“And here we are!” Sweet proclaimed, coming to a stop. They stood in a small square in the predawn gloom; to the right, the street began to descend into another former quarry and current border district like the Glums. A surprisingly well-polished city street sign proclaimed this the Lower Northeast Ward.
They weren’t dressed for this part of town, Sweet in an expensively tailored suit of conservative cut, the two elves in simple, modest dresses. Privately, he suspected that Price enjoyed having girls to dress for once, though he wasn’t going to tempt fate by saying so. For his part, he’d not have come here in this attire, but his very full schedule for today wouldn’t permit time for a costume change between this errand and the next one. So, overdressed or not, he led the way with his customarily nonchalant swagger, Flora and Fauna trailing along behind.
He heard their light steps stop when they rounded the corner. Three men were leaning casually against the quiet storefronts just beyond the border into the Ward with the elaborately casual stance of people who were guarding something. They nodded to him, the one in the old Army coat even smiling noncommittally. Doubtless it was the third who startled his charges, though. They were probably not used to meeting drow.
“Mornin’, lads,” Sweet said easily, strolling past them. “Come along, girls! Left foot, right foot! We’ve got errands to see to, and we’re on a schedule.”
They darted to catch up; Fauna leaned in close to him, hissing, “That man was a drow!”
“Very insightful, Fauna. Those keen instincts will serve you well in the Guild. Welcome, ladies, to the Lower Northeast Ward, formerly known throughout the city as Freak Street, and more recently as Lor’naris!”
Even as they descended the sloping street, tenements rising on one side and the rocky exterior wall of the island on the other, Lor’naris made its differences from the Glums glaringly plain. It was clean, for one thing; there was no litter, no graffiti, no broken windows or other signs of vandalism. It definitely was not a rich district, as the repairs done to many buildings were a patchwork of obviously scavenged supplies, but significantly, the repairs had been done. The fairy lamps atop the light poles were often missing, but not haphazardly; one in three remained at precise intervals, leaving the street well-lit enough for human eyes to navigate, but dim.
And, despite the very early hour, it was occupied. Unlike most who thronged city streets after dark, the residents of Lor’naris wore the garb of working people on their way to or from jobs, or running errands. They were polite in passing one another or the three visitors, if reserved. And at least half of them were drow.
“The story of Lor’naris has its roots in the long, complicated relationship between the humans of the Empire and the drow of Tar’naris,” Sweet lectured his two charges as he led them along, deeper into the district. “For most of that history, you see, humans were something of a prized commodity down there. Drow ideas about beauty tend to focus on what makes them different from their surface-dwelling cousins: specifically, burly men and busty women. Well, guess who’s even brawnier and curvier than drow!” He half-turned as he walked to grin at them; the elves were clinging to each other, wide-eyed, staring around as if expecting to be ambushed any second.
“Obviously,” Sweet continued, “the formation of the Empire and its military might put a damper on that; once it consolidated its hold on this continent, Tiraas put its armies to work defending its various interior frontiers. The stretches around the Golden Sea and the Deep Wild, for example, various hellgates, and in particular the access points to the Underworld. Where Narisians used to be able to launch raids right from their front steps, as it were, about sixty years ago they found their door blocked off by Fort Vaspian, and a lot of well-disciplined troops wielding battlestaves from behind battlements. So, no more slave trade. And with the human lifespan being what it is, it wasn’t long before the remaining slaves were losing much of their pep. No more sexy, sexy humans to play with. It was very sad. Good morning, Cassie!” he called, waving.
Coming their way on the sidewalk was a woman of about thirty leading a child of no more than five by the hand. The little girl had shock-white hair and skin of pale gray, her ears subtly elongated but not pointed. She ducked behind the woman’s skirts at their approach.
“Morning, Sweet,” the adult said politely, smiling. “Look at you! What’s the occasion?”
“Oh, you know how it is,” he said breezily, tucking his thumbs behind his lapels and strutting a little. “Sometimes a lad just wakes up and wants to feel fancy. And who’s this? Is that Ezirel?” He bent forward, smiling more gently, and produced a wrapped lemon drop from within his sleeve. “My gods, you’re huge! You’d better stop growing, or I’m gonna forget what you look like.”
