Tag Archives: Grandmaster Veisroi

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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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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 – 10

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From the outside, and even on a casual glance around its interior, the Tiraas lodge of the Huntsmen of Shaath looked modest, even humble. Situated in one of the city’s poorer districts, it was kept in shadow until late morning by the northeastern wall, which was appropriate as Shaathvar lay in that direction from Tiraas, deep in the snowy Stalrange. The lodge itself was designed after the pattern of a Stalweiss chieftain’s hall, a long building with massive oaken timbers exposed beneath an enormous thatched roof. Though it was one of the smaller of the major temples in the city, that still counted as a resource-intensive luxury, given how often thatch needed to be replaced. Despite the rough nature of its basic construction, the lodge was lavishly ornamented, the carvings adorning every part of its wooden surface a mix of intricate knotwork and crude animal pictograms.

Small and rough or no, it was actually one of the older temples in the city, hence the towering limestone foundation on which it sat, rising nearly a full story above street level. The lodge predated Tiraas’s magnificent sewer system, and had been designed to survive periodic flooding. Thus, Darling had to ascend a long flight of worn stone steps to reach the looming facade of the temple itself. Iron braziers glowed dimly with smoldering charcoal on both sides of the staircase; at the top, twin statues of wolves snarled down at those who dared approach the domain of the Huntsmen. It was a forbidding approach, and doubtless, deliberately so.

He had chosen his Universal Church robes for this visit, complete with neatly brushed hair, and wore a stately, calmly beneficent manner like a cloak. He didn’t really know what the Huntsmen thought of the Guild; Shaath’s cult wasn’t well-liked by most of the others, and it stood to reason the feeling would be mutual, but he hadn’t actually troubled to learn what the world looked like through their eyes. Regardless of interfaith tensions—or lack thereof—everything he did know about the Huntsmen suggested they wouldn’t respond warmly to a grinning, slightly scruffy city slicker like Sweet. Darling had heard from the Archpope, from Andros and from various third parties he used to keep tabs on both that the cult of Shaath was firmly behind the Church, so it seemed a safe bet that they wouldn’t turn away a Bishop who introduced himself as such.

A man in the traditional leather and fur stood at the top of the steps, in the shadow of the lodge’s overhanging eaves and partially hidden from the staircase by one of the wolf statues. He wore a short beard and had his hair tied back in a simple tail; a bristling stock of arrows bristled over his shoulder from a quiver, and he held a longbow.

“Welcome,” he said, nodding to Darling. That was all; no elaborate greeting, no inquiries after his business or the state of his spiritual health. Nothing unfriendly in the sentinel’s aspect, either, which was an improvement over the Huntsmen’s general reputation. Then again, Darling’s robes might have made a difference.

“Thank you,” he said, matching the man’s nod and adding a kind smile. The sentinel returned his gaze to the street below a hair before Darling was quite past him.

Inside, he paused for a moment to get his bearings, let his eyes adjust to the relative dimness and, in truth, take in the barbaric splendor of the place. To Tiraan sensibilities, the lodge of the Huntsmen was laughably rustic. Darling was certainly not versed in how things were done in the back country of the Stalrange, but even he could see the care and wealth that had gone into this temple.

It was all wood, stark iron braziers, thatch and various animal decorations, yes, but in each there was ample evidence of mastery and devotion. Racks of antlers and whole animal heads stared down from the upper reaches of the square wooden pillars holding up the roof, and enormous stuffed animals stood at their bases. The taxidermy was absolutely splendid; the creatures looked nearly alive in the smoky gloom. Enormous bears of several colors, multiple varieties of great cats, giant monitor lizards, serpents, and a few things to which Darling could place no name stood watch over the hall. What light there was came from torches and iron braziers, which added a light haze of smoke as well as a tangy smell of burning wood, yet he noted a lack of smoke damage, even above the sconces. Clearly, great care went into the maintenance of the place. Every inch of the wooden interior was heavily carved with Stalweiss glyphs, knots and geometric patterns; though the finer details were obscured by the dimness, every surface glowed faintly in the torchlight with lovingly buffed polish.

