She inhaled slowly to steady herself, drawing in the scents of sweetened coffee, the faint fragrance of coral and shimmerkelp transmitted into the room by the enchantments on its glass walls. Anlin and her father kept their eyes on her, expressions intent but not pushing.
“At first it appears to be a mundane illness. Dizziness, fainting spells. It escalates into sleep disruption; sufferers will be insomniac for days at a time, and then practically narcoleptic for a similar period. It struck the children first, the youngest. That was the stage when the shaman began to be worried, and Iridi called for me to come. We…can find nothing. No trace of physical disease, and no sign of a magical cause. Soon after that, the first of their parents began to show symptoms; they progress much more slowly in adults. They were still fully lucid while it took the children completely.”
“Took?” Vynlian’s voice was suddenly hollow. Despite everything, despite the very irony, the horror in his eyes warmed Kuriwa’s heart slightly. These children might be woodkin, and the living evidence of her rejection of his very culture, but even so, even having known of their existence for only minutes, he feared for their fates as any grandfather would.
“They live,” Kuriwa assured him, managing a weak smile as some of the tension left his shoulders and Anlin reached over to touch his wrist. “When it worsened, the grove shaman and I decided to intervene and place them in suspension. Well, what you would consider suspension; to our sensibilities it is a sleeping curse, and an act of true desperation. It was better than letting them suffer. They gradually lost the ability to sense and interact with their surroundings; it became nearly impossible to keep them fed. They suffered…nightmares. Constant, waking visions of terror. Only when some of the adults reached this stage did we begin to realize that the victim’s consciousness is being affected dimensionally. Over time they cease to perceive the mortal plane. Their senses are bringing them data from a different one.”
“Hell?” Anlin asked tersely.
Kuriwa shook her head. “The space between.”
Vynlian closed his eyes. “Veth’na alaue.”
“Father!” Anlin exclaimed.
Kuriwa had not been aware he even knew any grove dialect, though it made a certain kind of sense that he had picked up a few curses, given the way their conversations usually went.
“It moves slowly upward along generational lines,” she continued. “There is no discernible transmission vector in real space. It affects only my own direct descendants; no one who has worked with or been near any victims has manifested symptoms. One brave young shaman did everything she could to expose herself to infection in order to test this. She got bronchitis and ringworm, but no hint of the curse.”
“What is ringworm?” Vynlian demanded.
“A common skin parasite, affecting only humans. For an elf to contract it… Well, that she did satisfies me that she could not contract the curse.”
He nodded, and gestured her with one hand to continue.
“In addition to only striking my descendants, it strikes them all. Even those who have had no contact with others since the second war. I’ve traveled to every grove where my roots extend and warned them. In each community, no matter how isolated, it was appearing. I was able to warn the Elders to put the children in suspension before their suffering grew extreme. It is three generations up, now. A few of my grandchildren are showing the earliest symptoms.”
Her father drew in a slow breath. “All right. The groves cannot possibly have sufficient medical facilities to handle this. Everyone in the bloodline must be brought to Qestraceel. Anlin and I will make the necessary permits happen.”
Kuriwa was already shaking her head. “It’s too risky to move the youngest victims, father, and given the dimensional element of the curse, you must realize we can’t risk teleporting them, philosophical agreements aside.”
He sighed, but grudgingly nodded. “That is true.”
“And you are letting cultural bias seep through, father,” Anlin added. “Fae magic has always been better suited for healing than arcane. The woodkin possess all the medical knowledge we do, and have never been shy about asking for our help when they needed it. And yet, it’s been historically far more common that we have had to turn to the groves in the case of difficult illnesses.”
Vynlian pursed his lips together. “Fine. But with neither biological nor magical cause to be found, it is clear that we must investigate the possibility of prevention. Your own children at least, Av—Kuriwa, should come here for observation. If we can catch this thing as it comes upon them…”
“I suggested that very step,” she admitted. “My granddaughter Lanaera would like to come; she has not shown symptoms yet and has always been curious about Qestraceel. All my own offspring refused, however.”
“What stories did you raise them on, exactly?” he snapped.
She hadn’t been planning to bring it up, but needled by that remark, Kuriwa shot back, “They can’t all legally enter the city, anyway. Or has the prohibition on dragons been lifted in my absence?”
Vynlian stared at her, his face settling into a politician’s blank mask. Then, slowly, he leaned forward, placing his head in his hands and nearly knocking his cooling coffee to the floor with an errant elbow.
“Honestly, Kuriwa,” Anlin said, shaking her head. “You know I’m on your side, but there comes a point when even I have to suspect you’re just acting out.”
