“So…now what?” November asked the next morning.
The group stilled, all turning expectantly to Ingvar.
“With one path closed,” he said slowly, standing and beginning to kick dirt over the last embers of their campfire, “we would naturally move on to the next. Aspen and I have been traveling widely across the continent, seeking answers and wisdom among the elves and the Ranger enclaves. If we were to keep to that pattern, this would be the time to move on to find another of those.”
“There aren’t any groves west of the Wyrnrange,” Rainwood pointed out. “You might find a few pilgrims or hunters around the Deep Wild’s frontier, but this isn’t elf country.”
“There’s more Shadow Hunter lodges, though,” Taka added. “All the way up north along the mountain range, just like the temples I was talking about yesterday.”
“But,” Ingvar said patiently, “I believe it is time to pursue a new course of action. Something more purposeful.”
“Do we really need to?” Aspen asked. “I liked what we were doing.”
“So did I,” he said with a smile. “But the world turns. All living things must be aware of the season and act accordingly. Our circumstances are suddenly different, and I feel it’s time to take more direct action.”
“So,” November repeated, “what do we do now, then?”
“First,” said Ingvar, “we hunt.”
Tholi grinned and Taka grimaced.
“Well, good,” Aspen said irritably. “Since you lot have eaten all our food, I guess we sorta have to now.”
“It’s only right for companions to share,” Ingvar said. “Food for two stretched between six will naturally disappear quickly. It was freely offered, Aspen, so that’s the end of it. Never hold a favor over someone if you gave it without asking payment in the first place. Still, you are right; we weren’t expecting to provide for this many people, and with our stores depleted, we should restock.”
“You guys have any money?” Taka asked. “Because this is the backcountry, but it’s still in the Empire. There’s places where you can buy stuff; I know where most of them are.”
“We hunt,” Ingvar said again, firmly. “There is more at stake than a need for supplies. I am planning for our next steps beyond survival, for the fulfillment of this quest. Rainwood has offered some helpful advice toward that end. That, too, will require hunting. Both to seek out some things we will need, and to engage in the spiritual act of the hunt.”
November grimaced. “Spiritual act? You’re talking about hunting.”
“If you bothered to understand the slightest thing about Shaathist faith,” Tholi said, rolling his eyes, “you wouldn’t even think of asking such a question. To begin with—”
“Hey, I have an idea!” Aspen interjected. “How about Ingvar explains this part? Listening to you two screech at each other stopped being funny after the first five minutes.”
“Again, Aspen is right,” Ingvar said, not troubling to hide his amusement. The dryad preened visibly at the praise while he continued. “The hunt is sacred in Shaath’s faith because it is the ultimate act of participation in the wild. Hunting requires you to immerse yourself in nature, to know and respect it. Approached in the proper way, it encourages you to be grateful for what nature gives, and to give back to it.”
“I see,” November mused. “Fair enough. I’m actually sort of curious to learn more, now.”
“That’s what all of this is about,” Ingvar said, smiling. “And so, we hunt. Let’s head east, into the foothills.”
“All righty, then,” Taka said easily, rising to her feet and beginning to saunter in that direction. “What’re we hunting for, exactly?”
“Uh, we?” Aspen said, raising her eyebrows.
“I mean no offense, Taka,” Ingvar said more politely, “but…why are you still here? Obviously I wasn’t about to chase you off in the middle of the night, but you’ve fulfilled Brother Nandu’s request to guide us here. I thought you would be returning to your own temple.”
“Eh.” She shrugged, turning to lean against a tree. “The temple’s probably better off without me. I was just about to decide Omnism wasn’t for me, anyway.”
“You didn’t seem to fit in there,” November agreed.
“And you want to come with us?” Ingvar pressed, frowning. “I’m not sure you understand what we’re doing.”
“The broad strokes,” Taka said. “This is some kind of Shaathist reform thing you’re up to, right? I mean, I’ll leave if you don’t want me here, but if it’s okay I’d like to stick around, yeah. Maybe this isn’t the path I’m looking for. Then again, maybe it is.”
