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“Can you make anything out?” Darling asked quietly, settling down against the back of the little hollow in the dunes in which they had hidden themselves. The beaches of Viridill consisted mostly of thickly clumped sand carved into rough shapes by wind and surf, many topped with tough, scraggly tufts of grass that helped keep them intact. It hadn’t been hard to find an out-of-the-way hole in which to crouch that nonetheless afforded them a view of the action going on at the edge of the forest. In fact, the girls had shadow-jumped right into it; they had clearly scouted the area previously.
“Too far,” said Flora, shaking her head. “Which is good, because he can’t hear us, either.”
“And we have the surf at our backs,” Fauna pointed out.
“I’m aware,” Darling said patiently. “I was just hoping you might be able to see something useful.”
“They’re in profile relative to us,” Flora murmured, squinting into the distance. “Worst possible position for lip-reading.”
“A word, here and there, when they shift their heads,” Fauna added. “So far, things seem calm. Can’t put together a conversational thread beyond that.”
He nodded, sighing softly. At this distance, he could just barely see Basra and the headhunter; the assembled armies were a formless mass off to their right. While Mary and Khadizroth had gone off to do…whatever they could do, he and the girls had assembled themselves to keep an eye on developments, such as they could.
The Bishop and the headhunter were just sitting there, having a conversation.
“Have to give her credit for balls,” Flora observed.
“Lack of fear isn’t courage,” said Fauna.
“I didn’t say courage. I said balls.”
“That’s a woman, you know.”
“So the balls are internal.”
“Aren’t they all, technically?”
“I wonder,” said Darling, “if it’s possible to roll my eyes hard enough to be audible to you two. Am I close enough for that?”
They both turned to smile at him.
“Seriously, though,” Flora said, her expression sobering, “that exchange with Khadizroth…it kind of pointed something out to me.”
“Both of us, I think,” Fauna said, glancing at her with a hint of question in the tilt of her head.
“It was the part about you actually teaching us Eserite philosophy,” Flora continued, directing herself to both of them. “The skills we’ve learned are fantastic, but…”
“Yes, that’s what I was thinking, too,” Fauna added, nodding. “A change in mindset takes time to develop; that was a moment when we could look back and really see it.”
“We appreciate it,” Flora said quietly.
He smiled in return before answering. “And…any other changes? How’s it been, this close to Athan’Khar?”
They glanced ruefully at each other.
“You actually noticed that?” said Fauna. “Impressive.”
“I noticed hints. Under the tension of the moment, you were awfully controlled, considering the proximity. And I know you’re both quite deft at controlling your expressions by now, but I know you well enough to get a feeling when there’s something extra afoot.”
“Yeah,” Flora said, nodding and turning back to watch the distant conversation. “It’s…definitely different.”
“Before there was a kind of oneness,” said Fauna. “The spirits in us, the ones in the land… Like water, ready to mix back together.”
“And there’s skill a recognition, a kind of kinship…”
“But distinction, as well. That sense that Athan’Khar might reach out to absorb us…it’s not there.”
“I’m not sure what to make of this, to be honest. Like the Crow said, we’re kind of unprecedented.”
“But I can’t help thinking it’s a good development,” Fauna finished very softly. Flora looked at her, nodding agreement.
“I suppose spirits are living things, even murder-crazy ones,” Darling mused. “Living things grow, and change.”
“Then that’s just one more thing we owe you, Sweet,” Flora said, smiling broadly at him.
“I doubt any of us could have predicted how much we’d gain from studying under you,” Fauna agreed.
“I mean, I guess the Guild would teach us how to manage anyway…”
“But it still wouldn’t be…you. Y’know?”
They both smiled warmly at him.
“Well,” he said dryly, “that’s some top-notch kissing up. On point, not too heavy-handed, just subtle enough to pass notice without failing to make the point. Well done.” He leaned forward, staring flatly. “Now knock it off, both of you. Your ass is still grass.”
Both their faces fell, shoulders slumping in resignation.
