“I’m telling you, I can take us right there,” Juniper said petulantly. “Yes, Fross, I believe you about the wards. But I can smell them.”
“Exactly how sharp is your sense of smell?” Teal asked.
“Oh, whatever I need it to be,” the dryad said, waving a hand vaguely. “My senses are based on animals. Mostly I go with the norm for elves, that’s pretty sharp. You wouldn’t want to walk around smelling like a hound or seeing like an eagle all the time, you’d go nuts.”
“Dryads.” Jenny shook her head. “Little overpowered in this continuum…” She trailed off; Teal glanced at her curiously, but didn’t pry.
“The issue is not what you can do, Juniper,” Shaeine said quietly. “The elves do not appreciate unannounced visitors. No elves do; these have specifically shown us the seriousness with which they take their privacy. Bypassing their defenses would be an unequivocally hostile action.”
“And?” Juniper actually scowled.
“We are trying to talk with them,” Shaeine said gently.
“That didn’t seem to go over so great last time,” said Fross, buzzing along behind them. “It’s not so much that they’re difficult…”
“Some of them are difficult,” Juniper grumbled.
“Well, yeah, sure. But, y’know, if you pick up the clues about their culture and how they decide things… I don’t think we’re going to make any headway trying to persuade the tribe to get moving. It’d take years.”
“And that is why I don’t much care about their privacy or their defenses,” said Juniper crossly. “These guys really irritate me. Elves usually respect nature, most of them live very close to it. But this…this passiveness, that’s not natural.”
“Isn’t it?” Teal asked. “Nature is sort of…reactive, right? It adapts, it doesn’t charge in.”
“Exactly!” Juniper nodded eagerly. “It adapts. They’re not adapting! It’s not that they can’t, they just don’t want to, and it’s so…so silly!” She actually paused in walking to stomp her foot. “Elves should know better. They’re all gonna get killed from sheer stubbornness!”
“Harmony with nature is one thing,” said Shaeine. “Never underestimate an elf’s pride.”
“I’m still not clear on what we’re gonna do, anyway,” said Fross. “If they won’t be persuaded… You’re not thinking of attacking them, right?”
“What could we possibly gain by attacking them?” Jenny asked, amused.
“Well, see, that’s what I figured! But I dunno what the other options are, here.”
“We spoke with the leaders, before,” said Shaiene, calm and quiet as ever. “Perhaps they are not the only people worth talking to.”
“I suppose that’s something, at least,” said a voice from above.
The party came to a stop, looking upward. Two elves, both women, sat on a huge branch extending overhead. They were garbed in sturdy leathers patterned with camouflage and well-armed, carrying knives, tomahawks, bows and laden quivers. Clearly, these were scouts or warriors.
“It’s very reassuring that you’ve decided not to attack us,” said the second elf dryly. “I’m sure we’ll all sleep more soundly.”
“There you are,” said Juniper, planting her hands on her hips. “All right, fine, we found some elves. They can take us to the grove, and everybody will be happy.”
“Some elves found you. The distinction is important.”
“I’m not hearing a reason why we should take you anywhere.”
“Perhaps some time spent wandering around the forest will improve your disposition? You certainly don’t seem to be in a friendly frame of mind.”
“We do enjoy our peace and quiet.”
“Yeah, no, we’re not going to do that,” Juniper said firmly. “I am going to the grove. Shaeine doesn’t want me to just walk in, fine. I respect her opinion because she’s smart and she’s a friend, but she doesn’t get to tell me what to do. You don’t tell me what to do, either.” Her face drew into a scowl. “Only one person gives me orders, and I swear I am this close to complaining to her.”
The warriors exchanged an unreadable look. Then, quite suddenly, one rose to her feet and took off, bounding from one branch to another, and vanished quickly into the foliage. The other dropped to land lightly on the moss beside them, and bowed deeply to Juniper.
“We apologize for offending you, daughter of Naiya,” she said courteously. “My companion will see that a welcome is prepared in the grove. If you’ll follow me, please?”
“That’s more like it,” Juniper said with satisfaction, gesturing for the elf to go ahead.
They trooped along in her wake, quieter now that the matter was, for the moment, settled.
“Well,” Teal said softly, “I have a feeling this will be…interesting.”
Shaeine nodded. “I’m afraid so.”
“So quickly, thou hast returned to us,” Shiraki intoned. His expression was almost mournful, though it lightened somewhat when he turned and bowed to Juniper. “It gladdens my heart to see thee once again, child of Naiya.”