“We did find our way to her just as you were being guided to new allies,” Rainwood added. “Sometimes a chance encounter is just that. Sometimes it’s not.”
“That’s fantastically helpful, thank you,” Aspen said acidly. The shaman made a grandiose bow in her direction.
Ingvar hesitated a moment longer, thinking rapidly. Taka’s eyes were on him, but so were everyone else’s.
“Very well,” he said. “I can see no good reason to turn away a willing soul. I will ask for respect for our purpose and one another from everyone here, but…” He cast a quick glance over Tholi and November. “…it seems a little two-faced to turn you away based on that when we haven’t really established that respect among those of us already involved.” Both of them looked away, from each other and from him.
“I will do my best to rein in the attitude,” Taka promised solemnly. Ingvar hoped he was imagining the sarcasm behind it.
“Well…I guess we’re off, then,” Tholi said, lifting his bow. “It’s been a while since I hunted with younglings, and they were…well, young. I don’t expect this is going to go hugely well, with a whole bunch of amateurs along.”
“Again,” said Aspen, striding up alongside him as the group began moving off toward the mountains. “Elf, dryad, two Huntsmen. It’ll be fine. It’s just the girls who’ll need some hand-holding.”
Tholi nodded. “Well, Stark, I apologize in advance if I lose patience. Since it’s your first time I’ll handle your share of the cleaning. Taking a blade to a dead animal makes some people queasy, I understand.”
“Haven’t we already been over this?” she retorted. “I’ve been on wilderness excursions. Not to the extent you have, I’m sure, but the whole point was to go out there and not die. You know what there is to eat in the Golden Sea? Animals. That’s about it.”
“Really?” He gave her a legitimately interested look, falling back to walk beside her. “I haven’t had the privilege myself, yet. What sort of game is there in the Golden Sea?”
November looked at him askance, as if expecting a trick, but answered openly. “Mostly the kinds of game you find in the Great Plains in general. Rabbits, antelope, bison. Also coyotes and the odd lion, though those aren’t exactly game.”
“Predators aren’t good for eating,” Tholi agreed, nodding. “Good hunting, though, for trophies!”
“I don’t see the point of killing a living thing if you’re not planning to do anything with it.”
“The point is not to do so unless you have specific need,” he said seriously, and Ingvar marveled to see her turning her head to listen. “There are a number of practical reasons to hunt predators. If they grow too numerous they can wreck an entire ecosystem; Huntsmen develop a close relationship with the wilds in which we hunt, and sometimes protecting them involves recognizing when a species has gotten out of hand and culling a few. We’re also called in when a particularly dangerous specimen starts going after farm animals—or worse, people. That last is a necessity, but I always hate to do it. Big cats, for example, rarely take to attacking humans unless they’ve been maimed by humans and left unable to hunt their natural prey.”
“Not the cats that live on this continent, anyway,” Ingvar interjected. “Tigers have been known to take people.”
“Right,” Tholi agreed, nodding. “But of course, to fulfill that responsibility, Huntsmen have to be trained, and that means occasionally going after predators just to learn how. The trophies we take from those hunts are highly sacred, and are part of many of our rituals.”
“I see,” November said neutrally. “I guess…you lot do serve a purpose.”
“Everyone serves a purpose,” Tholi grunted.
“That isn’t even close to true,” Taka said wryly.
He chuckled. “All right, fair enough. I meant, all the cults. We have arguments between ours that I don’t think we’re ever going to resolve, but even Huntsmen won’t claim that priestesses of Avei are useless. Well…the Huntsmen I respect don’t say such things,” he added more pensively. “Unfortunately, that isn’t all of them… Well, anyway. I’ve heard stories of more exotic things that live in the Golden Sea, have you seen any?”
