“Well, it’s mostly good, right?” Juniper said brightly. “I mean, honestly I don’t expect a lot to come of talking with the cultists, especially if they’re already in prison. If they knew anything useful, the Empire surely woulda had it out of ’em long before now. But it sounds like we’ve got sources of help!”
“None of that is help we need!” Trissiny said stridently. An expression of alarm had descended upon her features as Teal and Shaeine described their odd encounter on the street outside, and not diminished since. “Dragging Eserites into anything invariably leads to more trouble, and accepting help from the Black Wreath is so totally out of the question I can’t believe I even have to say it!”
“It’s funny to me how you assume you have to say it,” Ruda remarked idly from the stairs.
“You don’t,” Teal assured Trissiny. “I know, Triss. Believe me, I know. This is one of the lectures I got most often from the Church. I understand how the Wreath operates. It’d start with one small, very reasonable favor, and escalate wildly from there. The only way to win with them is not to engage them at all. Never let them work so much as a fingernail into a crack.”
Trissiny drew in a breath and let it out slowly. “Right. Yes, you’re right. Sorry, Teal, I should’ve considered you would know all this. The subject just makes me edgy.”
“Rightly so,” Toby said, wearing a concerned frown.
“What worries me,” Trissiny continued, “is that the Wreath are totally without scruples. We’ve got enough trouble in Veilgrad already, and I can easily imagine them making more if they have a presence here.”
“They operate magically, though,” Gabriel said. “If chaos is the problem, that puts them under the same disadvantage as everyone else.”
“Wrong and wrong!” Trissiny snapped. “The chaos isn’t everywhere; all of us have used magic since coming here without having it misfire.” Ruda cleared her throat loudly. “Sorry, most of us.”
“Yeah!” Fross chimed. “If I fall out of the air or suddenly stop existing, guys, that’s a warning sign.”
“More to the point,” Trissiny barreled on, “the Black Wreath are not dangerous because they’re warlocks—or not chiefly. As warlocks go, they are usually more in control and less likely to cause messy splash effects than random self-taught practitioners. They are dangerous because they are crafty, insidious and very skilled at manipulation and…and…con artistry.”
“And we’re back to the Eserites,” Ruda said, grinning.
“Trissiny, we know,” Teal said gently.
“What worries me,” the paladin said, “is that if the Wreath can’t tempt you to reach out to them…they are very capable of creating a need. Causing a problem that’ll make their particular brand of help look especially attractive, possibly even necessary.”
“We’ll have to be watchful, then,” said Shaeine. “What else can we do? I concur, Trissiny, that it is necessary to be alert and aware of the danger they represent, but dwelling on them excessively poses its own hazards.”
“Well,” Ruda said cheerfully, “as the group’s acknowledged expert on both evil and pomposity, Boots pretty much can’t not give a lecture when the Wreath is about!”
“Your commentary is helpful as always, Princess.”
“Y’know, sword,” Ruda retorted, “coming from anyone else, that would be slightly rude. From you? Comedy gold. A real visit from the irony fairy.”
“Excuse me, but those are a myth,” said Fross.
“Okaaaay,” Juniper said pointedly. “Wreath bad. Point made, and made again. But…what about that Eserite corporal? Are you sure she was an Eserite?”
“It’s not as if she came out and said it,” Toby replied, “but she did that coin thing they do and quoted the first and most famous line of the Eserite catechism. I’m pretty sure she’s Guild.”
“Coin thing?” Shaeine tilted her head inquisitively.
“Rolling a coin across the backs of the fingers,” Toby said, holding up his own hand, fingers a-waggle to demonstrate. “It’s… Well, it’s not something official, and it’s not like they punish other people for doing coin tricks, but that particular one is something they often use to signal their affiliation.”
“Huh,” Gabriel mused. “Sounds like that’d be easy enough to fake.”
