HE hated this city.

The stray thought came out of nowhere as Gabriel darted over the rooftops of Craine, each step carrying him deeper into the city all the while threatening to spill him down into the street so far below. A soft rain turned the footing treacherous but the distant rumble of thunder managed to cover his occasional missteps. There was no time! He and Merasiël had only just arrived here in Craine to handle other matters when word of the impending strike had filtered through their usual contacts. Had the target been any other name, Gabriel doubted either of them would care.

Below, three stories down, a magnificently crafted carriage trundled over the cobblestone street, flanked by a quartet of elaborately dressed (and utterly useless in a fight) ceremonial Curia Guards. The embossed seal stamped upon either door identified the carriage’s origin – Caithness – if the shagginess of the horses leading it did not. Within was the newly elected archbishop of Caithness come to negotiate an end to the ongoing hostilities between his country and that of Megalos.

And that man was marked to die.

Gabriel kept pace with the carriage below – not an easy task, given the slick rooftops and the generally poor footing – all the while reviewing his mental map of Craine to determine the spot most likely for an ambush. It was coming up shortly – this street would bear right and then open up into a much wider avenue that connected to one of the wide bridges that connected this half of the city to the other – and he silently cursed. There was no way to warn Merasiël. She was, as far as he could tell, on the other side of this street, ranging alongside the carriage in an identical manner.

The carriage slowed as the street veered toward the wider avenue, momentarily coming closer to Gabriel’s position, and in that moment, chaos erupted. Concealed crossbowmen threw aside their cover and lurched into view, bowstrings snapping sharply. All four of the Curia Guards fell, though one of them looked only wounded as he clawed for his sword even while toppling to the cobblestones. More of the ambushers sprang out of hiding, emerging from shops or from behind conveniently located obstacles.

Gabriel did not hesitate for even a moment.

He reached the lip of the building at a dead sprint and was airborne an instant later, landing atop the carriage with one foot and letting inertia carry him the rest of the way. His intended target had not yet loosed his crossbow but did so now with a panicked gasp at his unexpected appearance – the bolt splintered against Gabriel’s cuirass, sending shards of wood spinning through the air, and he grunted at the bruising impact. It did not slow him in the slightest – the flash of pain was distant while he floated in the Void, in the Oneness where all concerns, whether they be emotions, thoughts, or the possibility of death, were gone, fed into the flame of his will – and Misericordia flashed out with a soft, mournful hum. River of Light sent the man sprawling in a rain of crimson. He was not dead – not yet – but the spray barely abated even as the man clutched at his ruined neck.

Gabriel hit the street a heartbeat before his victim, absorbing the impact of the landing by tucking forward and rolling. Something briefly tugged at his cloak – another crossbow bolt, he supposed, narrowly missing his flesh – but it did not slow him as he came to his feet mere steps from more would-be murderers. He danced ruin among them, his music steel against steel. Morning Rain on Ice flowed into Arc of the Moon. A man fell, screaming but Gabriel did not hear it. Kissing the Adder became Falling Coins on Stone. A solid bar of light burned away the night, immolating one of the men so quickly that he had no chance to scream. Into the heart of the murderers Gabriel danced. Black Pebbles on Snow became Parting the Silk. He saw men down that he had not slain, knew that Merasiël was dancing her own song amongst them, her blades coming from the shadows as she pounced. It was how they fought together – he would spring in, draw all eyes, and she would lunge seemingly out of nowhere, oft times from directly behind them. Snow in High Wind flowed into Mongoose Takes A Viper. Another man fell. And then another, shrieking as that burning light once more stabbed out, igniting clothes and flesh. Gabriel sidestepped a wild thrust from his last foe and countered – Viper in Low Grass punched Compatior through the man’s striking arm, delaying him just long enough for Unfolding the Fan to silence the murderer’s screams forever. He let the corpse topple as he pulled both weapons free, flicking them slightly to ensure they were not stained with blood, and quickly surveyed the blood-soaked streets. Automatically, he fell into Cat Crosses the Courtyard to maximize alertness and reaction speed, but it hardly seemed necessary.

There were two young men – boys, really, though they had hard faces – standing alongside the now open carriage door, each with a quarterstaff in one hand and fire in the other. They were staring at Gabriel with aggression in every line of their bodies and barely contained fear in their eyes, but he gave them only a brief glance before letting his eyes slip toward the man they ostensibly stood to protect. It was understandable why they might be concerned. Not only had he dropped out of the sky and killed six … no, seven men in a matter of heartbeats, but to their gaze, he was little more than a blur of shadows and distorted shapes. That was really Gestlin’s fault since he’d ‘upgraded’ the hunter’s cloak many years ago. It excelled at times, floundered at others, much like the irritating hum that Misericordia uttered when wielded or the equally frustrating blue-white glow the rapier emitted, both of which the wizard had insisted were unintentional additions to his magical upgrades all the while trying to conceal his glee. That too had to be disconcerting to these boys’ eyes: a shadow wielding what looked to solid bar of light? Had he encountered someone adorned in this way when he was their age, he knew that he would have hesitated to act as well.

