Schwartz, to the surprise of probably no one but himself, was the last to notice.
“What?” he said nervously. “I’m sure I don’t—”
“Move!” Basra barked, gesturing to one side and drawing her sword.
Schwartz finally followed everyone’s gaze, looking over his shoulder, then let out a yelp and spun, backpedaling so quickly he nearly tumbled to the ground.
The thing was darkness without feature, though at a glance at first it resembled a cloud of black smoke. It rose to about twice the height of a person, spreading roughly half that in width. Unlike smoke, though, the center of its mass lacked texture or any features, while its edges rippled more transparently.
“What the hell?” Covrin muttered, sword and shield already in hand.
Basra seized the divine light, a spherical shield flashing into place around her.
That immediately caught the creature’s attention.
Darkness rippled outward from it, and a shadow fell over the prairie. Literally, a dimming of the sunlight, as though heavy clouds had obscured the sun, though none were in evidence. The shape swelled further, now looming over them, and its edges rippled in a silent motion that she interpreted as anger. Within the center of its mass, two points appeared—spots of a strange nullification. Even in the absolute blackness of its body, they were dark. Basra was familiar with magical effects, and knew the sensation of her eyes trying to make sense of something simply not sensible. This was a creature whose gaze it was not healthy to meet.
She bared her teeth at it in a grin, not flinching, and took a step forward. Light flowed down her arm, blazing forth from her blade.
“Don’t stare at it!” Schwartz yelped. “Back up, everybody, I’ve got this!”
Basra didn’t glance over at him, but from her left there suddenly came a burst of pure golden light. Not divine, she couldn’t feel anything—in fact, it looked exactly like morning sunbeams streaming through the temple windows back home. The light struck the shadow being directly, and it reared back, emitting a ferocious hiss.
“Hah!” Schwartz crowed. “I use this for reading at night—never thought it’d have a combat applic—”
The cloud sprouted two very distinct arms, ending in broad, clawed hands, and hurled an unmistakeable shadowbolt at him. Interesting—that was infernal craft, but she didn’t sense the presence of that kind of magic, either.
Schwartz squawked and his sunbeams winked out, but Basra didn’t spare him a glance. Arrows whipped past her, sinking into the bulk of the creature and making it break off its attack, writing in apparent pain. She paid them no mind either, closing to sword range with Covrin stepping swiftly up on her left, covering Basra’s unarmed flank with her shield. Standard Legion field practice with regard to elves was to assume they knew what they were doing, whether fighting with or against them.
As her glowing shield neared the creature, it fixed its impossible glare on her again. Covrin halted, visibly quailing; something about that stare was meant to be disturbing to mortal perceptions.
“Steady,” Basra said in a low tone. “When it engages again, step behind me.”
Then Schwart’s sunbeams resumed, slightly weaker than before, but rapidly growing in intensity. This time, an identical glowing effect flashed forward from her and Covrin’s other side. They did not strike the shadow directly, but formed barriers to both sides, pinning it in a corridor with the two swordswomen.
“We will control the field,” said the elf with the staff from behind them, his voice calm. “Wait till the fire elementals circle around to cut off its retreat, then engage with your divine light, Bishop. It must not escape; we destroy it here.”
“Good,” she said curtly, keeping her stare fixed on the shadow’s. Covrin swallowed so hard Basra could hear it, but held her position.
Fire elementals in this prairie sounded like a fantastically bad idea to her. Nonetheless, two immediately circled around from each side, taking the forms of coyotes made of pure blue flame, flickering a hotter orange at their edges. They didn’t spark so much as a smolder from the grasses around them; clearly the shaman had them under tight control. As soon as the two creatures got behind the shadow, they swelled and shifted, growing into the shapes of a pair of enormous grizzly bears; she could just make them out through the haze at the edges of the shadow. Their flames seemed more visible through it than the scenery beyond.
