Birds chirped with incongruous cheer, oblivious to the tension lying over the ruined fort.
Khadizroth sighed very softly through his nose. “Perhaps it is time, at that. Speak, then.”
“Do you have any idea,” Flora said tightly, “what you put us through?”
“Can you even imagine?” Fauna said. “Are you capable of feeling what it was like?”
“Being that vulnerable, that dependent…”
“On someone who planned to ultimately use you.”
“For an abhorrently disgusting purpose…”
“That would eventually make the world suffer?”
“It’s not as if we don’t know what you did for our tribe.”
“We haven’t forgotten that you saved all our lives, and gave us a life again.”
“Taking care of the wounded and young.”
“Do you remember how grateful we were, that first time you came to us?”
“That’s what made it all so awful, Khadizroth.”
“Even after all you did for us…”
“Even still, having to loathe you for what you planned.”
“That is how repugnant the situation you created was.”
“You don’t get to call us ungrateful.”
“You have to answer for being so vile it overwrote that gratitude.”
They finally fell silent, glaring, both practically vibrating with tension now, fists clenched and feet braced. Khadizroth’s eyes had progressively widened as they spoke, till he was practically gaping at the two elves. For long moments, there was only the sunlight and the birdsong, mocking the mood.
Then he turned to stare incredulously at Darling.
“They talk…in tandem, now. Is this your doing, thief?”
“Hey, hey.” Darling held up a hand. “I’m just here to facilitate this meeting. You can direct yourself to the elves, please.”
“And make it good,” Flora snapped as the dragon turned back to them.
“We’ve waited a long time to hear you account for yourself,” Fauna said implacably.
Again, Khadizroth sighed. “Shinaue, Lianwe… You know everything. My reasoning, my intention, my unease with the whole project. I never deceived you or withheld truth.”
“You brazenly manipulated us, all of us!”
“Do you comprehend the kind of damage that does to a young mind?”
“Sometime you should speak to the Elders at the groves that took in the younger ones.”
“You ought to know exactly how you messed them up!”
“Fine,” he said wearily, spreading his hands. “Here you are, here I am. Weakened by Kuriwa’s curse and you with the source of your extremely ill-considered power only a breath away. Unleash your vengeance and let’s be done with it. I would not much mourn the chance to rest.”
In unison, they shook their heads.
“Revenge is a tool, Khadizroth; it has specific uses, and only damages the work when applied wrongly.”
“The point of revenge is to manage reputation, to prevent further attacks.”
“No one but us even knows about this…”
“…and it’s not as if you would change your behavior just because we have the power to hurt you.”
“There’s no point at all. This isn’t about revenge.”
“It’s just,” Fauna finished softly, “about closure.”
“That…is Eserite philosophy,” Khadizroth said slowly. Again, he turned to glance back at Darling. “You have actually taught them. In all honesty, I’d believed you were using them for your own ends.”
“Course I am,” Darling said with a shrug. “Everyone uses everyone else. That has nothing to do with how people feel about each other. I can put someone to work in my plans and still care deeply for their welfare. Really, K, have you ever had a friend in your life?”
“Many,” the dragon said wryly.
“Not that it was necessarily easy to get to this point,” Flora said with asperity.
“As we mentioned, you did a number on us,” Fauna continued. “It was a hard thing to get over.”
“But hating someone is like stabbing yourself and hoping they bleed to death.”
“Letting go is necessary; it’s just sense and self-management, not morals.”
“So, yes, Khadizroth… We’ve forgiven you.”
“For our sake, not yours.”
“But you are still,” Flora said sharply, clenching her fists, “going to explain yourself.”
“Right. Damn. Now.” Fauna leveled an unrelenting stare at him.
He sighed heavily, then turned and walked a few steps away, breaking up the symmetry of their formation. Darling remained on the opposite side of the cold campsite, watching curiously, as Khadizroth took up a position to one side of the gates, gestured at the ground, and pulled forth a sawn-off stump from the dirt. He turned and sat down on this, facing the elves, and folded his hands in his lap.
