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There was nothing there, even to elvish senses, just another expanse of sun-scorched and wind-blasted rock in the Spine. Or the Dwarnskolds, in the tongue of those who lived under it. This wasn’t even a major peak, merely a patch of the smooth, weathered stone chosen specifically because it was insignificant and unobtrusive, though it did happen to have a view, between other surrounding peaks, of the tropical sea to the north and the desert to the south. Typical; even when trying to conceal themselves, they could not resist a touch of pageantry.
Of course, she knew exactly where she was. And even had she needed help to find the spot, she saw the important arrangement of the innocuous outcroppings of stone around her. The fractal pattern concealed among a smattering of geologic debris. Neither magic nor mundane senses would reveal what was hidden; it would expose itself only to one who knew the secret.
She paused, looked around, and sighed. Then she withdrew the roll of hide from within her vest and peeled it open, revealing the power crystals Mervingen had crafted for her. The gate was meant to be opened by careful flows of arcane magic channeled into precise positions. She was not about to pass that current through her own aura, but the enchanted crystals, made to her specifications by the human wizard, would suffice. Quickly she stepped across the ground, setting each down in exactly the right position along the points of the invisible spiral.
The second the seventh was in place, the gate revealed itself.
It was not the collapse of an invisibility spell but something orders of magnitude more complex; the gate complex had simply not existed on that spot until it was properly invoked, though from within it the highguard on duty would have been able to watch her work, likely with some curiosity. Now it stood there, a smooth arch of wrought gold inlaid with incandescent blue in flowing patterns, augmented with more arcs of decorative glass hovering above its length and rising as barriers around the mosaic dais upon which it stood. Within the arch of the gate itself was the subtle discoloration of the portal, just enough to reveal its presence without betraying what was on the other side.
There were, as law prescribed, three highguard in attendance. The two flanking the gate itself held their position, while the officer immediately stepped forward off the dais, leveling his energy blade at her. She stood, arms at her sides, waiting.
“This is clearly irregular,” the highguard captain said in a clipped tone. Up close, as always, she couldn’t help noticing the little triangular protrusions in his helmet which shielded his ears, an affectation the elves among whom she lived would never bother with. “Identify yourself, woodkin, and identify whoever taught you how to do that.”
“My name is Kuriwa,” she replied, lifting her chin. “I know the gate activation sequence by right of citizenship. You will have me listed in your records as Avaran of the line of Tari’silmina’verai.”
“Oh,” he said after a momentary hesitation, annoyance and disdain filling the single syllable. Behind him, though their luminous glass faceplates hid their expressions from her, the two soldiers shifted their heads to look at each other, and she could easily imagine what they looked like behind the masks. The captain deactivated the energy blade and then clipped its hilt back to his belt, and drew his other sword. This one was shorter than many of its kind, little more than an overlarge and ornate dagger. “Liaron, identify her.”
“She speaks accurately,” the resonant voice of the talking sword replied. “This is Avaran, daughter of Magister Vynlian and Counselor Iranel, of the line of Tari’silmina’verai. This Kuriwa business is also on record; she is a known renunciate. So, not a desirable visitor, but she has not been exiled or even censured by the Magistry. Her citizenship is valid and she has the privilege of entering Qestraceel.”
The highguard captain had the ill grace to sigh dramatically, for which she would have reported him to the Magistry had there been the slightest chance of it doing any good. He slid the talking sword back into its sheath and picked up his energy blade again, though at least he had sufficient manners not to activate it.
“Very well, Avaran, you may pass. Welcome home.”
“My name,” she said firmly but quietly, “is Kuriwa.”
“As you wish,” the captain replied in a tone of overt disinterest, gesturing her toward the gate brusquely. She stepped past him, not pressing the issue. There was truly no point. One of the gate guards actually nodded politely to her in passing, a gesture she returned, and then she was stepping into the barely-visible portal.
It was no less familiar for how long it had been. The faint pressure, the sense of transition, and then she was pushing through the ephemeral barrier like passing into the surface of a pool. The searing heat of the Dwarnskolds vanished behind her, replaced by the cool air and glorious expanse of the hidden city of the high elves.
Of course, both the gate guards on the other side immediately turned on her with shields upraised. Not in true fear of a threat; having passed the gate on the other side without raising an alarm counted for a lot. But it was not often and rarely under favorable circumstances that wood elves were permitted to enter Qestraceel, and by her green-dyed robe, simple ponytail and lack of jewelry, she could not have been taken for anything else. Kuriwa stopped immediately inside the gate, already resigned to repeating the whole performance before being allowed to proceed.