The black being twisted, its unearthly eyes rotating oddly in its amorphous mass, and made as if to lunge at the flame-bears. They held their ground, one pantomiming a roar that spat a gout of blue fire at it, sending the creature surging back toward Basra. It tried to duck to the side, but ran straight into the stronger beam of sunlight, presumably the one cast by the elvish shaman. Two more arrows whistled into it, passing straight through but disrupting its shadowy body on the way and forcing it back to the center of the trap. Doubtless those shafts were blessed in some way.
“So,” she murmured, “it fears light. How fitting.”
Basra strode forward again, Covrin moving a second later. The shadow whirled, again fixing its stare on her, and rippled furiously. Its hiss of rage echoed straight through her brain. Here, at last, was something it could attack.
She grinned. “Come on, then.”
A shadowbolt impacted her shield, followed by a second; both disintegrated without diminishing its integrity in the least. Not infernal craft, then; some kind of fae energy that resembled it. She pressed forward, closing nearly to melee range, her blazing aura seeming to physically push the shadow back. It swiped desperately at her with one claw, then the other, which had no more effect than the shadowbolts had.
It turned, trying to flee again, and this time stood its ground against the menacing of the fire-bears. Two of the elven archers had also circled around, however, and fired another pair of charmed shafts straight between the shadow and the elementals, forcing it back. Basra paused, rapidly contemplating. It seemed to fear her light more than the fire; if she pushed like this, it would surely panic and force its way past the elementals.
She let her shield wink out.
“Ma’am?” Covrin cried shrilly.
Basra didn’t acknowledge her. Sword still blazing with light, she charged straight at the creature. It whirled to face her, emboldened by her lack of glowing shield. Both clawed arms came down on her as she ran.
The sensation was like being doused in ice water. Her body went numb, cold enough to hurt, first at the touch of those claws, and second all over when she plunged straight into its center of shadowy mass. Basra had been struck by shadowbolts before; it was part of advanced Legion training. The experience was nasty and, at higher levels of power, could cause nerve damage, but most of the pain was illusory. This wasn’t as bad as what the Church summoner who’d tested her had done, either, for all that it was all over rather than in a concentrated blast. Despite her lack of a shield, the divine light glowed in her core, rendering the damage of the shadows only superficial. She didn’t even slow.
Basra had to jump to drive her sword into one of the creature’s unnatural not-eyes, but she struck it unerringly.
Its cry of agony was like a blast of frigid wind ripping across the prairie. Fully half the creature’s mass abruptly dissolved, and the shadow across the land vanished, leaving them bathed in bright sunlight. Something about the remainder of its body seemed more solid, too; not solid like flesh, but as if she had her sword driven through a giant, squirming slug.
It collapsed to the ground, thrashing and swiping at her with rapidly shrinking claws; she ignored the pain, bodily forcing it downward.
“Excellent!” cried the shaman. “Hold it still—we will finish it off!”
First one shaft of sunbeams moved, then the other, Schwartz clearly following the elf’s lead. They pivoted and angled as both men stepped up closer, changing their aim to bathe the shadow in the full strength of the beams.
It howled, thrashed, wailed, and began to steam as if the sunlight was burning it away to nothing. Indeed, the whole rest of the process took no more than a few seconds. The glowing sword seared away a chunk at the center of its remaining mass before it was finished, freeing it to move, but by that point the thing was too damaged to resist. It broke apart into smaller fragments, which hissed and smoked until they, one by one, dissolved into nothingness.
Then it was gone.
“Well done,” said the shaman, lowering his staff. His shaft of sunlight winked out, followed by the other.
“I say, how exciting!” Schwartz cried. “An actual shadow elemental! I never thought to see such a thing—nor hoped to, I must say.”
“What?” Basra exclaimed, rounding on him. “A shadow elemental? I never heard of—did you just make that up?”
