Tag Archives: Marshal Ross

2 – 17

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Principia was just finishing up, settling her reagents back into place on her worktable, when a sharp knock came at her door. Thanks to the escalating stresses of the last few days, her usual equanimity was frayed; she started violently, then had to move quickly to prevent the vial of glittering powder from spilling even as she slid it back into its holder. Who the hell would be bothering her in the middle of the night?

The door to her attic apartment swung open before she could even call out that she was busy, and Shook strode in. She scowled, putting the cork back on the vial.

“By all means, come in,” Prin snapped. “Make yourself at home.”

“Much obliged,” he said easily, his eyes flicking over her in that skin-crawling way he had. She was reasonably sure he wasn’t even all that attracted to her. That just made it worse. “While you’ve been hiding away in your room, I’ve been getting things set up to get your hide out of this mess intact. Principia, meet our newest ally.”

Shook stepped to the side to admit possibly the most ridiculous person Prin had ever seen.

She was human, an ethnic Tiraan, with the dark hair, olive complexion and narrow face. Most eye-catching, however, was her costume: impractically tight pants, boots with two-inch heels, and a low-cut, sleeveless, midriff-baring top, every inch of the whole thing in black leather. An absolutely idiotic number of knives were bedecked around her in various places which made them far from practical to grasp, their sheaths stitched into the outfit itself. The only remotely useful thing she was wearing was a fairly typical belt with two holstered wands, which clearly had come separately. It was dyed a different shade of black and looked out of place.

“What,” Principia demanded, “are you supposed to be?”

The girl frowned at her. “Name’s Tazlith; I’m an adventurer. And I’m here to help you.”

“Uh huh.” Prin leaned back, exaggeratedly eying her up and down. “An adventurer dressed as what?”

“Be nice, Prin,” Shook reproved her gently. With Tazlith behind him, his face was hidden from her, and he didn’t trouble to conceal his amusement.

“Oh, I’m nice. All peaches and sunshine, that’s me. By the way, it’s pronounced tasleef.”

The “adventurer” narrowed her eyes, color rising in her cheeks. “I know how to say my own name, thanks.”

“It’s elvish for ‘arrow,’” Prin explained to Shook. “I guess it’d come out tazlith if you’ve got a thick Tiraan accent, like this one does. I know your parents weren’t daft enough to call you that. Unless the outfit is an heirloom.”

“I really don’t need to be here, you know,” Tazlith snapped. “If you want to deal with your problems alone—”

“Girls, girls!” Shook said soothingly. “Please! You’re both pretty. Taz, understand the kind of strain Principia’s under; a rather legendary wandslinger’s in town after her head. You’d be grouchy too. And Prin, Taz has a point: she’s helping us for not nearly enough material compensation, out of the desire to do a good deed. I think it’d be appropriate if you were a little more gracious about it.”

“Sorry,” Prin said ungraciously. “You’re right, I’m pretty damn tense. And I don’t see how gathering up stray adventurers is going to help; have you heard the rumors about this guy McGraw? You’re probably just gonna get the poor girl killed.”

“I know what I’m doing,” Tazlith said curtly, tucking her thumbs into her belt and adopting what she probably thought was a cocky pose.

“Anyway,” Shook interjected, “I don’t intend to just throw people at this guy like pies at a clown. We’re still refining a strategy, but when it comes down to it, no matter the quality of everyone’s equipment or skill, taking out a contract on one elf is a very different thing from facing a whole adventuring party. I highly doubt this guy’s badass enough to start something that’ll end with the town being shot up. Quite apart from what the law will say, he’s pretty much done for if he makes enough of a stink to coax Tellwyrn down off her mountain.”

“We’re all done for if anybody makes that kind of stink,” Principia groaned.

Shook nodded. “Exactly. Which is why I aim to persuade him not to do it. Taz here has been in town a couple weeks, and knows some people. She’s already gathered one other and got leads on more.”

“Heroes,” Tazlith said, nodding solemnly, “or those who have the inclination. Much better than hiring mercenaries; you want people who’re in it because it’s right, not because they’re looking to make a quick doubloon.”

Principia had to concentrate hard on repressing her response to this absolutely idiotic statement. Of course people in it for the money were better; someone who expected to make a living at something had an immediate need to be good at it.

“Yes. Well.” She smiled toothily. “Thank you for your assistance, Tazlith. I apologize for any snide things I’ve said, and likely will in the future.”

“She’s kind of a bitch,” Shook said agreeably, nodding.

“I’d argue with that, but the record’s against me. Would you mind if I had a word with Jeremiah in private?”

“Of course.” The wretched girl glanced back and forth between them and smirked faintly. “Take all the time you need.” Principia wasn’t sure whether she wanted to scream or punch somebody, but at least Tazlith stepped out into the stairwell, pulling the attic door shut behind her.

She rounded on Shook, but he spoke up before she could get a word out. “So, how’m I doin’? I never was much for running cons, but I think it’s going rather well. Doubtless you’ve already found a whole laundry list of things I could be doing better.”

“You seem to have it in hand,” she said grudgingly. Laundry list indeed. As if she were fool enough to poke holes in his brittle ego, knowing how he reacted to that. “Of course, you couldn’t have picked a better target. Manipulating people who are desperate to believe something is downright unfair. But…seriously? You’re gonna send that up against McGraw?”

“Not too bright, is she?” he said, grinning. “No, I don’t aim to make this a war. It’s just like I said: the hope is to put up a spectacle that’ll persuade McGraw to step more lightly, without involving Tellwyrn or anyone else who’ll overturn the whole cart. If it does come down to a fight, though, I want him wasting his spells on Taz and her dumbass friends, not us. It’s a shameful waste of a nice pair of tits, but them’s the breaks. While that’s going on, he’ll be vulnerable, and that’s what I came to speak with you about.” He nodded toward her workstation, on which were laid out her glittering enchanting dusts, imbued inks, and the various tools of their use. “What’ve you got?”

She gave him a grudging look but turned to gesture at a row of bronze rings laid out on the table. “Some basic boosts. Luck, protection, constitution…”

“Really?” He twisted his features disdainfully. “That’s it? That’s crap straight out of a museum.”

“No,” she said wryly, “the museum pieces would be gold and set with gems. Yeah, they’re the oldest, most basic enchantments, and that’s about all you can plan on. Modern enchantment is all about specific, reliable effects, which works great for making enchanted objects but if you want to enhance the attributes of a person, you have to be vague, or run the risk of messing them up. People are complicated.”

“Hm.” He stepped over to the table, running a fingertip over the row of rings, and she tensed, fighting the urge to chase him away from her work. “I guess it’ll have to do, then. Can you gear up Taz and her buddies?”

“Excuse me?” Prin said incredulously. “Gear up? Does this look like a production line to you? This took me all day. I’m a hobbyist; I make some pocket change on the side because this town is such a steel market. You want a pile of adventure-grade enchantments, you’re gonna have to go buy some.”

“Shame,” he murmured, stepping away from the table. Shook raised his eyes to her face and she had the distinct impression of something greasy being dragged along her skin. “Well, that’s not in the budget. I guess they’ll just have to trust their luck.”

“Mm hm.” She folded her arms. “Anything else you wanted?”

He watched her silently for a moment that stretched long enough to be awkward.

“You’re wandering why I bother,” he said finally. “I don’t really expect you to like me, Keys. Hell, though you dug yourself into this whole mess, I’ll freely acknowledge you’ve got some just cause to look unkindly on me. But you can trust that I’m quite sincere, here. I’m not gonna let anything happen to you if it’s in my power to prevent it.”

He stared at her, the hint of a grin hovering about his lips, until she finally had to ask. “Why?”

“Because I’m responsible for this mission, and for you. You may be a poor resource, but for the time being, you’re mine.” He reached up to brush the backs of his knuckles across her cheek, smiling faintly; her skin crawled so hard it was all she could do not to physically shiver. “I don’t like it when people mess with my things.”

“Your friend out there’s probably wondering what we’re doing,” she said coldly. He laughed.

“Yeah, yeah. Wouldn’t want the young’uns to get the wrong idea. You just sit tight for now, doll, and let me take care of this.”

He briefly but very deliberately flicked his gaze over her body once more, then turned and walked to the door. Shook stepped out and shut it gently behind himself without looking at her again.

She stood there silently, regathering her calm. It took a few minutes.


The cultists’ faces were well-hidden, but the man in the suit wore an expression which clearly said he meant business.

“I’m going to take it upon myself to assume you’re here in the capacity of your role as Imperial advisor, Mr. Darling,” he said amiably. His tone was light, his posture relaxed, but those eyes were hard as flint. This was a man worth taking seriously, one who knew that roaring and gnashing teeth weren’t nearly as impressive as some liked to think. “There is…an understanding. Most of the cults of the other gods know it—excepting yours, of course, as Eserion isn’t much for waging war, even against my Lady. Over the last century we’ve even hammered the lesson into the Church, somewhat laboriously. It’s a good system. Peaceable; functional.”