“I’m sure it does,” she said, winking. The old elf actually cracked a smile. Standing beside him, Sheyann rolled her eyes. Once again, most of the population of the grove seemed to be present, though they were less formally arranged now; the majority stood at a safe distance, unabashedly watching. The weight of their direct attention seemed greater, now that no one was occupied with dinner.
“Within hours, there is going to be a confrontation in Sarasio between the White Riders and the townspeople,” said Shaeine. Her voice was as calm as ever, but there was something very subtly different in her demeanor. She was businesslike, not quite brusque, but some of the gentleness of her previous address of the elves was gone. “It is too early to know the shape this will take, much less its outcome. The citizenry have a numerical advantage, but the Riders are more mobile and better positioned.”
“That,” Sheyann noted, “and the people of Sarasio are too divided and generally timid to take action.”
“Kinda like you guys,” said Jenny, folding her arms and raising an eyebrow. A faint stir swirled among the onlookers.
“That is being addressed as we speak,” Shaeine said evenly. “We have come to request the help of any elves who care enough for their human neighbors to lend it.”
“This matter has been settled,” Shiraki said, somewhat sharply. “The tribe will take no action that will bring the dangers of human barbarism into our midst.”
“Forgive me, elder, for my lack of respect, and my temerity,” Shaeine replied, bowing to him. “But I was not speaking to you.”
Dead silence fell. All around, dozens of elves watched, hawklike. The brook continued to gurgle softly on its way, making the only sound in the grove. Sheyann raised an eyebrow, her expression mildly interested. Shiraki, however, was close to scowling outright.
“We speak for the tribe,” he said firmly.
“Then the tribe need not act. Only the individuals who are willing.”
“The tribe acts as one, or not at all!” His voice climbed in volume, and very slightly in pitch. “That is our way, older than thou canst imagine.”
“Then,” Shaeine replied calmly, “it is time for your ways to change.”
Some of the onlookers drew in sharp breaths, enough to make a soft sound that filled the clearing.
“Thou reachest far, child of the underworld,” Shiraki said softly.
“Uh huh,” Juniper interjected, “and are you gonna explain why she’s wrong? Things change. The world changes. You either change with it, or you get left behind. Ten thousand years ago, this was a swamp. Would you try to live in that the way you do in a forest surrounded by prairie?”
“That is a slender and specious comparison.”
“No.” Sheyann shook her head. “It isn’t.”
“The situation is thus,” Shaine went on inexorably. “The White Riders have gone well beyond random violence and obstructionism. They are guilty of rebellion against the Tiraan Empire, and their efforts to prevent the Empire from learning of their actions were doomed from the start. Already, the duration of their success has pushed the bounds of likelihood. There will be Imperial reprisal soon, and this problem will be resolved.”
“And so should it be!” Shiraki snapped. “Let the humans solve their own problems.”
“At that time,” Shaeine continued, very nearly cutting him off, “the Empire will begin to look around at the surrounding situation. They will find a community of powerful immortals, situated in extreme proximity to a rebel group, who did nothing to inhibit this sedition. They will not ignore your involvement.”
“We are not involved!”
“To exist is to be involved. Your isolationism is a choice; it affects the course of events around you, and you will be held accountable for those effects.”
“Thy threats are as empty as they are ill-mannered,” he shot back. “We fear no human reprisal.”
“I do,” Sheyann said quietly.
“It has been more than three centuries since the Tiraan Empire directly engaged in combat with any group of forest elves,” Shaeine carried on, her stare boring into Shiraki. “This was before the use of wands and staves in battle, before zeppelin transport, tactical scrying and modern spellcaster protocols. All these methods were employed several years ago against the Cobalt Dawn tribe of plains elves, the last elven group to directly attack Imperial interests. That tribe no longer exists.” The reaction from the crowd to this was such that she had to raise her voice slightly as she continued. “The same measures sufficed for decades to decisively overmatch the armies of Tar’naris, whose military capabilities outstrip your own by a wide margin. The Cobalt Dawn were wiped out; Tar’naris allied itself with the Empire and has prospered greatly. Those are the two main possibilities before you. Ignoring the power of Tiraas will soon cease to be an option for anyone. The option will be taken from your tribe very soon.”
“That is enough,” Shiraki snarled. “Twice, thou hast abused our hospitality to threaten ruin. Thou shalt remove thyself from our grove, or be removed.”
Shaeine raised her voice further, turning from him to pan her gaze around the assembled elves. “The world is changing! Any of you who wish to continue living in it must change, too. You cannot ignore what is happening in Sarasio, any more than you could ignore a famine or tornado. Help us, for your own future is as much at stake as anyone’s!”