This time, though, it was not to be.
“Oh, stop that, get out of the way. Go on, shoo, shoo!”
A smile broke across her face at the figure who ascended the steps to the gate platform three at a time, already waving aside the guards.
“Magister Anlin,” the officer on duty tried, “this person is—”
“This person is expected and I will vouch for her,” Anlin said in exasperation.
“I wasn’t informed—”
“Oh, I don’t doubt it. If you truly have a fetish for records you’ll find that I filed a certificate of travel for her arrival well in advance and I wish you luck in ferreting out whichever smug little slug in the Magistry managed to lose the arrival ticket. Right now, move your ears! Kuriwa!”
The last was in a veritable squeal, and Kuriwa’s grin stretched even wider as she stepped forward to wrap her arms around Anlin. More than simple happiness at seeing her sister again, this was the first time Anlin hadn’t stumbled over naming her correctly.
“Ow,” she protested a moment later, drawing back and frowning down at the thing affixed to Anlin’s belt. Taking in the sight of it, she widened her eyes. “Oh, my goodness, Anlin, where did you steal that?”
“Hah! I only wish I had the gumption to loot the high treasury,” Anlin chuckled, drawing the sword from is sheath. It was a unique piece, as they all were; this one was mostly black, which was unusual, but its glowing arcane runes made its purpose and nature unmistakable. In fact, Kuriwa noted that her sister had dressed to match the accessory; she had the same preference for jewel tones as most high elves, but today was gowned in understated azure and silver, with severe black accents. The jewelry worked into her coiffure was platinum and onyx. The severity of the colors made her look more mature, despite her ebullient grin. “No, this was appropriately issued to me by the Magistry to assist in my duties.”
“Even after you ran off to fight in both Hellwars?”
“Father’s pet theory is that Grandmagister Laierun thinks the responsibility and recognition will settle me down. Ariel, say hello to my sister Kuriwa.”
“I am not intended for social interaction, Anlin,” the sword said testily. “And your sister’s name is Avaran.”
Anlin slammed the black saber back into her sheath. “That is up to her, not you.”
“Silence. Sorry about her,” she added, grimacing.
“No need,” Kuriwa assured her, waving away the sword’s rudeness. “You and I both know what they’re like.”
The highguard officer cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Magister and guest, but the gate platform needs to be kept clear if no one else is arriving.”
“Yes, yes, quite right,” Anlin said with a sigh, tucking an arm through Kuriwa’s and steering her toward the steps. “Oh, it’s just so good to see you again! Welcome home, sister.”
Qestraceel was not, would never be, had never truly been her home. But Kuriwa smiled warmly at Anlin and squeezed her hand as they descended the stairs to the street below. Anlin was one of the precious few who had never been at fault in her ongoing feud with the entire civilization of the high elves.
The vista of Qestraceel spread out before her, as familiar and alien as it ever was. The gate platform was positioned in its own dome complex at one edge of the great central dome, where in a worst-case scenario it could be cut off or even flooded, but the huge arched gateway into the main space offered a splendid view. There was plenty to see in the gate dome itself, of course. Hovering all around it on suspended platforms were guard stations and siege weapons—all, of course, disguised as art installations, quite a few with trailing clusters of flowering vines. More plant life climbed the glass banisters of the gate platform and its access stairs, the pylons holding it up and the subsidiary structures around its base, even the domed walls.
Not proper plants, though, not to her eyes. These leaves bore subtle patterns in gleaming blue; the flowers were delicate, airy, transparent and faintly luminous. Nature had never intended such things. The transparent dome itself had, in addition to its numerous functional enchantments, a charm to make the water outside as crystal clear as the air on the surface would have been, giving Qestraceel a splendid view of the ocean floor around it. Which, of course, was further augmented by magic to make for a stunning vista of coral reefs and kelp stands, none of which should have existed at this depth. But there they were, altered and fortified by magic, because all gods old and new forfend that the high elves should lack for pretty scenery to gawk at. The creatures and plants surrounding the city were at least ensorcelled not to leave this area or be able to reproduce unassisted, so they would not interbreed with or alter the ocean life beyond. Somehow, that didn’t make the whole matter any less repugnant to Kuriwa.