“Release,” the old man who stood in their center ordered in a sharp tone that expected absolute obedience. He was thinner than Gabriel recalled and what hair he still had was now completely white. His face was lined, both from stress and exhaustion, but his eyes were still bright and far too knowing. At his command, the two boys dropped their hands, quenching the flames. They did not shift their gaze, though, and seemed poised on the verge of summoning more witchfire. “See to the injured,” the old man instructed sharply, not even bothering to give either of his acolytes a glance. They leapt to obey, allowing him to refocus on Gabriel. “Your assistance was most timely, my friend,” he then said with a smile.

In the distance, Gabriel could hear the pounding of hooves and the shrill cry of whistles hinting at the Watch’s inevitable approach. He slid both weapons into their sheaths, causing them to vanish under his cloak and took a subtle half-step back, away from the man watching him, away from his past. How long had he been running from that? Even with Merasiël there, it still felt like running. He wanted to say something, anything, but no words came, and thankfully, the white-haired clergyman took mercy on him.

“Go, Brother Gabriel,” Archbishop Mendel said with a soft, sad smile. “And thank you.”

Without a sound, Gabriel stepped back into the alleyway to his back and allowed the shadows to swallow him.

He waited until no one was watching to scramble up the building’s surface.

Doing so was even easier than it normally would have been, once more due to the magical equipment that Gestlin had crafted so many years ago. The gloves and boots that Gabriel wore seemed wrought of simple leather, but they allowed him to adhere to solid walls even when there were no handholds. At the time of their crafting, Gestlin had named them ‘spidey-gloves and boots’ before grumbling that they should have been red with white piping and muttering about something called webshooters as well, though Gabriel had tuned him out by that point. Merasiël bore a set as well and these items had saved their lives on more occasions than Gabriel could count. They also gave them access to locations where normal men and women could not reach, allowing them to accomplish tasks that should have been impossible.

The elven medallion he wore under his cuirass warmed slightly as Gabriel reached the top of the building and then tugged him to his left. Keeping low and silent, he ghosted along the roof, allowing the device to lead him to where Merasiël was. She too was hidden from sight thanks to her cloak and the medallions had become necessary following that incident in Araterre some years back where they lost an entire night trying to find each other while in a slaver camp that they did not wish to alert.

“Here,” Merasiël murmured as he crept toward her hiding spot. She extended a hand from underneath her cloak and Gabriel knelt alongside her. Instantly, she reached out to touch him which was something of a surprise, but his momentary shock faded when her questing fingers crawled across his cuirass. Oh. Of course. The crossbow bolt. Until now, he had not realized how painful that had been – the bruise would likely be quite ugly when he finally removed his cuirass – but he folded the dull ache into a part of his mind where he could ignore it. The Void made it feel like someone else’s pain. He heard her exhale softly in relief before withdrawing her hand.

In any other place, at any other time, he would have teased her for doing so – between them, he was usually, by far, the more expressive. Oh, Gabriel knew that Mera cared for him – she would not have borne their son, Thorondil, if she did not – but life had left her incapable of displaying her softer side except in rare moments. When they were alone like this, she was more open to him than any other person alive, sometimes even briefly forgetting the dark tragedies of her life to smile at his occasional witticisms. Never when anyone else was present, of course, but still. Once, he’d even caught her singing and she had not trailed off in embarrassed silence upon realizing that he was awake and listening, though after she finished her song, she did threaten to castrate him with a rusty spoon if he mocked her for it. Not that he would have ever thought of doing so – she might have atrocious timing and unspeakably bad form when it came to dancing, but her singing voice was quite pleasant. For that matter, he thought nothing about speaking his mind to her, whatever or wherever his thoughts went, even if afterward, he might wish he’d kept silent. It was the strangest relationship he’d ever had and to his very great surprise, Gabriel had long ago realized that he was content with the arrangement. Wherever he went, whatever dangers he faced, however great the fire, Merasiël would be there with him and she knew he would follow her to hell if necessary. Again. Or for the first time. Whatever was the case. Gabriel thrust the momentary burst of reflection aside, burying it under a layer of mental ice. Merasiël was speaking and he needed to listen.