“In my earliest years on the surface, I was definitely doing exactly that,” Kuriwa acknowledged. “I cannot even say my decisions were mostly good ones during the first two centuries. But even choices which I now recognize as mistakes have led to the existence of living people, my own children. Scions of our bloodline. Their lives are now in danger.”
“Yes.” Vynlian straightened, his expression resolute again. “Yes, and at a time like this, castigating you for past mistakes is foolish. We have none of us always made perfect decisions. Such as now, for instance, I am jumping to solutions when I should have waited for you to finish your description of the curse, daughter.”
She leaned over, reaching to take his hand. “You act out of care, father. It gladdens me to see. Even flawed as we are as a family, I’ve never once doubted that you loved me.”
He squeezed her hand back, returning her smile.
“Before you leave, sister, we will definitely have to devote some time just to moments like that,” said Anlin with a wan smile. “But right now, it’s also a distraction. What else can you tell us about this curse?”
“Right.” Kuriwa drew back her hand. “Obviously, I’ve done everything I can think of. Yes, father, I have been reluctant to come back here, I admit that, but it’s not as if the surface world lacks options. Qestraceel is a latter resort, but not the last one. We’ve tested every known type of healing against this curse. The wood elves are unmatched in the fae arts, and I also brought in divine healers. Human, dwarf, gnome, tauhanwe…”
Vynlian frowned. “Tauhanwe? That can’t mean what it sounds like it means.”
“You have your renunciates,” she explained, “we have ours. Some not suited to grove life come to Questraceel and apply for citizenship; others run off to live with humans, or do things even more foolish. There are elves among most Pantheon cults, and I begged the aid of any I could find. Even the Salyrites had nothing to offer. I have stopped short of calling upon a warlock…so far.”
“That might be a fruitful avenue to pursue,” Anlin murmured, “if this does stem from Elilial.”
“I do know one,” Kuriwa admitted. “As mentally stable as any ever are, who holds a khaladesh demon in thrall which is clever enough to possibly be useful. I consider that a desperate act not to be bothered with unless the knowledge of the high elves fails as well. If even that yields nothing… I do have a promising solution to pursue, but it is sheer madness.” She hesitated, averting her eyes from their sudden frown. “To protect my family, I will embrace madness if I must. But not as anything but a last resort.”
“What else have you tried?” Vynlian asked quietly.
“The drow,” she said, and they both grimaced.
“What drow?” Vynlian demanded. “Please tell me you haven’t delved into Scyllith’s reaches, daughter.”
“Not yet,” she said grimly. “Some few of the Themynrite cities are…approachable, with enough effort. I sought the Nathloi first, and that yielded my first true breakthrough, though I was not able to speak with the drow. Emi herself intercepted me at Kiyosan and said I carried a curse of a temporal nature, and was not welcome in Sifan until it was removed.”
Anlin’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Temporal?”
“Emi or her sisters could help, surely, if anyone could,” Vynlian suggested.
“Yes,” Kuriwa agreed, not without bitterness, “but she declined to either do that or convey a request to her sisters. I didn’t press her.”
“Wise, daughter,” he said, nodding. “A kitsune who tells you to leave has not begun to be difficult. There is no situation so dire it cannot be worse by antagonizing them.”
She had to physically hold her teeth shut for a few seconds to stifle several comments about him lecturing on the patently obvious. Fortunately, Anlin rescued her.
“But what does that even mean? A temporal curse? That is outside my field, of course, but I can’t even imagine how you could use time travel as an attack vector without drawing Vemnesthis into it.”
“It’s not just you, sister,” Kuriwa assured her. “No one knows how that would work; I’ve checked. Consider the important fact that Elilial’s greatest tactical advantage is that she can hide her moves from the other gods. Obviously that has limits when it comes to time travel. Anything thus changed would draw the notice of the Scions. But there may be a way to transmit something very subtle and specific—like a curse—along timelines that she can hide with her gift of stealth. If it causes physical effects in the real world below a certain threshold, the Scions might not notice. Or bother to act.”
“That could account for the strange path the curse takes,” Vynlian said slowly, his own eyes narrowed in thought in an expression that emphasized the resemblance between Anlin’s face and his. “Clearly targeted at you, but beginning with your most distant descendants and proceeding backward, as it were. Avenues of investigation into temporal mechanics are limited, obviously, but several of your mother’s colleagues have studied it as a sort of hobby. I specifically recall Magister Ethliron having such an interest. I will see what is known and whether we can use it.”
“Well, with regard to that,” Anlin suggested, “aren’t the Scions themselves the best possible experts to consult on this?”
