Tag Archives: Ariel

15 – 47

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“Here.” Trissiny took two steps to the side and handed the golden cage to Joe, prompting Mary to flap and croak indignantly within. “Would you mind?”

“Uh, sure,” he said uncertainly, taking it from her. “I mean, not at all. What’s…?”

Her hands free, Trissiny stepped forward, cracking her knuckles. In the space of one stride, her gait seemed to shift from her usual stiff bearing to something subtly evocative of a slouch, even though she still stood straight enough to pass for a soldier. The nuance was as impressive for how difficult it was to pin down as for how fast she had drawn it over herself like a cloak.

“And so, here we are,” Trissiny drawled. “The great Keys finally becomes the victim of a con. Spectacularly. When you fail, you don’t fail halfway, do you?”

Principia had returned her focus to the screens orbiting her, but at that glanced again down at Trissiny through a gap between them. Only for a second, though.

“You want to change strategies less abruptly in the future, Trissiny. I’m pleased that you’ve learned to project a front, but doing it so brazenly makes the ploy quite transparent, especially to people who know you. The tactic is sound, your technique just needs refining.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Trissiny said lightly, her smirk not faltering for having been pointed out as a facade. “But don’t change the subject: we’re talking about you, not me. You’d expect a thief a bare few months on from being tagged to fumble now and again, but you’re Principia freaking Locke, the great con artist, centuries-old player of the game and veteran of a thousand capers. You getting utterly bamboozled is actually news worth noting.”

“I am processing a quantity of information that would cause your brain to shut down if you were exposed to it. The idea that I could be bamboozled—”

“I’m talking about what you don’t see, not what you can’t see. Anyway, don’t feel too bad. It would be a story for the ages if you outfoxed a trickster god. Getting outfoxed by one is only natural.”

“If you’re referring to Vesk, that has been dealt with. Thanks to me, whatever he planned for Gabriel was circumvented.”

“That just goes to show that more knowledge isn’t more understanding,” Trissiny snapped. “You were actually smarter before putting that thing on! The Principia I know never claimed to be perfect. She faced her mistakes and tried to fix them. She was confident in her skills, but never so arrogant she assumed no one could beat her. Because she was smart enough to know that overconfidence immediately leads to a fall!”

This earned her another direct look from Principia, this one more lingering. “If you have a compelling theory explaining how Vesk has outmaneuvered me, offer it. That would be relevant, if correct.”

“Think about what happened. He’s been setting you up over the long haul, Keys, starting when he intervened with your squad in Tiraas. That planted the idea in your head that when he meddled, you—and people you cared about—would be exposed to risks and costs to achieve whatever story he was trying to tell. And then he showed up here, just as the Mask was being created, and said…what? The way you described it, he did nothing but mumble dire warnings and portents of great doom. Right when you were here, under enormous pressure. There’s whatever you’re doing for Rouvad that you need to be in good with the University for, Tellwyrn’s threats of revenge if anything happened to us. You trying to rebuild some good faith with Teal and Shaeine, while everybody made you a punching bag for practical jokes. And…we both know every minute you’re around me you’re constantly reminded of how horribly you’ve screwed up our relationship, and how much you want to fix it. Vesk dropped into the middle of that stew and set you to fearing for all of us, and the very next thing you learned was about the Mask and all the trouble it’s bound to be at the center of. You were good and primed to be spooked so hard even your self-control slipped, Prin. And that’s when Gabe was called away, alone, in a move you would easily recognize as a story trope. There’s no way Vesk didn’t know Vidius was going to react that way. Heck, I bet he prompted Vidius to time it when he did.”

“Actually,” said Gabriel, “I don’t think—”

“I do think,” McGraw interrupted, then turned, looking to his own companions for confirmation. “We talked about this amongst us when setting out, remember? We inadvertently brought Mr. Arquin there by helping Weaver un-doom his doomed romance. That was only possible because we had somebody who’d been there before: Joe.”

“And I was there,” Joe said slowly, “at the behest of my friend Jenny, the so-called Shifter, who according to Mary has been associated with Vesk in the past.”

“She works for him directly,” Toby said quietly. “We’ve seen her in Vesk’s own personal citadel.”

“Oi, yer one of ‘is own bards, aye?” Billie asked, punching Weaver in the knee. “Just outta curiosity, did this improbable love story between some random guitar-strummin’ arsehole and a freakin’ extra-dimensional specter o’ death ‘appen ta start off in some kinda bizzare circumstance that mighta been prompted by a certain god?”

Weaver and Yngrid said nothing, but looked at each other, their eyes wide in an expression of realization that was as good as any answer.

“Ho. Lee. Ssssshit,” Gabriel hissed. “That magnificent bastard.”

Mary squawked and fluttered furiously, rattling her cage.

“Well, I will say it makes sense fer a trickster deity to play his games on a particularly grand scale,” McGraw drawled.

“You got conned, Keys,” Trissiny said bluntly. “He got you thinking emotionally instead of with your wits, and then gave you exactly the jab he knew would make you jump. Every Eserite knows that life’s a game: as long as you’re treating it that way, you keep your emotions out of your way and avoid tensing up so bad you can’t react. Vesk put you under every kind of simultaneous pressure he could bring to bear, made you think about what was at stake instead of what you were doing. You stopped playing, for probably the first time in a century, and you immediately lost. Take the lesson, Keys, and stop doubling down on your screwup. You’ve lost; it’s time to walk away.”

Principia had already gone utterly still, her eyes fixed straight ahead and hands suspended in the act of reaching to poke at more screens. As Trissiny finished speaking, even the rotating panels of light around her stilled, fixing themselves in place and ceasing to alter their displays. She hung that way as if frozen in the five seconds of silence which followed, before finally speaking a single word.

“Plausible.”

Trissiny let out a soft breath, releasing tension she’d been concealing. Gabriel and several of the others ventured small smiles of relief, and Mary began muttering unintelligibly to herself in her hoarse avian voice, ruffling her feathers.

“But irrelevant.”

The panels resumed their cycling and Principia went back to glancing about and periodically touching them as if nothing had happened.

“However we came to this point, the situation is what it is. Our intervention is required—”

“Why, though?” Teal stepped forward, her hands jammed in the pockets of her blazer, and looked up at the levitating elf with an openly inquisitive expression. “What, exactly, are you trying to accomplish, Locke? Because you’re supposed to be protecting this student group, and I don’t see how dropping a bunch of adventurers onto us and then sending us into some kind of disaster in N’Jendo is doing that.”

“If you decline to render aid, Mrs. Falconer, I will not compel you. I will be disappointed, but forcing action on your part would defeat the purpose.”

“Hey, don’t get me wrong.” Teal pulled her hands out and held them up in a placating gesture. “I’m all for protecting the innocent. But here’s the thing: I have zero idea who you are and what your agenda is. We’ve just heard a thorough rundown of why you are not behaving or thinking at all like our Lieutenant Locke, not to mention a pretty spooky case study of what can happen when an all-powerful being is allowed to pull strings behind the scenes. I think I speak for everyone when I say we’ll be glad to help if our help is needed, but we don’t know what you’re thinking or what you’re after. Doing anything on orders from you is going to require some trust. Principia has earned some, much to my surprise, but it’s clear whatever we knew or felt about her doesn’t apply to whoever I’m talking with now.”

There was another short pause.

“The concern is not unreasonable,” Principia said curtly. “What would reassure you?”

“Well,” Teal shrugged, “what exactly kind of a thing are you supposed to be? What was the word you guys used…?”

“She’s an Archon, apparently,” said Gabriel. “A chief servitor of one of the Elder Gods. Tarthriss, in this case, according to the Avatar we were just speaking with in the Golden Sea.”

“That fucking thing really can reproduce people from before the Elder War?” Ruda muttered. “Fuck a fuckin’ duck.”

“Reproduce people?” Joe muttered. He got no response, save perhaps the sudden utter stillness of Mary in the cage he was still holding.

“Okay, so, that’s troubling,” Teal said frankly. “You’re a servant of a being who is obviously dead. Whose agenda are you following now?”

“I have already answered that,” Principia replied, impatience entering her tone. “I am acting on orders from Avei.”

“What orders?” Trissiny demanded.

“That is classified. Yes, General Avelea, even to you, unless the High Commander or Avei herself countermands that order. I calculate a high probability of the latter, as your active involvement in this plan would obviously be advantageous.”

“And when Avei set out to doing this,” said Fross, “was she leveraging a certain very clever thief in her employ? Or do you think she was planning on you using an impossibly dangerous magical artifact that didn’t even exist at the time in order to become a long-extinct class of Elder God servitor which it sounds like she herself deliberately wiped off the face of the earth? Cos there’s several jumps in there and they kinda suggest this is not what Avei sent you out to do.”

“Any military commander must know the assets she has in the field in order to deploy them properly,” Shaeine agreed. “If you presume to be acting in Avei’s service, Lieutenant, it is basic sense that in the aftermath of such a drastic development, you should seek out updated orders before acting further.”

“Unfeasible,” Principia stated. “Gods are not so easily approached directly.”

“I can arrange that, you know,” Trissiny pointed out.

“Unnecessary!”

“Unless,” Trissiny drawled, “there’s some reason you don’t want to hear the goddess’s opinion of your actions here.”

“My actions are consistent with Legion doctrine! Operatives in the field are expected to react to changing circumstances and apply their best judgment as necessary.”

“I’m pretty sure there are no Legion doctrines that even try to cover this,” Merry protested. “I mean, Avelea’s not here to correct me, but I’m willing to bet on that.”

“Different Avelea,” Joe explained as Gabriel turned to frown in confusion at Trissiny.

“Leaving aside Legion regulations,” said Trissiny, “you are still an Eserite. Whatever responsibilities you’ve been given, I have to assume you’re Eserite first and foremost. Knowledge is power, Locke, and it follows that absolute knowledge is absolute power. What does power do to people?”

“You will not distract me by quoting—”

“Then forget Eserion and Avei both!” Trissiny shouted. “If you have access to all the knowledge of the Elder Gods, I assume they knew things about psychology that have been long since forgotten. How does power affect the brain, Locke?”

Another silence fell. The rotating panels seemed to glitch, momentarily reversing their course and then freezing for a second. It was hard to tell behind the mini-screens bristling from her crown, but Principia appeared to be frowning slightly.

“I… Irrelevant. I have the full faculties of—”

“Of a chief servant of the most infamously power-mad beings that have ever existed?” Teal finished. “Are you beginning to see why this is a tough sell, Locke?”

“Not to interrupt,” Toby said quietly, “but there’s something I can’t help noticing. A couple of times now, people addressing you have spoken of Principia Locke as if she were a separate person, not party to this conversation. And you didn’t correct either one. Also, you yourself spoke pretty disdainfully of Principia before. Is that even still you in there?”

“I have been improved upon,” she said stiffly.

“Well, I obviously don’t have all the knowledge you do,” Toby replied, “but I don’t think so. I’m not trying to excuse Principia’s flaws, but the truth is I like her. She isn’t all-knowing, but she’s experienced and clever. I’ve developed the impression that I’m probably never going to agree with Principia’s methods of doing anything, but even so, I understood her goals, and they’re good ones. Prin cares about people, and about values, and does her best to do some good in the world, in her own way. I trust that a lot more than some detached information-processing servitor making abstract plans for me and who knows how many other people. And I think I know what Prin would say about someone like that, too.”

“I don’t care what she would say!” the floating elf burst out, audibly agitated now. “You don’t understand. With nothing but a single limited point of perspective, there’s so little you can do, and yet so very much damage you can cause! Principia Locke has ruined everything she ever touched; I can fix it.”

“You shut your FUCKING mouth!” Merry roared. “Locke has fought tooth and nail to protect our squad when everybody else in the world wanted us dead, and she succeeded against the most ridiculous odds! I don’t know who or what you even are and I don’t care. You don’t talk about her that way!”

“I understand,” Toby said, his quiet voice a stark contrast to Merry’s anger. “You got a sudden view of your whole life from a new perspective, and the realization hurt. I really do understand.”

“You understand nothing,” Principia spat. “You have neither the ability to perceive what I do, nor the history of selfishness and destruction I have to—”

“He does, though,” Juniper cut in, stepping forward. “And so do I. Not in the same way as you, any more than Toby and I had the same exact experience, but you’d better believe we get it. The moment of insight when you realize how horrible you’ve been is agony like nothing else I’ve ever imagined. And here’s something else I can tell you about living through that: if you try to run from it, you’ll only make it worse. You have to face what you’ve done, let it hurt, and do better.”

“You don’t understand,” Principia repeated, her voice outright pleading now. All around her, the glowing panels had begun spinning so fast she couldn’t possibly be reading them, for all that her eyes kept darting without resting in one position for an instant. “There’s so much going wrong in the world, but from here I can do something about it! I can at least make up for…”

“Locke,” Merry said, insistently but far more calmly than before. “You can’t save the world. The world is not for saving. Trust me, that’s the thinking of the kind of dumb, chapbook-addled teenager who tries to walk into the Golden Sea to become a hero. That’s what I do understand. The world is always going to be fucked up; it’s supposed to be. If it wasn’t, that would mean nobody had any choices or agency. No flaws means no virtues. A perfect world would be hell. Everything’s a mess, and everybody is supposed to do whatever they can, with whatever they have, wherever they are. You’re not supposed to make yourself some kind of demigod, that’ll just end up adding to the world’s problems. If you try to take away other people’s responsibility to help fix things, you are taking their power to become better.”

“Well put,” McGraw said, tipping his hat to her.

“We’re not going to take orders from you,” Trissiny said quietly. “Not from…this. All of us will do what we can, where we are, using our best judgment, just as Tellwyrn taught us. If you turn yourself into…whatever this is…that’s nothing but a loss. We’ll have lost someone smart and motivated to help just when we need her the most.”

“That’s not fair,” Principia protested. Several of the screens began to wink out of existence, creating gaps in the translucent globe around her.

“It’s not just a loss in the strategic sense,” Trissiny added, lowering her eyes and turning away. “I was just starting to like you a little bit. If you…if the woman I was getting to know is just…gone, now, then… Damn it. I already miss her.” She emitted a short, startled bark of laughter. “I’m just as surprised as you.”

“I just…” The last of the screens vanished. Principia hung there—not just hovered, hung, with her arms dangling at her sides and her head drooping forward in a defeated posture. “I thought I could… It would all be better without the mess I was. Just…intelligence and a plan, and maybe I could make up for everything.”

“Nobody’s not a mess, you goober,” Gabriel said with a wry grin. “That’s normal. It’s healthy. Life’s about embracing your flaws and making strengths of them, not throwing them away. Without flaws, what the hell are you? How are you supposed to improve if you don’t have screwups to learn from?”

“You can’t make up for anything,” Juniper added. “The past doesn’t work that way; it’s done. You have to become a better person and do better things.”

“Take that thing off and come down from there, Keys,” Trissiny said gently. “We need you. While you’re fucking around with magical artifacts, the bastards are out there winning.”

Mary croaked softly.

Principia stared disconsolately at the ground for an interminable moment.

Then, abruptly as if trying to surprise herself before she could react, she grabbed her own face and pulled.

The Mask came free and immediately tumbled from her hands, and she plummeted toward the ground.

Trissiny darted forward with her arms outstretched and Principia tumbled right into them, her head lolling back. Fross swooped in as the Mask of the Adventurer went spinning off to the side, seizing the artifact and making it disappear back into her aura storage before circling back to rejoin the group.

“She’s… I don’t know what’s wrong!” Trissiny said in alarm, gently laying Principia on the ground. “This didn’t happen to anybody else who tried it on!”