“Oh, yeah! There are some fae and magical animals out there. Unicorns, of course, but you don’t mess with those unless you wanna be up to your neck in angry plains elves. My class saw a roc, once, but not up close. We chased it off with spells before it could get any ideas. And there are extinct species, too; apparently the space-twisting nature of the Sea also twists time sometimes. Trissiny told me she saw a smilodon out there once—a really big lion with saber fangs, basically.”
“I know what a smilodon is. That’s a rare find! Did she kill it?”
“No, just scared it off. My class once saw a bird that I swear was twenty feet tall!”
“Right, you mentioned the roc.”
“No, this was a flightless bird, like an ostrich. Except ten times the size and pretty barrel-chested, with a mouthful of fangs instead of a beak.”
“Sounds like a tyran,” Rainwood said. “You’re lucky to have been within sight of one of those and lived to tell about it.”
“Yeah, they don’t like being pelted with arcane bolts any more than rocs do, as it turns out. Pretty much any mundane animal will flee from magic, modern or prehistoric.”
“Most animals,” Tholi corrected, grinning. “Don’t ever fire a wand at a honey badger.”
“What’s a honey badger?”
“They have those up in Onkawa,” Ingvar said. “Fortunately not this far south. They’re basically dog-sized rodents that don’t know the meaning of fear. It’s only in the age of modern science that they’re understood to be animals; for centuries people thought they were demons. That was the simplest explanation for that level of aggression.”
“Sooo,” Taka drawled, “what I’m hearing is, I’m the only one here with no hunting experience.”
Tholi turned his head to frown at her. “What? I thought you said you’ve spent your life traveling up and down this mountain range. How have you done that without knowing how to feed yourself?”
“I can feed myself just fine without hunting, thanks for your concern. Do work, get money, buy stuff. You know, like a normal person.”
“We’ll teach you,” Invar assured her, giving Tholi a look that caused the younger Huntsman to shut his mouth. “Knowing and learning the ways of the wild is going to be a central part of what we do as a group. For a while, I expect all our hunts to be at least half training exercises.”
“So basically,” Taka said, grinning, “we’re gonna starve.”
“If our beginners don’t have much luck,” he replied with a smile, “Tholi, Aspen and I will take care of finding game while the rest of you take a break. I promise we won’t reach the end of the day without fresh meat.”
“That was a joke, I wasn’t actually worried. Like Aspen said, more of this group than otherwise knows what they’re doing in the woods.”
“At least somebody listens to me,” Aspen muttered.
“And what about non-food?” Taka continued. “You said we were hunting for something else. Something you expect to find in the mountains.”
“Yes,” Ingvar said more seriously, nodding. “And thank you for mentioning it. Tholi, Aspen, Rainwood, I’d like you to keep your eyes open for signs, as well. As soon as we can, we need to find some wolves.”
The three of them walked down the broad, arched tunnel which passed for one of the city’s underground streets in silence, the noise of traffic and commerce being left far behind along with the sunlight. This, clearly, was a night spot; it being still early in the morning, nobody here was up and about.
“Always wanted to visit Ninkabi,” Jonathan mused. “The architecture is really something else, even more amazing in person than in the paintings I’ve seen. So naturally, first thing we do is go underground.”
Both women looked sidelong at him.
“Yeah, I know,” he said with a tiny grin. “We’re not here to sightsee, anyhow. The irony just jumped out at me. I’m finding myself a little more sensitive to those, these days.”
“Not necessary,” Natchua said. She was carrying her carved ebony staff, but holding it horizontally at her side rather than using it as a walking aid. “Remember, we’re here to gather information. A certain amount of sightseeing is implied in our mandate, so long as we don’t lose focus.”
“Well, good,” he said thoughtfully. “Much as I hate to do the tourist thing, I’d like to see if I can pick something up for Gabriel. I bet he’d love this place.”
“As long as it’s got girls, he would,” Natchua muttered. Suddenly she halted, raisin her staff up to bar their way.
“Problem?” Jonathan was instantly on the alert, one hand coming to rest on the wand holstered at his belt.
