Tag Archives: Tholi

8 – 21

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Everything slowed down at night, but Tiraas never truly slept, nor slackened its pace to any great degree. Different kinds of business were done after dark in the Imperial city, but not much less business. Obviously, the more rural areas surrounding the city were a great deal sleepier once the sun was down, removed as they were from the capital’s omnipresent modern lights, but even there, human activity continued at all hours.

Consequently, while there wasn’t a great deal of traffic through the city gates at the late hour at which the mixed party of Huntsmen and Legionnaires finally reached them, the gates themselves were opened and manned. That, in fact, caused them a very minor delay.

The soldier standing on the right side of the road at the huge outer gate stepped forward, lowering his staff casually to extend in front of him—not blocking their way, but tacitly signaling for a stop. “Everything all right, ladies?” he inquired politely, pointedly ignoring the ring of Huntsmen and directing himself to Ephanie, who was the nearest Legionnaire to him.

“Everything is fine, soldier,” Andros rumbled, pausing and folding his arms. The uniformed man glanced at him momentarily, then returned his gaze to Ephanie. It was indeed a peculiar mix of people to the eyes of anyone who knew anything about either cult, but there was also the unmistakable fact that the Huntsmen had arranged themselves in an escort formation around the Legionnaires. In the absence of other cues, that could be taken as a sign of honor, or one of hostility. Altogether they made a strange enough sight to invite comment.

“Couldn’t be better!” Principia chirped. “These gentlemen were just guiding us back from a field exercise. You can’t ask for a better escort in the woods than a Huntsman, after all.”

The soldier eased back, slight but noticeable tension fading from him. “All right, then, Blessings, ladies, gentlemen.”

They passed through the gates into the wide square beyond, several nodding to the guards as they went.

“Arrogant pup,” Tholi grumbled. “You should’ve just told him who you were, Brother Andros.”

“Throwing force around is seldom the smart solution to a problem, Tholi,” the Bishop replied. “That is true socially as well as physically.”

The little towns at the foot of each bridge to the city were clustered around a fortification protecting the road itself. Inside the walls was a broad square, lined with shops and offices (now closed), and beyond that, the foot of the bridge itself.

Their mixed party had to reorganize itself somewhat upon reaching the bridge; most of its width was marked off for vehicles, and though there was comparatively little traffic at this hour, spilling out of the pedestrian lanes would have been grounds for a citation even if nobody was run over. In any case, there were stone barriers between the two, and the foot lanes were raised a good three feet higher, looking over the edges of the bridge itself. The view this afforded of the huge canyon with its churning river far below was both stunning and terrifying. They were protected from the drop by low stone walls surmounted by much taller iron fencing; people did still fall off, occasionally, but not by accident, and indeed it took some doing. The soldiers who regularly patrolled the bridges were on the lookout for would-be jumpers more than any criminals or threat to the city itself. Somehow, after reshuffling themselves into a space where no more than five could walk abreast, Principia wound up in the front rank with Andros and Ingvar, with Tholi and the rest of Squad Thirteen right behind, the remainder of the Huntsmen bringing up the rear.

Tiraas, approached this way, was a sight worthy to compete with the view over the chasm. Its walls were lit deliberately, powerful directed lights illuminating every inch of their exterior, their towers blazing from every window. Beyond that, structures rose into the distance, many also alight, with the crackling of factory antennae and pulsing of scrolltower orbs topping off the ambient glow of the city itself. As the group proceeded, a Rail caravan flashed past them down the fenced-off center lane of the bridge with a roar and a wash of blue radiance. It vanished into a tunnel leading below the main level of the bridge above, where the Rail line would come out in the terminal a few streets removed from the main gate.

The bridges themselves arched over a hundred yards of empty space, supported by nothing. Modern architecture and enchantment could reproduce such a feat, but when they had first been built, the bridges of Tiraas had been a wonder of the world. Their modification to accommodate present-day traffic had been a major project.

“What exactly is the plan, your Grace, if I might ask?” Principia inquired as they set out on the long bridge.

“I intend to speak with High Commander Rouvad about this day’s events immediately upon reaching the Temple of Avei,” Andros rumbled.

“Think she’ll see you?” Ingvar asked mildly.

“In the old days, clerics of Shaath and Avei might have refused to speak to one another. Not so long ago, they might conceivably have insisted any such contact go through the Church. It is too political an age now, however. The High Commander will not snub a Bishop. This one will not, at least; she is more intelligent than some of her predecessors. Insisting upon an audience with her will not gain the Huntsmen any sympathy with the Sisterhood, but I cannot imagine she would refuse outright.”

“Hard to imagine the Huntsmen gaining any sympathy with the Sisterhood anyway,” Tholi muttered. “Or caring.”

“You think Rouvad will call down Syrinx based on your say-so alone?” Ingvar asked. “With respect to our guests, here, we have only their assertion that Syrinx is even responsible for this.”

“First of all,” Andros said, turning his head to glance over his shoulder at the group and raising his voice, “that is not to be repeated in front of the Avenists or anyone else. Brother Ingvar is correct; it is an unproven claim, the repetition of which could be taken as slander. Do not add any arrows to Syrinx’s quiver. With that said, the point is not to have her punished for this on the spot, but to register our complaint immediately and personally, as far over her head as can be reached.”

“Seems the Archpope is even higher,” said Tholi, “not to mention more accessible to you.”

“I will be speaking to him as well,” Andros rumbled. “Consider, Tholi, the fact that I am taking these girls at their word, despite not knowing them, nor having any reason to trust them. When I am told that a snake has been hissing and slithering, I feel no need to be skeptical. Apart from the fact that Basra Syrinx is vicious, underhanded termagant who is more than capable of such as this, there are the facts of the situation. The forests around Tiraas are used by multiple cults for a variety of purposes, and one of the tasks of the Universal Church is to prevent embarrassing and possibly dangerous encounters such as occurred today. Such outings are arranged through the Church, as was your rite, Tholi.”

“I should’ve thought of that,” Principia said, grimacing. “Of course a Bishop would know where we could be sent to stumble across Huntsmen.”

“Apart from that,” Andros added, scowling darkly, “a Bishop would know what the Huntsmen were doing in that region. Even assuming these ‘reports’ of wife-stealing actually occurred, a quick check with the Church, via your cult’s Bishop, would have been the Sisterhood’s first action. It would have ruled out the specific area you were sent to search.”

“Finally,” Merry growled. “Got her dead to rights.”

“I doubt it’ll be that simple, somehow,” Principia murmured.

“It will not,” Andros agreed. “The Syrinx woman is clever enough to have prepared counters to the obvious means by which she would be caught, which is why I am proceeding directly to Rouvad. Those means relate to the Church bureaucracy; I will be very surprised if Syrinx has managed to arrange for interference to be run with her own High Commander. Also, my presence and Ingvar’s will have been a surprise to her. No one outside our lodge was informed of our hunt.”

“How did you happen across us, Brother Andros?” Tholi asked.

“It did not just happen,” Andros rumbled, glancing aside at Principia. “It seems you have an ally against Syrinx, girl. A little black bird led us to your rescue.”

“You have got to be shitting me,” Principia growled.

“What?” Farah asked. “Black bird? What’s he talking about?”

“It is the nature of family to look out for one another,” Andros intoned, looking down his nose at Prin. “Do not spit upon necessary help, whatever tension there is between you.”

“And why does he only talk to Locke?” Farah muttered.

“According to Shaathist dogma,” Ephanie said quietly, “the fae races are of different stock and the laws of the Wild not as applicable to them. We are borderline unholy, being women soldiers, but Locke can do whatever she likes.”

“Story of her life,” Merry said fatalistically.

More soldiers were on duty at the inner gate, of course, but while they gave the peculiar party odd looks (as did everyone they passed), they did not move to impede them. The group crossed into the city proper at a brisk walk; the broad street rose ahead, climbing gently toward the city center, where stood their destination, the Temple of Avei. It was a reminder to all of how tired they were. Legionnaires and Huntsmen alike were in excellent shape, but all of them had been out all day. Of course, none were willing to display the slightest weakness in front of the other group. There were no sighs or complaints, but it was hardly a jovial party.

They also didn’t get far before being ambushed.

Barely were they out of sight of the gate guards when half a dozen armed people in nondescript dark clothing materialized around the group. Their appearance was swift and professional—they stepped smoothly out of alleys before and behind the party, two hopping out of a carriage parked alongside the curb and one even jumping down from a second-story window.

Immediately, Huntsmen and Legionnaires alike dropped into ready stances, hefting weapons. The street around them was hardly deserted, even at this hour; at the obvious signs of an armed clash about to break out, people yelped and bolted, while some less intelligent others stopped to watch avidly.

“Whoah, whoah, keep ’em in your pants,” said a hatchet-faced blonde woman, holding up her hands in a peaceable gesture, but grinning fiendishly. She was the one who’d bounded down from above, and now swaggered forward to plant herself right in front of Andros and Principia. “We’re all friends here, aye? Let’s have a quick chat. You can call me Grip.”

“Speak your piece, woman,” Andros growled.

“You’re Grip?” Principia asked, raising her eyebrows. “Damn. By your rep, I’d picture someone twice the size, with a lot more scars.”

“And by yours I’d picture someone less armored and more smug, Keys,” Grip replied, lowering her hands and adopting a cocky posture. “Anyhow, we’re not here to interfere with you.”

“Then you’ve chosen a strange way to introduce yourselves,” Andros snorted.

“Well, you know how it is. We each have our little dramas to keep up.” Grip produced a shiny new doubloon from inside her sleeve and began rolling it across the backs of her fingers. “In fact, you might say we’ve come to join your hunt.”

“No way,” Principia breathed. “That fast? It’s barely been a day.”

“That fast,” Grip replied, raising an eyebrow. “Apparently Tricks places a high value upon rescuing your perky little butt. Hell if I know why; last I heard, the orders were to haul you back to explain the shit you’ve been up to, posthaste. But what do I know? I’m just a grunt; I go where I’m kicked.”

“We can relate,” Merry remarked.

“You speak in riddles and nonsense,” Andros barked. “Explain yourself!”

Grip eyed him up and down, then pointedly turned to Principia. “Are we explaining ourselves to this guy?”

“This is Bishop Varanus of the Universal Church,” Prin replied. “He is helping us out; kindly be nice.”

“Ah. Good to meet you, your Grace,” the enforcer said, turning back to Andros with just the faintest whiff of respect now in her expression. “I’ll give you the short version, then: when Bishop Darling learned what Bishop Syinx has been doing to this little squad, here, he passed the word along to the Boss, who then demanded to know which followers of Eserion had been helping her do it. One guy came forward immediately; Link is an information man, a professional fixer-upper and greaser of wheels. He identified the back-alley mage Syrinx had employed to scry on this group. We only just got our hands on him, as he’d been out of the city until this afternoon, but that worked out as what he was out doing was setting up the trap you fell into today.”

“A mage decided to accommodate a bunch of ruffians?” Tholi asked scornfully.

“A mage, like anyone sensible, does not want to be the object of the Thieves’ Guild’s ire,” said Ingvar. “Nor should you. Hush.”

“So,” Grip continued with an unpleasant grin, “we’ve got that guy, and subsequently we have a certain Ami Talaari, a Vesker apprentice who was under the impression she’d been hired to participate in a Silver Legion training exercise. She was quite alarmed to learn she had instead been used to goad your squad into a trap.”

A burly man standing silently behind Grip’s shoulder held out a thick leather folder, which she accepted, and produced a sheet of parchment from within, extending it forward. Andros moved to take it; Grip pointedly jerked it out of his reach, handing it to Principia. Prin, with a sigh, accepted and glanced over the letter before handing it off to the Bishop.

“That looks authentic enough as far as I can see,” she said. “Forgery’s not really my thing, but I bet it is. I don’t recognize this officer’s signature, though. I wouldn’t necessarily know whoever would hire a bard, but…”

“Syrinx is not daft enough to place her own seal upon any such document,” Andros growled, handing the letter back to Grip.

“And by the way,” Principia added sharply, “I trust you’re not being too rough with Miss Talaari.”

“Ms,” Casey murmured. Everyone ignored her.

“Oh, she’s being treated like a princess, I assure you,” Grip said dryly. “Annoying one bard is good fun; annoying all the bards leads to unending nightmares. We’re not about to get rough with a Vesker apprentice. No, once we explained to Miss Talaari why it’s in her best interests to cooperate, she’s been an absolute dream to work with. We’ve got signed testimonials from her and the mage, receipts for work done, and,” she added with relish, hefting the folder, “a strongly-worded letter from Boss Tricks to High Commander Rouvad concerning this mess. Our boy in robes already had your scent, Keys…or whatever the magical equivalent is…so we’ve been watching for you to re-enter the city. Scrying doesn’t provide sound on the level he does it, so we weren’t sure what was going on, with all this.” She raised an eyebrow, looking pointedly around at the Huntsmen.

“Had my Huntsmen been the ones to catch that girl desecrating a wilderbag, she might not have fared so well,” Tholi said, scowling.

“Indeed,” Andros nodded. “Syrinx’s actions placed an apprentice of Vesk in immediate danger. That makes three cults she has abused her position within the Church to mortally offend in the space of one day.”

“Holy hell,” Merry breathed. “If we can actually stick this to her, her ass is grass.”

“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” Casey advised.

“She’s a slimy one,” Principia mused, “but she lacks foresight. Bishop Varanus and the Guild are two factors I doubt she expected to intervene, here. His Grace is right; if we take all of this to Rouvad now, Syrinx won’t have much time to weasel out of it.”

“Then time is of the essence,” Andros declared. “Onward we go.”

The Guild enforcers fell into step alongside them as they set off again for the Temple, making the party even odder yet. The Guild had no uniform as such, but six heavily-armed, expensively-dressed thugs prowling along with the leonine grace of professional knuckledusters made a distinctive sight that most in the city would recognize. Their inclusion in a mixed group of Huntsmen and Silver Legionnaires made possibly the oddest religious procession that had ever passed through the streets of Tiraas.