“Two watchers,” she whispered, her voice pitched for his ears only. Her free hand pointed first in one direction, then in another before vanishing once more under her cloak. It took him a long moment – her eyes were so much better than his, no matter that he wore a ring to enhance both his night vision and his general visual acuity – but he finally located both of the watchers indicated. They were stretched out upon their respective rooftops, crossbows aimed toward the carriage now swarming with city watch and church soldiers. Loosing a bolt now would be suicide, particular given the archbishop’s clear arcane capability. Both men were also watching the rooftops around them with what would have been paranoia had Gabriel not suspected they were trying to find him or Merasiël. Under his hood, he smiled slightly.

“I would very much like to speak to those men,” he said very, very softly. This had been an expensive proposition, in between the better than average capabilities of the would-be murderers and their knowledge about Mendel’s path.

“I am thinking that I would like fish for dinner this evening,” Merasiël murmured calmly as she began inching away, angling toward her target. Neither had to discuss a plan – they would part, each seeking the man closest, and later, they would argue over which of them had accomplished the task first without ever being able to prove the answer either way.

“I’d prefer lamb,” he replied, equally soft. He was tired of fish. Really, really tired. Twenty days on a boat with little more than that to eat? Frowning, he let the Void wash over his thoughts and focused on his objective.

To his utter disgust, Gabriel’s target began creeping away almost as soon as he began stalking the man.

There was no indication that he knew Gabriel was following him – the man’s attention seemed mostly focused on the cluster of soldiers and priests below – but he was being very careful about his surroundings, a clear indication that he was quite worried about being pursued. This attention made it difficult to get within striking distance as the watcher silently stealthed away from the ambush point. Gabriel was faster, even while trying to remain unnoticed, but still, it took more time than it should.

Four buildings became five and then six as the watcher’s trail weaved over the rooftops. Irritation and a tiny sliver of anger tried to bubble up but Gabriel ignored them as he crept ever closer. The hairs on the back of his neck suddenly stood up and he froze in place, allowing the hunter’s cloak to completely conceal him from view. Something was wrong. Slowly, Gabriel scanned the wide rooftop for anything out of place but he found only that which was supposed to be here. A sealed crate of roofing tiles, assorted tools for repairs, a faceless man stalking toward him, a wooden crane secured for the night, two ladders … wait.

A faceless man?

He barely had time to draw Misericordia and fall into Leopard in High Grass before the Faceless was upon him, his wickedly curved long blade whistling. Back Gabriel fell – he was suddenly aware of a second man and then a third, all without features and all astoundingly hard to look at; his eyes automatically tried to slide away, as if the men weren’t really there or just not important – and each step carried him closer toward the lip of the building. Branch in the Storm knocked aside a decapitating strike he could barely see and he retreated, catching another thrust from the second man with Kingfisher Circles the Pond. They were fast, faster than anyone he could remember facing. None of them made any sounds as they attacked, not even the grunts of exertion one would expect in a close fight like this. Back Gabriel fell, each parry warding off a potentially killing strike. He heard the watcher he’d been pursuing approach and, at the last moment, allowed Folding the Air to carry him away, into a sideways somersault. It put the watcher between the three Faceless, fouling their footing for only the span of time it took for one of them to sink a yard of steel into the watcher’s belly, but it was long enough for Gabriel to draw Compatior, regain his bearings, and brace for their next attack.

Cyclone on the Plain became Lizard in the Thornbrush. He retreated grudgingly, giving ground as he danced away from their blurring blades. Mongoose Takes a Viper badly wounded one of the Faceless – any other man would have been crippled, but this one was only slowed – and Snow in High Wind left a line of scarlet across the chest of another. Sparks flew as their ripostes struck his armor. The cuirass held, but these strikes … none of them were intended to wound or even slow a target. They were all killing blows. Back Gabriel danced. Ribbon in the Air bought him enough time for Cat on Hot Sand, but that was batted away and countered with something dangerously close to Dove Takes Flight. Back …

His left foot reached the lip of the building and he understood their intent without consciously thinking about it. Another thrust would force him to retreat again and he would have two options: hesitate and be off balance long enough for that thrust to take him in the heart or fall. This was, by far, the tallest of the buildings in the immediate vicinity and the construction behind was a good storey shorter.

So Gabriel chose option three.

In mid-step, he threw himself back with every ounce of his strength, relying on the other, unforeseen enhancement that Gestlin had added to the ‘spidey-boots.’ Instantly, he felt the effort necessary – it was hard to explain the sudden drain on him; it was like he’d sprinted for three or four miles … but at the same time, it wasn’t. His jump carried him back, further than he would have ordinarily have been able to manage, and in mid-air, he twisted around like a cat so that he would land squarely on his feet. One of the Faceless toppled over the side of the building, having lunged for him in the very instant he sprang away and badly overbalanced.