“It should go without saying that I was furious,” the dragon stated, gazing at them in earnest calm. “I felt betrayed, to say the least. I was aggrieved by the loss of those whom I had come to hold dear, and yes, by the destruction of all my careful plans. There was not time, by that point, to start over. I feared already that I had left it too long, put off by the distasteful nature of the idea. It was all moot by the time you had finished spiriting the others away; the power of Tiraas is too concentrated, now. To hear the mortal politicians speak of it, the Silver Throne has never regained the authority it had before the Enchanter Wars, but they see power only as a means to exercise force. The truth is, the Tirasian Dynasty has been wiser than most of its forebears. The Empire has focused, in the last century, on infrastructure, on social development, on the advancement of knowledge. Despite the proliferation of factions within it, the fragmenting of authority, the Tiraan Empire as a civilization is stronger right now than it has ever been, far more potent than the corrupt government which laid waste to Athan’Khar. This continent, this ancient, sacred land, belongs to the humans, now. The groves and the dwarven kingdoms may hold out while they can, but in the end, it will be Tiraas which decides the fate of all souls on the continent, and throughout much of the world beyond.”
Khadizroth shook his head slowly, his expression purely weary. “And all indications are that that fate will be a grim one indeed. I tried, children. I did the only thing I could think of that I believed had a chance of working. Thanks to you, that opportunity is lost.”
“Are you actually going to sit there and blame—”
“Please.” He held up a hand. “I listened to you speak. Will you hear me out?”
They narrowed their eyes, then glanced at each other.
“Go on,” Fauna said curtly, folding her arms.
“Like you,” he said, “it has taken me time to work through this. It is not a simple matter and my feelings about it were likewise complex. But time has elapsed, I have thought on it, and as everything stands now… When I look on you and think on the turns our relationship has taken, I find that my resentment is a distant thing. More than anything else, I feel…grateful.”
In perfect unison, both sharply raised their eyebrows, and blinked.
“It’s not as if I didn’t know how repellent the whole thing was,” Khadizroth said with a grimace, looking down at the ground. “I have no rebuttal for that. For any of it. You are right in all particulars. As I said at the time and said ever since, I did not do that because it was right…I did it because I believed it necessary. And I can only hope for your sake that you never have to choose between those two things. What you did, girls, by destroying my scheme, was to rescue me from the burden. I besmirched my honor by carrying it as far as it went, but in the end, the real horror of it never had the chance to materialize, and the opportunity will not come again. You obviated the need. Whatever happens to me, now, I will face with the knowledge that I could not prevent it. What remains of my integrity is mine to keep. Thanks to you.”
He stood, slowly, turned to face them directly, and bowed deeply.
“I thank you. And for what little it may be worth… I am sorry. For everything.”
Both were watching him warily now, their expressions almost uncertain.
“Do you feel,” Khadizroth said somewhat wryly, straightening up, “that you have gained your closure?”
“Actually…” Flora glanced at Fauna. “Actually, yes.”
“Somewhat to our surprise.”
“Good.” He nodded. “Somewhat to my surprise, I do as well. I has been…very good, very good indeed, being able to talk. I had thought that if we ever met again it would inevitably come to bloodshed.”
“We’re not going to rule that out,” Flora said grimly.
“But it’ll be over whatever happens at that time,” Fauna added, “not over the past.”
He nodded. “That is both fair, and rather prescient. And now.” The dragon shifted to look at Darling. “I believe we still have more current matters to discuss?”
“Yes, well, one more bit about the past.” Darling shrugged nonchalantly. “You’ll tell Vannae I’m sorry for roughing him up that time, won’t you? It was undiplomatic, I’ll warrant, but the little prick was talking about my girls like they were a pair of stolen dogs he could just come and collect. That kind of thing is very hard not to take personally.”