Not far from the door, some of the room’s constant maintenance was in progress, in the form of a handsome middle-aged woman sweeping the floor. She wore traditional attire—which, now that Darling saw it up close, looked a lot like traditional elvish attire with the addition of fur. Her dress was plain and of soft, dark-stained leather, with an animal pelt of some kind draped over her shoulders. She wore her long hair in a braid—meaning she was married, even he knew that much—but didn’t have a collar. Darling did not know enough about Shaathist customs to place a meaning to it, and resolved to keep his mouth shut on the subject.

“Excuse me,” he said politely to her. “Would you know where I can find Bishop Varanus?”

She paused in her sweeping to straighten up fully and look him in the eye. “Perhaps the Huntsmen can better help you, sir,” she replied quietly, tilting her head in the direction of a knot of men standing and talking quietly further into the great hall. The soft voice and respectful demeanor were at odds with the hard and distinctly challenging look she gave him.

“Thank you,” Darling said with a smile, nodding deeply to her. She made no reply; he broke eye contact first, and didn’t hear the sweeping resume until he had turned his back and proceeded a few steps away. All of this he filed away for further consideration. It wasn’t often someone outside the cult itself got to interact with Shaathist women, and the brief encounter had been…enlightening. The subservience he had expected, but not the aggression, and the combination thereof was intriguing.

Four Huntsmen stood about halfway down the length of the hall, talking quietly amongst themselves. Darling approached them at a moderate pace, unabashedly admiring the décor. At the far end from the door stood an enormous bronze statue of a wolf, staring impassively at all who came before it. There were no depictions of Shaath as such, but the bronze representation of his sacred animal was the only one of its kind. Belatedly, he noted that there were no stuffed wolves among the animals on display. Well, that made a certain amount of sense.

“Good day,” he said, drawing within conversational distance of the small knot of Huntsmen. They had shifted their group to face him as he approached, and now nodded in unison.

“Welcome, Bishop,” one said calmly. “What can we do for you?”

“I’m looking for Bishop Varanus,” he replied. “Is he available?”

Two of them exchanged glances. The details of their attire were different, but the overall theme was the same: skins, leather, hunting knives, hatchets and bows. Only one was visibly unique, in that he had no beard.

“Is Brother Andros expecting you?” the beardless one asked, and Darling had to deliberately still himself to avoid showing startlement. It was a woman—lean, strongly muscled and deep-voiced, but not so deep that her speech didn’t give it away. Now that he had noticed, it was obvious in the finer details of her face.

“I requested his presence at the Cathedral this morning via messenger,” Darling said. “His reply was that if it was so important I could come down here myself.” He grinned. “So…no, I rather suspect he is not.”

They all smiled along with him, the oldest-looking of the number going so far as to chuckle.

“Andros is meeting with the Grandmaster and has been all morning,” said the woman, “but they are not secluded. If it’s important, I can take you to him.”

“I would greatly appreciate that! My thanks, miss…?”

An instant stillness fell over them, and he realized he had missteped, somehow. The sudden silence had the unmistakable flavor of social awkwardness, though no one offered a hint as to the reason. The three bearded Huntsmen went impassive; the woman stared at him very flatly, her demeanor suddenly a lot less open but not quite hostile.

“You are an outsider,” she said after a terse few moments, “and by Andros’s description, rather a fool. As such, I’ll let that pass.”

“You would be amazed how often that very distinction has saved my life,” he said glibly, trying for his most charming smile.

She wasn’t having it. “Perhaps I would not. This way.”

The woman turned and walked away, toward the wolf statue. Darling had nothing to do but follow, nodding politely to the three Huntsmen. They just watched him go.

She led him to the right of the statue and through a door tucked away in the shadowed corner, making no attempt at conversation. Behind this a dark, narrow hall traced the rear of the main chamber, with doors and other hallways branching off it every few feet. They proceeded in silence about half the length of the hall, where she turned abruptly to ascend a wooden staircase set in what appeared to be a tower. The steps creaked softly as they ascended, but did not shift or give any sign of weakness. That was very reassuring, as the construction of the staircase was sparse and left a very open view of the increasingly distant floor between the wooden steps.

It grew colder as they climbed, the flickering light of torches giving way to the steadier illumination of windows. His taciturn guide finally came to a stop at a small landing and opened a door there, through which a cool breeze immediately entered, ruffling his robes. Beyond this was a wide platform neatly hidden behind the peaked roof of the main hall, affording it a decent view over the city—the buildings in this district weren’t notably tall—while remaining out of sight from the street below. She nodded once at the open door and stepped back from it.