Gabriel hit the roof of the shorter building hard – thanks to the boots, he stuck the landing, but the strain ran up his legs and would have made him howl had he not been wrapped in the Void. He shook the pain away, buried it, pushed it aside. All that mattered was the enemy. And the two remaining acted exactly as he expected. Both took a step back and then threw themselves forward.

He met them in mid-air.

There was no finesse to his counter and this was simply not a thing that could be practiced. He took two long steps and jumped once more, ramming Compatior into the chest of the Faceless to his left where he left it while swinging wildly at the other with Misericordia. The latter he caught high – a neck strike – and shower of crimson followed the dying thing that looked like a man to the roof of the shorter building. Gabriel hit the wall of the larger construction a mere heartbeat later, his feet and free hand finding instant purchase and adhering him in place. I must send a very congratulatory letter to Gestlin. The stray thought flickered across his perception but he barely noticed it as he tensed his leg muscles and jumped a third time.

Both of the Faceless were dead – he stabbed Misericordia through their eyes, just to make sure – and he recovered his sai quickly before leaning over the edge of this building to look for the third man. Evidently, extreme pain negated their strange ability to go unnoticed because he found the man immediately and it looked as though he’d broken a leg with his fall. The Faceless looked up and, though he could not see the man’s face, Gabriel knew he was looking at him so he offered a grin that he knew the man could see since he could feel a cool night breeze in his hair, alerting him to the fact that his hood had been knocked askew. It was more acting than anything else – the three enhanced jumps had left him so exhausted that he just wanted to sit down for an hour or so – but it must have been effective as the Faceless reversed his sword and drove it through his own heart.

Gabriel blinked. That … he had not expected that. He stood there, staring at the dead man for a long moment before a thought occurred to him. Merasiël.

He was sprinting back toward where they’d separated even before he was conscious of moving. Rest could wait.

Whether by luck or divine protection, Merasiël had encountered none of the Faceless.

When he reached her, she was finishing up with her watcher who looked none the worse for wear. The man was visibly terrified as Gabriel drew closer and lowered his hood, but other than that, bore few injuries. That was to be expected – while she was more than capable of physical coercion, Merasiël knew quite well that the threat of torture was usually a better tool than actually going through with it. She frowned slightly the moment she recognized his stance.

“Leopard in High Grass,” she murmured in Elvish. “Are there enemies on all sides?” Her own body language had phase-shifted to one of readiness as well and the casual, perfectly balanced and seemingly arrogant way in which she stood was so similar to Cat Crosses the Courtyard, a walking stance that she disdained as looking like an arrogant saunter, that Gabriel might have teased her about it at any other time.

“Faceless,” he replied in the same tongue. Why hadn’t she encountered them? Bad luck on his part? Sometimes, he wondered if God simply enjoyed toying with him. “I just encountered three of them.” He scowled at the bruised man at her feet and switched to Anglish. “I hope you learned something,” he said.

“Some things, yes.” Blindingly fast, she flicked Angrist underhand, burying the knife in the man’s chest. He had just enough time to gasp before death took him. “No one will grieve that one’s passing,” she remarked coldly. A lifetime ago, Gabriel would not have recognized the disgust in her voice – clearly, the dead man had confessed to vile activities. A rapist, perhaps? Certainly not a molester of children as Gabriel doubted the man would not have still been breathing when he arrived. “Are you certain they were Faceless?”

“Yes.” Merasiël frowned again. She studied him for a moment, likely attempting to determine if he had been injured, and this time, Gabriel had to frown. He hated when she gave him that look, as if he was a little boy who had gone and done something he should not have. Besides, she knew as well as he did that the blades used by the Faceless were poisoned. If he’d been cut, he would be dead already.

“This … complicates matters.” Gabriel smirked at the extent of her understatement. “That one pointed me to certain individuals linked to our investigation.” She gave the corpse a scowl before recalling Angrist to her hand. “But I think it likely that the attack on the brother…”

“Archbishop,” Gabriel corrected. Merasiël shrugged and continued as if he said nothing.

“…is connected in some way. He will need to be warned.” Gabriel opened his mouth to argue, then closed it immediately. She was correct. The Faceless were hideously expensive and he had just encountered three. There weren’t many people or organizations who could afford to put three of them in the same city, and those that could afford it – like the Church, for example – could easily put another three here as well. Merasiël nodded. “I will see to this,” she said.

“And I’ll go speak to Mendel,” Gabriel said grimly.

Gaining access to Mendel was frighteningly easy.

As an important visitor to Craine, the Archbishop of Caithness and his entourage were granted rooms in the ducal palace, which should have been harder to infiltrate than it was, especially given the events earlier this evening. He was three-quarters of the way to where he knew Mendel would be staying before it occurred to Gabriel that his old friend had very likely cleared the path somewhat for him. That should have made him happier than it did.