Odd, but apparently not overtly suspicious; at least, they weren’t directly challenged by any of the city patrol soldiers they passed, even the two who arrived at the tail end of their conversation, no doubt in response to reports from some of the civilians who had fled the enforcers’ initial arrival.

It was a mostly silent walk the rest of the way to the temple. They were less than a block from the rear annex of the Silver Legion complex attached to the temple itself when Grip spoke again.

“By the way,” she said lightly, once again playing with a doubloon, “we had Syrinx’s pet mage carry on reporting as usual—with a few provisos. Expect to be greeted when we get there.”

“What does she know?” Andros growled.

Grip grinned unpleasantly. “That Squad Thirteen will be returning in the company of Huntsmen. The presence of Enforcers and Bishops will be news to her.”

“Oh, I am almost looking forward to this,” Merry said. Ephanie just shook her head.

The towering battlements of the fortress hove into view above them. For the third time that evening, they approached an armed checkpoint, this one staffed by Silver Legionnaires. The armored women guarding the rearmost gate into the compound’s parade grounds straightened up at their approach, their expressions mostly hidden behind their helmets. That was probably fortunate.

Principia stepped into the lead as the group reached the gates, saluting. “Squad Thirteen of the Ninth Cohort returning from maneuvers, with guests.”

“Guests,” said the guard, her helmet moving slowly as she studied the assembled group. “Right. And what business do they have here?”

“This is Bishop Varanus of the Universal Church,” Principia reported impassively, “and an emissary from Boss Tricks of the Thieves’ Guild, with their respective entourages. Both have urgent messages for High Commander Rouvad.”

“Well,” the gate guard said slowly, “you’d better go on through, then.”

Principia saluted again, then led the way through.

It was nearing midnight; there were Legionnaires patrolling the walls, but the parade ground of the Camp itself was all but deserted, illuminated only by a few fairy lights attached to the cabins. True to Grip’s predictions, a familiar dark-haired figure was cutting across the courtyard toward them even as the disparate group reached the middle of the parade ground, the armored form of Private Covrin right on her heels.

“I trust there is an incredible explanation for this,” Bishop Syrinx stated, stomping to a halt in front of the party. Her gaze panned across the assembled Legionnaires, Huntsmen and enforcers; if she was at all surprised by the group’s composition, no sign of it showed on her face.

Andros folded his brawny arms across his chest. “I will speak with High Commander Rouvad, Basra. Now.”

“About what, Andros?” she demanded.

“That I will discuss with her.”

“You’re a Bishop; you can make arrangements through the Church,” she retorted. “If you intend to bypass the bureaucracy, that can probably be arranged, but I’m going to need more than your say-so first.”

He stepped forward once, glaring down at her; she met his gaze coolly.

“I will speak to the High Commander,” he growled, “about the squad of Silver Legionnaires that was sent bumbling into a holy rite of the Huntsmen of Shaath today.”

Basra pursed her lips, turning after a moment to fix the fives Legionnaires with a flat stare. “And what, exactly, were you girls supposed to be doing?”

“Investigating reports of Shaathist activity, ma’am,” Ephanie said crisply.

Basra scowled. “And you couldn’t do that without interfering with their religious practices? If I’m not mistaken, this cohort is supposed to be training to handle relations with other faiths. Would anyone care to explain this staggering failure?”

“I have little patience for your internal quibbles,” Andros growled. “Are you going to take me to Rouvad, or am I going to wait right here with my Huntsmen until someone more competent comes to address us?”

“We know very well this was all your doing!” Tholi added with a sneer.

Ingvar sighed and shook his head.

“Tholi!” Andros barked. “Silence.”

“Oh, really,” Basra said, her voice deadly quiet. Slowly, she panned her gaze over Squad Thirteen again, this time fixing it upon Ephanie. “And so, having caused an interfaith embarrassment, you decided to weasel out of trouble by pinning the blame on your Bishop? That’s very interesting.” She took a step forward, her eyes boring into Ephanie’s. “And I don’t have to ask which of you little twerps would have the bright idea of siding with the Huntsmen against your own Legion, now do I. Not when there’s someone present with a history of that.”

“That is not what happened, your Grace,” Ephanie said evenly.

“You can explain yourself fully at your court martial, Private Avelea,” Basra shot back.

“Leave her alone,” Principia said quietly.

“Shut up, Locke,” the Bishop spat. “For once, your nonsense is not the center of attention. Avelea, you are to hand over your gear and report to the stockade—”

“You will look me in the eye when I am speaking to you!” Principia roared, stalking forward until Basra had to physically step back from her to avoid being stepped on.

“How dare you—”

“Shut the hell up, you pathetic little bully,” the elf snarled, ripping off her helmet and tossing it aside. “I have had exactly as much of your bullshit as I intend to tolerate, Syrinx. This is over. You are done, is that clear?”

“I’ll have you—”

“Button it!” Principia stepped forward again, physically bumping into Basra and jostling her backward. “You have absolutely no comprehension what you are messing with, Basra. Do you think I let you push me around and talk down to me because there’s something forcing my hand? I tolerate you, y’little punk, because I choose to. Because you are so far from being a threat that your pretensions in that direction are a constant source of amusement to me. I was playing this game when your grandparents were in swaddling, and I’ll be playing when everyone who remembered you is dust. I am so far out of your league your only hope of anything resembling success in the long run is if you manage to annoy me enough to warrant a footnote in my memoirs, and I have to tell you, Bas, you’re not there yet. The fact that you are inconveniencing me yet again is a cosmic insult.

“And let me spell this situation out for you,” she went on in a hiss, pressing forward again; Syrinx gave ground, staring at her with wide, expressionless eyes. “You have utterly failed to understand the long-term consequences of your horseshit, Basra. Nothing you have the capacity to dish out is a serious threat to my well-being. To get rid of me, you’d have to kill me, and you’re simply too weak, too slow, and too stupid to make that happen. You best-case scenario is to get me booted out of the Legions, and believe me, you don’t want that. Because the moment I no longer have to play nicely, the hourglass begins running out for you. Is that perfectly clear? Now pipe down, grow up and start picking on someone your own size, you insignificant little bitch.”

Dead silence fell. The other four members of Squad Thirteen gaped with identical expressions of shock. By contrast, the Huntsmen and Guild enforcers all wore huge grins.

Then, after a long moment, a slow smile crept across Basra’s face.

“I dearly hope you enjoyed that, private,” she whispered.

“Bishop Syrinx.”

Everyone turned at Captain Dijanerad’s voice. She stood off to one side; Grip was next to her, and the folder of Guild papers was in the captain’s hands. She kept her expressionless gaze fixed on Basra.

“You and Squad Thirteen are to report to the High Commander’s office immediately. She wants a word with all of you.”

“I require a few minutes of her time, as well,” Andros rumbled.

Dijanerad looked up at him, her expression not altering. “This may take some time, your Grace. I’m sure she would be glad to set up an appointment for you first thing tomorrow.”

“I will speak with her as soon as she is finished with these,” he declared. “I can wait.”

“Very well,” the captain said noncommittally. “Private Covrin, see that some accommodations are found for our guests, along with whatever they require. Within reason.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Covrin said crisply.

“I believe you can count us out,” Grip said lazily, already strolling back toward the gate. “Just get that stuff into her hands, and our job here is done. The Boss will be eagerly awaiting the Commander’s response. Toodleoo, boys and girls.”

The rest of the enforcers fell into step behind her, making their way languidly out of the courtyard.

“As for the rest of you,” Dijanerad said grimly, dragging her stare across Squad Thirteen to fix it on Basra, “forward march.”

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8 – 19

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Principia caught Ephanie’s eye and tilted her head significantly. The other private straightened up and stepped to the side, where the elf joined her.

Farah was busy tending to the girl’s injuries, which were extremely minor—no more than abrasions from the cords that had bound her wrists and ankles. She wasn’t even bruised, as far as they could see without further disrupting her clothing. She mostly appeared frightened, which was reasonable. Casey knelt beside her, murmuring encouragingly and keeping a steadying hand on her shoulder. Merry stood to one side, lance in hand and eyes constantly roaming.

“What do you think?” Principia asked softly.

“I don’t know what to think,” Ephanie replied in the same tone. “I can’t imagine her story being true, for reasons we’ve been over. But I don’t know how she got in that bag if it wasn’t, or why she would lie.”

Principia studied the shaking young woman critically. The girl lifted her eyes, noticing her stare, and quickly averted her gaze.

“This whole thing stinks,” she murmured. “She didn’t place herself in that bag, obviously. I’m sure the Sisters would have words with me about victim-blaming, but I’m inclined to regard that girl as an accomplice in whatever we’re being herded into.”

Ephanie nodded, her expression dour.

They rejoined the group as Farah was helping the erstwhile captive to her feet.

“Can you tell us what happened, ma’am?” Casey asked. “I know this has been a hard day for you, but we need as much detail as you can remember if we’re going to help the others.”

“I…it was…” She broke off, swallowing, then nodded. “I’ll try.”

“What’s your name?” Farah asked gently.

“I’m Ami. Ami Talaari. I’m a student at the bardic college in Madouris.”

“That’s a good few miles from here,” Principia noted, raising her eyebrows. “Were you abducted from there?”

Ami shook her head. “No, I wasn’t far from here. At least, I don’t think… I was camping in the woods. It’s part of bard training, we do that regularly, but this was my first solo camp. Ah, where are we now, exactly?”

“Half a day’s walk from Tiraas itself, maybe a little more,” Casey replied, pointing. “That way, east by southeast. Or, there’s a longer but safer route; just head due south a couple of hours until you reach the highway and follow that back to the city. Don’t worry, we’ll take you there.”

“But the other girls!” Ami said, her eyes widening. “You can’t leave them!”

“We’re not going to,” Farah said firmly. “Please go on. How did you come to be in this bag?”

Ami swallowed again, closing her eyes and shuddering. “I was just walking, you know, practicing navigating, and they popped up out of nowhere. There were four, all Huntsmen. With the fur and leather, you know, and the bows?”

“Out of nowhere?” Merry asked, still scanning their surroundings.

“Well, I didn’t see or hear anything until they were right on top of me. I guess professional Huntsmen are more capable in the woods than an apprentice bard.”

“Go on,” Casey said encouragingly.

Ami wrung her hands in front of her, keeping her eyes down as she continued. “They wouldn’t talk to me. Just slapped me when I tried to yell or even talk, pushed me along ahead with those bows. They put a blindfold on me so I couldn’t see… It was at least an hour like that, I got completely turned around. But we came to some kind of camp. At least, I could hear more men, and other girls. Crying, mostly.” She swallowed heavily and drew in a shuddering breath. “They hit us again when we tried to talk to each other. Then they put me in that bag, and I could hear the other girls struggling as they were being tied up, too. They brought me out here and…left. That was the last I heard until you came along.”

Casey nodded solicitously. “Well, you’re safe now. We’ll take you back—”

“But the others!” Ami said, raising her head and staring up at her in alarm.

“We will rescue the others,” Farah said firmly, “but we’re not about to abandon you here in the forest, after all you’ve been through.”

“Can you give us any idea which way their camp might be?” Casey asked.

Ami shook her head. “I was in the bag when… I’m sorry, I don’t know.”

“It’s okay. We have trackers, we’ll find ’em. For now, we need to escort you back—”

“But who knows how long they have!” Ami said tremulously. “I don’t even know what they were doing with us. You can’t leave the others that long, they may be gone before you can come back with reinforcements!”

“You want to come with us, then?” Merry asked mildly.

The girl blanched, shaking her head violently. “I can find my own way back, it’s no problem. South to the road, you said?”

“Yes,” Farah said slowly. “But—”

“Got it, that’s easy,” Ami said hastily, taking a step to the side. “South is…this way?”

“Right,” said Casey.

“Good, I’ll be safe once I reach the highway. Please hurry, you have to help the others! And thanks again!”

The five Legionnaires stood watching her as she vanished into the shady distance. The forest was well-cleared of underbrush; there wasn’t much to impede their view of her until she was lost among the trees.

“Well,” said Casey, “that was an abrupt exit. So!” She turned to face the others. “Shall we count all the ways that was full of shit?”

“That story was more holes than story,” Ephanie said, glaring after Ami. “She wasn’t blindfolded and hadn’t been beaten.”

“I’ve only had the basic first aid courses,” Farah added, “but I’m pretty sure she had not been tied in that bad all that long.”

“And Huntsmen wouldn’t use their bows to push someone,” Ephanie said as an afterthought. “Their equipment is fae-blessed and highly personal; they treat it with respect.”

“Seems really peculiar that she’d be so eager to go off alone into the woods after that alleged experience,” Merry commented. “Not to mention the insistence that we go after the other girls right now, specifically without going for reinforcements.”

“Have you found something?” Ephanie asked Principia, who was prowling around the tree to which Ami had been tied, studying the ground.

“Well, the tracks don’t explicitly contradict her story,” the elf said, eyes still down. “At least, not all of it. She was put in the sack here, not dragged here in it.”

“She never said dragged,” Merry pointed out. “Might have been carried.”

“There are two sets of tracks leading to this tree, and one matches her shoes,” Principia replied, pointing at the ground in the direction Ami had vanished. The others peered at the earth, then at each other, having failed to discern any clear footprints—the ground was dry and the springy moss and ground cover not conducive to leaving traces. “Plus… here’s where it was done, against the side of the tree there. And it doesn’t prove anything, strictly speaking, but I do not see signs of a struggle. She got in the bag willingly.”

“Could’ve been under duress,” said Merry. “Just to play demon’s advocate.”

Principia nodded. “So, two possibilities. There is a very slim chance that we are actually dealing with rogue Huntsmen in these woods, but a much greater likelihood that this is a trap aimed at us specifically, in which case that girl has at least one accomplice.”

“Presumably others,” Farah said grimly. “Wouldn’t be much of a trap for the five of us if it’s just one.”

