing lightly with both feet against the demon’s massive chest.

Roaring, it toppled backward, grasping at her and just missing as she hopped lightly back down to the bridge’s surface. Behind her, the bellowing demon plunged into the canal. Price pause for a moment to straighten her tie.

“Whoah,” Fauna muttered.

An arrow whistled above their heads, and a second later there came a squawk of protest. A flying katzil demon dropped to the ground, a quivering shaft still embedded in its neck.

“We will create a path through these trash,” Andros growled, stalking past the two elves with Tholi and Ingvar flanking him. “Your agility will be needed against the warlocks when we near them. Stay behind us.”

Another arrow, fired by Ingvar, brought down a sshitherosz that spiraled upward, apparently seeking a higher vantage from which to strike. The next creature to charge forward was a grotesque abomination of tentacles and claws that looked like it would be more at home underwater. It faltered as an arrow from Andros’s bow, glowing gold, thudded into its upper chest. Then Price had darted forward and past it, reaching around to rip a small knife across the creature’s throat. Blue-green fluid sprayed forth and it dropped.

The next moment, Price had to dodge backward as a sinuous, crocodile-headed khankredahg snapped at her. She bounded onto the bridge’s rail, then back down, retreating from its powerful jaws. For being built like an elongated bulldog, it was awfully fast.

Tholi was there in moments, striking out with a hatchet. The beast paused, maw gaping open to hiss threateningly as the Huntsman and Butler moved to flank it.

“Hsst,” Flora said, joining Fauna on her side of the bridge. “Tell me you see it too.”

“One at a time, never enough to push us back,” Fauna replied, nodding. “Something’s up.”

“Let’s get behind the lines.”

“Remember the rules…”

“Oh, come on, we’re still elves.” Smirking, Flora switched to elvish. “If we can’t sneak past this lot without teleporting, we don’t deserve the name.”

Exchanging nods, they separated and dived over the bridge on both sides. In the next moment, while their companions pressed forward through a sequence of demonic attacks, they were clambering horizontally along its decorative stonework just below the level of its surface.


 

“There, and there,” Darling said, pointing at two side alleys. “Uglies coming out, attacking in both directions, but not trying to block the way. As a strategy, it’s so ineffective I have to assume it was meant to be.”

Even as he spoke, the latest khankredahg collapsed with a piteous groan, incidentally bearing down the young Huntsman who had charged forward, thrust his arm into its open mouth and driven a knife into its brain. The lad cursed at being dragged down, though he was free almost immediately as the demon began to disintegrate into ash.

“Good evening, your Grace,” Price intoned, striding forward. “I trust the results of tonight’s excursion have been to your satisfaction?”

“Ask me again when I’ve seen the results,” he said cheerfully. “Excellent timing, by the way, Price.”

“Yes, it was. If your Grace is seeking comfort in reminders of the familiar, I also have red hair.”

There came a scream from above, and a figure in a gray robe plunged from a second-floor window to hit the street with an unpleasant thump. A second behind, a slim figure in black leather dived down, landing nimbly beside him.

“Oh, don’t be such a baby,” Fauna told the groaning warlock. “You’re barely broken.”

“More summoners over here!” Flora reported, leaning out a window in the structure opposite. “They shadow-jumped away as I got here, though.”

“Oh?” Darling turned to her, raising an eyebrow. “It’s not like you to give warning of your approach.”

“I’m gonna let that pass because I’m really glad to see you’re okay,” she shot back. “And no, they were already in motion by the time I arrived. Whatever they were up to, it looks like their plan is still going forward.”

“Then it is time we were gone,” Andros rumbled. “These are the two gentlemen you mentioned?”

“Indeed,” Price replied.

He studied Joe and Weaver for a moment, flicked his gaze across Peepers and visibly dismissed her from consideration. “Very well. The force we now have assembled is sufficient to repel a considerably greater threat than we have faced thus far. While they are in retreat, we should do likewise.”

“But we have them on the run!” Tholi said, practically panting in eagerness. “Now is the time to press on and finish them off!”