“Thank you,” Darling said politely, wanting to assuage her clearly affronted feelings but wanting even more not to worsen them, which was likely to happen if he made further conversation; he still had no idea what he’d even done wrong. She just nodded once more, waited until he was through, and shut the door firmly behind him.

Two men stood at the far end of the platform, Andros and an older man who had to be Grandmaster Veisroi. The Grandmaster was aged enough that his beard and hair were nearly all gray with only residual streaks of brown, his face weathered and deeply lined, but he stood fully upright and had the wiry physique Darling had observed in the other Huntsmen below. In fact, despite the stereotype, he realized that most of these men were lean and angular in build, rather than bear-like. Andros himself was by far the most burly of them, and the imposing bulk of his massive chest was offset by his height.

They had broken off their conversation at the door’s opening, and now stood watching him approach.

“Gentlemen,” Darling said by way of greeting, strolling up to them. “I hope I’m not interrupting?”

“Nothing that cannot be delayed,” Andros rumbled. “Grandmaster, this is Bishop Darling, of the cult of Eserion. Antonio, you stand in the presence of Erik Veisroi, mortal leader of the Huntsmen of Shaath.”

“I’m impressed that you would come here,” said the Grandmaster, his voice rasping slightly with age, but still clear and strong. “Not many of our faith are welcoming to a thief-priest.”

“I am relieved to hear that, Grandmaster.”

“Oh?”

“Anyone who is pleased to meet a thief is either loony or up to something. It’s hard to predict which will end up being a bigger waste of my time.”

Veisroi grinned. “Well, you have your cult’s famous spirit. In truth, I’ve never found any quarrel with the Guild. I wouldn’t send an Eserite into the woods, but I’m also loath to send my Huntsmen to stalk prey in the city streets. We all hunt in the way our own wilds demand, eh?”

“Well put,” Darling said with an unforced smile.

“I am surprised to see you, Antonio,” said Andros. “I had not actually expected you to come to the lodge.”

“You did invite me,” Darling said innocently. “Anyhow, I always enjoy meeting new people. Though I seem to have offended the young lady who led me up here, somehow.”

The two Huntsmen exchanged a wry look. “Let me guess,” Andros said with a grimace. “You greeted Brother Ingvar as a woman?”

“Ingvar?” he said carefully. “Is that…incorrect?”

“We, of course, tend to assume a person would have the wit to see someone attired as a Huntsman and understand the situation,” Andros said pointedly, “but fortunately Ingvar has had enough contact with infidels not to be too disappointed. He is a dual soul.”

“Ah,” Darling said, nonplussed. “And…that is…?”

“A man’s spirit,” Andros clarified, “unfortunately born in a woman’s body.”

Darling stared.

“These things happen,” Andros continued, while Veisroi watched Darling’s face with a faint grin. “The wild does not presume to be without mistakes. It need not be perfect; it simply is. A dual soul in but one of many kinds of deformity that may be visited upon a person. Some cults see a god’s disfavor in these events. We see only the randomness of nature.”

“I am…surprised,” Darling said carefully, sticking to understatement for safety’s sake. “Knowing how your cult feels about women, and homosexuality.”

“That is behavior,” Veisroi said distastefully, “not nature.”

“It is reasonable to place expectations on how a man conducts himself,” Andros added, nodding. “There is no sense in arguing with what plainly is, however. Dual souls face enough hardship in coming to understand themselves, and in going through life without the possibility of having a mate. We accept them as their spirit befits. Needless cruelty is not the way of the wild.”

Darling decided that at some point, he had to goad Andros and Basra into a theological debate so he could watch. This was either the best or the worst idea he’d ever had; he couldn’t decide which.

“Well! While I always love learning new things, I actually did come here for a reason, and I don’t want to waste any of your time. His Holiness has tasked me with assembling a picture of what actually occurred yesterday, specifically among the four cults whose Bishops were attacked by the Wreath. It’s become clear those attacks were a ploy to goad our cults into making a misstep, which at least two have done. The Church hasn’t had a full report from the Huntsmen yet, though.”

“That is the very matter we were discussing,” said Veisroi, stroking his beard and peering hawkishly at Darling. “Not to evade the question, but…what missteps were made?”