“Indeed,” the dragon said with a wry half-grimace. “I’ll convey the message, but I guarantee no acceptance on his part. Vannae is a somewhat more emotional creature than I.”
“Ugh, you have no idea,” Flora muttered, rolling her eyes.
“And for my part, I choose to disregard that insult,” Khadizroth added more gravely to Darling. “I think, going forward, we would all do well to emulate Joseph’s example and address one another with courtesy when we have the chance to speak, even if it necessarily comes to violence in the next breath.”
“Agreed,” Darling said, nodding. “With all that out of the way… Just what is going on with these elementals?”
“To speak plainly, then,” the dragon said, folding his hands, “I am here on the orders of Archpope Justinian, using these elementals to forment a crisis in Viridill of a specific nature that Bishop Syrinx should be able to solve. I am to manage the event carefully such that she emerges the unquestioned hero of the day. This was going rather well,” he added sardonically, “until one of her associates bungled it up last night. I’m afraid I outsmarted myself; managing two remote presences, having two separate conversations—one in the dream plane—left me vulnerable. That rather minor magical device inflicted more harm than it otherwise would have, and prevented me from explaining the full situation to Ingvar, as I intended.” He sighed, shaking his head. “It was a long and careful plan that brought the Huntsman and the Crow here, and just like that, wasted. I’m growing sadly accustomed to the sensation.”
“Well, once again, it’s the Thieves’ Guild to the rescue,” Darling said cheerfully. “I have to say, though, I’m left a tad perplexed that Justinian cares enough about Basra to want her back that badly.”
“I have learned that questioning his motives is wasted breath,” said the dragon. “While I am beholden to him, I carry out his orders. He has not seen fit to preclude conversations such as this, at least. I know little more of Syrinx than that Justinian thinks she would disapprove of this plan—at any rate, he insisted that she not be brought in on it.”
“The woman is anth’auwa,” Fauna said darkly.
“She’s also a highly skilled politician,” Darling mused, “and one of the best swordswomen in the Sisterhood today.”
“I see.” Khadizroth frowned. “I didn’t know any of that. I had been operating under the general principle that what Justinian wants, he should not have. Now, I believe he should quite specifically not regain an asset of that quality.”
“So the question becomes,” said Darling, “what to do about it now?”
“I am not in a position to turn on the Archpope directly,” the dragon cautioned, “and in any case I deem it more valuable to remain close enough to observe his plans and interfere with them.”
“I work for him under pretty much that exact logic.”
“So I had assumed. Therefore, I will have to continue my campaign…but it is possible that between us we can arrange—”
He broke off at a sudden, frantic squawking from above. A crow dived into the courtyard with uncharacteristic speed, plummeting beak-first at the ground.
Mary landed in a crouch, whirling to face Darling.
“Antonio. You are unharmed?”
“Me?” He put a hand to his chest, blinking in surprise. “Is there a particular reason I wouldn’t be? If you’re worried about Big K, here, turns out this has all been one big kooky misunderstanding. He’s a total sweetheart!”
“Shut up,” she said curtly, turning her head slowly with her nose upraised as if sniffing the wind. “You are human… I fear that neither the dragon nor these two would be an adequate defense… No, it has passed by. You have been unfathomably fortunate just now, Antonio.”
“My patience for you is nil to begin with, Kuriwa,” Khadizroth growled. He had assumed a more aggressive posture upon her arrival, as well as a deep scowl. “You will explain yourself swiftly and in detail.”
The Crow turned to stare flatly at him. “It is a very fortunate thing I decided to return here in haste; I expected to find more of Justinian’s schemes to unravel. Instead, the situation has abruptly changed. Very much for the worse.”
“What is going on?” Basra demanded, striding up to the command tent, which for the last five minutes had been buzzing like a kicked beehive. Behind her, the rest of her party clustered together, watching nervously.