Ruda snorted, not looking at them. For far from the first time during that conversation, she was peering through a crack in the wall near the ceiling of the dim basement, which afforded a narrow view of the warehouse floor up ahead. Faint sounds of commerce filtered into the basement from above, hopefully enough to mask their conversation. Malivette had assured them, anyhow, that everyone working in that warehouse knew better than to hear anything happening in the basement. “Pretending to be in the Thieves’ Guild is an excellent way for dumbasses to lose the use of their fingers.”
“I’ll repeat my inherent distrust of Eserites,” Trissiny said, frowning, “but in all fairness…this is a somewhat different matter. For one thing, what we dealt with in Tiraas last winter was very unusual; the Guild doesn’t generally operate in any concerted fashion. Eserites don’t like organizations, and only tolerate them out of necessity. One thief hinting she might want to help us is more likely to be just that, not a sign that the Guild itself is involved.”
“Even so, it’s weird,” said Gabriel. “I mean, a thief in the Army?”
“Weird, yes,” Toby agreed, “but not impossible. Eserites are allowed in the Army.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Juniper commented.
“The Thieves’ Guild is the cult of a Pantheon god,” Toby replied. “You can’t just ban them. No smart organization would try to prohibit their membership, either. That’s exactly the kind of thing that would make them take an unhealthy interest. What’s odd is that one would become a soldier. The whole… I mean, army life is pretty much the opposite of what Eserites are all about.”
“Yeah,” Gabriel agreed, nodding. “I don’t know whether to be impressed or puzzled that the Colonel picked the local Eserite for his personal aide.”
Still staring out the crack, Ruda snorted again. “Cute how you assume he knows.”
“Besides,” Trissiny added, “her obvious motivation for joining the Army is to keep an eye on it, or someone in it. Either on general principles or because she wants access to something in particular. Remember our dealings with the guards in Lor’naris, how the quartermaster said their paperwork was a mess? Armies tend to get like that, no matter how well-organized they try to be. Someone in the right position could acquire all kinds of stuff; military gear must be a very lucrative slice of the black market. All of which brings us back to the original point: Corporal Timms is not a danger even close to the Black Wreath, and even may possibly be useful if she wants to, but we need to think very carefully before asking for her help. There will be a price.”
“That by itself shouldn’t be an argument against it,” Ruda murmured. “Nothing doesn’t have a price.”
“What is so fascinating out there?” Gabriel demanded.
The pirate shrugged, finally turning away from the crack and shuffling around on the staircase to face them directly. “Some interesting goings-on in the warehouse. Maybe…well, I’ll check back on that later. For now, it occurs to me all this recapping was premature. I am still waiting to hear about Shiny Boots and her nighttime adventures.”
“Excuse me, her what?” Gabriel turned to Trissiny, raising his eyebrows.
“Ah, yes,” she said briskly. “Well. I went outside the Manor grounds last night—”
“Wait,” Toby interjected, frowning. “Alone?”
“Yes, alone,” she said testily. “Anyway—”
“I know!” she exclaimed. “I’m sorry, it was—look, never mind that. The point is, I met the Shadow Hunters and learned some interesting things.”
“Interesting how?” Shaeine asked quietly.
“Interesting,” Trissiny said slowly, “in a general sense. They’re actually a fascinating group, and a lot more personable than people have implied to us. Also potentially useful to our immediate purposes here. They, at least, are specifically inclined to be helpful, and might be in a position to do so, depending on what develops.”
“There, see?” Juniper said in satisfaction. “I told you we’d found help!”
“You didn’t even know about this when you said so,” Ariel pointed out.
“I have intuition,” the dryad said haughtily.
“You seem downright positive about these guys, Triss,” said Ruda. “Gotta say, that’s startling. I always thought you were allergic to Shaathists.”
“Well, that’s the thing,” Trissiny replied. “They aren’t Shaathists. The way Raichlin—the one who I mostly talked to—explained it, they predate modern Shaathism. Actually… Well, we didn’t discuss it in a lot of detail, but he strongly implied that Shaathism has changed a lot in the last thousand years. At least, he did say the Huntsmen were a lot closer to what they’re like before the Imperial era.”
