“Schneider?” Khyrisse tapped on the door, poking her head tentatively into his rather garishly-decorated bachelor pad. “Are you busy?”
“Heck no. I’m just teaching myself to play the Saliph kazoo.” Schneider blew a blatting note into it to demonstrate. “C’mon in.”
Khyrisse did. She was wearing a long lavender negligee of some fluttering and not entirely opaque material. “Whoa,” said Schneider, dropping the kazoo. “I mean, uh... lookin’ good there, Butterfly.”
“I just thought,” she said a little shyly, “well, we haven’t been spending much time together lately, and--”
“Back off, mage-lady!” Roxy came vaulting through the window in a tight black cat-suit, somersaulting into a dexterous crouch. “The jester is mine!”
“I saw him first,” Khyrisse said with a frown.
“Ladies,” Schneider protested weakly. “Ladies, now, let’s not fight...”
“Good skittles in Heaven, Skneeder, even your fantasy life is pretty damned pathetic, isn’t it?”
“Boss!” Schneider jerked at Faraker’s sudden entry and banged his head on the neon ‘Applause!’ sign over his bed. The two women dissipated like mist in the sunlight, without so much as a parting word from either. “Geez, don’t sneak up on a guy like that!”
“Hey, not to interrupt a buddy of mine from any *cough* thrilling conquests of married women...”
“Says Duke ‘As-long-as-I’m-dead-anyway-might-as-well-bone-the-Death-God’s-wife’ Faraker?”
“Yeah, but I have better lines than Ladies, please, let’s not fight. Sheesh! Could you at least have told ‘em there was room in bed for both of them?”
Schneider sighed. “Are you here for a reason, boss, or just making sure my dreams are as humiliating as my real sex life?”
“I wouldn’t have interrupted if it looked like you were going to be getting anywhere, clown-o-mine.” Duke Faraker took a swig from his long-necked bottle of IBC. “No, I’m here to give you my praise and encouragement, actually. The way you’re handling this thing with Khyrisse’s baby. I’m proud of you, Schneid. You came through when she needed you most.”
“I did?” Schneider scratched his head. “I dunno, boss... seems like now is when she needs me least. She’s got her lobster now, she’s got her kid, got her parents back, new friends, a new city to take care of...”
“Have you ever considered an ego transplant, Skneeder? Vas might be willing to help.” Faraker shook his head fondly. “Of course she still needs you, fool. Just because relationships end doesn’t mean women suddenly stop caring. You’re more important to her than you think... and without your help and support, she’d be having a lot tougher time taking care of this child.”
“Huh,” said Schneider. “Thanks, boss. That--does make me feel a little better, actually.”
“We now return you to your regularly scheduled topless whip fight.”
“Hold up a sec.” Duke Faraker did. “I just want to know... ‘cause I was talking to Jane a few days back, and she said... well, I was just wondering if you were some kind of spirit or just, you know, the cocky self-confident part of my psyche taking dream form to give me pep talks, or something.”
“Cocky?” said Faraker. “I’m cocky? Buddy, which of us came up with the lavender lingerie business, you or me?”
“So sue a guy for letting the thought cross his mind that an ex-girlfriend might once have found him something less than completely repulsive,” Schneider said crossly. “You’re not answering my question.”
“Let’s put it this way. If I am who I think I am, then I don’t know jack about metaphysical crap. And if I’m just part of your psyche, then you probably didn’t pick my persona to play the philosophical, contemplative role. So what the hell are you asking me for?” The Duke raised the bottom of his empty bottle at Schneider in a grinning salute. “Catch you in the funny papers, boyo.”
“Thanks, boss,” sighed the jester, and laid his head back down to sleep.
Rani Makes A Proficiency Check
Rani watched the third witness shuffle out of the small interrogation room. “He’s nervous,” she said sotto voce.
“The little folk don’t really trust Diarians,” Garal admitted.
“Neither does anyone else. He’s more nervous than most.”
“You’re getting... impressions from him?”
“Just a hunch. I’ve been doing this a long time.” She flipped through the autopsy report. “I wish I had this body. Something’s not adding up here. Cloverleaf was killed by a single blow to the back of the head according to this, from a blunt instrument like a club.”
“So the killer must have been very strong?” Garal surmised.
“Well, very confident one blow would do the trick, for whatever reason. The injury looks consistent with a weapon of striking to me, but it could have been anyone with high-level backstabbing proficiency. The part that’s catching me up is this: if this autopsy is correct, the crack in her skull was nearly symmetrical. Very little downward shiver.”