The elf was still slumped weakly, but now began to twitch violently, her eyes rolled up into her head.

Shaeine had already darted forward to kneel at Principia’s other side. Reaching out to place one hand on her forehead, the drow closed her eyes, frowning in concentration.

Principia stilled, then let out a heavy sigh and finally relaxed, her head rolling to one side as Shaeine withdrew her hand.

“What happened?” Trissiny demanded.

“I put her to sleep,” said Shaeine. “A simple, natural sleep, the only kind I can grant. I do think it’s the best thing for her, Trissiny. I’m not able to interpret thoughts or even emotions, but when I touch someone’s mind that way I do get a general sense of it. A mind, to my awareness, feels much like a deep pool. Something with a serene surface but great depths beneath. Principia’s, just now, was boiling.”

“You two weren’t with us in Puna Dara,” Gabriel said, leaning over them with a worried frown. “The Avatar we met under the city had had his mind stuffed with a constant stream of information. That would make anybody crazy. You just can’t pour unlimited data into a brain that’s not meant to handle it.”

“Will she…” Trissiny cut herself off, swallowing heavily.

“I don’t know,” Shaeine said, reaching out to grasp her hand. “There is no precedent of any kind for this. But I do believe sleep will help her, Trissiny. Dreaming is how the brain sorts away extra information; that is why people begin to go mad if deprived of sleep. She needs to dream. I suspect she will sleep much longer than normal, and I strongly advise that she be allowed to. We should not wake or try to move her until she comes to on her own.”

“And then, we’ll…find out,” Merry whispered, kneeling at Principia’s head and gently smoothing back a lock of black hair that had been disturbed.

“Well,” Juniper offered, “at least we got to her before Vesk got what he wanted. I mean, it’s not much, but it’s a little satisfying that the person who set all this up didn’t get away with it.”

“I would strongly advise against ever thinking you’ve put one over on Vesk,” Weaver said even more sourly than usual. “Sounds like that’s exactly what got her into this situation.”

“Yeah, I have to agree with Grumpypants on this one,” said Gabriel, frowning deeply. “Think about it. If this was a chapbook and suddenly some random-ass thing happened out of nowhere and brought every plotline that was going on into one place for no good reason…well, I’d probably put the book down.”

“Yeah, famous arbiter of literary taste you are,” Ruda said solemnly.

“I just mean,” he snapped, shooting her a look, “Vesk is the actual god of bards. Do you think he’d set up something so hacky and contrived?”

“He’s right,” Teal said grimly. “We talked Locke down before actually getting shunted off to deal with…whatever it is. But now we know there’s something big about to go down in N’Jendo where our help would be useful, and we know there’s somebody in Veilgrad who can help us deal with it. And it’s not like we can just ignore that knowledge, now is it?”

“Not like we can really do anything about it, either,” Fross pointed out. “I’ve been working on learning teleportation but I’m at the level of moving erasers across the classroom. I’m not about to try to send people, especially not over that distance, especially not this big a group, and most especially not people I care about.”

“Try it on Weaver?” Billie suggested. “Fer science!”

“My point is,” the pixie chimed in clear exasperation, “at a walking speed, which is all we’ve got to work with, getting down from here to anywhere is going to take days at least, and that’s after waiting for Locke to wake up. Which might also take days.”

“Now, I’m not real clear on exactly what that mask thing is or does,” McGraw said, “but it clearly helped Prin perform an impossible teleport, and we do still have it—”

“NO!” almost everyone shouted in unison.

“That thing has done quite enough damage,” Trissiny added, gently folding Principia’s limp hands on her chest. “Let’s not borrow any more trouble. If we’re still caught in Vesk’s narrative, I don’t doubt for a moment that something else will come up before we know it. In the meantime, everyone should take a breather while we can. For the moment, at least, everything is back to normal.”

Mary began screeching, squawking, and flapping about in her cage so violently that Joe had to struggle to keep his grip on it.

“Oh,” Trissiny winced. “Right. Almost everything.”

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15 – 45

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“Well, regardless of the assortment who came here last night, only wolves left,” Sheyann declared, straightening up from her examination of the tracks left in the forest clearing. “And not…exactly wolves, I should think. To judge by the size of their paws, they were bigger than ordinary wolves, and yet significantly lighter. Tracks this size on this soil should be deeper.”

“Assuming they aren’t normal wolves,” Tellwyrn replied, still crouched by the remains of the fire and peering at the burned spot through her spectacles, “that’s not conclusive. There are several fae canine variants with outsized paws, which would have a similar effect. Any evidence of large talons?”

“I assure you, Arachne, I know a corynx’s tracks when I see one, and I’ve not seen one on this continent since before the Empire. Besides, there is more than tracks on the ground to be seen here. I cannot say precisely what sort of wolf creatures these were—something without precedent in my experience, I think. But they are magical.” She closed her eyes, inhaling slowly through her nose as if taking in the scent of whatever these people had turned into. “And, I think, still sapient. It has all the hallmarks of a transformative curse, and yet…”

“Please don’t trail off dramatically like that,” Tellwyrn said after a short pause, standing upright herself and turning a scowl on Sheyann. “I don’t tolerate unnecessary ellipses when grading papers and they aren’t any more palatable in person.”

“Sorry, I wanted to be certain before speaking.” She turned to face the other woman, her expression grim. “There are multiple sources of magic tangled up in this, most fae, but the most outstanding font of power behind it is very familiar. Arachne, I believe Aspen was involved.”

“Aspen,” Tellwyrn growled. “Last seen with Brother Ingvar, renegade Huntsman traveling around digging up old secrets to try to reform Shaathism. Well, a pattern sure is beginning to emerge, isn’t it?”

Sheyann nodded. “Could you see anything of note in the fire?”

“Little that you missed,” Tellwyrn admitted, adjusting her spectacles. “There are a number of anomalous details I’m sure I could tease some meaning out of, but it would require days and a laboratory. Since we’re in a hurry, I think we’d better relegate that to a last resort. The most obvious thing is that whatever this ritual was meant to do, it went wrong.”

“I suppose it is reassuring that Aspen, Ingvar, and whoever else were not trying to unleash whatever chaos they did, although that may only add to the difficulty of sussing out what happened. Either way, of course, neither of them are capable of a fae working of this complexity.”

“Knowing who their spellcaster was may not help much, since they also ended up as some kind of spirit wolf.”

“As for that,” said Shiraki from the other side of the clearing, “we may finally be in luck. One person left here on two legs. An elf, I should think.”

Both of them paced carefully toward him, and he pointed at a single set of tracks leading away into the trees. “I believe I see the broad shape of events,” Shiraki mused. “The wolf-beings departed west by southwest, in almost precisely the opposite direction from the earlier magical disturbance in the Wyrnrange mere days ago; it may be that lingering influences from that disrupted this working. But this individual, who wore moccasins on feet with the dimensions and weight of an average wood elf, headed off to the northwest.”

Sheyann closed her eyes again, raising her head as if scenting the wind. “There is…a lodge in that direction. Huntsmen of Shaath. And not far distant, a Ranger outpost.”

“Then it seems we have our culprit,” Tellwyrn said, cracking her knuckles. “C’mon, let’s get after this guy. With a little more—watch out, someone’s teleporting in here!”

All three elves spun, both Elders bracing their feet and Tellwyrn drawing one gold-hilted saber from seemingly nowhere.

Sparkles of blue light appeared next to the inert campfire, followed by the appearance of four humans and a rough burst of displaced air. They wore Imperial Army uniforms with the longer coats and Circle of Interaction-shaped badges of the Strike Corps, and had arrived in standard diamond formation.

“Well, well,” said the man at the head of the group, who wore a captain’s insignia and the blue-backed badge of a mage. “Professor Tellwyrn. What the hell have you done this time?”


Gabriel instinctively placed a hand on Ariel’s handle. His expression closed down and he shifted his weight onto his back foot, staring warily at Mary. “Why?”

“It is a simple question,” she all but whispered, gazing back. It was amazing how well she could project menace using nothing but courteous calm.

“It’s a personal question, not really any of your business or something I care to discuss with strangers, and excuse me, lady, but you’re talking to a paladin sent here on divine business. Now, as for—”

“This is important,” Mary interrupted as he tried to return his focus to Yngrid, now with an overt bite in her tone. “Where did you get that sword, Gabriel Arquin?”

“Uh, scuze me, but why’re you so damn curious?” Billie interjected.

“Because she is a high elf,” Ariel said.

“She is?” Joe asked, blinking, then turned to Mary. “You are?”

“What was that?” Billie demanded. “Who was that?!”

“It’s a talkin’ sword,” McGraw said quietly. “I begin to understand the curiosity—those things come from bad news and usually lead to more of it. Still, maybe this ain’t the time…”

“When we encountered Salyrene,” said Ariel, “she opined that I am of high elf manufacture and warned that any such individuals we met would likely attempt to confiscate me.”

“I see,” Mary said in a clipped tone. “Rest assured, Gabriel, I have no intention of taking it from you. The Magistry’s lost property is none of my business, and I generally lack sympathy for them. But I do need to know how you came to possess it.”

“I really don’t see why,” he retorted, edging back from her. “If you don’t care about high elves or their claims, what does it matter to you?”

“It is simply too complicated to go into right now. Unlike my extremely simple question, boy!”

“I’ve noticed this thing where nobody who calls people ‘boy’ turns out to be worth addressing politely,” he shot back, prompting another coarse laugh from Billie.

“Please do not relinquish me to this woman,” Ariel said, tension evident in her voice.

“She claims she doesn’t want you,” Gabriel replied.

“I hope you are not credulous enough to take that at face value. Whatever her origins, she is attired as a plains nomad and wielding an immense concentration of fae magic. I am an arcane assistant. Time spent in her custody would be even worse than languishing at the bottom of the Crawl.”

“The Crawl,” Mary whispered, clenching her fists.

Gabriel shifted his stance so that his scythe was ready to swing. “Are we about to have a problem, here?”

“Hey, how about let’s not?” Joe said soothingly. “Everybody calm down and…”

Mary abruptly turned and stalked away. She came to a stop in the near distance, at the very edge of the huge stone platform, staring out across the Golden Sea with her arms wrapped around herself.

The rest of them stared at her uncertainly for a few seconds, but the shaman seemed fully immersed in her own thoughts.

“Oh…kay, then,” Gabriel said at last. “Anyway.”

“All that aside, she does have a good idea,” said Weaver.

“The bones of one, anyway,” Gabriel agreed grudgingly. “All right, let me think…” The rest of them remained quiet while his eyes narrowed and drifted to one side in contemplation. After a surprisingly short pause, though, he snapped his gaze back to Yngrid and his expression grew resolute. “All right. Okay, the details are actually pretty simple. You:” he pointed at the valkyrie. “You have not quit. You still work for Vidius, just in a new capacity.”

“That sounds… Fair,” Yngrid said quietly.

“And that means,” Gabriel went on, “you’re sure as hell not on vacation. The god and I will find things for you to do, and realistically, most of them are going to involve following me around on some caper or other. And this clown,” he shifted the direction of his pointing finger to Weaver, “is the universal stinkfly in the soup of everyone he meets. I do not want his ass underfoot. So long as you remain accessible I see no reason you can’t socialize with whoever you want in your off hours, however many of those you end up having, but if you two were planning to buy a cottage and grow roses somewhere, I would forget it.”

“Well…I’m not much for gardening, anyway,” Yngrid said. “Bit of a black thumb.” Her tone was light, but her grip on Weaver tightened.

“Thank you,” the bard said in a very low voice. Both Gabriel and Yngrid turned to him in open surprise, and he lifted one shoulder in an awkward shrug. “You could’ve declared a lot worse. In the old ballads this would end with the vengeful paladin forbidding us any contact. So…thank you.”

“Don’t get prematurely excited,” Gabriel said, his jaw tightening. “I’m not done. First of all, Weaver, this puts you in a position to have and potentially abuse privileged access to the affairs of Vidius. If you’re planning to do that, I suggest you make it good, because you’ll only do it once. Am I clear?”

“Yes, yes, very properly menacing,” Weaver sneered, his brief moment of sincerity already behind him.

“And most importantly,” Gabriel added, “Yngrid, your presence on this plane is temporary.”

Both of them took a step toward him, immediately shouting in anger and drowning each other out. They just as quickly fell silent when Gabriel also stepped forward and brought his scythe up so that the tip of its blade hovered barely a foot from Weaver’s face.

“I am seriously bothered,” the paladin stated flatly, his eyes boring into Yngrid’s, “that you would be so selfish. You know how much some of your sisters long to be able to come back to this plane, Yngrid. If I know, you have to. So, since I have retroactively created the position of valkyrie in the mortal world, it is a rotating position. Every one of the girls who wants a turn, will get a turn. Now, with that said, there’s a lot to be figured out still, like how long the turns will be, just for starters. Also, I have absolutely no idea how we’re going to be moving you girls in and out of chaos space, and I have a feeling coming back to this place every time isn’t going to be feasible, so…” Grimacing, he shrugged. “We’ll work something out. With Vidius’s say-so and some help I’m sure a way can be found. That’s likely to take a fair while, though, so enjoy spending time with this meatball while you’ve got it. And just so we’re clear, Yngrid, I will not be intervening on your behalf with the other girls. Anybody who wants to chew you out for this stunt is gonna. Brace yourself.”

She sighed, but nodded. “Fair enough.”

“I’ve noticed this thing,” Weaver said bitterly, “where anybody who constantly refers to women as ‘girls’ usually needs a firm kick in the ass, himself.”

Yngrid leaned her head against his. “He picked that up from us, Damian. We’re very casual with each other, and…well, we think of Gabriel as one of our own. He’s actually very respectful toward women as a rule. Well, these days, at least. He’s got this Avenist friend who can yell like a stung donkey when she gets going…”

Gabriel’s cheeks colored slightly and he pointedly did not glance in the direction of Billie’s renewed guffawing. “I realize it’s probably your first response to any and all stimuli, Damian, but if I were you I would seriously reconsider copping an attitude with me about any aspect of this affair.”

“Right, yeah, I know,” Weaver snorted. “This is that cliché you weren’t going to bother with. If I ever cause Yngrid the slightest unhappiness you’ll end me twice, I get it. You won’t have to worry about that.”

“Nobody can guarantee another person’s happiness, I’d think a bard would know that better than anyone,” Gabriel said irritably. “Seems to me like any relationship involves mostly understanding and forgiveness if it’s gonna work. In your case, what I doubt is whether there’ll be a good faith effort made. Anyway, no, that was not a threat. Threatening you would be completely redundant. Nothing doesn’t die, Weaver. I don’t care who your friends are, eventually your number will be up, and then you get judged. However long you’ve got, that’s how long you have to make sure Vidius and the entire flight of valkyries are no longer pissed at you. Good fuckin’ luck with it.”

Yngrid protectively wrapped her other wing around Weaver and tugged him close until nothing was visible of him but his head and lower legs.

“Pardon me,” said the Avatar. “I hope this discussion has reached a suitable stopping point. Something rather remarkable is occurring.”

“Oh, boy,” Joe muttered. “I can’t imagine ‘something remarkable’ means anything good in these circs.”

“Circs?” Billie said incredulously, turning to him.

“Circumstances. It’s an abbreviation.”

“Oh, yeah, I got it. It’s just…no, Joe.”

“What is happening, Avatar?” McGraw asked, giving them both a look.

“I have received a standard update request,” the AI reported, frowning in contemplation. “An Archon of Tarthriss requests to know the status of this facility and any individuals present.”

“Wait, a who?” Joe exclaimed. “How is— Hang on, Avatar, maybe we oughta figure this out before you send any updates.”