The child found enough courage to accept the offering before ducking shyly behind her mother’s skirts again.
“What do you say, Ezirel?” Cassie prompted with just a hint of reproof.
Two big, garnet-colored eyes appeared above a fold of fabric. “Thank you, Sweet,” she said dutifully, somewhat muffled. He laughed.
“Sorry I can’t stop to chat this morning, Cass, but I have a delivery to make.”
“Of course, don’t let us keep you. Always good to see you, though.”
“And you’re a sight to brighten up any day yourself. Cheers!”
Fauna let some distance accrue between them and the woman and child before speaking again, still in a low hiss. “These are the friendly drow your Empire is allied with? Those who used to prey on your people?”
“Ah, now that’s the meat of it exactly,” he said, wagging a finger over his shoulder without turning around. “There are drow and then there are drow, girls. The drow we know are Themynrites, servants of a goddess of judgment who very carefully seeded her cult among the drow city-states which controlled access points to the surface. All such cities, in fact, making them an effective plug in a planet-sized bottle of horrors. Y’see, the drow below that worship Scyllith, goddess of, among other things, cruelty. Those are the drow who practice infant sacrifice and fill their cities with random booby traps just for shits and giggles. The drow whose national sport is murder. It’s thanks to the Narisians and other Themynrite drow that those assholes don’t come boiling out of the Underworld like stylish, evil locusts. We get to live in prosperity and relative peace up here because of their eternal vigilance, and since most of humanity had no idea any of this was even going on for most of history, naturally nobody offered a word of thanks.”
He glanced back again, still grinning, to make sure his two charges were still following along, both in his footsteps and his story. They glanced about mistrustfully every time the threesome passed a slate-skinned pedestrian, but seemed to be attentive. They weren’t the only ones; he wasn’t moderating his tone, and several people, both drow and human, watched and listened as they passed.
“Anyway, it’s hardly surprising the Narisians developed a bit of an attitude about it,” he continued. “As I understand, the belief down there was that the difference between a human enslaved in Tar’naris and a human faffing around on the surface was that the slave, at least, was damn well pulling their weight. Sound about right, Vengniss?”
“Succintly put,” replied a drow woman behind a pastry stand, with a small, polite smile. “Good morning, Sweet.”
“Mornin’, sunshine,” he said cheerily, setting a small stack of coins on the counter. “Three, please!”
It was plain, Imperial peasant food, simple rolls of sausage, onion and cabbage with a dab of gravy in a heavy pastry, but the elves seemed to enjoy them. At least, they appeared less tense as they ate, continuing along in Sweet’s wake.
“So that brings us forward to the Imperial treaty,” he said after downing a few bites. “Now we have Imperial troops supporting the Narisian front lines against incursions from the deep drow, and a heavy Narisian presence in Fort Vaspian itself. Soldiers mixing with each other all the time, not to mention diplomats, the arcanists and others involved in the agricultural projects in Tar’naris, plus merchants salivating over the exciting new markets that have opened up, consultants and participants in new mining ventures… People from all walks of life, but the common thread is that they fall in two groups suddenly thrust into proximity: drow who remember when humans were a much-prized luxury items, and humans whose ideas about drow were full of lurid images of wild-eyed women dressed in scraps of spidersilk, brandishing whips. Two groups who each regarded the other as alien, mysterious, bizarre, and sexy as hell.”
He took another bite and winked over his shoulder at them. “Well, the inevitable happened. It happened frequently, and with gusto. Now, most of those liaisons were brief affairs, but people do fall in love, often to their own amazement. If you’re a drow/human couple, you’ve got two basic options. If your drow half is a sufficiently ranked member of their House, you can settle down in Tar’naris and nobody’s going to so much as look at you the wrong way. That’s a pretty shriveled minority of cases, though; most aren’t highly-placed enough in their Houses to gain any leeway, and I imagine several of those who are did not please their matriarchs by bringing home a round-eared albino with a hundred-year lifespan. So most of them came to the great Imperial melting pot of Tiraas…and from there, here. Thus: Lor’naris.”