“You mean, closer to what the Shadow Hunters are like?” Fross asked. “The grammar there was dicey.”
“Yes, sorry.” Trissiny paused, frowning thoughtfully. “The Hunters…seemed to me like a peculiar fusion of sensibilities. Shaathist, Nemitite, Eserite, with a little bit of Omnist.”
“That is an odd-sounding mix,” Toby said, raising his eyebrows.
“Well, they’re hunters and survivalists, like the Huntsmen of Shaath,” Trissiny explained. “But they also collect and preserve knowledge, mostly about the natural world. They have a huge library, it takes up half their lodge, and most of their books are on natural history, though there’s a lot of other stuff.”
“I think I’d like to see that,” said Juniper, straightening up.
“I bet they’d be glad to have you,” Trissiny said with a smile. “They also had strong opinions about freedom from organized systems, but were pretty committed to respecting life and avoiding needless conflict.”
“So, how’s that fit with them agitating the Huntsmen in town?” Ruda asked.
“Bear in mind I haven’t seen any of those interactions any more than you have,” said Trissiny, “but the way the Shadow Hunters tell it, they’ve just come into Veilgrad like they always have, trading and recruiting, and the Huntsmen have been starting trouble with them lately. Raichlin thought the Huntsmen are being affected by whatever’s causing trouble in the city.”
“They recruit from among the populace?” Shaeine asked.
“Apparently so. It’s not an insular community. Oh, and they’ve got these eagles!” Trissiny’s voice accelerated in excitement. “It was the middle of the night, so they didn’t take me into their eyrie and wake the birds up, but they use eagles instead of dogs as hunting companions, and I got to see one. Raichlin’s personal pet slept in his room, and it was amazing! The most beautiful creature—gold and brown, and it was huge. Much bigger than…than a gnome, for example I bet a gnome could ride one!”
“Two crests on its head?” Juniper asked, holding her hands next to her own head with forefingers extended. “Like little ears?”
The dryad lowered her hands, nodding. “Greater golden harpy eagles, native to the mountains here. They are pretty awesome birds. Very smart, disproportionately large talons—almost the size of Vadrieny’s. They’re known to hunt mountain goats.”
“Greater golden harpy eagles?” Ruda snorted. “That is too many names for one bird. Who comes up with this shit? I bet you could cut out half of that and not confuse them with anything else.”
“Well, actually,” Juniper said reasonably, “there are three subspecies of golden harpy eagles, though only the one on this continent. And those aren’t to be confused with tropical harpy eagles that live in the jungles of—”
“Holy shit, these things can carry off a goat?” Gabriel interrupted.
“Well, not carry it,” Juniper clarified. “They knock them off the mountains and then eat them where they fall. Those are pretty much as big as raptors get without having metabolism trouble. Well, mundane raptors. Plains rocs are bigger, of course, but those are fae-touched. Oh!” She peered at Trissiny’s breastplate. “Those little tufts, like ears! Those are the eagles on Avei’s sigil. I never put that together before!”
“Yeah,” Trissiny said, her expression growing thoughtful. “The Shadow Hunters know more about the history of the Sisterhood than I expected. Some things I didn’t know, even. Raichlin gave me a book…”
“I don’t wanna sound like this isn’t interesting, because it is,” Ruda interrupted. “Sounds like something we could have a long talk about over a meal. But for right now, today, what impact are these Shadow Hunters gonna have on Veilgrad’s issues, do you think?”
“Right.” Trissiny nodded. “You’re right, sorry. For one thing, they’re keeping watch over the werewolves—they have methods of driving them away without harming them. Raichlin said if this keeps going much longer, the werewolves transforming without the moon being full, they’re going to be stretched increasingly thin, but for now he was confident they have that under control. So that’s one less immediate worry. More generally, they’re competent people with significant combat and wilderness skills who want to help end this threat.”
