“I realize it’s difficult to plan when walking into an unknown, but we need to have some kind of strategy ready for this,” Toby said, following Fross into the outskirts of the city. Puna Dara’s buildings did not grow smaller or more sparse as they climbed; flanked as it was by craggy mountains on all sides, the city had long since filled up all the available space, but the streets grew steadily steeper as they climbed toward the limits of its confines.
“I think Gabe had the right of it before,” Juniper replied. “This is a lot less delicate than our previous assignments. All we have to do is wipe out the Rust, and the problem is basically solved. Doing it in their hidey-hole outside town where nobody else will get hurt is just an added benefit.”
“First of all,” Teal said sharply, “mass slaughter is never an acceptable solution to anything. And second, we’re making a sweeping assumption if we go in there thinking we can just take them all out.”
“That, exactly,” Gabriel agreed. “Let’s keep in mind these guys vanquished an entire Silver Legion without apparently being there. I know we’re used to out-classing enemies in a straight-up fight, but like they say, there’s always a bigger fish. Seems like a bad idea to face everybody just blithely assuming we can take ’em.”
“What did happen to the Legion, exactly?” Toby asked. “I know it was a magical plague of some kind, but we seem to have missed out some important details…”
“That would have been an excellent subject to study in detail before embarking on a mission to engage these Rust in battle.”
“Gabriel,” Teal said tersely, “does your sword have to say something snotty at the most inopportune time?”
“I am designed for precision and analysis, not social interaction.”
“You seem plenty designed for snark,” Juniper observed.
“Snark is merely the byproduct of being constantly surrounded by lesser intellects.”
“Shut up, Ariel,” Gabriel said wearily. “We had enough of a hassle getting out of the Rock and convincing Ruda not to come, I think missing some details is forgivable. Anyway, the plague…”
“Its symptoms are weakness and lethargy to the point of making basic movement difficult,” Fross chimed at the head of the group. “It appears to have been designed to be non-lethal, though several Legionnaires did perish, as is to be expected of any large group subjected to such an effect. Whether this was meant to be compassionate or to saddle the Rust’s enemies with the burden of providing for several hundred incapacitated soldiers is a matter of debate. Its cause and nature have not been identified last I heard; they’ve been evacuated to Rodvenheim where the dwarves and the Salyrites have been working on this.”
“Bless you, Fross,” Toby said.
“So what are we going to do, if the plan’s not to go in wands blazing?” Juniper asked.
“First, diplomacy,” Toby said firmly. “In fact, this whole situation reminds me of a worthwhile lesson in negotiating I got from Trissiny before she left.”
“Oh, good, it’s almost like old times,” Teal muttered. “Usually she has to be here to turn everything into a fight.”
Gabriel and Juniper both looked at her sidelong with slight frowns. Up ahead, Toby turned around to give her a deeper one.
“One thing we could all stand to learn from Trissiny,” he said, “is to recognize when our own education has left us blind spots and work to correct them. That is what she’s off doing right now, and I respect her a lot for it. No, I wouldn’t generally take the approach she recommends for diplomacy, but what she did say that I’ve taken to heart is that it’s always better to negotiate from a position of strength.” He finally turned to watch ahead while they walked; the road continued on up into the mountains, but the end of Puna Dara’s structures was fast approaching. “Omnists do not think in those terms, as a rule. But the truth is the Rust must be quite confident in their power, if they have presented enough of a threat to keep Blackbeard from moving on them directly. It will look different if we, who represent more of a physical threat than the Fourth Silver Legion did, show up in their base which they thought was secret. Hopefully, we can get them to come to terms.”
“And what’s plan B?” Juniper asked.
Toby shook his head. “Well…still to talk. Even if they won’t meet us halfway, talking will buy us time to look around and hopefully learn. The problem is how little we know. Plan B may have to be concocted on the fly.”
Gabriel cleared his throat. “If they are using Elder God stuff, once we get a look at what they’ve got in there, I may be able to do something. Vestrel is familiar with the magic they used; she says a lot of it came from or through machines, which fits with the mechanical parts these people have. She can give directions…assuming whatever they’ve got in there is set up in a way she recognizes, of course.”
“How is Vestrel so familiar with this?” Teal asked, frowning.
“Valkyries are also daughters of Naiya,” Juniper said softly. “I’ve…looked into this. It seemed relevant, especially after how they terrorized Aspen. The Elder Gods banished them from reality, and Vidius saved them from being destroyed completely. That’s how he won Mother over to the Pantheon’s side. But yeah…Vestrel would have been around when the Elders were in power.”
“Now, that’s definitely something,” Toby said, turning his head again to look at Gabriel while he walked. “Not to put too much on her shoulders, Gabe, but does she know anything else about the Elder Gods’ magic that might help?”