“Already?” Anlin murmured as they alit on the ground below the platform.
Kuriwa caught herself grimacing at the transmogrified ocean plants outside and sighed. “Sorry.”
“No, you aren’t,” her sister said with laughter in her voice, patting her arm. “You know I won’t argue with your sensibilities, sister. But just, strategically, maybe it would be best…”
“Yes, yes. I will try to keep my savage ways in check in front of Father.”
“Ah, good,” Anlin said solemnly. “And he will try not to act stiff and priggish at you. Between the two of you, I expect the peace to last a good five minutes this time. You’ve both grown so much.”
“Ariel, what’s the penalty for assaulting a sitting Magister?” Kuriwa asked innocently.
“Situational,” the sword replied. “In the case of Magister Anlin, probably a pat on the back and ceremonial flower garland from Grandmagister Laierun.”
“I am surrounded by traitors,” Anlin complained. “Well, I hope you’ve not forgotten how to ride, anyway.”
“Never,” Kuriwa assured her, an unfeigned smile blossoming on her face as they reached the gate. Off to the side of the path, a hovering servitor construct held the reins of two deinos with gleaming livery bedecked with Magistry emblems. She noted that even their feathers matched it, a result of careful breeding or possibly genetic intervention, but even that could not spoil the pleasure of being with these proto-birds again.
Anlin bounded neatly into the saddle of one deino, who obviously knew her well. Kuriwa stepped up to the second, so it could lean forward to sniff at her. The deino allowed her to stroke its featherless beak, emitting a friendly little croak which revealed its mouthful of fangs, and actually reached forward to pat her with one clawed hand, the vestigal pinions extending from behind its wrist flaring. Having been accepted, she vaulted up onto its back, sharing a grin with Anlin.
This she had missed. Horses were such a disappointment to one who had grown up riding proto-birds that she had preferred to develop spells to hasten her own travel speed than try to reach an accord with the panicky, lumbering hoofed beasts.
“Are you sure this won’t harm you politically?” Kuriwa asked as they led their mounts onto the vehicle path that skirted the outer edges of Qestraceel’s vast central dome. On one side rose the sloped transparent wall between them and the crushing depths outside; on the other, the spires of the city itself, gleaming with enchanted lights. The high elves they passed did not attempt to disguise the curiosity and, in some cases, contempt with which they stared at Kuriwa in her traditional woodkin garb.
“Oh, please,” Anlin snorted. “You could be stark naked and this wouldn’t even be the most scandalous thing I’ve done since breakfast. I have a running bet with the other Magisters of my circle on how long it’ll take the Grandmagisters to become so annoyed with me they confiscate Ariel.”
“I’m down for one more fortnight,” said the sword. “Obviously I cannot collect a prize for winning a bet. It is simple optimism.”
“I can see why Laierun thought this one might slow you down,” Kuriwa said.
“Everybody underestimates me,” Anlin replied with a fierce grin. “Well, don’t keep an auntie in suspense! How’s the whole clan?”
Kuriwa’s smile melted away in an instant. “We should wait to discuss that until we’re with Father.”
Anlin gave her a sidelong look of concern, but did not press. “All right. I’ll talk, then. I defy you to guess what that platterpate Athilor did to himself this time. You remember Athie, don’t you, the guy who’s obsessed with cracking self-enchantment? Well, the Magistry refuses to let him die no matter how many times this happens, but last year he actually…”
It was not as if Kuriwa particularly cared for the Qestraceel gossip, but she was grateful nonetheless to Anlin for filling the silence. If not for that, the ride to their family estate would have been a truly miserable trip, between her unease over the business that had brought her back here, and the uncomfortable memories that shone at her from every passing vista of the city like its omnipresent decorative lights. Truly, Anlin was the one thing she missed about this place. If not for the separation from her sister, Kuriwa would have no regrets at all about leaving the high elves behind. But the life of the woodkin was not Anlin’s path, and Kuriwa of all people would never have asked someone to submit themselves to a destiny they could not embrace. Least of all someone she loved.
The holdings of the line of Tari’silmina’verai rose through one of the outlying cliffs surrounding the city, far enough that the great central dome of Qestraceel and the crystal spire rising from its tip to the height of the Anara Trench’s upper rim made for a stunning but distant view. Reaching the estate was a long ride passing through a series of connecting domes and outer tunnels. It hardly seemed like any time at all, though, before they were unsaddling their mounts in the family stables.