“That’ll be very useful if we have to go into the mountains in pursuit of this,” Teal said slowly.
“Yeah,” Ruda agreed. “But, I’m getting the impression it’ll be less useful in Veilgrad itself. Right?”
“Probably right,” Trissiny admitted. “So, for the moment…”
“For the moment,” Toby finished, “our most solid lead is still the imprisoned cultists.”
“I still say nothing’s gonna come of that,” Juniper muttered.
“You may be right,” Toby agreed. “You’ve got a point: if the Empire didn’t get anything out of them, I don’t know what our chances are. But it’s a lead, it’s right in front of us, and I think we’d be negligent not to at least try.”
“Not to mention,” Gabe added with a grin, “the good Colonel went out of his way to get us permission to go to the prison. Best not waste his time. I don’t think he loves the idea of us rattling around his town much to begin with.”
“Welp!” Ruda hopped down from the staircase, brushing off the seat of her coat. “That’s our morning arranged, then. Next stop, tea time with crazy assholes!”
She led the way to the exterior doors of the basement, the others slowly shuffling into position behind her. They didn’t exit until Ruda had carefully peeked out through the provided peephole to verify that the alley onto which the doors opened was deserted. From that point, though, it was the work of moments to file outside and shut the door behind them. On the exterior wall, it was carefully constructed to resemble an old wooden loading palette propped up against the building.
“What do the bells signify?” Shaeine asked quietly. Everyone turned to look at her.
“Bells?” Toby asked.
“I hear ’em,” Juniper said, frowning. “Not close to here. Wow, they’re ringing those things nonstop.”
“That is never a good sign,” Trissiny said. “Bells are usually for alarms. Which way, Shaeine?”
“Up the street, in this direction.”
Following the drow’s pointing hand, they strode quickly toward the mouth of the alley. Rounding the corner, the sound of tolling bells became audible—distant, but quiet. Other people in the sleepy little avenue had also stopped, turning to look.
“Uh oh,” Gabriel said, staring. In the distance, over the rooftops of Veilgrad, a column of smoke was drifting skyward. A very wide column. “Hey…isn’t that the direction we came from?”
“The barracks,” Trissiny whispered.
“Now, come on,” Toby protested. “What are the odds?”
“Whatever they are, something’s on fire,” she replied curtly. “How quickly can everyone move?”
Several screams rang out and the watching townfolk fled as Vadrieny emerged from within Teal. “We’d better split up. Some of us can get there faster than others.”
“What the fuck can you do about a fire?” Ruda protested.
“She can rescue people from it!” Trissiny snapped, bounding nimbly into Arjen’s saddle. “Fross, stick with me—we may need some ice. Everyone else, catch up as you can!”
“Right behind ya!” Friss chimed, zooming off after Trissiny as she took off down the street in a gallop. Vadrieny soared overhead, burning vividly even against the bright morning sky.
“Somebody remind me,” Ruda huffed as the others set off after them on foot, “next time there’s a crisis, to keep my eyes on Trissiny. I wanna see where that fucking horse comes from.”
The Imperial barracks was burning—part of it, anyway.
The original fortress was compact and nearly cubic, a starkly utilitarian design, but it had been expanded at least twice. The north and east faces had long wings jutting out—sturdy and defensible in design as the rest of the barracks, but made from stone in different-sized blocks, with differently shaped windows, all revealing that they had been added on as afterthoughts. The far end of the north wing was smoldering, orange flames still flickering in a few of its windows.
It was also soaking wet and partially sheathed in steaming ice.
When the rest of the students came pelting up to the front of the barracks, most of them panting, they found an argument in session, with two ranking Imperial soldiers standing nearly nose-to-nose, Vadrieny framed between them and looking uncomfortable.
“That is the most secure wing of the fortress for a reason,” Colonel Adjavegh was shouting, apparently heedless of the watching soldiers. Men and women in Army uniform thronged the area, and had mostly cleared the watching citizens back to a relatively safe distance. None of them attempted to prevent the students, who were led by Toby and Gabriel, from approaching. “I will not have civilians entering, especially not demons!”
