True to Raichlin’s word, the Shadow Hunters had no trouble keeping up with Arjen, at least for most of the trip. He wasn’t built for speed as horses went, but still considerably outstripped the average human running pace, and sustained a full gallop far longer than even an average horse could have—especially considering how many passengers he carried. Still, the paths through the foothills outlying the city were roundabout, and their journey included only two pauses, to allow Gabriel and Toby to dismount and approach an active graveyard, and by the time they reached their apparent destination, whatever magic the Hunters used to augment their physical abilities was clearly stretched thin. Frind got her to the gates of another cemetery, but there had to stagger to a halt and doubled over, gasping.
She dismounted as soon as Arjen stopped, stepping over to her guide. The others had accompanied the other paladins, leaving them the only two left; after her danger sense had gone particularly berserk at each of the other sites, and to a lesser degree throughout the journey, Trissiny was more than ready to get to work with her sword. She paused, however, to place a hand on Frind’s shoulder and lay a simple blessing upon him.
“I’m sorry, that’s the best I can do,” she said as the hunter’s breathing evened and he straightened up. “It should help, but I’m not trained as a proper healer.”
“It does help,” he said with a grateful smile. “Considerably. I’m about magicked out for the time being, but you still have my bow.”
“Good,” she said, releasing him and drawing her sword. “Hang back, then. Don’t hesitate to jump in if you see an opportunity, or a need, but let me take point here.”
It was an open question whether the locals walled off their graveyards out of cultural custom or because events like this had some precedent, but every site they had visited thus far had been built along the same plan. Trees and the roofs of some of the grander mausoleums were visible over the walls, but from without the cemetery looked a lot like the grounds of Dufresne Manor: concealed behind a high granite wall, with a wrought iron gate.
The gate was wide open, though, and Trissiny stepped through it with her shield upraised, Frind right behind her.
This place had been utterly devastated.
It was laid out on a rambling plan, a little more than an acre square, with a single winding path traversing the grounds and the odd pine tree and standing tomb rising from the otherwise flat plain of grass and headstones. The cemetery would doubtless have been a peaceful sight, normally, but now every visible grave had been disturbed, the earth around them puckered up like pimples where bodies had clawed their way free. Mausoleum doors had been smashed open from the inside; some had proved too sturdy for simple zombies to escape, and were emitting very disturbing noises. The undead were everywhere, but by this point, only a relative few were still moving. The rest were scattered about, mostly in pieces, and many badly charred. Long swaths of the grass had been scorched black, one of the trees was knocked over and another still smoldered.
The swooping, serpentine forms of katzil demons spiraled through the air above the cemetery, at least half a dozen of them. Mouths and eyes glowing with green fire, they dived and blasted undead before retreating out of range. To judge by the destruction they had wrought, it seemed to be an effective tactic. The last few zombies were apparently being mopped up even as Trissiny and Frind arrived.
Two other figures were present, both in robes. A bearded man with a filthy, unkempt beard, dressed in filthy, unkempt robes that had once been crimson, lay sprawled nearby upon the front steps of a mausoleum that had been partially crushed by a fallen pine, unconscious or dead. In a small cul-de-sac near the center of the graveyard, at the midpoint of the path, stood another figure in robes of ash gray, its back to the entrance.
“Stop!” Trissiny shouted, charging forward. “Keep your hands where I can see them! One infernal spell and it’ll be your last!”
“So,” said the warlock, in a feminine voice with a distinct Punaji accent. “Here I’ve been busting my ass, risking the well-being of my pets, to clean up this mess and protect the citizens from undead. Now that the hard work is done, along comes the Hand of Avei, shouting threats and demands. The history of the world in a nutshell.”
“Your demon-summoning is destabilizing the entire area!” Trissiny shot back. “There’s an active chaos rift somewhere in Veilgrad, you fool—what you’re doing is causing random teleportation throughout the city.”
“Yes, I know,” the warlock said, turning to face them. Her cowl kept her face in shadow. “Sloppy, unfocused…not at all how I prefer to operate. But orders are orders. And hey, it got you here.”
A golden light sprang up around Trissiny and she fell into a partial crouch, keeping her shield up and facing the warlock. “You did all this just to get my attention?” Behind her, Frind knelt, placing a sturdy granite tombstone between himself and the robed woman, and nocked an arrow.