“The Scions do not answer questions, nor explain their actions,” Vynlian said severely. “They do not help. You know this well, daughter.”
“We are dealing with an apparently time-traveling curse, father, which has been hidden from them by Elilial’s shadow. If their attention were called to it, they may act with no further prompting.”
“This should go without saying,” Ariel interjected, “but since nothing ever does in this family, I will say it. If any of you does anything to provoke a Scion of Vemnesthis to visit Qestraceel, you will all three be banished and your bloodline stricken from the records.”
“You are right, daughter, but so is the sword,” Vynlian agreed. “The Scions may have exactly the solution, but there is simply no viable way to approach them. It is the kitsune all over again.”
“I had further luck with other drow,” Kuriwa said quietly, and they both turned to her again with expectant faces. “I suspect the Irivoi know something, but their eagerness to involve themselves and aggressive insinuations about what I could do for them in return were deeply alarming.”
“No Themynrites should have been so eager to deal with an outsider,” Vynlian agreed. “You were right to sense danger, daughter.”
“Any other drow in this hemisphere would be all but impossible to approach,” said Anlin. “All but the Narisians refuse outside contact as if everyone carries a plague, and Narisians are worthless rodents even among drow. Slavers and scavengers.”
“On the contrary, sister,” Kuriwa demurred, “I made the last progress I have managed in Tar’naris. The Narisians were remarkably polite once they understood that attacking me was futile and costly. Better yet, they were the first who had some knowledge of similar curses. Princess Arkasia took an interest in me and arranged for me to access the royal archives. Since she was blatantly using my presence in her political maneuvers against her rivals rather than betraying Themynra’s charge as were the Irivoi, I took advantage. Their accounts did not match mine precisely, but they have seen conditions that compare to this curse. Such insidious workings have been wielded against them by the Scyllithene drow.” She paused, drawing another steadying breath. “And so… I know where I can look for final answers.”
“Madness,” Vynlian whispered.
She nodded to him. “Madness. If I must delve the Underworld and seek answers from the shadow priestesses to save my family… If I must, I will. But I desperately seek any better option.”
He lowered his head to stare at the mosaic floor, frowning in thought. Anlin chewed her lower lip, also staring sightlessly out at the anemones.
“Then we know what we must do,” Vynlian suddenly said, raising his chin and using his head-of-the-family voice, “even if we do not yet know how. You have had a long journey, daughter, and a terrible period before it. Take one night simply to rest in your ancestral home. It is an earned respite, and you must sustain yourself for what is to come. Your sister and I will consult the family archives and see if anything therein might help. At the onset of working hours tomorrow, we must make a full report on all these matters to the Magistry.”
Kuriwa had already set aside her coffee cup; now, in spite of herself, she could not help grasping the arms of her chair in nervousness. “Father… Every magister I trust is in this room. You know how they feel about renunciates. These are the people who just today conveniently misplaced the arrival ticket Anlin filed for my visit!”
“He’s right, sister,” Anlin said gently. “The Magistry of Qestraceel is the greatest concentration of arcane mastery in existence. If the luminous science holds any answers, our colleagues will know how to find them. But there’s also the fact that we have to report this. Father and I are not of the higher circles, but we are still magisters, and the news that we may find ourselves soon incapacitated by a mysterious curse is something of which the Archmagister herself must be forewarned.”
Kuriwa closed her eyes. “I… I am so sorry. Father, you warned us, and—”
“And you ran off,” he interrupted with an edge to his voice, “involved yourself in the Hellwar, and drew the personal antagonism of Elilial. Twice. And…you did it to protect and preserve life. Because you believed it necessary. I remember well our argument, daughter, and even then… Though I disagreed with your assessment of the cost/benefit ratio, I could not say you were reckless. You did what you thought was right, knowing you could suffer. That is how your mother and I raised you, and it is more important than…than any of the innumerable things about which we disagree.” He managed a watery smile at her before shaking his head in disgust. “And I will admit to you, in the privacy of our home, that in the years since I have grown to doubt my conviction that you were wrong. I am as cautious as any high elf of my rank, but I have not seen caution or conservatism in the Magistry’s refusal to acknowledge the world above us so much as blind, craven cowardice.”
Anlin raised her eyebrows and let out a whistle. “That’s news to me, too.”
“We can exchange further words about how responsible you are for all this,” Vynlian said to Kuriwa, giving his other daughter a passing glance, “but they will wait till our family is not in danger. Agreed?”
Emotion threatened to choke her for a moment, but she mastered it. Kuriwa was an elder shaman, not the disconnected girl who had run away from this place, no matter how the vivid memories of this house and this city always seemed to bring her back to that younger self. “Thank you, father.”