The two hard-faced acolytes were standing watch outside Mendel’s door, so Gabriel circled around them and climbed to the roof. He ducked a pair of chatty guards on rounds – one of the two was telling an improbable story about the duke, a turtle and an irritating al-Wazif ambassador that was so engaging Gabriel almost shadowed them just to hear how the story ended; it was exactly the sort of almost believable nonsense that he recalled Magnifico telling – and then slid toward the open window that opened up into Mendel’s chambers. Even before he entered, Gabriel felt his skin begin to itch or rather, the tattoos that crawled the length of his arms and now intertwined on his back. There was magic at work. Of course. Mendel would not have trusted the duke to protect him.

“Hello, Gabriel,” the subject of his thoughts called out from where he sat. The Archbishop of Caithness had abandoned the robes of state for something more homespun and simple. Suddenly, he looked far more like the old friend than the Church official and Gabriel wondered if that was a ploy on Mendel’s part. He discarded the thought almost before it fully manifested.

“Hello,” he replied as he clambered through the open window. Without thinking, he pulled his hood back and scanned the room for potential threats.

“Look at you,” Mendel whispered. “You haven’t aged a day.” Gabriel’s eyes snapped back to the white-haired man who suddenly looked frail and tired. He could still see his old friend but only just as the ravages of time had worked their terrible magic upon him. “Gestlin said it was so,” Mendel murmured, “but I did not truly believe … not until this very instant.” Gabriel tried not to frown – he was suddenly vastly irritated at Merasiël even though he knew this was not her fault. This was why she went out of her way to avoid interacting with people past a certain amount of time – according to what he’d gleaned, one of the reasons they parted ways briefly while he traveled with Gestlin to Rainald’s lands and then on to Sahud was because she’d begun noticing how much older the wizard had begun to look.

“If I knew the secret, I would share it,” Gabriel said quickly. That was not entirely the truth – he strongly suspected that the dragon-marks were responsible for his apparent lack of aging, but he’d found no others who bore them would could answer his questions. Even the Fortress of Tears stood abandoned and, when he’d visited it some years ago, it had looked far more desolate than it should have, as if its halls had stood empty for many decades, not just the ten years or so that had elapsed since he fought and killed within. He greatly feared that he was the last man to bear the dragon-mark and it was this that had changed him. Not even the elves could wholly decipher why he did not age and they had more reason than others to be wary.

“Yes, yes, I know,” the old man began, waving his hand to dismiss it. Before he could continue, there was a soft knock at the door and it slid open.


His former apprentice was not wearing white but rather a dark gray that almost bordered on black, the crimson Templar cross still prominent upon his chest. If there was a deeper meaning to his uniform, an indication of Auqui’s station or assignment or status among the order, perhaps, Gabriel was ignorant of it as he purposely avoided Templars whenever possible. Auqui had not entirely discarded common sense as he was armed and wearing mail underneath the dark tabard.

“Forgive me, Excellency,” he began in the instant before his eyes alighted upon Gabriel. Without a word, he went for his sword.

Gabriel had already half-drawn his own blade when Mendel sprang to his feet with the grace of a much younger man, placing himself squarely between them. Auqui had also bared steel and from his absolute lack of expression, Gabriel knew he was deep within the Void himself, already centered and ready for a fight that could only end in one way. Despite the distant anger, the unresolved rage and fury, Gabriel could not help but to feel a flash of pleasure that his former apprentice had learned his lessons well.

“Hold!” Mendel snapped, his voice stern and hard. “You will, neither of you, bare steel in my presence!” The old man now wore authority like a cloak and Gabriel backpedaled slightly, placing his back to the wall just to the right of the window even as he allowed Misericordia to fall back into its scabbard. He was not fool enough to take his hand from the hilt, not even with Mendel standing there, but Cat Crosses the Courtyard came easily as he lounged, deceptively casual. Auqui knew the form and frowned, but he too rammed his sword back into place.

“Forgive me, Your Excellency,” he said stiffly, his eyes still locked on Gabriel. “I was unaware that you were entertaining … guests.” He scowled and glanced away, which Gabriel was silently glad of as it gave him an opportunity to recover from the shock he hoped did not show on his face. Auqui looked so … old. He did some quick mental calculations and almost winced at the result; His former apprentice would have to be in his early forties now. Seeing Mendel as an aged man was one thing – the onetime priest had already been nearing middle age when they met so very long ago – but Auqui? Gabriel still recalled the young boy he’d first met on the Huallapan homeworld. Now, that same boy looked like he could be Gabriel’s elder brother or uncle. In a few years, it would be worse. He tried not to grimace but, from the fleetingly confused expression that flickered across Auqui’s face, he did not do as good a job as he would have liked. “I am surprised to see you here, however,” his former apprentice stated flatly. “Our reports have you in al-Wazif.” Gabriel narrowed his eyes.

