“It even looks evil,” Ami said nervously, clutching her guitar case and staring across the river.
Fort Varansis was situated on a long island in the River Asraneh, directly in front of them. The river, here, was broad and shallow, diverted into two lesser streams by the sizable island in its center. At this time of year, the current was fairly swift but not too dangerous to wade through; to their right, a sequence of crumbling stone pillars extended from the shore to the island, all that remained of an ancient bridge.
The fort itself did not look particularly ominous, though it was definitely in a sad state. After a century of abandonment, it was as much forest as fortress; though trees would ordinarily not have been permitted to grow near the walls of a fortification, and probably not on the island at all, the woods which extended from within Athan’Khar across the river into Viridill had long since overtaken everything. The fortress itself was more Avenist than Tiraan in style, stark and utilitarian—for the most part it had held up fairly well, the only major damage to its walls being where they had been ruptured by the unchecked growth of trees.
It was the trees that gave the scene its unsettling appearance. This was a pine forest, and its denizens were meant by nature to grow straight and tall—which, north of the river, they did. The trees on the island, however, were twisted into clearly unhealthy shapes, with bulbous trunks and clawed limbs, not to mention peculiar patterns on the bark.
“Is my imagination running away from me,” Ildrin asked tersely, “or do some of them seem to have…faces?”
“If it’s imagination, it’s not just yours,” Jenell muttered.
“None of them have faces,” Basra said in exasperation, rolling her eyes. “Are you about done, Schwartz?”
“With you, yes, ma’am,” he said, stepping back from her and eying her over critically before nodding to himself in satisfaction and moving down the line to Jenell, who was last. With Meesie sitting alert on his shoulder, he repeated the procedure he’d performed on all the others, first producing a pinch of powder from one of his pockets and sprinkling it on her forehead. Unlike some of her companions, Jenell didn’t sneeze, though the effort caused her to squint and wrinkle her nose. Schwartz, meanwhile, raised the gnarled wand he had been carrying, which still had some green and apparently living leaves attached to it, and began making slow, careful passes over her, stepping slowly around her to be sure he didn’t miss a spot. How he could tell was anyone’s guess, but he appeared quite confident in what he was doing.
“And actually,” he said as he worked, “it’s not impossible that some of those trees do have faces. Or bark formations that very deliberately resemble them, anyway. I couldn’t help noticing some of the branches look a lot like arms. With the bony fingers, you know?”
“Aren’t you a ray of sunshine,” Ami muttered.
“But they’re perfectly safe,” Schwartz continued blithely. “These woods are cleared now, but remember that for a big chunk of a century they were under the effect wrought on Athan’Khar by the Enchanter’s Bane. Everything in there went weird, and very hostile. Plants, animals…lots of rather peculiar undead. So, yes, those are biologically normal trees, but they don’t just take on a different shape because the wild magic that shaped them is gone now.”
“Are you sure you can talk while doing that?” Jenell asked pointedly.
“Oh, don’t worry, this isn’t complex at all! Just time-consuming.” Meesie squeaked in confirmation, nodding her tiny head.
“And if he messes it up, the worst that happens is you’ll get wet,” Basra said archly. “I’m certain you’ve been trained for that, Private.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jenell said stiffly, a faint blush suffusing her cheeks.
“There is something I’ve been curious about, though, just to wrench the subject away from probably-not-evil trees,” Schwartz continued. “It occurred to me when we were passing the defensive lines being set up by the Army and the Second Legion along the border back there. How come the Silver Legions are so…old-fashioned? I mean, I understand religions have traditions and all, but for a cult dedicated to war it appears odd to deliberately fall behind the curve of military tactics and equipment.”
“Look in front of you, Schwartz,” said Basra, staring across the river at the crumbling fortress.
“Actually, please look at what you’re doing,” said Jenell.
“What happened in there changed everything,” Basra continued, ignoring her. “The holocaust of Athan’Khar, the Enchanter Wars which followed. The Legions were instrumental in driving back Heshenaad’s campaign, but it’s also true that Viridill was the first Imperial province to secede following the Bane, and the Silver Legions crushed a numerically superior Imperial force immediately afterward.”
“That was before battlestaves were commonplace,” Schwartz noted.
“And, in fact, the Legions used them, then,” Basra replied, nodding. “Such weapons weren’t issued to the rank and file; they were considered a kind of mobile artillery. But yes…that was then, this is now. Politics is war of a different kind, and in the modern world, the Sisterhood has its base and holy sites within an Empire which remembers the threat an up-to-date Legion can pose.”
“So you deliberately gave up your ability to wage war effectively?” Branwen asked, tilting her head. “I must say that seems odd.”
Basra smiled faintly, gazing across the river. “War is deception.”