“Tonight, rest,” he said decisively, rising from his chair. “And tomorrow, action.”
Tar’naris was an eerie counterpart to Qestraceel; the parallels went well beyond it being a hidden city below the surface. Its society was also obsessed with family, though drow Houses and high elven bloodlines were barely comparable social systems. The Narisians in particular were formal and had a surprisingly intricate etiquette, at least toward people they were not trying to murder or enslave, and sometimes even then. Even the attitudes of its ruling class… But then, Kuriwa had observed similar mindsets among human warlords who ruled stretches of barely a few acres from thatch-roofed longhouses. Power was power, no matter how slight its degree, and did predictable things to the mind.
They were a peculiar, twisted shadow of the high elves, she had thought upon her previous visit. Tar’naris reflected Qestraceel more than any of the tribes of the groves. It was an observation she kept firmly to herself in both cities.
Of course, wood and high elves still had a lot more in common with each other than with drow, Kuriwa reminded herself as she hurled a blast of wind peppered with razor-sharp leaves into the formation of soldiers currently trying to charge her. She watched impassively as they were decimated, those augmented leaves ripping through lizard-hide and carapace armor as easily as they did flesh. Narisians produced excellent metalwork, but the control the Houses exerted over the mines meant that only nobles wore metal armor. Such as these were lucky to have steel weapons.
Behind her she had left a profusion of drow in the colors of all three feuding Houses through whose territory she trespassed asleep in the streets of Tar’naris, with pulsating mushroom sprouting from various surfaces and putting off the mist that incapacitated them. It would likely take their priestesses long enough to clean that up that they would lose some soldiers to scavengers before they could all be awakened, but after having had to make it plain she was not to be trifled with on her first visit here, Kuriwa was already out of patience. Even her campaign to passively neutralize the attackers on this trip had not stopped them from sending another wave out of every alley, until she finally gave up and ripped this one to literal shreds.
Which, it turned out, was what she should have done in the first place. Over two dozen drow were felled by her onslaught of wind and razorleaves, and suddenly there was a lone priestess standing ankle-deep in blood and corpses, protected only by a silver sphere of light. Her face betrayed no fear at her predicament, though it did reveal open anger as the reinforcements coming up behind her turned and fled in disarray.
The priestess of Themynra turned back to face Kuriwa, making ritualistic gestures with both hands, but the shaman was already concentrating. Gathering a sufficient charge of static in this environment required her to draw deep upon her various pacts, but even as a wall of silver light manifested in the street and rushed toward her, she released her summoned spell.
For probably the first time in its history, a bolt of lightning split the air in Tar’naris, lashing down from the roof of the cavern to strike the lone priestess. Her shield collapsed and so did she, to lie smoking in the street with the shredded remains of her comrades. The shieldwall about to strike Kuriwa dissolved into glitter and mist a few feet from her.
This marked the first moment since she had entered the city’s central district that there was a measure of quiet around her. Kuriwa could hear them moving, but now they were all moving away. Well, that was what she got for trying to wield a light touch with these…people. In fairness to the drow, Underworld life demanded severe pragmatism, and Themynra was, after all, the goddess of judgment. Narisians had excuse for fighting only when it advantaged them, and even some for eschewing mercy except when they saw political purpose in it.
Still, it was not only prejudice that made high and wood elves alike dismiss drow as scuttling vermin.
She made a further point of removing the obstructions from her path; a sharp gesture and an even more powerful blast of wind cleared the street ahead of bodies, spraying an entire stretch of the buildings to both sides with blood that she scoured so thoroughly from the pavement that her moccasins barely squelched in passing.
They didn’t bother her again all the way to the palace.
There, of course, there were more drow, and of much sterner stuff. An entire phalanx awaited her in front of the gates, half their number hooded priestesses already glowing with silver light and the armored women actually wearing steel helmets and breastplates over chitin mail tunics. Interestingly, the gates behind them were open.
Kuriwa approached without slowing. When she passed the last row of structures into the cleared area around the palace walls, the soldiers raised shields and knelt in unison. These were actually trained to fight in formation, then, unlike the howling rabble she’d carved through on her way here. Even so, they troubled her less than the clerics, who raised their hands and called up a single wall of silver light across the street in front of them.
She kept coming, ignoring a shouted demand that she halt. For the moment, though, Kuriwa did not call up a spell. After all, she could hear what was coming from the other side.
So could they, and though they parted with reluctance, they did part, the formation shuffling away to both sides to open a path. Even the priestesses leaned to the sides, gesturing, and a single break appeared in the center of their wall.