“Oh, no, no, I assure you, your Grace,” he said hastily. “It’s a known practice, but rare and rather difficult. You see, in the art of elemental magic—”
The shaman cleared his throat pointedly. “With that out of the way, all of you are more than welcome to come to the grove. In fact, the elders will be quite eager to discuss these events.” He glanced between Basra and Schwartz, and smiled with apparent amusement. “I think, also, we can provide a more comfortable place to hold the remainder of this conversation.”
Ingvar had been the last onto the caravan and was the last one out. He was pleased to find the experience nowhere near as grueling as many had claimed, but still. It was a small, enclosed space shared with a stranger and Antonio Darling; nothing would have made that a comfortable ride.
“I say,” Darling exclaimed, hopping out after him. “That was a downright comfortable ride! It’s amazing, the effort they’ve put into improving these things.”
“You should’ve tried it a few months ago,” Joe said, stepping out after him. “This is a whole other world. Safety belts, comfortable seats, an’ you can’t even feel the acceleration or curves anymore. McGraw’s got a theory about how an’ why the Rails are bein’ upgraded… Actually, it’s a little eerie, whatever they used to soften the ride. Messin’ with fundamental forces like inertia makes me nervous.”
“Isn’t all of magic messing with fundamental forces, really?” Darling asked him. The question could have been chiding or condescending, asked of a teenager by a man nearing his middle years, but his tone was simply curious, as if he honestly sought Joe’s insight. Ingvar watched their conversation sidelong, taking careful note of Darling’s ability to communicate subtleties without words. The man was every bit as dangerous as he remembered.
Joe merely shrugged. “Magic follows rules, jus’ like conventional physics. Different rules, more subjective ones, but still… Reckon I’m just in a peculiar position, is all. I know enough of the art to know when something’s difficult an’ dangerous, but not enough in this case t’see how it was done.”
“That makes sense,” Darling replied, nodding, and turned to study the Veilgrad platform. “After all, the Empire wouldn’t be running the things if they didn’t work.”
Ingvar continued to withhold comment, instead turning to examine their new surroundings himself.
The walled city of Veilgrad was famous, of course, for its historic and culturally important position between the plains and the mountains. Here, Tiraas mixed with the Stalrange; in this city, both were equally represented in architecture, ethnicity, and tradition. The city was also very much on the Empire’s mind lately, due to the events that had transpired here a few weeks prior. From the Rail platform outside the walls, no signs of an undead apocalypse were visible; the city wasn’t visibly damaged, not even to the extent of lingering scaffolding, materials or other repair work being in evidence.
There was, however, a greater Army presence than seemed generally likely for an interior area of the Empire. Soldiers patrolled the platform, the city walls and the roads between them in noteworthy numbers; there was a zeppelin hovering above the city itself, and a second docked on the plain itself adjacent to the Rail platform. Its enormous copper-accented gray shape loomed over the area like a castle, but based on the lack of reaction to it by most of those coming and going, this wasn’t an usual sight these days.
Despite all this, Ingvar’s eyes were drawn to the towering peaks of the Stalrange itself, rising abruptly out of the plains without intervening foothills, as if Shaath himself had planted them there in defiance of the gentler land to the west. Here, beyond that mighty wall and deeper into the mountains, was the heart of Shaathist culture and worship.
For him, in particular, this land held significance, great promise, and considerable risk.
“Welp,” Darling said brightly, “we’re not getting anywhere by holding down the platform! Onward and upward, gentlemen. I think we can charter a carriage at that office up there into the city…”
“Is there something wrong with our feet?” Ingvar asked mildly.
Darling looked over at him and blinked twice; Joe ducked his head, hiding a smile behind his hand.
“Well, now you mention it, I suppose not,” the Eserite said, his apparent good cheer undiminished. “A nice walk would be just the thing to loosen up after that Rail ride.”
Picking up his suitcase, he started for the steps at the far end of the platform, but Ingvar spoke again, making no move to follow.
