High above the city, ever-darkening clouds rolled angrily, blanketing the world below in thick darkness. The gloom was punctuated occasionally by a living bolt of lightning, and made deeper by the contrast; the jagged streaks of electricity came more frequently as time went on, dramatically outlining the struggles of the increasingly-embattled souls below and occasionally setting a hovel alight. Rain poured down on those people who had been forced by occupation or habit to venture out into the night, chilling sheets of water that had long since replaced the initial tentative drizzle. Howling wind that had begun its life as gentle breezes forced the storm forward and around, piling the clouds into rumbling thunderheads and promising a vortex to come.
Even higher above, in a sky that could almost be called tranquil by comparison, a small group of metallic objects appeared. Three spheres glinted in the moonlight that shone through the thin atmosphere, a trio of shooting stars that plummeted hopefully into the shifting, crackling darkness below to deliver messages of solidarity masking a sinister intent. One by one, they disappeared into the fearsome clouds, their mere seconds of glittering descent subsumed by the implacable storm. Their creator had done what he could, and the whims of fate or chance or convenience were left to decide the outcome of his ambitious plan.
Unfortunately for him, though there were many who would count the event as incredibly fortuitous, the wicked winds scattered the messenger orbs, whirling them through the skies and casting them aside. The little spheres were buffeted from every side by the uncaring chaos of the brewing calamity, sent astray and far from the hands of any who would understand their plea and command. One smashed like a meteorite into the implacable ironwork of an abandoned manufactory, its sturdy construction and futuristic design incapable of saving it from such an impact at such a velocity with such a target; it was battered and broken, left unrecognizable and worthless save for scrap. Another embedded itself deep in the soil outside the city, coming to rest mere feet from the spot where one contestant found himself at the start of the battle, a cruel temporal joke told by randomness to no audience in particular. The last was flung far from the city proper, its distant provenance mirroring its unseen end; it was doubtful it would ever be found by anyone, much less by those who it was intended for. In a small way, one that would never be consciously realized, one more small glimmer of hope died, this time not even at the hands of the cruel masters who had ensured that hope itself was in short supply.
Below, the noisome city went about its inscrutable business; few were about to effect that business, given the hour and the weather, but a place like this one was never truly still. Even pounded by rain and cloaked by night, thugs and thieves and urchins did what they felt they had to, this time joined by the mobilizing forces of a dozen power-hungry gangs, propelled by a lust for power and steered by the proxied whispers of Empress Phere. Amidst them all were eight figures who had no proper place within the city's walls, weaving in a complex dance of seeking and avoidance. One such figure cast her frustrated gaze across the darkened skyline, an invisible dome above her head all that prevented her from being soaked to the bone.
More than an hour had passed since Cascala's search had begun; it might even have been two, but the woman had neither timepiece to consult nor the desire to accurately measure the hours' passage. All that mattered was the irritation that was building inside her. She begs us for sacrifice, urges us towards life and death, implores us, her doves of war, to kill one another, and yet she proceeds to drop us in a city so large that age is a more certain killer than any of her warriors. How are we to battle for her glory or ours if all that presents itself is gutter trash and a thousand thousand places to hide? Sandaled feet strode angrily across the little cloud that held them aloft, narrowed eyes ever scanning for signs of any contestant save herself, darting as they had for hour and then some between huddled forms and piles of refuse with nothing to show for their efforts. Behind those eyes, a voice whispered Fatima's Sight would have shown her each of the seven mere moments after she had been released from that demon's grip, and only moments more would have told her each one's thoughts, plans, and weaknesses. The voice promptly answered itself curtly with And then she would still have been standing ankle-deep in filth with two common bandits menacing her brittle bones. Gods preserve us from powerless diviners; I am the most powerful of the Grand Magi, and even with a veil drawn across my eyes that Fatima would have been able to part, I will crush those I must crush. Scanning eyes stopped their scrutinizing for a moment to glance upwards, and tightened lips parted briefly in a satisfied grin. By my ministrations, the sky will see to that.