He put on a mild, slightly lopsided smile, taking a step closer to Darling. His steps were smooth, slow, precise and somewhat exaggerated; with his long limbs, in that white suit, he put Darling in mind of a wading stork. “The Wreath guard this world against demonkind, you see. You could say we have an affinity with the children of Hell; we know, better than most, that they can’t be allowed to run amok on this plane. As such, other cultists—even the Sisters of Avei—don’t jump on our backs when we are cleaning up a demon problem. And they most definitely do not abuse our willingness to be helpful by using a demon to coax us out. You’re hardly the first to think of that trick, my boy. The rest simply know better.”

“Well, this is just downright embarrassing,” Darling said genially. He kept his own face cheerful and posture relaxed, concealing the frantic racing of his thoughts. That explained the Archpope’s insistence that they not identify themselves as agents of the Church; posing as Imperials gave them plausible deniability if they were breaking some kind of treaty. “There are customs? Rules, even? I feel like I’ve showed up at a party and nobody told me it’s fancy dress.” But why hadn’t Darling and the others been informed of this up front? What was Justinian playing at?

“Speaking more generally,” the man in the suit went on, his smile growing brittle, “I think it’s considered bad form anywhere to go after an opponent’s kids. That’s the kind of conflict you don’t want to escalate; it gets real ugly, real fast.”

“Now, I’ll have to demur, there,” Darling replied, holding up one finger. “Those precocious little sprouts came at us. I’m pretty sure they put the town to sleep and conjured up Mommy and Daddy’s demon companions, too.”

“Well, little ones grow up pretty fast out here on the frontier,” the man said with a grin, tucking his hands into the pockets of his coat. His movements were languid, graceful. “They also had the forethought to call for aid; wading right into your little nest of vipers was a somewhat less intelligent move, I’ll grant. ‘Course, matters look different if you put yourself in their shoes. Bunch of outsiders from Tiraas come swaggering into town and kill your parents? You’d be a bit excitable too.”

“I’m reasonably sure you’re already aware nobody’s been killed,” Darling replied. “By the way, sir, it seems you have me at a disadvantage. Aside from the obvious, I mean,” he added, turning his head to wink at one of the cowled cultists.

“Why, I do most humbly apologize!” The man swept off his hat, revealing a shiny bald pate, and executed an elaborate bow. “Embras Mogul, at your service. I’m sorry we aren’t meeting under more cordial circumstances.”

“Ah, well, we go where the gods dictate,” Darling said lightly. Could this be Elilial’s high priest? If so, he had a name and a face, which put the Archpope’s plans and his own miles ahead of where he’d expected this night’s events to lead. Could he advance the one without aiding the other? At any rate, even if this wasn’t the one, he was clearly high enough in the organization not be be bound by their dress code.

“Yes, they’re good at…dictating, aren’t they?” Mogul replied, straightening and replacing his hat. “In honor of our new acquaintance and in recognition of your relative inexperience in this business, Darling, I’m going to let you off with a proverbial slap on the wrist. Obviously, I’ll need my people back, especially those kids. The demon, too. Aside from that, you and your little compatriots are free to go, with my blessing. Provided they behave themselves.”

Darling was spared having to form an answer to this by the opening of the saloon’s door.

Marshal Ross stepped out and crossed the board sidewalk at an even pace, as though he hadn’t a care in the world. By the time he’d descended to the street and turned to face the gathering of Wreath cultists and Darling, the two nearest Embras Mogul had drawn wands from within their robes.

“Welcome to Hamlet,” the Marshal said flatly. His hand hovered at his sides, near but not grasping his wands. “It’s usually a friendlier place, but someone appears to have put my townsfolk to sleep.”

“Present company excepted, I note,” Mogul replied, his tone as even as ever.

“Present company and more.”

Figures rose from the rooftops around them. Two men in denim and leather, each carrying staves, stepped out from behind the sign on the general store’s flat roof across the street. Another, aging and with a gray-streaked beard, knelt on the edge of the saloon’s overhanging porch roof, carrying a pair of wands. A middle-aged woman in a threadbare Imperial Army coat hopped from concealment into the rungs of the iron lattice scrolltower, balancing adroitly and keeping both hands on her staff. All of their weapons were aimed at the group in the street. Darling had to admire their positioning; they had the cultists neatly positioned to be cut to pieces by crossfire without accidentally firing on each other. Unfortunately, he was in exactly the center of the killzone.

“There ain’t a town on the frontier that doesn’t keep at least one practicing witch in business. Casting town-wide infernal magic ain’t a smart move, if you intend to keep a low profile; my girl knew exactly who to wake up and how. Legally,” the Marshal drawled, “I suppose I ought to arrest you. Seems like you could spare me some paperwork, though, if you decline to drop those fucking wands in the next ten seconds.”

“It’s Ross, isn’t it?” asked Mogul politely. “Jackson Towerwell always spoke of you in the highest terms. Marshal, we’re both civilized men, and I presume that we are both followed by more of the same. You don’t want your town shot to bits, and I don’t want any of my people cut down. How about, instead of that, you and I reach an accord, here?”

“Mm.” Ross tilted his head downward so his eyes were concealed by the brim of his hat. “Mr. Mogul, was it? Mind if I ask you a question?”

“But of course,” said Embras, bowing with an elegant flourish of his hands. “Glad to be of service in any way I can.”

Ross lifted his head again, and the look in his eyes was beyond ice, beyond fury. “Did you offer to ‘reach an accord’ with June Witwill?”

For one breath, everything was still.

Ironically, it was Darling who started the action—by diving to one side, throwing his arms over his head. He didn’t quite fit under the boardwalk, but smashed himself against it, squishing down as small as possible, while the whole street dissolved in lightning and hellfire.

Eserion didn’t encourage his followers to draw on divine light, as a rule. Members of his Guild were meant to rely on their wits and their skills; that was the whole point of their faith. The god of thieves was out to set an example, not to solve people’s problems for them. Darling had used more divine magic in the last week than in his entire previous career, what with one thing and another. Oddly, this thought sat in the forefront of his mind as he crept, inchworm-like, along the edge of the sidewalk, glowing with an intensity of held light that was the closest he could manage to a divine shield. It wouldn’t stop a wandshot, but would certainly discourage any demons that might have been summoned in the vicinity.

He didn’t risk looking up until he came to the corner of the saloon, but he could clearly hear the snap of thunderbolts, as well as the crashes and screams that marked their impacts. The air buzzed with static electricity, and his nose was assaulted by the reek of ozone and sulfur.

Finally reaching the corner, Darling bounded up and somersaulted around the edge of the building, keeping himself as low as possible. He pressed himself against the wall, very carefully peeking out.

Three bodies lay in the street, two in gray robes, one where it had fallen from the roof of the general store. The firefight continued, though Ross’s posse were exchanging blasts with opponents now out of his field of view down the street. Retreating? Were these cultists local, or had they come in with Embras? Whatever the case, they’d sure made a mess of the town. Every building in sight bore scorch marks and outright holes where they’d been blasted by wands. Plus, there was that stink of sulfur hanging in the air; someone had summoned something.

Obviously, his original plan of getting to the scrolltower office was off the table. He needed to get back to the house, regroup with the others, make sure all the prisoners were secure and the demon taken care of. Equally obviously, he wasn’t going back up the main street. He’d stick out like a sore thumb, and no place in this town was out of wand range of any place else. All it’d take would be one Wreath with a grudge and a clear shot to put him down.

He reversed course, heading for the alley behind the saloon. Hamlet didn’t have a lot of depth; there was nothing in town that he’d describe as a “street” aside from the main one, but behind the shops there were houses, stables and a few other structures, enough to give him a little cover.

In theory, at least.

No sooner had Darling slipped around the corner into the wide alley that would carry him on a roundabout way back to the house than Embras Mogul stepped out of a perfectly flat shadow lying against a wall, followed by one of his robed cultists.

Darling skidded to a stop; no more than six feet separated them. The cultist was carrying a wand, pointed at him; Mogul appeared to be unarmed, but he wasn’t about to dismiss the man as a threat.

“Well, this has all gone belly up, hasn’t it?” Embras said cheerfully.

“You said it,” Darling replied in the same tone. “What is it about wands coming out that makes people stop using their brains?”

“Must be that fight-or-flight instinct everyone’s always talking about. Ah, well; you’ll note that I did try to do this the civilized way. As will your patron, if he happens to be watching.”

“I like the civilized way. I was never in favor of abandoning it.” He still clung to the glow of divine light. It wasn’t likely to do him much good. “How about we try that again?”

“Alas,” Embras replied with a mournful expression, “the good Marshal’s intervention has played hell with my timetable. Now it seems I’ll have to content myself with making an emphatic statement to your superiors and bugging out. A disappointing outcome for everyone, but such is life.”

Darling opened his mouth without knowing what he was even going to say—it was a good strategy, usually, as his mouth was a finely tuned machine that reliably figured out the proper course of action—but before it even became an issue, a shadow passed over the moon, accompanied by a rush of wind, and the demon which had been imprisoned in the basement landed on the roof of the tiny shed next to them.

“Hi, boss,” he said, grinning unpleasantly at Darling.

“Well, well,” Mogul remarked, and for the first time there was an obvious note of strain beneath his affability. “Every time I turn around, this night just gets more interesting.”

“Bad news, big man!” the demon said, turning its gaze to him. “By way of saving my own ass, I’ve cut a deal with my erstwhile captors. I have come to interfere with you, so as to assure this asshole here’s escape!” He made a silly face, stretching his spiny wings to their fullest extent and waving his hands about over his head. “Grawr! Boo! Boogity boogity! Are you not distracted?!”