“Watchers with telescopes on Fort Naveen just reported someone walking out of the forest,” Colonel Nintaumbi said curtly, handing a slip of paper to a soldier who saluted and dashed off. “Moments later, the watchers on Fort Tarissed confirmed the report.”
“My scouts are unable to verify,” Yrril said, unflappable as ever. “My colleagues, here, are trying to insist that my forces withdraw.”
“Yrril, we can’t abandon the lines,” General Vaumann exclaimed in exasperation, clearly having already gone over this. “It would only provoke him, even if it weren’t unacceptable to cede this position in the first place. Please don’t turn this into a diplomatic disaster on top of all the other kinds of disaster it’s about to become. Get your people out of here!”
“Disaster?” Basra snapped. “What? Who came out of the forest? It’s far too soon for Antonio to have returned with anything useful; he hasn’t even had time to reach Varansis.”
“Bishop Darling is almost certainly dead,” Nintaumbi said grimly. “An elf came out of the forest, Bishop Syrinx. A lone, male elf, dressed in filthy rags. Coming straight at us from Athan’Khar.”
“Confirmed!” barked the Legionnaire who had her eye pressed to the telescope that had been hastily set up on a tripod just outside the tent. “Target has been observed using obviously infernal, divine and arcane magic.”
“Where the hell are my strike teams!” Nintaumbi roared.
“In position, sir!” shouted an Imperial soldier, skidding to a stop just under the awning and tossing off a salute.
“We have two strike teams,” Vaumann said tonelessly. “That’s about the number who usually die in the first engagement against a headhunter. If we deploy them before the other four get here from Tiraas it’ll be in vain. Yrril, nothing we or you have will stand against that creature, do you understand? Nothing. This is our land; we cannot yield it to a mad thing that only wants destruction. For the goddess’s sake, take your people and pull back!”
“What is the headhunter doing?” Basra asked in icy calm.
“He appears to be dismantling the wards placed in front of the forest, ma’am,” the Legionnaire at the telescope reported. “Systematically, showing no signs of agitation or aggression. He hasn’t moved toward the front lines.”
“Why would he want those wards dismantled?” Yrril asked, making no response to Vaumann’s entreaties. “I understood they were simply detection devices, surely no threat to him.”
“Archcommander, this creature is by definition insane,” Nintaumbi said with a sigh. “Looking for logic in his actions is pointless. It’s a rabid dog with the power to cleave through our lines like they’re nothing.”
“How long until he finishes off the wards?” Basra demanded.
“Unknowable, ma’am,” said the watcher. “His pace is uneven. He keeps pausing to just…look around.”
“And we can’t assume he’s going to do a thorough job of it anyway,” Vaumann added darkly. “He could lose interest any moment. I repeat my recommendation that my troops move to the fore, Colonel. Avenists are slightly less inherently provocative to a headhunter than Imperial soldiers.”
“And my people least provocative of all,” Yrril pointed out. “That elf may dislike drow, as most do, but the spirits of Athan’Khar have no reason to hold an opinion about us.”
“That’s right, talk amongst yourselves,” Basra said curtly. “Soldier, fetch me a horse. Now. I’m going out there.”
“We have to help them!”
“Stop!” Mary barked, pointing at Flora and Fauna, who appeared poised to lunge into action. “Will you think before leaping? You two are creatures without precedent already, both for your relationship to each other and the mental stability you have retained. That is an eldei alai’shi of the old breed—unreasoning and completely lost to the voices. He seems to have been even more weak-minded than most, to judge by his laughing and talking to himself as he passed. You cannot know what will happen if you approach him. What if the spirits within you try to fuse with those in him?”
They both froze, expressions agonized.
“I suppose,” Khadizroth said, frowning deeply, “you and I could try to intervene, Kuriwa… But I fear the outcome of that would be similarly random. I’m forced to admit I am not a sure match for that creature, unless you see fit to lift your curse.”