“And where, exactly, are we going? I note that despite this being my quest, I’m the last to know what, specifically, we are doing here, in this city. At least, I hope that one of you were brought into the loop when you were recruited for this.”
“Yep,” Joe drawled, “takin’ direction from Mary tends to get like that.”
“Quite right, of course,” Darling said, turning back to him. He glanced around them, the motion of his eyes so swift Ingvar might well have missed it, had he not been accustomed to tracking the tiniest flickers of movement on the hunt. No one seemed to be paying them the slightest attention, though; their caravan hadn’t come as part of a routine stop, so there was no great throng of people embarking or disembarking. The only other individuals on the platform were clustered around a few vendors at one end and stacking boxes of freight at the other.
“I’m sure you heard about the recent…kerfuffle out here,” Darling said, pausing for Ingvar to acknowledge him.
“The Huntsman are not so insular as to have missed that,” Ingvar said dryly. “In fact, the local lodge took part in the defense of the city. Quite heroically, as I understand it. And none of them referred to it as a ‘kerfuffle.’”
“Right,” Darling said with an amused smile. “Well, Joe and I aren’t along on this thing just to make it a threesome; we’ve some business in Veilgrad pertaining to that, and I rather suspect we’re going to find that our various concerns continue to overlap wherever else this journey takes us. Dear Mary is just that much of a planner. Specifically…” He spread his arm and made an obviously mocking bow. “You’re looking at the clown who had the best chance of warding off the recent disaster here, and blew it.”
“Glad as I am to see you takin’ responsibility,” Joe remarked, “I still don’t think you were nearly as central to the whole business as you make out.”
“Taking too much responsibility is always preferable to too little,” Darling retorted. “In any case, the facts, Ingvar, are that I had warning of something major and chaos-related about to unfold, I did my best to find out where it was happening and sent trusted, capable people there to deal with it, and…I was dead wrong. Joe, here, and a few other allies, found themselves stuck in the desert hundreds of miles away, dealing with unrelated nonsense, while Veilgrad burned. All because I hared off chasing a likely trail and didn’t pay enough attention to signs that could have directed me here.”
“I see,” Ingvar said neutrally, carefully refusing to form an opinion. This was clearly just the shadow of a much bigger, very complex story. And while he agreed with Joe that it was better to see Darling accepting blame than otherwise, he remained mindful of Darling’s skill at using his positive traits to conceal the real horrors beneath the facade.
“So that’s what we’re doing here,” Darling continued. “We’ve some old business to follow up on.”
“Largely just morbid curiosity at this point,” Joe added. “Not like there’s anything to be done about it now. But I’ve recently had the details about what really happened in Veilgrad from some who were right in the thick of it, so we want to catch up with a couple of individuals who were…sort of in charge.”
“Closure,” said Darling, nodding. “And maybe some hints we can use to prevent a similar screw-up in the future.”
“That’s…laudable,” Ingvar said. “Not to sound self-centered, but with regard to my reason for being here…?”
“Ah, yes,” Darling said more briskly. “Mary’s of the opinion you’ll want to talk with a kind of Shaathist offshoot sect called the Shadow Hunters who live in the hills nearby.”
Ingvar stiffened. “The Shadow Hunters are not an offshoot of the Huntsmen. They are…a parallel. Nothing of their beliefs has to do with Shaath.”
“Well, that’s interesting to know,” Darling mused. “I guess we’ll hear more about it from them.”
“We?” Ingvar said pointedly. “You two have your business in Veilgrad, and I have mine. It seems more efficient for us to part ways here.”
“Now, I foresee this bein’ a sticking point, so lemme just throw in my two bits’ worth, if I may,” said Joe, tucking his thumbs into his belt. “Way I understand it, this is a matter of spiritual concern for you, Mr…uh, Brother. I, uh, sorry, I never actually met a Huntsman before. Dunno the properly respectful term.”
