“Don’t make that face, I’m not saying anything about what any other woman can or should do. Everybody has a perfect right to be angry when some fool is leering.” Ruda pressed a hand to her chest, trying to put on a solemn expression through which a mischievous grin kept cracking. “All I’m saying is that I, for my money, don’t mind it.”
“If your next comment is that it’s actually a compliment…”
“Oh, bullshit, gross dudes are gross and we all know it. I’m a pragmatist above all, is my point, and I’ve noticed men are easily distracted. Especially the dumb ones who cause trouble. If some goon is starin’ at my bajongulars, he’s probably not doing anything I’ll actually need to put a stop to.”
Trissiny heaved a deep sigh. “Ruda, what did we discuss about you making up horrible new slang?”
“Hmm.” Ruda screwed up her face and tapped at her lips with a finger in a decent imitation of Tellwyrn. “Didn’t we decide you were a big ol’ stick in the mud?”
“Yeah, that sounds familiar.”
Now it was Ruda who side-eyed her roommate for a moment before returning her attention to the rocky trail up the mountainside. “Y’know, I’m not sure I like this new and improved you. Used to be I could make you all huffy and frustrated with just a comment. It was reliable, cheap entertainment.”
“The Thieves’ Guild, ladies and gentlemen,” Trissiny said airily. “Ruining your fun for eight thousand years.”
“Yeah, well, don’t get cocky, Shiny Boots. I bet I can still make you stammer and blush. Let’s see, wasn’t I at one point about to describe all the stuff I’m pretty sure Prince Sekandar wants to do with your legs and a crock of butter?”
“For somebody who cares so much about being the baddest girl in the party, it’s awfully bold for you to set up situations that end with me kicking your ass.”
Ruda actually stumbled.
“Wow, I see what you mean!” Fross chimed. “Trissiny never used to win these arguments.”
“Nobody won nothin’!” Ruda barked. “There was a rock! I’m still in this!”
“Sometimes, Ruda,” Shaeine said, projecting serenity like a cloud of perfume, “the only remaining victory is to bear defeat with the utmost grace.”
Ruda half-turned to squint irritably at her, risking another stumble on the uneven path. “You’re just taking advantage of the fact I won’t sucker-punch the most phlegmatic member of the group.”
“And thus my point is proven,” Shaeine said with a beatific smile.
“Shut up, Arquin,” Ruda grumbled, turning her back on the group and in particular his gales of laughter.
Trissiny, smiling, veered over and bumped her roommate lightly with her shoulder. Ruda jostled her back, and then they carried on in silence.
“I’m pretty sure we’re just about there,” said Toby, pointing. “Or is that merely a…random patch of forest in the middle of the mountains?”
Their guides said they were making excellent time through the crags of the Wyrnrange, which meant they should reach their destination at some point today. Evidently the mountains in general had been much quieter since the Conclave of the Winds had formed, but the paths leading to the Desolate Gardens were usually left alone by dragons. According to their guides, that was more out of respect for Ampophrenon the Gold, who led the Order of the Light that maintained the Gardens, than for any pilgrims who wanted to visit. Now, up ahead, a crown of greenery was suddenly visible peeking out from behind a jagged promontory.
“That’s no mere forest,” Sister Elaine replied, giving him a smile. The more personable of the two Order guides sent to escort them, she had mostly taken over interacting with the students while her counterpart, Brother Toraldt, had grown quieter all through the first day and had not actually spoken to them since they broke camp that morning. The dwarf had a very formal way of conducting himself and appeared put off by the banter and general tomfoolery which prevailed among a party that included all three living paladins. Elaine, a human woman who had the broad shoulders of a Legionnaire and clearly was not discomfited after a two-day mountain hike despite her lined face and mostly gray hair, was more laid back in temperament, as she demonstrated again by playing tour guide. “We are, indeed, on the final leg of this journey. What you see is the Great Tree itself, the only known offshoot of the World Tree which is hidden in the Deep Wild. In fact, I believe it is the physical evidence of Naiya’s only contribution to the well-being of mortal people. She sent this sapling in the custody of the dryad Rowan to permanently seal the breach where the great hellgate had been. The Great Tree grows out of what was once the most tainted spot upon this earth, and today is one of the most sacred.”
