Tag Archives: Adimel

Prologue – Volume 5

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After everything, it was strangely pleasing just to be out in nature.

He walked at a moderate pace, being in no hurry. Golden tallgrass stretched away in all directions, a sight familiar from the border of the Golden Sea, though this was subtly different country. The ground here rolled and undulated slightly, the grass helping to conceal little valleys and subtle hillocks; it was the kind of terrain that could easily have tripped him up had he tried to rush through it, city boy that he was. This grass, too, seemed a shorter variant than what lived around the Great Plains. Its upper fronds rose barely to the level of his chin, not obscuring his view the way the tallgrass of the Golden Sea did. It was darker in color, too, closer to amber.

The sun was arcing toward its zenith and beating down from a cloudless sky, the kind of weather that threatened to burn exposed skin, were his skin vulnerable to that. He found the heat a little tiring, but also not unpleasant. Cicadas, invisible in the grass all around, provided a constant music underscored by a faint, refreshing breeze and the rustling it caused among the stalks. Once in a while there came the cry of a distant hawk.

On he walked, toward the line of trees in the distance. Though he hardly needed the support, he had his scythe out, held in one hand near the blade, and used it as a walking stick. Occasionally a strand of tallgrass would be nicked in passing and immediately wither, but luckily the weapon was long enough that few reached it. It was a good few miles from the nearest town—not a small hike. He had time, though. He’d never been an outdoorsy person, really, but something about the peace and quiet made him begin to appreciate some of Juniper’s speeches.

He tilted his head slightly, glancing to the side and listening to a voice not physically audible. After a few moments, he came to a stop, planting the butt of the scythe’s haft on the ground and slowly peering about. As far as the eye could see, he was totally alone out here on the rolling plain, still a long walk from the forest and already beyond sight of the town.

“Well, I appreciate not being shot,” he said aloud. “How close were you planning to let me get before saying anything?”

There was no sign of any response for another few moments. After pausing, he shrugged and took another step.

The elf seemed to materialize right out of the tallgrass, holding a staff and garbed in a robe dyed in patterns of white and bronze that blended perfectly with the plants. He inclined his head, expression remaining impassive. Three more popped up, one carrying a bow, two with tomahawks in hand. Though armed, they kept their weapons at their sides and their stances free of aggression, staring flatly at the person they had surrounded.

“Well met,” the man with the staff said. “I am Adimel. What brings you?”

“I’m Gabriel Arquin,” he replied, carefully nodding his head back to precisely the same degree.

“The Hand of Vidius.”

“Oh!” Gabriel blinked. “You know about that, then.”

“We live in a grove,” Adimel replied dryly, “not the underside of a rock.”

“Uh, sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it,” Gabriel said, wincing. “I’m not used to being…known. It’s barely been a year and I was kind of a nobody before. It’s eerie that word’s traveled all the way out… Y’know, that’s neither here nor there. First of all, I’m not looking to bring trouble, don’t worry.”

“Most of the trouble brought to the groves of woodkin has come packaged in good intentions,” Adimel said evenly. “I intend no disrespect. To answer your question, we have been studying you, and considering. An uninvited human would have been intercepted already, but you present…a puzzle.”

“I get that a lot,” he said solemnly.

“You smell of demon blood and divine magic. You have a soul reaper following you, which could be a great character reference or the opposite. You carry a weapon of the gods, but also…” Drawing his lips into a thin line, Adimel pointed at Ariel. “That.”

“I didn’t make Ariel, if that’s what you’re concerned about,” Gabriel said, placing his free hand on her hilt. “I don’t know who did. She’s helpful, if not exactly personable…”

“That wasn’t the worry at all; no one your age would know such craft. And…Ariel?” The elf raised an eyebrow. “You couldn’t find one called Jane?”

“What does everyone think that’s so very clever?” Ariel asked aloud.

“Shh.” Gabriel patted her scabbard. “Look, I know elves like your privacy, and I’m sorry to just show up like this. It isn’t my intention to be disruptive; I just need to ask your Elders for help with something.”

“What do you need, paladin?” Adimel asked in a neutral tone. “Your status as Hand trumps most other considerations, in the end. The grove would ordinarily be glad to host you, but this is an awkward time. If your request is important, the Elders will still hear it, at the least.”

Gabriel hesitated, glancing to the side; the elf followed his eyes, clearly somehow able to perceive Vestrel even if he couldn’t actually see her.

“I would like to speak with the Avatar.”

The cicadas sang over the wind in the silence which followed.

“I encountered one in an old Elder God complex under Puna Dara,” Gabriel explained when it became clear none of the elves intended to say anything. “That facility is, uh…no longer accessible. Vestrel said there are only two others still open on this continent, and the other one’s under Tiraas and being used by the Imperial government. I sort of figured the grove Elders would be more reasonable to talk to than the Emperor.”

“Why,” Adimel said slowly, “do you want to speak with another Avatar?”

“I have questions. About where the world comes from, how it ended up this way. About the gods, in particular.”

“Some of those answers may be dangerous to acquire,” the elf warned.

Gabriel nodded. “Vidius also has questions. He called me because of that. Because he thinks the gods have been wrong about some important things, and fears what might happen if they don’t adapt. The Pantheon is shifting all over; the new Hand of Avei is a half-elf who’s been trained by Eserites. My whole purpose is going to involve changing things. And… It’s dangerous to introduce change into a system you don’t understand. I’d think elves would know something about that.”

Adimel glanced at each of his comrades in turn; none of them spoke, but stared back with subtle changes of expression which seemed to communicate something to him.

“Well.” The shaman thumped the butt of his staff against the earth once. “At the very least, the Elders will wish to hear your request, Gabriel Arquin. If nothing else, it is news to us that there are accessible Elder God systems available to the Tiraan and Punaji. I will not make you a promise on the Elders’ behalf, but I believe that if you are willing to share information, they will respond in fairness.”

“Well, that sounds good to me,” Gabriel said with a broad grin. “Fairness is pretty much the best anybody can hope for, right?”

“Indeed,” Adimel said gravely, inclining his head again. “If they are very lucky.”

“I don’t know,” Aspen said worriedly. “This place… It’s not safe for humans. I mean, with us he’s fine, but if you want to leave him out here…”

“All of that,” Kaisa said severely, “would have been worth considering before you insisted on dragging him along, girl.”

“If you really thought I was gonna just leave him behind,” the dryad flared.

“Please.” Ingvar nodded to the kitsune, reaching over to touch Aspen’s cheek. “I am very honored to have been included this far. No Huntsman has ever journeyed so far into the Deep Wild. If I can go no farther, it’s not as if I’ve a right to complain. This is family business, after all. And if Ekoi-sensei says the protection she has left will be enough, I see no reason at all to doubt her. Has she misled us yet?”

“She was pretty much a butthole to me in Last Rock,” Aspen grumbled, folding her arms.

“No offense, sis, but you kinda brought that on yourself,” Juniper pointed out.

“I was worried about you!”

“Yeah, I know. And I love you for it. But that, and then what happened to you right after…” Juniper shook her head, turning to Kaisa. “That’s really what all this is about, isn’t it? Maybe it’s just the two of us so far, but dryads are starting to interact with the mortal world. And we can’t keep doing it the way we have. It just gets people hurt.”

“That is the heart of it, Juniper,” Kaisa replied. “The world is changing. The daughters of Naiya must change, as well, and change is an inherently difficult thing for us to face—but no less important for that. I have done everything I can to make my own sisters see this, and by and large they simply will not. Perhaps we can still salvage something of your generation, however. I allowed you to bring your young man on this journey which is manifestly none of his business, Aspen, because I deem him an extremely positive influence on you. I strongly advise you to listen when he speaks. And for that alone, you can be certain I won’t allow him to come to harm.”

“Go see to your sister,” Ingvar said gently, squeezing Aspen’s hand once. Then he stepped back, beneath the branches of the cherry tree Kaisa had just caused to sprout from nothing. It now fanned overhead to a great height, heavily laden with pink blossoms which continually drifted downward, already having laid down a plush carpet over its roots, delineating a circle of protection. “I will be here when you return.”

“Stay safe, Ingvar,” Fross chimed, zipping around him once in a quick pixie hug before returning to the others.

Kaisa led the way into the deeper, darker grove, Fross hovering along right behind her and casting a silver glow upon the shadowy underbrush. Aspen brought up the rear, constantly turning to look back until Ingvar was out of sight through the trees. He stood calmly, with his longbow in hand, gazing out at the jungle of the Deep Wild.

Within the forested crater of Jacaranda’s grove it was both cooler and darker, with moisture in the air as well as resounding through the stillness in the form of numerous streams trickling down toward the deep pool in the center. Tiny flickers of light and color were visible in the near distance, but none of the pixies were brave enough to approach the group.

“You’re unusually quiet, Fross,” Juniper observed softly as the procession picked their way steadily downward.

“Yeah, sorry. It’s just…memories, you know? This place seemed a lot bigger in my mind than it looks now. And scarier. Now it’s just…trees.”

“It’s called growing up,” Kaisa said from the head of the group, not glancing back at them. Amusement faintly laced her voice. “By and large, Fross, you have done well at it. The price for wisdom is innocence, but that is life’s best bargain. The only value of innocence is that which it persuades you it has—which is a lie.”

“Um, Professor Ekoi?” Fross chimed, drifting forward to flutter along beside the kitsune.

“It’s very unlikely I will be returning to Arachne’s school, Fross,” she replied, glancing at the pixie with a smile. “At least, not as a teacher. Since there is only family business between us now, you should call me Kaisa.”

“I, uh…okay. It’s just… Do you really think we can help her?”

A faint frown settled on Kaisa’s features, and one of her triangular ears twitched sideways twice. “A basic rule of life is that you cannot help a person who refuses to be helped. This entire situation…is tricky. Jacaranda’s predicament is not entirely her own fault. Any more than Juniper or Aspen’s is. Or yours. Or mine.” She shook her head. “Our mother scarcely deserves to be called by the word; we are all abandoned in one way or another, and none of you were taught anything you need to know before being hurled from the nest. This kind of intervention carries risk and no promise of success. But we must act on the presumption that any sister of ours is worth the effort. Jacaranda will not thank us for what we’re about to do…at least, not any time soon. But in the fullness of time, she yet may.”

“…okay.” Fross chimed a soft descending arpeggio.

“And Fross, purge irritating non-communication like ‘uh’ and ‘um’ from your speech. A wise person who has nothing to say says nothing; fools fill the air with meaningless noise. You are the daughter of a goddess, even if once removed, and the heir of a cultural legacy older than life on this world. Act like it.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

“Welcome to the family,” Aspen muttered from the back of the line.

The pool was visible before they reached it, and the thick clustering of multicolored pixies around it apparent long before that; their chiming was audible form halfway up the sides of the crater, even with the intervening trees and underbrush to soak up noise. Activity over Jacaranda’s pool itself was a lot more fervent than normal. Clearly, the Pixie Queen had been warned of their arrival.

“How dare you come here?” she shrieked as they lined up at the edge of her pool. She had gone so far as to rise from her usual reclining position, and now hovered upright above her little island in the center of the water, gossamer wings buzzing furiously. “I will not have dryads in my realm! Vile creatures, begone with you!”

“Good to see you, too, Jackie,” Aspen said dryly, lounging against a tree trunk and folding her arms. “How’ve you been?”

“DON’T YOU CALL ME THAT!” Jacaranda screamed, turning vivid pink with rage. “Pixies! I want these invaders gone. Get rid of them, my little ones!”

“Fross?” Juniper said warily as the hundreds of glittering lights around began to swirl menacingly, raising a cacophony of shrill little voices and buzzing wings.

Fross hovered forward, putting herself in front of Kaisa; in this proximity to so many of her kind, it was immediately obvious that she had a much brighter glow and larger aura. The surrounding pixies surged forward at the four on the bank of the pool.

Fross emitted a single pulse of pure arcane magic. A blue corona rippled out from her, instantly disorienting and stunning their attackers. Little voices switched from threats to shocked outcries as pixies tumbled from the air all around them, or drifted off-kilter in confusion.

After the first blast, Fross maintained a steadier, more subtle arcane current; not enough to do anything, but plenty to create an unpleasant reaction with the fae magic which absolutely saturated the heart of Jacaranda’s little kingdom. An abrasive whine of protest rose from the air itself, a sound that was thicker than sound, that crawled across the skin.

“Stop that!” Jacaranda wailed, planting her hands over her ears. “Stop it, stop it! No, wait—where are you going? Come back! Don’t leave me!”

All around, the pixies were fleeing, shooting desperately away from the noise and disruption despite their queen’s pleas. Aspen and Juniper were wincing and Kaisa had laid her ears flat against her skull, but none of them seemed nearly as badly affected.

Once they were all gone, Fross let the effect drop. After it, the silence was somehow even louder.

“Hello, my queen,” Fross chimed quietly. “I don’t suppose you even remember me.”

“Remember… You. Fross.” Jacaranda lowered her hands slowly from her ears, her face twisting into a snarl. “How dare you betray your queen? I gave you everything—your very existence! You’re mine, do you understand? I made you. I own you! You will bring the rest of my pixies back here right this second!”

“My queen,” Fross replied evenly. “…mother. It’s time we had a talk.”

“This is unexpected, of course,” Ravana said as she led him through the halls of her ancestral home. “When I submitted my application to the Service Society, it was with the presumption that I would not have an honored place on the waiting list. To be frank, I had not expected to interview a prospect for several years.”

“The Society takes great care to match a Butler with any prospective client with the utmost caution, your Grace,” Yancey said diffidently, following her at a perfectly discreet pace which called no attention to how much longer his legs were than hers. “It is a matter of compatibility rather than seniority. Clients are obliged to wait until a suitable match is made, irrespective of how long it takes.”

“Of course,” she agreed, “a wise system. I understand the relationship is considered quite intimate—though, naturally, my data is all secondhand. I applaud your regard for custom, Yancey; I am something of a traditionalist, myself. Still, Grace is a somewhat archaic form of address for my rank—technically correct, but more commonly associated with Bishops these days. I am phasing it out, along with the rest of my father’s ponderous pomposities.”

“Very good, my lady.”

“I understand,” she said thoughtfully, “you were previously Butler to Duchess Inara of House Tiradegh.”

“I had that honor, my lady.”

Nodding pensively, Ravana paused while Yancey slipped ahead of her to open the door at the end of the hall. He held it for her, bowing, and she glided through.

“I do not wish to seem indelicate.”

“I beg that you speak your mind, my lady. A Butler does not take offense, and the aim of our discussion is to assess honestly our suitability to form a contract.”

“Very well,” she said, eyes forward and voice contained. “Part of a Butler’s function is, of course, as a bodyguard. Rumors abound concerning the late Duchess’s passing, but the official and most credible account is that she was murdered. I wonder how it came to be that you were unable to prevent this.”

“A most reasonable concern, my lady. Please take no insult at the question, but may I presume that anything said between us will go no further?”

“You may rely on my discretion.” He walked at her side, a half-step behind, positioned just forward enough to discern her very faint smile though she didn’t turn to look at him. “I realize trust between us is not yet earned; for the moment, rest assured that I am not fool enough to antagonize the Service Society by betraying a confidence.”

“More than adequate assurance, my lady. Her Grace the Duchess left this world at a time and in a manner of her own choosing, in the pursuit of her own goals. I would have considered it a rank betrayal of our relationship to intervene, however her passing grieved me.”

“Ah. Then Lord Daraspian did not kill her?”

“He did, my lady. She arranged it with the utmost care.”

“Thus disgracing House Daraspian,” Ravana murmured, eyes narrowing infinitesimally in thought, “and further bringing down the scrutiny of the Empire, effectively cutting off its largely illicit sources of funds. And thereby assuring the future of its principal rival, House Tiradegh. What a fearless and fiendishly elegant maneuver. If there is one thing we aristocrats consistently fail to anticipate in one another, it is a willingness to embrace sacrifice.”

“Just so, my lady.”

They had arrived at another set of doors, and again he stepped ahead to open them and bow her through. Ravana emerged onto a balcony, Yancey following and closing the door behind them.

After a thousand years of rule, the manor of House Madouri was a huge complex completely encompassing the rocky hill upon which the city of Madouris had originally been built. The manor itself was a relatively small structure at the apex of the miniature mountain, itself palatial in size but dwarfed by the sprawl of gardens, lawns, fortifications, and other structures which made the complex a self-contained little city within Madouris and the most heavily fortified House position in the Empire.