“Ingvar is fine,” he said, feeling a small rush of affection for the lad. If only more people his age were as concerned about respect.
“Ingvar, then,” Joe said, nodding. “So this is a sacred quest for you, we’re not members of your faith, an’ you’ve got no reason to trust or particularly like us. That about right?”
Ingvar glanced over at Darling, who stood placidly with a suspiciously calm and open expression. “I mean no offense, of course.”
“Of course,” Joe agreed. “It’s a reasonable position. I’ve found myself on, for want of a better term, adventures with a right strange crew of folk lately, an’ they ran the gamut from neutrally unfamiliar to seemingly deserving of a punch in the teeth on general principles.”
“You’ve gotta meet Weaver sometime,” Darling said, grinning. “Preferably when I’m there to watch.”
Joe shot him an annoyed look. “Point being, the way to get friendly with people is to stand alongside ’em through hard times.”
“I’m not certain I see the advantage to me in getting friendly with people as a rule,” Ingvar said stiffly.
“You don’t?” Darling’s expression was…hard to decipher, now. Ingvar wondered if that meant he was feeling something genuine. “Seems to me a man in your position needs all the friends he can get.”
“I reckon that’s true of anyone,” Joe said hastily. “Look… If nothing else, Mary set us out on this thing together. She’s a difficult person to like at times, but I’ll vouch she’s trustworthy, and has the best intentions. More importantly, she’s probably the wisest soul I ever met. Aside from that, it ain’t generally smart practice to split up the party. You never know what might happen.”
Ingvar drew in a breath and let it out in a huff through his nose. “I suppose there’s logic in that. This will make our visit here longer, though.”
“Are you in a hurry?” Darling asked. “Really—that’s not sass, I’m asking. If you’ve got some kind of timetable, we should be aware of it so we can try not to hold you up.”
“Not…in particular, no,” Ingvar said reluctantly. “Aside from a general desire to have all of this done with as swiftly as possible.”
“Well, that’s more than fair,” Darling said, grinning. “We’ll still try not to hold you up. I don’t think our own business should take terribly long, anyway. In general I’m inclined to agree with Joe’s reasoning—all of it. All told, I expect to be here a couple days at least; we should secure lodgings, and then chat with Mr. Grusser and Lady Malivette. We should be able to get that over with this afternoon, I should think.”
“Who?” Ingvar demanded.
“The local… Well, sort of the two governors,” Darling explained. “It’s a little complex; I’ll give you the full rundown on the way into town. But that’ll give us a fresh start tomorrow to approach your Shadow Hunters. Your mission’s the focus, here, after all. It makes sense to me to have the full day to address it without interruptions. Right?”
“I suppose so,” Ingvar said slowly. It sounded like logic, but he couldn’t escape the feeling he’d just been manipulated somehow. Traveling with Darling was going to make him thoroughly paranoid.
“Well then!” Darling said brightly, again picking up his suitcase. “If that’s settled, let’s be off! No sense dragging all this out, as we’ve established.”
Ingvar couldn’t quite hold back a sigh, but he followed the Bishop toward the steps at the end of the platform, Joe silently bringing up the rear.
The platform itself lay amid a scattering of structures that looked well-established, but not so historic as the city itself. Veilgrad in general gave the impression of a houseplant growing too large for its pot, positioned as it was on the wall-enclosed granite plateau thrusting westward from the mountains, with a network of roads branching out from it and smaller patches of city rising from the plains below, and into the hills above. The road directly ahead of them led straight to the city’s main gates, positioned on the narrow end of the huge peninsular outcropping on which Veilgrad stood.
The road up to the gates was not long, nor arduous; its slope was fairly gentle. Ingvar recalled having read that this was a Tiraan addition, replacing the original, more defensible approach. Indeed, the long ramp passed over several enormous rocky protrusions that made up part of its base, but mostly appeared to have been built of artificial stonework. Considering the height at which the gates stood, getting there on an incline mild enough not to send traffic rolling back down (like the siege engines of old were meant to) made for a very long approach.
