The end of the dream wasn’t clearly marked; Ingvar still flailed, feeling he was falling, and only belatedly realized he was in the grove of the elves and not a featureless white void. He was kicking up rents in the moss and very close to conking his head on a tree root before he caught hold of himself and stilled.
“Omnu’s breath, is he okay?” Joe’s voice exclaimed from somewhere in the near distance.
“Ingvar.” Mary was closer; in fact, suddenly she filled his field of view, her eyes intent and concerned. “Look at me. Are you well? Are you still there?”
“Still—where else would I be?” he demanded, straightening up with a wince.
“The vision should not be exited that abruptly, or violently,” she said, still frowning at him, but backed away to give him space. “Obviously, my first concern is for your welfare. Please, take your time, take stock. Be certain.”
“I…am fine, I think,” he said, getting his legs under him to sit upright. Both his hands were clenched shut…
Aspen’s hand clasped in his left. It was gone—she was gone. But in the right…
He opened his fingers, and there it was. The nut, shaped somewhat like an uncapped acorn, but larger, shot through with veins of glowing green like some magical ore.
“What is that?” Mary demanded. “Where did you get it?”
“It’s a promise,” he whispered. “Khadizroth gave it to me.”
“Khadizroth?” three voices exclaimed simultaneously.
Ingvar looked up, frowning. “That is your answer, shaman. It was he who sent me the dreams. You…all know this dragon?”
“I don’t know why I expected more mystery,” Darling grunted, folding his arms. “Must just be the general pattern of this trip. But no, suddenly a lot of things make a lot more sense.”
“This can’t be a coincidence,” Joe added. “Ain’t no such animal. What would the ol’ lizard want with sending you to suss out this hidden knowledge?”
“He was just starting to explain,” Ingvar said grimly, finally standing up, “when he was attacked.”
“Attacked?” Mary asked sharply.
“I couldn’t see by what. He was talking, and suddenly thrashed in pain. His struggles tore at the vision, and it fell apart.”
“How much did he tell you?” she demanded.
“He spoke of events south of here, in Viridill. Something about honor and obligation that kept him trapped, and how what was transpiring there was a front for…well, that was when he lost focus.”
“Viridill,” Mary said, eyes narrowing. “Of course. Khadizroth…Justinian.”
“What’s goin’ on in Viridill?” Joe asked, blinking his eyes.
“Strange elemental attacks,” said Darling, frowning at Mary.
“What the—how do you know that?” the Kid exclaimed. “You’ve been with us this whole time?”
“C’mon, what did you think I wanted that newspaper for in Veilgrad, lining a birdcage?”
“You didn’t have it an hour later!”
“They aren’t books, Joe; you read ’em and toss ’em. Which I did. C’mon, who brings a newspaper along on a camping trip?”
“Who buys a newspaper on a—”
“Boys!” Mary barked. “Focus, please, we have more important matters. If Khadizroth is seeking to—Ingvar, stop!”
He had turned his back to them, crouched, and begun gouging up a hole in the moss, exposing rich forest loam below, and continuing to dig. It was a little awkward with one hand, but in moments he had achieved a hole a few inches deep.
“Whatever Khadizroth gave you that for, he is not to be trusted,” Mary said insistently.
“Actually, if he gave his word, I’d honestly take him at it,” Joe said. “Ain’t like he doesn’t have his faults, but he’s a little obsessed with honor.”
“Joe, please,” Mary said in some exasperation. “Ingvar, explain carefully what he said about that before you…oh.”
Ingvar was just in the process of replacing the dirt over the top of the nut.
“Welp, I guess that’s done,” Darling remarked. “Excuse me, everybody, while I back away from whatever’s about to happen.”
“After all this time, Ingvar, I would expect more patience from you,” Mary said, her mouth tight with disapproval. “Have you any idea what that thing does?”
“It rescues someone to whom I made a promise,” Ingvar replied, following Darling’s example and stepping back. “This is about more than just Khadizroth. I will explain everything, shaman, and I will also want some explanations, since you seem to know things about this that we don’t…”
“How’s that for a shocker,” Joe muttered.
“…but this won’t wait,” Ingvar continued, meeting Mary’s irate gaze and not backing down. “She’s already been a prisoner too long.”