“We’ve got people still unaccounted for,” Major Razsha shot right back. “If she can get them out, I do not care—”
She broke off at a nearby gathering of shadows. It receded in the next second, revealing the soot-stained form of Durst, who was straightening his coat.
“That’s the last of them,” the warlock reported briskly. “We found the rest of the research team, Major; they’ve got a secure room in a sublevel where they’ve holed up.”
“Thank the gods,” Adjavegh muttered. Despite his apparent willingness to forsake help for the sake of security, his entire frame slouched momentarily in relief. In the next moment he had regathered his poise. “All are accounted for?”
“Yes, Colonel,” Durst replied, nodding. “Simmons and Teloris are still there, providing healing. They’re pretty safe from the fire, but it’s hard to get any actual healing done through the walls, which is what they’re having to do. The room’s pretty damn secure; can’t even shadow-jump through.” He grinned. “Impressive warding on that safe room. We probably could have extracted them, but Doctor Svarnheld gave us an earful about damaging his precious containment spells. Anyhow, none of them have anything worse than some bruises and mild smoke inhalation, and the good doctor says the room will automatically unseal itself once the danger has passed.”
“So…we’re too late to help, then?” Toby said, stepping forward.
“Yes,” Colonel Adjavegh snapped, turning to glare at him.
“No.” Trissiny emerged from the doors to the main part of the barracks, beckoning them forward. She was sweaty and had blood on her hands. “We’ve got wounded in here, more than two dozen. The first casualties were the medical staff—the infirmary is right above where the fire broke out. No fatalities yet, but some of these people are burned badly, and I’m not the best healer. Shaeine, Toby, Juniper…”
“On it,” Toby said, dashing past her. Shaeine glided on his heels, moving no less quickly for her even pace. Watching them go, Adjavegh opened his mouth, then snapped it shut, scowling.
“Need my help, too?” Gabriel asked, stepping up to Trissiny. “I mean, I’m probably even worse at this than you are, but the light is the light…”
“Both of you get in there,” Ariel ordered. “There’s a spell that will help you absorb some risk of burnout from the other two clerics, and share your energy reserves. I can walk you through it; we should be able to get those healers back on their feet, at least.”
“Bless you,” Razsha said feelingly. “You and…whoever was just talking.”
“Thank you,” Adjavegh added somewhat grudgingly as the remaining two paladins ducked back into the barracks.
At that moment, a silver streak shot around the edge of the burned wing, coming to a halt in front of the group.
“Fire is extinguished, Colonel, sir!” Fross reported. “You’re gonna have some serious water damage on top of the burning—sorry, I couldn’t figure a way around that. Also, the stone walls are solid but most of the interior is wood and badly damaged. Be careful about going in there. Top two floors are pretty much about to collapse.”
“That has to be a new record,” the Major said wonderingly. “You’re sure? Everything’s put out?”
“Yes, ma’am!” Fross bobbed up and down excitedly. “Actually it’s been out for at least two minutes now but I went back and did a complete run-through to look for large pieces of wood still smoldering internally; they weren’t likely to combust again, what with how wet everything is, but I’m ninety percent sure this fire was magical in origin and you don’t take chances with stuff like that.”
“That is…frankly amazing,” said the Colonel. “I don’t suppose any more of your kind are interested in joining the Army?”
“I very much doubt it, sir,” the pixie chimed. “Also, it would be better to say that none of my kind are interested, rather than no more, since I’m not either. Um, sorry. No offense.”
“You could always go visit Jacaranda and ask nicely,” Ruda said with a broad grin.
“No!” Fross sparked in agitation. “Do not do that! She’s—the Pixie Queen does not like visitors, and I don’t even wanna think what’d happen if she got her hands on an Imperial officer. Oh, that would be bad.”