“For a situation like this, I honestly would,” she replied, “but the undoing would take more time than we have.”
“Good to know,” he murmured.
“The both of us together might be able to dissuade him,” she added, “but the Imperial troops would almost certainly attack us, as well.”
“Surely you’re not suggesting we just leave this?” Flora exclaimed.
“We have to do something, damn it!” Fauna shouted.
“We have to act carefully,” said Darling, and his calm voice seemed to ground them both. “We have friends out there; we’re not just going to ignore this. Come on, girls, this is just the kind of exercise you’re trained for. Brute force and frontal assaults won’t work. We have to find a way around—we have to be clever.” He turned to Mary. “I’m open to suggestions.”
“This must begin with observation,” she replied. “I will return to the edge of the forest; he will be there by now. If there is anything to be learned, I will learn it. But it will leave precious little time to act upon that knowledge before many lives are lost.”
“Wait,” said Khadizroth, holding up a hand. “I will go, too; aside from the obvious need to intercede, this dovetails with my mandate from Justinian. But consider, Kuriwa, the staggeringly improbable timing of this.”
“If you’re about to suggest Justinian sent that thing here, you can forget it,” Darling scoffed. “He doesn’t have that kind of power.”
“Are you saying that because you know it,” the dragon asked, arching an eyebrow, “or because you would prefer to believe it?”
“Khadizroth, if Justinian could summon and deploy headhunters, most of what he’s done up till now would be redundant and pointless. I don’t trust coincidences, either, but Justinian is not the shadow lurking in every corner.”
“Exactly.” The dragon nodded and turned to Mary again. “Kuriwa, attend.”
All of them shifted back as the color of the light changed, taking on a greenish tint, and the air pressure sharply dropped.
“Khadizroth,” Mary warned.
“This is not meant to harm you,” the dragon said, reaching out a hand toward her. “You can feel what I am doing quite well.”
“Thinning boundaries like this is a terrifyingly bad idea so close to Athan’Khar,” she snapped. “Release it!”
“Calling up the aspect of the dream,” he said calmly, “is necessary to illustrate—ah. There it is.”
The dragon laid his fingers on something invisible in midair, pinched them together, and plucked.
Strands of gossamer were momentarily visible where they vibrated, thin streamers of spider web linking all five of them and stretching away into the distance in multiple directions. A moment later they faded completely, and a moment after that, Khadizroth released his effect, allowing the world to shift back to its normal hue.
“Justinian,” the dragon said grimly, “is not the only spider who can spin a web. Since young Ingvar’s visit, I have been pondering…this. We will go observe the headhunter and take what action we can, but before doing so, I think we must decide upon a plan for what comes next.”
“Have one of your mages teleport to Vrin Shai with these orders,” Basra instructed Colonel Nintaumbi as she climbed into the saddle, continuing to ignore his protests. “The Sisterhood’s scryers are always able to pinpoint my position; get one to the topmost mag cannon above the city. That one should have a clear field of fire all the way to the border. I want it aimed right at me. You keep watch on what happens down there, and if that thing kills me, send another mage with the order to fire. Headhunters are dangerous for their versatility; their magical strength isn’t necessarily all that great, and no personal shield, divine or arcane, will stand up to that weapon. The beam will come in at a shallow angle at this distance, so you may need to shift troops out of the way. Your own artillery teams can do the trigonometry to tell you where the danger zones are.”
“This is insane, Syrinx.” Vaumann’s calm voice seemed to catch Basra’s attention where all of Nintaumbi’s imprecations did not. “You cannot reason with that creature.”
“Of course not,” Basra said. “One doesn’t reason with crazy—but one can manipulate it. This job calls for a politician. Hold the line, people, and have that cannon ready. But please be sure not to fire unless I’m already too late to help.”
She turned her mount, placing her back to the protests still rising, and trotted off down the field to face the headhunter alone.