“She?” the Crow exclaimed.
A shoot of green burst up from the soil.
It glowed faintly, like the phantom trees Khadizroth had used to light the way through the dream world, and uncurled rapidly, rising knee-high in seconds. All of them, even Mary, backed away further as the sapling took form, its body hardening into wood and halting its growth at roughly human height, and continued to change.
“Ingvar, what have you done?” Mary whispered.
The tree was no longer growing vertically, but it was taking a distinct form, its topmost point swelling rapidly like a bulb. Branches separated from its body, two of them, and the lower half of the thin trunk thickened and split in two.
“Oh, gods, that is creepy,” Joe breathed, and Darling nodded in agreement.
It was still taking shape, not quite formed and decorated oddly here and there by little protruding leaves, but the sapling was very clearly taking on the form of a skeleton. Its mass continued to expand outward, pelvis and ribcage forming, legs and arms developing joints, the spine beginning to show vertebrae. Two eye sockets appeared in its skull, and the lower portion partially detached, its proto-jawbone hanging.
The half-made skull shifted slightly to aim at Ingvar and emitted a low, eerie moan, like the creaking of a ship’s timbers. One skeletal arm reached feebly toward the Huntsman, its partially-formed finger bones bristling with new leaves.
“Right, don’t plant magic nuts Khadizroth gives you in a dream,” said Darling. “I would’ve thought that was common sense.”
“Well, it ain’t like he knows Khadizroth like we do,” Joe said nervously, drawing one wand and pointing it at the skeleton-sapling. “Mary, what do you think—”
“Put away the weapon,” she said curtly, eyes fixed on the still-swelling tree. “If this is what it seems to be, you could doom us all by harming her. Ingvar… I dearly hope you understand what you’ve done. I’m not certain that I do.”
He remained silent, watching the dryad form.
It was both fascinating and repulsive. Thick vines burst out from her joints, lacing together along her limbs and central body and lining her skull, quickly swelling in the middle to become obvious muscles, or facsimiles thereof. Fortunately they formed across her ribs and abdomen in time to spare them most of the sight of bulbous, mushroom-like structures bursting into being in the place of organs. They formed together and pulsed visibly as they were walled off by the verdant muscle tissue, though they nascent eyes and breasts were still unhidden. A thick amber sap began to ooze out from between the vines, coating the entire structure and filling the air with its sharp scent; she emitted a slightly more human moan, twisting and staggering to the side as if about to fall.
Ingvar reflexively stepped forward to catch her, and Mary grabbed him by the collar.
“Do not put your hands on that,” she said flatly, “unless you want them to be consumed, and possibly the rest of you as well.”
Another tracery of vines was unfolding over the now woman-shaped tree, much smaller and more golden in color, forming an intricate lattice across and through her structure; only after a few seconds of puzzled study did Ingvar realize he was looking at a circulatory system. At the very least, they soaked up the sap, which was a relief; the sight was still eerie, but somewhat less disgusting when not oozing.
Moss appeared in patches, a thing, lichen-like growth that spread quickly to cover her surface in fuzz, while at the same time long blades of pale green grass sprang out of her skull, quickly extending upward almost three feet and giving her an altogether crazed look.
The eyes formed fully before the eyelids did, which was somehow the most disturbing sight yet.
The moss spread far too rapidly to be skin, though, coating her in a cocoon of fuzz that wouldn’t stop expanding even after it formed a foot-thick nimbus.
The oddly fluffy feminine form wrapped arms around itself, shuddering.
“Uh,” Joe said uncertainly, “I don’t think it’s, uh, going right.”
She trembled again, and suddenly the long thatch of tallgrass surmounting her went limp, falling around her head in a curtain of thick, glossy green hair. As if that kicked off a final chain reaction, the moss suddenly dried out and flaked away, a green torrent of it falling from her, starting at the head and working its way down to her feet.
And there she stood, just as he remembered from the dream. Alive, nude, and perfect. She opened her brown eyes, looked up at the treetops waving above them, and smiled.
“Aspen?” Mary exclaimed in shock. Ingvar would never have admitted just how gratifying that was.