Darling grimaced. “The Thieves’ Guild and the Sisters of Avei struck back at the Black Wreath, both in a manner that led to numerous uninvolved citizens being injured. It’s looking a great deal like both were manipulated from within, which leaves us the very difficult task of rooting out whatever agents the Wreath have placed in each cult. There are considerable difficulties in both cases…”

“Mm,” Andros grunted. “As I recall, the Avenist Bishop has some authority over the Legions in the city. Am I wrong to guess that rabid Syrinx woman is responsible for this debacle?”

“She was a contributing factor,” Darling said ruefully, “which makes it hard to spot any subtler influences at work. Basra…is Basra. A heavy-handed disregard for bystanders isn’t out of character for her, and doesn’t necessarily imply she has Wreath ties.”

“And there you have Avenists in a nutshell,” the Grandmaster said with a grin. “Women trying to take on tasks that are not suited to them always seem to end in witless thuggery. It’s impressive how many millennia they have gone, managing not to learn.”

Darling wasn’t about to touch that. “The issue with the Thieves’ Guild is different. We operate in the same general manner as the Wreath, which makes any of their activities in our own ranks damnably hard to spot.”

“Camouflage,” Andros said, nodding. “Makes sense.”

“Well,” Veisroi went on more briskly, “I fear the Huntsmen are in no position to mock other cults for having been infiltrated by the Wreath. We do, however, have some cause for pride this day.” He grinned savagely. “There was, indeed, an attempt to provoke individual Huntsmen to join the attack on the Black Wreath yesterday. It rather spectacularly backfired. The men of Shaath stayed their hands, and we now have a traitor in custody.”

“He has yet to yield useful information,” Andros said with grim satisfaction. “But all things in time.”

“Really,” Darling said, impressed in spite of himself. “Well done. This will make things tremendously easier. If it’s not sensitive information, can I ask what happened, and how?”

“You come in your capacity as an agent of the Church, plainly,” said Veisroi. “We stand with Archpope Justinian, particularly against Elilial and her pawns; we are one in this struggle. Several of the more hotheaded Huntsmen were agitating for us to strike back at the Wreath in the wake of their assault on Andros’s quarters in this lodge. That was only to be expected. Brother Angner was only one such voice, and did not particularly stand out.” The Grandmaster grinned again. “But I have been on a hunt or two in my life, and haven’t forgotten quite yet how to do it. Rarely does one bring down prey by charging at it headlong. While Andros was supposed to be tending to his family and interfacing with the Church in the wake of the attack, I had him discreetly prowling around those men who were shouting loudest for blood. Angner was the only one caught. He was the one who had a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman in his room, and a brass syringe of poison on his person.”

“Naturally,” Andros growled, “he protested his innocence. Claimed these were trophies taken from a slain warlock, and that his only sin was in failing to share such valuable spoils with his brothers.”

“Sounds plausible enough,” Darling said slowly.

“Yes,” Veisroi replied, still grinning. “At least until we gathered together every light-wielding cleric amongst the Huntsmen in this city, as well as several other priests who were willing to help us, placed Angner in the center of a holy circle and inundated him with enough healing light to outshine the blessing on a paladin’s sword.”

“It is best to hunt like the wolf,” Andros added, “but sometimes it is useful to maul like the bear. He evinced no sign of infernal corruption when examined. So when such corruption was visibly burned from him under that onslaught, his guilt as proven. For such a devil’s mark to be hidden from our clerics’ eyes could only have been Wreath spellwork.”

“Unfortunately,” Veisroi added, scowing distastefully, “that is as much progress as we have made. It is difficult to get further; knowing his guilt is proven, Angner has clammed up and will tell us nothing. Wreath or not, he is a Huntsman, raised and trained. He does not fear pain or deprivation.”

“We are thwarted by our own discipline,” Andros said wryly. “This is the point we have been debating, Antonio. It is clear more measures must be taken than we are prepared for, but… If he is given to the Church…”

“The duty of interrogating prisoners is deemed a military one,” said Veisroi with a sneer, “and thus is generally given to the Avenists. There are some things to which I am reluctant to subject a man of my cult, traitor or no. We have been discussing whether we can place strictures on the manner in which the Archpope is allowed to interrogate Brother Angner…and indeed, whether we should.”

“The need is urgent,” Andros said gravely. “Aberrant as the Sisters of Avei may be, if they can get results, the sacrifice may be necessary.”

“Hmm…” Darling stroked his chin thoughtfully. “…mind if I have a go?”