“Do you have any idea,” he said grimly, “the havoc you caused in Veilgrad? The whole city—the whole province was in an uproar when I left. I doubt it’s settled down much even by now.” He glanced past them at the pair still talking in the distance, careful not to raise his voice. The wind was on their side, blowing from the headhunter toward them, but one could never be too careful about elves. “What could you possibly have been thinking? I’m aghast, girls. You’re usually so much more sensible than this. Did something seriously go that wrong?”
Flora sighed heavily. “It’s… It was starting to get closer, anyway. The spirits were still mostly quiet, but we knew they’d be wanting satiation soon…”
“And then we found out you were coming to Viridill. Which is far too close to Athan’Khar.”
“It wasn’t like we had a lot of time to react, either; we were trying not to get close enough to the Crow to let her know we were there.”
“Not that we can be sure that worked anyway…but eavesdropping has practical limits, as you know. By the time we knew your destination, we had all of one night to deal with it before you’d have to set out the next day.”
“And being hungry close to Athan’Khar is a very bad idea. Especially since it turned out we had to go right up to it!”
“So in hindsight it all worked out well, right?”
Fauna ventured a tentative smile, which vanished under his stare.
“And that led to summoning and killing an incubus right outside a heavily fortified Imperial city?”
“It wasn’t right outside,” Flora said defensively. “We went at least half a mile out into the prairie.”
“And we couldn’t kill it right there, obviously,” Fauna added. “That would hardly have done anything for the spirits at all. It had to be a chase.”
“Before we get into what’s wrong with that,” he said, “I’d like to hear how you so dramatically failed to clean up after yourselves.”
They winced, exchanging a pained glance. “We, uh, underestimated the Imps’ response time,” Flora said.
“We certainly planned to scrub everything clean,” Fauna assured him, “but they were all over it almost as soon as we were done. If we hadn’t booked…”
“I figured that was probably it,” Darling sighed. “All right. Please tell me you at least did a thorough job of confusing your trail after that point…”
“Absolutely,” Flora said, nodding eagerly.
“Multiple shadow-jumps and teleportations…”
“Splitting up, laying false trails…”
“All over the continent and to other places besides.”
“The Crow or Tellwyrn couldn’t have followed us—nothing short of a god. We watched for the Imperials to try, and nothing came of it.”
“So that much is clear, at least!”
“At least.” He shook his head, glancing once more at Basra and the headhunter off in the distance. Not that he could see much from here, but they still appeared to just be sitting. Well, they hadn’t been talking long. “Do you understand what your mistake was?”
Flora sighed, looking downward. “Half a mile wasn’t far enough.”
“You’re damn right it wasn’t,” he said darkly. “That city was recovering from a massive magical catastrophe. The entire province is under regular scrying sweeps; Veilgrad itself is fortified by the best the Azure Corps can provide, not to mention strike teams and probably at least one Hand of the Emperor hidden away somewhere. And you summoned an incubus. A half mile from the city walls.”
He let the silence hang for a moment, watching them sit there and look miserable.
“I realize you were adapting on the fly,” he continued in a more moderate tone, “but that was a very serious blunder, girls. You have to be able to make good decisions under pressure and with very little time; that was not a good decision. People make mistakes. You will make more. But that was the kind of mistake that limits the kind and the number of mistakes you can get away with in the future, you understand? Even if they couldn’t follow a trail right to you, an event like that will leave the Empire curious. It’s an open mystery, existing in a situation where they’re under pressure to provide answers. The best case scenario is that this languishes in a cold case file, just waiting to be cross-referenced the next time Imperial Intelligence catches a whiff of your trail.
“A good thief is careful. Your power means you have to be more careful, not less.”
“Sorry,” Fauna whispered, not meeting his eyes.
Darling let it hang a moment longer, then sighed and rose to kneel, shifting forward toward them in the little hollow. He draped an arm around each of their shoulders and gave them an affectionate jostle. “As your sponsor and principal trainer I suppose I really ought to box your ears for this, but some fuck-ups I have to think are their own punishment. This can’t happen again, girls. No headhunter shit anywhere near a place where the Empire might pick up on it. That means we’re not using the sewers anymore. In fact… If you have to do this in the future, shadow-jump off the continent, okay? Find a desert or something in Araknia or Glassiere.”