Madouris itself stretched out in three directions; the towering outcrop of the manor abutted the canyon through which the River Tira coursed far below. It was a sizable city, rivaling Tiraas in scope, though not nearly so tightly packed. Madouris didn’t have much heavy industry compared to its neighbors, and thus had preserved more of its traditional architecture than Calderaas or Tiraas; the scrolltowers were concentrated at a central location for efficiency’s sake rather than spread across multiple offices over the city, and there were relatively few factories. The huge bulk of Falconer Industries rose ominously past the city walls to the northwest, fairly bristling with lightning-wreathed antennae. It, like much of the newer construction, had grown up outside the old walls. The age of fortifications had ended with the Enchanter Wars, according to conventional military wisdom.

The manor had the best view in the province, and this, Ravana’s balcony, had the best view in the manor.

“I am…dithering,” she said pensively, gazing out across the city her ancestors had ruled for a millennium. “The prospect of retaining a Butler may weigh my decisions in one direction or another. Classes resume in a few weeks, and I must decide before then whether to return to Last Rock, or take my education in a different direction altogether. If I do return to the University, having a Butler along would present difficulties. I rather think Professor Tellwyrn would make them even more difficult than necessary. She vividly disapproves of what she considers presumption in her students.”

“I will keep this under consideration, my lady. We are, of course, only in the earliest stages of our acquaintance. It is yet too early to commit to a relationship.”

“Of course, of course. I simply want you to be aware of my situation.”

“I appreciate your candor, my lady.”

“So. You have come to meet me, because you perused my application and felt we might have some compatibility.”

“Just so, my lady.”

“Knowing what I do of Duchess Inara Tiradegh, I take that as high praise indeed. What is it, Yancey, that attracts you to the prospect of my service?”

The Butler’s posture remained exquisitely poised, his expression neutral and speech perfectly diffident. “You remind me of her, my lady, both by reputation and by the details you yourself provided in your application.”

“House Madouri is not presently in nearly so secure a position as House Tiradegh, it pains me to admit. We are older, wealthier, more powerful by any measure, that is a fact. But secure… In truth, my position is precarious indeed. Thanks to my father, many of our old alliances have been squandered to nothing. The Silver Throne is tentatively well-disposed toward me, but entirely out of patience with the Madouri name. I have just barely salvaged a relationship with the Falconers, and I fear I rather traumatized Teal in the process. And after my recent illness in Last Rock, any confidence my people had in me is shaken. You should know that any number of potential calamities might sweep me from power at any moment.”

“Yes, my lady.”

She turned to give him a cool look. “This appraisal does not surprise you, Yancey?”

“I made certain to be aware of it, my lady. It is part of what drew me to you.”

She raised one eyebrow mutely.

“I cannot say what the future holds for you or for House Madouri, my lady. But I can say with certainty that you will continue to face your trials as you have already: with cunning, ferocity, and to the great surprise of your enemies. I confess I am drawn to the prospect of seeing it firsthand.”

Ravana considered him for a moment, then gazed south, toward Tiraas; the capital was just barely too distant to be seen from Madouris, close enough that the two cities had viewed one another as severe threats before the Imperial era. Then she turned, directing her eyes north. Calderaas lay many miles in that direction, well beyond the horizon. And still further beyond that lay Last Rock, at the edge of the Golden Sea.

“Let me pose you a hypothetical question, Yancey,” she said at last, eyes still on the endless distance. “Say that you had it on good authority, from a source so trusted that you must take it as given despite the poetic melodrama of the very claim, that…a great doom is coming. How would you recommend proceeding?”

“I would advise, my lady, that you make yourself a greater doom, and lie in wait for it.”

Slowly, a smile curled her thin lips.

“Yancey… I have a very good feeling about this.”


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12 – 1

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“Don’t worry about it.”

Toby heaved a deep sigh, allowing his usual mask of calm and the posture crafted by years of martial arts to finally relax, now that he was surrounded by nobody whose opinion he needed to care about. This might be the only place where that was true, and so he let himself slump over the bar, absently toying with his “cup” of “tea,” which was a large snail shell with a flattish bottom, full of hot water steeped, somehow, in mushrooms. He didn’t know how in the world one made tea out of mushrooms, but after his last visit here, the flavor was unmistakable.

Poise and bearing were disciplines cultivated for their own sake, not affectations he kept up for appearances, but considering how many rules he was already breaking just by being here alone, it somehow felt right to let loose. It was oddly liberating.

“It was just a question,” the bartender hummed, idly running a threadbare rag over the bar’s stone surface, which didn’t need it. “All part of the gig, you know. You slouch at my bar, gazing morosely into your non-alcoholic beverage, I pretend to be interested in your problems. Bartenders and losers have been doing this dance since time immemorial. It’s bigger than both of us, sweetheart.”

Toby gave her an annoyed look; Melaxyna grinned right back, ostentatiously unrepentant. After a moment, though, he had to smile a little in response. It was slightly funny, anyway. That didn’t mean he could afford not to be careful. Sanctuary or no, a succubus was a dangerous thing. All the more so when she tried to appear otherwise.

“I was answering the question,” he said, “not telling you to drop it. That was what I got from my god. After traveling to Tiraas, requesting use of the central temple—and that’s not a small thing, paladin or no, it puts a lot of people out to clear off from the main center of Omnist worship—and did the ritual to call him down. All that, and that’s what I got. ‘Don’t worry about it.’”

“He said that?” Her grin widened, if anything. “That’s cold.”

“Good thing one can always count on a bartender for a sympathetic ear.”

“Well, let’s not forget you’re talking to a demon, here,” Melaxyna said, still grinning. “You can’t bring me this kind of validation and expect me to be all glum. No, I am not shocked to learn of a god of the Pantheon being heartless and dismissive to his allegedly most valued servant. Tough break, kid, but that’s pretty much how the bastards are.”

“It wasn’t like that,” he said, again pushing the shell cup back and forth between his hands. After one sip, the prospect of actually drinking it didn’t appeal.

Behind him, the sounds of other patrons in the Grim Visage formed a low hum. It was a different clientele than under Rowe; according to Sarriki, since the dismantling of his attempted dimensional gates, they hadn’t seen any visiting drow or gnomes, much less travelers from other worlds. Tonight it was mostly goblins, two naga and a small party of caplings clustered in one corner. He hadn’t realized caplings were sapient enough to patronize bars, and indeed, these appeared to be trying to eat their table. Sarriki still slithered about with her crafty smile, carrying trays of mushroom beer hither and yon. Now, Melaxyna’s surly hench-hethelax, Xsythri, was perched on the rail between the bar’s two levels, keeping a grim eye on everyone.

“Omnu isn’t much of a talker, as such,” Toby said slowly, frowning at his drink. “I’ve found that myself, and it’s been born out by what I’ve read of the writings of other Hands of Omnu. Trissiny and Gabe apparently have conversations with their gods, when they talk at all, but for me… Communing with Omnu is more like…what Teal describes of her relationship with Vadrieny.” He glanced up at the succubus, but she was just watching him attentively, now, and made no reaction to the archdemon’s name. “This time, it was a sense of peace. I mean…you could make the case that Omnu’s very presence is a sense of peace, but this was more specific. It was a message. Be a ease, don’t worry, all will be well.”

She shrugged, again fruitlessly wiping the bar. “Well, I’m not one to give the gods credit, but that sounds like good advice. Unless, of course, you went to him with a problem that was seriously bothering you and has far-reaching implications that you need to understand if he expects you to do your fucking job.”

“Well, this is one reason I’m down here,” Toby said wryly. “I’ve heard plenty of encouragement and platitudes from people who didn’t seem to register that getting encouragement and platitudes was what was bothering me in the first place. It’s tricky, finding someone willing to offer a critical view of the gods. Especially if they know you’re a paladin.”

“In their defense, that’s because paladins are usually the ones doing the rounding up and slaughtering when people do horrible, deviant things like think for themselves,” she said sweetly. “Not you, of course, but to the average shmoe who just wants to live his life, the difference between Hands of Omnu and Avei are fairly academic.”

“Yes, your unbiased perspective is a breath of fresh air,” he replied, quirking an eyebrow, and she laughed. He had to remind himself how deftly manipulative her kind were; even that laugh seemed friendly, approachable, effortlessly fostering camaraderie. At least she hadn’t tried to flirt with him, but then, she could probably tell as easily as Juniper that there was no point. “I confess I’d thought you might have some personal view on this. We’re talking about what is, for all intents and purposes, a weapon. A massively destructive weapon, one which incinerates demons. Like you.”

“The holy nova?” Melaxyna lifted an eyebrow of her own. “I’m sorry to tell you this, kiddo, but you didn’t invent it.”

“I’m aware—”

“Yes, using it as glibly as you describe and walking away is something new and interesting. Assigning more dangerous powers to their followers is actually a reversal for the Pantheon, considering Salryene hasn’t called a Hand since her last one scoured Athan’Khar off the map. And here I thought they might have actually learned a lesson, there. That’ll show me.”

“Magnan didn’t actually do that—”

“You’re Arachne’s student; I know you know your history better than that. If you build a horrible weapon and bend your energies to campaigning for it to be used, you don’t get to dodge responsibility just because someone else’s finger was on the switch. More to the point, you’re deflecting.” She cocked her head to the side, smiling smugly. “That’s what’s bugging you, isn’t it? Escalation.”

“Escalation,” he said, again frowning at his tea, “and…change. Change of what should be fundamental, immutable. Omnu is a god of peace. Why…why a weapon?”

“Putting aside the fact that the holy nova is just as useful for cleansing and healing as fighting demons,” she said, “you’re being tripped up by a willful misconception, there. Omnism is a religion of peace. Omnu is a god of life, and of the sun. Ask your friend the dryad how peaceable life is, and hell… The sun burns. Maybe you’re just turned around by all this because you’re expecting your god to act like you want him to act. Like the pleasant father figure your upbringing created an image of, instead of a nigh-omnipotent creature with as much of an ego and an agenda as anyone else.”

Toby’s frown deepened. Her own agenda lay thick over her suggestions, but beneath it was some logic. Enough to be worth mulling over, if he could separate the kernels of truth from the manipulations woven through them. They had to be there; Trissiny had made the point repeatedly, in their discussions about the Vanislaad, Eserites, Black Wreath, and others, that all good manipulations required a core of truth. Simple lies were far too easily debunked. Re-framing truth made a smokescreen that could be nearly impossible to penetrate.

He lifted his gaze to study her curiously; she just stared back, wearing a faintly knowing little smile.

“Well,” he said, shifting back from the bar, “thanks for the tea and conversation. I should probably go find out whether I’ve actually gotten away with this. I know students sneak down here all the time, but—”

“Why did you really come?” she asked mildly. “This is not your scene, Toby. Not just because it’s full of demons and monsters and located deep in an otherworldly pit of violence. Bars are not your scene. Besides, I clearly recall you and your little posse were rather close-knit. There are much more immediate people you could go to with your problems. Safer people.”

“Like I said—”

“Oh, all right, you want me to narrate? I can narrate.” She winked. “I’ve been around long enough to have seen this before, after all. Your whole problem is that you’re questioning your god. You know what a Child of Vanislaas is, and where we come from. Being that you’re a young man with a mind of your own and a conscience, not yet too blinded by dogma to have forsworn the use of both, you’d naturally seek out the perspective of someone who, like you, started out a mortal human, and yet ended up violently opposed to your Pantheon.”

“I don’t know if it’s all that mysterious,” he demurred. “I daresay I’ve met some people myself who I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see becoming incubi or succubi.”

Melaxyna’s smile faded. She had been leaning forward over the bar in a way which showed off her cleavage, possibly just out of habit, but now straightened up and folded her arms in a manner which, for once, was not suggestive. Toby shrugged and resumed getting up from his stool.

“I was a priestess of Izara.”

Slowly, he sat back down.

“I died in the Third Hellwar,” she continued, tilting her chin up. The gesture was prideful, but not condescending; she could do wonderfully expressive things with the tiniest touches of body language. “To make a very long story relatively short… My village was pressed by demons. I wasn’t a healer, specifically, but I damn well did my best. The light does heal, even if the one wielding it lacks much skill. It wasn’t enough, of course. And worse, all I could do was heal.” She bared her teeth in a contemptuous sneer. “My light wouldn’t burn the demons. Oh, once or twice, when I helped the defenders close to the gates, I’d actually singe one in passing. But if I tried? If I wanted to protect my home and family, and use the power I had to drive back the monsters that were trying to slaughter us? Well, Izara cut me off. Can’t have that. The goddess of love just couldn’t bear the thought of any of her precious followers surviving to carry on her will, not when they had the option of making some kind of obscure point of principle by being helplessly butchered. If I seem to lack sympathy for you because Omnu’s willing to let you kill in his name, well, now you understand my bias.”

She snorted and lashed her tail once, wings flaring briefly before settling back around her shoulders. “Oh, but we were almost saved! An actual, honest-to-gods Hand of Avei came to the village. Had two Silver Huntresses with her—do you know what those were?”

“I’m not familiar with them…”

“Well, look it up sometime, they were interesting. Anyhow, there the Avenists were, here to save the day! Huzzah, rejoicing! Except that no, they couldn’t be bothered.” Her fingers stiffened into claws, digging into her own arms. “One little flyspeck village wasn’t important. They were there to get supplies and reinforcements and continue on to the real battlefront. And by get, I mean take, as they made abundantly clear when some tried to bar them from our rations and limited weapons. The option they gave us was to let any too young, weak, or infirm to fight just…stay there and die, when all the food, weapons, and able-bodied fighters had been taken from the village, or come along and almost certainly meet the same fate on the road, because there could be no question of slowing their pace enough to protect them.

“So,” she drawled, “I took some initiative. Managed to catch one of the Huntresses unarmed, got a knife to her throat, and demanded that the Hand call on Avei. I figured there was just no way the actual goddess of justice would be party to that kind of barbarism if she could see it being done in her name.”

She met his eyes challengingly, ancient fury smoldering behind her own. “The demons didn’t kill me. Even the Hand of Avei didn’t. Avei did. Personally. She couldn’t be arsed to protect my people, or even to leave us with what we needed to protect ourselves, but somehow the goddess of justice found time to strike down a loyal cleric of the Pantheon for the unpardonable crime of standing up and demanding that she do the one thing which was her entire reason to exist.”

“I guess,” he said slowly when she stopped talking, “threatening a servant of a god and blackmailing a paladin gets an automatic damnation…”

“Oh, no,” she said, sneering again. “Oh, no no no. Vidius was a rather more reasonable chap, as I recall when I came before him for judgment. He’s really not too stringent; he said I’d done remarkably well in a terrible situation and thought I deserved reward beyond the average. Even kept at me on it when I refused; I had to cuss him out at some considerable length before he was willing to send me to Hell.”

“Did you…” Toby’s voice caught, embarrassingly, and he had to swallow before continuing. “You were already planning to seek out Prince Vanislaas?”

“Oh, Toby,” she said, shaking her head. “That was a different time. I was a backcountry yokel; for most people in my situation, one village was the universe and the horizon as unreachable as the sky. There were no telescrolls, no newspapers even; books were rare and precious, and we seldom saw a bard. There certainly weren’t any Rails or zeppelins. Shitty roads in most places, for that matter. I could read and do my sums, which made me as close as the village had to a scholar. No, I had no idea what a succubus even was, much less how they were made. All I knew, standing before the seat of divine judgment, was that at the thought of spending eternity with the fucking gods, I’d rather take my chances with the demons and the damned. At least I already knew what to expect from them.”

Toby did not voice the most immediate thought that came to mind: good deceptions had to contain a kernel of truth—except, perhaps, if they were about things which had happened thousands of years ago and left no records. Instead, he asked a question.

“Have you ever regretted it?”

“Regretted what?” she asked sweetly. “The years of wandering in Hell, pursued and abused by demons? Millennia of sneaking in shadows, matching wits with the gods’ followers, sowing chaos among their works wherever I could? The loneliness, the hardship, the privation, the constant enmity of an entire plane of existence, all just so I could make the point to the Pantheon that at least one soul was not going to stand for their bullshit?”

She opened her wings slightly, arching them menacingly above her head, and bared her teeth in a savage grin.