“Why this district?” Flora asked quietly.
“Remember I said this used to be known as Freak Street?” He glanced back, nibbling at his pastry as he waited for them to nod in acknowledgment. “The Lower Northeast Ward has always been a gathering place for the racially unwelcome. Lizardfolk, half-elves, half-dwarves, half-thingies of all stripes, including a solid handful of demonbloods. If you couldn’t show your face on most of the streets of Tiraas without getting aged produce thrown at you, then you came here. What changed with the exodus from Tar’naris was the general tone of the place. Within a few years, there were more drow than any one other type of person, save humans, though there still aren’t more than a couple hundred in the whole city, if that. Nearly all of those drow came with a human partner, more of whom than otherwise were ex-soldiers; basically, the new Narisians were not people who were going to be pushed around, so they ended up setting the standard for the district. And it’s a very Narisian standard they set: clean, orderly, and safe. There’s basically no criminal element left in Lor’naris. It’s not a rich district by any means, but it’s a good place to raise your kids. The folks who settled here made it that way for that specific purpose. It doesn’t hurt that it’s practically underground, which was just more comfortable for them generally.”
“Fascinating,” Fauna murmured. He didn’t detect any sarcasm in her tone, but it could be hard to tell.
“Hang a right here, girls,” he said, leading them down a narrow side street where the buildings above met in the middle more often than not. It was nearly a tunnel; also lit by the occasional fairy lamp, but markedly dimmer, even in the gathering dawn.
Sweet finished off his breakfast pastry on the much shorter walk through the darkness. They met no more people here, but light beckoned from up ahead. The alley terminated in a small square cul-de-sac, illuminated by more closely-spaced fairy lamps hung from the surrounding walls. High above, the gray sky was just beginning to be streaked with pink. Despite the dingy, angular surroundings, it had the aspect of a secret grotto, with its darkened entrance and tantalizing glimpse of faraway sky.
The entire wall of the square opposite them formed the front of a shabby old theater, with freshly-painted posters advertising a play opening in a week. Sweet came to a stop in front of this, stepped to one side, and bowed grandly, gesturing the two elves forward to the doors.
“Ladies, we have arrived.”
It wasn’t locked. Sweet led them through a shabbily ornate foyer and through a set of double doors into the theater proper. This was the kind of place that, though spotlessly clean, seemed as if it should be festooned with cobwebs. The rafters above were lost in the dimness, but the worn old chairs had been carved elaborately when they were new, and ragged velvet draperies hung over ornate wall carvings.
“Yoo hoo!” Sweet called.
“Yes, I heard you,” said a man from behind them, making the two elves jump. “Right on time, Sweet. I gather these are my new project?”
“Ah, splendid,” Sweet said cheerfully, turning to bow to their host. “Girls, this is Orthilon. Orthilon, meet Flora and Fauna.”
“Now, be nice,” he chided, watching them study each other. The girls didn’t seem particularly happy at meeting another drow, though they muttered a wary greeting. Orthilon, for his part, looked them over carefully. It was an analytical, appraising stare, not the kind of once-over men tended to give women, but the two elves stiffened regardless.
“Ladies,” Sweet said, recapturing your attention, “you’ve been most patient with this enterprise so far, but I’m sure you’re eager to know why you’re here.”
“That would be nice,” Flora said.
“We have a bit of a problem, you see: you two can’t lie.”
“Yes, we can,” Fauna said, scowling. She scowled further when Sweet laughed at her.
“No, love, you really can’t. You can say the words, but… Hah, no. You’ve got the worst poker faces I’ve ever seen in my life. All that jumping and glaring on the way down here? You can bet everybody we passed knows how phobic you are of drow.”