“Keeping track of me are you?” he asked with a smirk that he did not entirely feel.

“Considering your activities and capabilities, it is necessary,” Auqui replied. He grimaced. “Do you realize what you’ve done? What may come of your actions in Qazr?” Gabriel blinked – the Templar intelligence network was better than he had anticipated – before grinning. This time he meant it.

“Civil war, if we’re fortunate,” he replied. It had been his idea though once he explained it to Merasiël, she’d suggested a handful of adjustments that turned wild speculation into an actionable operation. Everyone knew that the governor of Qazr as-Sawh, Emir Harun abd Ishaq, was at least half-mad. Brother to the reigning Caliph, Harun had spent the last thirty years building up the army with an eye on invading Megalos once more but his obsession with war had turned him bitter and insane, especially as he knew he was in the twilight of his life. And so, Gabriel and Merasiël had visited him, not to do murder, but to tip him even deeper into madness. Merasiël had stealthily dosed the emir’s food with a potent elven drug that caused hallucinations and then, as Harun struggled to decipher what was real and what was not, Gabriel had visited him, wearing his cloak of distorted light and shadows. The irritating glow of Misericordia was useful for a change as it gave him the illusion of a divine messenger, an angel perhaps. And the punchline was something even Magnifico would approve of: at no time did Gabriel speak a single word that was untrue.

“Know that I am Gabriel!” he’d said in a loud, booming voice, consciously emulating Magnifico or Mendel when they were proclaiming things to a crowd. Harun had prostrated himself immediately, thinking that he was being visited by the archangel himself. “Know that the act of slavery displeases us and that you are henceforth charged to combat this practice by any and all means!” When Harun visibly reacted in surprise to that, Gabriel had finished with, “And know that he who would keeps another in unwilling bondage, whether they be man or woman, elf or dwarf or other thinking creature, this man shall I visit. And my wrath shall be terrible.” Merasiël had struck then, having snuck up behind Harun, and the extra-strong dose of the drug had sent Harun spiralling even deeper into his delusions which allowed them both the opportunity to depart undetected. The last he’d heard, Harun had declared himself to be a holy man, visited by the same archangel who delivered the word of the Qur’an to the Prophet himself. His fervor (or his madness) had convinced many that he spoke the Word and he was causing massive upheaval in al-Wazif as he demanded emancipation for all of those who were slaves. War would come…

Providing the Caliph did not have his half-brother simply murdered, of course.

“I do not think that he came here to discuss his actions against the heretics, Lord Commander,” Mendel said gently as he retook his seat. Auqui scowled again but simply nodded. “Speak, Brother Gabriel.”

“The attack on your person this night,” Gabriel began. “There were two watchers and I followed one.”

“I would like to speak to that man,” Auqui said sharply.

“He is dead,” Gabriel said with a shrug. “But I did not kill him. He was slain by Faceless.” Auqui inhaled sharply but Mendel showed no sign of recognition. “Have you made any foes in Tredroy of late, Your Excellency?” That caused a response – the archbishop exchanged a quick, knowing look with Auqui – and Gabriel frowned. “You expected an attack tonight,” he guessed.

“It seemed … probable, yes.” Mendel gave Auqui a questioning look.

“Your guard was supposed to be my men,” he said darkly. “They were ordered to stand down from someone … I mean to find out who.”

“And I shall pray for their soul when you do,” the archbishop said before turning his eyes to Gabriel. “I know nothing of these … Faceless. What are they?”

“Assassins,” Auqui spat.

“Magically enhanced assassins,” Gabriel corrected. “They are faster, stronger and generally harder to kill than a normal man. One would think that having no faces makes them easier to spot but in truth, your eyes slide right off of them.”

“Tredroy.” Mendel frowned. “I remember … there is a guild of assassins there, yes?”

“There was,” Gabriel replied. He shrugged. “Some years ago, there was a war in the underground of Tredroy. The Faceless appeared then and supplanted the old guild.”

“And I am certain you had nothing to do with that war either,” Auqui snapped. Gabriel smirked.

“I was in Sahud at the time, so no.” He returned his eyes to Mendel. “Faceless are extraordinarily expensive and they do not kill indiscriminately. The watcher I pursued would have been ignored unless he attacked one of them if he was not on their list of probable targets.” He started to say more when the medallion he wore suddenly grew warm. Merasiël wanted him to join her. “It is highly unlikely that Faceless simply happened to be after one of the men watching the attempt on your life.” He shifted closer to the window. “Few can afford a single Faceless,” he said, “let alone three. And those that can could easily afford more.” He met Mendel’s troubled gaze.