“Is this under control, then?” Vadrieny interjected, her polyphonic voice cutting through the discussion. “I’m not needed?”
“Unless you’re about to very much surprise us all with some healing magic, no,” Adjavegh said, staring narrowly at her. “I would like to have an extended word with you, Vadrieny, but… Perhaps not right now.”
“I can come back tomorrow,” the archdemon offered. “Or later this evening? Whenever you have things settled.”
“I appreciate that,” he said gruffly. “Let me get you my—TIMMS! Where the hell is that girl…” He turned and strode through the door of the main building.
“Thank you,” Razsha said feelingly, “once again, for intervening. This hit us fast and hard; if it wasn’t for you, it would have been a lot worse. Fross, you likely saved the fortress from being completely demolished. That fire was definitely more than natural. It’s only thanks to you two and General Avelea that our healers survived at all.”
“Aw, no big deal! I’m just glad to help!”
“So,” Ruda drawled, “unnatural fire, started right where it would hit both your medical staff and apparently some kind of research project in the basement that the Colonel doesn’t want a rescuing archdemon stumbling across… Interesting morning you’re having.”
The Major’s mouth thinned into a tense line. “None of this is wasted on me, Princess. What goes on in this barracks is Colonel Adjavegh’s domain; I’m not authorized to reveal anything that might be even slightly classified. However…” She glanced around at the soldiers thronging the square in front of the fortress. “…I want you to know that if it comes down to hunting whatever is responsible for this, and my strike team is given any share of that responsibility, we will be glad to work with you in whatever capacity you’re willing to help.”
Standing off to the side, Durst grinned.
“I’ll be sure to pass that along,” Ruda said. “All right! Enough standin’ around like fucking statuary. Vadrieny! Haul ass back into where the infirmary was an’ see what medical supplies you can salvage. Fross, go help, your aura storage’ll be needed.”
“Good idea,” Vadrieny agreed, shooting aloft with a great flap of her wings. Fross streaked after her, and in moments they had vanished around the scorched corner of the building, apparently seeking out a window not blocked by fallen beams. Most of the roof on that wing seemed to have collapsed inward.
“I’m gonna go lend a hand in there with the wounded,” Ruda said to Razsha, turning and striding toward the door. “Sing out if you’ve got anything else I can help with…though it doesn’t look like you’re hurting for warm bodies,” she added, glancing around at the assembled soldiers.
“Thank you, your Highness,” said the Major. “You have medical training, then?”
Ruda laughed. “Darlin’, I’ve got the one thing everyone always needs in a medical emergency.” She produced a bottle from within her coat and held it aloft as she made for the door. “Booze!”
It was a dirty, bedraggled and exhausted line of students who filed back into the warehouse basement hours later. The five healers had managed to wash up, to the extent of cleaning off the blood, but Trissiny still had soot in her hair. Juniper was limping and wincing, having discovered that her particular brand of healing—taking harm onto herself, as Fross had explained it—gave her trouble with the harm was caused by fire. Teal was visibly weary and practically leaning on Shaeine, who was as calm as ever, but moving stiffly and more slowly than usual. They had all expended a great deal of energy, even Ruda, who had busied herself with conventional first aid while the others worked their magic.
Toby finished shutting the door behind him, and turned to find the others clustered together, staring glumly at the panel behind which lay the tunnel to Dufresne Manor.
“That is gonna be a long walk,” Gabriel stated, summing up everyone’s unspoken thought. “You know what? I have come to a decision.” He sat down on the basement’s dirt floor, heedless of his long coat. “Fuck it, that’s what. Fross, you happen to have any food in your dimensional pockets?”
“How can you think of eating?” Trissiny groaned.
“I’m hungry, too,” Juniper said, stretching her arms with an unnerving series of cracking noises like breaking wood. “It’s well past lunch time and we’ve spent the morning using up lots of energy. Maybe we should’ve gone to a restaurant or something before coming back here. I want something to eat before we make that hike. I hate tunnels,” she added rather sullenly.