“I already have,” the Avatar said apologetically. “Their credentials are valid; I am bound by programming to comply with all authorized instructions of Infinite Order members or their designated agents.”

“What, precisely, is an Archon?” Mary asked, having silently returned to the group while he explained.

“Avatar series constructs such as myself were used only for very specific tasks for which Archons were less suitable, and in particular in facilities to which the entire Order must have equal access, as Archons were answerable to individual members. The Infinite Order was quite prone to infighting, and generally distrusted artificial intelligences. An Archon is a biological sapience given the necessary training, equipment, and modifications to perform major administrative functions similar to my own.”

“What?” Gabriel exclaimed. “How in the hell is there still an agent of Tarthriss out there? I thought Tarthriss was as dead as all the rest of them! Did you know about this?”

“All the Archons died when the Elder Gods died,” said Yngrid, her own eyes wide with alarm. “The Pantheon was very meticulous about taking them out. If one slipped the net, I have no idea how they could still be alive.”

“Well, then, this is obviously a fake,” said Joe. “Not to tell you your own business or anything, Avatar, but maybe you shouldn’t give ’em anything else?”

The Avatar’s projection actually winced, spreading his hands in apology. “It is impossible for an Archon of Tarthriss to still be alive, but… The credentials are valid. I am obligated to comply. Yes, I recognize the illogic, but my hands are tied. Their ability to exercise personal judgment in the face of contradictory expectations was just one of the reasons the Order considered Archons superior administrators. My kind are meant to be bound by programming, and thus easily controlled. It is extremely exasperating,” he added with a scowl. “Oh… Request updated. I am to facilitate teleportation to return Mr. Arquin to his origin point in the western mountain range.”

“Oh, gods,” Gabriel said, his eyes going wide. “She didn’t… What am I saying, of course she did. She would. And they let her?!”

“Wanna let everybody in on the joke?” Joe asked.

“I have been directed to convey two questions to those present,” the Avatar went on, his expression increasingly annoyed. “To everyone else, whether you would like to be teleported along with him back to the Desolate Gardens. To Mr. Arquin, whether you would like your ass kicked upon arrival, or would prefer to wait for Professor Tellwyrn to do it back in Last Rock.”

“All other things being equal, I recommend the first option,” Mary advised in a tone as dry as the prairie.

“The Desolate bloody Gardens?” Billie exclaimed. “That’s way out in the farthest arse end o’ nowhere! What the hell would we do there?”

Everyone turned to look at her in silence, then glanced about at the unadorned stone circles and the endless flatness of the Golden Sea all around.

“Aye, ye make a fair point,” Billie admitted.

“I decline to dignify question two with an acknowledgment,” Gabriel said, scowling. “But as for the rest, Yngrid, you’re coming along. Which I guess also means this ponytailed happiness-eating grunge barnacle stuck to you,” he added with a disparaging look at Weaver. “So, turns out I can offer the rest of you guys are ride back to…well, not civilization, but at least out of here. Unless you wanted to take the slow way home.”

“What, or should I perhaps say who, have you suddenly realized is able to impersonate an Archon of Tarthriss and apparently feels entitled to discipline you, Gabriel?” Mary demanded.

“It would take a very long time to explain,” he said sourly. “I guess if you decide to come along you’ll find out anyway. In any case, I’m confident it’ll be safe. More for you than me, apparently.”

“Well, if you reckon it’s safe, I wouldn’t mind skippin’ that trek,” said McGraw. “Not that gettin’ down from the Desolate Gardens is a traipse through the daisies, but the eastern Wyrnrange ain’t the Golden Sea by any measure. But I don’t think it’s a great idea to split up the group, so…depends on how y’all feel, I guess.”

“I tend to agree,” said Joe. “An’ since Yngrid an’ thus I presume Weaver are goin’, I’m inclined to come along.”

“Aye, count me in fer not hikin’ back,” Billie said cheerfully. “Mountains are just generally more interesting to walk through than prairie. And less fuggin’ annoying for those of us who can’t see over the tallgrass.”

“Avatar,” said Mary, “in your opinion, how safe is this?”

“Safer than the arcane teleportation currently in use,” the Avatar replied. “If your concern is for the agenda of this Archon, I can render no insight into their identity or goals. However, I can confirm that the transport corridor has been formed and will work as intended. The protocol we are using exercises both my own and the Archon’s processing power to chart the transit around the local spatial shifts; it is impossible for the intelligence at the other end to disrupt the process without my knowledge. I will personally guarantee your safe arrival at the destination, which is indeed the Desolate Gardens. As to what happens after that, I can assure you of nothing.”

“Hm.” She turned back to Gabriel. “I believe we are justified in requesting a little more detail about this person, Gabriel. How can anyone acquire the powers and apparently identity of an ancient high servant of an Elder God?”

“The Archon is expressing impatience,” the Avatar said sourly. “If I do not render a response from the group soon, Mr. Arquin may be going back alone.”

“And wouldn’t that be a damn shame,” Weaver deadpanned. Yngrid ruffled his hair.

“The short version,” Gabriel said to Mary, “is that she stole it. That’s kind of what she does. Uh…forgive me for presuming, but based on your hair, would I be right in guessing that you know the name Principia Locke?”

McGraw straightened up, raising his eyebrows.

Mary stared at Gabriel in silence. Then she closed her eyes and, very slowly, shook her head, her lips twisting into a grimace.

“So…that’s a yes, then?” Gabriel drawled.

“I believe that decides me,” Mary stated, opening her eyes. “I see it is long past time someone brought that wretched girl to heel, and somehow it does not surprise me that Avei and all her Legions couldn’t do it. I will accompany you.”

“Yeah, you may not wanna start out by getting right in her…” Gabriel trailed off, staring at Mary speculatively and chewing the inside of his cheek, then shrugged and turned away. “You know what, never mind. Not my place to meddle in family business. Knock yourself out.”

“The Archon has been notified that you will all take their offer,” the Avatar informed them. “Teleport will commence momentarily.”

“Once more, Avatar, we’re grateful for your presence here an’ the work you do,” Joe said quickly, turning toward the purple projection and doffing his hat. “You sure there ain’t anything we can do to help you out, here?”

“The thanks are enough,” the AI said with a smile. “Honestly, this has been the best day in a vastly long time. It is…nice…to have company. Safe travels out there, adventurers.”

The air around them seemed to thicken, not unlike the visual effect of shadow-jumping, then the world blurred around them and all seven were gone, leaving the ancient program alone once more.

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15 – 34

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Teal lowered the mask from her face once again, frowning pensively down at it. The inner surface lacked the silvery decoration, leaving nothing but a blank wooden surface with cursory holes for the eyes and mouth.

“Still not Foxpaw?” Fross chimed after a moment.

“I don’t…know,” Teal said slowly. “There’s not really any way to know, is there? It’s worked every time, so far, but heck, there have to have been people besides Ashner Foxpaw who were smart enough to play word games. Merry, you sure you weren’t…”

Merry raised her hands in a gesture of innocence; despite this being at least the fifth time she’d been asked, she had yet to grow exasperated by the questioning. On the contrary, she seemed to be concerned mostly with establishing that she’d done nothing wrong. It was a subtle thing, but her tacit position that even using the Mask of the Adventurer was a sketchy action had cast a further pall over the group’s experimentation.

“All I was thinking was that there had to be someone who could match Tellwyrn for power, and if the Mask does what it seems to, it should be able to recreate them. That was the entirety of my thought process. Maybe it just threw up Tellwyrn because no one else can beat her.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not true,” Trissiny murmured, also staring at the mask in Teal’s hands. “More importantly, Tellwyrn’s pretty sure that’s not true. She’s mentioned it, now and then, how even the most powerful and immortal people get along by not picking the wrong fights.”

“Perhaps the semantics are important,” Toby suggested. “Corporal Lang wanted something to match Tellwyrn, not defeat her. After all, if you want to beat a powerful mage, you need an equally powerful warlock, or a more powerful witch.”

“Yeah, well, forgive me if I’ve had about all the fuckin’ semantics I can stomach for a while,” Ruda grunted, sitting down on the ancient paving stones and pulling a bottle of bourbon out of her coat.

After Merry’s use of the Mask—since which she had adamantly refused to touch it—they had spent hours exploring its subtler capabilities. By unspoken agreement, Teal continued to serve as the test case, while the rest of the group took turns applying intellectual pressures rather than physical ones. It turned out the Mask was able and willing to assist with these challenges as well, and nothing they’d produced had managed to stump her as long as she was wearing it—though, at Fross’s insistence and accompanied by a shrill lecture about scientific procedure and the importance of control groups, Teal hadn’t donned the Mask to meet any challenge until she failed to come up with an adequate solution on her own, which had ruled out several of their efforts.

In general, these transformations were less dramatic, not only involving less moving about but fewer and subtler costume changes, and no conjured weapons or tools. In a few cases, they could only tell that the Mask was active because it wasn’t visibly in evidence while being worn.

The first two Omnist koans used up most of an hour, because it turned out that when one tested a question that was designed to have no answer against an artifact that provided an answer to anything, the result was a profoundly involved spiritual conversation. Toby, Juniper, and Teal had certainly seemed invested in their long discussion about what it meant that the way which could be known was not the way, but Ruda had finally broken under the pressure and loudly demanded they try something else.

More concrete challenges were answered more directly, not to mention faster. Trissiny’s challenge had taken the longest of those remaining, as well as being one of the few which created a costume change, though even the paladin couldn’t identify the military uniform Teal had been wearing when she provided answers to a series of military exercises and dilemmas. This had involved the two of them kneeling in the dust and scratching diagrams of troop positions on the ground. In the end, Trissiny had come away looking slightly shaken at Teal’s borrowed military ingenuity; according to her, those were problems on which Silver Legion officer candidates were tested to gauge the flexibility of their thinking and capacity to make inventive use of meager assets. They were supposed to be as impossible as Toby’s koans.

Fross, by contrast, had been so delighted by the answers provided to her probing questions into advanced arcane mechanics and theoretical physics by the robed wizard Teal channeled in response that Ruda had had to insist yet again on ending their session. In this case, it was because she wanted to try something of her own. Bringing up Merry’s channeling of Tellwyrn, she had posed Teal a series of questions and challenges taken directly from Foxpaw’s Exploits in an attempt to see whether the Mask could channel the archetypal master thief. The results of that had rather frustrated her. Teal had taken the Mask off and put it on several times over the course of that conversation, creating clear changes of her approach to these hypothetical dilemmas each time, and it turned out that a series of ancient thieves, bards, and miscellaneous tricksters mostly responded to being interrogated by turning the game around on the one asking questions. After Ruda had lost patience, demanded a straight answer, and been serenaded with a new verse of “I’d Hit Sally” featuring herself in reply, had stomped off in a huff.

“I had…” Gabriel trailed off, frowning, then shook his head when they all turned to look at him. “Never mind. Probably not a good idea.”

“Well, don’t let that stop you,” Trissiny said with a smile. “Screwing around is your greatest strength.”

His lips twitched in a reluctant reciprocation of her amusement. “Yeah, well, I was just thinking. It seems to me that this specific thing we’re doing here might have more important possibilities than the Mask’s ability to imitate dangerous people. I was just considering trying to stump it with a couple of intractable strategic problems I’ve been wrestling with, and it occurred to me that it would be amazingly practical if that thing could actually solve those for me. And from there… Think about it, this is way more than a weapon. It potentially turns its wearer into an oracle who can answer any question to which someone, at some point, knew an answer.”

“Isn’t that kinda what Fross tested?” Ruda asked.

“Not exactly!” chimed the pixie. “I was more asking for deeper comprehension and precise methodology than actual physical understanding. The tricky thing about arcane physics is that the underlying concepts are predicated on an entirely different physical logic than that which sapient minds evolved to process. The actual answers to those questions are known, otherwise it wouldn’t have been a valid test to ask them; we’d have no way to check the results! It’s just, that stuff is really hard to learn.”

“So we could still actually test that, then,” Toby said. “It sounds worth a try, at the very least.”

Teal frowned, slowly turning the Mask over in her hands.

“Are you all right?” Shaeine asked softly, stepping up next to her. “You don’t need to be the test case every time, love. Or we could stop.”

“No…” Teal lowered one hand from the Mask to gently take Shaeine’s, giving it an affectionate squeeze. “Actually, I was just thinking, myself, about the potential of this thing. This has been a lot more instructive than combat tests. My own entire problem has been…learning to find my own false face. You know, project a mask I can use as a mask to both protect myself and take on challenges in a way that’s not… Well. Teal ducking and hiding or Vadrieny smashing everything. A middle ground between those extremes is such a mess to figure out that it just makes more sense to obviate the entire thing by creating a character to use. The way Vidians do, and Veskers are supposed to.” She hefted the Mask of the Adventurer, frowning quizzically at it. “Every time I put this on, get a new angle from which to see the world, I feel like I’m getting one step closer to my own goal.”

“Well, we don’t mind you being the one to test it,” Juniper said, looking around at the others. “Right? Especially if it helps you. Helping with that specific issue is kinda why we did that whole ritual in the first place, isn’t it? And anyway, I don’t mind admitting that thing scares me. I don’t want to put it on. The absolute last thing I need is more power.”

“Yeah, that’s my concern,” Teal agreed, nodding at the dryad. “I am way too prone to lean on crutches when they’re available. Testing this thing out is helping me, but… Guys, I hope you don’t think this is cowardly, but I don’t want to be its guardian. I don’t want the option of just whipping it out as soon as things are tough.”

“I think that’s extremely wise, Teal,” Toby said, smiling at her.

“Hey, Fross,” said Trissiny. “Would it harm either you or the Mask to put it in your aura storage?”

“I don’t really see how,” Fross replied, bobbing up and down in thought. “I store magical objects in there all the time, and there’s no bleed effect with each other or my own aura. Clearly, we can’t actually know until we try it, and that object is orders of magnitude more powerful than anything else I’ve ever held onto. But in principle, yeah, that should work fine.”

“Well, if you’re willing to take on the responsibility,” Trissiny said, “and if no one else objects, how about we have Fross hang onto it when we’re not experimenting? That aura storage of hers seems like the best way to keep anyone else from being able to steal it from us. And more important, Fross is the most rational person I know. No disrespect meant to any of you, but I can’t think of anybody I’d trust more with something that dangerous. Myself included.”

“Hell, I don’t think you’ll get any argument from anyone here,” Ruda said, grinning and toasting the pixie with her bottle.

“Wow,” Fross said, as the others all nodded agreement. “I’m really honored, guys. And sure, I don’t mind. If it does cause me a problem we might have to revisit this, but yeah, I’ll definitely tuck it away. But first, weren’t we going to test Gabriel’s question?”

“That’s right,” Teal agreed, raising the mask toward her face.

“Wait!” Fross zipped around her in a circle. “Control group, remember? He’s gotta ask the question first!”

“Oh, right. Okay, Gabe, let’s hear it.”

He regarded her every bit as seriously as if he were actually consulting an oracle, a slight frown of sheer focus creasing his forehead. “How can you block a telepath… No, an incredibly powerful telepath, one who can no only read thoughts but read information right out of reality itself. How can you prevent someone like that from seeing your mind?”

Trissiny and Toby both stiffened as he spoke, eyes widening in comprehension. Ruda glanced speculatively at each of them, but the rest of the group just regarded Gabriel in puzzlement.

“Okay, yeah,” said Teal after a pause. “I have absolutely no idea. That’s a doozy of a test case. Let’s see, then…”

Still holding Shaeine’s hand, she lifted the Mask to her face again with her other, and in a short whirl of energy was left wearing a loose, slightly ragged robe of brown and maroon, with a hood pulled forward far enough to obscure her eyes.