Mogul pointed a finger at him and growled a word that was just barely a word, and the shadows around them swirled as though trying to take physical form, sweeping the demon off the shed and dragging it to the dirt floor of the alley. The shadow coalesced into black chains, dark as iron but even less reflective, holding him to the ground by the wrists and ankles.

“Curses!” he declaimed. “Foiled again! Well, shucks, I keep finding myself in jail in this town,” the demon said gleefully, turning to leer at Darling. “Ah, well! Can’t say I didn’t try. You might have a word with that ferret-faced chick of yours, though. She can’t bargain worth a crap.”

“All right, enough,” Mogul said wearily. “You, hush, we’ll get you home in just a minute. Brother, kindly shoot this—”

He broke off as the steel tip of a sword appeared from the center of the robed man’s chest. An explosive grunt was driven from the cultist’s mouth; face still concealed by his cowl, he lowered his head, staring down at the blade. Behind him, the air rippled as Basra Syrinx tossed aside an invisibility cloak, deftly plucking the wand from the man’s suddenly limp fingers.

“Are you not distracted?” she said, grinning wickedly, and kicked the slumping cultist to the side, wrenching her sword free as he fell. She leveled the wand at Mogul’s heart.

“Right,” he said dryly. “Well. Looks like I owe you lot one. Until then!”

Lightning snapped straight through him, illuminating the alley for a split second, but he was already gone; it was as if he had turned to shadow, then was dispelled by the blaze.

Darling blinked rapidly to clear his vision. “Well. You sure have excellent timing.”

“Andros would’ve come too,” she said lightly, “but neither of us thought leaving Branwen in charge of the prisoners alone was the best idea. I guess we all have our strengths and weaknesses. After all…” She turned to the demon, her grin broadening. “Apparently I can’t bargain worth a crap.”

“Hey, just a little drama to sell the story,” he said, all bravado suddenly gone. The chains of shadow were steaming slightly as though coming apart, but continued to hold him, even as he tugged experimentally on them. “All’s well that ends well, right? I mean…we had a deal.”

“So we did! And it’s now fulfilled.” Basra stepped forward and drove her sword straight through his bony chest. She leaned in close, placing her face inches from his. “Avei thanks you for your service,” she said sweetly. “Go, with her blessing.” Light blazed along the blade, wrenching an impossibly shrill scream from the creature. For just a moment, golden radiance burned from his mouth and eyes, and just as quickly ceased.

Basra ripped her sword out sideways; the pieces of demon that were pulled loose more resembled charcoal than flesh. The smoking corpse flopped to the ground, already reeking of sulfur.

It was on this scene that Marshal Ross arrived, panting.

“Ah, there you are,” Darling said brightly. “Got the rest of them rounded up?”

“Three dead,” Ross said tersely, “four including this guy. The rest escaped. I’ve got no real way of tracking demon magic; Mavis is working on the spell keeping everybody asleep.”

“Sounds like a wise choice of priorities. Honestly, I doubt it would matter, Marshal. We’re not going to find them, I suspect.”

The Marshal straightened his back, setting his shoulders; the mantle of authority was all but visible as he pulled it back on. “Well. Seems you’ve had an interesting night.”

“To be honest,” Darling said ruefully, “I feel more as if it’s had me. Well, the good news is we’ll be out of town just as quick as we can arrange transport from Tiraas, and we’ll be taking the last of your Wreath problem with us.”

“Do I wanna know who?”

“Legally, you’re entitled. If you think it’ll make you happy.”

“I don’t do this job because I want to be happy,” he growled. “Right… Clyde took a bad hit, but Doc thinks he’ll live. I’ll round up the others and we’ll help you finish up the last of your business.”

“Thank you,” Basra said sardonically, “but I think we can manage without your help. Just like we have been from the beginning.”

“Bas,” said Darling gently, “just because the man spoke politely doesn’t mean he was asking.”

“Well put,” said Ross.

They allowed the Marshal to take the lead on the way back to the ravaged house. It was still the most damaged structure in sight, much of its bottom floor having been ripped out—Darling hoped they could get themselves and their magic wardrobe out before the second floor came down—but after the shoot-out with the cultists, much of the town matched. Ross’s scowl deepened with every step. It was hardly surprising that he’d take all this personally.

Darling was grateful for the silence; he desperately needed a chance to think. Much had been explained, but more questions had branched out from each answer. The next steps in this dance would have to be taken in Tiraas, where he intended to suss out more of the Archpope’s plans before proceeding with his own.

He hoped, quite sincerely, that Hamlet had seen the end of its problem with demons and cultists. For him, though, this matter had just barely made a beginning.

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2 – 10

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The law came knocking a little after lunch.

Fortunately it was Darling who answered the door. This was not happenstance.  He and Branwen had taken over the task of dealing with the natives of Hamlet; the idea of Basra or Andros trying to deal with an Imperial Marshal without blowing their whole operation made him break out in a cold sweat.

“Afternoon,” the man on the step said politely when Darling opened the door, tipping his hat. “I’m Marshal Ross. How’re you folks settling in?”

“Splendidly, thanks!” Darling said cheerfully, his mind already racing ahead. He’d prepared for this as best he could, knowing it was coming. “After the big city, Hamlet is a remarkably friendly place.”

“By and large, I find that’s so,” the Marshal said agreeably. “I’ve only lived here a few years myself, but it’s easy to settle in. I wonder, though, how much you know about the history of our little town?”

Darling bit back a snide comment; Hamlet was a picturesque but utterly stereotypical frontier town of not more than three hundred people, all plank buildings and dirt streets, that couldn’t have been here longer than the Empire’s push to the very edge of the Golden Sea sixty years ago. He wasn’t sure “history” was the right word. Luckily, Marshal Ross went on without waiting for a response.

“We’ve had a recent spate of pretty big trouble for such a little place,” he said, hooking his thumbs into his belt, “which is all the harder to bear because this is such a quiet town ordinarily. The demon attack four years ago cost us one of the brightest young spirits any of us knew… June’d be twenty this summer.” He sighed heavily before going on. “Then, a few months back, a good half-dozen townsfolk, neighbors and friends all, got themselves outed as Black Wreath cultists and took their own lives. The shock from that hasn’t even properly started to fade yet. What I mean to say is, we’re all a little edgy about the strange and unexpected around here.”

He glanced past Darling, who half-turned his head to follow his gaze. Branwen was visible in the kitchen, singing as she puttered around the stove. Honestly, she was settling into her role with a little too much enthusiasm to be feigned; he was starting to wonder if she harbored a secret desire to be a housewife. Closer to hand, though, was Andros in the living room. He had a thick book open and had been reading, but was now staring unblinking at the conversation taking place in the door. The huge, hairy, keen-eyed man had never yet managed to look at someone without glaring.

“Four rich folks who are clearly not related renting out the old Moorville house and then settling in on no business in particular… Well, that’s strange and unexpected.”

“Is this an official visit, then, Marshal?” Darling asked mildly.

He shook his head. “As of this moment, this is me stopping by for a friendly chat. I’d love nothing more than some assurance I won’t need to make an official visit.”

“Wonderful! Maybe you wouldn’t mind taking a little stroll with me, Marshal? I’ve seen the sights, but it’s always good to have an experienced guide along.”

The man nodded slowly. “Maybe that wouldn’t be a bad idea.”

Darling thought rapidly as they stepped down from the porch and out into the street, pausing only to close the fence gate. This was complicated by the Archpope’s firm orders that they not reveal their affiliation with the Church. He didn’t want to outright lie to a man who had a direct line to Imperial Command. Between the proliferation of the scrolltower network and the Imperial bureaucracy itself, the Marshal could get confirmation or disproof of any story Darling told him within a few days. Long enough for them to finish their business and go…maybe.

“I can see how it’d be hard for us to slip in and out unnoticed,” he said lightly once they were out in the street. In fact, the main street of Hamlet terminated directly at the front gate of their rented house. Darling would have preferred something a lot more circumspect, but apparently it was the only available space adequate for their needs.

“Old man Moorville had quite the opinion of himself,” the Marshal said, strolling along beside him. “To be fair, he did work his way up from ranch hand to cattle baron without stepping on any more faces than he had to, and it’s thanks to his herds that we even have a town. Always very particular about getting the proper respect, though. Had to have his house right there where everybody had to see it… And then when he got rich enough to envy the lords and ladies of the home province, well, a two-story wooden house just wasn’t good enough anymore, so off he went to join them. To speak the plain truth, he makes a better neighbor when he’s a thousand miles away.”

Darling laughed obligingly. The Marshal gave him a keen sidelong look. “So, what brings you to his old home, then?”

“My name is Antonio Darling,” he said. “I’m a member of a council tasked with overseeing Imperial security at the highest level.”

“Omnu’s balls,” the Marshal groaned. “I thought the Empire was done stomping around here.”

“Oh, don’t ask me,” Darling said easily, “I’m on vacation.” It was true, technically; he’d left notice with the Church and the council and everyone that he’d be gone for a week. The Church, of course, already knew (and he’d been more forthright with Tricks and the Guild), but there was merit in leaving the proper paper trail.

“On vacation,” Marshal Ross said flatly, “in Hamlet.”