Servitors ordinarily did such work, of course, or in the case of richer bloodlines, grooms. Anlin and Kuriwa both cherished any opportunity to work with the deinos, however. And this time, Kuriwa did not begrudge a few more minutes between herself and actually returning to the house proper.
What seemed like all too soon, however, they were there. Kuriwa felt a strange urge to formally ring the gong and announce herself to the name crystal. This place, crushingly familiar as it was, did not feel like home. Anlin, of course, simply opened the door and strode in.
Following her, Kuriwa hesitated on the threshold. Her father was waiting just inside.
They locked eyes and stood as if frozen. Magister Vynlian had not changed in the least from her memories. He was dressed as he always did in the informal comfort of home, in a silken robe without layers or pattern and no formal scarf, with his hair allowed to flow loose down his back instead of styled in a proper coif, held back only by a jeweled forehead band and gathered into a tail by a simple silver clip her mother had made using only her hands, no magic. He didn’t even bother to wear enchanted rings within his own house. Since his wife’s passing, though he had never acknowledge it aloud, Vynlian had stopped exerting himself to ward against any possibility of accident or disaster as such an important man among the high elves customarily would.
“Father,” she said at last.
And then he smiled, in simple happiness at seeing her. Something deep inside herself felt cracked, like a frozen river thawing in the spring. “Avaran. Welcome home, daughter. It has been too long.”
Just like that, so much of the joy went out of the moment. “My name is Kuriwa,” she said firmly. “As you know.”
“Ah. Yes, forgive me.” Vynlian’s own smile vanished. “I am told that you are in a position to understand, now, how jarring it never ceases to be when one’s own child throws aside everything of value you taught her.”
“Oh, you are told that,” she said stiffly. “And you bothered to hear it? I’m glad the continuation of our bloodline is of at least a little interest to you.”
“The continuation of our line among forest-dwelling primitives—”
“AHHHHH!” Anlin yelled, waving her arms about over her head. “She is not! Even! In! The house! Ariel, if one of them doesn’t start behaving like an adult, remind me to stab them both!”
“How many times a day must I remind you that I will not be made an accessory to criminal acts?”
“Is this how you address your colleagues in the Magistry, daughter?” Vynlian asked with grim disapproval.
“Yes,” Anlin said firmly, “and notably, they give me much less crap than you.”
“Father,” Kuriwa interjected. “I don’t want to argue.”
Both he and Anlin turned to her in pure surprise.
“I…wish you could respect my choices and my identity,” she said, struggling to keep a rein on her emotions and expression. “But… I have never loved or respected you less because of the decisions I’ve made. And I hate being at odds with you. Despite everything, we are family.”
Vynlian lowered his eyes, and swallowed. “Daughter, I… Well. Maybe if I were a better person, it would be easier for me to respect your choices. It is fact that I…have not tried as hard as I could. Truly, I am so glad to see you home. I have never ceased to miss you.”
Kuriwa stepped across the threshold into her childhood home, and with a speed that surprised her, cross the three steps into her father’s arms.
Some time later he released her, and they smiled at each other in wordless forgiveness. Anlin stood off to the side, beaming.
“Well,” Kuriwa said, suddenly self-conscious. “I would like to visit the shrine.”
“Of course,” her father said, touching her lightly on the cheek. “Of course. I’ve prepared a meal in the dining room. Your sister and I will be there waiting.”
“Thank you, father.”
A few minutes kneeling at her mother’s shrine helped her to stabilize her emotions. Sacred spaces consecrated to the dead were the only spots in high elf society characterized by notable fae magics. There had been a time in her youth, when she had begun to feel the call of the fae but not given real thought to what lay outside the safety of Qestraceel, that she had considered joining the ranks of the valkryn. The path of a death-priest did not suit her, though; it was life that called to her soul.
Only a tiny spark of power animated the memorial shrine, and of course the thought never crossed Kuriwa’s mind of taking it for any use of her own. Still, it was the first pleasant reminder since she had come back here. And it carried, of course, the reminder of her mother.
A few moments of meditation at the shrine calmed her enough that she no longer felt unsteadied by walking through these memory-laden halls, nor disgusted by the grandiose opulence that surrounded her here. Truly, this house was downright humble by the standards of the Magisters. Her father was a man of (relatively) simple tastes, and while Anlin could not be called simple in any respect, her eccentricities did not lead her toward indulgence in material comforts.
