“All right, let me just make sure I’m following this,” said Aspen. “People have all these customs and they’re all arbitrary and I try to be real certain of details when something confuses me.”
“Entirely reasonable,” Rainwood replied, giving her a smile.
“So… We need to go to this Omnist temple.”
“It’s more a compound; there is a temple on the grounds but the monastery encompasses a large farm, too. But yes, that is the crux of it.”
“Uh huh. And you don’t know why we need to go to the temple.”
“When dealing with spirit guides, it’s best not to press for details they don’t want to give. So no, I do not.”
“And you don’t know who we’re going to meet there.”
“Well, Omnists, one presumes! But I’m open to being surprised.” He grinned at her, an expression she did not return. “We’re going to meet someone, that much is given. There are people there who will be instrumental in your quest. But no, there’s no hint yet of who they are.”
“Right.” She turned her head toward Ingvar, who was walking on her other side. “And… You want to go with this guy because…?”
Rainwood laughed, which she ignored, but Ingvar patted her shoulder. “All that is bog standard fae divination, Aspen. I would be more perturbed if these unknowns were truly unknowable, but all of this is exactly what I have come to expect from fairy magic.”
“Don’t tell me about fairy magic,” she said petulantly. “I’m a fairy. I’m made of the stuff!”
“And is that the same as knowing how it works?” he replied mildly. “I could not assemble a working human from the pieces of one; the greatest medical minds alive can’t do that. And hasn’t it been something of a running theme with you that your mother rather neglected to teach you anything useful about yourself before turning you loose?”
“I guess,” she muttered, kicking a rock out of the path hard enough that it sailed into the canopy and impacted a tree trunk with a crack that resounded through the forest. “This is just…a lot of I-don’t-know-what for us to be suddenly running off and doing what he wants.”
Ingvar patted her again, soothingly. “As I said, it’s familiar enough to me that I don’t inherently mistrust it. We Huntsmen work with the Mother’s blessings more than with divine magic, and I in particular have followed a quest commanded through visions. That’s how we met, remember? Fae spirits may be helpful, if they are so inclined, but very rarely do they give straight answers.”
“Well put,” Rainwood agreed. “There’s also the old saw about the journey being more important than the destination. Which I’m not so sure I concur with, actually, but I’ve found that the journey always matters. Finding your way and figuring stuff out is exactly how you become the person who can accomplish the goal. If you just skipped to the end without struggling along the way you wouldn’t know what to do with it when you got there.”
“Hnh,” Aspen grunted.
“I think it’s time, Aspen,” Ingvar added more solemnly. “Remember, I have been given a quest of the utmost seriousness. The last several months have been a lot of journeying with no destination in sight. We have learned and grown from our various visits with Rangers and elves and even your sister’s school, but none of it so far has been explicitly germane to Shaath’s predicament.”
“I like journeying with you,” she said quietly. “It’s been… It’s been good, Ingvar. I’m not sure I’m ready for things to change.”
“I’ve enjoyed traveling with you, too,” he replied, smiling at her. “Watching how quickly you’ve grown has been a privilege. But everything does change, you know. That’s the one absolute in all of nature. The time was always going to come.”
“Yeah, but are you sure you wanna trust this guy in particular?” she muttered, glancing sidelong at Rainwood. The elf grinned as he strolled along, clearly taking no offense.
“I can’t say that I’m sure about much,” Ingvar mused. “All I ever wanted was to hunt in the company of my brothers; I used to think that adapting myself to the political needs of the Huntsmen and tangling with Tiraan society was the great bend in my path. Now everything revolves around gods, ancient secrets, and trying to tease out the lies that have wormed through my faith. Not to mention grappling with huge questions of how to actually change a god.” He shook his head slowly. “If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that it does not pay to become too attached to an idea of what you think the future should be. And anyway, I guess I have a good feeling about this guy.”
“Yeah, well,” she said grudgingly, “I guess if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that feelings matter when it comes to fae magic. And dealing with people. And a surprising number of other things.”
“Tell you what, I reckon I’m as surprised about all this as you two,” Rainwood commented. “I’ve learned to trust my spirit guides—it’d be crazy not to, considering how many centuries I’ve been nurturing those relationships. Still, though. I was minding my own business in Calderaas, enjoying a semi-retirement from the adventuring life, and all they told me was that a great quest was afoot and I was to come here and meet some people, then guide them on the next steps. A Huntsman of Shaath and a dryad were definitely a surprising fill-in of that blank. And now I find out you’re after no less than a cure for the core problem of the gods themselves.” He snorted. “Next person who tells me the Age of Adventures is over is getting turned into a mushroom.”
Aspen gave him a much more interested look. “You can do that?”
“One way or another,” Ingvar said, “in the end, everyone gets turned into mushrooms. At least, if they are fortunate enough to die in a forest.”