“An obstacle, not a problem,” she said tersely, narrowing her eyes as if studying something they could not see. “There are wards across this passage. Infernal wards…more sophisticated than anything I have ever seen. In fact… That’s amazing, I believe these are keyed into an arcane field. I can’t sense it directly, but the infernal magic intersecting with it…”
“What would be the point of that?” Melaxyna asked. The succubus wore the face of a Tiraan woman of average looks, having opted to match herself to Jonathan’s appearance rather than trying to pass for a local.
“Information processing. All magic is information processing, up to a point, but infernomancy is only so useful as an aid to calculations. Arcane magic is excellent for that, though.”
“This is a public street,” Jonathan protested, then glanced around. “Isn’t it?”
“I note that we’re standing even with the last doors on the side walls,” Melaxyna said. “Which means the wards are blocking off the door that’s at the end down there. Second Chances… Looks like some kind of bar.”
“Then that’s our destination,” Natchua observed. “You stay here, Mel, these wards will identify you instantly. And I can’t see the alarm function directly, but you don’t weave permanent wards of this quality and not have one.”
“Won’t they spot you?” the succubus protested.
Natchua grinned. “My presence, yes. Possibly that I’m an elf. But I know things about the craft of magical stealth that even the Black Wreath doesn’t. My magic will not be detected until I decide to make it so. Wait here, you two, and watch each other’s backs. I don’t anticipate trouble, but this is obviously another powerful warlock we’re dealing with, and those are nothing if not unpredictable.”
“Don’t I know it,” Jonathan grunted.
She gave him an unreadable look and then stepped forward, now carrying her staff upright and setting its butt down on the stone floor with every step. Natchua walked slowly, peering about as if taking in every detail of her surroundings.
“Welp, here we are, then,” Melaxyna muttered when the drow had advanced up ahead. “Am I the only one standing her waiting for her to commit the inevitable screw-up that’ll damn us all?”
“Isn’t that the theme of this entire hambrained quest? And I don’t know why you seem to think you’re talking behind her back. You know she can hear you.”
“I have a simple policy about elves,” Melaxyna said primly. “Never say anything behind their backs you wouldn’t say to their faces. Don’t get me wrong, I like the girl. Really, I do, she reminds me of pretty much every person I have liked, historically.”
He glanced at her briefly before returning his attention to Natchua, who was now pacing along one of the walls and examining it closely. “Every person, huh.”
“I’m not really drawn to sly people,” she said, smirking. “It’s idealists who move my spirit. The ones who see an injustice in the world and are so furious at it that they never stop struggling to burn it down. Even if they have barely any plan and no real hope of succeeding, nothing ahead but the prospect of an early grave.” Her smile had faded as she spoke, and by that point she was gazing almost sadly at the drow. “Maybe it is narcissistic, in the end. I was like that, when I was alive the first time.”
“What changed your mind?” Jonathan asked quietly.
She snorted. “Nothing. That’s exactly why I spat on Vidius’s offer of paradise. Why I took Vanislaas’s bargain. I’d seen what the gods were about. You can’t fight gods, not realistically, it’s a hopeless prospect. But I couldn’t face the prospect of not fighting.”
“Mm.” Jonathan turned look back the way they had come, finding no one approaching them from the tunnel’s mouth. “Well, I guess I can’t say I know you all that well, but you don’t really strike me as the do-or-die type. Something must have changed.”
Melaxyna went still, staring ahead with a blank expression that hinted she wasn’t actually looking at anything.
“…maybe,” she answered at last. “We all change over time, even those of us not bound to powers beyond our scope. I guess spending a few centuries as a succubus is enough to warp anybody’s viewpoint. Heh. That also reminds me of our friend up there.”
He turned back to her, glancing at Natchua’s back again before meeting Melaxyna’s eyes. “Really.”
“Girl got burned by trying to use something she couldn’t control. Failed to understand or respect its power, and ended up the way any ignorant person does from playing around with dangerous tools whose use they weren’t schooled in.”
“Yeah, no kidding,” Jonathan muttered. “Nothing’s ever gonna make me comfortable with all this infernomancy. Frankly, I think my skepticism is pretty damn well warranted.”
