Of course, it wasn’t that simple…and yet it absolutely was.
Aresk kept his mouth firmly shut during the discussion and argument which followed. There was a great deal of talking, most centered on the unsuitability of two barely adult orcs for such an important mission, and the risk of sending Mother Raghann, the High Wind’s eldest. It wasn’t that Aresk had no thoughts to contribute, of course. He wouldn’t have bothered arguing that he could handle the responsibility, anyway, as he knew well the futility of that claim in any circumstances. Rather, he itched to point out that none of them dared to question these decisions until Kyomi vanished again, in the abrupt and unpredictable manner of her kind. Obiouvly, he kept that to himself. The entire front row would have lined up to pummel him.
So he let the argument surge around, every word of it as predictable as it was futile, and took note of who was talking and who was not. His father, of course, was a prominent voice of objection to nearly every part of this. In fact, almost everyone on the lowest row of the amphitheater except himself and Gairan argued vehemently for one thing or another. Mother Raghann was silent, however, just watching and listening. The human, Arquin, also kept his mouth shut.
Aresk and Gairan spent much of the discussion exchanging significant looks. She, he could tell, was very much of his own mind about the whole business. Even given the gravity of the issue at hand, it was a subtle thrill to feel that connection with her.
In the end, Raghann finally cut across the debate by declaring that if she was too old to serve her clan, she was too old to be eldest anyway and it was high time for her to run off and get killed so Takhran could take over.
And then Arquin took advantage of the short quiet which followed to put an end to the whole conversation.
“Of course, you should do what you think is right. Personally, I’m gonna do what the kitsune told me to. I’ve had the experience of one of their kind being disappointed with me. It was…enough.”
It was a strange feeling, Aresk found, to be in firm agreement with this outsider, and to resent it so.
“And why are we hiking inland in the opposite direction from the entire continent?” Aresk demanded the next day, once their little group was out of sight of Camp Khashrek. In truth, he’d wanted to ask that question the moment they set out, but was still mulling his father’s last private words to him, instructing that he carefully watch both Arquin and Raghann, with whom Arkhosh frequently disagreed about the clan’s future. “Don’t we at least need to reach the sea? How else is the Ancient One going to get us there?”
“Athan’Khar is not approachable by sea or land,” Raghann replied, striding along without leaning on the staff she carried. There was indeed a faint stoop in the old woman’s shoulders, but her very pace was what made it noticeable. Orcs did not grow frail with age, as a rule. “The spirits are practically mindless with rage, the monsters indiscriminate in their aggression. Elves and gnomes may try their luck with some occasional success, but a human crossing the border is instantly attacked by everything within miles; an orc is…taken. We don’t know what happened to the first shaman who tried to return home, but their spirit guides grieved the loss so loudly that every other shaman was warned against the attempt.”
“So how do you get to a place if you can’t enter it?” Gairan asked.
“Good question,” Aresk grunted. “And none of this explains why we’re walking the wrong way.”
“You learn more if you let your elders finish talking, young hunter,” Raghann said, shooting him a flat look. “To answer, Gairan, the way to get into a place without crossing its borders is to simply pop up in the middle.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Aresk protested.
Raghann whacked him on the head with her staff. He sighed, but made no further comment. It was a fair blow; she had, after all, just cautioned him to keep quiet and listen till she was done explaining. Gairan gave him a commiserating little smile. Arquin, oddly, seemed so startled by the hit that his pace faltered, and then he had to jog a few steps to catch up.
“That,” Raghann continued, “is why none of this would be possible without the help of the Ancient Ones. Kyomi-sama has offered to take us directly to a place in the interior of Athan’Khar—to a sacred spot where the corruption is mild enough that she can open a way.”
“Kitsune use fae magic,” Arquin added, “which ordinarily doesn’t provide any means of instantaneous travel. But I guess if you’re a creature on her level, most of the rules just don’t apply to you. Which is kind of the point. Neither arcane teleportation nor shadow-jumping work into Athan’Khar. I’m taking it on faith that she can actually do this.”
