A hand came to rest on Toby’s shoulder and gave him a gentle shake.
“Yep, I had a feeling a whole city full of people in need would bring this out. Do we need to go have The Talk, Toby, or are you gonna go eat something and rest without having to be carried?”
“Hi, Gabe,” Toby said without looking up. “Your concern for my well-being is noted. And it’d carry more weight if you hadn’t just ambushed me from behind while I’m working with a knife.”
“I’ll admit it, I’m willing to play a little rougher with you than with people who can’t twist me into a sailor knot one-handed. The heck kind of potato is this?” Gabriel added, stepping up alongside Toby and picking up one of the tubers he was slicing.
“They’re taro,” he said, pushing the slices he’d just made into the pot next to his cutting board and taking the root from Gabriel’s hand to begin cutting it up. “They grow in the northern Tidestrider isles and Onkawa. Apparently they’re a delicacy this far south, and a whole bunch were just donated, so in the stew they go.”
“Seriously, man,” Gabriel said, leaning forward over the table to catch Toby’s eye. “If you’re already back here doing this instead of out there laying hands on the injured, I know you must be feeling the burnout. For the umpteenth time, you can help fewer people if you exhaust yourself trying.”
“You’re a good friend, Gabe,” Toby said, smiling and continuing to chop. “But no, I’m… This is something different. The priestess in the trauma camp said things were under control and gave us that exact speech, sent all the light-wielders away to rest up for tomorrow. I do like to be helpful, but right now I have some stuff on my mind and doing repetitive tasks in relative quiet helps me think.”
Relative was the key word; Toby had set himself up in an improvised pantry attached to an equally improvised kitchen, where vegetable stew and flatbread were being prepared on portable arcane ranges and hastily-built brick ovens for the overnight shift of relief workers who’d just arrived fresh from Viridill and Jennidira. Being in a large canvas tent, there wasn’t much in the way of sound protection, just chest-high barriers of crates walling off this corner. They could see and hear everything outside, but it was a little island of semi-solitude amid the bustle of the aid workers’ camp.
“Oh, yeah.” Gabriel started to lean against the table, then immediately backed away when it shifted under his weight. “I have been asked to relay a loud complaint to Omnu via you about messing in valkyrie business. Personally, I’m quite happy how all that went down, but, y’know. I did promise to pass it along. I don’t suppose this is related to…?”
“Yeah,” Toby said quietly, eyes on his work. “That wasn’t Omnu. It was me.”
The soft, rhythmic swish and thunk of the knife going through taro into the cutting board filled the few seconds of silence.
“You can raise the dead now?” Gabriel finally asked in a very careful tone.
“Of course not. But Omnu can. He’s a god, why wouldn’t he be able to? He just won’t. Ordinarily.”
“There are…a lot of really good reasons for that, Toby. Death is one of those things that can’t play favorites.”
“You don’t need to explain to me why death is important to life. Everything lives because something else dies. You think these taro plants wanted to be yanked out of the ground and chopped up for stew? The balance has to be respected or it will break. No death, no life. I get it.” He swept the slices into the pot and picked up another root. “And there’s a lot else that was wrong with that, too. It turns out that with the combination of Omnu stepping in to handle a crisis with a holy nova, some basic meditative techniques of mindful awareness, and the knowledge of how gods and their consciousness actually works… I can pretty much take over. Make him do whatever I want him to do.”
He sliced up two more taro roots before Gabriel spoke again.
“Maybe you really shouldn’t be doing that.”
“You don’t have to tell me,” Toby said with a sigh. “Good gods, do I not want that kind of power, or the responsibility that goes with it. It’s easy enough to just say I won’t do it again, but… Omnu only steps in that way when the need is extreme, and in a crisis, with me already knowing how… I honestly can’t swear I’d never think it was necessary again. But you know what?”
He brought down the knife harder than before, almost like a cleaver, taking off a large chunk from the top of the next root. Gabriel glanced down at it, then back up at Toby’s face.