“Listen to your superiors,” Ingvar snapped. “And to your scouts! The Wreath has planned this, all of it, and it’s gone as they intended. We are in a snare. It’s time to flee.”

“I quite agree,” said Darling, tousling Flora’s hair fondly as she rejoined the group. “C’mon, once across the bridge we’re—”

“Too late,” said Joe, raising both his wands.

The ten of them clustered together, unconsciously forming into a circle in the center of the square. Behind them was the bridge back to the lights of the city, before the desolation of the condemned neighborhood, but all around, there were suddenly shadows rising from nowhere. They appeared in windows, out of doors and alleys, on rooftops, some seeming to rise up from the very pavement. Surges of darkness swelled, then receded, leaving figures in gray robes standing where they had been. Some carried weapons, a mix of wands, staves and clearly ceremonial (to judge by their elaborate design) blades, quite a few accompanied by demons of various descriptions. In seconds, a dozen ringed them; in seconds more, their numbers doubled, and then continued to grow. The Wreath pressed forward, flanking them from behind, not quite cutting off escape but edging into their own path out of the district.

“Hmp,” Weaver muttered, “damn. I forgot to tell you so. Now I can’t say it.”

“These are pups that have cornered bears,” Andros snarled. “If they will not let us leave in peace, crush them.” Tholi growled in wordless agreement.

A final surge of shadows rose up from the street directly ahead, depositing two men in front of the group.

“Now, now,” Embras Mogul said reprovingly. “There you go, offering to solve a puzzle with a hammer. Honestly, how you get dressed in the morning without strangling your wife is beyond me.”

“Are you really still hanging out with these guys, Carter?” Peepers demanded.

“I’m just here to observe,” the journalist said, licking his lips nervously.

Ignoring a hissed warning from Flora, Darling stepped forward out of the circle. “Well, this has been a grand little chase, Embras, but we all have better places to be, don’t we?”

“Quite so.” Mogul stepped forward to meet him, placing each foot with a care that made him resemble more than ever a wading stork. “My people have suffered no end of abuse at your hands already, Antonio, and you’ve worn yours down with your ill-conceived antics.”

“Not to mention that I’ll have to spend my whole day on paperwork tomorrow if I’m party to shooting up a whole district, condemned or no,” Darling replied easily. “I just can’t spare the time. There’s a social event in the evening to which I’ve been looking forward for weeks.”

“Then it’s all too obvious how we handle this, isn’t it?”

They came to a stop less than a yard apart. The priest and warlock stared at one another, grim-faced.

“Indeed,” Darling said softly. “None of you interfere. This is personal.”

“Are you crazy?” Fauna shouted. Price held up a warning finger in front of her face.

“We settle it like gentlemen,” Mogul said, equally quiet.

“Man to man.”

“One on one.”

“To the death.”

There was a horrified silence. The Wreath stood motionless, robes fluttering in the faint night breeze, several of their demon companions shifting impatiently. Darling’s party held weapons at the ready, staring at the pair in disbelieving fascination. The light shifted, faltering, a cloud scudding across the moon and leaving them momentarily illuminated only by the distant glow of the city itself.

And then Mogul and Darling simultaneously burst into gales of laughter.

While the entire assembled crowd stared, utterly bemused, both men roared in mirth. Mogul slumped forward, bracing his hands against his knees; Darling reached out to steady himself against the other man’s shoulder.

“Fuck it,” Weaver said loudly after this had gone on for half a minute. “I say we shoot them both.”

“Oh, my stars and garters,” Mogul chortled, straightening up. “Thanks, old man, I needed that.”

“Hah, makes me wish we could do this more often! Price never lets me have any fun.”

“I admit I’m impressed! For a second there I really thought you were serious.”

“C’mon, Embras, how long have we been at this tonight? Give me credit for a sense of fun.”

“Yeah, I particularly enjoyed your little street-writing display.”

“Oh, you caught that! Better and better. It gets so tedious, running mental circles around people all the time. Sometimes I feel like nobody really gets me, y’know?”

“Tell me about it. Some days I’d trade it all for some intelligent conversation.”

“I hear that.”

“What the hell is going on?!” Peepers shrieked.