Aresk curled his lip. “What is shadow-jumping?”
“Warlock craft,” Gairan said quietly. “Best left alone.”
“Ah.” He nodded at her in agreement. There were no warlocks in Sifan, thanks to the kitsune and various yokai, but stories of them and their vile magics survived among the clans.
“And that brings us, at long, long last, to your question, impatient boy,” Raghann said, and Aresk had to struggle not to bristle. Anyone else he would have punched right on the nose for talking down to him that way, but the eldest mother of the clan had certain privileges—which she wasn’t shy about exercising. “We are going to another piece of sacred ground, this one in Sifan. There is an old shrine of Vidius a day or two in this direction. Kyomi-sama said she can open the gate from there. The protections upon the grounds will help to shield Sifan from the madness on the other side.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask about that,” said Arquin. “Kyomi mentioned the shrine was abandoned. In fact, she said ‘one of the abandoned shrines,’ implying there were more.” He hesitated, glancing around at the sunny countryside, and Aresk repressed and urge to shove him on general principles. It was one thing to be a weak, spindly human, but did the man have to make such a nervous spectacle of it? “This whole country… Death has a presence here, like nothing else I’ve ever felt. I’m not sure what to make of it.”
“It’s not the whole country, just the island,” Gairan explained, veering in front of Aresk to walk next to Arquin. Aresk felt something unpleasant begin to rise in his throat and ruthlessly shoved it back down, knowing very well when he was being childish and irrational. He walked along in silence while Gairan talked to the human; aside from having little to contribute to the topic, he didn’t quite trust himself to speak. “Tsurikura is…well, a land of death, like you said. There was a plague here, some ten years before the Enchanter’s bane; that’s why Sifan had a conveniently unpopulated island the Ancient Ones offered to let us use.”
“Yes, very convenient,” Raghann said dryly.
“That was a poor choice of words,” Gairan agreed, nodding contritely. “Nobody knows what disease it was now, just that it killed fast, and was incredibly contagious. The Queen at the time refused to send more healers after the first dispatched died like everyone else, and ordered any boats trying to leave Tsurikura to be destroyed with fire arrows before they could reach the other islands. It’s said that every human here was dead within two months.”
“Gods,” Arquin muttered.
“And so we are not merely squatters,” Gairan continued, raising her chin with pride. “The clans are caretakers. Tsurikura is clean and verdant now, but that took years of our labor. The first orcs who came here gathered up and buried the dead with honor, cleaned and sanctified the ghost villages, repaired the shrines… It wasn’t always quite so peaceful, either. The Sifanese had avoided the island since the plague, and malignant yokai had moved in, not to mentioned anguished spirits of humans which were very restless. Our ancestors had a lot of work to do. Less now; we maintain the graveyards and shrines according to Sifanese custom, and by now priests come from Kiyosan to help. Even still, there are occasionally wandering spirits that have to be calmed. It’s a good land now, though, thanks to our work.”
“Tsurikura is not our true home,” Aresk added, “that will always be Athan’Khar, no matter what your people may do. But we have earned our place here.”
“It sounds like you have a lot to be proud of,” Arquin said with a smile.
Aresk scowled at him suspiciously, which seemed to surprise him.
Grinning, Mother Raghann prodded the human’s shoulder with her staff. “Don’t try to deal with orcs the way you would with Sifanese, young man. Especially young bucks like Aresk, here. Our ways are straightforward; anyone who thinks you’re flattering them will take it as an insult.”
“Oh…kay,” Arquin said warily. “It wasn’t meant as flattery, just a statement.”
“We are proud of what we have done here,” Gairan said simply. “Orcish pride doesn’t require validation. Aresk is right; it’s a touchy issue, that goes straight to the heart of what we’re doing right now. Tsurikura has been a home to us, but it is not our true home, our ancestral home. We have roots and ties here, now. The prospect of returning to Athan’Khar is a grand one, but it also raises some hard questions, and the prospect of loss.”