“Meaning... magic?” the halfling guessed.
“No, meaning a horizontal blow.” Rani tapped her pencil eraser on the knee of her jeans, looking out into the hall with hard and introspective eyes. “The murder weapon struck her almost perpendicular in the back of the head.”
“Is that unusual somehow?”
“In this case it is. You swing a club from the shoulder, not the elbow. I’m not perfect on halfling proportional anatomy here, but everything I know about forensics is telling me this killer couldn’t have been more than three, maybe four inches taller than she was.”
Garal’s mouth fell open. “It was one of us,” he whispered numbly, his hand creeping towards his face.
“You don’t all have to come with me, ya know.” Asinus lit a new cigar sideways from Grayson’s oil lamp. “I mean, it is Heaven. I didn’t need a flarkin’ army last time I was up there.”
“We wouldn’t dream of letting you go alone, Asinus,” Khyrisse said firmly, and gave the donkey a playful tug on one ear. “After all... what are family for?”
Asinus muttered something Ebreth didn’t catch. “You’re not bringing Lissa?” Vas asked a little disappointedly.
“To another plane?”
“Well, it’s only Heaven, after all... it’s not as if it were the elemental plane of poison gas or anything.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Grayson said shortly. “If there’s a civil war going on... those angels aren’t all chubby little cherubs, if you know what I mean.”
“The ones I saw tried to pull down the Acropolis on my head,” said Ebreth. “The baby stays home.” Khyrisse, who’d been wavering at the admittedly appealing idea of taking the little girl sightseeing in Heaven, nodded emphatically, and Vastarin made a sorry sigh. “What a dull trip this proposes to be,” he mourned to his sister. “I suppose you won’t permit me to take any time off from my bodyguarding detail to go flying with any of the more attractive seraphim, either.”
“Good guess, flutterhead.” Valende looked uncharacteristically distracted. “Jack... are you sure you think this is wise? Other planes, they... have strange effects on you, on your... interface.”
“I’ve never been to Heaven,” Jack said. “This may be my only chance. I’m trying to experience new things, Val... not hide from them.”
“Nice philosophy.” Grayson Mer drew her fingers through the air in a precise line expanding into an opalescent diamond shape, the casual exactitude of her hand movements belying how many times she had done this. Ebreth had seen it once before, when she opened the two of them their escape portal into Limbo. Not a fingernail’s arc was different. “All right, we seem to be clear.”
He followed her through the portal. There was no kudzu this time, no surreal ultraviolet fluorescence. The sky was streaked with sunrise colors, and the wind was cool and strange. “All right,” sighed Asinus, hopping through the portal two hooves at a time, “let’s find this damn planar and get out of here before I get a citation for being in a flarkin’ no-smoking zone or something.”
“I don’t--” Khyrisse was squinting. “Something’s not--this isn’t right. Something...”
Ebreth looked at Grayson. She was standing very still and taut, and her eyes were shut.
“Jack!” gasped Val. “You--you’re--”
“Oh, my,” said Vas.
“Um, could we all stop staring at my, uh, chest?” Jack said uncomfortably, folding her arms self-consciously across her blouse. “Man, I can’t believe I thought this was going to be fun...”
“Grayson?” said Ebreth. She didn’t answer.
“At least you’re not wearing a thong,” Vas consoled the embarrassed Jack with a rakish grin. “Not that that wasn’t aesthetic, mind...”
Val hit him, sharply. “Quiet, featherbrain, we have bigger problems here. If he’s a she, then this--”
“Welcome back,” said a light, overly sweet voice behind them. Ebreth turned to see Ailonwy the demon queen, leaning on her riding crop in a position aesthetic enough for three Vasses. Beside her was a tough-looking devil in a black suit and shades. “My old friends.”
What A Tangled Web We Weave
“But that’s... impossible.” Inspector Elau’s forehead furrowed in confusion. “I mean, the murderer could have been a halfling or gnome collaborator, obviously... but in Cynystran military uniform? And all four witnesses definitely ID’d him as human. No; the autopsy report must be in error.”
“It’s a hell of an error,” said Rani. “Even a short human man would have had a foot and a half on this woman. You think your forensics team missed a forty-five degree angle of impact?”
“It’s more likely than four witnesses giving the same lie without making a mistake,” said Elau.