The wide ramp was lined with towers, manned by Tiraan soldiers and some bristling with mag artillery; one larger fortress near its base had its own dedicated scrolltower. Civilian structures were also positioned along the length, mostly shops catering to travelers, with several inns and flat, level spaces where people could stop and rest. Ingvar considered suggesting one of these as a place to stay. Despite being accustomed to the island city of Tiraas, in this new country, he felt an odd but insistent reluctance to be hemmed in by the walls.
There were no complaints or signs of any difficulty from the rear of their little procession; it made sense that the famed Sarasio Kid wouldn’t balk at a long hike. Increasingly, Ingvar had the impression he and Joe were going to end up getting along well. Somewhat to his irritation, Darling was having no trouble with the distance or the incline either, despite lugging along his suitcase. That seemed downright unfair. The man was a bureaucrat and a politician; what right did he have encroaching on Ingvar’s territory by being in shape? On the other hand, he was also a thief. Apparently, he had not become a retired one simply because he’d moved into administration.
A gathering of people were standing around one of the flat resting areas, listening avidly to an older man exuberantly relating a story. An older Huntsman, still unbent and brawny despite the gray in his beard. He stood upon a bench, two younger, quieter Huntsmen nearby, watching with rather smug expressions.
Ingvar let the speech wash over him as they drew close enough to hear it, absorbing just enough to discern that it was a recitation of a hunting party into Veilgrad’s now-notorious catacombs during the recent disaster. The fellow was a good storyteller; Huntsmen had a valued oral tradition and those who cultivated the skill could put on a show to challenge any Vesker. Interesting as the story might have been, Ingvar was more concerned with watching than listening.
Darling didn’t slow, but turned his head to observe the tableau as they drew abreast of it. One of the younger Huntsmen standing by glanced over at them, then looked sharply again, this time directly at Ingvar, who managed not to tense. The man’s eyes flicked over him, peering closely at his leather headband, longbow, traditional jerkin and bearskin mantle pinned with a bronze wolf’s head, before coming to rest again on his beardless face. He moved one arm surreptitiously to nudge his companion; the other man glanced at him, followed his gaze, then narrowed his eyes in an identical expression.
Steeling himself, Ingvar nodded, once, respectfully, as one Huntsman to others.
They just stared.
He moved his eyes back ahead, ignoring the rudeness. Whatever anyone else did, he was responsible only for himself. Still, he was keenly aware of them slowly turning their heads to track him—him, specifically, not his group—until they had moved on ahead.
“So,” Darling said mildly, but loud enough to be clear without looking back. “What was that about?”
Ingvar drew in a calming breath. There were few things in the world he wanted less to discuss with Darling, of all people, but it looked like this might become a legitimate…issue. Especially if they were going to be staying in this city.
“There is a great deal of independence among the lodges,” he said carefully. They didn’t need to know any more than they absolutely needed to know; this was Shaathist business. “The Grandmaster is more an…administrator…than a spiritual leader. Different regions, and indeed different lodges, can have different interpretations of Shaath’s doctrines. The central cult intervenes only if they seriously deviate from the path, which is highly rare.” He paused, took another breath, and continued. “I was born in the upper Wyrnrage, and left. It wasn’t acceptable to the lodge there for me to be a Huntsman; I had to seek out one that would take me. And, well, here in the Stalrange, people are generally more…”
“Conservative?” Joe suggested.
“I was going to say ‘backward,’” Ingvar muttered. Behind him, the Kid laughed. He felt a moment’s annoyance, but then found himself smiling along. There seemed to be no malice in Joe.
“So,” Darling said thoughtfully, “we may not want to have a visit with the local Huntsmen, then, right?”
Ingvar nodded, mostly to himself, since Darling couldn’t see him. “That would probably be best.”