Aspen snapped her gaze down to fix on the Crow, and her delighted expression immediately collapsed in a scowl. “Oh. Hello, you.”
“Well, I gather they’ve met before,” Darling said airily.
“Uh huh,” Joe replied, now flushed bright red and staring determinedly away from the naked dryad.
She turned toward Ingvar, widening her eyes, then frowning slightly, and took a step forward, peering fixedly at his face.
“Are you…all right?” Ingvar asked hesitantly. “That looked rather…uncomfortable. You made it through unharmed?”
“Ingvar?” She took two long strides toward him; he instinctively reared back, but Aspen closed the distance and reached up to take his face in her hands. “It is you. But…you’re female.”
He gritted his teeth, and gently grasped her wrist, opening his mouth to reply.
“But…not,” the dryad continued, frowning, and tilting her head to one side. An oddly pleased expression blossomed on her features. “Huh. I’ve never seen that before. You’re interesting!”
“Well…thank you,” he said with a sigh. “And you’re all right? You look the same, but as I say, that looked somewhat traumatic.”
Suddenly her expression changed again, her smile widening and taking on a distinctly unpleasant aspect. “Oh, hey, y’know what? This is the real world now.”
The dryad shifted her grip, letting one hand drop to her side and grasping him by the throat with the other.
“And here, I’m stronger than you.”
“Aspen!” Mary snapped, taking a step forward.
She stopped in surprise when Ingvar raised a hand, holding out his palm toward her, but not removing his stare from the dryad’s brown eyes. Joe had surged forward, his wand upraised again, but he, too, came to a halt, staring in alarm.
“Aspen,” Ingvar said calmly, his voice rasping only faintly under her grip, “let go.”
She narrowed her eyes, staring back at him, but her head tilted imperceptibly back the other way, and he saw the sudden hesitation on her features.
It was an expression he recognized, though not from seeing it on her. Ingvar had been around children before. They acted out, yes, but on a deeper level, they wanted to understand where the boundaries were.
“I will not ask you again,” he said quietly.
The dryad stared, her nostrils flaring once, and then she abruptly released him, taking a convulsive step back and wrapping her arms around herself. Never had he seen an apparent adult look so guilty.
“We made a deal,” Ingvar said firmly. “Remember?”
She glanced up at him from the corner of her eye, then pouted and nodded once.
“Then I expect you to abide by it,” he said. “Is that clear?”
Another pause, another little nod.
“Aspen.” He waited until she looked up at him fully. “Is that clear?”
She grimaced, swallowed, and nodded again, more deeply. “I… Yes. I’m sorry.”
Ingvar nodded in reply. “Good. Don’t forget again. I’m glad you’re all right,” he added, softening his voice. “I was worried.”
She looked up again, now wearing a shy smile.
He looked to the side, finding the others all staring at him in shock. Even Mary. Oh, yes, that was satisfying.
“I think,” the Crow said slowly, “you had better begin explaining this, Brother Ingvar. When last I saw this dryad, she was frozen in time and halfway through a transformation into a monstrous form.”
“A trans—they transform?” Joe said, blinking rapidly. Darling, for once, kept quiet.
“I followed the trail I found in the dream,” Ingvar said, stepping over beside Aspen; in stark contrast to her momentary aggression of before, she eased partially behind him, staring mistrustfully at the others over his shoulder. “It was your scent—or essence, or something like it—mingled with another, which I later learned to be the dragon Khadizroth. They moved in the same direction for a time, then diverged. I followed yours first—”
“And why would you do that?” she interrupted, staring at him with her customary evenness, apparently having quickly recovered from her shock. Well, that was only to be expected. “You know what you were sent there to discover, and it wasn’t me.”
“Oh, come on, how is that even a question?” Darling asked, rolling his eyes. “Mary, it’s not that we don’t respect you, but if you’re going to run around acting all aloof and mysterious, and especially if you insist on leading people by the nose through preposterous quests, they’re naturally going to seize any chance to find out what you’re really up to. You’ve got nobody to blame for that but yourself. Any good Eserite could’ve explained it to you.”
“Quite frankly, I find it hard to believe you didn’t see it comin’,” Joe added. He shrugged a little defensively when Mary turned to give them a very flat look.