Prin nodded again. “In either case, we need to assume there are hostiles up ahead.”

“What if we broke off here?” Merry suggested. “We’ve got a story from one witness which we can tell is a load of crap. Doesn’t the fact that we know it’s a trap give us cause not to charge into it?”

Ephanie sighed and shook her head. “The fudged details in Ami’s story are consistent with the kinds of things traumatized witnesses often come up with. Considering what’s at stake—half a dozen women allegedly abducted—we’d be considered derelict of duty at least if we didn’t investigate.”

“There is also the fact that this whole thing is stupid and an obvious setup,” Principia added. “If Syrinx can arrange to have us sent out on this bullshit, she can arrange to cast it in the worst possible light if we refuse to go for it. We’d better press on. Remember what I said, ladies: there’s a risk of physical harm, here, but also a very good chance this is a subtler kind of snare. Making us look bad would be more consistent with Syrinx’s pattern and better serve her goals than roughing us up. Still, be ready for anything.”

“Be ready for anything, she says,” Merry groused. “I think that’s the most meaningless statement ever uttered. How can you be ready for anything?”

Principia grinned at her before turning to study the ground again. “All right, well… The tracks come from this way, but after Ami was tied to the tree, they head off to the north… Avelea, fold up that bag and bring it along, will you? It’s evidence at minimum.”

“On it.”

“We’ve got our path before us, then, ladies,” Principia said, slinging her shield over her back. “Stay alert, call out if you spot anything. Keep in loose formation, but don’t spread out too far. Let’s move out.”

As they progressed through the trees, more signs appeared. Principia mentioned and pointed to other tracks in the vicinity, some crossing the one they followed, though only Ephanie could discern any of these, and not all of them. However, there appeared traces which were apparent to all of them in the form of more Shaathist talismans hung on the trees.

“This is alarming,” Ephanie said as they paused to study one of these. “I’m almost certain they’re genuine. Locke, do they have magic in them?”

“Yup, same as the first one.”

Ephanie frowned. “If we’re assuming no actual Huntsmen are working here… Just who has Syrinx hired and how did they get their hands on all these?”

“Can you tell anything about the pattern in which they’re placed?” Casey asked.

“It’s not necessarily done in a specific pattern,” said Ephanie. “Mostly just to define an area… I don’t think that’s what we’re seeing here, though, or we wouldn’t keep spotting them unless we happened to be skirting the perimeter of whatever’s going on…”

“Not impossible,” said Principia, pointing to the barely discernible path of crushed undergrowth she had been following. “We’re following this guy.”

“Also, that assumes this is an actual Shaathist operation,” said Farah, “which I thought we weren’t assuming.”

“Right,” said Ephanie. “But this means there are actual Shaathists at the back of this somewhere. Either corrupt enough to give out their talismans, which I can’t see happening…”

“Or going to be very pissed off when they find out about this?” Casey suggested. Ephanie nodded, her jaw set.

“Keep alert, ladies,” Principia murmured. “Theorizing is fine, but don’t forget to watch the trees.”

Merry rolled her eyes, but nobody offered a reply. They followed her in silence, dutifully scanning the forest. There seemed to be nothing in the vicinity but songbirds.

Less than five minutes later, Principia came to a sudden halt, staring around.

“Um,” said Farah. “Are we there yet?”

“The trail ends here,” Principia said, frowning.

“What do you mean, it ends?” Merry demanded.

“Just that,” the elf said, exasperated. “It ends. Stops. There is no more trail.”

“Are you sure you were following an actual trail, city elf?”

“Yes,” Prin said curtly, now bending forward to carefully examine the underbrush. “Stay back, don’t trample anything…”

“How could the trail just end?” Casey asked. “I mean… There’s nobody here.”

Farah craned her neck back, peering into the trees above them.

With a sigh, Principia straightened up. “Well, there’s a simple enough explanation. Teleporting or shadow-jumping would do it. I was looking for some sign of either, but… It’s actually rare that they cause any after-effects to the environment, and teleportation only leaves arcane traces for a few minutes.”

“Shit,” Merry muttered. “You’re sure there was a—”

“Yes, I’m sure there was a trail!”

“Why go this far from the tree where they tied up Ami and then suddenly teleport out?” Ephanie asked, frowning.

“No telling,” Prin said, then sighed heavily. “But assuming that’s what happened, and I don’t have a better idea, it means there was a mage involved in this. Or a warlock.”

“Portal mages come pretty cheap these days,” said Casey, “especially the less-than-reputable kind Syrinx would have to bribe to scry on us.”

“Well,” said Principia, “we have a couple of options, ladies, and both involve backtracking. We can go back and try one of the trails that crossed this one, which could be anybody at all… Or we can go all the way back to the tree where Ami was and follow her tracks and this one to wherever they came from in the first place.”

“Come on, that’s not a choice,” Merry said derisively. “Second option’s the only one that makes any sense.”

Casey heaved a sigh. “Well… Time’s wasting, girls.”

Indeed, the afternoon was beginning to fade by the time they returned to the tree still carrying scraps of cord which had held up the wilderbag. Principia stopped there, looking critically around.

“I’ve got a feeling we do not want to be out here doing this after dark,” she said.

“Agreed,” Ephanie said emphatically.

“Hang on,” Prin said, narrowing her eyes and turning to stare off into the woods. “Quiet for a moment, please.”

They waited while she stood stock-still, peering into the distant shadows, then suddenly started forward.

“You hear something?” Farah guessed, falling into step behind her.

“Some kind of struggle up ahead,” Prin reported. “Stay alert.”

“We never stopped,” Merry grumbled. “Too much staying alert is going to make my face freeze this way…”

“I bet you’re a joy to serve a night watch with,” Ephanie commented.

The squad fell silent as they proceeded, catching Principia’s intent mood. They naturally slipped back into loose formation, moving through the forest in a rough arrowhead with the elf at its point.

Several minutes before catching sight of it, they could hear sounds from up ahead, in a rather creepy parallel of their initial discovery of Ami’s wilderbag. There was no voice this time, however, and as they came in sight of it through the screen of trees, they found another hanging wilderbag thrashing far more violently than Ami’s had been.

The squad stopped within ten yards of it, studying the bag intently. As they watched, it squirmed again, straining the cords binding it to the tree.

“See or hear anyone else nearby?” Casey asked in a whisper.

Principia shook her head. “Huntsmen have ways around elvish senses. So do the Black Wreath.”

“Gods, don’t borrow trouble,” Merry groaned. “Syrinx and the Huntsmen are enough. Why would the—”

“I was just making the point that my senses may be sharper, but they aren’t infallible,” Principia said shortly. “Come on, same as before. Watch for any traps or ambushes, but don’t dawdle.”

Again she led the way, approaching the bag cautiously with her squadmates fanned out, weapons aimed at the surrounding forest.

“Take it easy in there,” Principia said quietly. “We’re here to help.”

The bag only thrashed harder. She glanced around at the others, then slung her shield on her back, planted her lance and drew her belt knife. When she touched the bag, however, its squirming redoubled, forcing her to step back.

“Calm,” Prin urged, frowning. “We’re with the Silver Legions. Hold still and I’ll have you out of there in a minute.”

If the message was even heard, the prisoner gave no sign, only thrashing harder. She narrowed her eyes, studying the wilderbag. “Avelea… Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

“Can you be more specific?” Ephanie asked, glancing over at her but immediately returning her gaze to the forest.

“I…don’t think this is a person in here. The way it’s moving… Would actual Huntsmen put a live animal in one of these bags?”

“Sure, there are several rites that call for that. It would make a lot more sense than putting women in them.”

“Hm… Have a care, ladies, I’m not sure what’s about to come out of here.”

Tucking her knife back into its sheath, she shimmied lightly up the tree and out onto the branch to which its drawstring was tied, seemingly unhampered by her armor. A few quick strokes severed the cords, loosening the top of the wilderbag.

It was still tied to the tree, but no longer secured at the top. Almost immediately, the thrashing of the bag’s occupant wrenched open its mouth, and a pair a flailing hooves attached to slender legs appeared.

“Yikes,” said Casey, backing away. “Good call, Locke.”

“Should we—” Farah broke off as the fawn got its head out, managing to hook one long foreleg over the lip of the wilderbag. From there it only had to flail for a few more moments before finally dragging itself free and tumbling gracelessly to the ground.

The four Legionnaires on the ground backed further away, Principia remaining on her perch up above, as the fawn rolled to its feet. It took one look at them and bounded off into the woods.

“Aww,” Farah cooed, gazing avidly after the creature. “It’s adorable!”

“You are such a girl,” Merry commented.

An arrow thunked into the tree next to her head.

Reflex took over; instantly they all had shields and lances up, falling into formation facing the direction from which the arrow had come. Afternoon was fading into early evening; the shadows beneath the trees had deepened, revealing nothing of their attacker.

Then Principia hit the ground beside them, her own shield already out; no sooner had she landed than another arrow slammed into it.

“We’re flanked!” she snapped. “Crescent! Form up on the tree!”

She snagged her lance out of the earth and slipped into their line even as it bent backward, wrapping them into an arc with the thick old oak at their backs. It was a purely defensive formation; keeping their shields locked together in a convex arc that tight crammed them so closely together that none had room to draw swords, or even thrust with their lances. This was done only when taking fire from multiple directions, to buy a squad time to identify their attacker’s positions and adjust their formation accordingly. Unfortunately, the size of their squad severely limited their options; five women simply couldn’t form a shield wall large enough to protect in multiple directions.

“You dare?” roared a voice out of the darkness. Another arrow slammed into Ephanie’s shield, followed by more, striking them from three directions.

“Three angles of attack,” Ephanie said tersely. “On my signal, form a long wedge—Locke, you’re point, aimed at the center—” She broke off with a grunt as another arrow thudded into her shield. “Then step left past the tree and retreat. Ready?”

“Wait,” Farah said tersely. “Try talking to them, Avelea! You know something of their ways, don’t you?”

“These can’t actually be Huntsmen—”

Principia hissed in displeasure as an arrow slipped through a minute gap in their shield wall, grazing her helmet. “They’re not elves, and nobody else still handles bows this accurately.”

“Hold your fire!” Ephanie shouted. “Parley!”

“You can parley with the damned, slattern!” snarled the voice which had first spoken.

Immediately after that proclamation, a ghost wolf bounded out of the trees, landing before them with its hackles raised, snarling.

“We mean you no harm!” Ephanie tried again.

“You defile our hunt, and dare claim that?” demanded another voice. Finally, a figure emerged from the dimness. It was a Huntsman of Shaath, all right, or at least appeared to be. He wore a ragged pelt over his sturdy leather armor, carrying a bow with arrow nocked and aimed at them. Beneath a snarling cap made from a bear’s head, his bearded face was painted with lines of green and black.

“Oh, shit,” Principia whispered. “I see what she did.”

“What?” Merry demanded.

“Those who defile the hunt shall become the hunted!” bellowed the first voice, its owner appearing. He was an older man, his beard more than half-gray, but looked no less sturdy than the other, and if anything, more angry. He also had a bow trained on their tiny formation. Around them, other figures began to materialize from the woods.

“Girls,” Principia said tersely, “I need you to trust me, here. If you value your lives, do as I do.”

“I don’t like the sound of that,” Merry grated.

Principia raised her voice. “We surrender!”

With that, she lowered her shield, dropping her lance, and placed her hands atop her helmet.

“We what?” Merry snarled.

Ephanie immediately followed suit, however, dropping her weapons and putting her hands on her head. The Huntsmen slowed, a few of them narrowing their eyes to study the Legionnaires suspiciously.

Farah and Casey exchanged a wide-eyed stare, then slowly followed Principia’s example. Merry was the last, cursing under her breath the whole time. “So help me, Locke, if this gets us killed I’m haunting your ass…”

The five Legionnaires were already down on one knee due to their defensive posture, having braced shields against the ground. With their weapons down, they were in an obviously submissive position, and keenly aware of their vulnerability. At the range into which the encircling Huntsmen now stepped, even their armor might not have stopped one of those arrows, and these archers were more than capable of aiming for exposed flesh through the gaps.

There was also the ghost wolf, which still snarled, but had yet to attack.

The older man stalked forward, baring his teach in a furious growl. “None of your tricks, Avenist harlots! Draw your blades and die like warriors.”

“Stop!” shouted another voice.

From the half-dozen Huntsmen now encircling the Legionnaires, a much younger man stepped forward. Indeed, “man” might have been a generous description; he was clearly well under twenty, with a short and patchy beard. He, too, had an arrow nocked, but unlike his compatriots, his bow was aimed at the ground and not drawn.

“Hold, Grauvan,” the youth ordered. “They surrendered.”

“We are not Avenists, pup!” the old man spat. “We do not accept terms from deviants and defilers. Those who defy the Wild die beneath its fangs!”

“This is my rite,” the young man shot back, stalking right up to him. “That was my catch they despoiled.”

“You be mindful of your elders, boy!” the gray-bearded one roared, turning to face him. “You are in no position to challenge me!”

“I will not be party to the killing of disarmed, kneeling women!” the youth shouted right back, stomping forward and pushing himself into his elder’s face. “Before I see Shaath’s honor defiled this way, I will put an arrow in you myself!”

“You dare offer—”

“ENOUGH!”

Silence fell, and two more figures entered the scene.

The assembled Huntsmen respectfully made way for them, most finally lowering their weapons, though one kept the five Legionnaires covered. A tall, powerfully built man strode straight into the middle of the scene, followed by a beardless fellow, both also carrying bows.

“It seems I am barely in time to prevent a true disgrace,” the tall one growled. “Well spoken, Tholi. Grauvan, you are justly rebuked by the lad—think on that. That we are not soldiers does not entitle us to be monsters. There will be no violence toward surrendered enemies.”

“As you say, Brother Andros,” Grauvan said curtly, stepping back from him. He did not lower his head or eyes, though, holding Andros’s gaze with his own.

The Bishop stared right back at him for a long moment before turning to the young man. “Explain this display, Tholi.”