“I’ve been really looking forward to seeing this,” Juniper said pensively, her eyes fixed on the distant tree’s canopy. Despite the distraction, she seemed to have no trouble finding her footing upon the trail, loose scree and all. Juniper’s very gait had shifted over the summer; she had begun to step softly and deliberately, as if every step was a meditative act. At least, sometimes she did. When caught up in conversation or other distractions the dryad often slipped back into old habits.
“All that is one tree?” Gabriel said, craning his neck to peer upward, and then stumbling over a rock. “Wait, how close are we exactly?”
“That is one tree, Gabriel,” Elaine replied. “It’s not called the Great Tree for nothing, after all. And we are, in fact, not all that close. I’ve not taken a yardstick to it myself, obviously, but I’ve heard it said that the Great Tree doubles the height of the mountain upon which it stands.”
The procession continued more quietly up the last few miles of mountain pass, as the afternoon wore on and even until, finally, the sky began to redden subtly over the peaks to the west. Though they did talk, off and on, the students spent more of their time occupied in peeking around the twists of the ancient trail at the looming tree ahead, when they weren’t concentrating on where to put their feet. At any rate, the joking trailed off considerably, to the point that even Toraldt’s expression grew less disapproving.
He and Elaine remained up in the front, with Ruda and Trissiny alternately abreast of and right behind them, depending upon how wide a given stretch of the trail was. The rest of the students trailed along after, with Principia and Merry bringing up the rear, the latter sweating and somewhat out of breath. Legion physical standards notwithstanding, of the two of them climbing mountains in full armor, only one had elvish stamina.
They could see long before reaching its base that the Great Tree was well-named.
It was believable that it added the height again of the very mountain upon which it stood; very much like a mountain, it spread outward both above and below to form a solid base, its truly titanic root system seeming to thread over a space much wider than the mountain peak. By the time they passed around the final plateau which stood between them and their destination they were already beneath the outermost spread of the Tree’s leaves, and had long since begun to pass by the root system itself.
In fact, on the very last leg of their journey, they found themselves walking between a cliff wall on one side and the bulk of a huge root on the other. The root itself was practically a cliff in dimensions, arcing away to a height on their left that was above the crowns of some lesser trees could reach. Moreover, as they drew fully in sight of the Great Tree’s trunk and base, the path actually shifted until it was upon the root itself, at first partially and then entirely. An L-shaped divot had been cut out of the living wood, leaving a wall to one side and floor beneath, and making the transition seamless. Easier, in fact, as the bark provided good footing and there was no more loose scree upon which to stumble.
“Wait,” Juniper said suddenly, stopping and reaching over to run her fingers slowly along the rough surface of the root wall. “This…wasn’t cut.”
“The Great Tree gives us many blessings,” Elaine said with a smile. “The Order has never had to take an ax to her; the very idea would be abhorrent. She had obligingly grown in patterns that aid us in protecting the sanctity of this place.”
“So the tree did this voluntarily?” Ruda prodded the root with her toe. “Huh. Um, exactly how smart is this thing?”
“I understand you have journeyed both into the Crawl and the Golden Sea?” Elaine asked.
“We have,” Toby replied when no one else did after a pause.
“Then this will be familiar to you,” she said, still smiling. “The Tree does have an intelligence of her own, but a very…diffuse one. In ordinary circumstances, one does not communicate or connect with her at all. And when people have, they described the communion as quite unfathomable. Like talking to someone lightly asleep but still oddly reactive.”
“Sort of like a god,” Trissiny murmured.
That proved too much for Toraldt. “I would hardly suggest that a god of the Pantheon might have so unfocused an intelligence, General Avelea,” he said disapprovingly.
She turned to him with a deliberately mild expression. “It depends a lot upon the circumstances in which one meets them. I am speaking from experience. How many gods have you met, Brother?”