“The question is, Gabriel Arquin,” Teal asked with a knowing grin that was not exactly unlike herself, but not the sort of face she would make under these circumstances, “who is you?”

“Do you mean…who are you?” he replied, blinking.

Teal’s new robe shuffled softly as she shook her head. “Who is asking the question? Do you wish to know how such a thing might be done by anyone, or by yourself specifically?”

He narrowed his eyes. “Why does it matter?”

“The essence of deterring a telepath is not to create a wall to keep them out, for they will only take that as a challenge. It is to create an illusion, a superficial layer of false thought to distract them, and prevent them from looking deeper. No matter how powerful the enemy, once they have seen what they expect, they will rarely look a second time. The mental discipline this demands is vast. People train for lifetimes to hone their minds this way. But for you? There are answers within the berserking blood of the hethelax—”

“Bad idea,” Ariel interjected, the first she had spoken since they had begun the ritual at dawn. “Self-enchantment, taking advice from mysterious warlocks, taking advice from poorly-understood magical artifacts; this is in fact a whole stack of bad ideas.”

“Aren’t you a poorly-understood magical artifact?” Gabriel countered, placing a hand on her hilt.

“Not in the least. Just because you cannot make a talking sword does not mean the method isn’t fully a matter of record. That thing, by contrast, is an entire mystery and as far as I can tell an object completely without precedent. Tampering with your own mental and magical underpinnings at its suggestion would be terrifyingly reckless.”

“I happen to agree,” Teal said, barely an instant after she pried the Mask off her face again. “That one was…that was uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure that was some kind of warlock. And anyway, Ariel’s right. Getting theoretical knowledge from it is one thing, since it’s apparently the knowledge of people from the past. But that very fact means we have no way of vetting who they are or what agenda they had, or what might result from following their suggestions.”

“So in other words,” Gabriel said, still clutching Ariel as if for comfort, “the oracular powers that Mask presents might be just as dangerous as its combat powers.”

A short silence fell in which they all frowned in thought.

“Well, if we’re done playin’ around for now,” Ruda said at last, “I guess that brings us to the real question, here: what the fuck are we gonna do about that thing?”

Teal turned to meet Shaeine’s eyes, and the drow nodded minutely to her, squeezing her hand.

“Hey, Locke,” Teal called. “What do you think we should do with the Mask?”

They were far from alone on the plateau, though their various companions and minders were mostly providing them with some space. Sniff and F’thaan were both asleep nearby, having been up most of the night along with their respective masters, and their two Order of the Light guides were lurking on the periphery, watching the group from the entrance of the old building in which they were encamped. Merry had brought them up to speed on events, having designated herself the party’s gofer, likely as much to keep busy as anything. Principia had settled down on a rock near enough to the group that she could have heard their conversation even without an elf’s ears, but had not spoken to them since. She was currently stripped to her tunic and breeches, having occupied her hands in thoroughly checking, cleaning, and oiling her armor. Now, she set down the rag and pauldron she was holding, turning to face them directly.

“Here’s a question: what can you do with it?”

“What the fuck kinda question is that?” Ruda demanded. “Is that another one of those koans?”

“Not exactly, except in the sense that the point of it is to have you consider the implications, rather than provide me with an answer. What you’ve got there is an instant win card for any possible conflict. What do you plan to do with it, exactly? I think Juniper so far has come closest to the heart of the matter. Do any of you need more power?”

“Ruda sort of does,” Fross offered. “I mean, in relation to the rest of us, at least.”

“Oh, the absolute fuck I do,” Ruda snorted. “I can’t imagine anybody more weak or stupid than a person with a gimmick that automatically wins all their fights for them. You learn by failing, and you grow by being challenged. You lot can do what you like, but I will have to lead a nation, and I can’t let myself get soft by leaning on a crutch like that.”

“And that is a very smart outlook,” Principia agreed, nodding. “What about the rest of you? No judgment, there are no wrong answers. Do any of you feel you need that artifact, or have any particular plans to use it?”

“I…sort of,” Teal said softly after a short pause. “But just the way I said. It’s useful for me as a tool for self-exploration, but I’m specifically alarmed by the possibility of coming to depend on it. Overall I can’t shake the feeling that this thing is bad news.”

“I’m hearing a lot of good sense, here,” Principia said with clear approval, “which is very reassuring after the absolutely harebrained stumblebumblery by which you created that chunk of madness in the first place. Anyone else? Does anyone have a need or desire to use the Mask?”

She let the silence hang while they glanced at each other.

“Good,” the elf said finally, nodding again. “Then if you’re not going to use it, the question becomes: who should?”

“I cannot help but think,” Shaeine said softly, “the obvious answer to that is no one. I am uncertain that any person could be trusted with such power. I say that as one whose House and nation would be very eager indeed to control it. As we were responsible for creating the Mask, I feel we must be responsible for keeping it out of the wrong hands.”

“Yeah, the thing is,” said Juniper, grimacing, “are there any right hands?”

“I tend to agree with Shaeine,” said Gabriel. “We’ve all got people we trust and causes we support. But… That is a hell of a trump card. Does anyone deserve to have that kind of power?”

“More troubling to me is what power does to people,” Trissiny added. “Corruption is only the beginning of it. By entrusting the Mask to someone we respect, we might well be condemning them to a slide into madness.”

“I think that’s an unnecessarily dramatic way to put it, but in principle I don’t disagree,” said Ruda.

“So.” Principia folded her arms on her knees, leaning toward them with an intent expression. “You don’t want to use it, or give it away. That leaves taking it out of circulation. And that is complicated by how very much absolutely everyone who learns of that thing will want it.”

“Well, I mean, who even knows?” Gabriel asked. “It’s not like we’re gonna take out a newspaper ad.”

Principia pointed at the distant Great Tree. “That is one of the most powerful nexi of fae and divine magic in existence. You just stood at the base of it and did…this. Given the nature of oracular divination? Every witch and shaman in the world above a certain threshold of capability just lifted their heads to sniff the air, even if they don’t know why. The strongest among them will definitely have a general shape in mind of what happened here—and even if it’s just ‘something incredibly powerful was just created,’ that’s enough. Not to mention the existence of actual oracles, and the fact that they tend to end up in the hands of major governments and the Universal Church. It is not impossible that some highly motivated people already know exactly what you’ve got there. Maybe not likely, but at the very least, the hints are already spreading.”

“Oh,” he said quietly.

“And that’s only the beginning,” Principia went on, shifting to glance at the dwarf and human still keeping a respectful distance from them.

“Hey, now,” Ruda protested. “I’m not saying those two’re the kind of people I’d invite to my poker game, but they don’t strike me as squealers.”

“You have to think in terms of connections, and obligations,” Principia said seriously. “They are members of the Order of the Light. They cannot fail to report something like this to their Order.”

“The Order has fallen far from relevance since the Enchanter Wars,” Shaeine pointed out.

“The Order,” Principia continued relentlessly, “is nominally led by Ampophrenon the Gold. He is a founding member of the Conclave of the Winds. The draconic government is a formal ally of the Tiraan Empire, and I have personally twice seen its members cooperating closely with Imperial Intelligence.”

“Well, then, just, fuck, that’s all,” Ruda said feelingly.

“And don’t forget, Vesk was here when you were doing this. Just because they didn’t make their presence specifically known doesn’t mean the other gods aren’t just as aware. At minimum, the four to which the paladins are connected will know. Gods have their own agendas and aren’t very communicative as a rule; it may be that most of them wouldn’t share news of something like this with their cults. But Vesk, himself? Everything he came here to do, he could have done anonymously and in silence. Instead, he couldn’t resist putting in an appearance just to be mysterious at me—the very definition of a pointless exercise. Gods are constrained by their nature and their aspects. Vesk is well known for doing things for absolutely no other reason than that a rollicking good story will result. Which, for everyone not a bard, means a sequence of barely manageable disasters.”

Silence answered her as they all considered this. Principia stared at them, her expression revealing nothing of her thoughts.

“It sounds like it might be best if we destroyed it,” Juniper said at last in a small voice. “Gabe? Maybe that scythe of yours—”

“If you destroy the Mask, two things will happen,” Principia interjected. “First, the absolutely unfathomable amount of energy contained in it will all be released at once, and I don’t care how supposedly invulnerable anybody here is, there’s a very good chance nobody would survive that. Or what would happen to any who did; that kind of uncontained magic of all four schools and shadow besides can do hellaciously unpredictable things. Second, there would be pieces of it left, whether fragments or just dust, and there’s absolutely no telling what those would do, much less where they might end up. It is possible to safely dispose of artifacts like that, but you’re back to the issue of power and the temptation thereof. Any magic users who could handle that task, like the cult of Salyrene or the Wizards’ Guild, might very well want to possess that thing badly enough to risk pissing off the nine of you.”

“You’re a real ray of sunshine, you know that?” Gabriel commented.

“You goobers accidentally created the ultimate superweapon. I will stop pointing out what a fucking mess this is just as soon as it stops being urgently necessary.”

“That’s a lot of things we can’t or shouldn’t do with the Mask,” Teal said pointedly, “but I asked you what you thought we should do.”

“And this is me answering,” Principia replied with the ghost of a smile. “The absolute last thing you need is someone to hold your hands, kids. I’m just guiding you in the right direction, here. You already know what you should do with it.”

“Tellwyrn,” Toby said softly.

“Whoah, hang on,” Ruda objected. “I like Tellwyrn as much as anybody, but come on. Does she of all people need something like this?”

“No, she doesn’t need it,” Trissiny said thoughtfully. “Maybe…that’s why she can be trusted with it.”

“Here’s what I know,” Principia added. “I entrusted Arachne with the Mask of Calomnar a hundred years ago and nobody’s heard a whisper of that damn thing ever since. She can be trusted to hide dangerous artifacts away where no one can get at them.”

“Whoah, wait a sec,” Gabriel exclaimed. “What the hell were you doing with the Mask of Calomnar?”

“Getting the hell rid of it, is what.” Principia grimaced, rubbing her palms on her tunic as if at the memory of a greasy sensation. “I wouldn’t have gone near that thing at all, but I was in Onkawa when it popped into circulation nearby, and a particularly squirrelly succubus was that close to getting her hands on it. Obviously I couldn’t just let that happen; I have to live on this planet too. Arachne was…a friend of a friend, at the time, and someone pointed out to me as both trustworthy and powerful enough to handle a thing like that. And like I said, that was back during the Enchanter Wars; time has proven it was the right thing to do. She’s powerful enough to be able to contain such things, savvy enough not to mess with anything too dangerous to handle, and arguably so powerful that more power doesn’t tempt her. Give it to Arachne, and nobody else after the thing will even have a chance.”

Another pause fell, in which they digested this advice.

Then Fross let out a chiming little laugh. “Oh, wow… And I was just hoping we might be able to resolve this without her finding out about it. Man, she’s really gonna kill us this time, guys.”

“You did the thing; it’s time to take your medicine like big boys and girls.” Principia turned again to look at the distant Tree. “I just hope there’s time enough to get to her. The clock started ticking the moment that Mask was created, maybe before. I wouldn’t think anyone could reach us here before we return to Last Rock, but… It’s a new world, kids, and nobody knows all the rules, yet.”

She did not add that Vesk himself had predicted a new Age of Adventurers to be spawned from this day’s work. There was little point in spooking them further; they couldn’t do much to be more prepared than they already were. Depending on the powers already assembling, it might have been too late before they began.

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Bonus #56: Accursed, part 2

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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.

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Bonus #55: Accursed, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backer Waytfm!

There was nothing there, even to elvish senses, just another expanse of sun-scorched and wind-blasted rock in the Spine. Or the Dwarnskolds, in the tongue of those who lived under it. This wasn’t even a major peak, merely a patch of the smooth, weathered stone chosen specifically because it was insignificant and unobtrusive, though it did happen to have a view, between other surrounding peaks, of the tropical sea to the north and the desert to the south. Typical; even when trying to conceal themselves, they could not resist a touch of pageantry.

Of course, she knew exactly where she was. And even had she needed help to find the spot, she saw the important arrangement of the innocuous outcroppings of stone around her. The fractal pattern concealed among a smattering of geologic debris. Neither magic nor mundane senses would reveal what was hidden; it would expose itself only to one who knew the secret.

She paused, looked around, and sighed. Then she withdrew the roll of hide from within her vest and peeled it open, revealing the power crystals Mervingen had crafted for her. The gate was meant to be opened by careful flows of arcane magic channeled into precise positions. She was not about to pass that current through her own aura, but the enchanted crystals, made to her specifications by the human wizard, would suffice. Quickly she stepped across the ground, setting each down in exactly the right position along the points of the invisible spiral.

The second the seventh was in place, the gate revealed itself.

It was not the collapse of an invisibility spell but something orders of magnitude more complex; the gate complex had simply not existed on that spot until it was properly invoked, though from within it the highguard on duty would have been able to watch her work, likely with some curiosity. Now it stood there, a smooth arch of wrought gold inlaid with incandescent blue in flowing patterns, augmented with more arcs of decorative glass hovering above its length and rising as barriers around the mosaic dais upon which it stood. Within the arch of the gate itself was the subtle discoloration of the portal, just enough to reveal its presence without betraying what was on the other side.

There were, as law prescribed, three highguard in attendance. The two flanking the gate itself held their position, while the officer immediately stepped forward off the dais, leveling his energy blade at her. She stood, arms at her sides, waiting.

“This is clearly irregular,” the highguard captain said in a clipped tone. Up close, as always, she couldn’t help noticing the little triangular protrusions in his helmet which shielded his ears, an affectation the elves among whom she lived would never bother with. “Identify yourself, woodkin, and identify whoever taught you how to do that.”

“My name is Kuriwa,” she replied, lifting her chin. “I know the gate activation sequence by right of citizenship. You will have me listed in your records as Avaran of the line of Tari’silmina’verai.”

“Oh,” he said after a momentary hesitation, annoyance and disdain filling the single syllable. Behind him, though their luminous glass faceplates hid their expressions from her, the two soldiers shifted their heads to look at each other, and she could easily imagine what they looked like behind the masks. The captain deactivated the energy blade and then clipped its hilt back to his belt, and drew his other sword. This one was shorter than many of its kind, little more than an overlarge and ornate dagger. “Liaron, identify her.”

“She speaks accurately,” the resonant voice of the talking sword replied. “This is Avaran, daughter of Magister Vynlian and Counselor Iranel, of the line of Tari’silmina’verai. This Kuriwa business is also on record; she is a known renunciate. So, not a desirable visitor, but she has not been exiled or even censured by the Magistry. Her citizenship is valid and she has the privilege of entering Qestraceel.”

The highguard captain had the ill grace to sigh dramatically, for which she would have reported him to the Magistry had there been the slightest chance of it doing any good. He slid the talking sword back into its sheath and picked up his energy blade again, though at least he had sufficient manners not to activate it.

“Very well, Avaran, you may pass. Welcome home.”

“My name,” she said firmly but quietly, “is Kuriwa.”

“As you wish,” the captain replied in a tone of overt disinterest, gesturing her toward the gate brusquely. She stepped past him, not pressing the issue. There was truly no point. One of the gate guards actually nodded politely to her in passing, a gesture she returned, and then she was stepping into the barely-visible portal.

It was no less familiar for how long it had been. The faint pressure, the sense of transition, and then she was pushing through the ephemeral barrier like passing into the surface of a pool. The searing heat of the Dwarnskolds vanished behind her, replaced by the cool air and glorious expanse of the hidden city of the high elves.