“We came upon these women interfering with my hunt,” the youth reported, casting a contemptuous glance at the five kneeling Legionnaires. “They destroyed my wilderbag and freed the offering I had placed within. Grauvan and Rhein fired upon them, they made a defensive posture, and then surrendered.” He glanced over at them again, this time more critically. “Apparently without injury.”

Andros turned to study the soldiers. “Do you contest this account?”

“No, your Grace,” Principia said immediately. “However, there’s—” She broke off as he peremptorily held up a hand.

“Remove your helmets,” the Bishop ordered.

Principia did so immediately, prompting murmurs from the gathered Huntsmen as her ears were revealed, followed more slowly by her squadmates. This time, Ephanie was the last to comply.

Andros fixed his gaze on her specifically, a heavy frown falling over his features.

“Ephanie,” he said in a deep tone of patrician disappointment. “Does Feldren know where you are?”

“With all respect, your Grace,” she said stiffly, “it is no longer Feldren’s concern what I do. Or yours.”

“Hnh,” he grunted. “That is clearly not the case if you are interfering in the rites of the Huntsmen. You, girl.” He returned his stare to Principia. “Explain yourself, quickly.”

“We were dispatched to this forest,” she said immediately, “to investigate rumors that Huntsmen had been abducting women.”

“Lies!” Grauvan burst out. Andros held up a hand to silence him, nodding at Principia to continue.

“Earlier today,” she said, “we found a young woman suspended from a tree in a wilderbag—”

“This is slanderous filth! I will not—”

“You will be silent!” Andros roared, turning the full force of his glare upon Grauvan. “I will hear their account before I judge it. Go on, girl.”

“She was in a bag,” Principia said, keeping a careful eye on the bristling Grauvan. “When we cut her loose, she claimed to have been abducted and held against her will by Huntsmen, along with several other women.” Angry murmurs rose from the other men present.

“And where is this girl now?” Andros demanded.

“Absent,” Principia said flatly. “In fact, she was oddly insistent on leaving, alone, as soon as she was freed. Your Grace… We were regarding this assignment as a mere formality to begin with. As Private Avelea explained, the idea that Huntsmen would be taking women was highly improbable.”

“To say the least,” Andros rumbled, giving Ephanie another look.

“The girl we rescued,” Principia went on, “made us revise our assumption. She claimed to have been abused in ways for which she bore no marks, and the fact that she was eager to go off alone in the forest among allegedly predatory Huntsmen was telling. It’s our opinion this is all some kind of trick.”

A few moments of quiet fell, in which mutters were exchanged among the Huntsmen present. Andros simply frowned, studying Princpia in silence. The beardless man who had accompanied him paced forward slowly, examining the kneeling women with a more calm expression than any of his compatriots wore.

Finally, Andros nodded as if coming to a conclusion, and spoke. “Men, lower your weapons. Girls, you may stand, and take up yours.”

“You don’t believe this fairy tale?!” Grauvan burst out.

Andros gave him another withering look. “Know your enemies, Grauvan, and do not assign faults to them that they don’t possess out of your own dislike. That is the path toward defeat. For all their failings, the Silver Legions are not prone toward elaborate intrigues, or deceitfulness in general.” He returned a more contemplative gaze to the five soldiers as they slowly straightened up and retrieved their lances and shields, the last Huntsman having lowered his bow. “I find it no stretch to believe they were tricked. These girls are not our enemy, men. Furthermore, upon realizing their mistake, they offered a proper show of submission, which shows honor and an unusual degree of good sense for Legionnaires.”

“Nice to be appreciated,” Merry muttered sullenly. Ephanie gave her a sharp look and shook her head.

“I don’t know whether this trap was aimed at the Legion or the Huntsmen,” Andros continued, his face falling into a deep scowl, “but whoever the target, someone has taken the Huntsmen of Shaath for fools. This urgently requires correction. Tholi!”

“Yes, Brother Andros?” the young man replied.

“I’m afraid fate has spoiled your rite; it will have to be redone another time. For now…”

“For now,” Tholi said, a grin breaking across his features, “we hunt?”

Andros nodded firmly. “We hunt.”

“WE HUNT!” roared the assembled Huntsmen in unison. As one, they turned and formed into a loose ring, surrounding the five Legionnaires.

“Oh, good,” Farah mumbled warily, “they hunt.”

“Peace,” Ephanie murmured. “Don’t be provocative.”

“Come,” Andros said curtly to the soldiers. “We will return to Tiraas, and seek out the one who has arranged this. Do you know who might attempt such a prank?”

The two groups set into motion, eying each other warily as they walked. The Huntsmen remained in a wider ring, ranging before, behind and to the sides of the group and keeping the Legionnaires encircled in their center.

“That’s a deceptively complex question, your Grace,” Principia said carefully.

He grunted. “No, it isn’t.”

“What I mean,” she said, “is that we’re in a rather tense position. Making anything that might amount to an accusation could have severe consequences for us. Especially since we don’t have evidence to prove one.”

Andros glanced at her. “I am no stranger to the politics of Tiraas, girl. Anything you say to me will go no further. Give me a direction in which to hunt, and I will find the tracks you need. I infer, from your guarded comments, that you know such a direction?”

Prin glanced over her shoulder at her squadmates. Ephanie nodded encouragingly.

“Just out of curiosity, your Grace,” Principia said, “are you acquainted at all with Bishop Syrinx?”

Andros’s frown deepened into a truly fearsome scowl. He drew in a long breath and let it out in an explosive sigh that ruffled his beard.

“So,” he growled, “the plot thins.”

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“Ah, perfect.” Mogul calmly adjusted his lapels as he stepped out of the shadows onto the latest rooftop. Carter landed beside him, for once without stumbling, and had to repress a moment of pride at how well he was adapting to shadow-jumping.

Their new perch was an especially narrow structure four stories tall, facing what had clearly once been a park before being piled with trash and the debris of preliminary deconstruction of some of the district’s buildings. The piles of rubbish were short, though, affording them a view of both the street leading to the bridge out of the empty district, and a side street which intersected it, down which a small party of people was now moving at a good clip.

“That’s them?” Carter asked, stepping up to the edge of the roof. He couldn’t see identifying details at this distance, but it pretty much had to be. The only other people around were Wreath warlocks, who were in hiding, and the four were clearly fleeing away from or toward something.

“Mm hm,” his guide murmured in reply, turning his back to the scene below.

“You called?” said a new voice from behind them. Carter embarrassed himself by jumping in surprise, then whirled to face the speaker. He might as well not have bothered; it was another figure shrouded in the gray anonymity of their ceremonial robes. Definitely male, possibly of a large build.

“There you are,” Mogul said, cheerful as ever, leaving Carter wondering by what mechanism he had called the man. “How’s it look out there?”

“You can see the Bishop and his servants nearing the square,” the warlock replied, nodding his hood in the direction of the street beyond. “There’s also activity just over the bridge. Looks like reinforcements coming to meet him.”

“All expected,” said Mogul. “What’d he bring?”

“His Butler, a pair of elves in…what I guess might be Eserite garb, or maybe they’re just stupid. Also two Huntsmen of Shaath.”

“That is interesting!” Mogul sounded delighted. He turned to look at Darling’s group and then at the bridge. Carter couldn’t see figures at that distance, but he wasn’t about to make assumptions regarding the warlocks’ capabilities. “Why, this is all shaping up marvelously. The timing is impeccable! The Lady smiles on us tonight. All right, you know the plan. Get started. Unleash the demons at both groups. Carefully, stagger the attacks so as to give them a sporting chance. If it isn’t too difficult to manage, do try to time it so that they meet up about as the demons run out.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” The robed figure put his hands together; there came a soft clicking noise, and he vanished in a swell of darkness.

“How many of those talismans do you have?” Carter asked.

“As many as we need, and a few extras to play with.”

“I must say that’s…oddly generous. That bit about giving them a sporting chance. These are your enemies, aren’t they?”

Mogul half-turned to give him a knowing smile. “And why waste a perfectly good enemy? I’m just getting to know this one. As soon as you kill the bastard you’re used to, you’ll find yourself hip-deep in an unknown quantity. Anyhow, I am taking the opportunity to…clean house a bit.” He turned back to watch the street. Darling’s party had slowed as they neared the square; suddenly there were flashes of fire and the white sparkle of wandshots from their vicinity. Infuriatingly, their path had taken them behind as shattered old clock tower, leaving Carter with no idea what was happening.

“The demons I’ve brought to this little hoedown are…troublesome sorts,” Mogul continued, idly gazing down on the street as if he could see the action. Nothing was visible except the odd flash of light. “Some of the more animalistic ones who just aren’t taking their training… Some sentients who seem determined to use the Wreath to scheme toward their own ends. Exactly the sort of thing we are on the mortal plane to put a stop to. Of course, we have our own methods, but when fortune gives me a squad of bloodthirsty Church enforcers, why waste the opportunity?”

“I see,” Carter said, frowning.

“Come now, Mr. Long, why do you imagine I really allowed Darling to finish his little obstacle course and get himself set up where he wanted to be? He needs to be in a position of strength if I’m to let him get out of this alive.”

“In that case…I’m afraid I don’t see,” Carter admitted.

Mogul laughed. “It’s all about expectations. As I told you earlier, I want to have a few words with Mr. Darling this evening, but following that, he can go home and do whatever it is Eserites do when not cutting purse strings. If I simply offered them the chance to leave unmolested, they would either suspect a trap and attack, or see it as a sign of weakness…and attack. If they’re going to attack anyway, I’d rather they be tired out mowing down the fodder first. Then we’ll have a nice, polite little stand-off and they can leave believing they forced us to a truce.”

“You’re that certain they’ll be so aggressive?”

“I am, as I said, cleaning house.” Mogul gave him a considering look. “I began this sequence of events by sending some of my less reliable members to visit the Church. Warlocks who, like the demons below, have been scheming on their own to amass personal power through the infernal arts, at the expense of their duties. Now, we attract all manner of miscellaneous oddballs and I’m quite indulgent of eccentricity in the ranks, but abuse of power is absolutely not to be tolerated. Ours is a sacred calling. So off went the ne’er-do-wells, and not a one came out alive. That’s what the servants of the Pantheon do when they catch someone who doesn’t bend knee to their power.”

“I’m not aware of Church personnel behaving that way, as a rule,” Carter said very carefully.

Mogul grinned bitterly. “I encourage you not to take my word for it. Look into the events of warlocks being killed by Bishops recently. They have floated the official story that the Wreath attacked them, and frankly I doubt there will be any contradicting evidence left intact. But have a long, deep look at the histories of the Bishops in question. Things may become more clear to you then.”

“This is all…absolutely byzantine,” Carter said, shaking his head.

“Demons are a responsibility, and an occasional means to an end,” Mogul replied. “They’re not the point of our faith; we serve the goddess of cunning. Who, through no fault of her own, was consigned to a dimension full of demons by her own family, and even still took it upon herself to defend the mortal world by disposing of the last hostile Elder Goddess. You don’t think it interesting that the only other deity who bothers to keep Scyllith away from our civilization is Themynra, who also is not of the Pantheon?”

Carter frowned, deep in thought. Below, Darling’s group moved out from behind cover, at a more cautious pace than before, but he barely saw them.

“Welp, looks like matters are coming to a head,” Mogul said cheerfully. “Come along, Mr. Long. Let’s go have us a chat.”


 

The third and final katzil demon rebounded off the wall against which Weaver’s wandshot had smashed it, emitting an aimless puff of flame from its mouth at the impact. The feathered serpent shook itself, barely staying aloft, and opened its fanged maw to direct another blast at them.

Joe fired a bolt of light straight down its throat. Soundlessly, the creature flopped to the pavement, where it immediately began to crumble to dust and charcoal, as the other two had.

“You seein’ what I’m seein’?” Joe asked, warily scanning the streets with his wands up.

“I see fucking demons!” Peepers practically wailed. She was trying to hide behind Darling, who had a throwing knife in each hand, but had let the two men with wands take the lead against the onslaught.

“Yeah,” said Weaver. “Small groups, one at a time. No warlocks, just demons. Not hitting hard enough to herd us away… We’re being softened up. Wonder what’ll be at the end after we mow down the disposables.”

“Hard to say what is and isn’t disposable with these guys,” Darling noted. “This whole thing started with them sending twelve trained spellcasters to their certain deaths. It’s odd that they’d do this now, when we’re close to the edge of the district. That’s not a smart place for the Wreath to set up a confrontation. Any ruckus kicked up in sight of the public will bring the Army down on them.”

“So, basically, we don’t know what the fuck is going on,” Weaver snorted. “Situation normal.”

“Standard procedures, then!” Darling proclaimed. “Forward! There’s a somewhat reasonable chance we’ll be having help soon.”

“Hate you so much,” Peepers growled.

“He’s right, to the extent that we can’t exactly stay here,” said Joe. “Exit’s just up ahead. How’s it look, Weaver?”

“Actually…” The bard tilted his head in that way he did when listening to his invisible friend, then smiled. “Well, fuck me running. Looks like Twinkletoes’s non-plan is actually working.”


 

“Stay back,” Price said in a clipped tone, simply striding forward, the clicking of her shoes on the pavement lost in the thunder of the charging demon’s footsteps.

“You can’t—”

“What can two little elves do about this?” The Butler gave Flora a sharp sidelong look before returning her attention forward as the baerzurg reached her.

She sidestepped neatly, allowing it to charge several steps past. Roaring in fury, the hulking, bronze-scaled brute rounded on her, striking out with a ham-sized fist. Price calmly stepped inside the swing of its arm, grasping it as it went past. Her hands looked absurdly tiny against its forearm, which was as thick as her waist. At that moment, however, there came a tiny golden flash as the creature stepped on the small holy charm she had dropped the second before. With a bellow of pain, it staggered into the impetus of its own punch.