Flora sniffled once, but smiled weakly. “You do know there aren’t any deserts in Glassiere, right?”
“Come on, half the country’s ice and snow,” he retorted. “It’s not a conventional desert, but nothing grows or lives there. Totally counts.”
They hugged him back for a moment, and then the three separated, settling back to more comfortable positions from which to watch the action.
If “action” was the right word.
“She might actually pull this off,” Darling mused after some minutes had passed.
“And then…” Fauna glanced at him. “We’re actually doing it the way you decided?”
“It feels like a defeat,” Flora murmured.
“Well, it would be, from a certain point of view,” he said. “It’d be Basra playing the hero, giving Justinian what he arranged all this for. Irrespective of anything else going on here, her handling that creature will unquestionably save a lot of soldiers if she pulls it off, not to mention a wide swath of the civilians behind them. Big heap display of courage and skill. If that happens, the fact that it’s not the disaster Justinian planned would be just an ironic but insignificant twist of fate. Rouvad would hardly be able to keep her on the shit list at that point.”
“So…it’s like Justinia forming his Holy Legion all over again,” Fauna said grimly.
“Just so,” he replied, nodding. “We have to consider the next battle, and position ourselves to fare better, which means not burning any bridges. Entertaining as it may be to bring the whole Empire and the Sisterhood and whoever else down on Khadizroth, the fact is he’s close to Justinian and not happy about it, which makes him too useful to discard. Protecting that asset means shielding him from blame.” He frowned, narrowing his eyes as he stared at the distant figures sitting on the grass just beyond the forest’s edge. “Whatever the headhunter tells anyone else, his testimony will be easy to contradict; the Empire thinks of them as wild and unreasoning. And Basra’s clever enough to follow my lead if I can catch her in time. That way we can present Khadizroth as an ally who was trying to help against the elementals.”
“And if you can’t?” Flora asked.
“Or she’s not?” Fauna added.
“Then,” he said with a sigh, “we’ll just have to leave things vague. In the absence of other factors, headhunters do make excellent scapegoats, as you well know. I don’t foresee a problem, though. Even if Basra comes right out and says the headhunter denied being behind the elemental attacks…well, like I said, nothing he said will be taken too seriously. Besides, she’s hardly going to thoroughly debrief right there in front of everybody as soon as she gets back. No, I should be able to arrange it, one way or another.”
Flora shook her head. “Almost makes me hope she fails.”
“That woman really, really needs to be dead,” Fauna agreed. “And we obviously wouldn’t mourn Khadizroth.”
“If she fails,” Darling said pointedly, “it comes to a fight. A very, very bad fight. The kind that has only survivors, not winners. If that.”
“They’ve been moving mag cannons into position,” Flora pointed out. “Both on the field and on the battlements of the two nearest forts.”
“If those things can hit, it’s over,” said Fauna. “We couldn’t stand up to a direct shot from one, either. He definitely can’t.”
“If someone fired a mag cannon at you,” he said dryly, “what would you do?”
They glanced at each other, and both grimaced. “Evade.”
“Teleportation or shadow-jumping.”
Darling nodding. “If Nintaumbi blankets the whole area in mag beams…maybe. But then the cannons will be slagged and their crews dead before they have time to re-charge. And don’t forget, the fact that we’re dealing with a headhunter instead of elementals means Aspen’s presence is a huge risk instead of an asset. If something hurts her, this whole place is going under. The best case scenario is that Mary and Khadizroth can subdue him, which sounds iffy, the way they describe it. And for that to work ideally, the Army and Legion will have to recognize they’re trying to help and not attack. Which I’d describe as fifty-fifty.” He shook his head and sighed. “No…we have to hope for a win for Justinian this time.”
“We could take him,” Flora muttered.
“We’re the same thing he is, but twice as much.”
Darling held up one finger. “First, you would be guaranteed to reveal yourselves to the Empire that way, and second…” He held up another, staring them down. “Can you honestly, positively be certain your spirits will let you fight his? Development or no, they don’t want to fight other headhunters; they’ll want to kill all the Imperials massed just over there.”
He patted them each on the shoulder as they slumped in defeat. “No, girls…now we simply endure the worst part of any job. Watching, and waiting.”