“Your attention, or one of the other paladins,” the woman said mildly, turning to beckon one of the swooping katzils. It dived to her, nuzzling at her fingertips for a moment, then twined affectionately about her body. “Or Vadrieny’s, maybe. There were plans in place for any response you made. And, of course, to deal with that.” She gestured at the felled cultist. “Aside from the trouble he was causing here, he had something we want.”
White light flashed, something slammed into Trissiny from behind, and her divine shield winked out. She staggered forward, nearly losing her balance. Frind straightened up, taking aim at the warlock with his bow, but she was faster; a burst of sickly purple energy caught him right in the upper chest, sending him bowling over backward.
“We’re calling them divine disruptors,” another voice said cheerfully from the gates behind them. “Oh, the Imperial enchanters doing the actual developing had their own name. Just a string of numbers, really—can you imagine that? No passion, no soul. Really, toys like this are better off in our hands. At the very least, out of the hands of idiot chaos worshipers.”
Trissiny pivoted and retreated to one side, keeping both figures in view. The new arrival was a dark-skinned man in a dapper white suit with a wide-brimmed hat; he ambled forward, a peculiar object held lightly in one hand. It appeared to be based upon a standard Imperial battlestaff: a simple length of glossy wood with a clicker mechanism about halfway along its length. Large crystals were mounted at each end, though, one spherical, one a trapezoid, and there was a spiraling triple helix of gold twisting along half its length between the clicker and the sharp-tipped gem.
He came to a stop a few yards distant and tipped his hat with the hand not holding the weapon. “Well, well. Trissiny Avelea. You know, you’re my first paladin! Back in the old days, your predecessors and mine faced off in some truly dramatic contests, or so the lore tells us. But where are my manners? Embras Mogul, high priest of Elilial, most humbly at your service.”
“Charmed,” she snapped. “Surrender peacefully and I’ll see you’re well treated.”
“Ah, yes, or you’ll call down the wrath of Avei on me, is that it?” Mogul grinned. “By all means, do. Let’s see some of that divine light.”
Trissiny braced her feet and retreated another step, her eyes darting to keep both warlocks and the swirling katzils in view. They seemed to have polished off the last undead and now twirled in the air above the woman in gray.
“You mask your confusion quite well; my compliments,” said Mogul. “But allow me to clear up the mystery. The reason you are finding yourself unable to use magic right now is you’ve only got the one kind, and you were just zapped with one of the Army’s experimental anti-divine weapons.” He brandished the modified staff at her, grinning. “Which we just retrieved from this clown over here. I’m sorry to say they’ll never manage to mass-produce these; quite apart from the expense of the materials—this is actual gold, and the crystals are natural and worth a fortune themselves—the spells have to be individually laid by a witch of considerable skill. Also, the thing is damnably heavy. You have any idea what this much gold weighs? But look who I’m talking to, you’re running around in armor all the time.”
“Frind?” Trissiny asked tersely, glancing over at the felled Shadow Hunter.
Mogul lifted his head enough to make his frown visible beneath the brim of his hat. “How hard did you hit him, Rupa?”
“He should be fine,” said the other warlock. “Just stunned. A little singed, perhaps. Nothing a quick healing won’t fix.”
“Ah, good. One hates to leave unnecessary corpses in one’s wake,” Mogul said lightly. “All righty, then! I’m sure you are aware, young lady, that your weapons and skills are not going to help you against multiple katzil demons without divine power to call on, so I believe this is over unless you’re absolutely committed to the idea of getting yourself hurt. Be so good as to surrender.”
“I will see you damned first,” Trissiny grated.
He sighed. “Well, there are just so many responses to that. I’ve a lot of things I’d like to discuss with you, in fact, but unfortunately this town is still coming apart at the seams, and I simply do not have time. Tell you what, we’ll catch up in more detail after Veilgrad is secured. For now, however—”
Trissiny saw Rupa turn and raise her hand, and got her shield into position, but the shadow bolt knocked her physically backward even with its aid. She braced herself and absorbed the second one more easily, but was abruptly yanked off her feet by chains that twined around her boots. More lashed out from behind her, entangling her arms and suddenly yanking her backward. With a yell of protest, Trissiny was hurled backward thirty feet, losing her grip on her sword and shield, and slammed against the trunk of the one undamaged pine.
The few moments she hung there, too stunned to struggle, were all the chains needed to wrap themselves around her and the trunk a few more times, securing her firmly in place.