“Infernomancy?” Melaxyna turned a wide-eyed gaze on him. “Oh, that’s what worries me least. Natchua can handle the magic, with the knowledge swimming in her head. That girl is the one warlock in the world I’d trust to avoid blowing us all to bits by mistake.” She shifted again to watch the drow, folding her arms and smiling faintly. “I was talking about sex.”
Jonathan found nothing to say in reply to that. As the silence stretched out, Melaxyna’s smile grew by tiny increments.
It vanished moments later, however, when Natchua brazenly stepped up to the closed door of Second Chances and tried the latch. When it didn’t budge, she rapped sharply upon it with her staff.
“What the hell are you doing,” the succubus hissed. “Kid, no. You are not good at conversational persuasion!”
“Give her a chance to work,” Jonathan murmured. “She’s more savvy than you give her credit for.”
Melaxyna huffed and crossed her arms, but made no response.
Natchua had to rap twice more before anybody answered. The door opened just a crack; whoever was on the other side was concealed by her body, but after a short conversation it clicked shut again and Natchua turned and strode back to them.
“That was illuminating,” she said, wearing a pleased little smile.
“I cannot believe you just knocked on the door,” Melaxyna exclaimed. “I thought we were being stealthy.”
“Too much creeping about is counterproductive,” Natchua replied. “Remember, we are trying to recruit Xyraadi, not ambush her, and definitely not scare her off. So yes, we do need to sniff out where she is hiding, but it’s leading up to approaching her. Something tells me that won’t go over so well if we just leap out of the shadows.”
“Well, you’re not wrong, there,” Jonathan agreed. “So what’d you find out?”
“Second Chances is a popular nightclub, which is closed at this hour. We can come back after sundown like everybody else. It is owned by a certain Mortimer Agasti, who I suspect may be the architect of these fascinating infernal wards all over the place. We’ve got the whole day to see what’s known about this chap here in town.”
“Did you learn anything about Xyraadi?” Melaxyna asked.
“Oh, yes,” Natchua said scathingly. “I walked up and asked if they were keeping a six-hundred-year-old khelminash sorceress squirreled away in the basement. What’s the worst that could happen?”
“I can’t believe I was standing here defending your character a minute ago,” the succubus pouted.
“I can’t believe that’s how you would characterize that exchange. What was really fascinating is that this Agasti fellow has a revenant demon answering his door.”
“Ew.” Melaxyna curled her lip in disgust.
“Actually answering the door?” Jonathan demanded. “Those things are illegal as hell, pardon the pun.”
“One more thing about which to inquire whilst we peruse the local scuttlebutt,” Natchua said, now wearing a distinctly mischievous smile. “Jonathan, stand back, if you would.”
“Him stand back?” Melaxyna said warily. “What’re you up to now?”
“Hold still.” Before the succubus could render another opinion, Natchua gestured with her staff and a spell circle materialized on the floor around her. This one hovered an inch off the ground in roiling black lines which, after existing barely a second, dissolved into mist which swirled up and streamed straight into Melaxyna’s nose and mouth, causing her to double over coughing.
“Excuse me,” Jonathan said incredulously, “but aren’t we standing within a few yards of some incredibly powerful infernal wards?”
“Yes, quite,” Natchua said cheerily, taking Melaxyna by the arm and setting off back up the tunnel. “So let’s clear off before their owner comes to investigate. Now he knows we’re here and sniffing around.”
“Can’t—believe—you little—bitch,” Melaxyna rasped, still gasping.
“You wanna let the rest of us mere mortals in on the joke?” Jonathan demanded, trailing along after them.
“That will get Mel through the wards, when we come back. I’ve already told you,” she said patiently, “Xyraadi is in there, and we want her. But we want to talk with her, not seize her. That will mean some manner of frontal approach eventually, and that is far more likely to succeed if she is already curious about us. Really, despite what absolutely everyone seems to think, I do know what I’m doing.”