40 thoughts on “10 – 47”
You know. I had always known headhunters were strong. But not to the point where Mary AND Big K together might have trouble taking one down. That upgrades F&F from Darlings ace in the hole to something far scarier.
On another note. Didn’t Archane scare F&F into backing down in another chapter? Meaning in a straight up fight she could thrash Mary?
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Mary mentioned the 3rd headhunter is much older/more experienced and more in-tune with his spirits. Closer to one being than F&F are. So that may be why she couldn’t take him but Arachne could take F&F.
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No, she only said he was the classic style of headhunter. F&F are, in many ways, a notch above him, because they’re in charge of their respective crowds, rather than it being a “whoever can grab the tiller” deal. 😐
The reason why Mary was reluctant to engage had more to do with where the fight would take place, and who the casualties would be, rather than his nature. Like F&F, she’s not likely to be able to state her case with Empire forces without a lot of flak.
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Whether Arachne could take them is not established, and at least one of the Fs expressed skepticism at the idea that Arachne could actually believe A was a match for them both.
It’s a general risk too. Even if there’s a 95% chance Khadizroth and Mary can beat him without one of them dying, there’s still a 5% chance one of the most powerful beings on the continent would die. Fights aren’t certain things where there’s only one possible outcome.
I feel Arachne could just stop their time on the fly, like she did for that dryad… and then simply toss a small rock at them.
F&F had to worry about blowing their cover and getting Sweet in trouble in that circumstance! This guy has no such concerns.
Why would have F&F wanted to fight Arachne ? and I don’t actually remember them being scared.
Unknown, Arachne Tellwyrn is a legend that smacks around dragons to convince them to behave instead of killing them. It has been strongly implied that the glory days of her power aren’t behind her, but we don’t know if Arachne could tell off Khadizroth like she did Zanzayed.
I remember Arachne had to summon some sort of full body armour and sword for that. I think that only pure physical is effective against headhunter. The spirits can “thinks” fast and counter any sort of magic. Mary won’t fight straight up against 2 headhuntress. That suicide.
I don’t get the impression that they actually worry her. The problem would be the devastation to the area the fight happens. Given that the Empire generally doesn’t take kindly to losing huge chunks containing citizenry care of a known antagonistic entity such as the Crow picking overpowered fights…
That’s called a decades-long headache even an elf who is not a fan of the place would think twice about inflicting on themselves.
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My interpretation was more like the discussions around other big fights, that the problem wasn’t winning or not winning but winning without massive collateral damage. Nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction style. Also i think headhunters are uniquely hard not because they have that much power, but because they can accesss all 4 schools of magic they are quite capable of countering attacks. Making them effective mage killers,
One of the lovely things about this story is the pacing. I feel like I with Darling and co. waiting for what happens next. It makes for a good story when you care about the characters and events. And, most stories disappoint at the big “reveal” but Webb always seems to pull it of. Thank you.
Agreed. Sometimes having a moment of quiet is far more effective than a continuous flow of action would be
What could Basra be saying?!
They’re discussing pie recipes. The headhunter is curious because he cant’ seems to find sugar in his helljungle.
Please disregard the original author’s note. After sleeping on it and considering what comes next, I’ve realized that leaving this as is and starting fresh next time quite accidentally solves an upcoming pacing and organization problem I was left with. This is a much shorter chapter than I usually like to post, but in the long run I try to write with an eye toward what the finished story will feel like in a read-through, so that’s what I prioritize.
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Antonio is unfathomably lucky? If Mary said that, it stands to reason that it might indeed be more than luck. Maybe there’s a reason the spirits of the old head hunter didn’t care to kill him, the same reason Flora and Fauna are doing so well working for him. Can they not see him? Or did they just not think he’s Evil in the way the rest of humans generally are? How the hell is Basra just talking to one (although possibly her whole “barely humanness” is helping here). I feel like there’s something going on here so I’m going to have fun with a little wild crazy guessing:
Is it possible that the aegis Justinian is under extends to all the upper ups in the universal church? Or just Justinian’s hand selected Bishops, at least, if he’s got some conscious control over it? And that this extends to spirits as well as gods? Could it be Avei slamming down her glass was reacting with surprise when the Empress casually denounced Basra (1-20)? Could that be why Avei hasn’t particularly noticed that Basra has, you know, been raping one of her subordinates? I know Eserion says he has good people sniffing around, but he could mean more than Darling, and he could also be unaware that he’s uncritical about Darling in the same way.