“I said ENOUGH!” Shiraki thundered, making a lifting gesture with his fingers stiffened into claws. Roots erupted from the ground around Shaeine’s feet, swelling to twine around her legs in seconds, entangling her robes and lifting her off the moss. She pinwheeled her arms frantically, struggling not to be toppled over.
“LET HER GO!”
Elves fled in all directions as Teal erupted in a cascade of flames and Vadrieny emerged, burning wings fully extended, her face twisted in a snarl that showed the full length of her murderous fangs.
The roots stopped growing the instant Juniper laid her hands on them; the dryad began carefully peeling them off the drow, while Vadrieny stalked toward Shiraki, her talons gouging deep rents in the moss. Jenny let out a yelp and jumped backward, barely managing to catch her balance before tumbling into the stream. She stared, open-mouthed, at Vadrieny.
All around them, elves drew weapons, aiming a variety of arrows, wands and tomahawks at the demon, but no one let fly. Vadrieny came to a stop after only three paces, staring in puzzlement at Shiraki, who did not react at all the way she had expected. The ancient elf scrambled backward so frantically that he actually tripped over his robes and fell, continuing to scuttle away awkwardly on his back. His face was a mask of horror, all the famous elven grace stripped from him.
“Invazradi!” he squealed. “No, no! You’re dead!”
“Yes, she’s dead,” Sheyann said calmly. She had produced a tomahawk from within the folds of her robe and slipped smoothly into a fighting stance, her eyes on the demon, but had not backed away an inch. Her expression was utterly cold. “That’s not her. Hello, Vadrieny.”
Vadrieny turned her eyes, narrowed to blazing slits, to the other elder. Sheyann still made no move to advance or retreat; the surrounding elves kept their weapons trained on Vadrieny, but for the moment, no one offered aggression. Juniper had quickly peeled away the roots entangling Shaeine, who was now carefully unwrapping her robes from them.
“Do I know you?” Vadrieny asked sharply.
Sheyann actually straightened up, surprise replacing her glare. “Do you know me?” she demanded. “Is this what passes for humor in Hell?”
“Vadrieny is without memory,” Shaeine said, stepping forward. She did not quite place herself between the elf and the demon, but interjected her presence. “As I keep having to repeat, a great deal has happened in the world while you’ve enjoyed the peace of your grove.”
“I see.” The two words held a great weight of hidden meaning. Sheyann didn’t lower her weapon, but slowly eased into a less aggressive posture. “…I did not even see you in the girl’s aura. You share a body with a human, now? Only discorporeal demons are capable of such.” A faint, very unpleasant smile tugged at her lips. “My, my. Something very bad has happened to you, hasn’t it?”
“How do you know me?” Vadrieny demanded, her musical voice echoing across the glade.
“How have you hidden yourself so thoroughly?” Sheyann countered. Shiraki was actually behind her now, having gotten to his feet. He wasn’t quite hiding, but very carefully kept his fellow elder between himself and the demon.
“Oh! Oh! Oh! She wasn’t hiding!” Fross buzzed around Vadrieny in a circle, seeming unperturbed by the flames wreathing her hair and feathers. “I’ve researched this! Warding spells are just about the most universal kind of magic, they function almost the same if they’re arcane or divine or whatever. You’re using fae magic, of course, but it’s still the basic ‘detect evil’ that clerics use! It didn’t ping when Vadrieny entered the glade, because she’s not evil.”
“Not evil?!” Shiraki said shrilly. “Are you utterly daft?”
Fross paused in her buzzing. “Oh, hey. You do speak modern Tanglish!”
“He does it in bed, too,” Juniper noted.
“It’d be different if you’d set it up to scan for demons, but it’s not efficient to have multiple wards for every possible kind of intruder, you’d have more wards than trees! So you’re using a fae spell that screens for aggressors,” the pixie continued, beginning to buzz in figure eights between the two groups. “Evil really isn’t a quantifiable state, but fae magic is good for emotional gradients, so you’re probably looking for malice as a magical state. That’s common to both demons and wild fae. Vadrieny doesn’t have any malice toward you, so, there you go! Didn’t ping the wards.”
“No malice?” Sheyann barked a bitter laugh. “Do you have any idea what that creature is?”
“First of all, she’s a who, not a what,” said Juniper. “And second, yes. She’s our friend.”
“I would like to hear what you know about me,” Vadrieny said sharply.
“Would you?” Sheyann’s icy smile widened, beginning to look somewhat like Tellwyrn in one of her moods. “Life is full of disappointments.”