“Well, that’s that,” said Mogul. “Rupa, kindly put those away? Thank you.”
He paced slowly forward as the woman beckoned the katzils toward her one by one, making each disappear as soon as it reached her. The warlock in white came to a stop a few feet from the bound paladin and tipped his hat.
“Now then! We’ve not personally tested these things out, of course, but based on the Army’s research notes, the effect is quite temporary. As strong a connection as you have to the divine, your powers should return within the hour. Give or take. It’s vague, obviously.”
“Goddess,” Trissiny whispered, writhing against her bonds.
“Oh, she can’t hear you,” Mogul said grimly. “At least, not yet. We’ll be taking our leave, now. Your friend over there ought to be coming ’round before too much longer; whether he wakes or you regain your magic first, one or the other should be able to get you out of those chains. You’re in no long-term danger, then, but this will suffice to keep you busy while we go assist your friends in town.”
“Wait!” Trissiny shouted as he turned. “Wait… You can’t just leave us here! What if the undead return? Or whatever else is roaming these hills?”
“There’s an old saw about omelets and eggs I keep having to repeat to people,” Mogul said, looking over his shoulder at her with a smile. “Want to hear it?”
“Just…leave me something, all right? I’m obviously no threat to you, anyway.” She jerked her head toward where her weapons had fallen. “My sword. Just put it in reach for me. If you’re as serious as you people claim about wanting to help, you’ll give me that much.”
“Mm,” he mused, glancing at the fallen weapon. “Well, why not? I don’t see the harm in that, and you do make a good case.”
Mogul stepped over to the sword, transferring his divine disruptor to his left hand, then knelt and wrapped his fingers around the hilt.
It could only barely be called daylight, and nothing resembling a true dawn had occurred, but in the time it took Squad One to cross the city, the dull gray of early morning lightened to a paler gray. The streets were still shrouded in fog, and the fairy lamps had been left alight to compensate. As the morning drew on, more lights blossomed from windows. People were about on the sidewalks, but fewer of them than usual by far, and vehicular traffic remained very low.
It was merely odd for most of the trip; by the time they reached the south gate, it had become downright disturbing.
The eastern and western gates of Tiraas opened onto bridges that arched across the canyon to towns on the opposite shores. The north gate opened onto the city’s main harbor. The south gate, though, was the smallest and the least used. It was the city’s seaward access, but considering that the city was perched on the Tira Falls hundreds of feet above the sea, little use came of that. There was a landing outside the south gate, accessed by broad flights of stairs that switchbacked up the cliffs, soaked by the spray of the falls the entire way, to a small fortified port built on an artificial peninsula that placed its docks beyond the rapids. The entire structure was strictly used for Imperial business, and not often at that. The city’s actual maritime traffic was done through Anteraas, which lay close enough to be seen from the walls of Tiraas on a clear day.
The gates were usually quiet, then, but not this quiet. And they were definitely not supposed to be without visible guards.
Unlike their northern, eastern, and western counterparts, it was quite normal for the huge southern gates to be shut; it was actually rare for them to be opened. General traffic wasn’t permitted on the platform outside. There were, however, smaller doors set to either side of it, opening onto passages through the fortified gatehouse, which were usually guarded.
No soldiers were in evidence at either this morning.
Principia came to a halt in front of one of these. They were double doors, sturdy enough to withstand a battering ram, but with a cast bronze facing that formed an Imperial gryphon. She grasped the latch and pushed. The well-oiled hinges made not a sound as the door swung inward. It wasn’t even locked.
“Sarge,” Ephanie said tensely, “let me just point out that we are alone out here. Our backup will be wondering where we are, but we left them no way to know. The only person who knows we’re here is Vesk.”
“That might be his idea of helping us,” said Farah. “If you actually spend any time talking with Veskers, they’ve got ideas about the role of tropes and archetypes in real life. In the stories, the heroes always seem to face their ultimate test alone…”
“We’re not heroes,” Ephanie said shortly. “We’re soldiers.”
“And this is not our ultimate test, ladies,” Principia added. “Stay calm, remember your training, and be ready. Vesk sent us out here for a reason, and there’s nothing to suggest that his reasons don’t align with Avei’s. The two rarely have much to do with each other, but I’ve never heard of them being in conflict. Have you?”
Farah, to whom she had spoken directly, shook her head.