“We had a pretty interesting summer,” Gabriel added, grinning.
Toraldt frowned deeply, but he seemed more puzzled than annoyed; at any rate, he made no further comment.
“Well!” Sister Elaine cleared her throat. “On we go, then.”
The rest of their path was entirely along the conveniently flat surface of massive roots, first upon the one laid down in the canyon trail, and then climbing another which formed a neat bridge up to another plateau that afforded a splendid view of the Great Tree itself. This was clearly the main organizational center of the Desolate Gardens; the root-bridge deposited them in a broad square abutting the edge of the plateau upon one side, with a tall fountain in its center and a ring of weathered stone structures on the other edge. The group gave all that little attention, though, spreading out as soon as they had the room and turning to stare at the Tree which reared up on another flattened peak in the near distance.
Its height was difficult to guess at a glance, simply because they lacked a mental frame of reference for a tree that huge. The trunk rose directly behind the ruins of some ancient castle of black volcanic stone, now half-crumbled and seemingly held up as much by the colossal root system bracing it as by any engineering of its own.
“The Tree herself stands exactly where the Mouth once was,” Elaine said, stepping forward to one end of the line in which they arranged themselves to gaze out at the view. “Or at least, that is where she was planted. Ever since, she has grown in a shape to preserve that fortress; even her trunk itself expanded only toward the other side, to leave clear the space in what was once the courtyard. That is why the trunk seems oddly flat from this angle. Now, you may be assured this place is entirely free of infernal taint, but once upon a time, that fortress was raised by the legions of Hell itself, at Elilial’s own command. It was the citadel and first staging area from which the Third Hellwar was launched. The final battle occurred here, beginning in this very spot: this is the plateau where Lord Ampophrenon marshaled his forces for the last attack. In that courtyard he and those of his allies who survived the engagement confronted Elilial herself, and bargained with the lives of her own captured daughters to ensure her surrender and departure from this world, and the closure of the Mouth. The mortal hosts were not foolish enough to trust in her word alone to keep the gateway shut, of course. It was a rare time of cooperation, when humans, elves, and dwarves all lent their craft to the sanctification of this place, culminating in Rowan’s visit and the planting of the Great Tree. And there she stands to this day, making of what was once the world’s very center of corruption a place, now, of peace and purity.”
Silence fell after she finished speaking, though it held for only a few seconds.
Teal turned toward Shaeine, and the two exchanged a silent look laden with meaning. Teal took the drow’s hand and gently squeezed, then slowly shifted. As usual, Vadrieny rose to stand half a foot taller upon her colossal talons. Shaeine’s slender fingers looked even more delicate, wrapped around those huge black claws, but the archdemon only gave them another, impossibly gentle squeeze, then just as gently released her.
Then she spread her huge wingspan and launched herself skyward. In seconds she had soared away, arcing up and then down into the ruined courtyard of the ancient fortress, where she was lost to sight behind the roots and walls.
“Oh. Oh, dear,” Toraldt fretted. “I’m not sure that’s…”
“Vadrieny is a friend,” said Trissiny. “Now.”
“Can someone truly still be a person they once were, if they have no memory of it?” Juniper asked, staring after Vadrieny and absently scratching the crest of feathers atop Sniff’s head. “Choices make us who we are. As terrible as it must be to lose all of yours, it does mean you can become someone entirely new.”
“What do you think?” Toby asked quietly, stepping up next to Shaeine as she stooped to pick up F’thaan, who was yipping at the distant tree in agitation after Vadrieny’s departure. “Would she prefer to be alone?”
“They need to face this with only one another,” Shaeine said, stroking the little hellhound’s head until he quieted. “But…only for a time. I think that by the time I can reach them on foot, they’ll both want the company of family.”
“You’re going alone, then?” Trissiny asked.
Shaeine turned, her garnet-colored eyes darting across the group. Uncharacteristically, her white eyebrows drew together in a muted expression of consternation, one that would have been barely perceptible on most people but was practically glaring in contrast to her usual reserve.