“I am not sorry,” Toby said, quietly but with fierce emphasis. “People were dead, and now they aren’t. My friends were gone, and now they’re back. Even knowing that was a bad idea and a wrong thing to do, even being scared of what it means, I have zero regrets. If anything… My entire spiritual journey over the last few years has been learning what it actually means to be peaceful, but not passive. How it’s necessary to act, how the way of peace means finding gentle means to impose your will, not being free from the responsibility to do something. And Omnu? He doesn’t even talk to me. We go on an absurd quest and meet half the Pantheon, and never a peep from him. I ritually invoke him to seek his advice and all I get are warm fuzzy feelings. If I don’t get to sit around meditating and growing vegetables like I was raised to want, why should he? Who should be taking more responsibility and more action than a god?”
Toby finally set down the knife entirely and planted his palms on the cutting board, bracketing it and the half-chopped root. He stared down at them, seeing something far away.
“When it all comes down to it, I find I resent Omnu. Never mind regret, I feel vindicated. And that… That’s pretty alarming, Gabe. I feel like I’m at the beginning of a road that goes places I know I don’t want to go, but I’m not sure if I can actually turn around anymore.”
Gabriel rested a hand on his shoulder again, silently.
“Thanks for listening,” Toby said, finally looking up at him with a wan smile. “Look… I wanna work and chew on my thoughts for a while to sort this out. Would you mind being an ear again, later, when I have more of a handle on it?”
“Absolutely,” Gabriel said immediately. “I mean, not at all. I mean, you know what I mean. I get it, this has been a day of heavy stuff and as much as I kind of hate myself for the selfishness of it, it’s pretty helpful having all this work to run around doing while it processes. Just had a chat with my parents that was even more revelatory than the fact of them being here, and…” He hesitated, looking past Toby at something just outside the tent. “And what timing, looks like the next item on my agenda just showed up.”
“Wait, did you say parents?” Toby looked up at him, blinking. “Plural?”
“Yeah, that’s gonna be another of those conversations.” Gabriel patted his shoulder. “You gonna be okay here for now, then?”
“Yeah, I’ve got food to prepare and a space to think, that’s all I need. You?”
“This is gonna get more awkward before it gets less so,” Gabriel said with a sigh, finally tearing his gaze from what had been holding it outside the kitchen tent to give Toby a wry grimace. “We can both have that long talk once everything’s a bit more settled.”
“It’s a date,” Toby said, smiling. “Don’t forget to get some rest tonight.”
“Goes double for you.”
He went back to chopping roots in peace while Gabriel navigated his way around the stacks of boxes, skirting the edge of the open tent so as not to interfere with the people cooking, and stepped out of the glow of its fairy lamps into the relative dimness of Ninkabi’s front square. Most of the streetlamps had been destroyed what with one thing and another, but various temporary sources of light both magical and burning were set up around the centers of activity, and the towering willow Khadizroth had planted in the very stones glowed in the darkness with a soothing blue-green radiance.
“Natchua,” he said, striding up to where she was hovering outside the kitchen tent, “I want a word with you.”
The drow actually winced. In stark contrast to her usual demeanor, she looked fidgety and nervous, and now seemingly afraid to meet his gaze, despite having clearly come here specifically to seek him out.
“Gabe,” she said, pausing to swallow heavily. “So, uh, Jonathan tells me you’ve had…a…conversation.”
“It was barely an introduction,” he said tersely, strolling off into the dimness between two tents and leaving her to follow. “There is a shit ton of stuff that urgently needs doing in this city and no time for the in-depth conversation that’s gonna need to be. So, I know the basics, and then we all went to help out where we could.”
“Right.” She followed him to a quieter and dimmer space behind the row of service tents, up against one side of the old trading hall, and there he stopped. Natchua drew in a deep breath and deliberately straightened her back. “Well. Look, all this is—”
“You know what, I really don’t think I’m ready to talk about ‘all this’ just yet,” he interrupted. “I wanted to ask you about something else.”
“I…yeah, sure,” she said, lowering her eyes. “Fair. I know you don’t like me, so…”
Gabriel sighed quietly. “I always liked you, Natch.”
She looked up again, blinking rapidly. “Wait. Really?”