“You think the Church has hired these assassins.” Gabriel offered a tight smile.

“It would not be the first time,” he said in a knowing tone. “And now, if you will forgive me, I am needed elsewhere.” He was gone before either of them could react, though he heard both of them calling out.

The medallion drew him across the city and to Merasiël.

Once again, he chose the so-called ‘thieves’ highway’ that connected so many rooftops together, mostly because it suited his mood but also because it was simply the quickest way to cross Craine. The streets below had once followed a discernible plan but over the years, much had changed. Buildings had collapsed or burned or simply been torn down and rebuilt. Streets had been diverted and redirected away from the straight paths into something more easily defended. Only the thieves highway provided a direct route.

His thoughts raced as he darted across the slick rooftops and narrow walkways. Merasiël’s avoidance of their former friends and comrades had been something of a source of conflict between them over the years, especially as he learned about some of the life events that had taken place for them, but now … now he completely understood. This year would mark his fiftieth year and yet, he looked and felt no different than he had twenty years earlier. Would he still look thus in another fifty when all of his friends (save one) had passed into memory? Or a hundred? Five hundred? No wonder elves seemed so detached from this world – everything and everyone would be gone in the blink of an eye.

The medallion grew warmer, tugging him in a specific direction, and heartbeats later, he heard the distinct ring of steel upon steel. Automatically, he fell into the Void, hardly even noticing how easily it came to him. He paused for only a moment – there! That rooftop! He could see Merasiël wielding her weapons against … nothing? Gabriel grimaced and threw himself forward, concentrating as hard as he could on seeing past the illusions. Two Faceless were there, pressing her hard with their longer blades, and a third was already down, Angrist rammed in his throat. Gabriel understood why she was wielding the lesser blade now and he sharply angled toward the corpse. Without missing a step, he seized Angrist, tearing it free from the dead man and hurling it at the nearest of the living Faceless. It caught the assassin by surprise but was far from a killing blow as the elvish blade struck him high in the meaty part of his shoulder. Merasiël reacted without hesitation.

In mid-step, she twirled around the staggered Faceless, ramming her lesser blade into the back of his skull. She released her hold on that dagger and seized Angrist in the same, easy motion, all the while staying on the move. Half-crouching, she side-stepped to put the dying Faceless between her and the remaining one. The elves did not name their stances and forms like Gabriel had been taught, but rather referred to them by the animal they sought to emulate. This was Wolf, a fast, aggressive style that relied more on teamwork than individual effort, and Gabriel darted forward to aid her as expected, drawing Misericordia as he fought the urge to look past the remaining Faceless.

Swallow Rides the Air became Snow in High Wind. Merasiël shifted left, Angrist coming in low. The Faceless narrowly dodged, but his footing was fouled. The Rose Unfolds drove him back, which only further allowed Merasiël to slip further into his blind spot. Gabriel flowed forward, redoubling his level of aggression. River Undercuts the Bank became Ribbon in the Air. The Faceless had to know that he could not devote his full attention to Gabriel, not with Merasiël there circling behind him, but the speed with which Misericordia flashed at him made doing so a necessity.

And as he parried, Merasiël struck. Like any good wolf, she went for hamstring and throat – the first strike was with Angrist and it severed the tendons in the Faceless’ back leg, which happened to be the one holding most of his weight. He toppled without even a squawk of surprise, and she struck again, this time using the weapon she’d pulled from that place where they rescued Wallace so many years ago. Blood gushed as the blade abruptly lengthened to a short sword and sliced through skin with the ease of a hot knife through snow.

“You took your time,” Merasiël remarked once they were certain all three were dead and no others were present. Her breath came rapidly as she recovered – Gabriel watched for a moment – and then shrugged.

“I was on the other side of the city,” he pointed out. He gave the bodies a frown. “Six. Someone has spent a considerable amount of money on this.”

“A Churchman,” came the reply. Her breathing was sadly returning to normal. “I observed him issuing instructions to the Faceless.” She scowled suddenly. “I was sloppy and one of them saw me,” she added. Gabriel shrugged.

“If it is any consolation,” he remarked, “I walked right into their trap before I even realized it was a trap.” She grunted. “The Churchman?” he asked. Merasiël nodded and quickly recovered the knife still buried in the second Faceless’ head.

“This way,” she said.

It turned out that she had been pursued by the Faceless for some distance. They retraced her steps back over the roofs of three buildings, across a stone-cropping that served as a bridge over the street below, and then finally up the side of a large, wide wall that looked down into the wide streets outside the Craine cathedral. It began to rain again midway through through their journey and by the time they reached the overlook, both were soaked all the way through. Gabriel fell into the Void to escape his discomfort – here, where there was no emotion, he could ignore how badly he wanted a hot bath.