“Well, there we are!” Schwartz said more briskly, straightening up and tucking his leaf-wand into one of his billowing sleeves. “All finished and waterproof. Shall we, then?”
“Now, you’re certain the protections on my case are adamant against water?” Ami demanded, clutching her guitar case protectively.
“I assure you,” Schwartz said, smiling, “I took great care with it.”
“Because I don’t mind getting wet, if I must, but if my instrument is damaged, you and I shall have a talk the outcome of which you will not enjoy.”
“I have a little sister,” he replied. “Have I mentioned that?”
Ami raised an eyebrow slowly. “And that is relevant to…what, exactly?”
“That I know very well not to risk damaging a girl’s most prized possession. I promise, Ami, your guitar will be safer for the trip than any of us.”
“Well, I suppose I can accept that,” she said, somewhat mollified.
“If you are quite done?” Basra said acidly, stepping forward into the river without waiting for a reply. Branwen sighed and gave the others a rueful smile as she moved to follow.
One by one, they slipped into the river, following the two Bishops single file, as Basra had ordered. She led the way slowly, taking care with each step. Long ago this river had been deeper on both sides of the island, and had been regularly dug out for defensive purposes. Now, it was broader than deep by far, its basin filled with silt; even the old bridge terminated in mid-stream, ending at the ghost of a shore that no longer existed. Schwartz’s charm work improved their footing as well as keeping them dry and protecting their shoes from being sucked away by mud, but still, fording a river with a muddy bottom and a brisk current was a dicey proposition. They followed carefully in the path that Basra had already confirmed passable, tense and exceedingly cautious.
They crossed without incident, however, and reassembled on the opposite bank, which had to be climbed, being far taller and less approachable than that on the other side. The six of them clustered together, nervously inspecting the nearby fortress and their own oddly dry clothes, with the exception of Basra, who stepped forward to peer across the river at the Athan’Khar side.
It was very much like the smaller forest here on the island, its trees distinctly menacing in aspect, but even bigger. There were no sounds but those of the river and cheerful songbirds, though; shafts of afternoon sunlight made a quite pretty spectacle in the woods on the haunted side. Of course, according to Schwartz’s information, the actually haunting was half a mile distant.
Still. Athan’Khar was feared for very good reason.
“I sense nothing undead, demonic, or otherwise Pantheon-opposed,” she said abruptly, grabbing everyone’s focus. “Snowe? Falaridjad?”
“Nothing,” Ildrin said curtly. “It’s…so empty. That disturbs me. In a place like this, it seems I should feel something.”
“That’s your expectations distracting you,” Branwen said with a kind smile. “Where one expects evil and horror, the absence of anything can be quite alarming. But no, Basra, I sense nothing either. Forgive me if I sound boastful, but my particular skills are rather more suited to this than either of yours. Nothing in the vicinity means us harm, or is even aware of us. In fact, I can’t feel the presence of any intelligence except our own.”
“Mm.” Basra shifted her gaze to Schwartz. “And you?”
“Offhand, the same,” he said, frowning, “but I’d need to set wards and cast a ritual to be certain. My magic doesn’t work the same way as yours. Now that we’re here, anyway, wards are a priority.”
“I thought you said this mysterious summoner was more than a match for you,” Ildrin said pointedly.
“Oh, he or she most certainly is,” Schwartz agreed. “And the whole point of this is to invite a visit from them, anyway, so it’s not as if we’d be trying to ward them off. That’s not what I’m concerned about. That’s Athan’Khar over there. We need forewarning of anything unnatural approaching the fortress. The spirits… They’re all interconnected. Mixed together. If one of them discovers there’s a party of humans camped on the border, more will come. And still more, until they either drive us off or destroy us.”
“Which would be inconvenient,” Basra said dryly. “Very well, you can set that up after we’ve made a quick tour of our temporary home. I don’t want the group to split up at this juncture, and we need to investigate the fortress briefly, at least, before settling in.”
“Ugh.” Ami wrinkled her nose in protest. “In heaven’s name, why?”
“You can’t possibly be that daft,” Ildrin said, staring at her.
“She’s not,” Basra said. “Bards love their little dramas. We’ll be camping in the courtyard, rather than inside the building, which is very likely to be unsafe after all this time. But we will at least look, and diminish the chance of being taken by surprise.” She turned on her heel and strode toward the yawning gates of Fort Varansis, whose doors had long since rotted away to nothing. “After coming all this way and taking all these precautions against fairy summoners and vengeful spirits, it would be awfully embarrassing to get eaten by a bear.”
“Ouvis and Naphthene make a lot more sense to me now,” Darling was saying as they made their way up the twisting dirt passage to the grotto above. “He ignores any attempted worshipers; she’s been known to answer prayers with lightning bolts. I always figured she was just a bitch, playing that unpredictable-as-the-sea bit a little too seriously, but now I wonder if Naphthene doesn’t have the entire rest of the Pantheon beat for simple common sense.”