The movement of its body momentarily hid the Butler from view; they didn’t see exactly how she did it. In the next second, however, the huge creature had been spun to the side, staggering back against the bridge’s railing. This came only just past its knees, and scarcely served to stop the baerzurg. It teetered at the edge, flailing with its arms.

Price took two running steps forward and vaulted, landing lightly with both feet against the demon’s massive chest.

Roaring, it toppled backward, grasping at her and just missing as she hopped lightly back down to the bridge’s surface. Behind her, the bellowing demon plunged into the canal. Price pause for a moment to straighten her tie.

“Whoah,” Fauna muttered.

An arrow whistled above their heads, and a second later there came a squawk of protest. A flying katzil demon dropped to the ground, a quivering shaft still embedded in its neck.

“We will create a path through these trash,” Andros growled, stalking past the two elves with Tholi and Ingvar flanking him. “Your agility will be needed against the warlocks when we near them. Stay behind us.”

Another arrow, fired by Ingvar, brought down a sshitherosz that spiraled upward, apparently seeking a higher vantage from which to strike. The next creature to charge forward was a grotesque abomination of tentacles and claws that looked like it would be more at home underwater. It faltered as an arrow from Andros’s bow, glowing gold, thudded into its upper chest. Then Price had darted forward and past it, reaching around to rip a small knife across the creature’s throat. Blue-green fluid sprayed forth and it dropped.

The next moment, Price had to dodge backward as a sinuous, crocodile-headed khankredahg snapped at her. She bounded onto the bridge’s rail, then back down, retreating from its powerful jaws. For being built like an elongated bulldog, it was awfully fast.

Tholi was there in moments, striking out with a hatchet. The beast paused, maw gaping open to hiss threateningly as the Huntsman and Butler moved to flank it.

“Hsst,” Flora said, joining Fauna on her side of the bridge. “Tell me you see it too.”

“One at a time, never enough to push us back,” Fauna replied, nodding. “Something’s up.”

“Let’s get behind the lines.”

“Remember the rules…”

“Oh, come on, we’re still elves.” Smirking, Flora switched to elvish. “If we can’t sneak past this lot without teleporting, we don’t deserve the name.”

Exchanging nods, they separated and dived over the bridge on both sides. In the next moment, while their companions pressed forward through a sequence of demonic attacks, they were clambering horizontally along its decorative stonework just below the level of its surface.


 

“There, and there,” Darling said, pointing at two side alleys. “Uglies coming out, attacking in both directions, but not trying to block the way. As a strategy, it’s so ineffective I have to assume it was meant to be.”

Even as he spoke, the latest khankredahg collapsed with a piteous groan, incidentally bearing down the young Huntsman who had charged forward, thrust his arm into its open mouth and driven a knife into its brain. The lad cursed at being dragged down, though he was free almost immediately as the demon began to disintegrate into ash.

“Good evening, your Grace,” Price intoned, striding forward. “I trust the results of tonight’s excursion have been to your satisfaction?”

“Ask me again when I’ve seen the results,” he said cheerfully. “Excellent timing, by the way, Price.”

“Yes, it was. If your Grace is seeking comfort in reminders of the familiar, I also have red hair.”

There came a scream from above, and a figure in a gray robe plunged from a second-floor window to hit the street with an unpleasant thump. A second behind, a slim figure in black leather dived down, landing nimbly beside him.

“Oh, don’t be such a baby,” Fauna told the groaning warlock. “You’re barely broken.”

“More summoners over here!” Flora reported, leaning out a window in the structure opposite. “They shadow-jumped away as I got here, though.”

“Oh?” Darling turned to her, raising an eyebrow. “It’s not like you to give warning of your approach.”

“I’m gonna let that pass because I’m really glad to see you’re okay,” she shot back. “And no, they were already in motion by the time I arrived. Whatever they were up to, it looks like their plan is still going forward.”

“Then it is time we were gone,” Andros rumbled. “These are the two gentlemen you mentioned?”

“Indeed,” Price replied.

He studied Joe and Weaver for a moment, flicked his gaze across Peepers and visibly dismissed her from consideration. “Very well. The force we now have assembled is sufficient to repel a considerably greater threat than we have faced thus far. While they are in retreat, we should do likewise.”

“But we have them on the run!” Tholi said, practically panting in eagerness. “Now is the time to press on and finish them off!”

“Listen to your superiors,” Ingvar snapped. “And to your scouts! The Wreath has planned this, all of it, and it’s gone as they intended. We are in a snare. It’s time to flee.”

“I quite agree,” said Darling, tousling Flora’s hair fondly as she rejoined the group. “C’mon, once across the bridge we’re—”

“Too late,” said Joe, raising both his wands.

The ten of them clustered together, unconsciously forming into a circle in the center of the square. Behind them was the bridge back to the lights of the city, before the desolation of the condemned neighborhood, but all around, there were suddenly shadows rising from nowhere. They appeared in windows, out of doors and alleys, on rooftops, some seeming to rise up from the very pavement. Surges of darkness swelled, then receded, leaving figures in gray robes standing where they had been. Some carried weapons, a mix of wands, staves and clearly ceremonial (to judge by their elaborate design) blades, quite a few accompanied by demons of various descriptions. In seconds, a dozen ringed them; in seconds more, their numbers doubled, and then continued to grow. The Wreath pressed forward, flanking them from behind, not quite cutting off escape but edging into their own path out of the district.

“Hmp,” Weaver muttered, “damn. I forgot to tell you so. Now I can’t say it.”

“These are pups that have cornered bears,” Andros snarled. “If they will not let us leave in peace, crush them.” Tholi growled in wordless agreement.

A final surge of shadows rose up from the street directly ahead, depositing two men in front of the group.

“Now, now,” Embras Mogul said reprovingly. “There you go, offering to solve a puzzle with a hammer. Honestly, how you get dressed in the morning without strangling your wife is beyond me.”

“Are you really still hanging out with these guys, Carter?” Peepers demanded.

“I’m just here to observe,” the journalist said, licking his lips nervously.

Ignoring a hissed warning from Flora, Darling stepped forward out of the circle. “Well, this has been a grand little chase, Embras, but we all have better places to be, don’t we?”

“Quite so.” Mogul stepped forward to meet him, placing each foot with a care that made him resemble more than ever a wading stork. “My people have suffered no end of abuse at your hands already, Antonio, and you’ve worn yours down with your ill-conceived antics.”

“Not to mention that I’ll have to spend my whole day on paperwork tomorrow if I’m party to shooting up a whole district, condemned or no,” Darling replied easily. “I just can’t spare the time. There’s a social event in the evening to which I’ve been looking forward for weeks.”

“Then it’s all too obvious how we handle this, isn’t it?”

They came to a stop less than a yard apart. The priest and warlock stared at one another, grim-faced.

“Indeed,” Darling said softly. “None of you interfere. This is personal.”

“Are you crazy?” Fauna shouted. Price held up a warning finger in front of her face.

“We settle it like gentlemen,” Mogul said, equally quiet.

“Man to man.”

“One on one.”

“To the death.”

There was a horrified silence. The Wreath stood motionless, robes fluttering in the faint night breeze, several of their demon companions shifting impatiently. Darling’s party held weapons at the ready, staring at the pair in disbelieving fascination. The light shifted, faltering, a cloud scudding across the moon and leaving them momentarily illuminated only by the distant glow of the city itself.

And then Mogul and Darling simultaneously burst into gales of laughter.

While the entire assembled crowd stared, utterly bemused, both men roared in mirth. Mogul slumped forward, bracing his hands against his knees; Darling reached out to steady himself against the other man’s shoulder.

“Fuck it,” Weaver said loudly after this had gone on for half a minute. “I say we shoot them both.”

“Oh, my stars and garters,” Mogul chortled, straightening up. “Thanks, old man, I needed that.”

“Hah, makes me wish we could do this more often! Price never lets me have any fun.”

“I admit I’m impressed! For a second there I really thought you were serious.”

“C’mon, Embras, how long have we been at this tonight? Give me credit for a sense of fun.”

“Yeah, I particularly enjoyed your little street-writing display.”

“Oh, you caught that! Better and better. It gets so tedious, running mental circles around people all the time. Sometimes I feel like nobody really gets me, y’know?”

“Tell me about it. Some days I’d trade it all for some intelligent conversation.”

“I hear that.”

“What the hell is going on?!” Peepers shrieked.

“Well, anyway, I’ve got cranky little ones to take home and put to bed,” said Darling, pointing a thumb over his shoulder at the group. “Are we just about done here?”

“Yeah, this seems like a good place to call it a night.” Mogul patted his shoulder, still grinning. “Good game, my man. Mr. Long!” He turned to beckon Carter forward. “I realize this has been more excitement than you planned on seeing. We’ll not detain you if you would rather head back into the city with these folk, but I encourage you to keep in mind what I said about the Church.”

“You’ve said a lot of things,” Carter replied warily, looking as confused and nonplussed as Darling’s allies.

“At the moment,” Mogul said, stepping back from Darling, “you’ve not done anything to earn the Archpope’s ire. Matters will be different if you decide to publish your story, though, and you can certainly expect these folk to lean on you about it one way or another. The Empire’s another matter. Lord Vex is too canny to disappear an inconvenient member of the press and set your entire profession yapping at his heels. Sometimes I kind of miss his predecessor.” The warlock grinned reminiscently. “I could make that guy chase his tail across the city and back, all from the comfort of my rocking chair.”

Carter stared at him, then at Darling, then glanced around, at the warlocks, the assembled mix of Huntsmen and Eserites, the demons. “I, um…”

“Careful,” Mogul cautioned. “You’re thinking with your emotions, remembering who your upbringing has taught you to trust. That’s fine and dandy for an opinion columnist, but if you decide to play the game on the level at which this story will place you, you’ll need to be more careful. Think in terms of whose interests align with yours, not who you happen to feel fondly toward.”

“That is excellent advice for a variety of situations,” Darling said, nodding. “Just keep in mind that telling the truth is the most valuable weapon in a good deceiver’s arsenal. You understand that better than most people, Carter.”

Long’s face grew blank as he clearly marshaled his expression through sheer will. “I…appreciate the reminder, Bishop Darling,” he said somewhat stiffly. “Mr. Mogul, do you think you can drop me off at the offices of the Imperial Herald?”

“Not within it or too close,” Mogul replied. “Your superiors very wisely keep their wards updated, and the whole place had a recent and thorough Pantheonic blessing. We can put you down in the neighborhood and keep watch till you’re safely home, though.”

“I would appreciate it.”

“Very well, then,” Mogul said, grinning widely. The expression he turned on the Bishop was subtly triumphant. “This has been just a barrel of laughs, but…time marches on.”

“Mm hm,” Darling replied mildly, his own face open and affable. “See you next time, Embras.”

With a final, mocking grin, Embras Mogul laid his hand on Carter’s shoulder and vanished in a heave of darkness. All around them, the rest of the Black Wreath followed suit, demons and robed cultists disappearing in a series of shadowy undulations, till in seconds, the small group were clustered alone in the deserted square.

“Either someone is going to explain to me right damn now what just happened or I will begin stabbing people at random,” Peepers threatened.

“You don’t have a knife,” Joe observed.

“I will improvise.”

“Simple mathematics,” Darling said, strolling back over to the group. “They had the numbers, but we have the power, pound for pound. After watching all of us in action, Mogul knew it. A real fight would have left the area in ruins and cost lives on both sides. Neither of us wanted that.”

“I did,” Tholi muttered sullenly. Ingvar rolled his eyes.

“There will be another time,” Andros rumbled. “Did you at least learn what you set out to, Antonio?”

Darling grimaced in annoyance. “We bloodied their noses, cost them some tame demons and I have a few more little pieces of the puzzle to slot into place. For all the general fuss and bother this evening has been, though… I can’t say we’ve gained as much ground as I would have liked. But we drew them out of hiding, got a sense of how much manpower they’ve got in the city, and faced them down. That’s not nothing.”

“It will be worth reporting in detail to his Holiness,” Andros said, nodding. “But I agree. We must make more progress, quickly.”

“I’ve a few more ideas to mull over,” Darling replied, then rolled his shoulders. “Well, anyhow! What say we haul ass out of this depressing dump? I don’t know about any of you, but right now I would kick a nun into the canal for a brandy.”

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6 – 30

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“Are you sure you should be confronting this guy?” Carter asked as they strode rapidly along the rooftop. “And no, I’m not making a tactical suggestion; this is in my professional capacity of looking for information.”

“Duly noted,” Mogul said with a grin. “I’m curious about the question, however. This chap and his various lackeys have attempted to spy on our interview and then assaulted and killed my personnel when confronted about it. While I happen to have a miscellaneous handful of warlocks and demon thralls in the area, this seems like an ideal opportunity to have a word with him.”

“But the djinn strongly advised you not to. I’m just puzzled that you’d ignore his advice after summoning him to ask for it.”

There came a pause in the conversation when they reached the edge of the building. The darkness swelled around them, and then they were stepping onto the next roof over, two stories up and thirty feet away across a broad street. Carter stumbled again, but less dramatically; he was growing more accustomed to the disorientation.

“Mr. Long,” the warlock said as they resumed walking, “I’ve just spent much of the afternoon making the case to you that the Black Wreath are not at all as you believe them to be. With that established, let me just emphasize that demons are every bit as dangerous as you’ve always been told, and worse. That is why the Wreath is important, because believe me, no one else who tries is adept at handling them without creating a mess. Making allowances for individual personalities, they are highly aggressive. Infernal magic has that effect on any form of life it corrupts. Now, djinn aren’t able to physically interact with the world, which doesn’t diminish their propensity to cause trouble; it only limits the methods by which they can do so.”

The roof along which they were walking wasn’t another flat top like the previous one; their path was a lip of stone along the edge of a steep incline shingled in ragged old slate tiles. They came to the corner, where the path was interrupted by a decorative finial, and Carter had to accept a hand to navigating his way over the smooth slope and back onto even ground on the other side. It was an apparently L-shaped structure, to judge by the long distance it stretched out on the side ahead. Embarrassing as it might be to be handed about like a lady in silks and slippers, Carter wasn’t too proud to admit he needed the assistance. Despite the excitement of this assignment, he was keenly aware of being out of his element. His avuncular suit and briefcase didn’t lend themselves to nocturnal rooftop shenanigans.