“I, for one, do not feel up to a large crowd of strangers,” Shaeine said quietly. “Especially since, to judge by the reactions we saw on the way back, we are likely to be the target of great interest by the populace.”
“At least they seem to like us better now,” Toby noted.
“I, uh, don’t have any food, I’m sorry,” Fross said, emitting a desultory chime. “After the hellgate incident I’ve started carrying first aid supplies, but we just sort of donated all of those. I’m sorry, guys, I should have thought of that. It seems so obvious in hindsight…”
“Ruda, what are you doing?” Trissiny demanded. The rest of the group turned to find Ruda at the top of the stairs, turning the latch of the trapdoor.
“It’s dead quiet up there,” she announced. “Apparently everyone’s gone to gawk at the barracks. Nothin’ like a good crisis to give everybody an excuse to slack off, eh?”
“That doesn’t explain what you’re doing up there,” Gabriel said. “Hey!” he added in a near shout as she pushed the trapdoor open and stepped out.
“I wanna check on something,” Ruda’s voice drifted back down to them. “Been watching this guy…”
“Guy?” Trissiny muttered. “She’s been watching a guy?”
“Well, it’s not like she did anything really crazy, like go strolling alone through werewolf-infested woods at night.” Juniper patted Trissiny on the shoulder as she passed her on the way to the stairs. “C’mon, I wanna see what she’s doing. Ruda always knows what she’s about.”
“I don’t wanna get up,” Gabriel whined.
Nevertheless, he did, though he moved slowly enough to be the last up the stairs. They emerged into the warehouse proper, peering uncertainly around. As Ruda had said, it appeared to be deserted.
The pirate herself was already at the far wall beside the door to what appeared to be an office, setting aside a wood panel which matched those separating the small room from the main warehouse floor. Behind it gaped a deep cubbyhole, in which sat a stack of boxes.
“Saw him tuckin’ stuff into here every few minutes, when the other guys were outside getting something off a cart,” Ruda announced, bending forward to pull one of the boxes out. “Or putting stuff on, hell if I know.”
“What do you think you’re doing?” Trissiny demanded. “Don’t rummage around in—this is all Malivette’s property! Hers and whoever she does business with.”
“Did I miss something?” Ruda said, glancing up at her and grinning. “Did we decide we’re trusting Malivette unconditionally now?”
“An inadvisable course of action, in my opinion, but oddly late to change your mind,” said Ariel. “You did, after all, leave your super-demon from beyond in her care.”
“This is hidden away and was being handled by somebody who didn’t want to be seen doin’ the handling,” Ruda said. “That is all the reason we need to be interested, when we’re surrounded by inscrutable bullshit that’s trying to get us killed. There we go!” She finally worked the lid off the uppermost crate and set it aside, then blinked down at the collection of bottles and other objects nestled in the straw within. “Huh. So…anybody know what all this shit is?”
Gabriel stepped forward, plodding with ostentatious weariness, and peered over her shoulder. “Bones, oils, enchanting powders, some kind of stone talisman… Looks like high-grade stuff, too. Spell components. I, uh, can’t really tell what kind or what for, though…”
“Those are demon bones,” Ariel announced. “Vials of powdered blood, grave dust, crypt etchings. This is for necromancy.”
In unison, they all straightened up, seeming to forget some of their weariness in alarm.
“Are you sure?” Trissiny demanded, unconsciously fondling the pommel of her sword. “Could they be used for anything else?”
“Individually, in conjunction with other reagents, certainly. Any number of other things. But this particular assortment, taken together, means necromancy.”
For a moment, Trissiny’s aura flared gold.
“Easy, Triss,” Toby cautioned. “There are no necromancers here.”
“Just a little pick-me-up,” she said tersely. “I haven’t slept much, and that was before this morning’s exertions. I just want to be at my best.” She turned and stalked back down the stairs into the basement. “For the conversation we are about to have with Malivette.”