“Well, what did you expect?” Fauna said testily. “If you’d warned us…”
“Now, don’t mistake me!” Sweet raised a hand to forestall further comments. “If you manage to open your minds and learn a few lessons in tolerance and understanding while you’re here…well, great, that’s fine and dandy. But honestly, I don’t much care. Eserion isn’t big on social justice. The problem is that when you dislike someone, it’s written all over you. Likewise when you try to deceive. This just won’t do, girls. If you’re going to get anywhere in the Guild, you’re going to have to learn to hide your feelings, and especially your intentions. Now, we have our ways of teaching those lessons, but they take time, and exposure. There’s merit in doing things the slow way, but I’m going to need you two shipshape in a relatively quick span of time, so an accelerated curriculum is needed. And lucky for us, we have the best possible thing for teaching a pair of bright-eyed youngsters the art of reserve: a whole district full of Narisians!”
“What,” Flora asked very carefully, looking at the smiling Orthilon, “do Narisians have to do with it?”
“Narisians observe a cultural ethic of restraint and respect,” the drow replied to her. “For millennia we have lived practically on top of one another in the darkness. While our Scyllithene cousins deep below address the tensions of Underworld society by viciously culling each other, in Tar’naris we have developed a society structured to keep us from rubbing against one another to our mutual discomfort. That is why my people do not commonly express emotion except among intimate family: it is seen as an offensive act, to inflict your feelings upon others. We learn from birth to govern our features and all expression of what passes across our minds.”
Fauna rounded on Sweet, her face twisting in disgust. “You want us to learn how to act like drow?”
“From what I’ve seen, there’s nothing about Narisian drow that you’d be worse off knowing,” he replied easily, “but no, I’m not looking to have you convert or anything. Just learn the specific lesson I’m sending you here to teach: reserve. Hide your feelings and your thoughts a bit better. Do you really think, girls, that you see the truth of what I’m feeling when I speak to you?”
That gave them pause. They frowned at him in unison, then glanced at each other, having one of those quick, silent conversations of theirs.
“That sounds like it would still take time to learn,” Flora hedged.
“That’s why I’m bringing you to Orthilon,” Sweet said cheerfully. “In addition to the fact that you’ll be hobnobbing with actors around here, he’s something of an expert, you see. Orthilon was in the human trade, back in the day.”
“He’s a slave trader?” Both elves shied away from the drow, who only smiled calmly at them.
“Trainer,” Orthilon clarified. “I worked with humans; I was not involved in their acquisition or sale. You could say that I am a…connoisseur of humans. They really are intriguing, delightful creatures.”
“Imagine you’re a Narisian noble,” Sweet explained. “You’ve just purchased a domesticated human for your personal use. Obviously, you’re gonna want your new acquisition to behave like a civilized person, instead of like…well, like a human. That’s where Orthilon came in! His job was to teach people not raised in Narisian culture how to get along in it, and he was damn good at his job.”
“I was the acknowledge master of my craft,” the drow said modestly. “My charges learned proper behavior in a matter of weeks, on average, and that beginning when they were most unwilling students. It is much easier, much quicker, working with volunteers.”
“So here’s the deal,” Sweet explained. “We have a little exchange of interest going. You two are going to help Orthilon with various projects over the next few weeks. They’re still renovating this theater ahead of the scheduled opening next week—it’s gonna be tight, and every able pair of hands is a gift. After that, well, there’ll be other stuff to do. The new locals are still cleaning up decades of damage caused by slum living. They’ve only been here five years or so; the place isn’t going to shape up overnight. In payment for your services, you get education. Your lessons stop when I personally am satisfied with the state of your poker faces.”
“You’re…leaving us here?” Flora said faintly.
“Oh, don’t be silly,” Sweet chided her gently. “You’re still living at my house, and you’ll still report to the Guild for your lessons. Style will have a new schedule for you, worked around your duties here. In the mornings, though, you come to Lor’naris to work; Orthilon will drill you while you do so. It’s gonna be a busy couple of weeks, girls, but I have every confidence you’ll come through just fine. If you need anything, Price or Style can see to it. I’m afraid I’m about to catch a Rail caravan myself; I’ll be out of pocket for a few days at least. Maybe longer.”