Gabriel shook his head. “I asked. Without seeing what the Rust have in there, we can’t predict how much she’ll recognize. Anyway…most of them don’t think fondly of the Elders, as you can imagine. There was one valkyrie who remained interested in their stuff, and loved to study history and tell anybody who’d listen about it, but she was lost a long time ago.”
“Lost, how?” Juniper asked. “I thought I understood valkyries are basically untouchable in the chaos dimension.”
“I didn’t ask,” he said shortly. “Maybe drop it? Vestrel can hear us, June, and she’d have offered any information that would have been useful. If something happened to one of your sisters that could be described as ‘lost,’ you probably wouldn’t care to have it brought up, either.”
“Gabe,” Teal said quietly, “that is one of her sisters you’re talking about.”
His face immediately turned two shades darker. “Oh. Gods… Juniper, I’m sorry, I didn’t…”
The dryad shifted a little closer and reached out to take his hand, giving him a smile. “It’s okay, Gabe. Remember that time I broke your shoulder? I figure that buys you a whole bunch of thoughtless comments.”
“The way I heard it, thoughtless comments were what led to his shoulder being broken.”
“Shut up, Ariel!” Gabriel and Juniper exclaimed in unison.
“I keep forgetting about your invisible friends, Gabriel,” Teal added. “Can they maybe scout ahead, get a sense of what we’re walking into?”
“It’s actually just Vestrel here at the moment,” he said apologetically. “She’s the only one really assigned to accompany me; the others like to hang around because I’m interesting to them, but they have jobs, too. Right now, most of them are off dealing with something in Sifan.”
Toby came to a stop, turning to face him with a wary expression. “…do we need to know?”
Gabriel grimaced. “One of the orcish clans opened some kind of portal into Athan’Khar.”
“Ooh, ouch,” Juniper said, cringing.
“Yeah,” Gabriel nodded. “But apparently everything living in Athan’Khar is both technically undead and partially phased out of this dimension, so they are vulnerable to to valkyries. The girls are holding the line while the clan and a blue dragon seal that thing back up. They’re trying to get it done before the kitsune become involved. Kitsune, as you likely recall from Professor Ekoi, are only amused by their own jokes. Other people making a mess on their lawn…”
“Say no more,” Toby said, shaking his head and turning around again. “The valkyries are busy, got it. But as for Vestrel scouting ahead…?”
“She offered.” Gabriel wore a frown now. “Honestly…I asked her to hold back a bit. When we’re closer, she can keep an eye on our perimeter, but I’m wary of sending her alone into that. These guys probably are using Elder God stuff, which is also probably one of the very few things that could detect and even harm her.”
“Mm,” Teal said thoughtfully. “But if they did do something to Vestrel, wouldn’t that get Vidius involved? I mean, that’s one way to put a swift end to this.”
Now Gabriel stopped walking, rounding on her in shock. “Teal!”
She froze as well, suddenly looking stricken. “Oh. I didn’t mean… I mean, I was just…I didn’t…”
“Okay, whoah,” Toby said soothingly, coming back to them. “I’m sure Teal didn’t intend that the way it sounded. We all know very well she’s not at all heartless.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Gabriel said, giving Teal a smile. “The phrasing just, uh, took me by surprise.”
“Sorry,” Teal said, still cringing.
Fross chimed softly, fluttering over. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, Gabe, but intentionally or not, she had a point. Sending out scouts always involves a risk to them, but it’s important to do anyway. And if anything, Vestrel is less vulnerable than any other prospect, not to mention vastly stealthier.”
“Ah, yeah,” he said with a wince, looking up the road ahead, where the mountains rose up to blot out the night sky. “As for that…”
“While you kids were chattering about your feelings,” Ariel reported, “Vestrel delivered some succinct and insightful commentary about being lectured on how to do her job by twenty-year-olds, and departed to scout the Rust’s base.”
“Right,” Gabriel said irritably, grasping her hilt. “So, that’s that done, I guess. We may not want to be in a hurry, here. If we give her time to look around and come back, we’ll be better off.”
“Incoming,” Teal said, looking back down the road toward the city. Everyone turned to follow her gaze.
Brother Ermon did not seem out of breath, despite having run what must have been a long way. He slowed as he approached, coming to a stop just a few yards distant, and bowed, only a faint sheen of sweat on his forehead betraying his exertion.
“I’m glad I caught up with you,” the Huntsman said. “Tracking in the city is never easy, but the royal seneschal had a good idea which route you had taken.”
“Evening, Brother Ermon,” Toby said, nodding. “Has something happened?”
“I fear so,” Ermon said gravely. “I’ve come to join your hunt, if I am welcome.”
They exchanged a few glances.