“Well, anyway, I’ve got cranky little ones to take home and put to bed,” said Darling, pointing a thumb over his shoulder at the group. “Are we just about done here?”

“Yeah, this seems like a good place to call it a night.” Mogul patted his shoulder, still grinning. “Good game, my man. Mr. Long!” He turned to beckon Carter forward. “I realize this has been more excitement than you planned on seeing. We’ll not detain you if you would rather head back into the city with these folk, but I encourage you to keep in mind what I said about the Church.”

“You’ve said a lot of things,” Carter replied warily, looking as confused and nonplussed as Darling’s allies.

“At the moment,” Mogul said, stepping back from Darling, “you’ve not done anything to earn the Archpope’s ire. Matters will be different if you decide to publish your story, though, and you can certainly expect these folk to lean on you about it one way or another. The Empire’s another matter. Lord Vex is too canny to disappear an inconvenient member of the press and set your entire profession yapping at his heels. Sometimes I kind of miss his predecessor.” The warlock grinned reminiscently. “I could make that guy chase his tail across the city and back, all from the comfort of my rocking chair.”

Carter stared at him, then at Darling, then glanced around, at the warlocks, the assembled mix of Huntsmen and Eserites, the demons. “I, um…”

“Careful,” Mogul cautioned. “You’re thinking with your emotions, remembering who your upbringing has taught you to trust. That’s fine and dandy for an opinion columnist, but if you decide to play the game on the level at which this story will place you, you’ll need to be more careful. Think in terms of whose interests align with yours, not who you happen to feel fondly toward.”

“That is excellent advice for a variety of situations,” Darling said, nodding. “Just keep in mind that telling the truth is the most valuable weapon in a good deceiver’s arsenal. You understand that better than most people, Carter.”

Long’s face grew blank as he clearly marshaled his expression through sheer will. “I…appreciate the reminder, Bishop Darling,” he said somewhat stiffly. “Mr. Mogul, do you think you can drop me off at the offices of the Imperial Herald?”

“Not within it or too close,” Mogul replied. “Your superiors very wisely keep their wards updated, and the whole place had a recent and thorough Pantheonic blessing. We can put you down in the neighborhood and keep watch till you’re safely home, though.”

“I would appreciate it.”

“Very well, then,” Mogul said, grinning widely. The expression he turned on the Bishop was subtly triumphant. “This has been just a barrel of laughs, but…time marches on.”

“Mm hm,” Darling replied mildly, his own face open and affable. “See you next time, Embras.”

With a final, mocking grin, Embras Mogul laid his hand on Carter’s shoulder and vanished in a heave of darkness. All around them, the rest of the Black Wreath followed suit, demons and robed cultists disappearing in a series of shadowy undulations, till in seconds, the small group were clustered alone in the deserted square.

“Either someone is going to explain to me right damn now what just happened or I will begin stabbing people at random,” Peepers threatened.

“You don’t have a knife,” Joe observed.

“I will improvise.”

“Simple mathematics,” Darling said, strolling back over to the group. “They had the numbers, but we have the power, pound for pound. After watching all of us in action, Mogul knew it. A real fight would have left the area in ruins and cost lives on both sides. Neither of us wanted that.”

“I did,” Tholi muttered sullenly. Ingvar rolled his eyes.

“There will be another time,” Andros rumbled. “Did you at least learn what you set out to, Antonio?”

Darling grimaced in annoyance. “We bloodied their noses, cost them some tame demons and I have a few more little pieces of the puzzle to slot into place. For all the general fuss and bother this evening has been, though… I can’t say we’ve gained as much ground as I would have liked. But we drew them out of hiding, got a sense of how much manpower they’ve got in the city, and faced them down. That’s not nothing.”

“It will be worth reporting in detail to his Holiness,” Andros said, nodding. “But I agree. We must make more progress, quickly.”

“I’ve a few more ideas to mull over,” Darling replied, then rolled his shoulders. “Well, anyhow! What say we haul ass out of this depressing dump? I don’t know about any of you, but right now I would kick a nun into the canal for a brandy.”

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