“Yes, just some friends and I taking a little time away from the rigors of city life to enjoy the local scenery. We have no official business here whatsoever.”

“And unofficial business?”

He was silent for a moment as they strolled along, apparently gathering his thoughts. Truthfully, it was just for dramatic effect; his thoughts were never un-gathered.

“I understand you met Professor Tellwyrn.” This got a noncommittal grunt, so he pressed on. “What’s she like? I’ve always wondered.”

“Quite frankly? Scary. She…has her moments, though.”

Most people might have missed the faint color rising in Ross’s cheeks and the deliberate way he avoided the other man’s gaze, but Darling analyzed people the way most people breathed, and he found himself forced to repress any sign of his amusement. Why, Arachne, you sly dog.

“So she shows up, pokes around the town for half a day, outs and then kills a bunch of cultists, and then takes off the next morning, having left the impression of shock and awe she usually does. Am I more or less right?”

“More…or less.”

He nodded. “It’s hard to analyze the motives and methods of people like that. You can never put it completely out of your head how beyond you they are… Which makes it tricky to see their weaknesses, unless you go looking for them. The weakness is always there, though, if you do. In Arachne Tellwyrn’s case, it’s her over-reliance on brute force tactics.”

The Marshal made no reply, but glanced at him again, showing his attention. Darling went on in the same blithe tone. “I’m not saying she’s unintelligent, because that clearly isn’t true. But she’s the most powerful known wizard by a wide margin, not to mention a more than competent fighter, and those are the traits she uses the most. Her plans are bluntly straightforward, and subtler things…slip her notice. Like, for example, the rest of the Black Wreath in this town.”

At that, Marshal Ross came to a stop and turned to face him, glaring. They were right in front of the town’s general store; Darling glanced about at the people passing by and failing to conceal their interest in the two. “It sure does get hot out here on the plains,” he said lightly. “You wouldn’t happen to know someplace shady we could continue this chat?”

Ross glanced about, too, clearly taking note of the townsfolk and imagining the result of having this particular discussion in their hearing. He jerked his head to the right and set off again, Darling trailing along behind.

They came to the town jail a few doors down, marked by a hand-painted sign and the Imperial flag. Ross led the way inside, where a young man was lounging behind a desk, smoking a cigarette and reading a magazine.

“Rusty, take a little walk,” the Marshal said curtly. The youth looked up at him, then at Darling—who grinned cheerily—then stood up and slipped outside without a word. Ross closed the front door, then the one opposite it, which led to a hallway lined by cell bars. They were left in a narrow front office, sparsely furnished with battered wood chairs, the big desk, and behind that a wall full of dented file cabinets. Ross stepped around behind the desk and seated himself, setting his hat atop a cabinet.

“So what,” he asked grimly, “makes the Empire think there are still Black Wreath in this town after Tellwyrn cleared them out? And why the hell didn’t all the other Imperial agents who’ve been through here in the last two months say or do anything about it?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t presume to know what the Empire thinks about anything,” Darling replied, pulling over a ladderback chair and seating himself. “I’m just a guy on vacation, remember? But, hypothetically, think about it. Wreath cultists are ninety percent dumb, ordinary folks who like feeling naughty but have no idea what they’re screwing around with. Maybe one or two in an entire cell will be an actual diabolist… Not to mention that they keep their numbers low in a given area for obvious reasons of blending in. There’s a lot about the Wreath cell in Hamlet that was strange. There were too many, for one thing, they had been supplied with dwarven technology that even the Empire is only just beginning to implement, every last one of them was willing to sacrifice themselves… That’s not the general run of cultist nonsense. Those were people on a mission, one for which they’d trained and been equipped.”

“I’m still not hearing how this adds up to there being more of them.”

“If you were running a cell of well-trained, well-equipped agents, Marshal, would you throw all of them at the first problem to rear its head?” He gave that a silent moment to sink in, watching Ross’s face grow longer. “I see two scenarios, depending on whether they knew who Tellwyrn was when they struck. Either they didn’t, and she was just some elf needing to be silenced, in which case excessive force wasn’t needed and would have risked drawing attention, or they did, and would never have gambled the lives of every agent they had against her. Hell, I’m leaning toward the former; the Wreath has tended to give her a wide berth when they know she’s coming. She and Elilial have a history.”

“They didn’t know,” Ross said curtly. Darling nodded.

“Then… It hardly makes sense to assume they’re all gone, then, does it?”

“Son of a bitch!” The man slammed a fist down on his desk. “Those people were friends. Neighbors, at the very least. Now you’re telling me that even more of my townsfolk are…”

“I’m telling you it’s likely,” Darling said evenly. “More than that I’m hardly in a position to know.”

“I don’t know how much more this town can take,” he said gloomily, his anger of a moment ago dissipating rapidly, though even as he slumped in his chair, a spark of a glare ignited behind his eyes, directed at Darling. “I’m sure as hell not gonna thank you for bringing more trouble to my town.”

“I haven’t brought anything. Either the trouble’s here, or it’s not. If it’s not, well… My friends and I will spend a relaxing few days enjoying the peace and quiet before we have to head back to our various dull office jobs. If it is… I have a suspicion our vacation will be interrupted very soon.”

The Marshal dragged a hand over his face, staring glumly into the distance. “Fuck.”

“You said you weren’t from here, originally,” Darling said mildly. “I wonder if that means you’d have friends from other parts of the Empire? The sort of friends who are unquestionably loyal to their Emperor, and have wands. You may want to pass along a recommendation from me: it’s a good time of year to take a week or so off, and Hamlet is a surprisingly pleasant spot to spend some free time.”

“You’re suggesting men like that are going to come in handy soon.”

“Men like that always come in handy,” Darling said, smiling disarmingly. “I just have a hunch that pretty soon, Hamlet’s Black Wreath problem will be over, one way or another.”

For some reason, that didn’t seem to make the Marshal happy.


 

Hearing raised voices even through the door, Darling quickened his pace at the porch, hustling inside. The scene within didn’t surprise him.

Basra and Andros were less than a foot apart, staring each other down. The hulking Shaathist was physically the more intimidating, but even though she had to crane her neck to meet his gaze, Basra didn’t look remotely cowed. In fact, she grinned wickedly into his glare.

“Antonio,” Branwen said in obvious relief, standing in the door to the kitchen. “What happened is—”

“Thanks, love, but I know what happened.”

“What, you were lurking just outside?” Basra said, turning her grin on him. Something about her eyes was just unsettling. “Naughty, naughty.”

“No,” Darling replied evenly, “but I’m acquainted with you two, and neither of you are full of surprises. Bas, go check on our guest.”

Her grin widened. “What’s the magic word?”

“Now.” The grin vanished from her face; he pushed on before she could make another remark. “Have I ever given you a direct order before? Honestly, Bas, usually I can trust you to see what needs doing and do it without having to be told. If you’re going to act like a child, however, I will speak to you like one. That, or we can go back to the previous option, which I liked better. Your call.”

She stared at him for a long moment through narrowed eyes, then turned on her heel and flounced off through the kitchen, shouldering Branwen aside.

“As for you,” Darling said to Andros, who glared mutely at him, “same goes. You’re a grown-ass man, Andros, have some basic self-control. If you don’t respond to her needling, she’ll get bored and quit doing it.”

“I will not be treated with disrespect by that woman,” he growled.

“Yeah, you probably will be. Look at it this way: getting a rise out of you is Basra’s way of asserting dominance. If you don’t let her goad you, she can’t win.”

“Where I’m from, we have ways of dealing with women who won’t learn their place,” the Huntsman rumbled, but his tone was more subdued. After two days, Darling was growing used to the subtle gradients of his growling and snarling, and interpreted this as evidence that Andros had at least absorbed his message. Hopefully it would stick.

“How did it go with the Marshal?” Branwen asked brightly. An unsubtle change of topic, but he’d take it.

“Well enough,” he said. “I managed to deflect his attention without revealing anything. He’s under the impression that we’re here on Imperial business, so nobody do anything to rock the boat.” In truth, he’d somewhat exceeded his mandate in making suggestions as strong as he had, but Darling was the expert in navigating social and political tensions; that was why he’d been placed in charge. This would all be so much easier—and quicker—if they could just reveal that they were agents of the Church, but he had his orders.

The reason behind that particular order was a puzzle he was still teasing out.

“I knew you’d take care of it,” she said warmly, gazing up at him with limpid eyes. Andros snorted loudly and returned to his seat and his book.

“That’s what I do, pet,” Darling replied cheerfully, chucking her under the chin as he slipped past her into the kitchen, and getting a flirtatious giggle in return.

Branwen had begun broadly hinting that if they’d had a little more privacy, she would like to get to know him a lot better. It was flattering, and she was certainly lovely enough to make it an interesting prospect, but he was frankly losing patience with her. Darling had never accused a woman of sleeping her way into a position—for one thing, his life was full of women who’d break his arms for even thinking it too loudly—but he was running out of alternate explanations for how Branwen Snowe had attained the rank of Bishop. Her entire skill set appeared to consist of housewifery. She was an Izarite, a devotee of the goddess of love, and should have been someone he could rely on to help soothe tensions and keep order in their group, but all she ever did when the other two got into it was wring her hands and look distressed.