“Well, they’re right,” Aspen muttered sullenly.
“Anyway,” said Ingvar, pulling the Crow’s attention back to himself, “that led me to Aspen, who was imprisoned in…some kind of hourglass.”
“An hourglass,” Mary said, staring at him. “Ingvar, do you have any idea how much effort went into crafting the dream-space that held her separate in time? Accessible only to me and my fellow healers who were trying to help her? How did you get in?”
“I have no idea,” he said frankly. “I just did. It was as simple as taking a few steps. Perhaps someone better attuned to the vision could have interpreted it more accurately, but all I remember doing was walking there and pulling open the door.”
“There was another thing, though,” Ingvar added, frowning, and turned to Darling. “Brother Andros has mentioned that you are an acknowledged expert on the history of Elilial, Darling. Does this include knowledge of other, forgotten or less-known gods?”
“Only in passing,” the Bishop replied, cocking his head curiously. “I take it this isn’t a random subject change?”
“It’s just that this is the second time I’ve seen a specific image in a vision that proved to be highly meaningful,” said Ingvar, “and I still don’t know what it means. Are you aware of any god who uses spider webs as a symbol?”
“Spider webs,” Darling mused, frowning deeply. “Well…no, not a one. Not even the pagan gods I know of, and there are very few still extant who aren’t aligned with the Pantheon. None endemic to this continent; Khar was the last of those. No Pantheon god considers spiders sacred, nor Elilial.”
Mary was now watching them all even, her face suddenly devoid of expression.
“Although,” Darling mused, “the drow use a lot of spider iconography. That just occurred to me because it specifically isn’t sacred to Themynra. I always figured it was because spiders were important down there; most cultures use images of animals they’re familiar with in their art. I know very little about Scyllithene worship, though. Hardly anyone does.”
“Have you anything to add to this?” Ingvar asked, turning his attention to Mary.
“I?” She raised one eyebrow. “I believe you were still rendering an explanation, Huntsman.”
“I had come nearly to the end of it,” he said shrugging. “Aspen wished to be released from her prison, and I found I hadn’t the heart to leave her caged.”
“Because he’s a good person,” Aspen said pointedly, glaring at Mary.
“You hush,” the Crow snapped. “And so you just brought her out of a place where she was safe, into a realm foreign to her? Do you realize how close you came to killing her, Ingvar?”
He nodded. “Khadizroth explained that, too. Knowing what I do now, I might have acted differently. But based on what I knew at the time…what else could I have done?”
“You could have refrained from meddling with something you manifestly did not understand!” Mary said sharply. “Do you know what happens to a butterfly if you help it out of its cocoon?”
“I have never had a newborn butterfly beg for rescue in obvious misery,” he said quietly.
Mary closed her eyes, then shook her head. “I suppose we should be grateful that this did not lead to real disaster. Still, I mistrust this turn of events. Khadizroth isn’t one to do favors for me without an ulterior motive.”
“Actually,” said Aspen, “he was doing me a favor. In fact, he specifically said it was even better because it gave him a chance to stick it to you and the Arachne.”
Darling burst out laughing.
Mary sighed heavily, giving the Bishop an irritated glance. “Well, that much, at least, I have no trouble believing. And I suppose it would also be in his nature to aid a dryad if one came before him in need. Particularly since she would have been in extreme peril thanks to Ingvar’s intervention.”
“It worked out,” Ingvar said somewhat defensively.
“Yeah!” Aspen added, sticking out her tongue at Mary.
“Well, anyway,” Joe said loudly, still keeping his gaze pointedly away from the dryad, “what’d we learn about Khadizroth? And what’s goin’ on in Viridill?”
Mary turned away from Ingvar and Aspen, pacing a few steps distant and staring off into the darkened woods in thought. “I had not connected these events with Khadizroth specifically, but it hangs together alarmingly well.”
“Somethin’ about elementals?” Joe prompted when she trailed off.
“They have been attacking the Sisterhood’s interests throughout Viridill,” Mary said, “exhibiting sophisticated tactics which elementals do not use without the guidance of a powerful summoner. The Avenists and more recently the Empire are increasingly stirred up over this, as you can imagine.”