“Not once.”

Tellwyrn was frowning deeply and far away in thought as she climbed out of the sunken grotto, emerging through the gap between massive tree roots into the fading afternoon light beneath the forest canopy. So lost in her own reflections, in fact, that despite the acuity of her senses she did not realize she was no longer alone until she was forced to stop, her way forward blocked by another elf.

“And what,” Linsheh demanded icily, “do you think you’re doing? Who gave you permission to go in there?”

The mage stared at the shaman in silence for a moment.

“I honestly can’t recall the last time anyone gave me permission to do anything,” she answered finally.

Linsheh’s eyes narrowed to furious slits. “The time for you to seek knowledge here was before you spent so much time and effort burning those bridges, Arachne. You are not welcome in this grove.”

Another elf came bounding out of the forest, coming to a stop off to one side. “Elder,” he said worriedly, “please. She’s already been and come back, this won’t do—”

“Be silent, Adimel,” Linsheh ordered curtly.

“I was actually going to apologize to you,” Tellwyrn said in a soft tone. “Well… Maybe going is a little strong, but I was thinking about it very seriously. It’s been enough years now; with the benefit of some distance, thinking back on our various altercations, it’s seemed to me that I was unnecessarily rude. At any rate, Kuriwa seemed to think so, and much as she rubs me the wrong way I think the worst thing about her is how seldom she’s wrong.”

“Kuriwa,” Linsheh growled. “I might have known I’d find her at the back of this.”

“But that was before,” Tellwyrn continued, still deadly quiet. “It’s no secret to you, I’m sure, how the knowledge of what you’re hoarding down there would change the world. But you know, and I know you know, what it meant to me, personally. What it would have meant if I’d learned of it long before now. All the absolute hell I could have spared myself. And now, suddenly, I find myself thinking I wasn’t hard enough on you.” She tilted her head down, staring coldly over the rims of her glasses. “And furthermore, that it isn’t too late to correct that oversight.”

“Arachne,” Adimel exclaimed, “please. This is pointless.”

“I should hardly have to state that you do not frighten me,” Linsheh said, curling her lip.

“Isn’t that precious,” Tellwyrn replied, flexing her fingers. “I wonder how frightened you’ll be if I burn this grove to the ground.”

The shaman took one step toward her, snatching up the tomahawk hanging at her belt. “You were better off in the days when you didn’t dare challenge me openly, Arachne. All I need is the excuse of one fireball and my tribe will put a stop to your insanity, finally, for good.”

“That’s enough!” Adimel exclaimed, interposing himself bodily between them. “You are both behaving like—”

Both women pointed fingers at him.

A blast of wind pushed him one way while a burst of pure concussive force shoved the other; Adimel spun in a full circle, losing his grip on his staff, and staggered away to land on his rear in a fern, blinking in confusion.

“You really want to drag your tribe into this?” Tellwyrn asked, baring her teeth. “You know very well the lot of them don’t have the collective power to stop me doing any damn thing I please, Linsheh.”

“That’s right, Arachne,” Linsheh retorted. “Keep pushing. I always did hope I would be there on the day you learned how oversized your estimation of yourself is.”

“Ah, if I may?”

Both turned to glare at the speaker.

A drow man approached, wearing sweeping robes in deep shades of red and green. Having seized their attention, he bowed deeply.

“It is a tremendous honor to meet you, Professor Tellwyrn. I most humbly apologize for interrupting your discussion, but may I request with the utmost respect that you both refrain from destroying the grove while my delegation is present?” He put on a disarming little smile. “Reporting on the demise of multiple family members results in the most tedious interviews with my head of House.”

They stared at him as the silence stretched out, and then Tellwyrn let out a soft huff of amusement through her nose.

“Well, this I was not expecting. Asron, isn’t it?”

“Asron tyl Rinshae n’dar Awarrion,” he replied, bowing again. “Indeed, I was not expecting the great pleasure of making your acquaintance during this mission, Professor. It is honor enough to learn that you are aware of me. I am particularly grateful, however, that fortune has brought you here.” Turning to Linsheh, he bowed deeply to her as well. “Elder, I would not presume to involve myself in your personal affairs, nor those of your tribe. But, as we have established a precedent of laying aside old grudges to speak openly with one another, I must humbly suggest that this most fortuitous circumstance presents a golden opportunity for more of the same. Professor Tellwyrn, if she would graciously consent to join our discussions, has a unique and imminently relevant perspective on the matter under consideration.”

“So polite, these Awarrions,” Tellwyrn mused.

“Yes,” Linsheh replied with a sigh. “So much so that I can’t even bring myself to fault this one for his florid manner of speech.”

“You’re a fine peacemaker, Asron,” Tellwyrn said, finally stepping away from Linsheh and down the tree roots to the bank of the stream below. Behind her, Adimel had resumed his feet, and now folded his arms, directing a reproachful frown at his Elder. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate what you’re trying to do. Hell, I think it’s a fine idea, and my only complaint is that nobody tried it thousands of years ago. Better late than never, and hopefully not too late still. But no, involving me in this isn’t a good idea at all.”

“Your modesty is admirable,” Asron said, not responding to Linsheh’s bark of scornful laughter. “But if anything, Professor, you are an expert at what we are seeking to accomplish. Blending together different cultures the way you personally have learned—”

“Young man,” she said pointedly, “you need diplomats. You literally just walked in on me expressing my pissy mood by threatening to burn down the forest. Tell me you can see the disconnect, here.”

The drow smiled again, this time with a hint of true amusement. “Well, with respect, I was not proposing to put you in charge of the discussion. But if, now or at any point in the future, you would kindly agree to join our conversations, I do believe quite sincerely that your perspective would be of tremendous value, even if you were willing to merely answer a few questions. You did, after all, express esteem for the spirit of the endeavor.”

She sighed and shook her head. “I will think about it. I have no shortage of my own business to attend to. Speaking of which.” Tellwyrn turned to aim a finger at Linsheh. “This conversation is not over.”

“You have nothing else to say that is of interest to me,” the shaman said disdainfully.

Tellwyrn grinned up at her. “I bet I can surprise you.”

She vanished without warning, leaving behind only a tiny puff of displaced air.

Linsheh rolled her eyes. “Ugh. Asron, I appreciate you coming to check on me, but as you see I am quite well. If you’d kindly return to the circle, I shall be back presently.”

“By your leave then, Elder,” he said diffidently, bowing to her, and then turning to glide back into the trees.

“Are you all right?” Linsheh asked Adimel.

He folded his arms and looked down his nose at her. “How humbling it is that you express concern for my well-being at this juncture, most esteemed Elder.”

“Well, if you’re all right enough to do that, you’re all right,” she said archly, then turned and paced off after the drow.

The blast of wind which struck her in the back failed even to ruffle her hair. Linsheh paused, turned, and said dryly, “Do you feel better now, Adimel?”

A pine cone plummeted from above, striking the top of her head.

Linsheh blinked, grimaced, and looked upward. She was standing beneath a redwood tree. There were no pines closer than the Wyrnrange.

“Much, thank you,” Adimel said with more cheer, gathering up his staff and striding off toward the village.

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10 – 35

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The trees reared up ahead of them, less than an hour’s walk away, due southwest. The sun was just peeking over the horizon behind them; early morning mist still clung to the ground in a few places, and the green blades of tallgrass were flecked with dew.

The three had exchanged little conversation as they had a quick breakfast of travel rations and packed away what little gear they’d brought; their campsite had obviously seen much use for that very purpose, with a firepit ready and a half dozen sleeping spots already lined with a leafy type of dried grass which was surprisingly soft. Aside from Ingvar’s observation as they set out that they should reach the grove within an hour, they’d been quiet, enjoying the cool morning and the way the exercise worked away the night’s stiffness.

When six elves arrived around them, it was abrupt as if by magic, yet so smoothly natural it seemed as if they had always been there. They simply melted out of the tallgrass around the party, moving along at their own even pace as if they’d been calmly walking beside them the whole way. This was doubly impressive, the grass being nowhere more than chest-high, and usually a foot lower than that.

Joe let out a muffled yelp, reflexively reaching for his wands; even Ingvar jerked slightly as he came to a stop, laying one hand on his tomahawk.

“Morning!” Darling said brightly, waving to the nearest elf, a man with unbound waist-length hair like spun gold, leaning on a gnarled walking stick. “Lovely day for it, eh? Y’know, truth be told, I wasn’t too sure about all this nature walking. Just yesterday I had a little gripe about all the sun around here. I’ve gotta say, though, it’s growing on me. Not that I’d wanna leave the city on any kind of long-term basis, of course, but this is…I dunno, invigorating! Something about the freshness of the air, I guess. I feel five years younger! But hey, look who I’m telling.”

He came to a stop because Joe and Ingvar had, and the elves did likewise, regarding them with impassive faces. They were a mix of men and women, dressed in practical forest style, with soft fabrics and leathers of green and brown.

“Do you always chatter on this way to conceal nervousness?” asked the one with the staff.

“Do you always assume people who chatter are nervous?” Darling retorted instantly, still wearing his cheerful smile.

“Honestly,” said Joe, tipping his hat, “him jabberin’ like some kinda nitwit just means he’s gettin’ enough airflow. Good morning to you, ladies an’ gentlemen. Name’s Joseph P. Jenkins. These’re Bishop Antonio Darling an’ Brother Ingvar.”

“Yes, we know,” the apparent leader of the scouts replied, glancing at each of them in turn. “Your arrival was…foretold.”

“I’ve been wondering about that,” Darling said, brightly as ever. “Is she as pushy and condescending to you guys as she is to us short-lived folk?”

The elf with the staff studied his face closely for a moment, then finally smiled. “Even more so, I rather expect. My name is Adimel; welcome to our lands. I am here to guide you to your destination.”

“Much obliged,” Joe said politely. Ingvar bowed to them, holding his peace.

“I hope you will not take offense if those in the tribe seem less than eager to have guests,” Adimel said, starting out toward the treeline with no more ado and compelling them to walk with him or be left behind. “The grove is already stirred up with human business thanks to events transpiring in Viridill. Kuriwa’s arrival and…characteristic barking of orders has not done any favors to the Elders’ aplomb. What she asked, furthermore, is a significant imposition.” He gave them a hard glance without slowing. “I hope you understand how very rare it is that this would be shown to outsiders. Any outsiders, much less humans, and Tiraan.”

“Actually,” said Joe, “we have no idea what it is we’re here to see. We’re only following directions.”

“Who’s Kuriwa?” Ingvar asked, frowning.

“Oh, c’mon, you didn’t think her real name was Mary?” Darling asked lightly. “Don’t look at me like that, I’d never heard the name before, either. I know it was her, though, by the account. People being ordered around and not even told what they’re doing; who else could it be?”

Adimel sighed.

Unlike the even-footed forest near Sarasio, this grove rested atop rolling ground which made its deep green shadows somehow more complex. In addition to the gentle swells and valleys of the earth itself, there were frequent outcroppings of rock—old and smoothed by the elements, but tumbled in artful disarray. Several of these contained the mouths of small springs, with splashed down the rocks into pools that then fed meandering streams which traced paths through the lowest levels of the forest.

The trees were without exception ancient, and huge; though there tended to be wide spaces between them, no younger saplings grew, only some low ground-crawling shrubs. Often they rose up from the ground on systems of roots that were themselves as thick as any branch; their wide canopies mostly blotted out the sky, except where they permitted golden streamers of sunlight.

It was quiet, mostly, except for the soft music of songbirds and running water. The air smelled of loam, moss, flowers and fruit. In countenance, the forest resembled a park, thanks to the obvious artistry of its arrangement; clearly every aspect of this land had been carefully shaped over countless years. And yet, for all that, there was an ineffable wildness to it.

In short, it was an elven grove.

They were not taken to the grove proper, at least not to any location where elves kept their homes. The party had been met in a clearing by a single woman who introduced herself as Elder Linsheh; she had stood, waiting patiently, in a single shaft of golden sunlight which made her hair seem to glow. Elves clearly did not lack a sense of drama.

For an elf to be called Elder indicated both respect and a life of at least a thousand years, which was somewhat disconcerting when applied to a woman who could have been barely out of her teens, physically. She had a stillness and gravitas, however, that supported her title.

And, as Adimel had warned, Linsheh was apparently not particularly pleased to meet them.

The group now counted five, the Elder and Adimel continuing along with them while the rest of the scouts melted back into the trees. There were no paths, as such, but Linsheh led them along a course that avoided the taller hills, thicker underbrush and dips into water. It was no harder to walk than the average park.

“We can go in a straight line, if you want,” Darling suggested. “Makes me feel guilty for slowing you down this way. I mean, I’m sure you folks don’t stick to the easy paths when you’re on your own.”

“You know so much of the ways of elves?” Linsheh asked mildly, glancing back at them. Again, her voice and expression were apparently calm, but totally devoid of friendliness.

“Well, you’ve got me there,” Darling said easily. “Here I go, making assumptions. I guess I assumed you wouldn’t go for the easy path, because I find that’s generally true of people whom I respect.”

Adimel chuckled, shaking his head.

“Kuriwa said you were a smooth talker, Bishop Darling,” the Elder commented.

“And did she also say that I talk smoothly in utter sincerity?” he replied. “It’s policy. Just practical, really; smart people are annoyed by flattery, and stupid people are rarely worth impressing.”

She glanced back again, finally permitting herself a small smile. “It seems strange to know you are an Eserite; you remind me strikingly of almost every bard I have ever met. Then again, the silver-tongued thief is also an archetype that exists for good reason.”

“Oh, you like archetypes?” he said cheerfully. “That suggests you’ve met quite a few bards.”

“I have met quite a few of everything, nearly,” she said.

“I guess they all start to blend together, then,” Joe said.

The Elder glanced at him, smiling again. “At first. The beginning of wisdom is learning to see the uniqueness in each repetition of a familiar pattern.”

“Well, now I’m in an awkward position,” said Darling. “Because I’ve frequently had that thought myself, as I grow older, but saying it makes it sound like I consider myself as wise as an elven Elder. That’s just pompous, is what it is.”

“I have never known that to stop you,” Ingvar noted.

“Fair point!” Darling pointed at him, grinning. “Well, that settles it! Whew, for a moment I was concerned.”

Linsheh stopped, turning to face them. She wore a faint smile now, and bowed slightly; Ingvar and Joe both returned the gesture (more deeply) out of reflex. “I feel I should apologize; it is customary for guests in our land to be met with more…enthusiasm. You have come to us at what was a tense moment to begin with, even before the Crow’s request. Kuriwa’s arrival and insistence upon this significant breach of tradition has had a disturbing effect upon us all. Yet, for all that she tends to irritate, she also tends not to be wrong. If she deems it necessary that you be shown these secrets…the Elders have decided to trust that it is so.”

“Honestly, she’d be less annoying if she were wrong more often, I think,” Darling said ruminatively.

“Adimel mentioned trouble, too,” Joe said, frowning. “What’s going on in Viridill?”

“I will bring you up to date on the news if you wish,” Linsheh said calmly, “but it was my understanding you would be eager to seek answers…?”

“Yes, please,” Ingvar replied, giving the other two a quelling glance. “We appreciate your patience very much, Elder. We can learn about human affairs from human sources later, without wasting more of your time.”

“Where is it we’re going?” Darling asked, looking around at the forest.

“Here,” said Elder Linsheh. “We have arrived. Come along, please.”

They were standing upon a flattened patch of ground next to a truly massive tree, its root system rising from a small hill which seemed to have been broken in multiple places to reveal a rocky interior. The Elder slipped into the shadows behind a root, vanishing swiftly into the darkness. The three human visitors paused, glancing uncertainly at each other, before Ingvar squared his shoulders and followed her. The others came along behind, Adimel bringing up the rear.

The shadows of roots and rocks concealed a natural passage into the hill, not narrow but cunningly disguised by its surroundings. Beyond a low opening was a tunnel that descended in a slight curve, its bottom worked into worn old steps.

At the bottom of these, just around the corner from the entrance, was a small grotto, where a burbling spring fed a pool and a stream that meandered through the center of the space before vanishing down a hole in the far wall. Surprisingly, it was not dark; there were several small openings in the roof above through which streams of sunlight penetrated. Streamers of hanging moss dangled from the exposed tree roots above them, and lichens climbed the stone walls. For the most part, it looked quite natural, with the sole exception of a few very conveniently placed stepping stones crossing the stream.