There were a handful of armored Curia Guards standing watch before the cathedral’s door and they looked every bit as miserable as one would expect, but as he and Merasiël settled in for what could be a long, boring wait, a pair of bishops emerged from the cathedral, pausing briefly to seek immediate cover from the rain. Merasiël shifted, though Gabriel felt it more than saw it since her hunter’s cloak did a fantastic job of keeping her concealed.

“That one,” she murmured. “The thin one. He’s the one.” Gabriel grunted.

“He looks familiar,” he replied softly.

“I thought so as well but could not place him.” Merasiël paused. “The Templar stronghold in Cardiel, perhaps?” At that, Gabriel frowned. If this man had been there, he would likely be one of the Talosian cultists who had escaped the Templar purge. He would need to die.

“Bishop Aloysius of Tredroy!” Mendel’s voice boomed over the streets, echoing so loudly that it caused Gabriel to jerk in surprise. Below, the Curia Guards reacted were visibly startled and the thin bishop – Aloysius Honorius, Gabriel guessed – jumped as well. Flanked by mounted Templars who were armed and clearly ready for a fight, Archbishop Mendel appeared around a bend in the main avenue. He was seated astride a horse himself and was garbed in resplendent garments identifying his position and rank; only the simple quarterstaff he held in one hand was unadorned. “You stand accused of apostasy and heresy under the eyes of God!” Mendel said, his voice still echoing in such a way that it had to be magically enhanced.

To their credit, the Curia Guard reacted immediately. Upon recognizing an archbishop and a squadron of Templars, they levelled their pikes and moved to surround the heretic bishop, even as the man he had been speaking to backpedalled rapidly, holding his hands aloft in surrender. He was too distant to hear what was being said but Gabriel suspected he was proclaiming innocence. Bishop Aloysius, however, did not go quietly.

With a sharp gesture, he set the foremost of the Curia Guards aflame – the screams of the men could be heard even here and Gabriel tensed, intent on throwing himself forward to join the engagement, but Merasiël caught his arm and held him back – before dancing back from the thrusts of the remaining Guards and gesturing once more. An explosion of rock and debris erupted at the feet of the men, flinging them back as shrapnel from shattered cobblestones tore bloody strips from them. Momentarily safe, Bishop Aloysius took a step away, glancing in the direction of the Templars…

Who were already thundering toward him.

Aloysius managed to get off another spell – a scalding hot jet of burning sand streaked through the rain where it caught the lead rider’s horse squarely in the face – but that was it. The Templar at the head of the squadron came off his shrieking, panicked mount in a smooth dismount that even Gabriel had to admire. Even before the man struck the ground and rolled to distribute the impact of the fall, Gabriel recognized Auqui’s body language. His former student came up, a bastard sword whistling free of its scabbard, and struck. Black Lance’s Last Strike drove the blade through Aloysius’ neck – Gabriel frowned; not only was the form sloppy, but it had been a poor choice. He would have used Arc of the Moon instead of leaving himself so wide open like this – and the bishop staggered back, blood drenching his robes and spraying the streets where it was promptly washed away by the rain. Auqui flowed forward – Low Wind Rising became Striking the Spark and ended with Folding the Fan – and the Talosian toppled. He twitched once, twice, again, and then was still.

“Sloppy,” he muttered under his breath, even as he silently acknowledged that Auqui had not entirely forgotten his lessons. He was aware of Merasiël studying him … though how she managed to do so with his hood up and the hunter’s cloak shrouding him from view, he had no idea.

“That was a dangerous strike,” she remarked.

“And his elbow was crooked again.” Gabriel paused, considered. “Still,” he corrected himself. “I think we are done here,” he added as he straightened slightly, attention mostly still focused on the street below. Mendel had arrived and was attending to the injured. So was the other bishop for that matter, though that might have been a ploy on his part to avoid looking at the squadron of Templars now surrounding the area. Someone had thrown a cloak over Aloysius’ body.

“Agreed.” Merasiël stood, glanced once more at the street, and turned away. “I greatly desire a hot bath,” she murmured. Gabriel gave the madness on the street below another look but then paused..

Auqui was standing there, looking directly at him.

Gabriel hesitated, considered – how could his former apprentice see through the magical shroud that was the hunter’s cloak? Or was he just reacting to observed motion? The latter seemed the most likely and, without letting himself think it through, Gabriel flicked his hood back. He saw Auqui tense – that too was not unexpected given their long-standing agreement to avoid one another – but Gabriel simply nodded and turned away, pulling his hood back up.

And then, he followed Merasiël into the rain.