In the dining room, she paused and had to smile again, looking at the spread laid out on the table. Dragonfruit, acai, kiwi, fried lungshark, silver noodles and even imbued luff blossoms floating above a traditional glimmersauce. Vynlian had spared no expense to have all the favorite dishes of her childhood waiting for her.
For the space of one evening meal, it was like it had been before. She kept herself in check, and for a wonder, so did her father, to Anlin’s constant beaming satisfaction. They passed a simple, pleasant meal together as a family, and even the meticulousness with which they avoided topics sure to cause tension did not make it awkward.
Kuriwa, though she kept silent, could not have been more grateful. She desperately needed this, to face what would come next.
And it came within the hour, as they retired to the family solarium, surrounded by luminous glass walls, with colorful seaweed and anemones cultivated outside. Lively fish of species that naturally were not so vivid, nor could survive at this depth, darted through the fronds, and Kuriwa found herself for once not even desiring to make an issue of it. Even the sugared coffee Vynlian served for dessert had been purified of caffeine, as she preferred.
After all that, it managed not to be confrontational when her father turned to her and said, “I know you must have a specific need to have come back here, daughter.”
She drew in a long breath and let it out in a calming exercise he would recognize, having taught it to her as a child. Anlin held her steaming cup in both hands, now watching them in silence with Ariel laid across her lap.
“I have need of your help, father,” Kuriwa said at last, meeting his gaze.
It was he who turned away, staring out at the anemones. “I had dared to hope you might have come to see your family and home for reason beyond the need of our resources.”
“I am here as family,” she replied, controlling her reflexive surge of temper, “not as a beggar. It was you who taught me that the bloodline are to be protected and aided without condition or reservation, with every power and asset that can be wielded.”
Vynlian’s gaze snapped back to hers, and there was suddenly alarm in his eyes. “Your children. What has happened?”
Kuriwa swallowed heavily. “It…is not just my children, father. In the groves, we have different practices when it comes to birthing new generations.”
“Yes,” he said bitterly, “I am aware that the Naiyist tree-dwellers make a point of being fecund as human—”
“Father,” Anlin snapped, “how necessary do you think that attitude is?”
He scowled at her, but then when she glared right back, deliberately brought his expression under control before nodding at Kuriwa. “Your sister is right. Please forgive me, daughter.”
She nodded back, not trusting her voice to hold out if they went one step further down that path. “It is the nature of elves to live in balance with their environment, father. Existing in a living grove is very different from life within the walls of Qestraceel. No, we do not spread as quickly as humans. I don’t think you truly appreciate how rabbit-like humanity can be…but that’s beside the point. I have more than children, but grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren.”
Vynlian closed his eyes, grimacing with such a rapid sequence of emotions that even her experience as a shaman and as his daughter did not enable her to track them. “Avaran, you are barely a thousand years old.”
“Kuriwa,” Anlin said pointedly.
“Please!” Kuriwa interjected before he could round on her sister. “This is difficult enough without fighting!”
“Yes.” Vynlian slumped back in his chair, setting his half-empty coffee cup on its arm and rubbing at his forehead. “Yes, you said your family is in need. If they are blood, they are blood. Tell me the trouble and I’ll come to grips with how many descendants I apparently have on my own time.”
“Thank you, father,” she said carefully. “It began with the Hellwars.”
“Ah ah!” Anlin said sharply, pointing at Vynlian before his furiously opened mouth could produce a noise. “You can say you told us so on your own time, as well!”
He subsided again, visibly biting back some retort, and gestured Kuriwa to proceed.
“Even after everything that has happened,” she said quietly, now staring out at the water herself, “I believe we were right to intervene. The world above would have fallen without every power which dared risk itself to oppose Elilial’s invasions. And the Magistry were purely deluding themselves if they believed Qestraceel could have remained isolated and secure if demons overran the surface. But… But you were also right, father, about the risks.”
Vynlian lowered his head, eyes closed. There was no satisfaction on his face at her admission.
“We caught Elilial’s attention, Anlin and I,” Kuriwa whispered. “She threatened revenge, of course, but I took it for drama and bluster. She is rather prone to both.”
“I remember,” Anlin said, her face pale now.
“In the years since the second war, though…” Kuriwa broke off and had to take a moment. “We… Father, all who descended from me have begun to be touched by the curse. It… Oh, father, it began with the children.”