“This is…difficult. For my people, in the traditions in which I am invested, concepts such as ‘family’ are defined most rigidly and with great formality. But…but to Teal, and to Vadrieny, you are all as precious as blood. I think… I believe they would want to have you nearby.” She hesitated, making a tiny noise as if clearing her throat, though of course Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion never betrayed such discomfiture in public. “Though the reverse of that is that we’ve all just hiked up the mountains for most of the day, and neither would blame you in the slightest if you decided to rest here, first.”
“We’d blame us,” Ruda said firmly.
“’zactly,” Gabriel agreed. “Well said.”
“You all right, June?” Toby asked. “Sorry, not to hover or anything, but the memory of you collapsing in the Sea is kind of burned into my eyes…”
“You’re a good dad, Toby,” the dryad said fondly. “Anyway, yeah, I’m fine. It’s running that does me in; steady movement as actually pretty comfortable. C’mon, our friends need us.”
“I…value all of you,” Shaeine said, still looking strangely uncertain. “Tremendously.”
Her mouth opened once more, as if she planned to continue, then she abruptly turned and stepped onto the root bridge again. The rest of them followed immediately, forming a neat line upon the narrow path and leaving their somewhat bemused escorts behind.
“Well!” Principia said brightly when even Fross’s glow had vanished over the edge of the cliff. “I guess that leaves us to settle in. Which is going to be done where, again?”
“Ah.” Elaine tore her eyes from the spot where the students disappeared. “Well, of course, the Desolate Gardens are meant to be a place of contemplation and spiritual retreat, not a place of comfort. The Order provides necessities for visiting pilgrims, but…not more. You may have noticed the structures behind us have doorways and windows, but neither wood nor glass. They are left that way deliberately. There is space to sleep, but it will be very much like camping. Fortunately, the young ones seemed quite comfortable with that yesterday.”
“That sounds absolutely perfect,” Principia assured her. “I always say too much comfort is bad for people, especially young people. That building over there open? Excellent. C’mon, Lang, let’s stow everybody’s gear and have a spot ready for whenever they get back.”
“I wouldn’t be altogether sure how soon that will be,” Elaine said, again frowning in the direction of the old fortress and the mighty tree which embraced it. “The journey to that spot in particular is… Well, it’s usually the final goal of pilgrims here, not the first. That place is at the center of the Great Tree’s own focus, and swirls with ancient power. Whatever they have come here to find, they will find it there.”
“Leave it to those kids to skip all the preliminary steps,” Merry grunted. “Not to mention leaving all their rucksacks here. I hope they don’t expect me to figure out which belongs to who.”
“Less whining, more hauling,” Prin said cheerfully. “On the double, corporal.”
“Let us help you with those,” Toraldt offered.
“Oh, that’s okay,” she said, already loading her arms with discarded supply bags. “You two’ve done the lion’s share of work getting us here; let a couple of troopers feel useful for a change.”
“How’d you like to feel useful enough for the both of us, LT?”
“What did I just say about whining?”
“Same thing you always say, so as I usual I assumed you didn’t mean it. Since you know it never stops the whining.”
“You’re lucky I find you so harmlessly, ineffectually amusing, Lang,” Principia rejoined, already trotting off toward one of the empty Order structures with her armload of bags. “Hell, you’re lucky anybody does.”
“Seriously, though, LT,” Merry said more quietly as they neared the building, passing out of earshot of their two Order guides. “Aren’t you concerned we’re getting a little…off-mission, here?”
“This is the mission,” Principia replied, stepping into the shadowed doorway. Beyond was an open common room with more dark doorways branching off. There was a fireplace, currently dark and cold but with wood stacked nearby. Old torches sat in iron sconces around the walls; unsurprisingly, there was not a trace of modern fairy lighting. The place was dim, in the little daylight that streamed through its open windows, but at least it was clean.
“Eugh,” Merry grunted, dropping her armload of the students’ belongings in an unceremonious heap. “What do you suppose passes for plumbing out here?”