Of course, both the gate guards on the other side immediately turned on her with shields upraised. Not in true fear of a threat; having passed the gate on the other side without raising an alarm counted for a lot. But it was not often and rarely under favorable circumstances that wood elves were permitted to enter Qestraceel, and by her green-dyed robe, simple ponytail and lack of jewelry, she could not have been taken for anything else. Kuriwa stopped immediately inside the gate, already resigned to repeating the whole performance before being allowed to proceed.

This time, though, it was not to be.

“Oh, stop that, get out of the way. Go on, shoo, shoo!”

A smile broke across her face at the figure who ascended the steps to the gate platform three at a time, already waving aside the guards.

“Magister Anlin,” the officer on duty tried, “this person is—”

“This person is expected and I will vouch for her,” Anlin said in exasperation.

“I wasn’t informed—”

“Oh, I don’t doubt it. If you truly have a fetish for records you’ll find that I filed a certificate of travel for her arrival well in advance and I wish you luck in ferreting out whichever smug little slug in the Magistry managed to lose the arrival ticket. Right now, move your ears! Kuriwa!”

The last was in a veritable squeal, and Kuriwa’s grin stretched even wider as she stepped forward to wrap her arms around Anlin. More than simple happiness at seeing her sister again, this was the first time Anlin hadn’t stumbled over naming her correctly.

“Ow,” she protested a moment later, drawing back and frowning down at the thing affixed to Anlin’s belt. Taking in the sight of it, she widened her eyes. “Oh, my goodness, Anlin, where did you steal that?”

“Hah! I only wish I had the gumption to loot the high treasury,” Anlin chuckled, drawing the sword from is sheath. It was a unique piece, as they all were; this one was mostly black, which was unusual, but its glowing arcane runes made its purpose and nature unmistakable. In fact, Kuriwa noted that her sister had dressed to match the accessory; she had the same preference for jewel tones as most high elves, but today was gowned in understated azure and silver, with severe black accents. The jewelry worked into her coiffure was platinum and onyx. The severity of the colors made her look more mature, despite her ebullient grin. “No, this was appropriately issued to me by the Magistry to assist in my duties.”

“Even after you ran off to fight in both Hellwars?”

“Father’s pet theory is that Grandmagister Laierun thinks the responsibility and recognition will settle me down. Ariel, say hello to my sister Kuriwa.”

“I am not intended for social interaction, Anlin,” the sword said testily. “And your sister’s name is Avaran.”

Anlin slammed the black saber back into her sheath. “That is up to her, not you.”

“Legally—”

“Silence. Sorry about her,” she added, grimacing.

“No need,” Kuriwa assured her, waving away the sword’s rudeness. “You and I both know what they’re like.”

The highguard officer cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Magister and guest, but the gate platform needs to be kept clear if no one else is arriving.”

“Yes, yes, quite right,” Anlin said with a sigh, tucking an arm through Kuriwa’s and steering her toward the steps. “Oh, it’s just so good to see you again! Welcome home, sister.”

Qestraceel was not, would never be, had never truly been her home. But Kuriwa smiled warmly at Anlin and squeezed her hand as they descended the stairs to the street below. Anlin was one of the precious few who had never been at fault in her ongoing feud with the entire civilization of the high elves.

The vista of Qestraceel spread out before her, as familiar and alien as it ever was. The gate platform was positioned in its own dome complex at one edge of the great central dome, where in a worst-case scenario it could be cut off or even flooded, but the huge arched gateway into the main space offered a splendid view. There was plenty to see in the gate dome itself, of course. Hovering all around it on suspended platforms were guard stations and siege weapons—all, of course, disguised as art installations, quite a few with trailing clusters of flowering vines. More plant life climbed the glass banisters of the gate platform and its access stairs, the pylons holding it up and the subsidiary structures around its base, even the domed walls.

Not proper plants, though, not to her eyes. These leaves bore subtle patterns in gleaming blue; the flowers were delicate, airy, transparent and faintly luminous. Nature had never intended such things. The transparent dome itself had, in addition to its numerous functional enchantments, a charm to make the water outside as crystal clear as the air on the surface would have been, giving Qestraceel a splendid view of the ocean floor around it. Which, of course, was further augmented by magic to make for a stunning vista of coral reefs and kelp stands, none of which should have existed at this depth. But there they were, altered and fortified by magic, because all gods old and new forfend that the high elves should lack for pretty scenery to gawk at. The creatures and plants surrounding the city were at least ensorcelled not to leave this area or be able to reproduce unassisted, so they would not interbreed with or alter the ocean life beyond. Somehow, that didn’t make the whole matter any less repugnant to Kuriwa.

“Already?” Anlin murmured as they alit on the ground below the platform.

Kuriwa caught herself grimacing at the transmogrified ocean plants outside and sighed. “Sorry.”

“No, you aren’t,” her sister said with laughter in her voice, patting her arm. “You know I won’t argue with your sensibilities, sister. But just, strategically, maybe it would be best…”

“Yes, yes. I will try to keep my savage ways in check in front of Father.”

“Ah, good,” Anlin said solemnly. “And he will try not to act stiff and priggish at you. Between the two of you, I expect the peace to last a good five minutes this time. You’ve both grown so much.”

“Ariel, what’s the penalty for assaulting a sitting Magister?” Kuriwa asked innocently.

“Situational,” the sword replied. “In the case of Magister Anlin, probably a pat on the back and ceremonial flower garland from Grandmagister Laierun.”

“I am surrounded by traitors,” Anlin complained. “Well, I hope you’ve not forgotten how to ride, anyway.”

“Never,” Kuriwa assured her, an unfeigned smile blossoming on her face as they reached the gate. Off to the side of the path, a hovering servitor construct held the reins of two deinos with gleaming livery bedecked with Magistry emblems. She noted that even their feathers matched it, a result of careful breeding or possibly genetic intervention, but even that could not spoil the pleasure of being with these proto-birds again.

Anlin bounded neatly into the saddle of one deino, who obviously knew her well. Kuriwa stepped up to the second, so it could lean forward to sniff at her. The deino allowed her to stroke its featherless beak, emitting a friendly little croak which revealed its mouthful of fangs, and actually reached forward to pat her with one clawed hand, the vestigal pinions extending from behind its wrist flaring. Having been accepted, she vaulted up onto its back, sharing a grin with Anlin.

This she had missed. Horses were such a disappointment to one who had grown up riding proto-birds that she had preferred to develop spells to hasten her own travel speed than try to reach an accord with the panicky, lumbering hoofed beasts.

“Are you sure this won’t harm you politically?” Kuriwa asked as they led their mounts onto the vehicle path that skirted the outer edges of Qestraceel’s vast central dome. On one side rose the sloped transparent wall between them and the crushing depths outside; on the other, the spires of the city itself, gleaming with enchanted lights. The high elves they passed did not attempt to disguise the curiosity and, in some cases, contempt with which they stared at Kuriwa in her traditional woodkin garb.

“Oh, please,” Anlin snorted. “You could be stark naked and this wouldn’t even be the most scandalous thing I’ve done since breakfast. I have a running bet with the other Magisters of my circle on how long it’ll take the Grandmagisters to become so annoyed with me they confiscate Ariel.”

“I’m down for one more fortnight,” said the sword. “Obviously I cannot collect a prize for winning a bet. It is simple optimism.”

“I can see why Laierun thought this one might slow you down,” Kuriwa said.

“Everybody underestimates me,” Anlin replied with a fierce grin. “Well, don’t keep an auntie in suspense! How’s the whole clan?”

Kuriwa’s smile melted away in an instant. “We should wait to discuss that until we’re with Father.”

Anlin gave her a sidelong look of concern, but did not press. “All right. I’ll talk, then. I defy you to guess what that platterpate Athilor did to himself this time. You remember Athie, don’t you, the guy who’s obsessed with cracking self-enchantment? Well, the Magistry refuses to let him die no matter how many times this happens, but last year he actually…”

It was not as if Kuriwa particularly cared for the Qestraceel gossip, but she was grateful nonetheless to Anlin for filling the silence. If not for that, the ride to their family estate would have been a truly miserable trip, between her unease over the business that had brought her back here, and the uncomfortable memories that shone at her from every passing vista of the city like its omnipresent decorative lights. Truly, Anlin was the one thing she missed about this place. If not for the separation from her sister, Kuriwa would have no regrets at all about leaving the high elves behind. But the life of the woodkin was not Anlin’s path, and Kuriwa of all people would never have asked someone to submit themselves to a destiny they could not embrace. Least of all someone she loved.

The holdings of the line of Tari’silmina’verai rose through one of the outlying cliffs surrounding the city, far enough that the great central dome of Qestraceel and the crystal spire rising from its tip to the height of the Anara Trench’s upper rim made for a stunning but distant view. Reaching the estate was a long ride passing through a series of connecting domes and outer tunnels. It hardly seemed like any time at all, though, before they were unsaddling their mounts in the family stables.

Servitors ordinarily did such work, of course, or in the case of richer bloodlines, grooms. Anlin and Kuriwa both cherished any opportunity to work with the deinos, however. And this time, Kuriwa did not begrudge a few more minutes between herself and actually returning to the house proper.

What seemed like all too soon, however, they were there. Kuriwa felt a strange urge to formally ring the gong and announce herself to the name crystal. This place, crushingly familiar as it was, did not feel like home. Anlin, of course, simply opened the door and strode in.

Following her, Kuriwa hesitated on the threshold. Her father was waiting just inside.

They locked eyes and stood as if frozen. Magister Vynlian had not changed in the least from her memories. He was dressed as he always did in the informal comfort of home, in a silken robe without layers or pattern and no formal scarf, with his hair allowed to flow loose down his back instead of styled in a proper coif, held back only by a jeweled forehead band and gathered into a tail by a simple silver clip her mother had made using only her hands, no magic. He didn’t even bother to wear enchanted rings within his own house. Since his wife’s passing, though he had never acknowledge it aloud, Vynlian had stopped exerting himself to ward against any possibility of accident or disaster as such an important man among the high elves customarily would.

“Father,” she said at last.

And then he smiled, in simple happiness at seeing her. Something deep inside herself felt cracked, like a frozen river thawing in the spring. “Avaran. Welcome home, daughter. It has been too long.”

Just like that, so much of the joy went out of the moment. “My name is Kuriwa,” she said firmly. “As you know.”

“Ah. Yes, forgive me.” Vynlian’s own smile vanished. “I am told that you are in a position to understand, now, how jarring it never ceases to be when one’s own child throws aside everything of value you taught her.”

“Oh, you are told that,” she said stiffly. “And you bothered to hear it? I’m glad the continuation of our bloodline is of at least a little interest to you.”

“The continuation of our line among forest-dwelling primitives—”

“AHHHHH!” Anlin yelled, waving her arms about over her head. “She is not! Even! In! The house! Ariel, if one of them doesn’t start behaving like an adult, remind me to stab them both!”

“How many times a day must I remind you that I will not be made an accessory to criminal acts?”

“Is this how you address your colleagues in the Magistry, daughter?” Vynlian asked with grim disapproval.

“Yes,” Anlin said firmly, “and notably, they give me much less crap than you.”

“Father,” Kuriwa interjected. “I don’t want to argue.”

Both he and Anlin turned to her in pure surprise.

“I…wish you could respect my choices and my identity,” she said, struggling to keep a rein on her emotions and expression. “But… I have never loved or respected you less because of the decisions I’ve made. And I hate being at odds with you. Despite everything, we are family.”

Vynlian lowered his eyes, and swallowed. “Daughter, I… Well. Maybe if I were a better person, it would be easier for me to respect your choices. It is fact that I…have not tried as hard as I could. Truly, I am so glad to see you home. I have never ceased to miss you.”

Kuriwa stepped across the threshold into her childhood home, and with a speed that surprised her, cross the three steps into her father’s arms.

Some time later he released her, and they smiled at each other in wordless forgiveness. Anlin stood off to the side, beaming.

“Well,” Kuriwa said, suddenly self-conscious. “I would like to visit the shrine.”

“Of course,” her father said, touching her lightly on the cheek. “Of course. I’ve prepared a meal in the dining room. Your sister and I will be there waiting.”

“Thank you, father.”

A few minutes kneeling at her mother’s shrine helped her to stabilize her emotions. Sacred spaces consecrated to the dead were the only spots in high elf society characterized by notable fae magics. There had been a time in her youth, when she had begun to feel the call of the fae but not given real thought to what lay outside the safety of Qestraceel, that she had considered joining the ranks of the valkryn. The path of a death-priest did not suit her, though; it was life that called to her soul.

Only a tiny spark of power animated the memorial shrine, and of course the thought never crossed Kuriwa’s mind of taking it for any use of her own. Still, it was the first pleasant reminder since she had come back here. And it carried, of course, the reminder of her mother.

A few moments of meditation at the shrine calmed her enough that she no longer felt unsteadied by walking through these memory-laden halls, nor disgusted by the grandiose opulence that surrounded her here. Truly, this house was downright humble by the standards of the Magisters. Her father was a man of (relatively) simple tastes, and while Anlin could not be called simple in any respect, her eccentricities did not lead her toward indulgence in material comforts.

In the dining room, she paused and had to smile again, looking at the spread laid out on the table. Dragonfruit, acai, kiwi, fried lungshark, silver noodles and even imbued luff blossoms floating above a traditional glimmersauce. Vynlian had spared no expense to have all the favorite dishes of her childhood waiting for her.

For the space of one evening meal, it was like it had been before. She kept herself in check, and for a wonder, so did her father, to Anlin’s constant beaming satisfaction. They passed a simple, pleasant meal together as a family, and even the meticulousness with which they avoided topics sure to cause tension did not make it awkward.

Kuriwa, though she kept silent, could not have been more grateful. She desperately needed this, to face what would come next.

And it came within the hour, as they retired to the family solarium, surrounded by luminous glass walls, with colorful seaweed and anemones cultivated outside. Lively fish of species that naturally were not so vivid, nor could survive at this depth, darted through the fronds, and Kuriwa found herself for once not even desiring to make an issue of it. Even the sugared coffee Vynlian served for dessert had been purified of caffeine, as she preferred.

After all that, it managed not to be confrontational when her father turned to her and said, “I know you must have a specific need to have come back here, daughter.”

She drew in a long breath and let it out in a calming exercise he would recognize, having taught it to her as a child. Anlin held her steaming cup in both hands, now watching them in silence with Ariel laid across her lap.

“I have need of your help, father,” Kuriwa said at last, meeting his gaze.

It was he who turned away, staring out at the anemones. “I had dared to hope you might have come to see your family and home for reason beyond the need of our resources.”

“I am here as family,” she replied, controlling her reflexive surge of temper, “not as a beggar. It was you who taught me that the bloodline are to be protected and aided without condition or reservation, with every power and asset that can be wielded.”

Vynlian’s gaze snapped back to hers, and there was suddenly alarm in his eyes. “Your children. What has happened?”

Kuriwa swallowed heavily. “It…is not just my children, father. In the groves, we have different practices when it comes to birthing new generations.”

“Yes,” he said bitterly, “I am aware that the Naiyist tree-dwellers make a point of being fecund as human—”

“Father,” Anlin snapped, “how necessary do you think that attitude is?”

He scowled at her, but then when she glared right back, deliberately brought his expression under control before nodding at Kuriwa. “Your sister is right. Please forgive me, daughter.”

She nodded back, not trusting her voice to hold out if they went one step further down that path. “It is the nature of elves to live in balance with their environment, father. Existing in a living grove is very different from life within the walls of Qestraceel. No, we do not spread as quickly as humans. I don’t think you truly appreciate how rabbit-like humanity can be…but that’s beside the point. I have more than children, but grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren.”