As the lone figure emerged from the palace gates, one priestess lowered her hood and stepped in front of her, speaking in words in the drow dialect which, at that distance, Kuriwa had no difficulty hearing.
“Princess, with respect, this is not safe—”
Arkasia nil Anatima yiyir Fanamnisth neither responded nor slowed, but simply lashed out with the coiled whip she carried. Its length unfurled faster than even elven reflexes could match, being launched by elven speed in the first place; she was clearly well-practiced with that weapon. The priestess did not cry out as she staggered back, despite the splatter of blood that suddenly decorated the armor of the nearest soldier. Who also did not react.
“Kuriwa!” the Princess of Tar’naris called with a pleasant smile, casually winding the whip around her arm as she strode forward to meet the shaman. “I devoutly hope your quest has already brought you unqualified success, and you now return to me only because you desire to resume our acquaintance.”
There was just the faintest emphasis in her words, the most fleeting glance over Kuriwa’s form. She had been surprised to find that the Narisians did not go for insinuation; they either said precisely what they meant or wasted time with polite nothings until you got fed up and left. Arkasia had made it explicitly plain the first time they had been alone that Kuriwa would be eagerly welcomed to her bed, should she be so inclined.
Not being Narisian, she had declined politely and without explaining that the woman utterly repulsed her. It was bad enough that the Princess carried an impractical weapon whose chief purpose was to wound her own subjects when they displeased her. Most of the drow—in fact, nearly all, including some of their nobility—were sufficiently hollow with perpetual hunger their larger frames made them seem almost skeletal. This one, though, was as full-figured and glossy-haired as a human noblewoman. Her ornately dyed spidersilk gown would probably have paid to feed her own servants for a year. The average drow she could excuse as desperate; Arkasia’s selfish sadism was unnecessary and deliberate.
“How fascinating it is,” she said aloud, “that three Narisian Houses should suddenly burst into open battle right in my path…but not until there had been ample time to note my coming and arrange themselves. I could almost think you meant me ill, Princess.”
“You need never fear that,” Arkasia said serenely, stepping to one side and gesturing forward at the palace gates. Kuriwa stepped forth as invited and they fell into step together, approaching the formation of priestesses and soldiers. “Those cretins? Please. Rest assured, I would never allow any who actually pose you a threat to have drawn near. Consider them fodder for sport.”
The soldiers were visibly unhappy at Kuriwa’s approach. One of the priestesses edged out of formation and opened her mouth to say something.
The Princess flicked her wrist, causing a few feet of her whip to uncoil. The cleric immediately ducked back into line.
“Your passage was fortuitous indeed,” Arkasia continued as they passed through the outer walls. “Those factions had begun to pose a slight nuisance. Their infighting has become an inconvenience to commerce in the city, and yet it would be politically disadvantageous for my mother should any one of them emerge a clear victor. Having their forces mutually wrecked by an outside actor is a nearly ideal solution! Truly, the goddess has sent you to us as a blessing.”
“I am so glad to have been of service,” Kuriwa said coldly.
“My honored mother shared some vivid opinions with me after your previous visit,” Arkasia said in the same pleasant tone, “on the subject of indulging an elder shaman from the tree folk. We have little enough to share with our own people; some looked askance on the extension of hospitality to a high representative of distant cousins who cannot be troubled to acknowledge us except to show contempt. And, of course, any discourse with those above invites all manner of commentary from the Gray Priestesses. But now, you have done my House a great service! And raised urgent questions about how wise it may be to challenge you. As a result, Kuriwa, I can safely offer you any aid you may require. Even if you desire something more than the pleasure of my company.”
“I have made…little progress,” Kuriwa said, staring ahead at the approaching inner gates of the palace rather than meeting her eyes. “My father’s people, with all their knowledge, could not supply a solution. At best, they had insight and suggestions regarding the details of dragging more information out of Scyllith’s followers. The demon thrall could offer no help, either…except in the same direction. I’m afraid I have come to take you up on the offer you made when I was last here.”
“Then ahead of you is a dark road indeed,” the Princess murmured. “Come, then, let me show you welcome before your journey resumes. It may be your last chance…indefinitely…to relax. I am certain that even so, I can take your mind off your great troubles for a little while.”
She had the temerity to place her hand against Kuriwa’s lower back as they walked. Not the hand holding the whip; that one was now lightly smeared with the blood of one of her own priestesses.
Kuriwa made no response. Securing Arkasia’s cooperation was apparently going to be an unpleasant process indeed, but one she could bear. If it meant saving her entire family, she could bear anything. Would bear anything.
And Arkasia at her worst was nothing compared to what lay ahead.