Vadrieny drew back her lip in a sneer; Shiraki cowered behind Sheyann at the sight of the fangs thus displayed, but Sheyann herself finally lowered her weapon, straightening and effortlessly reclaiming her poise. As though this were a signal, much of the tension went out of the surrounding elves, but very few lowered their own arms, keeping the demon well covered.
“You’re going to look down your nose at me, elf?” she growled. Even that guttural tone sounded like music, joining the splash of the stream and resonating through the glade, seeming as natural as birdsong. “Let me tell you something about being swept along by the world: it’s more painful than you can imagine.”
“I can imagine more than you’d credit,” Sheyann retorted, narrowing her eyes. “I remember pain that you, apparently, do not.”
“Then you’re oddly eager to revisit it.” Vadrieny folded her wings, hunching them over her shoulders almost like a huge, luminous cloak. They were too large to fit precisely, but the effect was visually striking. “Bad enough you want to sit here and wait for reality to stomp over you—forcing the rest of your people to suffer the same fate is cruel beyond belief.”
“You would speak to me about cruelty?” Sheyann said softly.
“Feh.” Vadrieny turned her back on the elf, panning her burning gaze around the glade. Wide-eyed elves stared back; Jenny eased herself behind Juniper, while Shaeine simply folded her hands, listening. “I’m not going to bother threatening you. If I wished you harm, the easiest thing in the world would have been not to come. To let you sit on your hands and wait for the inevitable to happen. You think you can hide from the world? Please. By all means, try that. Sit here in your pretty orchard until the Tiraan or whoever else decides they want what you have, and comes to show you all the shiny new ways they’ve invented of taking it from you. Is this what all elves are like? There’ll be nothing left of your species but drow and Tellwyrn at this rate.”
“…Arachne,” Sheyann said, closing her eyes. “I should have known.”
“Yeah, you really should have.” Vadrieny turned to look over her shoulder at the elder, moving one wing gracefully aside to clear her view. “If anyone here had been paying the slightest attention to what was happening beyond the points of your ears, you’d have found her sitting right there in Sarasio. Ever wonder what else has crept up on you while you ignored it?”
She looked to the left, then the right, then sneered again. “You know what? I don’t even care. Just sit here and die, all of you. If this is how you want to live, the world will be rid of elves within the century. I hope a few of you survive to see how little difference it makes to anyone. Bah.”
Vadrieny pivoted on one clawed foot and stalked toward the edge of the clearing, right at a knot of armored elves. They raised bows and wands as she approached.
“Move!” the demon barked, not slowing.
“Let her out.” Sheyann sounded suddenly weary. The defenders parted, shying back from the burning wings as Vadrieny passed. Jenny and the other students fell into step behind her, eager to get away from the tense, armed elves surrounding them.
“Nice to see you all again!” Fross said politely before zipping off after her classmates.
“So, uh…” Jenny swallowed, keeping her eyes on Vadrieny’s back. “There’s more to you guys than meets the eye, huh?”
They walked in silence through the darkened forest. This time, the way was illuminated by Vadrieny’s orange glow in addition to Fross’s white one. The demon stalked at the head of the group, Shaeine right behind her, with Fross fluttering back and forth. Periodically she would dip close to someone and chime softly, but never got as far as speaking.
“Sorry,” Vadrieny said suddenly.
“For what?” Shaeine asked, her voice soft.
“For ruining that. I suppose that was pretty much the opposite of diplomacy.”
“It was, at that,” the drow replied slowly. “But…much as I am loath to acknowledge it…diplomacy has its limits, and I believe we had reached them. I cannot say whether your approach was the right one, but it was something. Now, what will be, will be.”
They all straggled to a halt, glancing around. There was no sign of any elf having followed them.
“You took a stand on principle,” Shaeine went on. “And you protected your friends. I cannot imagine Teal is upset with you.”
Slowly, Vadrieny shook her head. “That… A lot of that was Teal’s anger.”
Mutely, Shaeine raised her eyebrows.
“Hey, uh…we’re just gonna go on up ahead a little bit,” said Jenny, taking Juniper by the arm and gently tugging her forward. The dryad went without protest, though she paused to wink and give Shaeine a thumbs up behind Vadrieny’s back.
“Uh, is it wise to split up?”
“Come on, Fross.”
“Okay, okay! See you two in a bit, I guess…”
The pixie chimed softly in agitation as she followed the others out, leaving Shaeine and Vadrieny in a small clearing, lit by the demon’s fire.
“You ought to know.” Vadrieny’s low voice hummed through the darkened trees, harmonizing with the crickets and bullfrogs that sang in the night. “She’ll be mad at me for telling you, but… Teal’s parents have a very good friend who’s an elf. He was like an uncle, really, helped raise her. He’s the reason she speaks elvish. And he never said a word to her about sexuality.”