“I see,” Arquin murmured. “Makes sense…”
“There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense,” Aresk said, not even trying to keep the scowl off his face. He didn’t go so far as to bodily insert himself between Arquin and Gairan, but only because she would have whacked him for it—and worse, made fun of him. “I won’t question that the Ancient One can do what she said. Or that you can, I suppose. It’s not like I know any human death magic. But you talked as if the Empire would welcome us back with open arms. No pretty words will make me believe that.”
“Huh,” Arquin grunted. “You know… I think that’s the first time in my life someone has accused me of using pretty words.”
“Oh, don’t sell yourself short, boy,” Raghann replied with a grin. “You bargain well. I, for what it is worth, believe what you said about the Empire and its politics. But that’s not the whole story, is it?”
“The whole story is more than I could possibly know,” said Arquin. “The Empire is a big place, and sometimes it seems like everyone in it has an agenda—”
“Enough of your waffling!” Aresk growled, stepping around Gairan and punching Arquin on the shoulder, sending the human staggering.
“Stop it!” Gairan snapped—at him. She decked Aresk on the jaw, hard enough to make it clear she was serious; he actually had to take a step back to keep his balance. “You know better than that, Aresk! Don’t treat humans like orcs. Do you punch every Sifanese who smiles and lies to your face?”
“This one is not Sifanese!” Aresk snarled, angry less at her than at the fact that he was now arguing with her. “He’s Tiraan!”
“He’s still human!” she retorted. “Their way with words is complex, and they’re all too fragile for orcish handling.”
“Never been called fragile before, either,” Arquin remarked. He was now standing a few feet away, thanks to Aresk’s hit, but didn’t appear hurt despite Gairan’s concern. The whole group had stopped, and now Raghann hung back, watching the young people with an inscrutable expression. “Look, I’m not suggesting we take every orc on Tsurikura and drop them right in Athan’Khar. Even if we could somehow cleanse the whole country, that would be a bad idea.”
“Then what is the point of all this?” Aresk demanded.
“The point is it’ll take time.” Arquin resumed walking, and they fell in alongside him. “Remember, what we are doing here is an experiment. We don’t yet know if we can cleanse even part of the country. If it doesn’t work, well, that’s that. But if it does, it’s only going to be the first step in a very large, very long plan. It’s a big country, bigger than any of the Imperial provinces; recovering it will have to be done one step at a time. This is going to be the work of generations, optimistically.”
“Which, if you are right, the Empire will help with,” Gairan said, and Aresk was pleased to find skepticism on her face.
He was surprised to find it on Arquin’s, too. “I think that’ll have to be managed carefully,” said the human, frowning at the distance ahead of them. “Tiraas can probably be persuaded to help, and it certainly owes the clans that help…but I think it’ll be important to limit how much they contribute. What nobody needs is for the Empire to take over the effort, and position itself to determine what happens in a rebuilt Athan’Khar. That’s gonna be the tricky part—getting the resources and support the effort needs from Tiraas, while controlling the amount of influence it has.”
“Oh?” Raghann said in that sardonic tone of hers. “You mean, you don’t want your Empire to gain more power over its neighbors?”
“Gaining power isn’t the solution to most problems,” Arquin replied. “I mean, contradict me if I’m wrong, I know I have a lot less experience with life than you. But it seems to me that power causes more problems than it solves, and the pursuit of it makes people crazy. No, I care about the Empire, but for that reason I’m not interested in handing Athan’Khar to the Silver Throne. All the Empire’s neighbors have amicable but tense relationships with Tiraas, and I think that’s just about perfect. It forces us to stay focused and alert and prevents the kind of insane overreach that caused the Enchanter Wars.”
“Hm,” Gairan grunted, wearing a pensive frown very much like Arquin’s.
“What is it you want, then?” Aresk asked. “You want the Empire to help us, but not too much?”