“I dunno how subtle you thought you were being with that ‘edgy angry deep drow’ act but in all honesty it was amazingly obvious to everyone on campus that you were grappling with serious issues of your own. Issues of upbringing and heritage that caused you to act like an ass to everyone you met. Believe me, I can relate to that. I always figured, you and I could have some great conversations once you’d figured out some of your stuff and were ready to. But then you were gone, so…” He shrugged.
Natchua was staring at him with her mouth slightly open. “You…never said anything.”
“You know, most people aren’t Chase Masterson,” he replied acerbically. “If you lash out at everybody who approaches you, they will very quickly learn not to bother. Even I figured that out immediately, and let’s face it, I’ve never been the most socially astute person.”
She dropped her gaze again. “Well, ouch. And fair. I just… Look, I never meant for any of this to happen, I just—”
“Omnu’s breath, I just said I don’t wanna talk about it,” he exclaimed. “I just said that! Okay, you know what, fuck it, fine, let’s rip off that scab. I get it, okay? Every sexual relationship I’ve ever had took me by surprise. Life is complicated, and shit just happens. It pretty much hurts just to exist most of the time and you have to grab whatever happiness you can find because the gods only know when there’ll be any more. You may be a sketchy weirdo, but I trust my dad to know what he’s doing, probably more than anyone else in the world. And even if he doesn’t, a girlfriend half his age is the kind of mistake the guy’s more than earned. Eighteen years of being solely responsible for me can’t have been easy. I understand, Natchua. I’m not mad at you, or him; if anything I’m a lot more concerned about that demon than I am about you. But it’s weird, all right? This is fucking weird, and I have had zero time to process it, and I am not ready for this conversation. Okay?”
Natchua’s mouth had fallen open again, but she finally shut it with an audible snap before saying in a much more level tone, “That demon is your own—”
“She’s nothing to me,” he said curtly. “My dad obviously sees something in her and his opinion counts for a lot, so… I will give that a chance. But whatever there is between Hester and me is in the future. All I know right now is what it’s like in Hell and what kind of person survives there.”
“Hesthri,” Natchua corrected, “and she’s something to me right now. I don’t need you to like her but you need to refrain from insulting her in front of me.”
Gabriel hesitated, then let out a surprised little bark of laughter. “Well, fair enough, you’re right. My apologies. But anyway, if we can finally refrain from having this conversation I keep telling you I’m not up for, I wanted to talk to you about something else in particular.”
“Well, sure,” she said more hesitantly. “What do you need?”
“As I understand it, your whole deal is you have basically all the knowledge of applied infernomancy, right?”
“All of the Elilinist tradition,” she said warily. “The Scyllithenes have other methods, and there are demon-only spells I know but can’t actually use without blowing myself up. None of it was my idea, either, and I can’t recommend strongly enough that you stay out of infernal magic. I can attest that it brings nothing but trouble.”
“I was recently informed,” he said, “by a source I would consider extremely knowledgeable but dubiously trustworthy, that there’s a method by which I could channel my own hethelax blood to form a kind of mental screen against telepathy.”
Natchua narrowed her eyes in thought. “Blocking telepathy? Well… Yes, actually, and it would barely constitute infernomancy. Hethelaxi already passively channel the magic in their blood into an intermittent berserk state; the trick is using mental discipline to control that, create a sort of wall of pure rage and aggression that surrounds your mind and blocks any efforts to peer into it without affecting your thoughts. Actually, that should be a lot easier for you than for any other full or half-hethelax, what with the divine magic you’re also carrying. And whatever knowledge of Vidian mental techniques you’ve picked up, even I know the higher practices of that are all about cultivating two different mental states at once.”
“Not…exactly,” he murmured, also frowning pensively, “but close enough. Although… I don’t think that would work. I’m talking about a powerful telepath, someone capable of penetrating any mental defense.”
“Telepathy, actual telepathy, is usually divine magic,” she said warily. “Exactly what or who are you worried about trying to read your mind?”
“This is paladin stuff, Natchua. Trust me, the less you know, the better.”