“See, he gets it!” Rainwood chuckled.
She sighed. “Glad one of us does…”
The forested hills of eastern N’Jendo provided exactly the kind of territory Ingvar and Aspen both loved. Rainwood, clearly a wood elf by the shape of his ears, was doubtless equally in his element here, but in delivering them the urgings of the spirits who had taken an interest in Ingvar’s quest, he had steered them from the truly wild country they preferred and onto an actual path. It was no highway, merely an old game trail, but clearly saw enough traffic that the underbrush had no chance to swallow it up again. Aspen did not particularly mind, though Ingvar couldn’t help being concerned at the prospect of meeting human travelers. They reacted unpredictably to encountering a dryad, he had found, and Aspen reacted very predictably to people shouting at and threatening her.
Elves and Rangers alike were delighted to meet a dryad, but the list of people who felt that way was vanishingly small. And now they were apparently heading right to a Pantheon temple. Well, Omnists were probably likelier than most to welcome a living fertility spirit into their midst, and if worse came to worst, they were rather famous for their equanimity under pressure. Hopefully no pressure would be applied. After all, they were being led here for a reason.
Ingvar did have a good feeling about Rainwood and his guidance, and had learned to trust his intuition, but despite his reassurances to Aspen, the elf’s arrival did raise some thorny questions. If fae spirits were interested enough in Ingvar’s quest to send help his way, who else was aware of it? The Crow herself had seemed to feel positively toward it, but once she had guided them to that last encounter in Viridill, he had heard nothing more from her. Perhaps the intervening months making the acquaintance of elven shamans from Vrandis to Viridill had helped draw the attention of the fae to his cause. Whatever was coming, it would be wise to greet it with circumspection.
If nothing else, Huntsmen were often attuned to the stirrings of the fae. Ingvar himself had needed Mary’s careful guidance—and, it must be said, manipulation—to come to a point from which he was mentally prepared to accept the revelations thrust upon him, and even for him it had been a painful struggle. Other, uninitiated Huntsmen were unlikely to take it so well, if they caught wind of his mission. To them, his goal could very easily seem like nothing less than an assault on everything they valued.
Because, in a sense, it was.
The three of them climbed into more sparsely-wooded territory as the morning wore on. Around midmorning, they emerged from beneath the boughs at the peak of a ridge to find the land changed ahead. The forest had not ended, precisely, but where there had been constant coverage of pines all the way from the Athan’Khar border, there now was rocky, rolling territory ascending to the solid wall of the Wyrnrange in the east, dotted with isolated stands of trees interspersed with windswept open areas. Through these gaps, their destination was clearly visible.
“There she is!” Rainwood said with good cheer, pointing at the complex a few miles ahead, which was truly impossible to miss. The traditional Omnist ziggurat surmounting it stood out from the lower buildings clustered around, but even had there been no visible structure, an entire stretch of the terrain had been carved into terraces for farming, each supported by stone retaining walls. In the distance beyond the temple complex a waterfall plummeted from a great height in the mountains, and away to the southeast wound a river disappearing into the forest beyond. Rainwood shifted his arm to point north. “The Shadow Hunter enclave you were headed for is off to the north thataway, where the trees get thick again. Seems a likely next stop on your journey even after this diversion, but who knows? As we were just discussing, the road ahead is often surprisingly twisty.”
“Rangers,” Aspen corrected primly. “They don’t like to be called Shadow Hunters. That’s a perjorative the Shaathists made up to discredit them.”
“Why, right you are, Aspen,” Rainwood acknowledged. “Forgive me, I’m not accustomed to conversing with people who know that.”
“We told you we’d been visiting their enclaves,” she said in exasperation. “What did you think we talked to them about?”
“I should imagine you discussed a great many things,” he said diplomatically. “Well! The day is only getting older while we stand here, and the temple no closer. Shall we?”
Rainwood, despite all his hints about having been on many adventures over the course of a long life, had clearly never traveled with a dryad before. He tried to set a faster pace once they were walking on open ground and had their destination in sight. Ingvar, though it probably didn’t reflect well on him, took some amusement in not warning the elf.
Aspen’s usual diatribe about dryads and cross-country hiking was swift and loud. Ingvar had noticed that she rarely complained about the walking when they were traveling under trees, but as soon as they were out in the open, suddenly dryads were just not suited for long periods of walking, especially not at speed. Rainwood, to his credit, simply slowed his pace and offered no argument.
Despite being the one slowing them down, Aspen also insisted on keeping in motion rather than stopping for a break as noon neared, blithely commenting that Omnists were so well-known for feeding strangers that even she knew their reputation, and there was no sense in using up their own supplies when there was a free lunch waiting for them straight ahead. As she had grown more accustomed to interacting with people on their travels Ingvar had been pleased to see her maturing rapidly and developing the habit of considering the perspectives of others, but such episodes of unthinking childish greed were still very much in her character. Privately, he wondered if the Omnists would prove to be a good influence on her, or a very bad one. He could imagine that going either way.