Linsheh had already stepped across these and stopped just on the other side; behind her loomed another dark passageway, descending still deeper.

“What you have come to see,” she said in a serious tone that bordered on the grim, “is something we have guarded carefully far longer than human civilization in its current form has existed. When you have learned what you came here to learn, you may find yourself…resentful. It is a thing of enormous significance that the Elders and people of this tribe keep carefully from the eyes of humans, and of other outsiders. Only shamans on their training quests, and adventuring gnomes, do we allow within. I will ask, when you have seen what lies below, that you consider our reasoning—which I believe you are intelligent enough to perceive without having it explained to you. These secrets contain hints at terrible possibilities; this knowledge offers little that can uplift the peoples of this world, and much that could threaten us all in the wrong hands.”

“This is…” Ingvar frowned deeply. “My quest, Elder, is to seek knowledge of my god, and his situation. We have no interest in weapons or dangerous secrets.”

“Believe me,” she replied, “that was discussed at length when Kuriwa appeared, suggesting that we permit you within.” Her eyes traveled slowly across their small group. “It would be unusual enough to allow a Huntsman within, but for one on a quest such as yours, not necessarily impossible. And Joseph Jenkins is known to be a friend of elves.”

“I am?” Joe asked in surprise. “I mean… I always respected the people near my hometown, but it wasn’t as if I had a lot of contact with ’em.”

“Respect, sincerely felt and simply expressed, is something we notice when we see it,” Linsheh replied, giving him a little smile.

“Why do I suspect I’m the holdout, here?” Darling asked dryly.

The Elder’s smile faded as she leveled a direct stare at him. “When I speak of the wrong hands in which to place dangerous secrets, a ranking thief-priest might as well be exactly what I describe. Kuriwa, however, believes you have something to offer the world that will be to its advantage, and that this will help you, as well. After some discussion, we have agreed to trust her.”

“Huh,” he said, nonplussed. “And here I thought I was just along for the ride.”

“She suggested both of us for this expedition,” Joe pointed out. “I don’t think that lady does anything just for the heck of it.”

“She does seem to enjoy ruffling other people’s feathers,” Adimel commented. “Maybe toward greater purpose, but I suspect there’s a fair amount of ‘just for the heck of it’ involved.”

Linsheh sighed. “Well. I have delayed this enough with talk. What you have come to learn is below.” She stepped to the side, indicating the dark opening behind her. “There is nothing more to be gained by waiting.”

“My thanks, Elder,” Ingvar said respectfully, bowing to her, then stepped forward and approached the gap.

One by one, they passed within, pausing only to nod politely to Linsheh before they vanished into the darkness below, leaving the two elves gazing pensively after them.

“You need to leave.”

Seven armed scouts rose up out of the tallgrass around their little camp, all with weapons in their hands, but not yet lifted in preparation for violence.

“Let me ask you something,” Flora said calmly, smiling at the man who had spoken. “Did you really believe you snuck up on us?”

“Or,” Fauna added, “that we didn’t intend to be spotted here?”

They were perched atop a small hill in the grassy plain outside the grove, where they had cleared away the tallgrass to set up two folding stools and a small arcane camping stove, on which a pot of tea was currently brewing.

“That’s neither here nor there,” the head scout said curtly. “We know what you are—”

“Bet you don’t,” Flora muttered.

“—and you know very well you are not wanted in this or any grove.”

“We are not in the grove,” Fauna said sweetly.

He gritted his teeth. “If I am forced to insist…”

Both girls burst out laughing, then kept laughing, past the point where their would-be ambushers began to look distinctly annoyed. Fauna actually tumbled off her stool and rolled on the ground in a mockery of elvish grace.

Altogether, they made a very stark contrast to the other elves. Aside from having the horizontal ears of the plains folk, both were dressed in dramatic black (which hardly any sensible person did under the prairie sun), Flora with her anachronistic cloak. They might as well have been from a whole other world than the increasingly miffed forest kin in their traditional attire.

“Okay, look,” Flora said, wiping away a tear and grinning broadly. “You don’t own the world, friend, and we aren’t here to challenge your grove.”

“Like I said,” Fauna added, “we’re not in the grove, and don’t plan on entering the grove.”

“This is still far closer to our home than we like to see eldei alai’shi,” the lead scout said grimly.

“Well, that’s just too damn bad, ain’t it?” Flora replied, switching to Tanglish.

“Our friends just went into the trees,” Fauna continued. “They were invited and escorted.”

“We, acknowledging that the Elders would have kittens if we tried to follow, didn’t do so.”

“We’re just gonna wait out here for them to do what they came to do and come out.”

“At which point we’ll depart along with them, and you won’t have to worry about us any more.”

“All this,” Fauna explained, gesturing to the stools and stove, “is a little peace offering. We are not skulking about, or doing anything shady or aggressive.”

“So you have the opportunity to come say hello—it’s nice to meet you too, by the way—and now you can go tell the Elders that we’re not bothering anybody and won’t stay long.”

He frowned, looking at another of his troop as if for confirmation; she shook her head almost imperceptibly. “And if the Elders choose to insist that you leave?”

“They won’t,” Fauna said simply.

“No Elders anywhere would want to provoke that kind of confrontation where they didn’t need to.” Flora added with a smile.

The scout drew in a deep breath through his teeth and let it out in a sigh. “I will…inform the Elders of your…position.”

“You do that,” Fauna replied cheerfully, getting up and brushing off her leather trousers. “Meanwhile, would any of those you’re leaving to guard us like some tea?”

The tunnel seemed to be little more than a grandiose mole hole through dirt for a large part of its length, raising disturbing questions about what prevented it from collapsing. It didn’t, though, and as they continued, the occasional rocks supporting its sides grew more and more frequent, until they were passing almost entirely through stone.

“We must be on the edge of the continental shelf, here,” Ingvar observed.

“The what, now?” asked Joe from up ahead. The elves had not provided them with any sources of light; he could make the tips of his wands glow cleanly, however, and had thus found himself leading the way.

“The Great Plains at the center of this continent were an inland sea, eons ago,” said Ingvar. “And then, as it slowly dried up, a swamp. That’s why that ground is so fertile. But under the ground, it’s an enormous and deep basin of nothing but soil; very few rocky areas, and thus very few caves. Oddities like Last Rock were mostly created by the Elder Gods, long ago.”

“The things you know,” Darling marveled. “What do Huntsmen need with geological history?”

“To know the land,” Ingvar said simply. “We come to know it firsthand, with our senses and our hearts—that is of paramount importance. But there are many ways to know a thing, and more knowledge is always better than less.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Joe agreed.

They had been walking for over half an hour, now, at least. Time seemed to dilate oddly in that dark, lonely environment; it was hard to guess how far they had come or how long they’d been down there. The tunnel proceeded consistently downward, weaving slowly back and forth as it went. At least there were no branches or side passages, and thus no opportunities to get lost. Still, it was an unnervingly claustrophobic space, offering room for them to walk only single-file, and barely tall enough that none of them had to stoop.

Rounding an unusually sharp curve, the tunnel came to an end quite suddenly, and Joe halted, forcing the others to crowd in behind him, peering over his shoulders at what lay ahead.

Their tunnel emerged into the side of an enormous underground chasm, stretching away into infinite darkness to the left and right. The wandlight just barely illuminated its cracked ceiling; the floor was lost to distance and dimness far below, at least as far as they could tell. The view downward was blocked directly in front of them by the bridge which stretched from the foot of the tunnel’s mouth to the opposite side of the canyon.

It was this at which they stared in awe, nearly ignoring the mighty cavern around them.

In contrast to the purely natural surroundings through which they had been passing, the bridge and the door beyond it were so glaringly artificial they seemed almost to have been placed here by accident. The bridge was much wider than the tunnel, broad enough they could all three have walked side by side and been unable to reach the rails to either side. And it was made of metal. It appeared to be steel, gleaming smoothly in the light of Joe’s wand. Despite being down here in the empty darkness, not a single scratch or spot of rust marred it. There didn’t even appear to be any dust or cobwebs.

At the opposite side of the bridge, another large expanse of metal stood in the wall, the size and roughly the shape of the front of a church. Two columns of what appeared to be violet glass flanked an obvious door, a steel portal with a vertical crack down its center, engraved with an elaborate sigil none of them recognized.

After a few moments of silent staring, Joe extinguished the glow of his wand.

Light remained, an eerie purple luminescence put off by the columns, which were glowing just brightly enough to create an island of light in the darkness. In the sudden absence of wandlight, previously hidden lights sprang to life along the rails lining the bridge, as well; they were also sigils, and emitted a pure white radiance to mark the path.

“Huh,” said Joe.

“Yup,” Darling agreed.

“Well,” Ingvar said somewhat impatiently, “we are learning nothing by standing here.”

Joe finally stepped forward, gingerly placing his feet on the steel bridge as if uncertain it would hold his weight. It was fine, though, every bit as solid as it looked. They walked slowly, peering around, but there was really nothing more to be seen than they had observed from the tunnel’s mouth. Only the dark cavern, the glowing door, and the bridge.

In moments, despite the slowness of their approach, they stood before the door.

“Well,” Darling observed, “I don’t see a knob…”

“Perhaps this sign tells us what to do,” Ingvar suggested, raising a hand toward the symbol engraved on the steel door. “If only any of us could read it. Does it remind either of you of anything you have—”

The instant his fingertips brushed the steel, it suddenly parted, causing them all to jump a foot backward. The door shifted to the sides a few inches, opening along its center crack with a soft hiss that suggested the air within had been sealed, then slid almost silently downward into the frame below it, leaving open a passage.

Beyond it was a hallway, made of metal and lined with more lights, both dim purple glass columns decorating its walls and brighter, more utilitarian white glow-spots marching along its ceiling. It terminated a dozen yards or so distant in an apparently round room with a statue in its center.

“Anybody else as inexplicably terrified as I am?” Joe asked, swallowing heavily as if for emphasis.

“Yes,” said Ingvar, and stepped forward through the door.

It hissed shut once they were all through, causing them to jump again and spin around. Darling immediately placed a hand on it, at which it opened again. They tested this twice more to verify that they could get out before proceeding.

At the end of the hall, a broad room opened up, oval in shape, with a statue in its center. Still, everything appeared to be made of glossy steel, including the statue, which was heavily stylized in form but showed a man and a woman standing back-to-back, their hands upraised toward the ceiling over a hundred feet above. This was a dome, deep blue in color, and decorated by an enormous star chart. Both stars and notations in a language none of them recognized glowed an even white. More white lights rimmed the edges of the walls, about halfway up, and there were more decorative columns of glowing purple. Here, too, benches lined the perimeter, made of glossy steel and set with thin cushions of some sleek black material that was surprisingly soft to the touch. Darling tested it first with a hand, and then his rump.

“The thing that troubles me most,” said Ingvar, “is the lack of dust.”

“The thing that troubles me is the noise,” Joe said tensely.

It barely qualified as noise, being only the faintest hum at the very edge of hearing, but it was almost constant. Though less invasive, it sounded like the thrum of powerful arcane energy at work.

As they stood there peering around and listening, there came another whirring sound from one of the hallways branching off from the oval room. All three whirled to face it, Joe and Ingvar raising weapons.

The thing that emerged was wholly bizarre and oddly…cute.

A squat cylinder in shape, it proceeded on three stubby legs, each ending in two thick wheels; its top was a sort of sheared-off dome with one flat face. Though most of the object was metal, bronze in color, the flat part of its “head” was a panel of faintly glowing white with odd little marks upon it. Eight folding, spider-like limbs protruded from around the upper part of its cylindrical body, each tipped in various implements.

In fact, it was pushing a broom. A metal broom whose head had some kind of glowing apparatus attached to it, but nonetheless obviously a broom.

The thing came to a stop just inside, its dome-top rotating to put the glowing panel toward them directly, and emitted a pleasant series of musical chimes.

“Uh,” said Ingvar.

“Please tell me you guys see it too,” Darling said nervously.

“As I live and breathe,” Joe said in awe. “It’s…that’s a golem!”

“That doesn’t look like any golem I’ve ever seen,” Ingvar protested.

“It’s an obviously autonomous self-powered magical machine,” said Joe. “It’s a golem, all right. An’ altogether the last thing I’d’ve expected to find in a secret tunnel under an elven grove.”

“I think that description applies to basically all of this,” Darling replied.

All three shied backward when the golem approached them, chiming eagerly and waving several of its appendages about. Only when it had come within two yards did they realize that the markings on its glowing front panel formed a stylized face, nothing but two round purple dots for eyes and a slash below representing a mouth.

It was, at least, a smiling face.

“Hi there,” said Joe, uncertainly waving the hand not holding his wand. “Uh…what’s your name?”

The golem pivoted about on its whirring wheels and zoomed partway around the statue, pausing a few yards distant to swivel its face back to them. It gestured with two of its peculiar arms, clearly beckoning them forward.

“I think it’s trying to communicate,” Darling observed.

“Yes, obviously,” Ingvar said, giving him an irritated glance. “The question is…do we trust it?”

“Elder Linsheh didn’t suggest anything down here was dangerous,” said Joe. “And…well, Mary did send us here, after all. I say we follow the golem. Ain’t like we’ve got any better ideas, unless one o’ you boys wants to surprise me.”

Ingvar heaved a sigh, but hitched up his quiver and set off after the little golem.

It let out another series of pleasant chimes, apparently excited, and continued on its way.

The golem led them all the way around the statue and to another broad door on the opposite side of the room, directly across from the way they had come in. This seemed to be identical to the outer door of the complex, including in the way it parted upon being touched by one of the little golem’s metal arms.

Beyond was another room, spacious but smaller than the last one, and rectangular in shape. Its walls were entirely lined with peculiar shapes; they seemed like shelves of some matte black substance, each filled with small glowing cylinders of purple glass, none more than a foot in height. In fact, altogether it resembled a library, with luminous tubes instead of books. In the center of the room was a single sheet of colorless glass, positioned facing the door, extending from floor to ceiling.

They came to a stop inside, peering around, as the golem rolled over to the edge of the broad glass panel and continued chiming in excitement.

“Well,” Darling said after a moment. “Here we are. So…where are we?”

All three men jumped backward yet again when a figure suddenly appeared in the glass panel.

It was a man, bald-headed and clean-shaven, wearing a sleek suit of totally unfamiliar design. He was translucent and purple, as if he were nothing but a reflection in the glass.

“You are in Data Vault Three, established by Tarthriss of the Infinite Order,” said a voice from all around them. It was a pleasant tenor, and carried a peculiar resonance that clearly did not come from any human throat. Though the glass man’s mouth moved along with the words, the voice itself definitely came from the walls, not from him directly. “It has been several solar cycles since this facility has had visitors. I am Avatar Zero Three, and very pleased to make your acquaintance. How may I assist you?”

“Uh,” Joe said intelligently. “Uh, the…what? The who? Who are the Infinite Order?”

“The Infinite Order,” said the Avatar, smiling benignly, “are an organization of scientists and engineers who embrace the philosophy that reason and science hold the keys to the purpose of both the sapient life and the universe itself. They journeyed to this solar system and established this planet as a research and development facility dedicated to the fulfillment of the Ascension Project.”

“Oh…kay,” Joe said, frowning. “But…who are the Infinite Order?”

The Avatar’s ghostly face smiled again, but it seemed almost sad, this time. “Compiling current roster and status of the Infinite Order. Scyllith: active. Naiya: active. Araneid: …uncertain. Infriss: unknown. Druroth: unknown. Vel Hreyd: unknown.” He hesitated, his expression growing distinctly solemn, before continuing. “All other members of the Infinite Order are confirmed deceased…including my maker, Tarthriss.”

“Sorry t’hear that,” Joe said reflexively, removing his hat.

“That’s…you’re talking about the Elder Gods,” Ingvar breathed.

“Tarthriss preferred to refrain from the use of such terminology, deeming it both causative and symptomatic of the Infinite Order’s systemic breakdown,” said Avatar 03. “Out of respect for him, I do not refer to ascended beings as ‘gods,’ but based upon my comprehension of both this language and the current state of such beings, it is not necessarily inaccurate.”

“Are you…all alone down here?” Joe asked, frowning.

“This facility has very occasional visitors,” the Avatar replied. “For the most part, however, Caretaker Seven is my only company. You have already met him, I see.”