“Those are the only two who make more sense,” Ingvar mused. He was bringing up the back of the line, and had been deep in thought since they had finally left the Elder Gods’ facility, though he hadn’t hesitated to participate in the discussion. “How many gods have no paladins? How can they? If what we’ve learned… Vesk, for instance. Who ever heard of a bard paladin?”
“Well,” Darling said thoughtfully, “keep in mind we seized upon the word ‘paladin’ to explain what the Avatar was describing… But really, that’s as much a cultural concept as a spiritual or magical one. He said the gods just need someone in whom to focus themselves, right? I mean, the ancient Huntsmen clearly weren’t paladins as we think of them, but they also obviously served Shaath in that regard.”
“I wonder,” Joe mused. “Since you mentioned Vesk. How many bards are there?”
“Practicing Veskers or fully accredited bards?” Darling asked.
“There, see, I reckon that makes the difference. A proper bard is somethin’ more’n just the general run o’ musician, right?”
“I think I see what you’re getting at,” Darling said, his voice growing in excitement. “Actually, you may be more right than you know. Vesk has a reputation for being more friendly and approachable with his initiates than any other god, but only with the actual, fully trained and invested bards. Of whom there are… Well, it’s not like I’ve ever taken a census, but I can’t imagine they number more than several thousand, worldwide.”
“If every bard is a paladin,” Ingvar said, trailing off.
“That seems like it’d jus’ compound the problem, right?” Joe said, glancing back at them. He was again leading the way with his wand lit. “Still. All he’d need to do is hide a handful of ’em in the ranks, an’ if he’s friendly with his bards anyway, an’ the significant ones don’t necessarily look any different than the others…”
“That’s the long and the short of it,” Darling agreed. “Not every god has called paladins, but… That doesn’t mean they haven’t used this…paladin effect, for want of a better term. If anything, it’s probably smarter for some of them not to call attention to their most important followers.”
“Perhaps they learned from Shaath’s case,” Ingvar said with a sigh. “If you do not take care to manage your flock, they can be used against you.”
“Exactly,” said the Bishop, nodding. “I bet a good many of the gods have their paladins invisible under everyone’s noses. Depending on exactly how it works in each case, even the paladins may not know. What I’m curious about now is Vidius. That one went from no apparent paladin to a very public one—suddenly, after eight thousand years. And he picked a half-demon. That deity is up to something…”
“Gods aside,” Joe muttered, “I’m kinda hung up on that bit about gnomes. I’ve suddenly got some hard questions about a certain incident involving a sonic grenade and a saloon. More’n I did in the first place, I mean.”
They emerged rather suddenly into the lovely little grotto under the tree. Joe stepped aside, extinguishing his wands and letting the others emerge. For a few moments, they just stood there in silence, listening to the soft voice of the stream and letting their eyes adjust to the filtered sunlight.
“It suddenly occurs to me,” Ingvar said, “that the air down there was remarkably fresh. It tasted more like a mountain morning than a cave.”
“I guess if you’re the Infinite Order, you don’t have to settle for stale air,” Darling said.
“Infinite Order.” Ingvar shook his head. “I… Quite apart from my quest, from Shaath’s predicament… I don’t know what to do with all this information.”
“Ain’t a whole lot you can do with most of it, seems like,” Joe said, holstering his wand. “And really, how much difference does it make? The world’s still what it was when we got up this morning. We just know a bit more about where it came from, that’s all. I reckon more knowin’ is better than less.”
“Hear, hear,” Darling said firmly.
“Which reminds me,” Joe added, turning to him. “You mentioned something I’m very curious about. What was—”
“Do you plan to stay down here chatting all afternoon?” Mary asked, striding into the chamber from the hidden door behind the tree roots.
“Ah, look who it is,” Darling said cheerfully. “Our standoffish tour guide! I trust you had a good seat from which to watch the action—you certainly weren’t terribly close to it.”
“I’ll be happy to indulge in wordplay with you another time, Antonio,” she said with a slight smile, “when there are not more pressing matters. Ingvar.” The Crow turned to the Huntsman, her expression becoming solemn. “Do you feel you have gained the answers you needed?”
“I feel…” Ingvar paused, rolling his jaw as if chewing on his thoughts. “…I feel I have gained the perspective to ask the right questions.”
Mary smiled more warmly at that. “You do have the seeds of wisdom within you, young man. I had a feeling, from the beginning.”
“Or he’s heard enough of your mystic routine by now to know how to parrot it back,” Darling suggested, grinning at the irritated look Ingvar shot him.
“In that, too, there is some wisdom, as you of all people know,” Mary said pointedly. “Now. First, you three will be needing a meal, I suspect. Or…did you try the nutrition pellets?” The corner of her mouth quirked upward in a mischievous expression. “They really are the most fantastic travel rations; you’d be well served to take a handful home with you. The trick is to swallow as quickly as possible.”