“It’s astonishing to me how bloody spoiled a soldier on duty can be. A hundred years ago your first task on making camp would’ve been digging your own damn latrines.”
“Last Rock is the mission,” Merry said, resuming both the discussion and her more serious tone. “You might have noticed we’re now about thirty clicks beyond hell and gone from there, LT.”
“I think you underestimate the size of the initial success that was represented by Arachne not teleporting both of us into the sun. She explicitly threatened to toss me through a hellgate if I ever showed my face in Last Rock again.”
“And you still went there?” Merry’s eyebrows shot upward. “You know what’s infuriating? I honestly have never been able to figure out of if you plan everything twelve steps beyond everyone else, or are just reckless and have been lucky this far because it never occurs to anyone you even might be doing something as crazy as you always are. Either one explains you so perfectly.”
“It’s all about knowing your battleground and your enemy, Lang,” Principia said, turning a sly smile on her after depositing her own armful of knapsacks more carefully on the floor. “Arachne fully means those things when she threatens them, but by the time a year has passed she rarely cares enough to be bothered carrying them out. Honestly, the fact she doesn’t carry grudges like a normal elf is one of her more redeeming qualities. Anyway, this is the situation we’re in. This is what we had to do to establish relations with the University as the High Commander ordered, and so here we are.”
“You don’t think it’s significant that Tellwyrn’s first act was to send us as far from her University as she could?”
“This is nothing like as far as she could send us, Lang. We’re with one of her precious student groups, albeit the one that needs us least. Trust me, this is working. Sure, the manner of it isn’t what Rouvad wanted—or what I did—but in life as in war you rarely get what you’d like best. Victory comes from learning how to turn setbacks into opportunities. That’s the key. There’s always some way to take advantage of whatever mess befalls you, if you can only figure out how.”
Merry heaved a sigh, then crossed back to the doorway to peer out at the sunset. “Yeah? I dunno, Locke, it kinda seems like the opposite is happening. I’m sure you’ve noticed these kids appear to want you dead.”
“Do they?” Principia mused, her smile widening.
“It’s…weird.” Merry turned back to her with a frown. “I thought they seemed pretty relaxed about your mutual history in Puna Dara. But then the General and the drow were added to the mix and suddenly I was sure one of the girls was going to push you over a cliff on the way here.”
“Nothing so murderous, I assure you,” Principia said, now openly grinning. “Let me put it this way: they’re kids, I’m an authority figure—to my own surprise—and now they’ve picked up one of their number with an ax to grind. It’s actually a good sign that they’re close enough to absorb one another’s attitudes that quickly, and revealing how they all pick up on Shaeine’s dislike in particular. Even Trissiny, who I’d have thought would step into the role of leader, both because of her own personality and because Hands of Avei generally do. And yet, here we are! Learning fascinating things.”
“Things that might still get you pushed off a cliff.”
“It won’t come anywhere near that.” Principia shook her head. “They’ll find a way to get their own back and feel vindicated. And in fact, I intend to help them.”
“You?” Merry put on a shocked face. “Embrace humility? I will believe that when I see it. Wait, actually, on second thought I might not.”
“You’ve never actually seen me deserve a comeuppance, Lang,” Principia said mildly. “This may not be the kind of thing you’re accustomed to expecting from me, but punishment can be oddly therapeutic when you actually have it coming. We all crave a kind of balance with the world around us, and suffer when we’ve been pushed out of it, even by our own actions. And besides, the revenge of incompetent adversaries can be very profitable!”
“I keep forgetting how absolutely crazy you Eserites are,” Merry grunted.
“Think about it: if there’s some kind of drow honor thing at stake here, it’ll be something formal and complicated. Everything with Narisians is formal and complicated. A way will surface for me to offer some kind of proper amends to Shaeine and her family—and that will form a connection between us. Any connection can be exploited, Lang. It’s like I said: from setbacks, opportunity.”
Merry gave her an openly skeptical look, but didn’t argue any further, just turning back to the door and its view of the Great Tree, where their charges were now on their way to meet, apparently, their destiny.