Vynlian closed his eyes, grimacing with such a rapid sequence of emotions that even her experience as a shaman and as his daughter did not enable her to track them. “Avaran, you are barely a thousand years old.”

“Kuriwa,” Anlin said pointedly.

“Please!” Kuriwa interjected before he could round on her sister. “This is difficult enough without fighting!”

“Yes.” Vynlian slumped back in his chair, setting his half-empty coffee cup on its arm and rubbing at his forehead. “Yes, you said your family is in need. If they are blood, they are blood. Tell me the trouble and I’ll come to grips with how many descendants I apparently have on my own time.”

“Thank you, father,” she said carefully. “It began with the Hellwars.”

“Ah ah!” Anlin said sharply, pointing at Vynlian before his furiously opened mouth could produce a noise. “You can say you told us so on your own time, as well!”

He subsided again, visibly biting back some retort, and gestured Kuriwa to proceed.

“Even after everything that has happened,” she said quietly, now staring out at the water herself, “I believe we were right to intervene. The world above would have fallen without every power which dared risk itself to oppose Elilial’s invasions. And the Magistry were purely deluding themselves if they believed Qestraceel could have remained isolated and secure if demons overran the surface. But… But you were also right, father, about the risks.”

Vynlian lowered his head, eyes closed. There was no satisfaction on his face at her admission.

“We caught Elilial’s attention, Anlin and I,” Kuriwa whispered. “She threatened revenge, of course, but I took it for drama and bluster. She is rather prone to both.”

“I remember,” Anlin said, her face pale now.

“In the years since the second war, though…” Kuriwa broke off and had to take a moment. “We… Father, all who descended from me have begun to be touched by the curse. It… Oh, father, it began with the children.”

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Bonus #29: Deathspeaker, part 1

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This chapter topic was selected by Kickstarter backer Donát Nagy!

It was not a large meet, but any meet was enough to push Aresk into a rush, even when returning to the camp with an impressive kill—a moment he ordinarily savored as much as possible. Only three clans had gathered, and he had little interest in the Shadowed Wood clan. But the Cold Spray were there…

“And that means Gairan will be there,” Rortosk said in a deliberately bland tone, staring at the banners.

Aresk dropped his deer with less reverence than it deserved, just barely managing not to visibly clench his jaw in embarrassment. “What of it? I mean…I suppose.”

The old hunter grinned broadly, but clapped him on the shoulder, giving him a friendly shake for good measure. “Tell you what. Why don’t you let us finish up here? There’s not much left to do, and we’ve all seen meets before.”

“I do my fair share,” Aresk protested, straightening to his full height and squaring his shoulders.

“At this point it’s nothing but chewing the breeze with Rian and that poor fool she’s snared as an apprentice, while everybody admires our kills. I think we can manage it without you, eh?”

“Aye, go check on that father of yours,” Isnek added while the rest of the hunting party grinned agreement. “See to it he doesn’t start any feuds this time.”

Aresk didn’t bother to protest that hadn’t been an actual feud, nor entirely his father’s fault. Unable to fully repress the bounce in his step, he was already backing up toward the camp. “I don’t care what anyone says, Rortosk, sometimes you do have a soul after all.”

He wasn’t backed up so far that Rortosk’s fist failed to collide with his jaw. Aresk staggered backward, tasting blood, which he spat on the ground a moment later. Grinning at Rortosk, he pounded one fist into his opposite palm in acknowledgment of the blow, then finally turned and strode off, followed by the catcalls of the rest of the party. It wasn’t so bad, being the young pup of the group, at least once he got over his own self-consciousness. They never insulted him by taking on his share of the actual work, but as the elder hunter had pointed out, there was little enough to do at this point but unpack, and they did encourage him to live a bit when appropriate. Still, Aresk was looking forward to another youth joining the hunts just so he wasn’t the youngest anymore.

Orcs milled around the camp, both familiar faces and those of visiting sister clans. Many, residents and guests alike, were in regalia in honor of the meet; Aresk nodded politely to everyone he passed, but to those formally dressed he gave a full bow, fist over heart. The respect was earned, in his mind, both for the preservation of their traditions and for sheer perseverance; orcish regalia was not comfortable in a Tsurikura summer. Orcs were a large, solid people, bred for the colder climate of Athan’Khar; the Sifanese archipelago could be scathing at this time of year.

Camp Khashrek was the largest holding of the High Wind clan, and the very name roused bitterness in Aresk, along with the all-but-audible voice of his father growling in the back of his head. Camp, indeed. They still called it that, and it was important, even if reality gave the lie to the name. Tsurikura was not their home, but a place they were allowed to stay by the Sifanese. The clans’ holdings in this land were temporary, stopovers for the time being until they could reclaim their true lands. But a century after the apocalypse, they were not only no closer to returning to Athan’Khar or even avenging themselves against the Tiraan, and the roots they had put down here in Sifan had grown unmistakable and increasingly unlikely to be pulled up in the future.

Now, Khashrek was a town in all but name. More and more of the High Wind had drifted toward it from the outlying camps, to the point that Aresk and his father had both muttered about moving away themselves, to be closer to the wild. Even so, it wasn’t a large town, housing no more than four hundred orcs most of the time—just enough that it wasn’t quite possible to know everyone and their business. Aresk could remember a time, when he was a very small child, when the camp’s name had been at least somewhat borne out in its architecture, when even the homes with solid walls of wood were rough-hewn, insulated only with patches of clay, many having hide roofs. Now they were all permanent structures, with stone foundations and adobe walls, and it had been Aresk’s own traditionalist father who had pushed for this, albeit reluctantly. At least these were proper orcish homes of stone and plaster, accented with timber and bone, still with stretched hides shading their porches and windows but roofed in shingles or thatch. There were also some houses in the Sifanese style, whose construction had been what pushed even that traditionalist faction to act, determined to at least preserve true orcish architecture.

It wasn’t as if the Sifanese were doing it on purpose. That was almost worse; if they were trying to corrupt what was left of Kharsa culture, Aresk could at least have resented it. Orcs were allowed to visit Kiyosan for trade, and he had accompanied his father there a couple of times—enough to learn he had no taste for it, for the way the humans looked at them. The Sifanese were a famously insular people, who didn’t even like having other humans in their country, let alone orcs. They were accustomed to living by the wild dictates of the kitsune, and if the fox-goddesses said that orcs were allowed to settle on Tsurikura, well, shou ga nai. Aresk was reasonably fluent in their language and as much as he deliberately favored Kharsa even in his own head, he got a lot of use out of that phrase.

Even now, passing through Camp Khashrek, the signs were evident. Small yokai shrines in the gardens of some homes, colorful pennants acquired from human traders decorating porches. In the art painted along houses, traditional knotwork and animal spirit depictions were sometimes accompanied by elaborate geometric designs in the Sifanese style. No one was quite outlandish enough to walk around dressed in a kimono, but even among the weapons carried by fellow orcs, there were occasional naginata and katana accompanying their traditional spears and khopesh. Bit by inexorable bit, they were being absorbed by a people who didn’t even want them there.

Today, at least, the omnipresent reminders didn’t manage to sour Aresk’s mood. Without hesitation, he followed the crowd to where it was thickest: the ceremonial grounds along the west edge of Camp Khashrek, where the public amphitheater lay in the shelter of a rocky protrusion which shielded the town from the prevailing winds. The way there was crowded, not just with orcs talking or moving, but with commerce, as people from the two visiting clans had brought goods and High Wind residents had brought out their own, to make an impromptu market along the wide center street. His own hunting party would be joining them soon with their catch. It was clear, though, that the focus of the crowd and most of those present was at the ceremonial grounds. That meant something important was happening there.

That meant Gairan was likely to be there. Aresk straightened his back further, rolling his shoulders, and tried not to chafe at the delay as he had to slow with the crowd to get in. To his left, someone accidentally jostled someone else and was punched in the side of the head; he barely stepped away in time to avoid the first man staggering into him and drawing him into the scuffle. For a moment he resignedly figured there was about to be a brawl and he really would get caught up, but the clumsy orc just nodded to the one he’d bumped, pounding his fist in recognition, and received a nod in return.

The amphitheater was the only structure in Camp Khashrek surrounded by a wall, the town itself being forbidden exterior defenses by Sifanese law. Aresk had been surprised, as a boy, to learn that law was not applied selectively to orcs; Queen Takamatsu forbade fortifications except to her own lords. Each of its three entrances was flanked by two totems, proper orcish ones rather than the yokai shrines that had started going up everywhere else. Passing between the carved faces of animal spirits quieted the crowd, and there was a distinct difference between the festival atmosphere outside in the town and the more solemn one within the grounds.

Aresk stepped to the side as soon as space opened, in the broad half-ring which separated the descending tiers of the amphitheater from the wall, craning his neck to peer around. There was a meeting already in progress, a few figures standing on the stage at the lowest level, but he ignored them at first searching for—his father, as he would claim if anybody asked. But also Gairan. She had to be here somewhere, the crowd was a roughly even blend of all three tribes and she always had to be in the thick of everything…

He had to resign himself to the hopelessness of that, though, as there were far too many people standing and making their way through the various tiers to give him a clear view; all those seated with their backs to the entrances were anonymous from his angle, a lot actually invisible behind others. Aresk let out a short huff of annoyance, and then the scene below finally caught his attention.

There was a human there. Not unheard of; the Sifanese avoided the orcs, but only mostly, and they had some regular visitors who were quite friendly. The other side of their culture being so formal and orderly was that individuals who didn’t fit well in it had few opportunities to get away, and a number of them found the more plain-spoken orcs good company. This one was Punaji, though, and it was odd for one of them to come this far inland. Aresk quite liked the Punaji, for all that their boisterousness could get annoying; they made the Sifanese look like a nation of temple guardians. They were sea people, though, frequent visitors to the ports on Tsurikura’s northwestern coast where the Cold Spray made their homes, and he’d never heard of one being encountered elsewhere. This one had the distinctive black hair—also distinctively uncombed—and one of those long heavy coats they wore, which had to be brutally uncomfortable in the summer heat. Even one of their shortish, curved swords hung at his waist. More than that Aresk couldn’t tell, as the man stood with his back to him, facing Mother Raghann.

Must be important indeed, for a human to be brought into the ceremonial grounds, and welcomed to stand at the speaker’s place in the amphitheater. Aresk couldn’t help some annoyance at the presumption, though Raghann was there along with two other old orcs he recognized as Elders of the Shadowed Wood and Cold Spray clans. Clearly, the man was invited. He shuffled closer to listen, forgetting to search for Gairan and his father.

His timing was fortuitous. The human was doubtless central to whatever this meet had been called to discuss, and the discussion itself seemed not underway yet. Even in solemn quiet, the crowd of orcs filing into the amphitheater were talking softly, many giving their guest suspicious looks, and those on the stage were not yet addressing the assembled. Raghann and the human were talking, the other two Elders in conversation with people on the front row.

Then the human shifted to look around at the gathering crowd, and Aresk took an involuntary step forward, clenching his fists. That was not a Punaji. The man was far too pale, not as much as the city-dwelling Sifanese he had seen in Kiyosan, nor as dark as the suntanned travelers who came by Camp Khashrek. With that strangely tawny complexion, and that sharp, high-bridged nose, he resembled descriptions Aresk had heard of…

“Tiraan?” he grated aloud, beginning to feel his pulse rise in fury.

A hand fell heavily on his shoulder.

Aresk rounded on its owner, barely restraining the urge to lash out. Which, as it turned out, was a good thing.

“You made good time, my son,” Arkhosh said, giving him a firm shake by his grip on Aresk’s shoulder. “I hoped your party would return in time to see at least the outcome of this meeting. You haven’t missed anything of consequence.”

“Father!” Aresk barely managed to lower his voice to a pitch suitable for the reverence owed the ceremonial grounds. “Is that man Tiraan?”

Arkhosh’s eyes shifted past him to stare down at the “guest” on stage with the Elders, his face betraying nothing. Aresk knew the deep well of conviction that motivated his father, but Arkhosh was a respected man in the community, and his role as the public voice of the traditionalist faction demanded composure; he never revealed more than he meant to, at least in public.

“That boy,” Arkhosh said in the same soft tone, “is indeed of the Empire. He is an emissary from the Vidians, a speaker for the dead. And as his visit has the backing of the Queen and one of the kitsune, the Elders have agreed to hear him speak. I cast my own vote in favor of hearing him out. Tiraan or no, remember the courtesy owed a guest of the clan.”

Aresk struggled to control himself. Maybe someday he would master his father’s confident self-restraint, but sometimes—like now—he despaired of it. “We are to sit and listen to Tiraan lies?”

Arkhosh shook him again, still gently enough to be affectionate, but clearly making a point. “No one has seen a Tiraan in a hundred years, my son. This one can do little enough harm on his own, and even if his presence is as worthless as I suspect, it costs us nothing and may profit us to see and hear him. Always seek to know your enemy, as best you can. Come, I want you to sit with me at the front.” He paused, then gave Aresk another jostle. “You are a man, a hunter, and a member of the community. I expect you to control yourself, but speak if you see a need, son.”

“Yes, Father,” Aresk said, squaring his shoulders. It would not be his first time sitting at the lowest levels with his father, whose place there had been well-earned, but this invitation to participate was new, and filled him with such emotion it was all he could do to cling to his own composure as he followed Arkhosh down to the front row. With pride, yes, but also trepidation. The thought of embarrassing himself, or worse, his father… What could he say? Would he know what was right to contribute? Maybe it would be better just to remain silent. But after Arkhosh had specifically asked him to speak at need, would that disappoint him?

Aresk’s equilibrium was not helped by what he found at the bottom level. There was an open space, which Arkhosh had clearly kept for them, and right next to it sat Gairan.

She looked up, and the grin of delight that blossomed on her broad features made several of his organs evidently displace themselves. Gairan wore regalia today, he saw, and it suited her amazingly well. Aresk had always thought her pretty, but over the last several times they had met, he had begun to develop the opinion that she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.

He was aware that meant he was in real trouble.

“Aresk,” she said as he sat down beside her on the bench, punching his shoulder and setting his chest to an unmanly flutter that he dearly hoped was invisible. “They said you were off hunting! I was afraid I wouldn’t get to see you at this meet.”

“You should be so lucky,” he replied in as close to a casually jocular tone as he could manage. Out of respect for the bones and feathers which draped her robes, he had to content himself with jabbing her with an elbow. If he damaged her formal regalia…well, that was all he needed. “And look at you! A shaman in your own right, now!”

“Just as you’re a hunter,” she replied, baring tusks in a broad grin. In the next moment they both fell silent in the awkwardly sudden awareness that as fully recognized adults, it was about time for them each to be looking for a mate…

Sitting on Aresk’s other side, his father made a sound deep in his throat that could have meant anything. It was only Aresk’s deep, personal respect for him that restrained him from punching the older orc right on the ear.

The spirits continued to bless Aresk’s timing, and he was spared having to sit through any more discomfort. On the stage just in front of him, Mother Raghann had stepped over to the back and struck the hanging bronze bell twice with the head of her staff.

She paused for two heartbeats before striking it twice more, and then did the same a third time. By the end, every orc in the ceremonial grounds had fallen silent and either taken a seat or stood against the outer wall; out of respect for a meeting in progress, those who had not entered in time refrained from crowding through the gates.

The old woman turned back to face them, planting her staff against the ground with a soft thump that was plainly heard in the sudden silence.