“Where are you going?” Fauna demanded shrilly.
“Now, now, mustn’t pry into things that don’t concern you. Don’t worry, ducklings, I promise you’re in good hands.”
They looked at him, at each other, and at Orthilon—still wearing his polite little smile—and did not seem at all reassured.
The house in Hamlet had once been owned by a prosperous merchant, somebody who’d made it good in the cattle trade. Cattle were really the only trade worth bothering in out here; the village wasn’t close enough to the Golden Sea to have any commerce from passing adventurers. It was two stories tall, which was positively grandiose for this little town, though its simple white paint and utter lack of adornment was almost shockingly plain to those accustomed to the grandeur and grime of Tiraas. There was even a white picket fence. Basra had yet to run out of jokes about that.
The four bishops had taken time, after arriving, to freshen up and settle in. It wasn’t a large house, so Basra and Branwen ended up sharing a room. Darling, who had been feeling out his traveling companions during their exhausting journey, was not sure how well that was going to go; he didn’t see those two becoming friends, but hopefully they were both professional enough not to snipe at each other. Branwen’s habit of flirting with every man she met seemed to antagonize Basra, but fortunately, the Avenist expressed her antagonism through smug superiority, rather than outright hostility. He had ensconced himself in a tiny servant’s room which was plenty adequate for his purposes, leaving Andros the other main bedroom.
Thoughtful neighbors had left them a pie and several congenial notes. The rental of the house had been undertaken by the Church through a real estate broker in Tiraas; nobody was supposed to know anything about it, but such things worked differently in little towns. The locals were an almost comically straightforward lot, failing utterly to conceal the curiosity about the new strangers in their town behind a facade of friendliness.
The four of them did not in any way resemble a family. They were all in fancy civilian garb rather than Bishop’s robes or the trappings of their respective cults; just suits and dresses such as would befit wealthy citizens and did nothing to hint at their ecclesiastical profession. Andros was as awkward stuffed into his starched collar as a bear in a tutu, and Basra was decidedly unstylish, having flatly refused to wear a corset, but overall they were not a distinctive or memorable group—or wouldn’t have been, in Tiraas. Just well-to-do travelers, not worthy of particular notice, but here, that fact alone drew attention. That was the idea.
Clothing aside, Darling was tall, lean and blonde, Andros tall, burly and dark-haired, with a wild beard and wild eyes. Branwen was similarly pale, but short and curvy, with reddish hair and blue eyes; Basra had an olive Tiraan complexion and a lean build. Speculation was bound to run rampant as to their identities and business.
Darling had quickly taken over dealing with the nosy neighbors; he could charm anyone, and these folk were easy. Branwen helped, here and there; by the unspoken mutual understanding of people who liked people, they collaborated in keeping the others away from the public. Basra’s sense of humor would likely not go over well in this town, and Andros didn’t seem capable of making a good impression on anyone. It didn’t help that none of them really liked one another that much. Andros, in particular, was still sullen and smarting over Darling having been placed in charge of their expedition.
Fortunately, pleading fatigue from the journey proved effective in driving away the curiosity seekers, and had the advantage of being quite true. They had changed caravans once; their first Rail line from Tiraas to Calderaas had been positively idyllic. The cars were larger, the seats were deeply padded and came with sets of buckled straps to hold passengers in place, and enchantments on the cars themselves minimized the forces acting upon their occupants. For the last leg of their journey to Saddle Ridge, however, they had been forced to take one of the older Rail cars that still serviced the frontier, the ones that had been designed to move troops and small parties of adventurers, rather than civilians. It had been a tense few minutes, to say the least; the four of them being bounced around in the spartan can of steel and glass, practically blazing with divine light to both shield and heal.
After that, there had been a five-hour carriage ride, which left them all stiff and out of sorts. Branwen and Darling had failed to keep any kind of conversation going. The stiffness, at least, was easily remedied by drawing on the light of the gods. For the other problem, the best they could do was retreat to different corners of the house under the pretext of settling in and avoid each other.