“I’m serious, it’s not something you need to be involved with. If that means you can’t help me, then… Well, okay, I’ll look somewhere else.”
“No,” she said quickly, “no, I think I’d rather you ask me. At least I won’t try to trick you into something dangerous, and most people who know infernal magic would. All right, so you can’t just block telepathy; there actually is another way, using a variant of the same method. It’s considerably more difficult, though.”
“I’m all ears.”
“You’d still be using the firewall defense, sort of. Except instead of a blank surface of pure emotion forcibly keeping people out, you’re cultivating a superficial layer of false thought. The idea is that anyone peering into your mind will see what looks like you reacting predictably to whatever’s going on around you, and so they don’t bother to look any deeper. So your real thoughts remain hidden by subtlety rather than brute force.”
“I see what you mean,” he murmured. “That sounds like it’d be a lot of work to set up. But…it might just work.”
“It’s a tricky habit to cultivate,” she agreed, nodding. “Like I said, you’re probably in a better position to do this than basically anyone, but you’re still looking at some major mental discipline. Expect a lot of time spent in meditation and thought exercises. I can show you the initial method, but after that point, you’ll probably get better help from Toby and Shaeine when it comes to disciplining your mind to do this without you having to constantly focus on it. Um… How soon are you expecting to need to use it?”
“No idea,” he admitted. “But when it comes to preparedness, getting started sooner is always better than later.”
“And when it comes to getting the drop on somebody with greater knowledge than you, all you need is one moment of surprise,” she said, nodding. “All right… Let’s go find a place to sit down and I’ll walk you through it.”
“Perfect, I know a cleared-out alley just over here. C’mon.” He turned and headed off, skirting the side of the trading hall, and Natchua followed.
“Whatever you’re into, just be careful,” she said primly after a moment. “You know how your father and I worry.”
Gabriel slammed to a halt and turned, fixing her with a flat stare.
Natchua tried for a grin, which gradually melted into a pained grimace under his silent gaze.
“Right,” she said eventually. “We’re not there yet.”
Very slowly, he raised his eyebrows.
“…we’re not going to get there, are we.”
“Just shut up and walk, Natchua.”
Naturally, when it came time to rest, they had retreated from the city. Ninkabi remained such a buzzing hive of activity even after full dark that it had taken nearly an hour of walking to reach a site the pack felt was sufficiently wild to let them relax. Ingvar selected a bare hilltop, as they were not trying to conceal their presence, since it afforded a good view both of the city and the nearby highway leading to its gates. It would not do to be snuck up on by any new turn of events, given the many surprises that had come over the last few days.
Elder Shiraki had remained inside the walls, stating that he could put off fatigue for several days more and would not fail to lend his aid when so many needed help. Rainwood remained with them, though.
“What do you make of that,” Ingvar asked the shaman while others behind them wearily but efficiently set up two campfires for the whole group to huddle around. He had helped gather wood, and watched long enough to satisfy himself that the groups were not separating again. To his satisfaction, Huntsmen and Rangers continued to mingle, along with the more disparate members of his own party. Even the wolves showed no hesitation and were now all flopped down and snoring amid their human pack. It had been a long day for them, as well.
Now, he and Rainwood were watching tiny colored lights dancing in the darkness all around. As they looked on, a trio of them—pale blue, green, and orange—buzzed close and then began circumnavigating the base of their hill, chiming happily all the while.
“This is going to shake some things up,” Rainwood mused, studying the pixies. “It’s probably for the best that they all left the city, but… Look at them, spreading out in every direction. They’ll be all over the West in weeks, and gods only know what’ll happen when they get into Athan’Khar. I suspect they’ll be welcomed in the east; lots of witches in Viridill, descended from refugees who settled there after the Enchanter Wars.”
“My impression today has been that they are generally not like Fross from Last Rock. They seem… Childlike. Almost dangerously so.”