The golem chimed enthusiastically, waving several of its arms, its stylized little face beaming in goodwill.

“What brings you to this Data Vault?” inquired the Avatar.

“I am on a quest,” Ingvar blurted out, pausing to regather his poise. “That is, I am seeking information concerning the state of my god, Shaath, and how he might be helped. Tell me…is it possible for a god to be imprisoned?”

“There are many ways the status of an ascended being could be interfered with,” Avatar 03 replied. “A great deal depends upon the specifics. I shall be glad to convey what information I can; if you can provide more detail as to the unique situation of Shaath I may be able to render a more helpful analysis. Alternatively, if you would like access to broader data on the nature and origin of the ascended beings on this planet, I can give a full account of the Ascension Project.” The ghostly figure smiled benignly, and appeared to bow; such physical gestures looked rather odd, with him being clearly a projection in the glass screen. “It depends on how much time, patience, and interest you have. If you are willing, I would be delighted to explain everything.”

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10 – 8

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“You can make an elemental of anything, really,” Schwartz explained with the reedy enthusiasm of an intellectual holding forth on his topic of special interest. “For starters, they come in the basic elements I’m sure you’ve heard of: fire, water, air, earth. But you almost have to add some structure to them, otherwise… Well, they don’t do much except, um…burn, be wet, sit there… I mean, elementals in their pure state are really the most extraordinarily laid-back creatures—all they want to do is just be one with the elements! Meesie, here, is a fire elemental, as you may have guessed.”

He held up one hand, and the little red weasel-rat darted down his arm as if on command to sit upright on his palm, twitching her whiskers at the audience. The surrounding elves leaned forward obligingly, which was a purely social gesture, considering they could probably see individual strands of the creature’s fur.

“So…that was a formless spirit,” Basra said skeptically, “and it looks like that because…you decided it should?”

“I think she’s cute,” Covrin remarked. Basra pointedly did not acknowledge that asinine comment.

“Thank you!” Schwartz beamed. “Yes, she is cute, isn’t she? A good companion as well as a useful familiar. But yes, your Grace, an elemental’s form is the creation of its summoner. Like those we saw earlier! Most impressive—two forms, bear and dog, and that most intriguing shade of blue flame, with the orange bits as flourish! Points for style!”

He grinned broadly at Adimel, the elvish shaman who had led the group sent to intercept them; the shaman smiled back, more reservedly but apparently sincerely, and nodded in acknowledgement.

“But yes, anyway,” Schwartz continued, “beyond form, there’s…well, you can alter the substance of an elemental. It’s not just will and mathematics like arcane magic—in truth, it’s more like magical chemistry, or alchemy. Turning one substance into another substance is a matter of making it interact with other substances until you get the one you wanted as a result. It can be quite complex! Why, my friend Aislen made this sort of dual-substance earth elemental, all white marble, but with silver joints for flexibility! Remarkable work, she still has it back at the temple. Very good for heavy lifting. Oh, and the things you can do with air elementals! Air is tricky to work with, but for purely practical reasons; in terms of its magical resonances it operates actually quite predictably and simply, and that means you can make an elemental spirit of virtually any gaseous substance you can imagine! Well, I mean, virtually. Hah, back in my apprentice days, I recall the lads and I got this idea from sniffing whiskey fumes—you see, we’d just been reading about a vodka elemental that got summoned in the Imperial Palace once…”

Basra did not lunge across the fire and throttle him. People were watching.

“And shadow elementals?” she said patiently.

Equidistant between them around the fire pit, Elder Linsheh gave her a look accompanied by a conspirational little smile of amusement.

Basra forced herself to mirror it perfectly. Ha ha, look at the time-wasting nincompoop boy, what a funny joke they were sharing. Trying to throttle the elf was an even worse idea. Also, it wouldn’t work.

“Shadow, yes, right. Shadow.” It took an almost visible effort for Schwartz to gather his focus. “Yes, well… I was speaking of how you can indulge your creativity in shaping elementals. Why, if you know your physics and chemistry and have a good handle on the principles of sympathetic magic, the sky’s the limit! But, yes, back on point… There are certain standards, some basic forms that everyone can do because they are well-known, documented, and widely used. Ranging from your very basic dust devils that students create for exercises to some extremely complex entities. The shadow elemental is one of those. It’s… Hmm, how to put it… I suppose you could consider it the elemental counterpart to a Vanislaad demon.”

“A Vanislaad?” Basra exclaimed, increasingly sure that this dithering fool hadn’t the faintest idea what he was talking about.

“Perhaps, Mr. Schwartz, you wouldn’t mind if I interjected?” Elder Linsheh said mildly.

“Oh!” Schwartz blinked at the Elder. “Oh, I mean, of course, ma’am, my apologies… I mean, that is, obviously this is your home and I’m sure you know far more than I about—well, I should expect almost everything!”

“Thank you,” the Elder said with a smile before turning back to Basra. “I wouldn’t consider constructs of that nature comparable to a child of Vanislaas in capability, but there are parallels in purpose. Shadow elementals have a number of useful traits that were not displayed during your encounter. They can assume any form, though their ability to mimic people persuasively is limited—they are not actually highly intelligent. In addition to the shape-changing, they can also be invisible, and not merely conventionally so; they have a gift for evading magical wards and senses, as well. However, as you discovered, they are very weak in combat. Those false shadowbolts, like the infernal originals, cause pain and numbness, but unlike the real thing can do no serious damage, and they are its only weapon.”

“It had claws,” Basra pointed out.

“Yes,” Linsheh agreed, nodding. “But those were protrusions of the same kind of energy.”

Basra frowned. “You describe this as…basically a scouting servitor. Useful for espionage, not combat.”


“But…it charged right at us. Quite aggressively.”

Elder Linsheh glanced at Adimel, who looked grave, before turning back to Basra and nodding again. “So I understand. And that, Bishop Syrinx, adds a troubling new dimension to this matter.”

“The creation of a shadow elemental is not a simple task,” said Adimel. “It requires reagents and resources in considerable quantities and of great rarity to perform the crafting. The power needed is also well beyond what the average witch would willingly devote to the creation of a servant. The relatively few human witches who possess such things treasure them greatly, and would not risk one in an open confrontation such as we saw today.”

“Human witches?” she said, raising an eyebrow.

“I would like to say that elves to not work such craft,” he said with a distasteful grimace, “but in truth, all I could tell you in certainty is that no one in our grove does. I would think it unlikely that any wood elf would do so. The means necessary to create a shadow elemental… Well. Your Mr. Schwartz could probably elaborate, later, if you are truly curious.”

Schwartz wrinkled his nose. “Yeah, that was troubling me as well. I really can’t picture the average elf doing such a thing.”

“The average wood elf,” Linsheh clarified. “Our nomadic cousins on the plains are more pragmatic in many respects…but that poses its own counterpoints. They rarely find the resources, nor the time spent in one place, necessary for such a working.”

“Also, there are no plains elves here,” Covrin pointed out.

“Indeed,” Adimel said gravely. “They have avoided Imperial territory most assiduously since word of the Cobalt Dawn’s disaster spread. It has been years since I have seen any this far south.”

“Not humans and not elves,” Basra said, drumming her fingers on her thigh. “What does that leave?”

“We have only ruled out the possibility of these cultures, in any organized fashion, doing such a thing,” Linsheh said.. “Individuals are just that. I believe, based on the evidence, that our culprit is a lone individual, and apparently one separated from her or his people. Moreover, it is someone dangerous, and extremely powerful.”

“Well, that sort of goes without saying, doesn’t it?” Schwartz remarked.

“Not just powerful magically,” said Basra, glancing at him. “What we faced today wasn’t an attack—it was a message. The person behind that elemental was making it plain that they can squander rare, valuable servants on tasks not suited to them just to make a point.”

“And,” Covrin said quietly, “that they know who we are and what we’re doing, almost as soon as we started doing it. The story hasn’t even had time to spread.”

“Unless that Mr. Hargrave was behind it,” Schwartz mused.

“I find that hard to credit,” said Elder Linsheh. “Hamelin Hargrave is known to us—he is without apparent malice, and too invested in the society of Viridill to disrupt it in this manner.”

“The drow,” Covrin said suddenly. “The entrance to Tar’naris is in Viridill.”

Linsheh shook her head. “For many thousands of years, the Narisians made convenient specters to blame whenever something mysterious befell this land. No more, though. Now, they are more closely tied to the Empire than we. And Queen Arkasia has no sense of humor toward those who disrupt her dealings.”

“Besides,” Adimel added, “they don’t practice the fae arts.”

“Don’t,” Covrin said pointedly, “or can’t?”

“Don’t,” he replied, nodding to her with a smile. “Narisians field Themynrite priestesses and the very occasional mage. They abhor warlocks as Scyllithene monsters, and disdain the way of the shaman for its association with us. It is just like the human witches, or the other elves. This could be a Narisian drow, for all we know. Or anyone else. But Tar’naris is no more behind this than our grove, or a plains tribe, or the loose collective of witches in Viridill.”

“And now we are exactly where we were to begin with,” Basra said, staring into the fire. “Speculating.”

A silence fell, each of them occupied with their own thoughts.

Until the conversation had turned to business, it had been a quite pleasant lunch. The hospitality of the grove could not be criticized; they’d been fed well with fresh fruit and game in an outdoor meeting space between three massive trees festooned with rope bridges and snug little treehouses. Ostensibly the entire circle of this grove’s Elders had come to meet with them, but only Elder Linsheh had actually participated in the discussion. That was standard; elves preferred to keep themselves aloof, designating specific individuals to interface with visitors on behalf of the tribe. Basra had never had occasion to visit a grove before, but she had been well briefed on their habits. What was known of their habits, anyway.

“Well,” said Schwartz at last, “it seems to me we’ve made a little progress. We know whoever is behind the elemental attacks is aware of and targeting us, and has tremendous assets they can afford to throw away!” He seemed to wilt, shrinking inward and wrapping his arms around himself; Meesie clambered up onto his shoulder, patting his cheek and squeaking in concern. “So…not encouraging progress. But it’s not nothing.”

“Hargrave,” said Basra, “mentioned that his own attempts to track this lead toward Athan’Khar.”

Adimel’s expression grew even grimmer. Linsheh sighed, shaking her head.

“This is not characteristic of an eldei alai’shi,” she said. “However… If it happened that one could drum up enough restraint, it is not impossible. One of those could have the means. At issue is that they never last long enough to enact such complex plans, nor have they the evenness of mind for such subtlety. They are mad, and swiftly destroy themselves in their desire to destroy their enemies.”

“Do you know of any currently active, though? Basra demanded.

Again, Linsheh shook her head. “Our grove was visited by two some years ago, bringing us refugees from the plains. Those we took in, but we did not allow the headhunters to linger.”

“Two?” Covrin exclaimed in horror.

“Most unusual,” Linsheh mused. “But as I said, that has been several years. They are undoubtedly dead by now.”

“I say,” Schwartz protested. “I don’t recall hearing about two headhunters being killed!”

“Nor would you,” Adimel said wryly, “nor would we. The Empire officially denies that they exist—as it does with almost everything pertaining to Athan’Khar. Eldei alai’shi are dealt with by strike teams, usually at the cost of several lives, and the matter is then firmly covered by Imperial Intelligence, who are wise enough to muddy the waters with conflicting rumors rather than trying to squash rumors. If you went looking for headhunters, all you would find would be Imperial spies very curious what you were up to.”

“I am glad to see Abbess Darnassy responding to this,” Linsheh said, gazing at Basra, “and taking it seriously enough to have sent you, your Grace, as well as help from the College.” She nodded to Schwartz, who grinned back. “I hope that the Sisterhood will continue to remain in contact. For now, I fear we have little to offer you directly, but I want it clearly understood that the grove stands behind you in this. It affects us directly to have fae casters assaulting Avei’s faithful, to say nothing of the harm to bystanders.”

“We have seen events like this spiral out of hand before,” Adimel added. “Let it be known from the outset that the elves of this tribe condemn any action against the people of Viridill.”

“If, as the situation develops, we can aid you directly, you need only ask,” said Linsheh. “The most direct assistance I can offer is help in pacifying or controlling elemental attacks, but we lack the numbers to patrol Viridill. That task is better suited to the Legions. If you can find a more specific target, however, we shall be glad to help.”

“I’ll make sure to tell the Abbess that your grove is behind us,” Basra said evenly, then stood, the elves following suit. Schwartz and Covrin were the last to rise, she a little stiffly in her armor, he nearly falling over in the process. “For now, I must thank you for your hospitality and be off. You’ve helped me determine my next move.”

“What will you do?” Adimel inquired.

“Well,” Basra said with a cold smile, “it seems that our mysterious elementalist is aware of, and targeting, our little group. That means we know who he’s going after next. All that remains is to place his target, us, in a location of my choosing…and wait.”

“Oh, now, I’m not so sure I like the sound of that,” Schwartz said nervously. “You’re… You want to use us—all of us—as bait?”

“We are the bait and the trap,” Basra replied, then paused and eyed him up and down. “Well. Some more than others.”


“Well, dunno how useful that was,” Joe mused, “but it sure was a more pleasant way to pass the time than I’d expected. Shame he couldn’t tell us any more about what the University gang did…”

“I am amazed that the de factor ruler of this province would make time to sit down to a meal with three vagabonds who just showed up at his door,” Ingvar said.

Joe chuckled. “It makes a difference when one of the vagabonds in question is a Bishop of the Universal Church an’ former cult leader.”

Ingvar glanced skeptically at Darling, who was still in a suit that looked like it was serving the latest of three color-blind owners. The thief glanced back, grinning.

“Then again,” said Darling, “it was lunch. Taking the man out of an actual meeting was out of the question, but people are inclined to be hospitable if you catch them sitting down to eat. Or at least, those who’re inclined to be hospitable anyway. The others may throw crockery at you.”

“You did that on purpose?” Ingvar said disapprovingly. “It’s hardly kind to interrupt a man’s meal.”

Darling shrugged, looking exactly as repentant as Ingvar would have expected, which involved a singularly relaxed smile and an insouciant spring in his step. “I figured the odds were about fifty-fifty he’d take a message and send word to our inn about an appointment tomorrow. Besides, that wasn’t the only piece of timing I’m working on. We’ll want to be into the afternoon when we approach Lady Malivette.”

“The vampire,” Ingvar muttered, still scarcely willing to believe it.

“Why afternoon?” Joe asked, frowning.

“It’s a socially acceptable hour for unexpected visits,” said Darling. “And with dark coming on, it makes it clear we’re not hostile. Visiting a vampire in the morning is a cautious move, shows you don’t want to be near her except when her powers are inhibited.”

“I do not want to be near her except when her powers are inhibited,” Ingvar growled.

“Malivette Dufresne is a thoroughly civilized individual who’s had a hell of a hard life,” Darling said calmly, turning a corner. “She’s lived up there for years, harming no one—even when she had ample reason to, such as when some of the locals tried to mob her house not too long ago. That pretty much tells you what you need to know.”

“What I need to know is how hungry she is!”

“The story being put around,” said Darling quietly, eyes on the street ahead, “was that the vampire who attacked and turned her slaughtered her family at the same time. That would be…uncharacteristic, however. Turning someone is a process, and for whatever reason, they rarely feed too close to it. However… A vampire newly turned almost always awakens in such a mad state of hunger that they’re little more than animals. They will kill and drain anyone, anything, they can get their hands on, until sated.” He let the silence stretch out for a long moment. Ingvar swallowed heavily and glanced over at Joe, who looked pale and shocked. “Make no mistake, lads,” Darling continued finally, “we are going to visit a monster. But she’s a monster who’s managed to be a decent person under pressures we could hardly imagine, which frankly makes her a better person than we can claim to be. And who does not need any more stress from the likes of us. So when we get there, if she has time to chat with us, you be respectful, and be kind.”

“Won’t be a problem,” Joe said quickly. “I’m gettin’ good practice at addressing high-born ladies, I believe.”

“You are unlikely to receive the same reception as at Grusser’s residence,” Ingvar noted with the ghost of a smile. “Miss Feathership clearly has a gnome’s priorities; a vampire will be much less smitten with the legend of the Sarasio Kid.”

“It was one autograph,” Joe muttered, hunching in his coat. “She was so excited… What was I supposed to do?”