“Omnu’s breath,” Joe whispered, frowning. “But… Why would Khadizroth… You reckon he’s finally turning against the Archpope?”
“The Archpope?” Ingvar exclaimed.
“Who?” Aspen asked, frowning in puzzlement.
Darling glanced at the other two before answering. “You didn’t hear this from me, Ingvar, but Khadizroth the Green has been working on behalf of Justinian, lately. Under…we’re not sure. Some combination of duress and obligation; the details of that relationship are probably not known to anybody but the people in it.”
“He said that,” Ingvar said, realization dawning on his face. “He was trapped by honor, and under an obligation he did not like. He was turning against whomever he was beholden to—the Archpope, if what you say is true. But not because he’s summoning elementals; it was my quest that was his rebellion. He said he sent out the visions as a gambit to draw Mary’s attention to what was happening in Viridill without being too overt.”
“But what would Justinian possibly have to gain from attacking Viridill with elementals?” Joe exclaimed. “I mean, aside from bein’ incredibly risky to make the Sisterhood of Avei an enemy, what’s the point?”
Darling clapped a hand to his forehead. “Basra!”
“Hm,” Mary mused.
“What are you guys talking about?!” Aspen shouted.
“I’m sorry,” Ingvar said, patting her on the shoulder. “I know all this must be boring for you. It’s important, though; have a little patience, please.”
“Well, okay,” she grumbled, leaning her head against his shoulder. The gesture was startling, and the sensation oddly pleasant.
“Basra Syrinx is the Avenist Bishop,” Darling said, beginning to pace up and down in excitement. “She’s also one of the few in Justinian’s inner circle. I don’t know the specifics of what she did to cheese off High Commander Rouvad, but she’s been exiled to Viridill for the last few months as some kind of punishment. If Justinian wanted her back…”
“Then,” Joe continued, nodding in understanding, “all he’s gotta do is enchant up a crisis, one this Bishop Syrinx would be suited to solve. An’ if he was controllin’ the source of the crisis, he could make sure she was the one to solve it. If she was a big enough hero, the High Commander would almost have to bring ‘er back.”
“Is Syrinx really that important to Justinian?” Mary asked, watching Darling closely. “I would have thought her too risky and difficult to control.”
“Well, apparently she is,” Darling replied “which is a fascinating revelation to me. Unless you have a better explanation for all this.”
“Andros has spoken on the subject of Bishop Syrinx,” said Ingvar. “I doubt he would be pleased to see her back.”
“A lot of people wouldn’t be,” Darling agreed. “Which would explain why extraordinary measures were needed to get her back.”
“Then,” said Mary, “as things stand, Justinian’s plans proceed apace, and he is on the verge of getting something he wants. Whatever he did to Khadizroth to prevent him from revealing this plan to Ingvar, we cannot assume he has removed the dragon from play, or that his plans have been stopped. He is not one to launch such an effort without failsafes in place.”
“I agreed,” Darling said, nodding grimly. “We’re here, and we’re the only ones who know what’s going on. We have to step in.”
“Why do we want to stop the Archpope’s plans?” Ingvar asked quietly.
All three of them turned to look at him, and he could clearly see the contemplation on their faces. There was something politically deep going on here, something to which he was not privy.
“Well, because he’s a jerk,” Aspen said reasonably.
“You know about this?” Ingvar demanded. “How?”
The dryad shrugged. “This Archpope guy is forcing a dragon to act in a way he doesn’t want to and hurting him to shut him up when he tries to talk about it. He’s calling up innocent elementals and using them to attack innocent humans, just to trick everybody into liking somebody who apparently is also a jerk. I mean, I get the impression there’s a lot of history here that I don’t know about, but just from what you guys have described right here, he sounds like an asshole.” She looked up at Ingvar. “You talked to me about honor, right? Doing stuff that’s…right? And good? If we’re gonna be doing that, it sounds like we’re not on the Archpope’s side.”
“Wow,” Joe said, blinking. “That’s remarkably perceptive.”
“I’m not dumb,” Aspen said defensively.
“My apologies, ma’am,” the Kid replied, doffing his hat to her. “I certainly didn’t mean to imply you were.”