“Ali and I have a well-negotiated contract,” Mogul continued as they moved on again. “He doesn’t lie to me and answers direct queries with a minimum of obfuscation. But beyond the simple answers to my questions, in the realm of his personal opinions and asides? You’re damn right I ignore his advice. It’s calculated to trip me up, without exception. Either with the goal of weaseling out of our contract, or just to create general mayhem.”

“But…if he can’t lie…”

“And what did he say, exactly?” Mogul grinned and winked. “That I would learn humility? Come on, what does that mean? You have to be eternally on guard when negotiating with demons. Any demons, but particularly the crafty ones. Sshitherosz, djinn, Vanislaad, all the schemers. They’ll promise you your own doom in a frilly dress, and you’ll step right into it if you make the mistake of paying too much attention to the frills. The exact wording gets you every time.”

“That sounds…exhausting,” Carter mused.

“Warlocks and lawyers, Mr. Long,” Mogul said cheerfully. “Warlocks and lawyers. Ah, here we are. You may want to keep back, we’re about to have some company.”

They had come to the end of the building, where there was a small rooftop patio. Raised beds held sad-looking old dirt and the twisted skeletons of small shrubs. Mogul hopped down from their improvised walkway and positioned himself against the bannister looking over the square below, beckoning Carter over to join him.

In the next moment the shadows gathered and took shape in the lee of the overhanging roof, then receded, leaving two figures standing there. One, dressed in obscuring gray robes, was hunched over with an arm across its midsection, supported by the other, which was clearly some kind of demon. Armored plates covered its forehead and limbs.

“Ah, still breathing,” said Mogul. “I’m glad to see that.”

“I had to confiscate her potion belt,” noted the demon. “She may have already taken more than the safe dosage.”

“It hurts,” the robed figure rasped, her voice taut with pain. “Inside. Bricks landed on my back… Think I have ribs broken. And lower.”

“That’s bad,” Mogul said, frowning, “especially if you’ve been chugging potions on top of internal bleeding. You know better, Vanessa. Hrazthax, get her to a healer. You two are out of this evening’s events.”

“You sure you won’t need me here?” the demon asked.

Embras waved a hand. “She’s urgent, and by the time you got back this would all be over. Be careful, though. Speak to Ross on your way out and have him pass along the word: anyone with a Vanislaad thrall needs to send it away, and everybody watch for holy symbols popping up in surprising places. There’s a reaper on the loose.”

Hrazthax frowned heavily. “A reaper? A real one? Just on patrol, or… It’s not good if Vidius is taking an interest in this.”

“You let me worry about that,” Mogul said firmly. “Take Vanessa’s talisman and get her to help. And when you find Ross, tell him to get everyone organized; our quarry is heading to the intersection of 31st East Street and Alfarousi Avenue. Don’t impede them; get everyone set up and ready to spring at that location, on my command.”

“Got it,” said Hrazthax, nodding. “But what about—”

Vanessa groaned and slumped against him.

“Go.”

The hethelax nodded to Mogul once more and took something from Vanessa’s hand, which she relinquished without argument. There came a few soft clicks as he manipulated it one-handed, and then the shadows welled up again, swallowing them.

“Busy, busy,” Mogul said, straightening his lapels. “Ah, well. When things go the way I want them to, I have the damnedest time keeping myself entertained. Ironic, isn’t it? This way, if you please.”

One shadow-jump later, they were on yet another rooftop across the street, and heading toward…Carter didn’t know what. The district was like an island of quiet and darkness. On all sides, not too far distant, the lights of Tiraas blazed like a galaxy come to earth, and at this altitude the sounds of carriage traffic and periodic Rail caravans were audible, but immediately around them was desolation. He doubted he could have navigated this jumble of broken-down structures even with the streetlights working, but Embras seemed to know where he was going.

“What’s a reaper?” Carter asked, regretting having put his notebook away. Ah, well, he wasn’t great at writing while walking at the best of times, and would likely have broken his neck trying to do it while navigating rooftops.

“Grim reaper,” Mogul said as they moved, “soul harvester, valkyrie. You’ve surely heard of them under one name or another.”

It took the journalist a few seconds to gather his thoughts before he could reply.

“Well… I must say, this night is going to leave me without things not to believe in.”

Embras grinned at him. “Oh, they’re very real, but you can be forgiven for not knowing it. The Vidians don’t encourage people to ask about them, and really, nobody on the mortal plane is likely to interact with one at all unless they dabble in necromancy. It’s the reapers who usually get sent to shut that down. Oh, and Vidian exorcisms? All theater. If the death-priests want a spirit laid to rest, they put on a big show to make you think they’re being useful while a valkyrie quietly gets rid of it. Warlocks only need to know about them because they have the same authority over incubi and succubi—which, as you may know, are human souls who are not supposed to be on this plane.” He shook his head and chuckled. “Vlesni is going to wring every ounce of pathos out of this anecdote she possibly can. I hear tell getting sent back by a reaper is…uncomfortable.”

“Do you really think you can intercept your opponent if he’s got an invisible spirit working with him?” Carter asked, glancing around somewhat nervously.

“Intercept him? I’m going to do no such thing.” Mogul stopped at the edge of the current roof, one long leg raised with the foot propped on the low wall surrounding it, and grinned at him. “We’re meeting him at the end. The man’s going excessively out of his way to spell out a message. I really ought to let him finish it, don’t you think? That’s just good manners.”


“Where the hell are we going?” Weaver snarled. “And don’t feed me that bullshit about just wasting time. You keep insisting on taking specific routes!”

“Lang—“

“Child, I swear by Omnu’s hairy third testicle I will shoot you right in the fucking mouth.”

“Settle down, good gods,” Darling reproved. “And yes, Weaver, you’re right, we are heading for an intersection a few blocks up.”

“Great, well, you should know there are warlocks and demons moving parallel to us in the same direction. We’re either walking into an ambush or being escorted by a mobile one.”

“Okay, how do you know this stuff?” Peepers demanded. “Where are you getting intel?”

“He’s got a spirit companion,” Joe explained.

“I want one. You have any idea how valuable that would be in my line of work?”

“You wouldn’t get along,” Weaver grunted.

“Don’t even ask,” added Joe, “it just gives him an opportunity to be standoffish and coy about it. He loves that.”

“About how many?” Darling interrupted.

Weaver cocked his head as if listening for a moment before replying. “Nine warlocks. Six of them have companion demons of various kinds. No incubi or succubi. And…a guy in a white suit almost straight behind us on the rooftops. With Peepers’s friend.”

“He’s not my friend,” she said with a sigh. “Never was, probably sort of hates my guts now.”

“Shame,” Weaver said, grinning nastily. “He was cute. Ah, well, guess you’re destined to be an old maid.”

“Joe, please shoot him in the foot.”

“Maybe after we deal with the demons.”

“You’re not wrong,” said Darling, “we are heading somewhere. There’s a small square up ahead close to the bordering canal of this district. That street leads straight to one of the bridges out.”

“The ones you said not to go near because they’d be guarded?” Joe asked.

“Yup!” Darling didn’t slacken his pace in the slightest; none of them were having trouble keeping up, though Peepers was starting to look a little haggard. “But it’s been enough time, approximately. I hope. I chose this particular bridge to approach because it leads to the most direct route toward the main temple of Shaath.”

“And…that is relevant…why?” Peepers asked.

“This must all be part of that plan he doesn’t have,” said Weaver, rolling his eyes.

“The Wreath has both oracular and divinatory sources of information,” Darling said lightly. “Many warlocks can use enough arcane magic to scry, and there are demons who trade information for favors. Any plans we made could be found out and countered, heading up against what we were.”

“There are methods to block both of those,” Joe noted.

“Yes,” said Darling, nodding, “and when I have time to arrange a real campaign against the Wreath, with Church and Imperial support, you better believe I’ll be using them. On the fly like this, though, there’s a loophole that can be exploited: they can’t scry a plan that doesn’t exist.”

“Not having a plan doesn’t strike me as a great plan,” Peepers muttered.

“I know the board,” Darling said more quietly, “and I know the pieces. I set in motion the ones most likely to lead to the result I want. Plans are nice, kids, but sometimes they’re a luxury you can’t afford to count on. If you know what’s going on, and if you’re a little lucky, you can tell more or less how things are going to play out. Even arrange them the way you want, sometimes.”

The other three glanced at each other.

“This is not how I wanted to die,” Peepers sighed.

“Oh?” said Joe. “How did you?”

“Of sex-induced heart failure on top of a gigolo in my eighties, wearing a fortune in jewels and nothing else. And drunker than any woman has ever been.”

He flushed deeply and didn’t manage to form a reply. Weaver actually laughed.

“And,” Peepers said in a more subdued tone, “certain my little brother was going to be taken care of…”

“He’ll be fine,” said Darling soothingly. “We will be fine.”

“You are so full of it,” Weaver snorted.

“Yeah.” Darling glanced over his shoulder and winked. “Luckily I keep enough of it on hand to throw into my enemies’ eyes. It’s always worked so far.”

“Ew,” said Peepers, wrinkling her nose.

“I think that metaphor got away from you,” Joe added.

Weaver shrugged. “Eh, they can’t all be winners.”

“Oh, shut up, all of you. We’re almost there. Mouths shut, eyes open, and be ready to fight or flee.”


“Of course,” Andros rumbled to himself, staring across the canal at the darkened district up ahead. “What better place? I’m a fool for not thinking of it.”

“Holy shit, that all looks abandoned,” Flora marveled. “How long has it been like this?”

“Less than a week,” said Savvy. “It’s not going to be left this way long, but while it’s there… Yes, it really is an ideal venue.”

They had stopped in the shade of two warehouses flanking the road which became a bridge into the condemned district. The spirit wolf had come unerringly here, then halted, glaring ahead with his hackles raised. He growled quietly until Andros rested a hand on his head.

Ingvar and Tholi immediately set to prowling around, investigating, with Flora and Fauna following suit after a moment. The elves, after peering in every direction, nimbly shimmied up lamp posts and perched improbably atop the fairy lights, peering ahead into the district. The two Huntsmen kept their attention chiefly on the ground, tracking back and forth.

“Cities,” Tholi muttered disparagingly. “Nothing leaves tracks.”

“Not easy tracks,” Ingvar said in a more even tone. “And the rains wash away what little there is very quickly. These are not elk, Tholi; be sure you are not following the wrong kind of spoor. Look.”

He had crossed to the foot of the bridge and knelt, drawing his hunting knife and carefully scraping it across the pavement.

“Infernal magic isn’t useful for stable area-of-effect spells, unlike arcane wards,” Ingvar said, holding up the knife. “It is anchored to something physical. In this case, the paving stones.”

The tip, where he had dragged it against the ground, was now spotted with rust. Even as they all stared, the reddish stain crept up the blade another half an inch.

“Infernal wards cause rust?” Fauna asked, frowning down at them.

“The weapons of Huntsmen are blessed by the Mother,” said Andros, glaring over the bridge.
“They do not decay, nor suffer damage from the elements. Heat, cold, moisture… Such an effect is the result of magical corruption. They are here, and they have warded this bridge against intrusion.” He began to glow subtly.

“What mother?” Flora asked.

“Honestly,” said Savvy, pointing at the wolf. “Have you ever seen divine magic used for anything like that? Most of the Huntsmen’s arts are fae in nature. I really need to explain this? I was almost certain you two were elves.”

“I don’t like you out of uniform,” Fauna announced.

“Enough,” Andros growled. “What can you see from that vantage?”

“Movement,” Flora said, peering into the dark district. “Through windows and gaps in walls, mostly. There’s activity directly ahead, hidden behind things. People moving inside buildings.”

“Without lights,” said Ingvar, nocking an arrow to his bow. “That’ll be the Wreath. Once we go in there it will be increasingly hard to track our quarry. They won’t appreciate our presence.”

“Let them come,” Tholi said, grinning savagely. Behind him, Ingvar rolled his eyes. “I just hope the Eserite we’ve come to rescue isn’t dead. If he’s running around in there with warlocks and demons after him… Doesn’t look good, does it?”

“Darling would die swiftly in our wilds,” Andros said, “but we fare almost as poorly in his. The man is adaptable and this is his city. He chose to enter there. I will believe he has fallen when I’ve buried him. We proceed.”

“Agreed,” Savvy said crisply, deftly smoothing her hair back with both hands. She shrugged out of her coat, reversed it and swept it back on, and just like that the illusion vanished, leaving the immaculately attired Butler straightening her tie.

“Uh,” Fauna asked, “what was the point of that, then?”

“Camouflage,” Andros said, nodding approvingly. “There are few enough Butlers in the city that some know all their faces, and their masters. Best not to advertize that Bishop Darling has run into trouble.”

“Wait!” Flora said suddenly, straightening. “I see people coming into the square— It’s him! And the others!”

“And more coming out of hiding,” Fauna added. “In robes. With demons.”

“Then this is the time,” Andros declared, starting forward and raising his bow. The spirit wolf stalked at his side. “Ingvar, Tholi, strike down the demons. I will attend to any infernal arts used against us.”

“And the people?” Ingvar asked. “The warlocks?”

Before he had finished speaking, Price strode forward onto the bridge, gliding smoothly down its center. Flora and Fauna leaped from their perches, landing on either side of the Butler. The three of them walked without apparent hurry, but at a pace that devoured the distance between them and Darling.

“That,” said Andros with a grim smile as he stepped forward after them, “appears to be attended to.”


Teal staggered slightly upon materializing, but quickly caught her balance and straightened, self-consciously smoothing her coat.

“That’s a neat trick,” Sarriki noted, pausing as she slithered past with a tray of empty mugs, bound for the bar. “You shouldn’t be able to teleport into here. Are you even a wizard?”