“Remember, these are civilians we’re dealing with,” Principia went on. “When confronted with a show of force, they’ll most likely scatter. No idea how many there’ll be, but we are not interested in mowing down the lot of them. Based on what Vesk said, this may be a shot at the movement’s leadership. First priority is our safety; if we can identify and capture the leader without jeopardizing that, do so. Other prisoners are secondary objectives—desirable, but we can pass up the chance if it means avoiding unnecessary danger. All right, this is it: keep quiet and stay focused.”
Principia paused before stepping into the tunnel, knelt and twisted a protruding rivet on her boots, looking pointedly at the others as they did so. All four repeated the procedure with their own, then followed her in. Their footsteps, thanks to the enchantments she had laid on the boots, were completely silent.
It was a broad tunnel, highly arched, and intended for vehicle traffic. Fairy lamps lit it brightly; the walk was lined with niches containing statues of gods, Emperors, and rearing gryphons. These corridors were a primary way by which visiting dignitaries entered the city, and were meant to be impressive. The length of it was a testament to the thickness of the walls, and the size of the fortified gatehouse which surrounded the main gates themselves. Other doors branched off to their right, doubtless into the fortress complex.
There were no soldiers on the inside, either.
“How did they do this?” Merry muttered.
“Quiet,” Principia said curtly.
The doors at the other end of the tunnel were left slightly ajar; voices could be heard from outside. The squad halted at a signal from Principia a few feet back from the doors. She crept forward alone, carefully peering out and keeping as much of her body as possible out of view of the crack.
The platform was thronged with people, easily more than two dozen. They were clearly a well-to-do crowd, to judge by the quality of their attire; suits and corseted gowns were the norm. Everyone was clustered together, facing the far edge of the platform, where a lone figure stood on the stone rail separating safe footing from a terrifying drop to the rapids below, framed by a sea of stovepipe hats and more fanciful ladies’ bonnets.
She was a woman, though dressed in trousers and boots; she wore a corseted bodice over a wide-sleeved blouse, all in dramatic black and red. A mask shaped like a dragon’s skull shielded her face, leaving only her eyes visible, and she wore a peculiar half-cape draped over one shoulder and crafted to look like a dragon’s wing.
No, upon closer examination, it actually was a severed wing. It concealed her right arm, leaving the left side of her body visible. On that side, a long saber of elven design hung from her belt.
“It’s not yet time to reveal everything,” the woman was in the process of declaring. “Our supporters would be in severe danger if their names became known at this juncture. But what more evidence do you need?” She spread her arms wide, her grisly half-cloak fluttering in the breeze. “This is the greatest city in the world, and I have cleared one of its main gates of all guards in order to host this meeting. We have allies at the highest level, my friends—you are not alone in your courage or conviction. What more convincing do you need?”
“The head of a dragon on a plate,” a voice called out, followed by laughter, but its tone was not jeering. In fact, the masked and cloaked figure planted her fists on her hips and laughed right along. She had this crowd well under control.
“One thing at a time, brother,” she chided, her voice carrying easily above the roar of the falls. “Obviously we cannot descend on this Conclave in force. But history tells us that dragons can die. They can, and like all things, they will!”
The leader pumped her fist in the air at this, and was met by a roar of approval from her followers. More fists were brandished skyward.
“And that’s all we need,” said Principia. “Avelea?”
Ephanie stepped up next to her. The sergeant nodded, and each of them kicked the door in front of which they stood.
The double doors burst open and Squad One swarmed out, falling into shield wall formation just beyond the opening.
The crowd whirled with shouts and shrieks of surprise, revealing for the first time that all of them wore skull-styled masks like their leader. Quite a few of them produced wands from sleeves and coat pockets.
“All right, that is enough of that nonsense,” Principia barked. “Disperse, citizens. You in the outfit, you’re under arrest. Place your hands on your head and step down here.”
“Sergeant Locke,” said the woman, folding her arms. “Well. This is…disappointing. You are supposed to be safely across the city chasing a red herring.”
“I’m not going to repeat the order, lady. Down here, now, or we will exercise force!”
A murmur rippled through the crowd, but that was all. No one moved to disperse, and the leader made no hint she intended to comply with Principia’s orders.
“Sarge?” Merry murmured. “I sense a lack of scattering.”
“How did you know where to find us, Locke?” the woman asked.
“Don’t you worry about that,” Principia shot back. “Last chance. I have two more squads in reserve, and allies from the Thieves’ Guild moving into position. You do not want to force a confrontation here.”