 

Brother Angner, after a day of imprisonment and whatever stress it had laid upon him, more closely resembled the Shaathist stereotype than the calm and polite Huntsmen Darling had met in the lodge. His hair was matted and in need of washing, his deep-set eyes were shadowed from stress and lack of sleep, and the smell surrounding him clearly indicated that he had been denied the opportunity to bathe or change clothes for a while.

“Nice place you’ve got here,” Darling said brightly. Angner narrowed his eyes.

A plain wooden table separated them; the Huntsman’s hands were manacled to it, the chains attached to the table’s legs. He had some room to move, but could not stand or reach his own face unless he laid his head down, and he seemed much more determined to keep it held high. The room itself was intimidating and clearly meant to be so. Stark gray stone, lit only by a brazier of coals in the corner and containing no furniture but the table and the chairs in which the two men sat on either side. There was no window; the air was stifling.

Behind Darling stood Andros and another Huntsman, staring grimly down at Angner, who was doing his best to ignore them.

“Now, it seems you’ve gone and gotten mixed up with the Black Wreath,” Darling went on in a light, conversational tone. “People tend to make rather a fuss about that, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Really, though, this is all more common than you may realize. That’s the beauty of being a whole cult devoted to a grievance with the gods, eh? Everybody’s got some kind of beef. All the Wreath has to do is work one fingernail into you, and before you know it you’re taking communion with… Okay, honestly, I have no idea what the actual rituals are. But you get my point, don’t you, Angner?”

Angner sneered so hard it was visible through his beard.

“I figured you would,” Darling said glibly. “You of all people. What I’m driving at is that you aren’t much of a catch. Just being a member of the Wreath isn’t a major crime. Well, not legally; different cults have different rules about apostasy. No, in the end, the reason for all this rigamarole is that you possess useful information.” He leaned back in the chair, smiling benignly. “And we will get that information from you. I assure you, Angner, that is a foregone conclusion. What you get to determine is how you’ll be treated when that’s done, but deciding how much trouble it’s going to be to get you talking.”

Angner glared at him.

Darling met his gaze in silence for nearly a full minute, then abruptly stood. “Andros, can I borrow your hunting knife, please?”

Andros raised an eyebrow fractionally, but bent to pull the blade from his boot and handed it over without comment. It was a hefty weapon, plain and serviceable with a ridged handle carved from horn.

“Thanks,” said Darling, strolling over to the corner and carefully arranging the knife on the brazier so that its blade was directly above the hottest coals he could find close enough to the edge. He positioned himself so that the prisoner could see the heating knife, then leaned back against the wall next to the brazier, folding his arms and smiling. “Now, Andros tells me that Huntsmen don’t break easily. I’m certainly willing to believe that. You’re trained not to fear pain, is that right?”

Angner snorted softly, speaking for the first time since Darling had entered the room. “Eserite poof.”

“Ah, you’ve heard of me!” Darling said, grinning hugely. “Smashing. So! Not impressed by pain. Also not…what was it the Grandmaster said, Andros? Ah, yes, deprivation. Well, that just stands to reason, I suppose. You’re out in the wilderness, hunting for your food… Or for sport or religious rites, whatever it is you guys do. I confess I’m not as well-read on comparative religion as I really ought to be. Busy busy, you know how it is, not enough hours in the day.” He cocked his head to one side, turning toward Andros. “What was I saying? Oh, right! Pain and deprivation. So, of course, the traditional way of dragging intelligence out of prisoners leans heavily on those two pillars. I understand your jailers anticipated you’d be resistant to such methods and haven’t bothered to try ’em. Yes?”

He glanced around the room, getting a curt nod from the other Huntsman, then turned back to Angner. “Well, that’s all well and good, but…and call me a naïve optimist if you want…I think a sharp-looking fellow like you deserves a chance to redeem yourself. I mean, that’s just basic fairness, right? We all make mistakes. The Wreath, as I was just saying, is very good at seducing people away from their common sense. Has anyone bothered to simply ask you, Angner, who your fellow Wreath agents are? Politely?”

Angner’s sneer deepened.

“I’m asking now,” Darling said more quietly. “Why don’t we just skip a bunch of rigamarole and get this over with?”

The chained Huntsman shifted in his chair, further straightening his spine, and stared haughtily at him.