“Sometimes,” Darling said solemnly, “you’ve gotta bite the belt and give your traveling companions an anecdote to hold over your head for weeks. Here we are, Volk Street.”

He made another right turn and continued a few more paces before slowing to a stop. Up ahead were the open side gates to the city, a much smaller aperture than the front one through which they had entered. This street was all but deserted; the road here was lined with houses, not businesses, and past the gate led to only one destination. The road continued onward and upward, winding back and forth deep into the forested hills. More than a mile distant, visible above the towering city wall, were the gabled roofs of what had to be Dufresne Manor.

“Not too late to reconsider that carriage,” Darling remarked. “Just sayin’.”

Ingvar sighed and stepped past him. “Let’s just go. I feel more comfortable trusting my own feet.”

“Yours aren’t the only pair of feet at stake here!” Darling protested. Joe passed him, grinning, and the Bishop finally sighed dramatically and trudged along after them.

They had passed a good fifty yards up the street, nearing the gate, when three more men rounded the same corner behind them in silence. All three were bearded, dressed in rugged leathers, and armed with hunting knives, tomahawks and bows. The trio, an older man with gray in his beard flanked by two younger ones, strode forward on silent moccasins, eyes fixed on the diminishing party up ahead.


The Huntsman halted abruptly, whirling to face the alley whose mouth they were passing. Just inside, incongruously in that setting, stood two strikingly lovely young women in extravagant evening gowns, one in green, one blue.

The woman in green smiled and wagged a finger at them. “Uh uh.”

Both the younger Huntsmen glowered; one took a menacing step toward the women.

The elder held out an arm to block him, turning his head to give him a very flat stare. They locked eyes for a long second, then finally, the younger man snorted softly and stepped back. His elder turned back to the women and bowed politely.

“Ladies,” he rumbled, then turned on his heel and walked back the way they had come. The other two paused to stare at the women a moment longer, one eying them up and down approvingly, before following.

“Creeps,” Sapphire muttered. “Still. They were downright heroic during the battle. Do you think we should have warned them? Considering who they’re stalking…”

“We don’t know who they’re stalking,” Jade countered. “With the exception of Sweet. He’s the one Vette was warned about. Any thoughts about the other two?”

Sapphire shrugged, stepping forward to lean out of the alley. Both groups of men were out of sight now, the Huntsmen back around the corner, the travelers beyond the gate. “Some rich kid who thinks he’s a wandfighter, and… I could swear that was a woman dressed as a Huntsman of Shaath. Which, I suppose, would explain what set those three off. I’m looking forward to learning what their story is.”

Jade shook her head. “And that’s the point: we don’t know the story. Come on, we’ll see what Lars and Eleny have to say. And we will definitely wait to hear Vette’s opinion before acting.”

She stepped out into the street, Sapphire falling into step beside her, and they followed after the departing Huntsmen toward the center of the city and Lars Grusser’s home and office.

“I suspect they’re bringing trouble, whoever they are,” Sapphire murmured.

Jade laughed. “Saff, honey, that’s Sweet. He was Boss of the Guild for years. They’re not bringing trouble; trouble’s bringing them.”

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10 – 7

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Schwartz, to the surprise of probably no one but himself, was the last to notice.

“What?” he said nervously. “I’m sure I don’t—”

“Move!” Basra barked, gesturing to one side and drawing her sword.

Schwartz finally followed everyone’s gaze, looking over his shoulder, then let out a yelp and spun, backpedaling so quickly he nearly tumbled to the ground.

The thing was darkness without feature, though at a glance at first it resembled a cloud of black smoke. It rose to about twice the height of a person, spreading roughly half that in width. Unlike smoke, though, the center of its mass lacked texture or any features, while its edges rippled more transparently.

“What the hell?” Covrin muttered, sword and shield already in hand.

Basra seized the divine light, a spherical shield flashing into place around her.

That immediately caught the creature’s attention.

Darkness rippled outward from it, and a shadow fell over the prairie. Literally, a dimming of the sunlight, as though heavy clouds had obscured the sun, though none were in evidence. The shape swelled further, now looming over them, and its edges rippled in a silent motion that she interpreted as anger. Within the center of its mass, two points appeared—spots of a strange nullification. Even in the absolute blackness of its body, they were dark. Basra was familiar with magical effects, and knew the sensation of her eyes trying to make sense of something simply not sensible. This was a creature whose gaze it was not healthy to meet.

She bared her teeth at it in a grin, not flinching, and took a step forward. Light flowed down her arm, blazing forth from her blade.

“Don’t stare at it!” Schwartz yelped. “Back up, everybody, I’ve got this!”

Basra didn’t glance over at him, but from her left there suddenly came a burst of pure golden light. Not divine, she couldn’t feel anything—in fact, it looked exactly like morning sunbeams streaming through the temple windows back home. The light struck the shadow being directly, and it reared back, emitting a ferocious hiss.

“Hah!” Schwartz crowed. “I use this for reading at night—never thought it’d have a combat applic—”

The cloud sprouted two very distinct arms, ending in broad, clawed hands, and hurled an unmistakeable shadowbolt at him. Interesting—that was infernal craft, but she didn’t sense the presence of that kind of magic, either.

Schwartz squawked and his sunbeams winked out, but Basra didn’t spare him a glance. Arrows whipped past her, sinking into the bulk of the creature and making it break off its attack, writing in apparent pain. She paid them no mind either, closing to sword range with Covrin stepping swiftly up on her left, covering Basra’s unarmed flank with her shield. Standard Legion field practice with regard to elves was to assume they knew what they were doing, whether fighting with or against them.

As her glowing shield neared the creature, it fixed its impossible glare on her again. Covrin halted, visibly quailing; something about that stare was meant to be disturbing to mortal perceptions.

“Steady,” Basra said in a low tone. “When it engages again, step behind me.”

Then Schwart’s sunbeams resumed, slightly weaker than before, but rapidly growing in intensity. This time, an identical glowing effect flashed forward from her and Covrin’s other side. They did not strike the shadow directly, but formed barriers to both sides, pinning it in a corridor with the two swordswomen.

“We will control the field,” said the elf with the staff from behind them, his voice calm. “Wait till the fire elementals circle around to cut off its retreat, then engage with your divine light, Bishop. It must not escape; we destroy it here.”

“Good,” she said curtly, keeping her stare fixed on the shadow’s. Covrin swallowed so hard Basra could hear it, but held her position.

Fire elementals in this prairie sounded like a fantastically bad idea to her. Nonetheless, two immediately circled around from each side, taking the forms of coyotes made of pure blue flame, flickering a hotter orange at their edges. They didn’t spark so much as a smolder from the grasses around them; clearly the shaman had them under tight control. As soon as the two creatures got behind the shadow, they swelled and shifted, growing into the shapes of a pair of enormous grizzly bears; she could just make them out through the haze at the edges of the shadow. Their flames seemed more visible through it than the scenery beyond.

The black being twisted, its unearthly eyes rotating oddly in its amorphous mass, and made as if to lunge at the flame-bears. They held their ground, one pantomiming a roar that spat a gout of blue fire at it, sending the creature surging back toward Basra. It tried to duck to the side, but ran straight into the stronger beam of sunlight, presumably the one cast by the elvish shaman. Two more arrows whistled into it, passing straight through but disrupting its shadowy body on the way and forcing it back to the center of the trap. Doubtless those shafts were blessed in some way.

“So,” she murmured, “it fears light. How fitting.”

Basra strode forward again, Covrin moving a second later. The shadow whirled, again fixing its stare on her, and rippled furiously. Its hiss of rage echoed straight through her brain. Here, at last, was something it could attack.

She grinned. “Come on, then.”

A shadowbolt impacted her shield, followed by a second; both disintegrated without diminishing its integrity in the least. Not infernal craft, then; some kind of fae energy that resembled it. She pressed forward, closing nearly to melee range, her blazing aura seeming to physically push the shadow back. It swiped desperately at her with one claw, then the other, which had no more effect than the shadowbolts had.

It turned, trying to flee again, and this time stood its ground against the menacing of the fire-bears. Two of the elven archers had also circled around, however, and fired another pair of charmed shafts straight between the shadow and the elementals, forcing it back. Basra paused, rapidly contemplating. It seemed to fear her light more than the fire; if she pushed like this, it would surely panic and force its way past the elementals.

She let her shield wink out.

“Ma’am?” Covrin cried shrilly.

Basra didn’t acknowledge her. Sword still blazing with light, she charged straight at the creature. It whirled to face her, emboldened by her lack of glowing shield. Both clawed arms came down on her as she ran.

The sensation was like being doused in ice water. Her body went numb, cold enough to hurt, first at the touch of those claws, and second all over when she plunged straight into its center of shadowy mass. Basra had been struck by shadowbolts before; it was part of advanced Legion training. The experience was nasty and, at higher levels of power, could cause nerve damage, but most of the pain was illusory. This wasn’t as bad as what the Church summoner who’d tested her had done, either, for all that it was all over rather than in a concentrated blast. Despite her lack of a shield, the divine light glowed in her core, rendering the damage of the shadows only superficial. She didn’t even slow.

Basra had to jump to drive her sword into one of the creature’s unnatural not-eyes, but she struck it unerringly.

Its cry of agony was like a blast of frigid wind ripping across the prairie. Fully half the creature’s mass abruptly dissolved, and the shadow across the land vanished, leaving them bathed in bright sunlight. Something about the remainder of its body seemed more solid, too; not solid like flesh, but as if she had her sword driven through a giant, squirming slug.

It collapsed to the ground, thrashing and swiping at her with rapidly shrinking claws; she ignored the pain, bodily forcing it downward.

“Excellent!” cried the shaman. “Hold it still—we will finish it off!”

First one shaft of sunbeams moved, then the other, Schwartz clearly following the elf’s lead. They pivoted and angled as both men stepped up closer, changing their aim to bathe the shadow in the full strength of the beams.

It howled, thrashed, wailed, and began to steam as if the sunlight was burning it away to nothing. Indeed, the whole rest of the process took no more than a few seconds. The glowing sword seared away a chunk at the center of its remaining mass before it was finished, freeing it to move, but by that point the thing was too damaged to resist. It broke apart into smaller fragments, which hissed and smoked until they, one by one, dissolved into nothingness.

Then it was gone.

“Well done,” said the shaman, lowering his staff. His shaft of sunlight winked out, followed by the other.

“I say, how exciting!” Schwartz cried. “An actual shadow elemental! I never thought to see such a thing—nor hoped to, I must say.”

“What?” Basra exclaimed, rounding on him. “A shadow elemental? I never heard of—did you just make that up?”

“Oh, no, no, I assure you, your Grace,” he said hastily. “It’s a known practice, but rare and rather difficult. You see, in the art of elemental magic—”

The shaman cleared his throat pointedly. “With that out of the way, all of you are more than welcome to come to the grove. In fact, the elders will be quite eager to discuss these events.” He glanced between Basra and Schwartz, and smiled with apparent amusement. “I think, also, we can provide a more comfortable place to hold the remainder of this conversation.”


Ingvar had been the last onto the caravan and was the last one out. He was pleased to find the experience nowhere near as grueling as many had claimed, but still. It was a small, enclosed space shared with a stranger and Antonio Darling; nothing would have made that a comfortable ride.

“I say,” Darling exclaimed, hopping out after him. “That was a downright comfortable ride! It’s amazing, the effort they’ve put into improving these things.”

“You should’ve tried it a few months ago,” Joe said, stepping out after him. “This is a whole other world. Safety belts, comfortable seats, an’ you can’t even feel the acceleration or curves anymore. McGraw’s got a theory about how an’ why the Rails are bein’ upgraded… Actually, it’s a little eerie, whatever they used to soften the ride. Messin’ with fundamental forces like inertia makes me nervous.”

“Isn’t all of magic messing with fundamental forces, really?” Darling asked him. The question could have been chiding or condescending, asked of a teenager by a man nearing his middle years, but his tone was simply curious, as if he honestly sought Joe’s insight. Ingvar watched their conversation sidelong, taking careful note of Darling’s ability to communicate subtleties without words. The man was every bit as dangerous as he remembered.

Joe merely shrugged. “Magic follows rules, jus’ like conventional physics. Different rules, more subjective ones, but still… Reckon I’m just in a peculiar position, is all. I know enough of the art to know when something’s difficult an’ dangerous, but not enough in this case t’see how it was done.”

“That makes sense,” Darling replied, nodding, and turned to study the Veilgrad platform. “After all, the Empire wouldn’t be running the things if they didn’t work.”

Ingvar continued to withhold comment, instead turning to examine their new surroundings himself.

The walled city of Veilgrad was famous, of course, for its historic and culturally important position between the plains and the mountains. Here, Tiraas mixed with the Stalrange; in this city, both were equally represented in architecture, ethnicity, and tradition. The city was also very much on the Empire’s mind lately, due to the events that had transpired here a few weeks prior. From the Rail platform outside the walls, no signs of an undead apocalypse were visible; the city wasn’t visibly damaged, not even to the extent of lingering scaffolding, materials or other repair work being in evidence.

There was, however, a greater Army presence than seemed generally likely for an interior area of the Empire. Soldiers patrolled the platform, the city walls and the roads between them in noteworthy numbers; there was a zeppelin hovering above the city itself, and a second docked on the plain itself adjacent to the Rail platform. Its enormous copper-accented gray shape loomed over the area like a castle, but based on the lack of reaction to it by most of those coming and going, this wasn’t an usual sight these days.

Despite all this, Ingvar’s eyes were drawn to the towering peaks of the Stalrange itself, rising abruptly out of the plains without intervening foothills, as if Shaath himself had planted them there in defiance of the gentler land to the west. Here, beyond that mighty wall and deeper into the mountains, was the heart of Shaathist culture and worship.

For him, in particular, this land held significance, great promise, and considerable risk.

“Welp,” Darling said brightly, “we’re not getting anywhere by holding down the platform! Onward and upward, gentlemen. I think we can charter a carriage at that office up there into the city…”

“Is there something wrong with our feet?” Ingvar asked mildly.

Darling looked over at him and blinked twice; Joe ducked his head, hiding a smile behind his hand.

“Well, now you mention it, I suppose not,” the Eserite said, his apparent good cheer undiminished. “A nice walk would be just the thing to loosen up after that Rail ride.”

Picking up his suitcase, he started for the steps at the far end of the platform, but Ingvar spoke again, making no move to follow.

“And where, exactly, are we going? I note that despite this being my quest, I’m the last to know what, specifically, we are doing here, in this city. At least, I hope that one of you were brought into the loop when you were recruited for this.”

“Yep,” Joe drawled, “takin’ direction from Mary tends to get like that.”

“Quite right, of course,” Darling said, turning back to him. He glanced around them, the motion of his eyes so swift Ingvar might well have missed it, had he not been accustomed to tracking the tiniest flickers of movement on the hunt. No one seemed to be paying them the slightest attention, though; their caravan hadn’t come as part of a routine stop, so there was no great throng of people embarking or disembarking. The only other individuals on the platform were clustered around a few vendors at one end and stacking boxes of freight at the other.

“I’m sure you heard about the recent…kerfuffle out here,” Darling said, pausing for Ingvar to acknowledge him.

“The Huntsman are not so insular as to have missed that,” Ingvar said dryly. “In fact, the local lodge took part in the defense of the city. Quite heroically, as I understand it. And none of them referred to it as a ‘kerfuffle.’”

“Right,” Darling said with an amused smile. “Well, Joe and I aren’t along on this thing just to make it a threesome; we’ve some business in Veilgrad pertaining to that, and I rather suspect we’re going to find that our various concerns continue to overlap wherever else this journey takes us. Dear Mary is just that much of a planner. Specifically…” He spread his arm and made an obviously mocking bow. “You’re looking at the clown who had the best chance of warding off the recent disaster here, and blew it.”

“Glad as I am to see you takin’ responsibility,” Joe remarked, “I still don’t think you were nearly as central to the whole business as you make out.”

“Taking too much responsibility is always preferable to too little,” Darling retorted. “In any case, the facts, Ingvar, are that I had warning of something major and chaos-related about to unfold, I did my best to find out where it was happening and sent trusted, capable people there to deal with it, and…I was dead wrong. Joe, here, and a few other allies, found themselves stuck in the desert hundreds of miles away, dealing with unrelated nonsense, while Veilgrad burned. All because I hared off chasing a likely trail and didn’t pay enough attention to signs that could have directed me here.”