Shaeine tilted her head mutely to one side.
“Remember the night we went to Last Rock, and she played the guitar?”
“And you helped her sing.” The drow nodded. “Vividly, yes.”
“You mentioned that elves are normally attracted to both genders.”
“Gender isn’t exactly a polar—ah. Yes, I recall.”
Vadrieny sighed, fanning her wings once and sending a warm breeze through the nearby bushes. “It’s been weighing on her. How can he not have said anything? It was…brutal, growing up the way she is in Imperial society. She’s only managed this well because her family is too powerful to let her be abused too much, but she was still bullied. The one person who could have made a difference, who should have known better, said nothing.”
Slowly, finally, the glow faded. Wings and claws withdrew and the forest grew dark again, and only Teal stood there, one arm crossed awkwardly in front of her to grasp the opposite elbow. She stared at the ground.
“And the worst thing is, I never had to wonder for a moment why he didn’t. Elves. Balance, harmony, respect, tradition… He wouldn’t have wanted to rock the boat. I am just. So. Sick. Of elven bullshit.” She twisted her lips, clamping down on the emotion bubbling up. “…I’m sorry, Shaeine, I shouldn’t have let her dump all this on you. I know you don’t like to talk about emotions…”
She broke off with a soft gasp as Shaeine closed the gap and wrapped her arms around her. The drow was shorter by a good bit; her thick white hair effectively blocked Teal’s mouth.
“Not everything,” Shaeine said softly, “is about what I like.”
Slowly, hesitantly, Teal loosened her arms and hugged her back. Shaeine squeezed her once before pulling away.
“I am very uncomfortable with public displays of emotion,” she said. “But I am also your friend, and I greatly value your happiness. Should you wish to talk, we can do so anytime we have privacy.”
Teal let a tremulous smile flutter across her features. “I-I would like that.”
Shaeine smiled back, and more warmth illumined the expression than she usually showed in the course of a day, clear even in the shadows.
“Am I intruding?”
They both spun to face the figure slowly materializing out of the darkness. Elder Sheyann moved at a serene, unthreatening pace, hands folded before her. The tomahawk was not in evidence… But then, it hadn’t been before, either.
“What a fascinating group of young people you are,” she said, her gaze on Teal, and came to a stop a few yards from them. “You have certainly disrupted the tranquility of our existence.”
“Sorry,” Teal said curtly.
Sheyann smiled very faintly. “You owe me no apology…for that. Nothing you said was incorrect, though you were perhaps a bit pushy. I cannot say I was best pleased at having an archdemon brought into our home unannounced.”
“I prefer it if she stays unannounced, usually,” Teal said frankly, shifting her bare feet awkwardly on the moss. Her rubber sandals were no doubt back in the glade, ripped apart by the manifestation of Vadrieny’s talons.
Sheyann studied her in silence for a moment. “You certainly managed to keep a secret from me,” she said at last, “but I am rarely wrong in my assessment of a person’s character. You seem like such a… Forgive the banal description… Such a nice girl.”
“Teal Falconer is the best person I know,” Shaeine said evenly. Teal looked over at her, opening her mouth in surprise, but closed it silently after a moment.
“In that case,” Sheyann went on in a grimmer tone, “I strongly advise you to separate yourself from that creature as quickly as you possibly can, by whatever means are necessary.”
Teal shook her head. “The clerics at the Universal Church… Well, they said a lot, but one thing that stuck with me was the metaphor of applesauce.”
Sheyann raised an eyebrow.
“You can take two apples,” Teal explained, “mash them up, add spices, mix them together…y’know, make applesauce. But once you’ve done that, applesauce is all you have. Even if you could somehow strain out all the other ingredients, separate each particle into the two separate piles and put them all back exactly where they were… Both are still basically destroyed. There’s not enough left of either to make two whole apples again.”
“I see. I am sorry to hear it.” The elder sighed. “Be warned, then. Memories or no, that creature is what it is. Its nature will out, eventually.”
“What did she do to you?” Teal asked in a small voice.
The elf simply stared at her in silence for a very long stretch of moments, then shook her head again. “I must return to the grove and try to salvage some order among those of the tribe who are left.”
“Left?” Shaeine asked sharply.
Sheyann actually grinned at her, but it was a wry, almost bitter expression. “Oh, yes. Whatever your other flaws and virtues, the two of you… The three of you can put on quite a show.” She turned and glided back into the darkness, her voice echoing back to them. “Return to the town, and do what you can for it, children. You won’t be going alone.”