“Viridill’s just on the other side of this grove,” said Darling. “If we start now…”
“You will have to cross the entire province,” Mary said thoughtfully. “Khadizroth will be operating out of Athan’Khar; it has already been determined with relative certainty that the source of the elemental attacks is there, and a green dragon would have little to fear from the things therein. Vrin Shai itself is closer to the southern border than the northern one, and the Imperial and Avenist forces concentrated along the border will be where those planning any defensive effort are concentrated.”
Joe drew in a deep breath and blew it out in an explosive sigh. “It’ll take a day or two… I mean, once we get to the Rails, sure, but it’s a fair piece o’ walkin’ to make it that far, if I remember right from the maps I’ve seen.”
“Wait, ‘you’?” Ingvar demanded. “You won’t come?”
Darling cleared his throat. “Mary can’t exactly talk with the Imperial Army. They’d shoot on sight.”
“I can expedite your travel, though,” she said.
“Wait,” Joe said nervously, “you’re not talkin’ about that creepy place…between, are you?”
“Absolutely not,” she said firmly. “What Tiraas did to Athan’Khar struck from across the planes. Traveling between dimensions in its vicinity is extremely unwise.”
“Y’mean even more unwise than it normally is.”
“Precisely. However, you can be blessed with a charm that will enable you to cross great distances quite quickly. I can arrange it such that it will fade as you reach your destination.”
“You sure?” If anything, Joe looked even less comfortable. “I mean, Raea did that for us out in Desolation an’ she had to be there to undo it at the other end.”
“Raea is a smart girl,” Mary said dryly, “who has devoted less time and effort to the craft than have my toenails. Trust me, Joe, I know what I am about. Besides, I will need to escort Aspen safely back to Last Rock.”
“Oh, no you don’t,” Aspen said, clinging to Ingvar’s arm. “I wanna go with you guys. I’m staying with Ingvar.”
Darling winced. “Um, I’m not sure that’s a great idea.”
“What?” she demanded. “Why not?”
“This is going to lead to some already difficult conversations; it’s going to be tricky enough to explain what’s going on and how we know of it. Adding a dryad to the mix will just make things worse.”
“Dryads generally cause somethin’ of a ruckus if they get too close to Imperial holdings,” Joe added.
“What?” She seemed offended. “What’s wrong with dryads?”
“Dryads are unpredictable and dangerous,” Ingvar replied.
“Oh,” she said, mollified. “Well, okay, then. But figure it out, because I am not staying here with her.” She glared accusingly at Mary, who rolled her eyes.
“If nothing else,” said the Crow, “I still need to learn whether Naiya plans any vengeance for what befell Juniper.”
“Naiya?” Joe said in alarm. “Vengeance? What happened to Juniper?”
“You know Juniper?” Aspen asked, staring at him.
“Aspen,” Mary said in exasperation.
“Well, of course Mother isn’t going to do anything,” the dryad replied in the same tone. “Honestly. You of all people should know better than that; if she were going to smack everybody she’d have done it by now. Mother doesn’t have the biggest attention span.”
“Still,” said Ingvar, patting her hand where it gripped his arm, “they’re right. Bringing you would be an added complication.”
“But…I wanna stay with you,” she said plaintively, gazing up at him.
“No,” Mary said flatly.
“It’s really not a good idea,” Darling agreed.
Joe cleared his throat. “Um, ‘scuze me, but can I just play dryad’s advocate, here?”
Everyone turned to stare at him.
“So, we’re goin’ into a situation where we’ve got an army of elementals on one side and an army of humans on the other, right?” he said. “Well, seems to me it’d be fantastically useful to have someone along who can order one side to stand down an’ who the other side won’t dare shoot at.”
Silence held for a moment while they considered that.
“Elementals may not be so easily ordered about,” Mary mused finally. “Still, though…you’re not without a point. They would definitely not attack a dryad. It’s quite possible that their summoner could not even force them to. And neither the Imperial Army nor the Silver Legions would risk it, either.”
“Right,” said Joe, nodding. “So if worst comes to worst, we just have ‘er stand in the middle and…that’s that.”
“Yay!” Aspen beamed at them. “I’m coming along! Oh, but before we go…can we stop and hunt something? I’ve just been, like, re-born, and I’m really hungry.”
They all backed quickly away.