“It isn’t that you’re not,” Teal said carefully, “but each of us are…well, extremely durable, in our own ways. We are walking into a confrontation with people whose power we don’t understand, and hoping we can end this with just words. But…”
“I imagine it was very difficult to persuade Princess Zaruda to remain in safety at the Rock,” Ermon replied, with a faint crinkling at his eyes hinting at a smile his beard otherwise hid.
“Gods, you have no idea,” Juniper muttered.
“And I imagine, further, that what persuaded her was the awareness of her duty, and importance to her people,” the Huntsman continued, his gaze growing serious again. “It is duty that brings me here. As Mr. Caine and Juniper told us, Brother Arlund followed the Rust cultist you met at the Omnist temple, seeking to find their base. As of my departure from the Rock less than an hour ago, he has not returned.”
Toby covered his mouth with a hand, eyes widening. “Oh, my… I didn’t even think. Ermon, I cannot apologize enough—”
“Please.” The Huntsman held up a hand. “Arlund is a brother Huntsman and as such I will act to aid him as best I possibly can, now that I see the need. That does not mean I’m unaware of his…personality. I hardly expect anyone else in this city to make such an effort.”
“I appreciate that, but it was still inexcusable,” Toby said, his expression truly haunted. “At the very least I should have remembered.”
“We both should have,” Juniper agreed. “I think we owe Arlund a big apology. And that’s after getting him out of there.”
Toby drew in a deep, calming breath. “Omnu send that we still have that option.”
“Let’s not jump to conclusions, though,” Gabriel warned. “He might not have come back because he’s still following that guy around who knows where. Or anything else.”
“The man just had his arm torn off,” Ermon said grimly. “A wounded animal returns to its den. Arlund may, indeed, still be studying the area rather than captured, but you are right, Mr. Arquin; it is best, at this stage, to assume nothing. I foresee your objections,” he added. “Yes, I understand the danger. These Rust neutralized a Legion, I have been briefed. Duty demands my presence. Death and suffering are facts of life, and are not to be feared. What a man should fear is that his pain or his death may be without purpose. The best way to ward off that fate is never to shrink from duty.”
“Well put,” Teal said. “If you’re sure, I don’t think we can turn afford to down an ally.”
“On the contrary. You do, of course, have the option of forbidding him to help,” Ariel pointed out, “especially as this effectively means you’re going to have to watch out for him in addition to dealing with the Rust.”
“Ariel,” Gabriel said with barely-restrained aggravation, “be silent. Huntsmen of Shaath are the most expert trackers and marksmen in the world, and you are not daft enough to fail to see the utility in his presence. Stop being an ass!”
“I see utility chiefly in magic, for the record, but if you say so.”
“You flatter me,” Ermon said, visibly amused. “If I may assist in scouting the enemy’s den before we approach, please put me to work.”
“Ah, well, actually,” Toby replied, “funny you mention scouting. We were only just—”
He broke off as Juniper abruptly spun to face the city, shifting her feet to a ready stance. She flexed her fingers, shifting her head to study the buildings behind them carefully.
“What is it?” Teal asked in alarm.
“It’s…nothing, I guess.” Slowly, the dryad straightened up, still wearing a puzzled frown. “I must have imagined…”
“June, I have never seen you go on point like that without a good reason,” Gabe said.
“Not to mention that you don’t have the imagination to concoct flights of fancy.”
“Ariel, I am going to throw you in the harbor!” he exclaimed.
“No, you aren’t. The dryad has very keen senses, and I stand by my previous observation. If she sensed something, she sensed something.”
“Instinct should not be allowed to make your decisions for you,” Ermon added, “but it should never be disregarded.”
Juniper shook her head, still peering at the city behind them. “It’s…there is nothing there, I’m certain of it now. I reached through the attunement as well, and…nothing. But for just a moment… I thought I smelled dryads.”
This time, the look which bounced between the rest of them was wary.
“All right,” Toby said at last. “I agree…that is probably not nothing. If there’s one thing I’d expect you to pick up on, June, it’s that. But if you can’t sense them clearly, it may not have been what it seemed.”
“Yeah, I can’t imagine there’s another dryad in Puna Dara,” Teal added. “They tend to make a stir. Which raises the tricky question of what would feel like one to a real dryad.”
“Vestrel?” Toby suggested.
Gabriel shook his head. “We know from long experience Juniper can’t perceive them directly, and the last time I saw a dryad who could see valkyries, they threw her into a panic. Okay, how about this. We’d best keep it in mind, but with nothing more to go on, I think we’d better get back to the mission at hand. When we come back, tomorrow we’ll get in touch with the local Thieves’ Guild, since Locke said they’re such rumor-mongers, and see if they’ve heard anything about a cannibal serial killer or something like that in Puna Dara. For now…”
“For now,” Juniper said slowly, with a grudging nod, “you’re right. Focus on the now. I think that’s a good plan, Gabe. C’mon, let’s get this done as quick as possible. I’ve got a feeling it’s not going to be an easy night.”