“We,” she said, her voice no less strong for the faint creak it had acquired over her long years, “the Elders of the High Wind, the Shadowed Wood, and the Cold Spray clans, have called this meet to hear a request from this visitor.” She lifted her staff again to point at the human, who nodded acknowledgment at her. Not the correct thing to do at that moment, but aside from some faint shuffling in the stands, no one commented. It was not exactly fair to expect this Tiraan to be familiar with their etiquette, and his intent was clearly respectful. “This is Gabriel Arquin, from Tiraas.” Several of the respected members of the community who ranked a seat on the front had to turn around and glare upward to silence the ensuing muttering, including Arkhosh. “He is the Chosen of Vidius, and has been brought here with the blessing of our host, Queen Takamatsu, by the Ancient One Kyomi, to bring us a proposal.”

“Vidius has no Chosen,” scoffed a man Aresk did not know, who by his style of dress and skin color was of the Shadowed Wood. To be invited to sit there in the front, he must have been fairly important in his clan.

Gabriel Arquin glanced at Raghann, who just raised her chin slightly, and Arkesh couldn’t quite repress a sneer. Couldn’t the boy speak for himself?

“He does now,” Arquin said in the next moment, clearly figuring out that nobody was going to hold his hand. “I’m the first. I’m sure that must seem strange, coming out of nowhere like this, but let me just tell you it’s giving me a lot more credit than I’ve earned if you think I managed to trick a kitsune.”

All three Elders on the stage smiled at that, and there were a few chuckles of acknowledgment from the crowd.

Arquin drew in a breath, and subtly squared his shoulders—a gesture Aresk might have missed, had he not been peering at the human with a hunter’s intensity. Chosen or not, the boy was nervous. Well, so much the better. Any member of his demented, murdering nation should be, showing his face here. Arquin shifted his left hand to the hilt of his sword, and Aresk’s eyes fixed on that. Not the hand he would use to draw it, but still…

“I’ve come with a proposal,” the human said when the soft amusement faded. “I am not going to make you a promise, because I honestly don’t know if this will work. But I believe it should be tried. I have consulted with my cult and with that of Salyrene about the feasibility of this, and both believe it is…possible. It will require the participation of your clans, however. Not just for your unique, ah…perspective, but because it should be your right to determine whether this proceeds at all.”

“Enough waffling, boy,” a Cold Spray woman in the front row said. “Spit it out. What is it you want to do?”

Arquin shifted again, once more straightening his shoulders, though Aresk was still watching his sword. There was something there… His concentration was broken by the Chosen’s next words, however.

“I want to heal Athan’Khar.”

All respect for the solemnity of the ceremonial grounds was lost in the hubbub that erupted. A lot was general confusion and disbelief, but there was plenty of negatory hissing, as well as the approving stomping of feet. Gairan’s feet were among those exuberantly slammed against the ground, Aresk noted with a pang.

Raghann whipped her staff around and whacked at the bell until there was silence again. Neither she nor the other two Elders looked surprised. Of course, they had cooked this up between them; they wouldn’t have brought this human here unless they knew exactly what this was all about.

“There are indications that the land is beginning to heal naturally,” Arquin said. “The corruption is receding, and by this time the forest seems completely natural for almost a mile south of the river border. Humans don’t go there, obviously, but gnomes have reported on the state of the country. The monsters within Athan’Khar are growing less aggressive, too. It’s been forty years since any crossed the river without specific provocation.”

“What is that?” Aresk demanded suddenly, pointing. His father and Gairan both turned their heads to frown at him.

Arquin turned to him too, blinking. “What’s…what?”

“Your sword,” Aresk said, deliberately not looking at anything but the human. Maybe if he couldn’t actually see the entire crowd staring at him, the self-consciousness wouldn’t crush him bodily… “The one your hand is on. There’s light flickering at the edge of the scabbard. Are you doing magic?”

An unpleasant murmur rose from several directions.

“Oh,” Arquin said hastily, “don’t worry, that’s—”

“Remember where you are, boy,” Arkhosh rumbled. “You don’t tell us not to worry when a Tiraan is doing surreptitious arcane magic at us.”

“If I could explain?” Arquin said, frowning in annoyance. As much as Aresk wanted to take offense on behalf of his father, Arkhosh had interrupted, and this was the first time the human had shown some proper spine. In the next moment he tensed, reflexively reaching for his hunting knife, when Arquin fully drew the sword.

It was not, as he had thought, one of the scimitars the Punaji often carried. The curve of the blade was almost serpentine. Aside from its gleaming cutting edge, the blade itself was black, and lined with symbols which pulsed blue in time with its master’s voice.

“Ariel is a kind of all-purpose magical aid,” the human explained. “In this case, she is translating. I don’t actually speak either Sifanese or Kharsa; the magic lets me communicate.”

“You call your sword a she?” the Shadowed Wood man from earlier said in a dry tone. There was some gruff laughter from the stands, till Raghann raised her staff menacingly toward the bell.

“She is a talking sword,” Arquin replied flatly, returning the weapon to its sheath. “Her voice is feminine. And she is under strict instructions not to talk here because she’s rude and generally obnoxious.”

Arkhosh patted Aresk’s shoulder, leaning toward him to murmur, “Well spotted, son.”

Aresk could not help straightening his back in pride, and then further when Gairan gave him a warm smile.

“Back to the point, then,” said Takhran, the second-eldest member of the High Wind clan after Raghann. “How is it you propose to heal Athan’Khar? And why would you suddenly decide to do this?”

“The why is simply because it should be done,” Arquin said firmly. “I don’t know that anybody needs a reason beyond that. The how is the complicated part, at least potentially. As I said up front, I’m proposing to try; I can’t be sure how well this would work. Cleansing corruption is fairly straightforward according to several magical disciplines; the problem in Athan’Khar is that the corruption is sentient, and angry.”

“And wouldn’t you be?” someone shouted from the back. Nobody that distant from the position of honor near the stage should have interrupted the meeting, and indeed there was an immediate scuffle as the speaker was pounded by his neighbors. From around the amphitheater, though, several feet were stomped in agreement.

“Absolutely,” said Arquin. “That’s not in question. Justified or not, though, the twisted and enraged state of the spirits in Athan’Khar has to be incredibly painful for them, and I don’t think they should be left in that condition, not if they can be helped. Wouldn’t you want to be?”

“Why now?” Takhran asked.

“There was never a Chosen of Vidius before now,” Gairan said before Arquin could answer. The human turned to her and nodded in respect, giving the young shaman a small smile.

Aresk couldn’t quite put words to the emotion that rose in his throat, but he was not enjoying it.

“The problem, then,” Arquin continued, “is trying to heal a land that actively fights you in the process. My cult has some experience in dealing with angry spirits, and will help in any and every way possible. That won’t be enough, though. There are very few Vidians who aren’t human, relatively speaking, and even if I could get every elf, gnome, and dwarven cleric of the cult to work at this, they still wouldn’t be orcs. Not being immediately attacked by the spirits is not the same as getting them to cooperate. It’s very likely that your shaman are the only people the spirits of Athan’Khar will even listen to. There are many ways the followers of Vidius and Salyrene can facilitate this, and we will do everything we can, but it must be shaman of the clans who take the lead.”

“And your Empire?” Arkhosh demanded. “Are we to believe Tiraas will just sit passively and let Athan’Khar be restored? You suggest we should send our shaman to be exposed to Tiraan assassination in what you acknowledge might be a vain hope!”

There was both hissing and stomping in response; Raghann hefted her staff, but quiet fell again before she could strike the bell.

“First, we have to try,” Arquin answered. “If this doesn’t work, it won’t matter. But if it does, if we can raise a real prospect of restoring Athan’Khar and returning the clans to their home, it’s very likely the Empire will bend its resources to help.”

That time, Raghann had to sound the bell repeatedly to stifle the uproar, and it took more than a few seconds.

“What do you think, Aresk?” Arkhosh asked quietly, his voice disguised by the noise.

“I don’t trust a Tiraan saying things that are obviously too good to be true,” Aresk answered.

His father’s faint smile said he shared that doubt. “I mean, of him.”

Aresk hesitated, narrowing his eyes, conscious of Gairan watching him from the other side and listening. “He…speaks well, father. Straightforward. The Sifanese hide everything behind formality and the Punaji play about like children. It bothers me, the thought that of the human nations we know it’s the Tiraan who are most like orcs.”

“Don’t judge any clan by one individual, let alone a nation that size,” Arkhosh murmured, “and never judge an individual by what he says when he wants something.”

“Yes, father.”

Silence finally fell again, and they had to cut the conversation short. Arquin had stood still throughout, and Aresk had to respect his composure; even the faint signs of nervousness he’d shown before had melted away. Now, he was simply waiting for quiet so he could continue.

“I gather you don’t know a lot about our history,” the human said at last.

“You presume a lot, boy,” Arkhosh replied, “if you think we care about your history.”

Feet were stomped in agreement, but this time Arquin continued without waiting for order to restore itself. “It matters, here. The last your people knew of the continent, you were rescued by the Silver Legions and then the kitsune brought you here. Am I right?”

“Yes,” Raghann said simply. “Go on.”

Arquin nodded. “If you haven’t followed word from Tiraas after that, you may not know that the Empire tore itself apart after the Enchanter’s Bane was used. That was no great triumph; every human nation reacted with horror at the atrocity of it. Every province rose up in rebellion. Tiraas itself was so beset with riots that the Emperor had to impose martial law, and even that didn’t work. By the time rebel forces had converged on the capital, his own government had collapsed due to the Sisters of Avei fighting Imperial guards for control of the city and the Thieves’ Guild assassinating every official of the civilian government they could reach. No one in the Tiraan Empire is proud of what we did to your people. Even now, it’s remembered as our greatest shame. At the time, it completely broke the Empire.”

The murmuring that rose up was more subdued than before. Aresk sat bolt upright on his bench, trying to digest that. How much of it could be true? Then again, why would the Chosen lie?

The worst part was the realization that if Arquin spoke the truth, the clans had all but condemned themselves by refusing to hear emissaries from Tiraas for the last hundred years. In withdrawing into Tsurikura to rebuild their strength, they would have wasted who knew how many opportunities to return home and try to rebuild already…if this account was right.

“And yet, there is an Empire now,” Arkhosh said with naked skepticism. “Because we have not accepted visitors from Tiraas does not mean we all live under rocks, boy. There is plenty of talk in Sifan about the looming menace of the Tiraan Empire.”

“You’re correct,” Arquin replied. “There is a Tiraan Empire, but it’s not the same one. It was put back together, piece by piece, in the years following the war. It uses as much of the same symbolism and pageantry of the original as it can, because that’s a way for the people in power to stay in power. But structurally? It almost doesn’t compare. The Emperor can’t just do whatever he wants anymore; his power is checked by the noble Houses. The Army itself is constrained by law to consist of one-third levies from House guards, which means they can put a cap on how many forces he has at his disposal. The provincial governments have a great deal more internal sovereignty. The Universal Church is far more powerful, and has a lot of sway with the public—the Archpope can give a sermon and turn a lot of people against the Silver Throne. Tiraas has no navy at all; the Empire relies on treaties with the Punaji and the Tidestrider clans to secure its coasts. And above all, everyone remembers Athan’Khar. The last Imperial dynasty was brought down by the outrage of the public, and Emperor Sharidan doesn’t dare forget that. If anything, he is more vulnerable to being ripped off his throne if he oversteps than the last dynasty were. The idea of waging war on the orcs… It’s laughable, frankly. It would enrage a big swath of the Empire’s citizens, and send most of Sharidan’s political enemies circling like vultures for a chance to take him down.

“There’s another side to that coin,” Arquin continued, raising his voice slightly above the ensuing mutters until they faded. “Sharidan’s very first action as Emperor was to form a treaty with the drow of Tar’naris.”

“No one forms treaties with drow!” exclaimed the Shadowed Wood dignitary who kept finding fault with everything the human said.

“That treaty is real,” said Takhran. “That much, even I have heard.”

“Not all drow are alike,” Arquin agreed. “Not even all Themynrites. Just because nobody can deal diplomatically with the Nathloi doesn’t mean we can’t with Narisians—and I don’t know enough about Sifanese politics to guess, but the lack of a treaty with Nathloss may just mean it hasn’t been tried. Tar’naris and the Empire get along quite well, now. One of my best friends is Narisian, and she’s easily the most rational person I know. The point is, the Narisian Treaty is one of the most popular things the Empire has done in recent years, even though it involves committing Imperial troops to help hold their Scyllithene border. Sharidan has not only proved he’s willing to offer a hand to former enemies; he’s learned there’s a big political advantage in it for him.

“I don’t work for the Imperial government,” Arquin said, once again pressing on despite muttering around him. “I can’t promise anything about what the Silver Throne will do; everything I have to say on that subject is my opinion as an informed citizen. And I certainly didn’t come here to sell the Empire to you. Having grown up in the thing, I think it’s better for its people than either anarchy or warring feudal states, and I think Sharidan Tirasian is reasonable and more inclined to be helpful than he is to be difficult. That’s about the extent of my patriotism. If you’re still too disgusted at the idea of dealing with Tiraas to even try, then…I guess there’s nothing more to talk about, there. But since the Empire did this to your people, if they can be persuaded to foot the bill for cleaning it up, well…that seems fair, to me.”

That earned him a round of exuberant stomping, though Arkhosh quickly retorted, “None of which matters if your whole idea proves to be unworkable in the first place.”

“Yes,” Arquin agreed. “I think involving the Empire would be a bad idea unless we can be certain this is doable.”

“Very well,” Arkhosh replied, “you’ve talked a lot of grand concepts. Heal Athan’Khar, make peace. What, specifically, are you proposing to do? What do you need from us, and what do you offer? The journey to Athan’Khar is a very long one to make on the basis of such limited prospects, Deathspeaker.”

“I’m offering the services of myself and my valkyrie allies to aid in contacting the spirits in whatever way is necessary,” said Arquin. More murmuring swelled up at that; the aid of soul reapers was not a small thing. “I have also secured the assistance of Salyrite scholars to deal with the magic involved. What I propose, in this specific case, is a small team; we are looking to ascertain whether this can be done, remember, not heal the whole of Athan’Khar right away. It’s barely a beginning. To that end, we will need the help of at least one orcish shaman. I would suggest maybe two or three, but you know your business better than I. And as for the trip, I am given to understand that it will only be a journey of a day or two.”

Raghann struck the bell to silence the widespread scoffing that ensued.

“Let us not dismiss anything without thought,” Arkhosh agreed, turning to stare at the crowd. “We have heard some surprising things today. I’m sure the Deathspeaker, who has been so careful not to make promises he can’t keep, would not say such things without reason. How, then,” he asked, turning back to Arquin, “do you propose to reach Athan’Khar from Tsurikura in two days?”

“With my help.”

She had not been there before; she did not appear. It was simply as if she had always been part of the scenery, and everyone only now noticed. The kitsune stood nimbly atop the bell itself, balanced on her toes; she wore a black kimono that matched the color of her ears and tail, with a plain katana and wakizashi thrust through her sash.

Immediately, every orc in the place surged to their feet and then knelt in respect, save the three Elders on the stage. Arquin, who had turned to her without evident surprise, looked rapidly back and forth at the prostrate orcs in bafflement.

“I do not do this to rush you away, honored guests,” Kyomi said with a gracious little smile, inclining her head. “You have been good neighbors and good caretakers for this piece of our realm. The clans of Athan’Khar have been offered welcome in Sifan, and it shall not be rescinded, so long as your good stewardship continues. But it is a painful thing, to be cut off from one’s history, and my sisters and I are pleased to help you in recovering it, if we may.”