“Not using arcane magic, no,” the bard said with a smile, holding up a waystone. “But the Crawl’s methods work just fine.”

The naga cocked her head to the side. “I thought you kids couldn’t afford to buy from Shamlin.”

“Shamlin has decided to return to the surface,” Teal explained. “As such, he was quite interested in Tiraan bank notes. Where’s Professor Ezzaniel?”

“Here,” he said from the second level of the bar. “And what are you up to, Miss Falconer? It is not generally wise to split up the party.”

Teal tilted her head back, staring mutely up at him for a moment. “It’s funny how you’re supposed to be evaluating our progress down here, yet you haven’t been around for any of it. You just sit here drinking and chatting with the other patrons.”

“Since you make such a point of my absence, what makes you think you know what I’ve been doing while not under your eyes?” Ezzaniel leaned one arm against the railing and smiled down at her.

Teal stared at him thoughtfully, then glanced at Sarriki, who chuckled and set about pulling herself up the steps.

“It’s not like you to nakedly evade a question like that, Professor,” she said quietly.

Ezzaniel raised an eyebrow. “I assure you, Miss Falconer, everything is attended to. Professor Tellwyrn has made appropriate arrangements for you to be graded fairly.”

“I don’t doubt she has. Where is Rowe?”

The Professor shrugged. “I don’t much wonder about him when he is not in front of me. He is entertaining company, but in a rather exhausting way. One does get tired of always keeping a hand on one’s purse strings.”

She turned from him and bounded up the stairs in two long leaps, then paused, glancing around. The Grim Visage was fairly quiet at the moment. A lone drow man was nursing a drink in the far corner; he nodded politely to her as her gaze fell on him. A small party of five goblins were conversing quietly next to the fireplace. Not far away, Sarriki was clearing dishes and trash off an empty table.

Teal squared her shoulders and strode past the naga, straight through the curtained doorway next to the bar.

She paused only momentarily in the kitchen beyond, quickly taking in its meager furnishings and stored food at a glance, then stepped across the floor to study the door opposite the exit. It was secured with multiple locks. Unlike most of the rusted, battered and apparently recycled equipment the students had seen in most parts of the Crawl, these looked new. Clean, strong, and highly effective. Teal didn’t need to start tampering with them to know there was magic at work, too. This door would not be opened by someone who wasn’t entitled.

“You know, you’re not supposed to be back here.”

She turned slowly to look at Sarriki, who stood framed in the doorway, her arms braced against it on both sides.

“My friends are going directly to Level 100,” she said quietly.

“Oh?” The naga smiled, a bland, languid expression. The light framing her wasn’t bright enough to make her features difficult to see, but it was sufficiently darker in the kitchen than in the bar that the contrast made for good dramatic effect. “Excellent. I had a feeling, you know. And I’ve just won a bet. If they manage to beat the boss, I’ll be absolutely rolling in it.”

“The going theory,” Teal went on, “is that the final boss of the Descent is the Naga Queen.”

“Interesting idea. My people mostly live far below, you realize. It’s rare that any of us climb to this level.”

“Mm hm. It would fit, though, wouldn’t it? She’s easily the most formidable personality in the Crawl… One possibly powerful enough the Professor Tellwyrn wouldn’t want to leave her running around at liberty.”

Sarriki shrugged. “Whatever. Your friends are hard-hitters; they have as good a chance as anyone. I’m fairly confident of my odds.”

“You have more at stake here than a bet, don’t you?” Teal asked softly.

The naga’s eyes hardened. “Little girl, it is seldom wise to stick your nose into other people’s business. Now, if you’re hungry, kindly come back out front and I’ll make you something. This area is not for patrons.”

“Where’s Rowe? It’s odd for him not to be around. With Melaxyna placing bounties on his head, it’s not exactly safe for him to leave, is it?”

“Child,” Sarriki said sharply, “I’m losing patience. There’ll be no fighting in here, but you’ll find there is a lot I can do to make your stay in the Visage and the Crawl unpleasant if you disrupt the peace in my bar. Now, for the last time, out.”

“Actually,” said Teal, stepping aside and pointing at the locked cellar door, “I need to get through here.”

Sarriki actually laughed, loudly. “Oh, you silly little thing. That is not going to happen.”


They were familiar with the drill by now, after making extensive use of Melaxyna’s portal and waystone. Immediately upon landing, the students unlinked arms, Fross zipping out from under Ruda’s hat, and fell into formation, weapons up, eying their new surroundings carefully.

It was definitely the Descent. The distinctive proportions of the room were right, and the staircase behind them was just like those they had seen dozens of times before. It was the contents of the room that made them all straighten, staring.

“Well,” Toby said after a moment, “I don’t know what I was expecting.”

The wall were covered with masterfully painted murals, all depicting in exquisite detail their adventures through the Crawl thus far. The scenes blended one into the next as they marched around the walls, but everything was familiar, if portrayed somewhat more dramatically than the events had actually occurred. Juniper laughing in delight as she hugged a capling, Trissiny standing at the foot of the throne with Melaxyna smirking down at her, the whole group in disarray and being chased by boars, Gabriel studying an invisible maze with an expression of intense thought while the others ostentatiously bickered around him, the group lined up facing a row of chessmen. The scenes continued, wrapping around the chamber and showing the details of every step of their journey through the Descent, though they did not portray anything from before or after that. Nothing of the Grim Visage, the complex of dream-inducing mists, Shamlin’s grotto or the Naga Queen’s shrine.

There were statues, too, nine of them. Towering marble depictions of the students lined an avenue straight toward the opposite end of the chamber, each over eight feet tall even without the plinths on which they stood. At the far end, rather than another staircase downward, there was a semicircular indentation in the wall, in which stood an even larger statue, this one of the Naga Queen.

Of the Queen herself, there was no sign.

“I kind of wish I had one of those lightcappers,” Juniper mused. “Remember, from Tiraas? I mean, just look at these portraits! Makes me feel kinda proud, y’know?”

“Maybe we can come back with one?” Gabriel suggested.

“Unlikely,” said Fross. “This was all arranged for us on this visit. I bet it’ll all be blank as soon as we leave.”

“Experience is by nature a transient thing,” Shaeine said quietly.

“Only one direction to go,” Trissiny said, stepping forward. Ruda fell into step right beside her, the others quickly following suit.

They came up short a moment later, before they’d gone ten feet, when the sound of clapping began to echo throughout the chamber. Slow, rhythmic, and coming from only a single pair of hands, it resounded sourcelessly from the stone on every side, leaving them peering around again, weapons raised.

He materialized then, fading from invisibility into view atop the Naga Queen’s statue, where he was perched on her stone shoulder. Rowe continued to applaud, smirking down at them.

“Well done, kids. Well done. I congratulate you on your highly improbable victory.”

“Son of a bitch,” Gabriel murmured, not noticing the sour look Trissiny shot him. “Teal was right.”


“I have a theory,” Teal said, drawing the snake flute from within her coat. “One I’ve been working on since we came here. A lot of the pieces to the puzzle were hard to find, but several of the more important ones fell into place for us just recently.”

Sarriki had fallen still, eyes fixed on the flute. Her expression was purely hungry. Teal raised the instrument toward her lips.

“Let’s see if we can come to an understanding, your Majesty.”

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6 – 29

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They made excellent time; the Butler was half a head shorter than the elves and had shorter legs to match, but she stayed in the lead the entire time, not quite compelling them to rush. Not being the swiftest members of a group was an unfamiliar experience for them. It wouldn’t have been wise to run, though. Three women walking through the city was not a sight interesting enough to draw attention, but matters became different when two of them were elves, and more different still when one of the elves wore a sweeping cloak and the other a suit of black leather with ostentatiously displayed daggers. Running would have set the police on them.

“You are two Thieves’ Guild apprentices,” Price said as they rapidly crossed one of the city’s oldest districts under a darkening sky. She kept her eyes straight ahead and her voice to a bare whisper, but of course they could hear perfectly. “You are elves. That’s all. No matter what we end up seeing tonight, you will keep a sense of context in mind. Show the world anything beside what they expect of you and it’ll create trouble for all of us. Especially the Bishop. The kind of trouble from which there’s no coming back.”

“If it comes to an emergency—” Flora clamped her mouth shut as Price half-turned her head to give her a flat look.

“Why are we coming here?” Fauna asked in audible disgust.

“The Bishop has made it clear that with regard to the business at hand, the Guild can’t be considered reliable,” Price replied flatly. “And it should be obvious why we’re not going to the Empire for help. If you have a better idea, the time to say so was when we were leaving the house. Now hush.”

With that, she set off up the long staircase to the city’s main temple of Shaath, in bounds that consumed three steps at a time. The apprentices fell silent as ordered, following her.

At the top, a bearded man in ceremonial leathers, carrying a longbow, nodded politely to them. “Welcome, girls. Can I help you with—”

“Nope,” Price said curtly, sailing past him. He raised his eyebrows, turning to watch the three women vanish inside, but made no further comment and didn’t pursue.

“Odd how polite he was,” Flora murmured. “I’d have expected—”

“Hsst!” Price snapped, making a beeline for the only group of people present. The dim, barbarically ornate sanctuary was quiet at this hour, with only two Huntsmen in attendance. They stood at the far end near the large wolf statue, apparently doing nothing but talking quietly, their poses relaxed. Either they were simply stopping for a chat or Shaath didn’t require much formality from his ceremonial guards.

Both turned as the Eserites approached, expressions curious but not unfriendly. The older one had no beard; the younger had only the earliest scruffy stages of one, and appeared not much past fifteen. The beardless elder opened his mouth to speak, but Price beat him to it.

“I need to speak with Bishop Varanus.”

“All right,” the Huntsman said, in a deep but evidently female voice. “Why is that, and who are you?”

“You can call me Savvy, and it’s about Bishop Darling. There’s a problem. An urgent one.”

“Mm.” The Huntsman eyed her up and down, then flicked a cool gaze over Flora and Fauna. “I see. Tholi, go find the Bishop and bring him here with all haste.”

The boy took one step toward the rear door of the hall, then hesitated. “And…what shall I tell him?”

“The truth,” replied the Huntsman, giving him an irritated look. “There are three Eserites here asking for him, and it’s to do with that blonde poof.”

“Got it,” he said with a grin, then darted off.

“You’re Brother Ingvar?” Price—Savvy—inquired.

“Mm hm. So he remembered my name? I’m surprised.”

Savvy shrugged, took three steps backward and leaned against a carved pillar, producing a coin from within her sleeve, which she began rolling across the backs of her fingers. “Everyone makes mistakes, Huntsman. Only a fool doesn’t learn from them.”

“That’s very wise,” Ingvar replied in a completely neutral tone. “Can I get you ladies anything while you wait? It won’t be long, but I would have guests be comfortable in our lodge.”

“Thanks, but I’d rather not be comfortable,” Savvy said, keeping her gaze on the coin. It flashed in the dim light of the braziers as she manipulated it. “I’ll be comfortable when all this is settled.”

“As you like,” Ingvar said mildly, turning an inquiring gaze on the two elves. When they shook their heads, he nodded to them politely and folded his arms, staring down the length of the hall at its opposite door.

“I’m a little surprised by the reception,” Fauna said after nearly a minute’s silence. “I expected…subdued hostility.”

“Oh, and why’s that?” Savvy asked quietly. Ingvar flicked his gaze over to them, but didn’t join in the conversation.

“Well, it’s not as if our cults get along,” Flora said.

“And everyone knows how Shaathists are about women,” Fauna added.

“Apparently you don’t. Shaath always needs women.” Savvy made the coin vanish into her sleeve and straightened up, dividing a long look between them. “Your training has been mostly on practical matters, but you need at least a basic grasp of the theologies of the other cults. Particularly the ones we tend to butt heads with. The Huntsmen are always looking to recruit women. A successful man in this faith is one who can afford to provide for two or more wives; just by the numbers, they need to have more women than men in their ranks. The bar is set accommodatingly low for female converts to Shaathism, but men have to prove a great deal before being allowed to join a lodge from outside the faith. You can walk into any Shaathist lodge, anywhere, and if you don’t mind a generally condescending attitude toward your faculties, you’ll have no cause for complaint about your treatment. Now, if you marry a Shaathist, your ass is his to do with as he pleases. But for an unattached female, a lodge is probably as safe a place to seek shelter as an Avenist temple. Creepy and not pleasant, but safe.”

“Huh,” Flora said, sounding flummoxed.

“Relating to that,” Savvy added with a faint smirk, “spend any amount of time around here and you will be courted. Aggressively.”

“Tholi is newly raised to the rank of Huntsman,” Ingvar chimed in with an amused smile, “and looking for his first wife. Give him an hour or so to decide which of you he wants and you’ll see what she means. It’s a rare honor for a Huntsman to claim an elf maid for his own.”

“Him and what army?” Fauna said, baring her teeth and placing a hand on the hilt of her dagger. Ingvar laughed.

At that moment, the rear door opened again and Bishop Varanus himself emerged, crossing to them with long strides, Tholi trailing along behind. Andros wore traditional leather, with a pelt of some spotted animal hanging from his shoulders like a cape; he carried a longbow in one hand, and a heavy knife and hatchet hung at his belt. He came to a stop next to them, studying the three.

“What is this about, then?” he asked without preamble.

“Bishop Darling went off about four hours ago with a companion, tracking two other allies of his through metaphysical means,” Savvy reported crisply. “The two in question were pursuing a nest of the Black Wreath. He left instructions to seek help if he wasn’t back by dinner, which he was not. So here we are.”

Andros drew in a long breath through his nose and let it out quickly. “How many Wreath? Of what potency? With what demonic allies?”

“Everything I know, I’ve just told you,” Savvy said evenly.

“And you cannot go to your Guild with this?”

“The Guild’s skills are not most applicable here,” she replied, “and besides, the Bishop believes they are compromised by the Wreath. I have no idea where he is, only that he is certainly in some trouble. We need trackers.

Andros grunted in agreement. “Antonio is a dismal excuse for a fighter. What possessed him to chase a bear into its den?”