In the end, it was over an hour past noon by the time they reached the temple complex. Their little path had led them onto an actual road nearly a mile back, a wide one not paved by Imperial engineers but which clearly saw regular wagon travel. Luckily, this was still the backwoods of N’Jendo and they did not encounter any fellow travelers until the road brought them to the first of the cultivated terraces upon which crops were being grown, and with it their first Omnist monk.
At least, she wore the customary brown robes. The monks of Omnu were famously humble, industrious, and pleased to labor with plants in the fields, but this one was engaged in nothing constructive, ignoring the crops growing around her. Instead, she sat on the edge of the terrace’s stone wall with her legs dangling over the path, whittling a piece of wood with a belt knife. Or had been, anyway; her eyes had remained fixed on the three of them ever since they came into view, the blade and half-carved block sitting immobile in her hands.
“Oh, good,” the young woman said sourly as they stepped into conversational range. “More weirdos.”
“Excuse you?” Aspen snapped, stopping and planting her fists on her hips.
The monk just looked the dryad over insolently, then did the same to the other two. “Let me guess,” she finally drawled, pointing with her knife. “You must be Ingvar.”
He stiffened unconsciously in surprise. “That I am. Forgive me, I did not realize I was expected.”
“Yeeeaaah, this has been a day of surprises all around,” the girl said sardonically. She was very young, clearly only a few years into adulthood, if that; perhaps that played a part in explaining her overtly un-Omnist attitude. The monk was a Westerner, but unless he missed his guess, not local; her lean frame, round face and deep mahogany complexion were more characteristic of the Onkawi from up north than the paler, stockier Jendi. “Well, the important thing is you’re here. Bout time, too, there are some people who are very anxious to meet you.”
“I…see,” he said uncertainly. “Well, then, I am sorry if I kept you waiting. It wasn’t intentional.”
“Well, at least he’s polite,” she said, tossing aside her piece of wood and hopping nimbly down to the path. There she hesitated, squinting at Ingvar. “Um…or is that she?”
“He,” Ingvar said, firmly but without aggression.
“Okay,” the young monk replied with a single nod. “Follow me, then.”
He did so, making soothing gestures at Aspen, who clearly did not care for this girl’s attitude. Ingvar didn’t either, to be sure, but her last comment had raised her half a notch in his estimation. Well, a quarter of a notch. It wasn’t uncommon for people to be unsure of his gender, or to be rude enough to ask, but far too many went so far as to argue with him about it, or at least shamelessly gawked. Sad as it was, a basic modicum of respect was an unusually positive character trait. Rainwood just strolled alongside him, grinning as if this were the most fun he’d had in years. For all Ingvar knew, that was literally the case.
“So,” the monk said, loudly enough to be clearly audible even though she didn’t turn around while walking, “how come your elf has black hair? I’m not even gonna ask about the dryad.”
“He is hardly my elf,” Ingvar replied in the tone of wry disapproval he had cultivated for quelling the excesses of younger brother Huntsmen, the ones who hadn’t outgrown constantly strutting around as if they had something to prove. “If you’re curious about Rainwood, the thing to do would be to ask him.”
“Guess that’s so,” she said laconically, then fell silent.
“I can already tell I’m gonna like it here,” Rainwood said cheerily.
Aspen leaned forward around Ingvar to peer at him. “Is that sarcasm, or are you just some kind of idiot? That’s a serious question, it can be really hard to tell the difference.”
“Eh,” the shaman replied, still grinning irrepressibly. “Little of column A, little of B. Life’s all about balance.”
“I thought life was all about change,” she grumbled. In front of them, the monk chuckled, which earned her a sullen glare from Aspen.
In the temple complex, finally, they began encountering people. Ingvar couldn’t fault them for stopping to stare, especially the younger ones; any of the three of them was an unusual sight, and in combination were worth staring at. Still, he found the Omnists a more courteous group than he had expected of humanity in general; all but the obviously immature novices quickly got over their surprise, greeting the travelers with smiles and polite bows. No more than that, though, as they were clearly being led by the young monk. That was a relief; explaining their business here was going to be interesting enough, since Ingvar himself didn’t fully understand it. He was just as happy not to have that conversation with every single person they passed.
Their guide conducted them on a winding route that was probably still the most direct path, considering how many switchbacks were necessary to ascend the terraces into which the hill had been carved. It quickly became clear that she was leading them all the way to the uppermost level, where the ziggurat itself stood with a a long stone structure extending from one side, which would be the monastery itself. The monk remained nonchalant and quiet for the rest of the walk. None of them minded the silence, if the alternative was her acerbic idea of casual conversation.