As Cascala's gaze lowered itself once more to the city below, a shadow caught her eye. It truly was just that: a shadow. It wasn't the silhouette of a figure or the blur of movement, but a stain on the roof it crept across, darker than the darkness around it. Man-sized but moving oddly for a man, it threaded through chimneys and spinning weathercocks, intent on some purpose more unknowable than its own nature. Cascala stalked silently closer across the sky, recognition gradually dawning.
Klendel was enjoying himself immensely; since his little exhibition at that saloon, he'd planted another half-dozen little clues for the Good Bad Uglies and anyone else who happened to find them that Sir Cedric "the Valiant" had a bone or two to pick. Still, picking on one man was small potatoes when there was a whole network of feuding gangs and fragile alliances to send crashing to the ground. Preferably engulfed in flames and soaked in blood.
Actually, he'd already been able to gather that someone else had much the same thing in mind; rumors were spreading from no clear source, choice bits of information were being dropped in important ears, and a hundred invisible levers on a hundred different people were being pulled by some shadowy hand that wasn't his. Someone experienced at manipulating lots of people at once either had it in for Dr. Matic's Group of Scientiflic Inclined Professionals or was simply trying to incite an all-out gang war by instigating a dozen-front squabble over the tome. Either way, it was a good effort; not quite up to his standards, of course, but not bad at all.
It'd be a shame to have all that aggression directed one direction though. Everyone knows a good collapse only comes from lots of forces all directed at one another. Since piecing together what was going on, Klendel had spent his time amiably dropping choice pieces of misinformation, attacking a messenger here and framing a rival gang there, and generally ensuring that when things came to a head, as they were guaranteed to at this point, that it would be a confusing maelstrom of cross-purposes and backstabbing. It'd leave the city half in ruins, with any luck, and either way there would be an enormous power vacuum.
All in a night's work!
At the moment, he was crossing another cluttered rooftop on the way to find someone from a group that apparently called themselves Los Picaros Duros; he was hoping to delicately convince them that the tome they so desperately wanted had actually been captured by their rivals, Fabulis Fabulosa Milesiaca. Travel by roof had proven to be more convenient than skulking in alleyways, both because it offered a more direct route and because people had a habit of not listening to you much if they saw you were some kind of scary shadow monster. Never one to cause undue screaming and running around when subtlety would work better, Klendel had decided to stick to high ground for the most part. Besides, that pretty much guaranteed he wouldn't be running into any of the other contestants until he was ready to confront them on his own terms.
That particular illusion was shattered when a number of ballistic icicles impacted on his gear, pierced his shadowy flesh, and shattered on the roof around him.
Cascala had tailed the shadowy creature for about a minute, carefully observing its motion and form; she eventually came to the conclusion that it was indeed the bizarre shadowy creature that had been barely-introduced after Doctor Harmon. There was no name to attach to it, nor any indication of what it could do or what could be done to it, but it was one of her targets, and she wouldn't let the opportunity to catch it off guard slip past.
The magus sent her mind forth, invisible tendrils of exploratory mana probing the dark shape. She found no fluid to manipulate, no blood to remove, no lungs to fill with water; its innards were as enigmatic as its outer form, and nothing to break or twist presented itself. Still, she thought, running her fingers along the runes on her staff, I have destroyed demons and golems and all manner of creatures with no blood to boil. One must simply sacrifice finesse…
The fingers on Cascala's left hand splayed and a faint spark of cyan light flashed for a moment between them; a number of small, invisible barriers formed in the air, similar to the one that kept the rain off her head but in the shape of inverted cones rather than a wide dome. Rain collected quickly in the receptacles, and she waved her staff; the water froze near-instantly, forming wicked spikes of ice. Her left hand clenched into a fist, and the barriers dissipated; the icicles, pulled by gravity and pushed by magic, rocketed towards the shady monster below. For power.
It whipped around to see what had attacked it, glowing red eyes narrowed in surprise and anger; it took several moments for the creature to notice the source of the attack had come from above, but when it did it bared long fangs and its hands seemed to become more clawlike. Cascala ignored the animalistic aggression stance, already muttering arcane syllables as she began casting another spell.