“I see,” Ingvar said neutrally, carefully refusing to form an opinion. This was clearly just the shadow of a much bigger, very complex story. And while he agreed with Joe that it was better to see Darling accepting blame than otherwise, he remained mindful of Darling’s skill at using his positive traits to conceal the real horrors beneath the facade.

“So that’s what we’re doing here,” Darling continued. “We’ve some old business to follow up on.”

“Largely just morbid curiosity at this point,” Joe added. “Not like there’s anything to be done about it now. But I’ve recently had the details about what really happened in Veilgrad from some who were right in the thick of it, so we want to catch up with a couple of individuals who were…sort of in charge.”

“Closure,” said Darling, nodding. “And maybe some hints we can use to prevent a similar screw-up in the future.”

“That’s…laudable,” Ingvar said. “Not to sound self-centered, but with regard to my reason for being here…?”

“Ah, yes,” Darling said more briskly. “Mary’s of the opinion you’ll want to talk with a kind of Shaathist offshoot sect called the Shadow Hunters who live in the hills nearby.”

Ingvar stiffened. “The Shadow Hunters are not an offshoot of the Huntsmen. They are…a parallel. Nothing of their beliefs has to do with Shaath.”

“Well, that’s interesting to know,” Darling mused. “I guess we’ll hear more about it from them.”

“We?” Ingvar said pointedly. “You two have your business in Veilgrad, and I have mine. It seems more efficient for us to part ways here.”

“Now, I foresee this bein’ a sticking point, so lemme just throw in my two bits’ worth, if I may,” said Joe, tucking his thumbs into his belt. “Way I understand it, this is a matter of spiritual concern for you, Mr…uh, Brother. I, uh, sorry, I never actually met a Huntsman before. Dunno the properly respectful term.”

“Ingvar is fine,” he said, feeling a small rush of affection for the lad. If only more people his age were as concerned about respect.

“Ingvar, then,” Joe said, nodding. “So this is a sacred quest for you, we’re not members of your faith, an’ you’ve got no reason to trust or particularly like us. That about right?”

Ingvar glanced over at Darling, who stood placidly with a suspiciously calm and open expression. “I mean no offense, of course.”

“Of course,” Joe agreed. “It’s a reasonable position. I’ve found myself on, for want of a better term, adventures with a right strange crew of folk lately, an’ they ran the gamut from neutrally unfamiliar to seemingly deserving of a punch in the teeth on general principles.”

“You’ve gotta meet Weaver sometime,” Darling said, grinning. “Preferably when I’m there to watch.”

Joe shot him an annoyed look. “Point being, the way to get friendly with people is to stand alongside ’em through hard times.”

“I’m not certain I see the advantage to me in getting friendly with people as a rule,” Ingvar said stiffly.

“You don’t?” Darling’s expression was…hard to decipher, now. Ingvar wondered if that meant he was feeling something genuine. “Seems to me a man in your position needs all the friends he can get.”

“I reckon that’s true of anyone,” Joe said hastily. “Look… If nothing else, Mary set us out on this thing together. She’s a difficult person to like at times, but I’ll vouch she’s trustworthy, and has the best intentions. More importantly, she’s probably the wisest soul I ever met. Aside from that, it ain’t generally smart practice to split up the party. You never know what might happen.”

Ingvar drew in a breath and let it out in a huff through his nose. “I suppose there’s logic in that. This will make our visit here longer, though.”

“Are you in a hurry?” Darling asked. “Really—that’s not sass, I’m asking. If you’ve got some kind of timetable, we should be aware of it so we can try not to hold you up.”

“Not…in particular, no,” Ingvar said reluctantly. “Aside from a general desire to have all of this done with as swiftly as possible.”

“Well, that’s more than fair,” Darling said, grinning. “We’ll still try not to hold you up. I don’t think our own business should take terribly long, anyway. In general I’m inclined to agree with Joe’s reasoning—all of it. All told, I expect to be here a couple days at least; we should secure lodgings, and then chat with Mr. Grusser and Lady Malivette. We should be able to get that over with this afternoon, I should think.”

“Who?” Ingvar demanded.

“The local… Well, sort of the two governors,” Darling explained. “It’s a little complex; I’ll give you the full rundown on the way into town. But that’ll give us a fresh start tomorrow to approach your Shadow Hunters. Your mission’s the focus, here, after all. It makes sense to me to have the full day to address it without interruptions. Right?”

“I suppose so,” Ingvar said slowly. It sounded like logic, but he couldn’t escape the feeling he’d just been manipulated somehow. Traveling with Darling was going to make him thoroughly paranoid.

“Well then!” Darling said brightly, again picking up his suitcase. “If that’s settled, let’s be off! No sense dragging all this out, as we’ve established.”

Ingvar couldn’t quite hold back a sigh, but he followed the Bishop toward the steps at the end of the platform, Joe silently bringing up the rear.

The platform itself lay amid a scattering of structures that looked well-established, but not so historic as the city itself. Veilgrad in general gave the impression of a houseplant growing too large for its pot, positioned as it was on the wall-enclosed granite plateau thrusting westward from the mountains, with a network of roads branching out from it and smaller patches of city rising from the plains below, and into the hills above. The road directly ahead of them led straight to the city’s main gates, positioned on the narrow end of the huge peninsular outcropping on which Veilgrad stood.

The road up to the gates was not long, nor arduous; its slope was fairly gentle. Ingvar recalled having read that this was a Tiraan addition, replacing the original, more defensible approach. Indeed, the long ramp passed over several enormous rocky protrusions that made up part of its base, but mostly appeared to have been built of artificial stonework. Considering the height at which the gates stood, getting there on an incline mild enough not to send traffic rolling back down (like the siege engines of old were meant to) made for a very long approach.

The wide ramp was lined with towers, manned by Tiraan soldiers and some bristling with mag artillery; one larger fortress near its base had its own dedicated scrolltower. Civilian structures were also positioned along the length, mostly shops catering to travelers, with several inns and flat, level spaces where people could stop and rest. Ingvar considered suggesting one of these as a place to stay. Despite being accustomed to the island city of Tiraas, in this new country, he felt an odd but insistent reluctance to be hemmed in by the walls.

There were no complaints or signs of any difficulty from the rear of their little procession; it made sense that the famed Sarasio Kid wouldn’t balk at a long hike. Increasingly, Ingvar had the impression he and Joe were going to end up getting along well. Somewhat to his irritation, Darling was having no trouble with the distance or the incline either, despite lugging along his suitcase. That seemed downright unfair. The man was a bureaucrat and a politician; what right did he have encroaching on Ingvar’s territory by being in shape? On the other hand, he was also a thief. Apparently, he had not become a retired one simply because he’d moved into administration.

A gathering of people were standing around one of the flat resting areas, listening avidly to an older man exuberantly relating a story. An older Huntsman, still unbent and brawny despite the gray in his beard. He stood upon a bench, two younger, quieter Huntsmen nearby, watching with rather smug expressions.

Ingvar let the speech wash over him as they drew close enough to hear it, absorbing just enough to discern that it was a recitation of a hunting party into Veilgrad’s now-notorious catacombs during the recent disaster. The fellow was a good storyteller; Huntsmen had a valued oral tradition and those who cultivated the skill could put on a show to challenge any Vesker. Interesting as the story might have been, Ingvar was more concerned with watching than listening.

Darling didn’t slow, but turned his head to observe the tableau as they drew abreast of it. One of the younger Huntsmen standing by glanced over at them, then looked sharply again, this time directly at Ingvar, who managed not to tense. The man’s eyes flicked over him, peering closely at his leather headband, longbow, traditional jerkin and bearskin mantle pinned with a bronze wolf’s head, before coming to rest again on his beardless face. He moved one arm surreptitiously to nudge his companion; the other man glanced at him, followed his gaze, then narrowed his eyes in an identical expression.

Steeling himself, Ingvar nodded, once, respectfully, as one Huntsman to others.

They just stared.

He moved his eyes back ahead, ignoring the rudeness. Whatever anyone else did, he was responsible only for himself. Still, he was keenly aware of them slowly turning their heads to track him—him, specifically, not his group—until they had moved on ahead.

“So,” Darling said mildly, but loud enough to be clear without looking back. “What was that about?”

Ingvar drew in a calming breath. There were few things in the world he wanted less to discuss with Darling, of all people, but it looked like this might become a legitimate…issue. Especially if they were going to be staying in this city.

“There is a great deal of independence among the lodges,” he said carefully. They didn’t need to know any more than they absolutely needed to know; this was Shaathist business. “The Grandmaster is more an…administrator…than a spiritual leader. Different regions, and indeed different lodges, can have different interpretations of Shaath’s doctrines. The central cult intervenes only if they seriously deviate from the path, which is highly rare.” He paused, took another breath, and continued. “I was born in the upper Wyrnrage, and left. It wasn’t acceptable to the lodge there for me to be a Huntsman; I had to seek out one that would take me. And, well, here in the Stalrange, people are generally more…”

“Conservative?” Joe suggested.

“I was going to say ‘backward,’” Ingvar muttered. Behind him, the Kid laughed. He felt a moment’s annoyance, but then found himself smiling along. There seemed to be no malice in Joe.

“So,” Darling said thoughtfully, “we may not want to have a visit with the local Huntsmen, then, right?”

Ingvar nodded, mostly to himself, since Darling couldn’t see him. “That would probably be best.”

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10 – 6

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“It is inconvenient timing, of course,” said Andros, frowning into the distance ahead of them. “I have found you a dependable assistant in my dealings with the Church and the other cults. Restraint and careful social judgment are necessary traits in my work, and I’m afraid Shaath’s way does not encourage their development. Whatever aid I find is the result of either happenstance or the god’s blessing.”

“I am sorry to leave you alone like this, and so abruptly,” Ingvar replied. “I will try not to prolong the journey, of course, but this is not going to be an easy hunt. I can’t say even where it will lead me…”

Andros stopped, turning to face him. They stood near the front of the lodge’s main hall, for the most part alone; the few other Huntsmen passing through did not pause to pay untoward attention to a private conversation. The Bishop placed a hand on the younger Huntsman’s shoulder, smiling.

“Forgive me, that was poorly spoken. I didn’t mean to lay any guilt upon you, brother. Remember, we are an order dedicated to the wild and to its god; you have been given a clearly sacred task, and it must take precedence. Being stuck in this city, handling its intrigues, I sometimes worry that I begin to lose sight of the prey for focusing on the hunt. The sacred is always of greater import than the practical.”

Ingvar smiled back, hiking his travel rucksack up onto his shoulder. “Don’t worry, brother, your point was clear. Regardless, I don’t wish to prolong this any more than absolutely necessary.”

Andros frowned slightly. “Be very wary of the Crow, Ingvar. Yes, I know, you obviously would be. She lays plans built of smaller plans, and is no friend to mankind, except perhaps in certain individual cases.”

“That is just one of the things about this matter that trouble me,” Ingvar replied. “There is no way for me to proceed that doesn’t involve becoming a playing piece in her agenda. I shall do my best not to bring any harm upon Shaath’s interests, of course, but I don’t think myself a match for her cunning.”

“That is well,” Andros said firmly, nodding. “Nothing kills faster than arrogance out in the wild. Trust your skills and your instincts, and they’ll serve you well.”

Ingvar nodded in reply. “I’d best move out. Putting this off longer would be a show of weak-heartedness. And besides, I have a caravan to catch.”

“Hunt well, brother,” Andros said, bowing. Ingvar bowed as well, then turned with no more talk and strode out through the lodge’s front doors. So it should be, between men. Too many words were a waste of air.

Andros strode back through the lodge, following its corridors to the residence of the Grandmaster near the rear. He rapped once and waited.

It was only a brief span of moments before the door opened a crack, revealing the face of a pretty young woman peeking up at him curiously. Recognizing him, she immediately bowed and pulled the door wide, stepping aside to let him in. Andros entered, nodding politely at her.

“Sir, the Bishop is here,” Auri said deferentially to her husband, who sat at a desk near the hearth not far away. A very well-mannered young woman, and a fine acquisition for the Grandmaster; Veisroi had been notably less grim in the months since marrying her. Given his position, he could have been swimming in wives, but Veisroi had only the two. He had never had more than two, and for several years since the passing of his first wife, he’d had only his Jula.

Andros heartily approved of this restraint. A woman was a significant responsibility, not a plaything; he worried, sometimes, that the younger generation of Huntsmen did not properly appreciate their women—among their other failings. But then, every generation saw those who came after them as somewhat degenerate, or so he seemed to recall from conversations with his own father. Still, such attitudes caused problems. Had that strutting young cockerel Feldren paid more attention to his Ephanie, she probably wouldn’t be back in the Legions now, finding new ways to be an embarrassment to Shaath.

“Andros,” the Grandmaster said with a hint of annoyance, slapping a sheet of parchment down atop a whole stack of them on his desk. “If you’ve brought me more paperwork, I may have you excommunicated.”

Andros raised an eyebrow at this empty grousing. “Veisroi, when was the last time you took a day to yourself to go hunting?”

“Bah! When was the last time I had time to breathe? Church business, Imperial business, that’s all just the wind in my hair. It’s these wretched lodges, Andros. What a pack of sniveling pups. Can none of these alleged men handle their own affairs? This idiot!” He picked up the letter again, shaking it. “He’s still after me to, and I quote, ‘do something’ about Arachne Tellwyrn. Do something! About Tellwyrn! All because his fool son wanted a drow wife and fell for that Masterson boy’s cruel streak. How many times must I explain this man’s stupidity to him before I have to have him removed as Lodgemaster? I’ve half a mind to call a Wild Hunt on the fool.”

“Wasn’t that Hranfoldt, from the Wyrnrange?” Andros asked. “That one’s politically minded, Veisroi. He might be jockeying to make you look bad—he hasn’t the seniority to try for your position, but I could see him planning ahead.”

“Don’t lecture me, young pup,” Veisroi grunted. “I know what he’s about. I suffer his schemes because the way the world is shaping up, I can’t afford to waste a schemer. Even one with eyes bigger than his belly. Anyway, you haven’t come here an your before lunch to listen to an old man’s griping. What do you need?”

“Merely to bring you an update,” Andros replied, folding his hands. “Ingvar just departed on his quest.”

The Grandmaster turned in his chair to face, him, twisting his thin mouth. “Another promising schemer, now out of reach. And that one is both loyal and sensible. I very much hope the boy’s not getting in over his head. Hrathvin is concerned about him.”

“As do I,” Andros replied, “but I trust Ingvar’s judgment. If he has one flaw it’s that he is too cautious and contained. He won’t be easily goaded into misstepping.”

“Well, it’s out of our hands until he comes home,” Veisroi said. “I’ll burn an offering for him; nothing else to be done from here. Surely that wasn’t all you came to tell me.”

“No, I wouldn’t interrupt your paperwork for that,” Andros replied. “I know how you enjoy it so.”

“I am this close, Andros, by Shaath’s paws!”

The Bishop grinned. “In seriousness, I just received an update by courier from the Archpope. If there’s to be a major move against him in the city, it will likely come soon, and may come here. As of this morning, of his core of trustworthy Bishops, I am the only one left in the city.”

Veisroi narrowed his eyes. “What happened to the Eserite?”

“He has just departed for points unknown. The notice he left said it was on personal business.

The Grandmaster snorted. “That’s what you and the others all said when Justinian sent you to Hamlet.”

“Indeed, and I never assume that what Antonio says has any bearing on what he’s up to. Words are just another layer of his camouflage. I don’t believe this is on the Archpope’s orders, however.”

“Another weapon, out of pocket,” Veisroi murmured, staring into the low fire and absently rubbing his forefinger and thumb together. “At least Snowe is actively working on Justinian’s orders.”

Andros curled his lip disdainfully. “That little bundle of fluff is in his Holiness’s inner circle purely on the weight of her loyalty. I’m glad she’s found some use as a propaganda tool; if not for that, she’d be wasting her calling by not warming someone’s bed.”

“I’ve come to expect a bit more perceptiveness from you, Andros,” Veisroi retorted, staring piercingly at him. “You know what kind of dangerous people Justinian keeps nearest himself. You, that mad dog Syrinx. Even the Eserite—we’ve seen that his foppish act is a smokescreen for something truly vicious. If Branwen Snowe appears useless to you, I suggest you start paying closer attention to her.”