“Exactly!” Arquin gave him a grin, which faltered under Aresk’s glare. “Look, you have to understand that no one in the Empire has seen an orc in a hundred years. You’re nearly mythical to us. If we just suddenly jammed both societies right next to each other, it would probably go very badly. The fact that restoring Athan’Khar is going to be such a long and detailed process creates an opportunity to do it well. It’ll let orcs and humans get to know each other again—gradually, in small doses at first. It’s a chance to build some trust and establish a lasting peace.”
Aresk physically swelled with his instinctive reply to that, but Gairan caught his eye and her expression warned of more trouble than he wanted. Instead, he let out a huff of air and kept his mouth shut.
“So…why you, then?” Gairan asked the human after a moment. “I can’t see it as coincidence that the first time anyone comes from Tiraas who cares about us and our land is the first time Vidius has called a Chosen. It makes sense, that this would be a matter of death, but at the same time that seems…ominous.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” Arquin agreed, as if the thought had only just occurred to him, too. “Frankly, I don’t think Vidius has much to do with it, explicitly. I mean, that is, there’s a lot he can do to help with this, but… Well, it was my idea, and I wasn’t approaching it as a matter of death. Truthfully, I just got into a conversation a while back with the Hand of Avei about orcs and their history with the Sisterhood, and got to thinking about what it would take to repair Athan’Khar, and why nobody had tried yet. One thing just led to another…”
Aresk wanted to punch him. He wanted to punch everyone. On they walked, through the sunshine and the music of cicadas, Gairan and this human chattering along in animated conversation while he stewed in silence. He tried, as best he could, just to tune them out. Otherwise he really was going to end up punching Arquin right in his too-clever mouth, and getting himself in even worse trouble with Gairan than he already was.
Mother Raghann let herself fall to the rear of the group, and watched them in amused quiet as they walked.
It was a long day.
Traveling through the wilds of Tsurikura was Aresk’s whole life, and he loved it. But his hunts were either done in solitude or with the company of fellow hunters he was familiar and comfortable with; he enjoyed it both ways. This group was something different. Mother Raghann constantly breathing down his neck would alone have put him on edge, but that wasn’t even the worst of it. A journey with some human from Tiraas should have been painfully awkward at best; a journey with Gairan, alone, would have been exactly the opportunity he had wished for. Somehow, the combination of both was worse than Aresk could have imagined, because the two of them hit it off brilliantly.
For the most part, he kept quiet. Much of the time he simply had nothing to contribute, as he wasn’t inclined to talk with Arquin and Gairan, while happy enough to speak with Aresk, kept returning her attention to the human. After the first few recitations of his adventures, which were the most grandiose nonsense Aresk had ever heard or imagined (Centaurs? Skeleton hordes? Machine cults? The boy was either a lunatic or a damn liar) he began actively tuning them out whenever Gairan wasn’t the one speaking.
After their stop for food at midday, Aresk took to roaming wide of the group. Scouting, he told them, checking ahead and to both sides for potential threats. Of course, the greatest dangers in Tsurikura these days were bears and wild boars, and if they stumbled across a hostile yokai or something the group with two shaman and the Chosen of Vidius would obviously be safer than one hunter on his own. It offended Aresk a little that Gairan didn’t ask him to stick closer. And Raghann really didn’t need to keep giving him that knowing look whenever he drifted away.
To make it all more annoying, their pace was constrained by the human in their midst. Arquin could take a hit, as Aresk had discovered, but he lacked an orcish constitution and was winded after just a few hours of walking through forest at full speed. Rather than stopping repeatedly to rest throughout the day, they constrained their pace to what he considered a leisurely stroll. At least the human didn’t complain or beg, and even pushed himself hard enough that Raghann had to insist they stop and make camp a full hour before dark. Arquin didn’t argue very hard, and actually fell asleep as soon as they were no longer moving.