“No... no, I don’t think they were lying either. I got too good an impression off the second one. People don’t tend to preemptively fake psychometric impressions.” Rani leaned back in her chair. “I don’t know what’s going on here, frankly. My best guess is that either someone tampered with the body afterwards, and that skull fracture was not the cause of death... or the killer was using an illusionary disguise.”
“Bloody hell.” Elau wiped his brow with his handkerchief. “And here I was feeling like this was more or less behind us. You’re suggesting the murderer might still be among us? What do we do now?”
“I’ll want to talk to those witnesses again,” said Rani. “Especially the third one. He didn’t seem like he was telling me everything.”
“That would be Sammy Hazelwood,” said Inspector Elau. “Given the circumstances, I think I’m going to give you his home address after all.”
“I’d appreciate that,” said Rani. “What do you know about him? Did he have any connection to Miss Cloverleaf at all?”
“He was a political supporter of the independence movement, of course... all the people who were with her after the rally were. Beyond that, I couldn’t say.” Elau looked at Garal. “She was your annia... did she have any enemies that you know of, anyone who might have wanted her dead? Or a stalker, maybe?”
“No,” said Garal. “No one. She got along with everyone. It had to have been a collaborator.”
“Well, I wouldn’t have figured Sammy for one, but I guess they don’t go taking out ads in the paper about it, do they?” Elau shook his head. “Go talk to him. If you need to, bring him back to the station.”
Rani rang the doorbell, then pulled off her glove with a sharp motion and rang it again. “Oh, shit,” she said.
Prickles shot down Garal’s spine. “What is it?”
“Something bad. Cover me.”
“Cover you?” He followed her through the unlocked front door, trying not to panic. “With what?”
“I don’t know, get ready to get us the hell out of here if you have to.” She edged down the hall, her bare hand running along the neat blue wallpaper, and peered slowly around the corner. “Fuck. We’re too late.”
“What?” Garal hurried after her, then made a strangled gasp at the sight of Sammy Hazelwood, his brains smashed out on the kitchen floor. “Oh, no...”
“Looks like we got us a live case.” Rani dropped to her knees in the fresh pool of blood. “Whoever the murderer is, he’s sure as hell still in Samanal.”
“Can you get some impressions from him... find out who it was?”
“Already on it.”
A throat cleared in the pantry, and Garal gasped again, because the man who stepped out with a bloodied smallstaff in his hand was none other than Toby Salzar. “Actually,” the gnome said, “I can save you a little bit of time on that. Allow me to explain.”
“Ailonwy!” Khyrisse had paled. “You--”
“--survived your little betrayal and the riot you incited in my realm?” Ailonwy finished for her sweetly. “Never discount a demon, dear. I’ve survived nastier tricks in my sleep... and I usually do find an opportunity for revenge in the end.”
“It wasn’t a betrayal,” Khyrisse said faintly. “We were just trying to get home...”
“Don’t try to school an abyssal overlord in the game of treachery, sweetheart. We had a deal, and I wasn’t the one who reneged.”
“Speaking of deals,” said the devil in black.
“He’s all yours.”
The devil gestured smilelessly. A starburst of sulfurous flame went up around Asinus, catching Vas in part of its nimbus; both were gone before Ebreth could blink. Valende screamed and leapt forward, but froze in midair with her sword still part-way out of its sheath.
“The elf was not part of our bargain,” said Ailonwy, with a slight frown for the devil.
“Sorry,” he said, not sounding very sorry. “Eggs break, lady. We provided the bait. We provided the agent.” Ebreth looked at Grayson. Her eyes were shut very tight, her arms shaking. “You just provided a neutral plane to use. I wouldn’t complain if I were you.”
“I’m sure you would, but it’s quite beside the point.” Ailonwy waved her hand dismissively. “He means little to me; you can have him. I would have traded them all for that traitorous Cori Yashida, but the bitch went and died on me before I had the chance.”
“Don’t you hate it when that happens?” the devil said rhetorically, and turned to go. “Oh! That reminds me.” He snapped his fingers. “I almost forgot.” He turned back around, smiling at Grayson. “I haven’t paid you yet for your... assistance.”
“I’m sorry,” Grayson said in Ebreth’s direction, her whole body shaking now.
“Here ya go.” The planeblazer seized up almost noiselessly as her flesh burst into flame, stood swaying for a dizzy burning moment before collapsing to the sand like some felled phoenix. She sputtered there, twice, and extinguished. “Be seeing you, Lonnie.”