“We declined that distinct pleasure, in fact,” said Joe. “Lunch sounds real good right about now.”
“It would be closer to dinner,” Mary said with a fond smile, “but yes, let us attend to that.”
“Are you sure it’s a good idea to impose on the grove?” Ingvar asked warily. “Elder Linsheh was polite, but I gathered the distinct impression they elves in general are in no mood for visitors.”
“There is no need to trouble them,” said the Crow lightly, “any more than we will simply by being in their forest, since they will insist upon keeping watch. But no, what we must do next will not require their involvement. They will not, I trust, object to our use of the forest outside.”
She paused, tilting her head as if expecting a response from unseen listeners, but none came.
“What we must do next?” Joe asked. “What’s… I mean, wasn’t that it? We got the information we came for, right, about what happened to Shaath, and how?”
“That wasn’t the full extent of the quest,” Darling said, turning to Ingvar, “but I thought it was pretty well established we can’t do anything for him right now. What comes next will take careful planning and, honestly, effort that could last years. We’ll be there to help, Ingvar, but I at least can’t afford to drop everything and devote myself to this…”
“No.” The Huntsman shook his head. “No, this quest is finished. I know what I need to, and you’re correct; proceeding will take time, and much further study. I thank you, shaman, for your aid; you made this possible. There was, however, the matter of a bargain. You wish to collect immediately?” He turned a questioning look upon Mary.
“The trail will grow colder the longer it is ignored,” she said calmly.
“Bargain?” Joe asked. “Wait…did you already tell me about this? I’m sorry, after the wham-bam of revelations an’ visions over the last couple days I don’t feel like my brain’s runnin’ on all charms.”
“The visions were sent to me,” Ingvar said, folding his arms, “but some outside party whom we can be even more sure now was not Shaath. The Crow is very eager to know who this person is, since he quite deliberately pointed me toward her. And I, I must confess, am as well.”
“Seems like it’d be worth knowing,” said Darling. “What’s the plan, then? Isn’t this something you could handle yourself, Mary?”
“Any shaman powerful and subtle enough to do this would be able to evade my tracking,” she said calmly, “possibly unless I had a great deal more to go on than I do, which is moot anyway. However, they clearly reached out to Ingvar. I believe they will entertain an overture from him.”
“An overture?” Joe scratched his head, displacing his hat. “How? I thought you said these hints came from dreams?”
“And through dreams they can be explored,” said the Crow with a knowing little smile. “The ritual is somewhat involved, and you will, as I said, need to eat first. This is not something to undertake without the full strength of mind and body. From here on, however,” she added, “Ingvar must go alone. This mysterious agent will have nothing to say to either of you, and including you would likely discourage him or her from speaking to Ingvar.”
The Huntsman nodded, then turned and bowed deeply to each of them. “I thank you both, as well, for your companionship. Brief as this adventure has been, you’ve made it even more enlightening than it otherwise might have been.”
“Oh, stop with all the goodbye,” Darling said, reaching out to bop him lightly on the head. “We’re not gonna run off now. You may be doing dream rituals, but that just means Joe and I can laze about nearby. Gods only know what this is going to bring down on us all.”
“If you’re in some kinda dream state, all the more reason to have a couple friends watchin’ your back,” Joe added with a grin.
“I flatter myself that I am a reasonably competent watcher,” Mary said wryly.
“Shush,” Darling ordered. “This is guy stuff. You wouldn’t understand.”
At the expression on her face, even Ingvar had to break into laughter. That, at least, spared him the need to reply to them, which he wasn’t confident he could do with any grace. Things between the three were amiable, now, since the wolves…but very much uncertain, for the same reason.
“Let me ask you a question, though,” Darling said in a more serious tone, frowning at Mary. “Did you send a…what was it? A shadow elemental to warn Malivette Dufresne we were coming?”
She raised her eyebrows sharply. “I certainly did not.”
“Yeah, I figured,” he said, nodding. “That doesn’t seem like your style. Then we should all be aware that a certain mysterious someone with significant elemental powers has been not only tracking our moves, but staying a step ahead of us. Shadow elementals… I’ve only heard of that once or twice. They’re rare, aren’t they?”
“Difficult to make,” said Joe. “Takes a heck of a witch to summon somethin’ like that.”
“The ability to approach through dreams,” Ingvar said slowly. “That is a fae power, is it not?”
“There are techniques within all four schools of magic to do such things,” Mary replied. “It is most easy through the fae, though, and most effectively—assuming the proper skill—the divine. But yes, I see the course of your thoughts, Antonio, and I think you’re correct. When you reach out through the dream, Ingvar, you must be aware that your arrival will probably be expected.”