Darling had eventually taken a stroll around the picturesque little frontier town to escape the tension. Branwen had occupied herself cooking dinner; she’d actually been singing when he left. He didn’t wait around to see how Basra and Andros passed their afternoon. All he really hoped was that they didn’t rip into each other in his absence.
Dinner was similarly terse, though they were in a somewhat better frame of mind by then, and even more so after a meal. A full belly did wonders for one’s disposition. At least the discomfort of the trip from Tiraas to Hamlet had taught them a thing or two about dealing with each other. Three of the religions represented in their group had deep doctrinal conflicts, and Darling’s cult had a complex relationship with Basra’s, to say the least. Still, they managed to be civil, which gave him hope. The fact that they collectively hadn’t exchanged more than a few sentences all day was less encouraging, but perhaps it was the best that could be expected.
Now, finally, night had fallen and they were ready to get down to the business at hand.
“The house is secure,” Andros growled, descending the steep wooden step to join the others in the basement. It wasn’t a hostile tone; his normal speaking voice was a growl. “I’ve placed wards and charms at all entrances. I will know if anyone approaches.”
“We’re hunting the Black Wreath,” Basra chided. “The whole problem with them is that they can slip through—”
“I will know,” Andros repeated sharply, “if anyone approaches. The Wreath’s stealth works like an animal’s camouflage. We may not notice them in the wild, but when they step into one of my traps, it will go off.”
“Are you sure…”
“Let’s assume he’s sure, and that he’s right,” Darling said from the opposite side of the room, where he was studying an open spellbook by the light of the oil lamp that was the room’s sole illumination. “Have a little faith in your partners, Bas! Either we’re all competent and trustworthy in our respective fields, or we’re all about to be excruciatingly dead.” He looked up, grinning toothily at her. “Me, I prefer to be an optimist.”
“Antonio,” she replied, “at some point in your youth, someone allowed you to gain the impression that you’re funny. That person owes a great debt to the world.”
“Oh, like I’ve never heard that one before.”
“I have a very bad feeling about this,” Branwen said, then went more sharply as Basra opened her mouth to comment. “Yes, I know I’ve said that already, and yes, I know my reasons for it are painfully obvious. I believe it bears repeating, nonetheless. There are so many ways this can go horribly wrong.”
“Go upstairs and tend to the kitchen if you’re frightened,” Andros said, staring at her. He might have been glaring, or that might just have been what his face looked like. “This is the work of men.”
“Okay, let’s please agree not to start up with that,” Darling said soothingly. “We’re already a setup for a punchline as it is: an Izarite, a Shaathist, an Avenist and an Eserite walk into a basement to cast a spell circle, eh? I think it’d be a very good idea to avoid topics that we know are just going to lead to arguments.” The Huntsman grunted. Darling chose to take that for acquiescence.
“How’s this?” Branwen asked, stepping back from the circle she had just finished laboriously drawing on the floor in a selection of three different colored powders. Darling picked up the book in one hand and the lamp in the other, crossing over to her to study her handiwork.
“Excellent! Matches the diagram exactly.”
“Is this really all it’s going to take?” Basra asked skeptically. “It seems like there should be something…more. Just lines on the ground aren’t going to do much.”
“This is powdered dragon bone, blessed by the Archpope himself in the Hall of the Pantheon,” Darling said absently, pacing around the circle and comparing it to the diagram despite his pronouncement that it was correct. It looked right, but he shared the women’s nervousness. They were meddling with serious forces, here; there was no such thing as too much caution. “Fae and divine energies in considerable strength. That makes up for a lot; most practitioners would need a more elaborate circle to compensate for the lack of raw power. The glyphs provide the arcane boost we need, and as for the rest… Well, we’re coming to that. Anyone else care to double-check us, or shall we proceed?”
“Just get on with it,” Andros growled.
“Jolly good. Basra, how’re we coming along?”
“Oh, please, I’ve been done for twenty minutes.”
“Smashing! Let’s have a look!”