She finally turned her back on the city and started walking again, the others falling into step alongside. They had this last stretch of street to themselves; there were still structures lining it, but no one else was out at this hour, and only a few had lights in their windows. There were, this far out, no street lamps. Only the darkness of the trail up the mountain loomed ahead of them.
Milanda lay flat against the rooftop, counting breaths and staring up at the stars without seeing them. After waiting two full minutes, she very carefully wiggled forward to the edge of the roof, and craned her neck to peek over it sidelong, not sticking the top of her head up. Just the way Lord Vex had taught her, and despite the discomfort, she well understood the utility of the maneuver.
The students from Last Rock, now with that Huntsman in tow, were once again on the move. With her heightened senses, a gift of her elevation by the dryads, she could still make them out, but they had moved beyond the glow of the city, climbing the old trail that led up to the mines.
She rolled over and wriggled forward to watch them from a slightly more comfortable position. “Walker… I’ve never heard about Hands of the Emperor encountering dryads in the wild. They’re usually sent to deal with sensitive, mostly human threats, in settled territory. How probable is it that a dryad could sense me because of my…connection?”
“That’s impossible to say for sure, for the very reason you just stated,” Walker’s voice replied in her ear. “Your situation isn’t exactly that of the other Hands, either, and the only dryads you’ve met since the change were the ones who did it to you. I’ll ask the girls next chance I get, but I wouldn’t count on them being able to say.”
Milanda nodded, mostly to herself as Walker of course couldn’t see the gesture. “I wonder whether it might just be Juniper.”
There came a short silence before the reply. “According to the Empire’s notes, Juniper is the youngest dryad. She’s also the most acclimated to human society apart from Ash, who as you mentioned recently is actually associated with Imperial Intelligence. Also, during the periods when classes are out at ULR, she goes to study druidism with a tribe of wood elves. Based on that alone, I think it’s quite likely she can perceive things her sisters may not.”
“Lovely,” Milanda grumbled, finally rising to her knees. “As if following them around in the dark wasn’t going to be enough of a challenge…”
“Milanda, this is getting ridiculous. Those kids are here, you don’t really have any means of getting them un-involved. That Huntsmen, likewise. You have days at most before some of the Avenists the High Commander sent reach Puna Dara, and you know they’ll go to the Rock and link up with them as well. Eserites are already present, and likely the source of whatever lead the students are following. It is worse than nonsensical for you to be running around trying to do this yourself while so much talent is being moved into place. Even if you don’t accidentally get yourself killed by one of these should-be allies, you’re going to mess up their work just as they’re interfering with yours. The only people who profit from this standoffishness are the Rust.”
“And I know the Emperor’s political concerns don’t matter to you,” Milanda replied quietly, adding a soft grunt as she landed lightly in an alley, having dropped the three stories straight to the ground. “But they matter to me. It’s not that I don’t see the sense in what you say, and I’ll probably end up offering them my help. I’ll probably have to, just to keep from creating a worst-case scenario like you just described. But not until all other options are exhausted.” She slipped past the last of the buildings, a little bit distant from the road, and stopped to finish conversing; once she started actually tracking the students and their Huntsman friend through the dark, it would have to be in silence. “If nothing else, Blackbeard doesn’t want Imperial help, and as soon as he knows I’m Imperial help, he’ll forbid me to get involved. Anything I do after that point will have diplomatic repercussions.”
There was another silence, and Milanda had just taken a step into the darkness when Walker spoke again. “If I’m not mistaken, this Left Hand of the Emperor business hasn’t been announced. Right?”
“Right,” Milanda said slowly, frowning into the night. “The idea is not to stifle it, but to let rumors grow. Hands are already boogeymen to an extent; with something even more—”
“Yes, yes,” Walker interrupted impatiently. “And every previous Hand of the Emperor has been a man, correct? So why would you need to tell anybody who you are, or who you represent?”
“A mysterious woman in black with awesome physical prowess will arouse questions,” Milanda said thoughtfully. “Especially one who may or may not smell like dryads.”
“Sure, but where are they going to get answers? Come on, you are acting in the capacity of a spy here, Milanda. Why was announcing yourself ever part of your plans?”
“Huh,” she grunted. In hindsight, it did seem rather self-evident…
Walker’s tone took on a heavy hint of irritating smugness. “And to think, you complain about my speeches. How ever did you get along without me to point out obvious facts for you?”
“Well,” she drawled, “shortly before I met you, my most important consideration was how much Sharidan liked it when I used my—”
“All right, enough, stop!”
“You know, on his—”
“Please! I give already!”
Grinning, Milanda raised the mask dangling from her neck to cover the lower half of her face, adjusted her hood, and set out into the night.