Despite the solid stone construction of the monastery, they could plainly hear raised voices in an argument as they approached its doors, a sound most unsuited to the grounds of an Omnist temple complex. The young monk finally turned to give them a wry look prior to entering.
Ingvar frowned, then his eyes widened. “Oh, no.”
“No? What no?” Aspen demanded. “What’s the matter?”
He sighed heavily. “I recognize one of those voices.”
“Yep,” the girl leading them said dryly. “I had a feeling. Welp, here we are.” She pulled one of the double doors open, stepped in and immediately moved to the side, leaving them to file into the monastery.
The entrance led to a long antechamber from which doors branched off in both directions behind a double row of columns. At the far end a fountain splashed in front of a mural depicting the sunburst of Omnu upon the wall. Ingvar and company took all this in with a quick glance before focusing on those present.
The only person who seemed to belong was an older monk who sat on a bench against one of the columns, watching the two young people having their shouting match with the long-suffering expression of someone who had given up trying to peacefully stop this.
Ingvar discovered that he had been wrong: now that he could see them, he recognized both these people. Which meant he could have warned the poor monk of the futility of trying to keep peace here. The prospect of these two being in a room together was so remote he had never had to consider what a disaster it would inevitably be.
“Oh, go out back and play with your bow, you overgrown child!”
“I’m a child! Where I’m from, a woman who acted the way you do would be put over someone’s knee until she learned to act her age!”
“Yeah, well, everywhere you’re not from, people have discovered fire and writing and not behaving like wild animals!”
“A wild animal would be a vast improvement over you, you vulgar gutter wench!”
“If you like animals so much, why don’t you go screw one? That’s what you Huntsmen do, right?”
“Jealousy suits you even less than petty spite, girl.”
“Oh, please, like anyone would touch you except with a weapon.”
“Every word out of your mouth proves the absolute necessity of keeping women—”
“I would like to see you even try—”
“You are very close to seeing—”
“Silence!” Ingvar roared.
It fell, momentarily, both young people and the long-suffering monk turning to him in surprise. Then the two of them immediately began yelling again, though at least this time it was without hostility, now that they were addressing him and not each other.
“Ingvar! Brother, you are here! I’ve been—”
“Brother Ingvar, I have been sent by the goddess to—”
“Oh, no one cares about your fool goddess, you tramp. Let the men talk.”
“That is it!” She burst alight with a golden glow of divine energy, and he hopped back, nocking an arrow to his longbow.
“WHAT DID I JUST SAY?” Ingvar’s voice thundered through the room, again bringing quiet.
“So, this is the famous Ingvar,” said the old monk, his soft voice seeming to quell the aggression in the room. He rose and approached them with a smile. “Welcome to our humble monastery. And you bring even more surprising company! Daughter of Naiya, it is an unprecedented honor. We shall do all in our power to make you comfortable here. I am Nandu, a humble administrator.”
“Brother Nandu is the abbot in charge of this whole place,” said the young woman who had led them here, now lounging against the wall by the door with her arms folded.
“Brother Nandu, I thank you humbly for your hospitality,” Ingvar said, bowing to him. “I am Brother Ingvar, Huntsman of Shaath. And I deeply apologize for the headache I can see you have been dealing with. I had no idea anyone was looking for me, and still don’t know why. Had I known these two of all people would be coming into contact I would have acted swiftly to steer them away from any hapless bystanders.”
“Well, life is an endless surprise,” Nandu said with an amused little quirk of his lips. “Omnu sends us no more trials than we can bear to face.”
“Soooo,” Aspen said pointedly. “Ingvar, why don’t you introduce everybody to your shouty friends, here?”
“One of them you’ve met, Aspen,” he said, turning a quizzical frown on the two before him, both of whom had the good taste to look embarrassed. “The last time we saw her, which was briefly, November Stark was a student at the University at Last Rock.”
“Oh, yeah,” Aspen said, nodding. “I do remember. She’s the one who was mad at you for existing.”
November blushed and looked mulish, simultaneously. “That is not what happened.”
“It lacks nuance, but Aspen also isn’t wrong,” Ingvar said flatly, “and I think you know it. And this is Brother Tholi, a very young Huntsman from the lodge in Tiraas. In point of fact, he is only recently elevated to full membership in the lodge, and it is very much not common practice for one his age to be wandering on his own a thousand miles from his elder Brothers. Not to mention that I am pretty sure the academic year has begun, and something tells me Professor Tellwyrn doesn’t know how far astray one of her lambs has gone. This promises to be two very interesting stories, before we even get to the matter of why you two are looking for me, of all things. And why here. Even I didn’t know I was going to be here until last night!”
“The spirits knew,” Rainwood said smugly.
November and Tholi glanced at each other, then both averted their eyes, scowling in unison.
“Well?” Ingvar prompted. “Explain yourselves.”