Aresk was glad to have his mouth finally shut, though not so much so that he didn’t resent the boy’s lack of help in setting up. Gairan made it worse; she seemed to think it was cute.
By the time they had built a fire, laid out some rations, and awakened their companion from his nap, Aresk was inwardly seething. Arquin wasn’t even a bad sort, objectively speaking; it wasn’t as if Aresk didn’t know humans were on the delicate side. He’d dealt with them before and didn’t mind. Under other circumstances—and if the guy hadn’t been Tiraan—he might have enjoyed the chance to get to know someone from a place so distant. But Gairan just would not stop talking to him!
“I wish I understood why us,” she said, staring quizzically at the campfire. The young shaman gave Aresk a smile, which he gladly returned. “I’m honored and not afraid of the danger, but…”
“Don’t lie to yourself, girl,” Raghann said from the other side of the fire. “If you weren’t afraid of this danger, it would make you an idiot. You’re facing it anyway, that’s what matters.”
“Do you ever get tired of lecturing people, Mother Raghann?” Aresk inquired.
“Well, it’s been seventy years and I haven’t yet, but things change all the time,” she replied, flashing her teeth at him.
Gairan reached over to jostle his knee affectionately. “Danger or no, I don’t get it. Gabriel is obviously necessary and Mother Raghann makes sense. But we’re just a couple of random young people.”
“Some things are just…as they are,” Aresk said.
“That’s not an answer, it’s avoiding the question,” she retorted.
“Yes, and I sleep very well at night,” he said, grinning. “If a question is too big to have an answer, I’m much happier not wasting time on it.”
She grinned back, and it was a wonderful shared moment. And then, of course, she had to ruin it.
“What do you think, Gabe?”
“I think if a kitsune tells me to do something, I do it,” he said after swallowing a bite of hardtack. “Learned that lesson the hard way. Either Kyomi has seen and planned far ahead and carefully chosen every stop to achieve some future goal we can’t even guess at yet… Orrrr she just thought it was funny.”
“If you only knew,” Raghann said dourly, “how often I have wondered which of those motivations inspired the Ancient Ones to bring us to this land in the first place.”
“You mentioned that yesterday at the camp,” Gairan said, shifting in place to face away from Aresk and toward Arquin. “You’ve encountered Ancient Ones before? They rarely leave Sifan.”
“Rarely, but not never,” he said, for some reason grimacing and rubbing a hand over his throat. “One of them came to the school I attend to teach magic class for a semester, though.”
“You’ve studied under a kitsune?!” Gairan leaned toward him, her expression eager and awed. Aresk clenched his fists at his sides. “Which one?”
“I’ve heard of Kaisa-sama! What was it like?”
“…scary,” Arquin said frankly, a wry little smile crossing his face. “Informative, though! She actually is a good teacher. But yes, generally unsettling in a way that in hindsight I’m pretty sure was deliberate.”
“So even the great Chosen of Vidius is afraid of something,” Aresk muttered.
Gairan shot him a look which was far too akin to Raghann’s knowing expressions for his liking.
“Lots of firsts today,” Arquin said lightly. “I don’t think anyone’s ever called me ‘great,’ either. Though, to be honest, if anybody was ever going to it would only be sarcastically.”
“You are a curious fellow,” Raghann mused. “One moment, almost orcish—straightforward even when you should be more discreet. The next, almost Sifanese—cagey and self-deprecating.”
“Well, maybe people are hard to understand purely in terms of where they come form,” Arquin said with a smile. “We’re all individuals. Stereotypes don’t take you far in terms of getting to know someone. It’s like I said earlier, physically recovering Athan’Khar from its condition is only half the battle. The rest of it will be getting Kharsa and Tiraan culture carefully into contact, so they can get used to not thinking of each other as enemies. That’s the only way there’s going to be permanent peace.”
This time, it was more than Aresk could take.
“And what if we don’t want permanent peace?” he snapped.
Arquin blinked at him as if confused. “Then…what’s the point of any of this?”