The solitude and close confines were wearing on all of them. It wasn’t Branwen or even Andros who were causing most of the trouble, though, which frankly surprised him. Despite Andros’s generally surly demeanor and the fact that his cult had deep doctrinal conflicts with all of theirs, the Huntsman was mostly content to be left to himself, working through the surprisingly substantial library that came with the furnished house. Basra, however, was pushing her luck. Where Branwen dealt with stress by baking and Andros by retreating into himself, Basra did so by picking at people until she got a reaction.

The door to the cellar swung open and the Avenist herself stepped out, giving him an ironic look. “Our boy’s snug as a proverbial bug in a rug, no problems with the circle. Same as it’s been every time previously.”

“Smashing. I believe I’ll go have a look.”

“I literally just—”

“Yes,” he said soothingly, “and I don’t doubt your assessment. But we’ve been looking in on him at half-hour intervals for nearly a whole day now. Sshitherossz are trickster demons; I don’t want him getting a handle on any consistent pattern he can try to manipulate.”

“Oh, please,” she scoffed, “what could he possibly manipulate from inside that circle?”

“I can’t imagine, and that’s what spooks me. The first step to getting outmaneuvered by a demon is letting yourself believe it’s not dangerous. Be right back.”

He shut the door behind him as he stepped into the gloom of the cellar, as per their established house rule. Despite Andros’s wards and the general unlikeliness of any of the locals barging in here, there was no limit to the hell that would break loose if anybody found out they were keeping a demon in the basement. Some things were simply not to be risked.

The only light now came from the glowing circle. It was adequate to navigate the room, though the effect was eerie.

“What’s this?” the occupant of the circle asked wryly, not getting up from his seat on the ground. “Two for one? Why, I’m downright flattered! Oh, it’s just the poncy one, though. I was hoping for that chesty redhead again, but eh… You’re not bad.” He grinned viciously and made a twirling motion with one clawed finger. “Spin for me, let me get a good look.”

Darling made a show of pacing around the circle slowly, studying it. Despite being made of fine powder that should be easily disturbed by the faintest breeze, it was intact and unchanged. Once imbued with the kind of magic that coursed through it, it took on a solid integrity of its own. Not that he couldn’t wreck the whole thing with a carelessly placed foot, of course.

“I think you’re the one they all hate the most,” the sshitherossz went on airily. “Ah, the burdens of leadership! I wonder how long it’ll be before they—” He broke off as Darling burst out laughing.

“Oh, please. Really? ‘They’re all plotting against you?’ I’m almost insulted. Tell you what, skippy, you can go back to sitting alone in the dark and think about your tactics. Next time I come down here, I want to hear some quality manipulation.” He turned his back on the creature and began ascending the ladder.

“What do you want?” the demon snarled, its calm facade shattering. It bounded upright, slamming both fists against the invisible barrier and causing them to spark. “Who the fuck summons a devil and doesn’t do anything with him? Damn it, don’t just leave me sitting in here!”

Darling paused at the top of the ladder and turned to wink at him before climbing out and shutting the door. Behind, the creature cursed him at the top of its lungs. He didn’t need to speak its infernal language to recognize cursing.

“Ooh, cookies! Ow!” he rubbed his knuckles, staring reproachfully at Branwen as she waggled the spoon with which she’d rapped them.

“You let those cool or you’ll just burn yourself. You can wait fifteen minutes, Antonio.”

“Ah, how we suffer,” he sighed. Standing in the doorway to the kitchen, Basra snorted.

“If I were going to complain—”

“You? Perish the thought.”

“—I wouldn’t start with the cookies. We’re all going nuts here, Antonio. How much longer are we just going to sit on our hands?”

“I’m giving it three days,” he said. “It’s a nice round number.”

“Three is not a round number.”

“A significant one, then. Any practicing diabolists in this town would have been aware of the summoning when we cast it. That’ll give them time to organize and investigate. They’ll be keeping their senses alert and the circle doesn’t block scrying, so they’ll know the creature is still on the premises. If we haven’t been approached, one way or another, within three days, we’ll give up this spot and try our luck at the next attack site.”

“I don’t understand why we didn’t start with the one where the Falconer girl was taken,” she said. “Nobody ever found the cultists in that region, but they’ve got to be there. They succeeded, which means they’re the best of the lot, the most likely to be useful.”

“And the most likely to be dangerous,” Branwen murmured, working her spoon in a bowl full of batter. Gods above, was she baking something again?

“That,” Darling said, nodding, “plus the fact that they succeeded changes the game. Vadrieny was looked over by several actual deities in addition to Church priests, and her amnesia appears to be genuine. We want to move very carefully in areas where we may trip over whatever strings still tie her to Hell. The Church is assuming that the deaths of the other six archdemons means the Wreath failed to provide adequate hosts, and that Vadrieny’s trauma is more of the same. However, it’s not impossible that her memories are meant to be restored later.”

Basra grinned crookedly. “All the more reason to set that off now, rather than wait for them to be ready. Let the demon be Tellwyrn’s problem; I wish I could be there to take bets.”

“You’re a bloodthirsty little thing, aren’cha?”

Her grin widened. “Watch who you’re calling ‘little.’”

“Oh,” he assured her, smiling calmly, “I am.”


 

In the dead of night, the door creaked. A slim crack of illumination opened at the top of the steep steps, though between the darkness of the silent house and the burning circle in the basement, the difference was barely noticeable. A dark shape blotted out the light in the crack for a moment, then the door eased the rest of the way open, and it stepped down onto the stairs.

She was a plump woman in her middle years, clad in a simple dress suitable for a farmwife, clutching a candleholder on which stood a single unlit taper. Her broad, plain face was clenched in a mask of suspicion; she peered carefully around the dark cellar, not reacting to the spell circle or its occupant.

It was an almost empty room. Aside from the circle, there was only an upturned shipping crate against the far wall with one of the kitchen chairs dragged over beside it, and an oversized armoire against the right wall from the steps, its glossy finish and ornate carvings incongruous in the plain, dusty basement. Apparently satisfied with what she saw, she began descending the stairs.

“It’s a traaaa-aap,” the demon sang, grinning at her.

“Silence,” she hissed, pausing on the upper steps to glance back through the open kitchen door. “Where are your masters?”

“In Hell,” he replied with a chuckle. “In about three seconds when you’re feeling really stupid, remember I did warn you.”

“Wh—” She broke off with a cry, receiving a hard shove from behind, and tumbled forward down the steps.

“Careful,” Darling protested, popping into view as he threw aside the shroud that had covered him. “We need people able to answer questions! That means with unbroken necks.” There came a characteristic grunt from Andros at the top of the stairs.

“Oh, she’s fine,” Basra said dismissively, likewise appearing in the opposite corner and striding over to the fallen woman. Branwen joined them from the back of the room, draping her cloak of concealment over the crate.

“Oh, hey, it’s Mrs. Harkley!” Basra said cheerfully, having grabbed a fistful of the woman’s hair and wrenched her head back to reveal her face. With her other hand, she had adroitly twisted one of her captive’s arms and was effortlessly holding her down. “You remember, the nice lady who brought us the cherry pie? Come to borrow a cup of sugar, neighbor?” She grinned far too broadly. “We’ll forgive you the late hour. I’m sure you have lots of fascinating things to tell us.”

“I’ll tell you nothing!” Mrs. Harkley spat.

“You’re mistaken,” Basra said gleefully. “And I’m disappointed. What, no attempts to dissemble? You heard a noise and were investigating, fearing for our safety? You’re not even gonna try? Come on, there are traditions to this game! It’s no fun if you won’t play.”

The woman spat a word in a harsh, guttural language, and the darkness around her intensified, then solidified, forming into spikes.

Just as quickly, it shattered and disintegrated as the three of them, and Andros at the top of the stairs, blazed with divine light, driving every shadow from the room.

“Hey!” the demon protested, shielding his eyes with an oversized hand. “Do you mind? Do you know what time it is? People are trying to sleep, here!”

“All right, that’s enough of that nonsense out of you,” Darling said lightly, crouching beside Mrs. Harkley’s head on the floor and meeting her dumbfounded stare. “I don’t suppose you’d like to be helpful and tell us how many of your cell are still in this town?”

Her expression of shock melted into one of pure stubbornness. She clamped her lips firmly shut.

“Ah, well, it was worth a try.” With a regretful sigh, he stood, brushing off his knees. “Into the box she goes, ladies.”

“You think I’m afraid of you?” Mrs. Harkley spat. “You’re not the first clerics who came to this town looking for trouble. There’s more trouble here for you than you can handle.”

“You should worry about the trouble elsewhere,” Darling informed her. “Nobody here will harm you.”

“Aw…”

“Nobody,” he repeated firmly, giving Basra a flat look. “No, we’re just going to put you on ice, so to speak, till we’re ready to transport you back home. The people who’ll be asking the questions are very good at getting answers.”

“The others will come for me!” she shrieked, unable to keep the panic out of her voice.

“Of course they will, duckling,” he said soothingly. “Really, I’m not being sarcastic—I fully believe your friends will come. And unless they’re a lot smarter than you are, we’ll be returning to Tiraas with a full set.”

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Book 1 – Prologue

Next Chapter >

“The gods are bastards.”