“No almost about it,” the elf said gravely. “They are notoriously simple-minded and playful, and for beings that spew pure elemental energy, that could be dangerous. Fortunately they’ll probably avoid human civilization, since enchantments have become so prevalent and they won’t like to be near arcane magic. That’s probably why they left Ninkabi once the demons were all taken care of. No, I think the biggest impact this is going to have is on the practice of fae magic. There are Viridi witches and elvish groves to the east, and Tidestrider wavespeakers to the west. Pixies have always been among the most sought-after familiars a shaman could have; the sheer power they supply is infinite, the most direct line to Naiya that’s available to mortals. It’s bottlenecked a bit by how much they can channel at any one time, but… It used to be if you wanted a pixie familiar you had to go through the Deep Wild, which was very likely to kill you, and into the Pixie Queen’s grove, which was almost certain to kill you, befriend one, and then get back out through more Deep Wild with a loud fairy in tow guaranteed to attract everything that even might want to kill you. It was only the rare and already powerful who pulled that off. Now, suddenly, there’ll be dozens, hundreds of practitioners with pixie familiars. I can’t even begin to guess how this will change things.”
“Change is constant,” Ingvar murmured. “We don’t have to like it, we just have to embrace it, or be crushed beneath its feet.”
“Cheerful,” Rainwood said dryly. “Hm… I wasn’t sure before, but I think the person coming toward us from the highway is heading for us deliberately.”
“Person?” Ingvar asked. Behind him, several heads were raised at that, and Aspen and Tholi came forward to join them. “Well, we are setting up camp on a hilltop. I can imagine people would be curious.”
“Not many people are out being curious in the middle of the night, near a recently-attacked city,” said Tholi. “Not people with good intentions, anyway.”
“I mention it because I’m pretty sure he was tracking us specifically,” said Rainwood. “And that’s suggestive. This group leaves a very distinctive trail.”
“So it does,” Ingvar murmured. “Well, then. If we are to have a guest, let’s be hospitable. Dimbi, November, would you please set aside a portion of that flatbread for a visitor?”
“Oh, I see how it is,” Dimbi snorted. “Set the women to do the homemaking. Gonna revert to tradition after all, Ingvar?”
He turned to give her a wry look. “I made a request of the two people who are carrying the food. But if you’re going to make an issue of it, I can have Tholi take over.”
Dimbi laughed at him, already obligingly laying out another portion of dried meat and fruit on a spare piece of flatbread.
“Thank you,” Ingvar said politely.
It was a wait of only a few more minutes before the single traveler came into view of human eyes, lit by the firelight. Ingvar began to have an odd certainty who was coming, even before he drew close enough to reveal his bearded visage, or the traditional Huntsman’s regalia he wore.
“Brother Andros,” Tholi exclaimed in surprise.
“Tholi,” the Bishop of Shaath rumbled, pausing to study him up and down. “So this is where you ran off to. Well, I am glad to see you in good company.”
“Welcome, Brother,” Ingvar said, stepping forward and offering a hand.
Andros Varanus came the rest of the way, holding his gaze, and clasped his offered wrist in the traditional manner. “Ingvar. It is good to see you, as well. I had begun to fear that I never would, again.”
“Another Huntsman?” Taka asked, peering critically at the new arrival. “You missed all the fun.”
“Taka, don’t be rude,” Aspen admonished, earning an incredulous stare in response.
“Indeed,” Andros agreed, releasing Ingvar’s hand and turning to frown in the direction of Ninkabi. “She speaks an awkward truth. While the whole world reacted to dire threats and met a foe against whom my skills as a Huntsman would have been sorely needed, I was stuck in Tiraas, dealing with magical and political affairs, and only arrived here after it is long settled. It is a sobering moment, when a man is forced to recognize exactly the kind of useless old man he will one day become.”
“That’s needlessly grim, Brother,” said Ingvar with a small smile. “I’ve learned, somewhat against my will, that one is never too old to change when the need for change becomes severe enough.”
“Yes,” Andros said evenly, turning back to him. “Yes, I understand you have learned a great deal since you set out on your vision quest. We have begun to hear word in Tiraas, already, of the changes you bring.”
“Awkward truths,” Ingvar agreed softly.
Andros held his eyes again, studying him closely, then nodded once. “Walk with me in the forest, Brother. There are things we must discuss.”