“Aresk has grown up with stories of how things were in the homeland,” Raghann said dryly. “Stories four generations removed, and therefore rather romantic. My own mother survived the Bane, and told me of life before it. Our people raided back and forth into N’Jendo and Viridill constantly, on a small scale, and every other generation or so gathered the clans into a horde to wage real war. The Jendi hated us. The Viridi… Orcish codes of honor are very much like Avenist battle doctrine in many ways. There was no attacking of noncombatants, mistreatment of civilians, destruction of personal property or necessary infrastructure. Warriors who violated our codes were summarily handed over to the enemy to face their justice. More importantly, our ancestors waged war because it sharpened and strengthened them. I think it’s no accident the Sisterhood immediately turned on the Empire after the Bane was used. Avenist and Kharsa fought, but they understood and respected each other. Largely because they fought.”
“Well…” Arquin picked up a stick and poked at the fire. “That was then. You don’t fight the Sifanese, do you?”
“It would be a crippling dishonor to repay them so for giving us a place,” Gairan said.
“And, once again,” Aresk added in a growl, “your people are not the Sifanese!”
“You don’t actually know who my people are,” Arquin pointed out in a mild tone, clearly not realizing how close it brought him to being clubbed. “There are a lot of ethnicities in the Empire. The Westerners alone are between three and seven nations, depending on how you count.”
“If you want our people to recover their own lands,” said Aresk, “it must be in our way. Observing our traditions!”
“And to people like Arkhosh,” Raghann said quietly, “that will mean taking up the sword. Never mind that we are a hundred years out of practice.”
“Exactly!” Aresk exclaimed. “Already we grow soft!”
“Do we?” She shrugged. “I don’t feel soft. It’s like you were saying earlier, Gabriel Arquin. Your Empire has surrounded itself with nations which could, with just a few insults, become enemies. It lives under the constant tension of having to keep those relationships amicable. It seems to me that is a fine way for a people to hone themselves. I have to do the same with half the idiots in my clan, and I give that most of the credit for keeping my mind sharp all these years. A hundred years ago, the Kharsa and the Tiraan were both broken peoples. Now we are a pacified remnant and they rule the mightiest nation in the world. Coincidence?”
“There is no comparison!” Aresk roared, shooting to his feet.
“Are you going to punch the Mother, Aresk?” Gairan asked dryly.
“Now, I think you’re both right,” Arquin said in a soothing tone, and only Gairan’s hand pushing on his leg stopped Aresk from lunging at him. “That really isn’t a fair comparison; Athan’Khar was a smaller nation and had just lost most of its population and all of its territory. The Kharsa could hardly be expected to bounce back like the Imperials. On the other hand…the world really is different, now. Trying to wage constant war would lead to complete and quick disaster, Aresk. Not least because the Empire has more people in its army than the clans have people at all, and weapons a hundred years more advanced than your ancestors faced.”
“So you think you’re stronger than we are?” Aresk snarled.
“Now, now, I don’t mean in a personal—”
“Boy, stop,” Raghann said with open amusement. “It’s a good effort, but completely misplaced. We don’t talk our way past disagreements this fundamental, Gabriel, we face them. Trying to soothe this away is just piling on additional insults.”
Arquin looked at her in silence for a moment, then up at Aresk. “So. Would I be wrong in guessing you have something of a personal problem with me, Aresk?”
“No,” Aresk grunted, forcibly relaxing his clenched fists. “No, you’re right, this is foolish. You’re just a human and I shouldn’t expect you to understand anything.”
Arquin tossed his stick into the fire and stood up.
“Don’t,” Gairan urged, and it wasn’t clear who she was talking to.
“Well, I’ll tell you what,” Arquin drawled, staring at Aresk. “If it’ll maybe put this behind us and help you feel better, big guy, why don’t you take your shot.”
Aresk had been absolutely sincere in his declaration of intent to back down from this, and so it was a surprise to both of them when Arquin had no sooner shut his mouth than he got a fist across it.