Tellwyrn opened the classroom door, stepped in, shut it behind her, and paused inside, studying the room with hands on her hips. The cherry trees and ornamental screens softened up the stark angularity of the room nicely, but she hadn’t come here to admire the décor.

She descended to the dais in the front, stepping up to one of the folding screens. It was beautifully preserved, but clearly old, or at least a masterful reproduction of an old original. This style of ink-painting was no longer popular in Sifan, and newer pieces of such exquisite quality were unlikely to be produced.

“Hmm,” she mused. “Not bad, but could use a splash of color.” A brush tipped in red paint appeared in her hand, and she raised it toward the delicately inked silk. “Maybe right around—”

“All right, all right!” Professor Ekoi snatched the brush away from her from behind. “You can make your point less destructively, you absolute savage!”

“Well, I’m never quite sure with you, Kaisa,” Tellwyrn turned just in time to see the arcane-conjured paintbrush disintegrate into sparks and ashes, swept away by fae magic. The kitsune pulled a silken kerchief out of thin air and carefully wiped off her fingers, grimacing in disdain. “Now that you are here, there’s something I’d like to discuss with you.”

“Bah. Schedules, command performances, discussions whenever it’s convenient. You used to be fun, Arachne.”

“I have no memory of that,” Tellwyrn said, folding her arms. “The students from the morning exercise group brought me an interesting story right before my class. Apparently as they were wrapping up, Trissiny and Scorn sensed the presence of a demon. Scorn insisted it was a child of Vanislaas. Gabriel, Toby, and November were all there and felt nothing; Gabriel’s valkyrie friend did not sense anything, either.”

“Hmm.” Kaisa tucked her hands behind her back, tilting her head and twitching her ears. Her tail began to wave, a sure sign that her interest was caught. “When is an incubus not an incubus?”

“I questioned them closely on that point,” said Tellwyrn. “Trissiny didn’t feel anything quite so distinct; it was only Scorn was thought it was a Vanislaad. And while Scorn may not be the most reliable of witnesses, since I’ve no idea what kind of training she’s had, she is clearly a highborn Rhaazke. They are powerful and perceptive creatures.”

“Perhaps it would be wise to find out what kind of training she’s had, yes?” Ekoi said with a mischievous smile. “And you trust the accounts of the others? Students do love their little pranks.”

“Not this group,” Tellwyrn said, shaking her head. “Half of them haven’t the imagination, and the others at least know better than to mess around with something like this. What gets me, Kaisa, is the differences in opinion. The paladins, at least, should have a fairly uniform perception of demonic activ—”

She abruptly whirled, a gold-hilted saber appearing in her hand, and stared around at the empty room.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Ekoi said airily, “there’s not actually a rawhead here. You see, Arachne, senses can be fooled, if you know the method. That holds true for magical senses as well as mundane ones. I wouldn’t expect you to know, given your disdain for subtler tactics, but there are ways of creating the impression that highly magical creatures are present when they are not. At least, to those attuned to them.”

“Who was it who was just talking about destructive means of getting attention?” Tellwyrn muttered, vanishing her sword and turning back to the kitsune.

Kaisa tittered gleefully. “You’re right, though. It’s very interesting that little Trissiny and big old Scorn would react, when the others didn’t. Almost as if something had been…aimed at them.”

“It remains an open question who would do that, and why.”

“Well, the why is at least partially obvious,” the kitsune said. “If you wanted to rile up those paladins…honestly, which of the three is the most easily riled?”

“That’s all well and good, as far as it goes,” Tellwyrn began. “But—”

“Yes, yes.” Kaisa languidly waved a folding fan which had just appeared in her hand. “There’s a finite list of those who can employ such subtle methods. One must have power—considerable power. Not to mention mastery of the given magical art. This is not a small matter, if it is what it seems.”

“You’re suggesting that a warlock or demon of seriously high rank is playing games with my students,” Tellwyrn said, a dangerous scowl falling across her features.

Kaisa grinned broadly, displaying her elongated canines. “Oh, indeed. And do me the courtesy of not pretending this isn’t exactly why you brought this to me, Arachne. You may consider me interested. If someone wishes to play that kind of game… Well, a lady does need hobbies, no?”


While he didn’t generally enjoy pushing through crowds, Ingvar had learned to appreciate the lack of attention people paid him in the busy streets of Tiraas. If anyone so much as glanced his way, it was generally due to his Huntsman gear; nobody stopped and stared, and rarely did anyone seem to note any disparity in his appearance unless he actually talked to them. City living was unnatural and stressful in many ways, but the jaded disinterest of urbanites was a blessing for those who didn’t enjoy attention.

Still, the Rail station was something else again. People were crammed in here like canned sardines, somehow managing to push through one another without acknowledging each other. He kept his bow tucked against his body and his other hand on his backpack, mindful of pickpockets. Allegedly the only such in the city would be operatives of the Guild, who didn’t prey on just anyone (again, allegedly), but Ingvar had been warned that Huntsmen, in their eyes, were not just anyone. He had never personally been targeted, but Andros had had to send requests to the Thieves’ Guild several times for the return of personal objects of spiritual significance, which were often the only things of value a Huntsman carried.

He made his way through the heaving throng to Platform 6A, where Mary had directed him to meet the companions she was sending along on his journey. She had said they would be individuals who would benefit personally from being along on his quest, and not simply hired muscle, which was fine as far as it went. Ingvar did not have a good feeling about this, however. He had excellent reason to be mindful of his privacy, and wasn’t enthused about the prospect of going on a long journey with complete strangers. If he had to have anyone along for this, he’d have much preferred known and trusted Huntsmen from the lodge.

Mary, clearly, had no interest in what he preferred. And he had no option but to cater to her plans. She hadn’t even told him where he would be going, only where to meet his new companions. It was a very neat way to get him out of the city without letting him catch his balance, which didn’t bode well for this whole enterprise.

The platforms were clearly labeled, at least, and 6A was in a quieter end of the station. According to the sign he passed, that was because these tracks were for specifically chartered caravans, not the regularly scheduled ones. Well, the Crow probably didn’t lack for funds after however many thousands of years she had been operating. Then again, Ingvar wouldn’t put it past her to have made one of the others pay for the trip.

Hopefully she wasn’t expecting him to. He had a little money, but not the kind of money that would charter a Rail caravan. He hadn’t even been given a ticket before coming her.

The platform was positioned behind wooden privacy screens—apparently the people who chartered private caravans could not be expected to mix with the common public any longer than they absolutely must. Ingvar paused to make sure he had the right one. Yes, 6A, this was it. He stepped into the space and froze.

There were two other men present—well, a man and a boy. The youth looked to be in his mid-teens, and was wearing a hat and duster of clearly expensive make over a dark suit, with a bolo tie inset with a large piece of tigerseye. Two wands were holstered at his waist on a leather belt bulging with pockets. He was lounging against the wall with his arms folded, and looked up upon Ingvar’s arrival. The Huntsman took in the boy at a glance before fixing his startled attention on the other man present.

Dressed in a slightly scruffy suit over a loud red shirt and scuffed snakeskin boots, occupying himself by doing tricks with a doubloon, there stood Antonio Darling. He looked up, grinned broadly and exclaimed as though delighted, “Ingvar!”

Ingvar stared at him, then very carefully backed up and looked again at the sign outside the platform. Yes, 6A.

Darling laughed. “Yes, yes, not what you were expecting, I take it?”

“That…is putting it mildly,” Ingvar said very carefully. Somehow, and he had no idea how, he was going to make the Crow pay for this.

“Well, c’mon in, don’t be shy,” Darling said cheerfully. “Let me introduce everyone around. Ingvar, this is Joseph Jenkins, who you may know as the Sarasio Kid.”

“Pleasure,” said Jenkins, tipping his hat. Ingvar nodded back, mind whirling. The Sarasio Kid? Legends of frontier wandfighters were popular among Shaath’s followers; frontier folk in general were well thought of in the cult. He was definitely familiar with the name.

“Joe,” Darling went on, “this is Brother Ingvar, Huntsman of Shaath and the reason for this little outing of ours.”

Ingvar managed not to grind his teeth. Little outing. “Why would you want to come along on this journey, your Grace?” he asked somewhat curtly. “I thought you were principally a creature of the city.”

“Oh, that much is definitely true,” Darling said lightly. “Everybody needs a change of scenery once in a while, though, don’t you think?”

“If you can manage to get a straight answer out of him about anything,” said Jenkins in a distinctly dry done, “I will be immensely impressed.”

So. There was already some mistrust here. Ingvar’s opinion of Jenkins rose further.

“Now, no need to be like that, Joe,” Darling said cheerfully. “In seriousness, Ingvar, I took some convincing when Mary asked me to come along, but honestly, even aside from the case she made, I do have an interest in this. It’s past time I got out and got my own hands dirty again—too much politics is turning me soft. Besides, Joe and I both have some recent business to follow up on in our first destination. Ah, speak of the Dark Lady!”

Ingvar’s hair tried to stand up as the Rail itself began to glow a fierce arcane blue. The caravan arrived, barreling into the station at terrifying speed and decelerating similarly swiftly. In mere seconds it had hissed to a stop alongside the platform, one compartment lining up neatly with the short ramp extending from beside them. A moment later, the door hissed open with a soft sound like escaping steam.

“It just…goes?” Ingvar said doubtfully. “It doesn’t need to stop for…fuel, or maintenance, or something?”

“Nah, they fix ’em up overnight,” Darling said brightly, bending to pick up the suitcase sitting by his feet. “We can chat more on the way—no sense in wasting time! All aboard for Veilgrad!”


They had to leave the carriage at a farm at the end of the road. The Old Road ran out of Viridill all the way to the dwarven kingdoms in the mountains at the northernmost end of the continent, but that road quite deliberately passed between patches of forest rather than through them; going into the Green Belt meant taking a smaller road which did not go all the way there. The elves would never have tolerated that.

“Are you sure it’ll be okay?” Schwartz huffed, not for the first time. “I mean…they were nice enough, but they’re just folks. It’s not as if we were parking it in an actual garage…”

“Where, in this country, would you expect to find a garage?” Basra asked. She led the group, plowing through the fields toward the forest up ahead. The road and the farm were lost to the distance behind them; they had already passed out of cultivated fields of barley and corn and were hiking through a patch of prairie. Rather than the clean tallgrass of the Great Plans, this was a scrubby kind of prairie, filled with rocks, thorns, and hefty bushes that sometimes neared the status of trees. It wasn’t easy going, but Basra did not slow her pace despite Schwartz’s discomfort. “You saw how taken they were with the vehicle. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

“Well, that’s sort of it,” he panted. “I mean… Who knows what they’d…”

“They will not damage it,” she said curtly. “We made it clear it was Legion property. They wouldn’t dare.”

“Also, they’re not animals,” Covrin added. “Not a sophisticated class of people, to be sure, but even the peasants in this province are a respectful lot.”

“If you say so,” Schwartz said, then fell silent, having to concentrate on walking and breathing. Meesie had clambered up to perch atop his head, where she peered about, whiskers twitching. Now that it was clearly visible, Basra could tell the creature wasn’t quite a rat—in shape she was a bit more like a weasel, but with overlarge ears and dextrous little hands, not to mention a long, tufted tail. Actually, it was rather cute, in a garish way.

“All right there, Covrin?” she asked. “I know you weren’t planning a hike in that armor.”

“Perfectly, ma’am,” Covrin said crisply. Basra had guided her cadet experience toward more political than military training, but they didn’t graduate someone to the rank of Legionnaire unless she was in good shape. “We may want to stop, though. Mr. Schwartz is clearly not used to this kind of exercise.”

“Oh, no, don’t worry ’bout me,” Schwartz wheezed. “Onward and upward!”

Basra did come to a stop, turning to study him critically. The man was half-staggering now, clearly tired and out of breath. Useless boy… So far he’d contributed nothing to the mission. The last thing she wanted was delay, but if he collapsed out here it would slow them down a great deal further.

“It’s not quite noon, yet,” she said, carefully moderating her tone and expression. “We shouldn’t need to push ourselves to make good time. And I suppose it’s wise to give the elves time to prepare for our approach; they likely appreciate abrupt visits even less than visits in general.”

“Well, when you put it that way, I suppose,” Schwartz said gratefully, sinking down to sit on the ground right where he stood. Whether by accident or design, he ended up perched on a large rock rather than sprawled in the dirt. He slumped there, head hanging and struggling to catch his breath. Meesie hopped down to his shoulder and reared up, sniffing at his head in concern.

Basra sighed, shaking her head in disgust, and began pacing slowly in a wide circle around him. More by reflex than because she expected any kind of attack, she studied their surroundings. The scrubby plain stretched out in all directions, leading to the forest up ahead and Viridill farmland behind, with the mountains themselves rising not far to the west; insects and birds sang, but there was no sign of any large animals, much less other people. They might have been an island in the utter wilderness, rather than a few hours’ walk from civilization.

Completing a circuit, she paused next to Covrin, who was standing still and gazing at the distant forest.

“Do you think they’ve spotted us yet?” she asked quietly.

“Almost certainly,” Basra replied. “Elves are prickly about their borders. They know we’re here and that we’re headed right toward them. For all we know there are a dozen crouched in the grass all around us.”

Covrin’s eyes darted back and forth. “That’s…surely not.”

“It’s a possibility,” Basra said mildly, watching the increasing unease on the girl’s face with satisfaction. “The stories about elves are not exaggerated; they don’t need to be. If anything, popular fiction undersells them, because some of the facts simply aren’t believable.”

The Legionnaire unconsciously lowered a hand to the hilt of her sword, and Basra had to repress a grin. “Don’t worry,” she said, patting Covrin on the back of her breastplate. “Elves are persnickety, but the woodkin aren’t violent unless provoked. Whatever they’re doing or thinking, they are very unlikely to attack us.” She paused, stepping up close from behind, and leaned in, near enough that Covrin would feel her warm breath on her ear, to whisper. “You’re safe with me, Jenell.”

From that angle, she just barely caught the twitch at the corner of the girl’s eye, and she stepped back, marshaling her expression against the thrill of amusement it brought her. That had yet to get old.

Basra turned and stepped back to Schwartz, who was sitting there playing with his fire-rat and looking generally more at ease. “Feeling better?”

“Much, thanks!” he said immediately. “Just a quick spell to lighten the fatigue—uh, oh, not that I was doing particularly poorly, of course,” he added hastily. “It’s just…general principles, you know. When out on a hike. Um, if you like I could…?”

“No thanks,” she said wryly. “I believe I’m doing fine. Come on, we had better keep moving.”

“Of course, of course,” he said, groaning very faintly as he stood up. Meesie clambered back up to the top of his head, ears twitching.

They set off again, Schwartz quickly falling behind again to lag in the rear. Basra, after a quick mental debate, slowed her pace, despite her annoyance. There would be no end of trouble if she let actual harm come to him.

Glancing over her shoulder, she started to speak, but suddenly figures materialized out of the grass around them.

The five elves were arranged in a neat semi-circle between her group and the forest ahead. Those on the flank were even with Basra; they had been about to blunder right into their formation. Clearly this had been arranged ahead of time. Despite her reassurance to Covrin, all of them were armed with a mix of bows and tomahawks, and three had arrows nocked and aimed at them.

The one in the center carried a staff in one hand and two tomahawks hanging from his belt; he was the only one without a bow. He stared flatly at Basra.

“You can go no further.”

She inhaled softly, gathering her composure, and bowed. “Good day. My name is Basra Syrinx; I am Bishop of the Sisterhood of Avei.”

“Well met,” the elf said, nodding. “You can still go no further.” His companions made no move to lower their weapons.

“I’m here on a matter of importance,” she said, still speaking calmly. “Believe me, the Sisterhood respects the privacy of the elves, and we would not trouble you were it less than urgent. It was my understanding that the people of Viridill and those of the groves were on good terms. Have we offended you?”

“I know why you’ve come, Bishop Syrinx,” said the elf. “And you are welcome in our forest. What you bring with you is not.”

Slowly, Basra and Covrin turned to stare at Schwartz, whose eyes widened.

“Oh, I say,” he squeaked. “Surely you don’t mean—”

Abruptly Meesie let out a shrill squeal, puffing up her fur, and scampered down his face to dart into the collar of his shirt and hide.

Behind him, darkness itself rose up from the grass.

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