The scene of the death was quite beautiful, now, years after the fact. A small creek cut through a little hollow in the prairie; the bowl-shaped depression had probably been a crater centuries ago before rain and wind had blunted its edges and nature filled it with field grasses and singing cicadas. In the exact center, in a vaguely star-shaped swath of emerald green moss interrupting the golden tallgrass, stood a stone marker bearing the carved sunburst of Omnu, the victim’s name and the dates bracketing her pitifully short life.

She knelt before the tiny monument, apparently studying it but in truth merely listening as he approached. The crunch of his boots, the rattle of spurs had given him away long before he spoke, to her annoyance; his heavy tread obscured the other sounds for which she listened.

“You can feel free to tell Father Reyfield I said so,” the man went on, coming to a stop at the lip of the little crater. His shadow loomed beside her, an elongated figure in a ten-gallon hat, hands tucked into his belt in the stationary swagger of a man who kept order in his little town by the sheer force of his personality. “The old poof and I don’t see eye-to-eye on much anyway. Here’s little June Witwill, just plain the best girl in the province, near enough. Sang in the choir, donated all her pocket money to the local mission… Always spoke respectfully of Emperor and country, and up to her eyes in everything ever went on at the church. She once got caught up in a stagecoach robbery when she was twelve, and talked one of the bandits into turning himself in. He went on to become a monk in Omnu’s temple, used to send June letters all the time.” The shadow of his hat oscillated as he shook his head slowly. “Just…best kid I ever knew, is all. And here she is, walkin’ out to catch crawdads in the stream, and just…burns. Just went up like a goddamn firework. Town’s almost a mile away and we heard her scream like it was happening right there. What the hell kind of thing is that, except an act of the gods? And why the hell would they wanna pick on one of the sweetest things they ever created? Yeah, I ain’t been to church since. They’re just plain bastards, is all, and I’ve got enough of those comin’ through my town as it is.”

His steps resumed crunching in the dry grass, more loudly as he picked his way down the slope toward her. The woman rose slowly to her feet, pausing to brush off the knees of her trousers. For a moment she considered getting one of those hats, just for comfort’s sake, but her eyes didn’t need protection from the sun. Besides, she liked the way it gleamed on her golden hair. There was always time for a little touch of vanity.

“I doubt you can imagine what that did to a little town like this, where everybody knows everybody and their business,” he said, drawing abreast of her. “And now, three years on, just when it’s all starting to finally scab over, here comes some nosy elf with a big-city accent, snooping around, asking questions about poor June Witwill and generally opening old wounds. This town doesn’t need that kinda grief, and the Witwills sure as hell don’t. Ma’am, I can’t honestly imagine what it is you’re after, and I do not care. Speakin’ with the full authority of my office, this is me tellin’ you to knock it off. Coach leaves for the Rail depot at Saddle Ridge tomorrow at nine sharp. I think you oughta be on it.”

“Wish you hadn’t followed me, Marshal,” she murmured without looking up at him.

He grunted. “Just bet you do. Now, are we gonna have any difficulty over it?”

“Three and a half years ago, in various places across the Empire, four girls between the ages of fourteen and nineteen spontaneously combusted.” She began pacing in a slow circle around the mossy area, peering at the ground. The swath of green was decorated here and there with tiny stands of versithorae, conical flowers in brilliant shades of yellow, orange and crimson. Elf candles, the human settlers called them. They grew only in the aftermath of fire, where ash nourished the soil. “Well, ‘combusted’ might give the wrong impression; they went up like bombs. All four on the same day, and though the records aren’t precise enough to verify it, I’d bet my ears at the very same moment. And I should clarify that four is merely the number of cases I’ve verified of so far. I’m almost positive there were others. I first learned of this after meeting the one girl who lived, who’s to start in my class this fall.”

“Class?” He eyed her up and down, from sweat-stained work shirt to dusty leggings and scuffed snakeskin boots. “You’re a schoolteacher?”

“Professor,” she corrected absently, still circling. “I’ve found no common thread between them at all, except that each was struck down while she was alone, isolated, outdoors and a good distance from any town. In Shiver Gulch, a mining town in Calderaan Province, it was a sixteen-year-old who’d been in and out of more trouble than a privateer on shore leave. She was passing through a graveyard on the way to join a few other ne’er-do-wells who were waiting with a bottle of whiskey and a whole bushel of glittershrooms. You know how the kids are. It was they who ran for help after hearing her scream, and seeing the fire.”

She straightened, stretching her neck, and met his eyes for the first time. He watched her warily, as he might a large prowling dog of uncertain intentions. Then she resumed her pacing, staring at the moss. “In a wealthy village less than forty miles from the Imperial capital itself, it was a poorly-closeted lesbian roaming the backroads to hide from the town bullies. She was struck down as she crossed a footbridge, and fell into a creek, which was vaporized on contact. In Lasa Vallas, another frontier town much like this one, it was a studious young lady of good parenting who worked at the local library and volunteered her time at a stable. Loved animals, and reading. It hit her as she walked across open prairie to the nearby elf grove to return a book she’d borrowed from one of the druids.”

“Which one survived?” he asked quietly. She glanced at him again, noting with wry satisfaction that the bluster had leaked from him entirely, leaving only a fairly young man trying to accept responsibility for his whole narrow world, under pressures he couldn’t begin to understand.

She came to a halt again in front of the memorial to poor June Witwill, whose faith had not saved her. “It’s never the one you’d expect,” she whispered. “The unfortunate Miss Witwill was attacked by a demon, Marshal. An extremely high-ranking demon, several orders of magnitude more powerful than any seen on the physical plane before. It attempted to possess her, but a human body proved a wholly inadequate host, resulting in the destruction of the girl and, luckily, the creature. We know this because the survivor was able to integrate the demon into herself, preserving both.”

“You’re letting a girl possessed by a demon into your class?” he said incredulously.

“The situation is complicated. It’s unfathomably complicated, and that’s just the fairly small slice of it that I understand. The Church and the Empire have both been involved in this, but I don’t trust either to investigate their own butts using both hands and a mirror, especially not when they begin tripping each other up. So I’m after my own answers.”

“Right, well…nobody in this town has your answers, Professor Elf. It was crawling with priests and Imperial agents for a full year after the incident. If they didn’t turn up anything when the scene was fresh, you won’t now.”

“Ah, but I doubt the investigators thought to ask the Black Wreath.”

“The who?”

“The Black Wreath,” she said patiently. “A cult dedicated to Elilial. They’re secretive, mostly masquerading as—”

“I know who the Black Wreath are, lady! That’s something else you’re not gonna find in this town. Business like that goes on in the cities, not out her among ranchers and farmers who don’t have time for demon-worship even if they have the inclination.”

Wordlessly, she pointed upward.

Raising his eyes, the Marshal started violently, cursing. The rim of the crater was ringed by figures in hooded ash-gray robes; nine of them, almost encircling the two below. He snatched up the two wands holstered at his belt, aiming each up at the menacing figures. Beside him, the Professor rolled her eyes.

“All right, that’s close enough,” the Marshal snapped, grasping for control of the situation. “We’re all neighbors here; nobody needs to get zapped. Let’s lose those hoods. Slowly, now.”

“This is why I wish you hadn’t followed me,” said the elf mildly. “Now I have to keep you alive, too.” He spared her a withering sidelong glare.

“Sorry about this, Marshal,” said one, his voice muffled. “Always did like you, but you’re in the wrong place at the worst possible time. The elf needs to go.”

“You know how tricky it is to ask exactly the right questions make it plain you already know to much when you don’t know anything?” the Professor asked idly, pitching her voice low. “The first two towns had no significant Wreath presence; the third one, I let slip who I was and spooked them into running. I’ve worked hard on this trap, Marshal, and I have no more leads, so kindly don’t screw it up.”

“All right, enough!” the Marshal shouted, raising both wands higher; he was beginning to look rather frazzled. “Hoods off, hands where I can see them. Now!”

Four of the cultists moved, including the speaker, but they reached into their robes, not for their hoods. The Marshal cursed and squeezed the switches on both his wands; their muted click was lost in a tremendous CRACK as bolts of lightning sprang from the tips, striking down two of the robed figures. Not fast enough; the two others had pulled wands from their hiding places and returned fire.

Lightning bolts fizzed into nothingness a few feet from the two in the crater, prompting oaths of surprise from above.

Do try not to kill them all,” said the Professor, then bent her legs slightly and leaped fifty feet straight up, somersaulting over the heads of the startled cultists to land gracefully in the tallgrass beyond the depression. She gestured with both hands and two more of them went bowling cowl-over-spurs into the depression.

Except for the speaker, who stood at the lip of the crater as if frozen, the rest scattered.

The Professor strode unhurriedly after them; by the time the Marshal had dragged himself up from below, she had pinned two more down under a mass of what looked like giant spiderwebs and felled a third with another invisible bolt of force. He paused at the rim, aiming both wands at the immobile cultist.

“Leave him be, he’s not going anywhere,” the elf called over her shoulder from up ahead. “That one seemed most likely to have useful information, so I fixed him in time.”

“Fixed him in…” He tore his gaze from the pacified cultist to her, then broke off what he’d been about to say. “Watch out!”

A dozen yards beyond her, the sole remaining robed figure had doubled over, almost hidden by the waving grass. Now his robe began to ripple as though blown in a high wind. He let out a low groan which grew rapidly into an ear-splitting shriek, then with a great ripping of fabric and flesh, seemed to explode, blood splattering the grass around him.