A few cries of alarm went up at that, but they were quickly stifled by the woman in the cloak.
“You’re bluffing,” she said, loudly and flatly. “I know Silver Legion tactics and formations, too, and you would not have charged out here, leaving the other exit unsecured, if you had any more personnel to back you up. The Thieves’ Guild are still at the warehouse, aren’t they? Last chance yourself, Locke; who did send you here?”
“Vesk did,” Principia retorted. “You are in way over your head.”
“Still bluffing,” the woman said, shaking her masked head, “and desperately, now. I regret this, Sergeant, deeply. I’m sure you ladies have served well, but you’ve butted into something I can’t allow you to carry tales about, and this after I made careful preparations to keep you out of exactly this kind of danger. Brethren, those of you who have wands, use them.”
“But Dragonsbane,” a man protested, “they’re Silver Legionnaires!”
“And as such,” the leader said sharply, “not equipped to contend with modern energy weapons. I would rather capture one and find out who told them of this meeting, but that isn’t going to be possible. If anyone knew they were here, they wouldn’t have come alone. And their armor means once they go over the falls, they’ll never be found.”
“I signed up with this to battle dragons,” another man said belligerently, “not the Legions!”
“We’re not here to harm our fellow humans,” a woman added, followed by a murmur of agreement.
“And what will happen if they are allowed to reveal your involvement to the authorities?” Dragonsbane asked. “The Conclave has spies everywhere; you know this. The Empire will only arrest you; the wyrms will send agents after your loved ones—”
“That’s bullshit and you have to know it!” Casey barked. “And where did you get that wing from? Look at the size of it—that could not have come from a mature dragon. You’re walking around dressed in a child’s body parts!”
“Actually, that’s a wing from a dire cave bat,” Principia said. “They’ve got one in the telescroll office in Last Rock. Listen, people: none of you are guilty of anything except her. Disperse now, and you will not be pursued, arrested, or otherwise interfered with.”
“I’m afraid it’s too late for that,” said Dragonsbane. “I wish you hadn’t done this, Sergeant, but now it’s us or you.” She raised her left arm dramatically from beneath her cloak. In her hand was a wand.
“Lock shields!” Principia barked.
In the next instant, the masked woman fired.
“I like this sword,” Mogul said, straightening up and hefting it. “It’s, what’s the word…unpretentious.” He tossed the blade upward; its pitted surface flashed dully in the sunlight as it twirled once before landing neatly in his hand again. “One of the most powerful magical artifacts in the world, and at a glance you’d never know it for more than a random piece of junk. There’s humility in that, know what I mean? I respect it. That kind of humility is one of the few redeeming virtues of Pantheon worshipers—it’s the trait whose absence marks what seems to be so very wrong with most of you.”
Gravel crunched beneath his shoes as he strode back over to Trissiny. Stopping two yards away from her, he knelt and drove her sword point-down into the ground just out of what would be her reach if her arms were free, then straightened, and smiled. She could only gape at him in shock.
“You are not clever, Trissiny,” Mogul said flatly. “That doesn’t need to be a fatal flaw. Hands of Avei have done some truly amazing things, and all without acquiring a general reputation for cunning. Stick to your strengths and you’ll be fine. Those strengths, just for your edification, do not include tricking people. Your friend Mr. Arquin, now, that one’s going to be trouble. Quite the versatile chap—I think he might be more dangerous without divine magic. Of course, upon learning the straits in which you and Mr. Caine would be left, he agreed to behave himself. Most admirable.”
He turned, walked a few steps away, and paused. “Oh, and incidentally, a couple of my compatriots are going to remain to keep an eye on you. Invisibly, of course; can’t have you giving them a hard time when you get yourself free.”
“Haven’t you done enough?” she asked bitterly.
Mogul let out a soft laugh. “Goodness sakes, young lady, they’re not here to interfere with you at all—quite the opposite. It all goes back to your own argument about the vulnerable position in which I’ve placed you. Upon consideration, I find that my level of personal bastardry doesn’t extend to leaving a teenage girl tied up and helpless in woods infested with zombies and werewolves. They’ll keep any creepy-crawlies from descending on you or your friend till you can stand on your own two legs again. And with that, I must bid you good day.”
He tipped his hat to her again, then vanished in a rush of shadows. Beyond him, Rupa the summoner had already done the same.
Trissiny was left chained to the tree in the ravaged graveyard, staring at her sword.