Side note, there are…just so many things I want to discuss with all the commenters while Webb looks over, grinning maniacally, that are arc wide/story wide and not just a few chapters deep. Especially since I came a bit late to the party and missed the chance on some big big early moments. Do we…HAVE a forum or reddit or anything anywhere?
Should we, you know, make one?
The idea of a forum or Reddit has been brought up before, but never happened. There’s a WMG entry on the TVTropes page for theorizing, but it hasn’t drawn much attention.
I’m not planning to make a forum myself, but if anyone does I’ll provide a link on the site and plug it now and again. I would definitely enjoy seeing those discussions.
I asked around but I only got very few replies, so it didn’t seem worth it to create a forum.
Personally I was thinking about this myself, in the end I thought it might be best to create a general Web Serial Reddit for general discussion about web serials as well as more specific story related discussion which might not work too well in comment threads.
Honestly the main thing that stopped me was that i would feel kinda sleazy going into the comments of web serials I don’t usually comment in to essentially advertise something.
My idea for a forum would have been to create one over at https://freeforums.net/ which is being paid for with ads… but if you use an adblocker, it’s no problem at all. It’s a bit of work to set this up though and I wanted at least 10 positive responses before committing to anything, but I only got 3 or so. Not worth the effort. 🙂
I’m not sure if I commented positive before, but if I didn’t, I’m in favour of a forum.
I feel like a subreddit would be best. With forums you have subforums which would fracture the conversational activity. Which is not so good when there wouldn’t be a ton of activity already.
Additionally a lot of people already have Reddit accounts and its generally easier to make Reddit accounts than forum accounts. Lower barrier to entry would faccilitate more activity.
Subreddits are also super easy to set up compared to a forum.
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Wow wow wow! What a time to come current! Very exciting!
Loving the story and can’t wait for more… Unfortunately at a much more leisurely pace. I’m also enjoying the parallel story about the author, which is in some ways as compelling.
I feel for you dude. It’s amazing that you able to put out such consistent high quality prose in such volume for such an extended period of time, in spite of your illness. I am in awe.
Flora and Fauna really goofed up here. It seems like it would have been simple for them to shadow jump to a desert, removing 99.9% of the risk with essentially zero cost. How is that not standard policy for them?
Also, it’s really confusing calling Imperial Forces “Imps” when the topic is demons. I thought the Incubus summoned reinforcements somehow at first.
A note to all readers: though a Friday chapter hasn’t been funded this week, there’s going to be one, as part of the makeup effort for previously skipped chapters. However, not at the usual update time. I’ve been working on it tonight and it’s fighting me hard, as they sometimes do. This kind of thing happens, and it’s worse on days when I have to come home and write after a long shift at work (my day job is rather destructive to my energy levels). I’m gonna take the excuse of un-funding to get some sleep and finish this sucker tomorrow when my brainmeats are rejuvenated.
So, chapter is forthcoming, please stay tuned.
Thanks man. You’re badass. We all really appreciate the dedication you put into this.
Just so. Looking forward to tomorrow. 🙂
Further postponement, with apologies. Spent the day dealing with health stuff and a depressive episode (probably brought on by health stuff). Really, really hoping I’m not going to have to go to a doctor. I cannot afford that.
I really want to catch up and get the makeup chapters done. Gonna try again tomorrow for at least one.
Get better soon. 🙂
Are there no tags for this chapter? Or is it just my phone bugging out?
I’ve noticed tags don’t show up on the mobile version of the site. Your phone might be stuck on that?
The tags are actually missing.
Ah, I never see the tags anyway since I read on my phone
Webb has started putting tags on the next to latest chapter ie when the next chapter goes up the tags will be updated,he did it to prevent spoilers
I’m a little worried about our favourite author now. Not posting anything seems quite unusual. I hope the health stuff mentioned before isn’t anything serious.
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