From the ruins of the cultist rose a bronze colossus, draped in scraps of gray cloth and grisly scraps of the cultist. Spiny wings sprang from its shoulders; it was proportioned like a gorilla, with stubby legs and hugely powerful arms, and covered in coppery scales that gleamed blindingly in the prairie sun. Lacking a neck, its lump of a head sprouted directly from its torso, with a gaping mouth extending halfway down its chest.

The creature weakly fluttered its wings once, swiveled its whole body back and forth as though looking for something, then fixed its gaze on the Professor and emitted a howl was more than half a roar.

“Oh, fuck me,” groaned the Marshal.

“Hmm,” said the Professor. “This complicates matters.”

Not waiting for any further commentary, he raised both wands and mashed the switches, unleashing blast after blast of lightning directly at the monstrosity. It roared in fury, but gave no sign of falling; the magic bolts left swaths of scorched prairie grass in their wake but splashed harmlessly across the creature’s hide. Still, he pressed forward, giving it everything he had, until the elf tackled him from the side, pushing them both into the ground.

Seconds later, the Marshal had only just raised his head and spat out a mouthful of loam when the earth shook as the monster ran right past them, howling. He froze, the elf’s meager weight half on top of him; one of the creature’s bronze feet went by so close he could have reached out to grab it. But they were hidden by the tallgrass, apparently; he could hear the brute stomping and roaring in frustration a few feet away, seeking his lost prey.

It occurred to the Marshal that the thing couldn’t be very bright. Not that that would help anyone if it went for the town.

“That’s a baerzurg,” the elf breathed in his ear. “A lesser class of demon, but its skin is quite impervious. You’ll only draw its attention with your wands. Stay put a moment.”

Then she was gone.

For a tense moment the only sounds were of the demon’s snorting and snuffling (could it smell him?), then suddenly the Professor’s voice came from several feet away.

“Hey there, handsome!”

There was another roar and the pounding of heavy feet, followed by a light laugh from the elf. “Oooh, so close! Go on, have another try.”

She continued to taunt the creature, leading it progressively further from the Marshal, the Witwill memorial and the town which was just barely visible in the distance. As the sounds of her laughing and the creature’s increasingly frustrated yowls drew farther away, he carefully rose to a crouch, removing his hat and peeking up through the upper fronds of the grass. He could barely make out the flicker of movement that was the elf, but the demon continued to stomp back and forth after her, roaring.

“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

He cursed and almost threw himself flat again at her voice, which came from just behind his shoulder. She winked at him from inches away.

“But…you…over there…”

“Illusory decoy,” she explained. “Now, Marshal, don’t lose your head. Anyhow, it looks like we’re in luck. Our boy’s a slugger, not a caster.”

“I think I’m just gonna sit here and wait for everything to make sense again,” he said woodenly.

“Oh, relax. Baerzurg are hierarchal; some of the upper castes are quite smart and can use magic, but this one’s clearly nothing but muscle. Easily dealt with.”

Easily? That thing looks like it could demolish a building!”

“We’d best not lead him near any buildings then, eh? Now keep your head down, I’m going to coax him back this way…”

She crouched, peering at her duplicate through narrowed eyes and making twitching motions with her fingers. The Marshal groaned softly and edged over to give her space. He watched, clutching his wands for comfort, as the laughing decoy began to weave back in their direction, dragging the increasingly furious demon along.

The illusion finally came to a dead stop, waving cheerily at the baerzurg. Sensing its chance, the beast pounced on her, roaring in triumph. It turned to a howl of impotent rage when the figure vanished right under him.

The Professor stood and calmly made a lifting motion with her hand. The baerzurg, which had been snuffling about on the ground, trying to locate his lost target, yelped as he suddenly ascended straight into the air.

“You can come out, Marshal,” she called. “It’s quite safe.”

Slowly, he rose to his feet. The demon hung suspended twenty feet in the air, roaring and swiping at the elf, who stood almost underneath him, well beyond his reach.

“I’ll need to concentrate on this bit,” she said cheerily, “so kindly busy yourself elsewhere. Perhaps you could round up the rest of our visitors? Here.” She handed him a sizable coil of slim, silvery rope which she had definitely not been holding a moment before.

The Marshal did as he was told. At least it was something he understood.

No matter how he steeled himself, each face he uncovered was a punch to the gut. The lone cultist who’d been the last one felled by one of the elf’s blasts was Howard Slater, a jovial, pot-bellied man who ran the town’s general store. He had passed many a slow hour in the hot afternoons gossiping with the Marshal, and everyone else in the town. The man had a strong pulse and was breathing, but showed no signs of waking up. Whatever she’d hit him with was well-designed.

He had to use his jackknife to extract the two under the spiderwebs, and even so they were left covered with a sticky mess that he didn’t bother to try removing. Maggie Vinterson was a spinster with a mouth like a prune who was always nose-deep in everyone’s private affairs; Lorenzo Haltas worked at the scrolltower office. By all the gods, the man trusted with every message beamed into and out of the town was a demon worshiper. The Marshal almost dizzied himself trying to recall whether anything he’d sent to the capital in the last year would have been of interest to cultists before forcing himself to drop that futile line of thinking. He lined them up next to Slater, lashing their ankles and wrists together and to each other; they’d not be going anywhere when they woke.

He glanced over at the Professor for a moment. She was still standing beneath the imprisoned demon, staring fixedly up at it; now the beast’s distracting howls had taken on a desperate tone and it had begun writhing in apparent pain. At this rate, wouldn’t be long before someone came from town to investigate the commotion; sound carried a long way over the prairie.

His work continued, arranging comatose bodies and confiscating wands and knives as he found them. The two in the crater he dragged up to the others. Joe Blakely, the bootmaker. He’d liked Joe, who was a steady, easygoing man who listened well and gave good advice when a fellow had a problem and needed to unburden himself. The Marshal felt an even stronger pang in his heart upon unveiling the fifth; Marie Upwell was the most sought-after young lady in the whole region, and not just because of her cheerful, compassionate nature. Now that he knew it was she, it was hard not to notice the way even that baggy gray robe draped becomingly over her figure. The Marshal hadn’t actively tried to court her—he was one of the few—but embarrassing fantasies involving Marie had kept him company during more than a few quiet nights. He tied them to the others.

He tried to tune out the baerzurg’s noises, which had become piteous whimpers. He really didn’t want to look up and see what the elf was doing to it.

There was no need to restrain the two felled by his own wands. Some Imperial Marshals carried customized wands that could deliver varying degrees or kinds of power; some were even amateur enchanters who crafted their own to personal specifications. His were standard Imperial issue, and cast standard-issue lightning bolts which were functionally identical to those that came from the sky. A person could survive a direct hit from a bolt of lightning, but it was a noteworthy event when it happened. It hadn’t happened today.

So he laid out Jeff Langley, the shy kid newly apprenticed at the bakery, and Walter Jordan, an aging ex-soldier whose ranch lay just over the horizon, with the hoods of their cultist robes over their faces.

Just as he began to reach for the hood over the figure still frozen upright at the lip of the crater, a great thump shook the ground. He spun to behold the Professor walking toward him and the smoking body of the baerzurg lying in the grass behind her.

“Don’t touch him till I release the spell. He’s stuck in a pocket of slow time; even small impacts could damage him quite a bit.”

“What’s the story with that thing?” He jerked his head at the fallen demon.

“Oh, don’t worry, it’s thoroughly dead. Burned to a proverbial crisp.”

“I thought you said it was invincible.”

“Only the skin. Anything will die if you systematically incinerate its internal organs.” She grimaced, wiping her hands on her trousers. “Not a very kind way to die, but that’s the price you pay for superficial invulnerability. All right, keep a wand out; I don’t expect much trouble with this guy, but they’ve already surprised us once today.”

He didn’t see her so much as wiggle her fingers at the last cultist, but the man suddenly twitched as though waking from a heavy sleep. “Take her down! They’ll—eh?”

That was as far as the confused man got before the elf pointed at him and he went tumbling over backward, unconscious.

Careful!’” the Marshal protested. “There is such a thing as excessive force!”

“Oh, un-bunch your bloomers, he’s fine. Let’s get him tied up to the rest of them.”

She did so, while he removed the man’s hood and the scarf wrapped over the lower part of his face. It was definitely not the right weather for that, and the man was even sweatier than the rest of his companions. The Marshal let out a defeated sigh at beholding the refined features of Jackson Towerwell, the clerk at the town hall.

“Ooh, I know him,” the elf said in tones of interest. “Just the chap to have around if you’re planning a spot of skullduggery, eh?”

“…right.”

“Well, then!” She rubbed her hands together. “Sure of those knots, are you? Good, let’s see what our wayward neighbors have to say for themselves.” Leaning forward, she lightly touched Towerwell on the forehead. He started violently and tried to sit upright, succeeding only in entangling himself with Marie. The elf quickly ran down the line, awakening each cultist with a touch.

“Afternoon, Jackson,” the Marshal said gravely.

“…Marshal,” the clerk replied in the same tone. He managed to look dignified, even sitting in the dirt with his hands bound behind himself and being tugged about by the tension on the rope as each of his co-conspirators awakened and struggled experimentally. “Well, I’ll confess this is a mite embarrassing.”