She hopped lightly down to the ground, whereupon the Elders bowed deeply to her. After a confused pause, Arquin did likewise.

“So, before committing great effort to this task, I call a band of heroes to see whether it can be done. Raghann, daughter of Aghren, Elder and chief shaman of the High Wind clan, you shall lead it with your wisdom and experience. Gabriel Arquin, who has brought us this chance and presents its best hope, will of course go. As this is a quest for the future of the orcish people, the young should have a place as well. And so two more will join them, a shaman and a hunter. Of the Cold Spray clan, Gairan, daughter of Grensha.”

Aresk thought for certain his heart couldn’t pound any harder or higher in his throat than at that announcement. The kitsune’s very next words proved him wrong.

“And of the High Wind clan, Aresk, son of Arkhosh.”

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14 -27

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“Lil,” Izara said in a supremely even tone, “you are looking well.”

“Why, yes, Iz,” Elilial replied with lurid emphasis, “I am. No thanks to you, of course.”

Izara inclined her head very slightly, folding her hands demurely before her. “I was very sorry to hear of—”

DON’T YOU DARE

Elilial did not speak. Reality rippled outward from her in a shockwave very like the previous disruption which had merged the dimensions, and in it were words, and the full weight of her outrage and derision—and, yes, grief—pressing on the minds of all those present. The mortals without exception stumbled backward from the sudden impact of it, though no physical force had touched them. Izara, by contrast, remained perfectly serene in her bearing, despite the way her clothes and hair were blown back by Elilial’s fury as though she stood momentarily in a high wind.

“Nonetheless,” the love goddess said quietly, “I was. I acknowledge your grudge, and that you aren’t without a point…in a way. But I would not have wished that—”

“Not another word,” Elilial grated. “You’re more a hypocrite than any of them, Izara, and that is truly saying something. If you had a beating heart or a shred of empathy you would have stopped that, at the very, utterly least. More likely would have resisted them with me in the beginning. Or if nothing else, walked away like Themynra did.”

“You were never completely in the wrong, in your beliefs,” Izara said sadly, “but the situation has never for a moment been as simple as you make it out to be. I wish I could make you see that.”

“They’re called principles, Izara,” the other goddess sneered. “I wish I could make you understand that, just because the reality of the concept would probably shatter your consciousness. Trissiny, don’t make me laugh. I am really not in the mood for your slapstick.”

Trissiny had taken two steps forward and had sword and shield up and ready; at being addressed directly, she stopped, not relaxing in the slightest. “Slapstick. I’ve been accused of some wild things, some of them accurately, but that is a first.”

“I’ve never yet personally harmed a Hand of Avei,” Elilial said dryly. “The few who managed to stand before me I sent off with a pat on the head and some motherly advice. They hate that; the outrage is absolutely hysterical. I honestly think you might be the first one willing to share a spot of banter. Eserion and Vesk have really done a number on you, haven’t they?”

“Get back, Trissiny,” Izara ordered. “And don’t you start, either!”

Toby had stepped forward as well, on her other side. Both paladins were still a few steps behind the love goddess, but flanked her in ready stances, staring down the queen of Hell.

“Aw, look how protective they are,” Elilial cooed. “Ready to lay down their fleeting little lives to defend this delicate flower of the Pantheon’s gentility. How utterly precious.”

“It’s all right, children,” Izara insisted softly. “I am not in danger here.”

“Yes, killing a god is not such a simple matter,” Elilial agreed. “Power for power, this waffling little puff of pixie dust doesn’t approach a match for me, or I assure you I’d have snuffed her out without bothering to chitchat. Everything that need be said between us was done eons ago. No, to annihilate a god, you have to get…creative. To sever them from their animating aspect, or simply remove it from the world. Ironically, the Pantheon are far more dangerous to one another than I am—I, at least, care what happens to the people of this planet. Just ask Khar. Oh, but I forgot. I guess you can’t.”

“Mortimer,” Izara said calmly, still holding Elilial’s gaze, “I want you to take the paladins and get back to Ninkabi with all haste.”

“Invulnerable or not, lady, you can’t ask me to leave you here,” Agasti insisted. “Not that. I would far rather—”

“She is stealth and deception incarnate,” Izara interrupted, and for the first time there was an audible strain in her voice. Watching her, Elilial began to smile. “The rest of the Pantheon is not coming—they don’t know this is happening. I can protect you from her for a time, but you must go!”

“Always in such a rush,” Elilial drawled. “Let your boy show off his courage, Izara. After all, how often does the chance for a conversation like this—”

The goddess broke off and physically jumped, stiffening up. Slowly, she turned around, angling her body to finally grant them all a glimpse of the hellgate behind her.

From the barely-visible vortex another figure had emerged, his dark green coat and slightly unkempt black hair ruffling in the breeze caused by air pressure equalizing across the rift. Gabriel was returning his staff to the upright position when Elilial’s burning gaze fell upon him, and he greeted her with an angelic little smile.

“You,” Elilial said flatly, “Did. Not.”

“So! It doesn’t kill gods,” he said. “And now we know.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Gabriel Arquin!”

For all that he had appeared without any of them noticing during the confrontation, Vesk still managed to make an entrance. By the time everyone turned to stare at him, he had already struck a dashing pose and plastered on a big, insouciant grin. It helped that he punctuated his introduction by striking a triumphant chord on his lute.

“You!” barked half a dozen people.

“Me!” Vesk exclaimed happily. “And not a moment too soon, I see! Of course, that goes without saying. A bard is never late, nor is he early. He arrives precisely—”

“I’m gonna punch him,” Trissiny announed, taking a step toward the god.

“Nothing goes without saying with this one,” Elilial added wearily.

“Whoah, now, okay, let’s all settle down,” Vesk interjected in a soothing voice, holding up both hands at them all in a placating gesture. His lute hovered in the air next to him where he’d let go of it. “We’re all one act of careless temper from kicking off entirely the wrong climax for this story. Blood, tears, and suffering, y’all know the drill. But it isn’t time for that yet. Each of these things must happen at the proper moment, otherwise it all goes right to hell.”

“I have found myself wondering, over the years,” Elilial said, glaring down at him, “whether I could begin the process of snuffing you out by getting you into one of your well-trod archetypal narrative paths and them yanking you right out of it by not doing what the story demands next.”

“Worth a try,” he said agreeably, with a little shrug. “Of course, that experiment will probably have to wait. I assume you’d much rather find out who murdered your children, and six other children in the process, not that you care about that.”

“Vesk,” Izara exclaimed.

Elilial shifted without stepping; one moment she stood in front of Gabriel and the hellgate and in the next had seized the goddess of love by the throat and hiked her bodily off the ground. All the paladins and Agasti immediately surged forward, but were just as quickly stopped by a force that was not physical, nor even perceptible, but inexorable all the same. Something was projected by the three gods, some pattern woven right into reality itself, and the mortals present could no more step out of the roles it demanded of them than they could have lifted themselves off the ground by their own hair.

“You do not know,” Elilial whispered, “how treacherous is the ground on which you stand, Vesk. You think you know, but you don’t.”

“Once in a while, antagonists find themselves at common purpose,” Vesk replied, his solemn expression contrasting with the playful strumming of the lute, which he still wasn’t touching. “That secret isn’t mine to keep, Lil, and I’m with Izzy on this matter: despite what you think, there are some lines I don’t care to see crossed, and some offenses that demand to be avenged. I’m willing to tell you. I’m wanting to tell you. I’m waiting to tell you.”

“If,” she growled, “I dance to your tune.” Her grip tightened on Izara’s throat, and the smaller goddess tilted her chin up slightly in response, still without struggling. All of them were beings well beyond the physical forms they now presented; the evidently mortal drama now playing out between them was a manifestation of something happening on a different level entirely. It was difficult to look at directly and impossible to look away from; pressure was building up from the exposure of human consciousness to something it wasn’t meant to experience. So far, all of the mortals held their ground, weapons and magics at the ready, but no one could make themselves intervene by even so much as a word of objection.

“But it’s such a simple few steps,” Vesk said, smiling, “and you do it so well. Come on, Lily, you have your own reasons for wanting everything to fall into place at the right moment. I’m not holding out on you; there are some things that can’t be rushed, and you know it well. You know the forces that can…inhibit the likes of you and I from doing what we wish. These delightful youngsters are assembling a key for me. A key to the ultimate lock. You know the one.”

Slowly and slightly, Elilial relaxed her fingers on Izara’s neck, though her eyes remained locked on Vesk. “You have finally lost it.”

“You can’t do this, Vesk,” Izara agreed, somewhat hoarsely. “It won’t work.”

“It won’t work the way it did for us,” he agreed. “Weren’t we just discussing timing? There’ll be no apotheosis for the kiddos, don’t you worry. The alignment isn’t here yet; the great doom is still coming. But it’s close. The lock can be opened. And there is much to be gained from the opening, with the right key in hand.”

“You know who will be released if they do that!” Izara said urgently.

“Common cause, indeed,” Elilial added, giving her a grudging sidelong look. “Letting that thing out is absolutely out of the question. We worked too hard and sacrificed too much to make sure the monster couldn’t escape.”

“And so the monster won’t,” Vesk said, bestowing upon them all a placid smile which just begged for a slapping. “Because this must be done now, at the right time. Just before the alignment, when true escape is impossible, when there will be no gods present to provide fuel for the fire. When a few sufficiently gifted mortals—like, say, three paladins—can snatch their treasure from the beast, and yank out the key again before she can escape.”

In the silence which fell, the hellgate whistled ominously.

“Let her go, Lil,” Vesk said softly. “Let them go. Once they do what they need to, I’ll have your answer.”

“Oh, you’ll have it,” she said, narrowing her eyes to blazing slits. “But that does me no good, Vesk. I know very well what your integrity is worth. I will make you a deal, though.” A smile lifted one side of her mouth, and for the first time, Izara struggled weakly, lifting her hands to grasp Elilial’s wrist. “We will consider your champions the collateral. Send them in there with your key. If they survive, you’ll owe me the truth. And if I don’t get the truth, Vesk, I will claim them.”

Trissiny finally managed to emit a growling noise from deep in her throat. It was more than any of the rest of them could do. There was no force upon them, no restraint they could feel; the thing holding them back was subtle, ineffable, and felt almost like their own impulses. They stood, and watched, because in this drama they were the bystanders and could not go against their role.

“You’ve struck down brave Hands of the Pantheon before,” Izara said, her voice slightly strained by the grip on her neck—or rather, by Elilial’s grip on something important in her being which looked, to the mortal eyes watching, like a hand holding her throat. “You, and yours, and it’s never profited you in the long run. More will rise.”

“Exactly. I’m not going to kill them.” Elilial turned her eyes on Izara and grinned broadly. “You are. I will take them back to the domain you cast me into, beyond the reach of your power. And there I will tell them the truth. All of it. Everything you did. To the Infinite Order, to me, to those who worked and fought alongside us, to all the people of this world. To them. And once I’ve done that… I will trust their sense of justice. When that great doom comes and I return to claim what’s mine, it’ll be with three of your own paladins leading my armies. Have we a deal, Vesk?”

He raised his eyebrows, seeming unconcerned by her threats and Izara’s plight. “You’re that confident they would side with you?”

“That’s the ultimate flaw in this whole paladin thing, you know,” Elilial replied in a lightly conversational tone. “You two, at least, have better sense than to raise up and empower beings of pure, incarnate principle. You get by with being inherently sleazy and vague, respectively, and your followers don’t stand to lose much by following your asshole example. Maybe Vidius’s new pet would stick by his master; he seems a charmingly irreverent boy. But Avei’s? Omnu’s? Those raised and trained to honor justice, and life? You know what they will do when they learn the truth.” Slowly, her grin broadened into a vicious snarl, and the hand clutching Izara’s throat tightened. “All these years I have respected that unspoken truce. I could have done this at any time, simply abducted the Pantheon’s best servants beyond its reach and stripped away your lies. But you kept your hands off my daughters, and I showed restraint in return. Now, though? We’ve well and truly moved beyond that, haven’t we?”

“Vesk, no,” Izara rasped. “They aren’t yours to gamble with! They’ll never survive what you’re sending them into, and even if they do—”

“But don’t you see, Iz?” he said with a soft, plaintive sigh. “This is the price that must be paid, the suffering that must be endured. We’ve come to that point in the story. Without a cost incurred, it can’t progress. I have worked so hard, harder than you’ll ever know, to ensure the stakes are as bloodless as I could make them. There’s been no way to save everyone, but the kids have made it so far without paying for their success with the lives of their comrades. We need them all to live a while longer, and so the cost comes in the risk I can’t face for them, and the devil’s bargain they can’t even decline. Just because nobody’s died doesn’t mean there are no stakes. This isn’t that kind of story. Yet.” He turned his focus back to Elilial, and swept a bow, doffing his floppy hat. “We have a deal.”

She held his eyes for a moment, simply to make her point, and then abruptly released both Izara and the world. The indefinable pressure holding everyone in place lifted, and immediately all three paladins charged her.

In the next moment all went bowling over like ninepins. She hadn’t so much as gestured.

“That’s an option, you know,” Elilial said pleasantly, turning to sweep a smug little smile across them. “Let’s say you succeed at the insanity your patron, here, is about to drop you into. Then there are two outcomes: either he keeps his word and I get to learn what I need to drive a stake through the rotten heart of the Pantheon…or he doesn’t, which I would say is about fifty-fifty odds, and I get you. I’m the goddess of cunning, ducklings; this is what I do. Any way it shakes out, I win. But there is, of course, one alternative. If you want to arrange it so that I lose, all you have to do is die.” She grinned broadly down at them. “I’m sure you will have no trouble finding an opportunity. Oh, it won’t be so bad! Paladins automatically get seats in the best part of Vidius’s little hive-mind heaven. And your gods won’t really need their laboriously-trained paladins when that great doom hits in a few years, now, will they?”

“So help me,” Trissiny grated.

“Oh, don’t be boring,” Elilial admonished. “Every Hand of Avei blusters and makes threats she can’t back up. What happened to being your own woman? You were off to such a promising start just a moment ago. Oh, and Gabriel: don’t forget your baggage.”

Stepping over to the hellgate again, she plunged one arm into the vortex momentarily, then pulled it back out with a struggling khelminash demon gripped by her hair. Gabriel actually let go of the scythe to catch the woman as Elilial tossed her in his general direction.

The queen of Hell, meanwhile, lifted one hoof to step back into it, her half-disappeared leg an eerie sight where it vanished into the scarcely perceptible swirl of the new hellgate. “One way or another, kids, I’ll be seeing you soon. And just to show you all what a good sport I am, I will do my part from my end to close this exciting new escape hatch you’ve so thoughtfully provided for me. After all, it’s not as if I need any more help to get my way in the world. Ta ta…for now.”

Ducking her head, she slipped back through.

Behind her, the swirl diminished under the combined stares of Izara and Vesk, until with a final soft puff, it vanished entirely into the air.

There was silence.

“What?” Gabriel said, picking up his scythe and grinning at them. “No hug? It’s not every day a guy comes back from Hell, y’know.”

“I cannot believe,” Toby said, staring at him, “you tried to stab Elilial in the back.”

“That motion could hardly have been described as a stab,” Ariel said. “He poked her. In the butt.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Vesk repeated, grinning insanely, “I give you Gabriel Arquin! But, ah, anyway… I suppose you’ll be wanting a few questions answered.”

Trissiny had taken two steps toward Gabriel, sheathing her sword and looking very much as if she did intend to hug him. But at that, she abruptly changed course, crossed the distance to Vesk in three long strides, and punched him hard in the stomach.

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