She crossed over to him, giving the circle a wide berth, and laid out five pieces of parchment on the upturned wooden crate he was using for an impromptu desk. Darling, with the same excessive care he’d given to the circle, laboriously checked each line against the illustrations in the book. He couldn’t read what was written—that language wasn’t spoken natively by anyone on this plane—but he could check the marks against each other.
“It looks good to me,” he said at last. “Branwen, come have a look, please?”
“Oh, honestly, you don’t think I—”
“Basra,” he said firmly, “I have the utmost faith in your penmanship. But when it comes to this, I am going to be unreasonably, excessively cautious, and I won’t apologize for that.”
“Fair enough,” she said with a faint smirk, crossing her arms.
“I agree,” said Branwen, peering at the book and the marked parchments. “If we must do this, let’s do it as carefully as possible. The markings match the book as far as I can tell.”
“Good. Andros, wanna quadruple-check us?”
“…so, no, then? All right.” Darling carefully stacked the papers up in the proper order and handed them back to Basra. “Each needs to be laid in one of those triangular glyphs spaced around the edge of the circle, in order. If we were speaking the spell, it would be one continuous thing, but none of us can pronounce any of this gobbledygook, so timing is going to be a factor. The actual incantation is supposed to take just under a minute, so…give it a slow count of ten between them.”
“Got it,” she said crisply, moving over to the circle. “Everyone ready?”
“No,” said Branwen. “Do it.”
Pausing only to grin at her, Basra bent and carefully laid the first parchment in place.
It was fortunate that she moved her fingers so adroitly, as it immediately burst into flame. The parchment burned with a painfully unnatural green fire, putting off neither smoke nor heat. The lines of powder on the floor began to glow, luminosity spreading out from that glyph like dampness through cloth, petering out about halfway to the point of reaching either of the next glyphs along the edge.
Basra’s timing was good. She set down the second, and the effect repeated itself; the slowly creeping illumination reached the same flat light from the other direction and doubled in intensity, two glyphs now alight, lines of brightness stretching between them.
They didn’t quite hold their breath as she stepped smoothly around the circle, laying down each piece of the spell in turn, but the tension in the room was palpable, increasing with each added component of the spell and subsequent increase in light level. Basra set the final parchment in place and immediately backed away. By unspoken plan, they had placed themselves in the four corners of the chamber, encircling the now fully illuminated spell circle.
As it burst into a brighter illumination than before and the five rune-marked parchments erupted in puffs of bluish flame, they reached for the divine light in unison. The glow filled the room with a much brighter light than the oil lamp could manage, illuminating the rough brick walls and dirt floor as clearly as the sun would have. Light coruscated against an invisible cylinder of protection cast upward by the spell circle, golden sparks marking out a line where the power of the gods was held back from a small piece of territory that now belonged to something else.
It rose up slowly from below, as though the dirt floor were fluid and it was breaching the surface, gasping for breath. The thing writhed in obvious discomfort at its passage, sliding headfirst up into the chamber over the long course of a minute. It was lifted bodily off the ground momentarily after breaking through, then fell back, its feet landing on the packed earth.
Everything about it was…wrong. It was humanoid, but could never have passed for human. There were the horns, the spiny wings, the lashing, barb-tipped tail and oddly gray-blue complexion, but more than that, it was simply shaped wrong. Too lean, too long. Its skull was grotesquely elongated, its facial features likewise; its limbs were spindly, its torso scrawny and skeletal. For feet it had birdlike claws, balancing upright on only two large toes; its hands were far too large for even its peculiar frame, dangling from bony wrists like overfed spiders. It was, somehow, the subtler inhumanities in its appearance that were truly disturbing, more than the ostentatious ones. Most disturbing of all were its eyes—its plain, gray, apparently human eyes.
It flexed its wings once, wincing when they sparked against the borders of the containing circle, then folded them around itself rather like a cape, concealing its figure. All it wore beneath them were tightly-fitted scraps of leather that looked reptilian in origin and concealed little of its emaciated flesh. Tilting its head in apparent curiosity, it turned in a slow circle, studying the four priests who had summoned it.
“Well,” the demon said at last. “This is different.”