“You’re not going to shoot us, are you, Marshal?” asked Marie tremulously, glancing at the two fallen cultists and then back up at him.

He pushed back his hat to scratch his head. “Not if I can at all help it, Miss Upwell, which will be contingent upon whether you choose to make it necessary. Needless to say it’s jail for the lot of you till I can send a scroll to the capital. This is Imperial business now.”

She burst into tears. The Marshal grimaced, not enjoying the irony; even if she was a fairly caught demon cultist, being responsible for a pretty girl weeping never failed to twist his guts into a knot.

“Well, there is one bit of good news,” Towerwell said with weary joviality. “I meant what I said, Marshal; really didn’t like the thought of having to kill you. It sat poorly with all of us, in fact. Disappointing as all this is, I feel a good bit better that we missed that particular chance.”

The Professor snorted disdainfully, and Towerwell fixed a glare upon her.

“I see your companion doubts my sincerity. You think all members of the Wreath are necessarily wicked creatures who love nothing but destruction? You’re a fool, girl. We’re the last hope for humanity, the few willing to stand against the tyranny of the gods themselves. Would you dare to tread a mile in our shoes? A great doom is coming, and when it arrives, you’ll wish you’d joined us.”

She nudged him in the chest with her boot. “Don’t lecture me, you presumptuous tadpole. I’ve met your dark goddess, and frankly she would find you embarrassing. Now, I’ll need you to provide some answers concerning those girls your glorious cause casually murdered. So, we’re going to play a game called ‘First Person to Talk Doesn’t Get Burned Alive Like June Witwill.’”

“Now, hold it,” the Marshal snapped, drowning out a few muted exclamations of fear. “These folks are Imperial prisoners, Professor. If you had the authority to interrogate them, you’ve have shown me the proof of it before now. Nobody’s laying a hand on them till I get backup out here.”

“Boy,” she said very calmly, “after all we’ve been through together, surely you don’t imagine you can stop me from doing whatever I damn well please?”

He locked his gaze with hers, refusing to back down an inch. The fact was, she was right; he’d seen this woman in action and knew he wasn’t a match for her. But some things were more important than practicality. He had an oath, and a duty, and an agent of the Tiraan Empire did not throw that aside for anything.

“Who are you?” asked Towerwell quietly, peering up at the elf.

She tore her eyes away from the Marshal’s, turning to study the prisoners dispassionately, then smiled. “Well, since we’re all going to be such good friends, I suppose there’s no harm in you knowing at this point.”

So she told them her name.

The Marshal took a reflexive step backward, and a new round of struggles and shouts resonated along the row of bound cultists. Jackson Towerwell bared his teeth at the elf in a feral snarl, furiously twitching and shifting his arms, still bound behind himself.

“An interesting thesis,” the elf said dryly, “but I’m afraid those bonds aren’t likely to be any looser just because you suddenly want even more to be out of them. No, don’t stop on my account. By all means, wear yourself out. I have all the time in the world.”

“Wait,” said the Marshal suddenly, shouldering her aside. “Something’s not…”

Even as he knelt to look more closely at Towerwell, the man convulsed violently, his eyes rolling up, and tumbled over backward, taking Marie down with him. He thrashed in his bonds, beginning to foam the mouth.”

“Oh, shit,” hissed the Professor. “Their hands, Marshal. Grab their hands! Stop them!”

They were too late. All up and down the row, the imprisoned cultists had begun to writhe, a few groaning in obvious agony. Each of them appeared to be suffering some kind of seizure.

The elf produced a gleaming saber from midair and unceremoniously slashed Towerwell loose from the others. She rolled him, still twitching, over onto his front, revealing a small, brass-bound glass tube tucked into his left hand. Upon close inspection, the Marshal saw that one end bore a needle, which was pressed into his opposite wrist.

She snatched it out of his grasp, but the damage was done. Already, Towerwell had fallen still, and the others were faltering in their struggles. The Marshal dashed around behind them, seeing the same little needle-tubes pressed into each’s veins.

“What do we do?” he shouted. “What can we do?”

“Nothing.” Her voice was like ice. She straightened slowly, glaring down at the glass tube clutched in her hand. “There are half a dozen poisons this might have been, and I don’t have antidotes for any of them. If I did, it wouldn’t help; they’ve been injected directly into the blood. It wouldn’t be fast enough.”

He cursed helplessly, clutching Marie Upwell by her shoulders as she twitched weakly, foam dribbling from her perfect lips, then finally went still. He held her, numb, for a few long moments, before lowering her gently to the ground alongside the others. Not one of them still breathed.

“What is that,” he asked, surprised by the calm of his own voice.

“It’s called a hypodermic syringe. One of the new dwarven inventions. Made for delivering medicine; it’s held in the tube here, then you press the needle into someone’s skin and push the plunger, which sends the fluid right into their bloodstream. I bet it took all of two minutes for someone to figure out how good they’d be for delivering poison. They must’ve had them up their sleeves, above where you’d check to tie the wrists. Rather ingenious, really.”

He dropped his gaze to Marie’s face. It was an awful sight, her cheeks flecked with foam, eyes rolled up into her skull, mouth twisted in agony. Carefully, he pulled the hood of her robe out from under her head and draped it over her face, then began moving down the line, doing the same for each of them. He didn’t look up from his task as he spoke.

“Was it true, what you said? You’re really her? Arachne Tellwyrn?”

“You’re really she,” she corrected, “and yeah, I am. For all the good it did here.” She threw the syringe to the ground in disgust. “Congratulations, Marshal, you’re now a member of a very elite group of men who’ve seen the great Professor Tellwyrn made a fool of. Fewer than a dozen have joined in the last century. In fact, I think you may be the only one currently alive.”

She knelt and, with surprising gentleness, closed Jackson Towerwell’s eyes, draping his hood over his face, just as the Marshal reached the other end of the line.

Finding himself without something immediately to do, he simply sat down in the grass, staring up at her. She sighed heavily, knuckling the small of her back, and turned her head toward the distant town.

“I just…I don’t believe it. Demon worshipers, in my town.”

“That’s not so shocking,” she said dismissively. “The Black Wreath is everywhere. Mostly just folks looking to spice up their lives with a bit of the illicit occult, and a couple of true believers to keep them motivated. No, what’s disturbing is that this circle had a suicide summoner on hand, as well as having been supplied with shiny new tech from the dwarven kingdoms, and every one of them had the will to end it rather than risk being made to talk. Usually, you can count on a few cowards not to realize which is the easier way out. This is not what I expected from a few cultists in some backwater town. I was obviously very close…” She sighed again, then shook herself. “Well. I’m staying at the Willowbranch Inn.”

“Oh,” he said numbly. “Yes. Right. I’ll need to get a statement from you, after I…do something with…” He trailed off, sweeping his gaze across the row of dead cultists who minutes before had been friends and neighbors he was sworn to protect.

“Statements, sure. Look, I’ve just been embarrassingly thwarted and seen months of investigation go up in smoke. I now have to start over from scratch, as if I have the bloody time for it, which means hoping another lead into another grisly death will surface. I owe it to my faculty not to come home this frustrated; they’ve enough stress on their shoulders with the semester starting in two weeks. As such, I intend to get thoroughly drunk and laid before catching my coach in the morning. Find my room before ten o’clock tonight if you wish to be part of it.”

With that, she walked away, leaving the poleaxed Imperial Marshal sitting amid the carnage left in her wake.

Professor Tellwyrn didn’t hurry, but let her feet carry her at their own pace back toward the town. Walking was good for thinking; the legs pumped blood cleanly through the brain.

How many other cases like this were there, scattered throughout the Empire? Realistically, it was probably a random number. Maybe no more than the four she’d already found. Arachne had been roaming the world for better than three millennia and become very accustomed to the unexplained and just plain weird. Sometimes these events were hints of broader things in motion, but more often they were just the chaotic detritus of a world too full of magic and people like herself who felt the need to stir the pot. But in that time, she’d also learned to trust her hunches; her subconscious mind was a finely tuned machine that drew connections long before she was able to spot them, and right now it was telling her that the case of the exploding girls was not another coincidence.

The Queen of Demons had seven daughters. Tellwyrn knew, even though she couldn’t yet prove it, that she now had at least three fewer.

Now, the best thing she could hope for was that somewhere in the Empire, three other innocent young lives had been pointlessly, excruciatingly snuffed out in a blaze of hellfire. The alternative was at least one more archdemon with a brand new human body, running around doing Omnu knew what and not carefully under her own eyes as was the girl who’d survived the possession.

And if that was the case, “a great doom” didn’t begin to describe it.


Author’s Note, a year later: One of the downsides of writing in serial form is the inability to edit in large chunks.  Once it’s published, it’s published.  Apart from my desire not to “cheat,” and to let what I wrote stand, keeping an update schedule means I simply don’t have time to go back and re-write whole chapters after the fact.  If I did have the time, I would wholly redo the first part of Book 1.

This story is one of intrigue, adventure and humor.  The first few chapters are the slowest and most expository in the whole run; if you find you like the slow pace, be warned it picks up considerably not far in.  If you find it a little dull, please stick around!  I think you’ll enjoy what comes next.

And as always, thank you for reading.

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