Valende’s swing suddenly resumed its motion, carrying through thin air as the devil vanished in another puff of sulfur like the one that took Vas and Asinus. “Lonnie indeed,” muttered the demon queen, rolling her eyes. “Give ‘em an inch and they think it’s a mile. Stupid devils.”
“Uh, excuse me,” said Jack, raising her hand, “but could you skip to the, uh, villainous exposition of what you want with us now?”
“I cannot believe everyone mistook you for me.” Ailonwy shook her head. “Well, what I’d like would be to torture you all to death, obviously, but the most recent peace treaty I have with Ansakir prohibits me from damaging any of his minions, which technically does include all of you. Treaties don’t tend to last more than a month around here, though, and this one’s already two weeks old. We’ll see how many of you outlast it. I don’t believe I’m required by the treaty to provide food or drink for you.” She turned her derriere on them with a sniff and stalked away, an Ailonwy-sized outline flaring briefly around her as she passed through some kind of crackling force-field. “Enjoy your stay,” she threw back over one bronzed shoulder. “I certainly plan on it.”
And then she was gone. Ebreth dropped down to Grayson’s smoking body as Khyrisse and Val tried urgently to cast. They seemed to be having an ominous lack of success. “Grayson?” he said. “Grayson!”
“I’m... sorry, Ebreth...” she rasped. “I had... no choice...”
Jack poked the forcefield tentatively with her finger. It rippled, but didn’t give. “This isn’t over yet,” Ebreth said. “You can still get us out of here.”
Grayson shook her head, painfully. “She’s locked down... the plane. Don’t know this area... well enough... it would take me... days... to connect. I’m so sorry. I... would...”
Ebreth sighed, and pressed the heels of both hands into his forehead. “It’s all right,” he said. “We’ll figure something out. We’ll be okay. It’s not your fault, Grayson. Rest in peace.”
She shuddered, and was still. “Rest in peace?” said Valende, turning on Ebreth.
“Let it alone, Val.” His voice was tired, and he didn’t stand up from the sand. “There’s nothing she could have done.”
“She could have tried not betraying us in the fucking first place, maybe!” The priestess’ frustration had passed its boiling point. “We’re trapped in the Abyss with a psycho demon who wants to kill us, we can’t use magic, have no way of contacting anyone, and my brother has been kidnapped to Hell! Now you tell her not to fucking worry about it? Did I tell Ariath not to fucking worry about it?”
“Valende,” Khyrisse said, in a voice about equal parts warning and calming.
“She’s already dead, Val,” sighed Ebreth. “What did you want me to do, spend her last minutes yelling at her about it?”
“Well it might have been better than spending them telling her you didn’t mind,” Val said through her teeth.
“Of course I mind. You think this was how I wanted to spend my weekend?” Ebreth expelled air and wiped his hands on his pants. “It’s too late now. She still belonged to Hell, Val. I should have noticed this, but I didn’t. I fucked up. Okay? I fucked up, and I’m sorry. Screaming at her wouldn’t have changed anything. If she could have done something differently she would have.”
“You’re awfully quick to believe that.” Val folded her arms, nettled.
“Uh,” said Jack, clearing her throat. “Maybe we could just, uh...”
“She sent Vas and your uncle to Hell, Jack! I can’t believe no one else is pissed off about this!” The priestess turned her shoulder partially. “Am I supposed to be impressed that she apologized and said she’d like to help us, after her evil allies went back on their deal and fried her sorry ass? That isn’t what I call a meaningful redemption on her part!”
“That was their deal,” said Ebreth.
“I said that was their deal.” Ebreth finally stood up. “She brought us to the Lower Planes for them in exchange for her own death. Does this tell you anything?”
There was a moment’s silence. “Val,” Khyrisse said softly. “Ebreth. Please. Enough.”
“She had no choice, Val. They used her, they used all of us, to get at Asinus. That’s all. It was do what they said or go back to Hell. She didn’t have a choice.”
“You of all people should know what a crock that is,” Valende said, more quietly but just as intensely. “As I recall, you went back.”
“Because I had the freedom to make a choice at that point,” said Ebreth. “If it had happened while I was still in Hell, believe me, I couldn’t have, and neither could you, and neither could she. There is nothing. Anyone. Could do.” Khyrisse put her hand on his back, gently. “Just drop this, Val,” he said. “Please. It’s over. She’s dead now, and we’re here, and we can’t change that now. Let’s just figure some way out of this, rescue Vas and Asinus, and go home. It’s too late for anything else, anymore.”