“The allies he’s with are far from weak.”

“Allies?”

“Gravestone Weaver and the Sarasio Kid.”

Tholi’s eyes widened and he bit back a curse. Ingvar simply lifted an eyebrow, watching Andros.

The Bishop himself stroked his beard once with the hand not occupied with his bow, frowning. “There is a limit to what powers the Wreath can bring to bear within the city. Hn…very well. If Antonio has been delayed, he is presumably in danger, and requires assistance. Hopefully those allies will suffice to hold out. Come.”

He turned and strode off toward the front door. Price immediately fell into step behind him, followed by Ingvar. Tholi and the elves brought up the rear, eying one another warily.

“Is this…all?” Flora asked. “This is the only help you’re bringing?”

“There are few Huntsmen in residence, and mustering them will take time we cannot spare,” Andros replied curtly. “Ingvar is one of the lodge’s finest, and Tholi…can run ahead, beating the bushes.”

Ingvar grinned, and Tholi devoted a self-defeating amount of effort to not looking sullen.

“And what about you?” he countered, glaring at Flora. “Three women is the only thing you offer your Bishop in a time of need?”

“This woman is a Butler,” Andros said.

“I don’t see a uniform,” Tholi snipped.

“You don’t see the world,” Ingvar replied calmly, and the youth fell silent, flushing.

“And these two are only partially trained,” Andros continued, “but you should know that elves are never to be taken lightly.”

Sweeping outside, he paused at the top of the steps, turning to face them. “I need something of Antonio’s.”

Price instantly produced a strip of cloth from inside her coat, handing it to him. The four Huntsmen, including the one watching the door, paused to regard the paisley silk scarf with identical expressions, then Andros raised two fingers to his mouth and let out a long, sharp whistle.

A shape formed seemingly out of thin air, a bluish-white discoloration upon the world, as if it were an invisible presence wreathed in frost. It was a wolf, standing waist-high on the Huntsman who had summoned it, eyes glowing like blue candle flames and a faint but steady mist trailing off its fur. Andros held the scarf in front of its nose.

“Find this lost friend,” he said softly, tucking his bow under his arm to stroke the ghostly animal’s neck.

The wolf made a soft whuff, then whirled and bounded down the steps. It paused at the bottom, looking up at them, its aspect clearly impatient.

“And now,” Andros said with a grin, “we hunt.”


 

Joe fired off another warning shot, blasting a spray of rubble from the corner of the building up ahead. “I confess it’s downright liberating, doing something like this in a civilian-free landscape for which I won’t be held financially liable.”

“Yeah, something about this city is just asking to be shot to hell,” Weaver said tersely; he held a wand in one hand and his flute in the other. He’d not distributed earplugs, so hopefully he was planning to rely on the former, not the latter. “Did you get it?”

“Nope,” said Joe, keeping his gaze on the now-smoking corner around which the demon had retreated. “Just scared it off.”

“Means there’s a warlock behind it somewhere,” said Darling. “Katzils are smart, but not sentient; once on the hunt it wouldn’t retreat unless ordered to.”

“Cat and mouse it is, then,” Joe murmured, tearing his eyes from the corner to peer warily about.

“Guys, we might all die out here,” said Peepers solemnly, “so…just so we don’t go out with any unfinished business, I want you to know I hate you all.”

“Aw, somebody’s not having fun,” Darling said, grinning at her. “Relax, Peepers, we’re gonna be fine. Think of it as a great game—the great game. You know your catechism, surely.”

“I’m fully comfortable thinking of theft, espionage and extortion as games,” she snapped. “That I was trained for. I did not apprentice myself to the Thieves’ Guild because I wanted to be chased around by fucking demons.”

“And warlocks!” Weaver said helpfully.

“Hate. You. All.” She viciously kicked a chunk of fallen masonry out of the road. “Except maybe Joe. Mostly because he’ll let me slap him upside the head if we survive this.”

“Excuse me?” Joe said, affronted. “What did I do?”

“Come now, vaudeville while we move, please,” Darling said, setting off for a side alley.

“Let’s keep going to the next alley,” Weaver said. “That one’d put us straight down the line of sight of that demon’s last known position.”

“Oh, it could be anywhere by now,” Darling breezed. “Worry about the demons when you see them. This really is a game, guys. It cannot go on long and it can’t involve a huge amount of force. It’s only a matter of time and not much of that before the Empire or the Church realizes this district is blockaded with infernal magic. The Wreath doesn’t deal in brute force tactics; whatever they’ve fielded against us will be fine for chasing around a ragtag band of misfits, but not enough to stand against an Imperial strike team or squad of Silver Legionnaires. Keep moving, keep alert, and we’ll get through the night just fine.”

Weaver actually walked backward a few paces as they proceeded down Darling’s selected alley, peering up the street where the katzil demon had last been seen. “Fine, whatever. I still think going straight would have been safer. We’re backtracking toward where we shot at that guy with the staff. Likely to be more Wreath in the vicinity.”

“When we don’t know where the Wreath may be, assume they could be anywhere!” Darling said cheerfully.

“Hate you so much,” Peepers growled.

“Then why this alley?” Weaver demanded.

Darling turned his head and grinned at him.


 

Carter staggered as the latest swell of shadows deposited them on another rooftop, bracing himself against the low wall surrounding its edge. A figure in gray robes, accompanied by a hulking, crocodile-like demon—a khankredahg, that’s what they were called—prowled the streets below.

“How’re you holding up, Mr. Long?” Embras Mogul asked solicitously. “Shadow-jumping itself is perfectly harmless to the body and spirit, I can assure you, but I know any kind of rapid teleportation can be disorienting. Particularly if one isn’t used to it.”

“I’m…fine,” Carter said, straightening and taking a breath, and finding that he more or less was. “This is…well, not what I was expecting.”

“We aim to entertain,” Mogul said with a grin and a bow. “And now, if you don’t mind a momentary respite from the action, I’m going to offer you the chance to see something even most warlocks never manage to behold.”

“Oh?” Carter reflexively pressed himself back against the wall. It was a four-story drop, but he’d never had a problem with heights. He had what he felt was a perfectly reasonable aversion to demonology, though.

“All this running around, stalking shadows and shooting around corners is very exciting, to be sure,” Mogul said, reaching into his inner coat pockets. He produced an ancient-looking clay bottle and set it upright on the flat rooftop, then pulled forth a handful of fine gray powder, which he trailed around it, forming a circle. “However, I find that I’ve somewhat lost my taste for playing games for their own sake as I grow older. Our visitors are proving to be exactly the kind of delightful challenge I enjoy when I don’t actually have anything that needs to get done, but this isn’t the night for it. Here we are, wasting your valuable time and keeping me from my beauty rest. So! I’m arranging a little shortcut. It’s cheating, really; takes a lot of the fun out of the game. A man must do what he must, though. You know how it is.”

As he chattered, he had knelt beside the bottle and its boundary of powder—which was lying remarkably flat despite the light wind over the rooftop—and begun augmenting the circle with a piece of chalk, adding glyphs and embellishments whose meaning was completely lost to Carter. He flipped to a new page in his notebook, though, and began making a sketch, leaving out the glyphs. Writing down demonic symbols, especially summoning symbols, seemed like an invitation to trouble.

“Since we have a moment to breathe,” he said while they both worked, “may I ask about what we saw in that alley? That was obviously the symbol of Vidius, who isn’t known to be very proactive in combating Elilial. Or, at least, he doesn’t have that reputation among most mortal laypeople. I guess everything looks different from the Wreath’s perspective. What could create an effect like that, if there wasn’t a Vidian priest nearby?”

“Well, for starters, that neatly answered the question of what happened to my succubus,” Embras mused, continuing to draw on the floor. “This has been a night of firsts for us all, Mr. Long. Suffice it to say there are much more dangerous things than demons prowling this night. But not to worry! You and I are perfectly safe. I don’t have much to fear from holy symbols, which are about the worst that Vidius’s little pets can throw onto the mortal plane, though I don’t fancy trying to walk through one and having to replace most of my personal effects as a result. It’s all terribly inconvenient, though. Now I have to re-summon Vlesni, and she’s always such a pain about it.” He looked up at Carter and winked. “She’s a sweet girl, really, just can’t resist the opportunity to be a pain in the butt. The children of Vanislaas are like that, as you may have heard. She’s forever trying to sneak her friends through, as if I need extraneous demons cluttering up the place. Believe me, Mr. Long, you never want a demon around that you haven’t fully planned for, and prepared the means to both control them and get rid of them when you’re done.”

“I must say the most surprising thing to me is how responsible you seem to be about diabolism,” Carter remarked. “The last time I heard this much talk about safety measures I was interviewing a professional wandfighter.”

“Betcha I have more reason to worry than he did,” Mogul said glibly. “Worst thing you can do with a wand is kill somebody. All right, now, prepare to feast your eyes!”

With a dramatic flourish, he plucked the lead stopper from the upright bottle and stepped back.

A thick mist immediately poured out, curling upward and filling the air with the scent of spices and an ocean breeze. The smoke coalesced, rapidly taking the shape of a man—or at least, the upper half of one. Below the waist he trailed off into a swirling funnel of smoke, the tail of which poured into the mouth of the bottle. Above he was shirtless, muscular, and bald as a melon. And, at the moment, grinning broadly.

“Finally,” he said, his voice resonating as though heard down a long tunnel.

“Getting antsy, are we?” Mogul said, grinning in return. “Now, you know how I like to solve things for myself. If I weren’t in such a hurry—”

“Oh, Embras, you know I don’t care about that,” the smoke-creature interrupted. “But I do keep an eye on you, and I did so desperately want to see the look on your face when this one was explained to you.”

“Is that a djinn?” Carter breathed.

“It most surely is,” Embras said brightly. “Mr. Long, may I present Ali Al-Famibad, an old acquaintance and colleague of mine. Ali, this is Carter Long, noted journalist.”

“Indeed, I quite enjoyed your column, when it was circulating,” the djinn said, bowing elaborately to Carter, which was a very peculiar sight given his lack of legs.

“I…you… Well, it’s news to me that the Herald is distributed in Hell,” Carter said weakly.

Ali let out a booming laugh. “My good man, I am, after all, a djinn! Knowledge is what I do. Knowledge is what I am. And I rather miss your opinion column, I must confess. Naturally the position as reporter makes better career and financial sense from your standpoint, but when dealing with the facts you tend to suppress that sly wit of yours. ‘Tis a loss to the world.”

“Why…thank you,” Carter said, bemused.

“Glad as I am to see you all getting along,” Embras interjected, “I have a little problem, Ali.”

“Ah, yes, your Eserites.” Turning back to him, the djinn grinned broadly, an expression with more than a hint of cruel mockery. “I have advised you time and again not to antagonize Eserion’s followers—they play your little games as well as you, and with less courtesy. As a case in point, you’ll be wanting to know where the good Bishop Darling and his friends will poke their heads up next, yes?”

“Quite so,” Embras replied, then turned to Carter. “By the way, Mr. Long, Ali and I have a long-standing and fully enforceable contract. Should you ever find yourself in a position to ask a favor of a djinn, or any sentient demon, don’t. The loopholes will get you every time. It’s not only a joke that lawyers make the best warlocks.”

“I can’t really see that coming up,” Carter said, “as until two minutes ago I thought djinn were a myth. But thanks for the advice.”

“Here it is, then,” Ali boomed, and dissolved. He swirled about above the circle as a cloud of smoke for a moment, before resolving his shape into a visual representation of the district. The demon’s voice echoed sourcelessly out of the diagram. “And here is the path taken from your meeting point by the Bishop.”

A golden mote flared to life near one edge of the diorama, which did indeed resemble the nexus of streets where Carter remembered seeing them, or so he thought; it was very hard to align the map with his recollection of the area from the ground. The mote moved off rapidly down the tiny streets, leaving behind a glowing thread of gold tracing the path taken by the Bishop and his party.

Its form almost immediately was apparent. It was somewhat distorted by the angular nature of the paths they were obliged to take, conforming to the street grid, but there were enough alleys of various dimensions to give Darling enough free reign, it seemed. The golden thread traced out, in oddly blocky cursive script, a brief message.

“Well,” Mogul said after a moment of silent perusal. “I do say that seems rather…gratuitous.”

“How does he know the streets that well?” Carter marveled.

“It says ‘fuck you!’” Ali crowed from within the diagram. They didn’t need to see his face to know he was grinning. “Or it will when he gets to the end.”

“Yes, I can read Tanglish, thank you,” Mogul said dryly.

“How does he know the streets?” the djinn continued. “He is the streets. You’re one of the best operators it has ever been my privilege to know, Embras, but you’ve let your perceptions of Antonio Darling be colored by your first encounter with him, in a tiny town where you were in your element and he was wildly out of his. You’ve skillfully sealed off this district, which is the only way for you to safely tangle with that man in the streets of Tiraas. Know this, Embras Mogul: the next time you do, you’ll learn humility.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Mogul said solemnly. “So the question is, does he expect to be intercepted at the end of his little script? What trick might be prepared there? Or… You know what, no.” He shook his head. “You can drive yourself nuts playing ‘does he know that I know that he knows.’ No, I do believe I’m fed up with this foolishness. Come Mr. Long, let’s bring this to a conclusion.”

The three-dimensional map dissolved back into smoke, and then re-formed in the shape of the djinn’s upper body. Still smiling unpleasantly, he bowed again. “I have rendered my advice, Embras Mogul. Thus is our contract upheld. Ignore my counsel at your peril.”

“Thank you, I believe I shall.” Mogul bent forward and stuck the plug back in the bottle. Above it, the djinn dissipated instantly into the air, taking with him the exotic scent of whatever incense it was. “After all,” the warlock added, picking up the bottle and straightening, leaving the summoning circle inscribed on the floor, “life without peril is just too easy to be worth it. Don’t you think so, Mr. Long?”

Carter very much did not agree, but found himself with no safely polite way to say so.

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