Darling shrugged. “I’m not much of a fan of torture, myself. Oh, not on any moral grounds, I assure you. In the Guild we get very comfortable with the idea of breaking elbows when they need to get broken. It’s just that it’s not very effective sometimes. Folk like yourself, why…they’re just not impressed enough by pain to make it worth the time and effort. And, funnily enough, the more likely someone is to have useful information to extract, the more likely they’ll have had some training to prevent you from extracting it. The whole thing’s just a self-defeating mess, y’know what I mean?”

He lifted the knife from the brazier. Even the handle was almost uncomfortably hot; the blade glowed red. “Hey, buddy—I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name—can you do me a favor and hold his left arm down hard on the table?”

The second Huntsman looked to Andros, who nodded at him. In silence he stepped up, grabbed Angner’s arm and pinned it down as directed. Darling paced slowly over to the table, holding the glowing knife.

“The key, Angner, is knowing what people do fear. You’re not afraid to hurt? That’s perfectly fine. You’re afraid of something, though. Let me test out a theory.”

It was hard to hold the knife properly for what he had in mind; pressing on the blade wasn’t really an option, hot as it was. It was a hefty weapon, though, and very well-tended; its weight and sharp edge, to say nothing of the heat of it, aided in the task. Angner tried to ball his fist upon seeing what Darling intended, but the Huntsman holding him punched him first across the jaw to daze him, then slammed his closed fist down on Angner’s hand, then again, until the prisoner’s fist opened, and leaned on it, holding his flat hand down against the table.

Darling had to work fast so as not to burn his assistant, but the blade cut quickly and cleanly. It hung for a moment on the bone, but it took only two slices to chop off Angner’s thumb.

Holding the knife out to the side, now, he held his own hand over the Huntsman’s maimed fist, calling up his seldom-touched reserve of magic. A blaze of divine light poured forth, and in seconds, the wound had scabbed over, raw new skin already beginning to form at its edges.

“Thanks,” Darling said brightly. “You can let him up, now.”

He returned to the brazier, setting the knife back in its place to re-heat, then strolled casually back to the table, pulled out the chair and sat down. Angner had been impressively silent during the brief ordeal, and now stared in open-mouthed horror at his severed thumb, lying on the table before him. The other Huntsman stepped back, staying close but out of the way, his face impassive.

“What you fear,” Darling said quietly, “is weakness. Am I right? So here’s what we’re going to do, Angner. I am going to ask you some questions. Every time I don’t get an answer…or have reason to think you’re lying to me… You will lose something. The good news is I’m in no hurry! No appointments; you have my undivided attention. I can afford to go in small bits. You’ve got ten fingers…two eyes…” He chuckled softly. “Two balls. Lots of teeth. You know, the little things. So you’re not going to fail this little test all at once. Hell, if you’ve got the stomach, you could conceivably outlast me. If we get to the point that I’ve carved and healed you so much there’s just nothing else I can work with…” He shrugged. “Then you’ll have won! And I’m sure you’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment. Something you can hold up to Elilial when you meet her to gain your reward in Hell. Oh, but that won’t be any time soon, mind you. Your life is in no danger here. You will have many long years to savor your victory, being carefully tended to and kept in the best of health. Without hands, without eyes, or feet. Unable to walk, feed yourself or wipe your own ass… Unable to talk or chew, with no tongue or teeth. Living on a diet of gruel and broth, completely and utterly helpless. Forever.”

He leaned back, grinning faintly and meeting the man’s wild-eyed stare. “Oh, I should mention, too, that the Universal Church really doesn’t have the facilities to keep prisoners over the long term. That duty is handed over to the Sisters of Avei.”


 

“Of course, it remains to be seen how accurate his information is,” Andros said as he and Darling strolled down the length of the lodge’s main hall toward the front doors. “The names are a starting point, though. They will each be in custody before the night is out.”

“Fabulous!” Darling said airily. “Will you be needing my help in chatting them up, as well?”

The Huntman eyed him sidelong. “I must discuss that with the Grandmaster.”

“Of course, of course. Well, you know how to reach me.”

“Mm.” Andros cleared his throat. “I have misjudged you, Antonio. You do have an irritating predilection for frivolity, but I had taken that to mean you are weak-hearted. That…was in error.”

Darling looked at him for a moment, then smiled. “You think what I want you to think.”

They walked the rest of the way in silence.

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