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The swell of darkness deposited her at the very edge of the plateau, and she immediately dropped to a crouch, grimacing and trying to get her bearings despite the unpleasant prickle of magic. It was everywhere here, the divine and fae—both the schools of power that sought to erase her just by existing.

Xyraadi instinctively wove a net about herself to push back against the forces gnawing at her, igniting a barely visible corona of light in her vicinity. The plateau ahead of her was dotted with old structures that looked to be on the verge of falling apart. Apparently Mortimer had been right; the Order of the Light in this century must be teetering on its last legs if it allowed one of its most sacred sites to look like this. It actually didn’t look as if anyone was here, or had been in decades.

But there was the Great Tree, rising in the near distance from the spot where the Maw itself had once been opened. She had never been here before, obviously, but the Tree had been ancient even in her time, famously grown from a sprig of the World Tree found deep within Naiya’s domain of the Deep Wild. Even at this distance, the wind in its leaves seemed to whisper. Xyraadi had the very distinct impression that the Tree was unhappy to see her here.

“As it ever was,” she murmured, raising her hands with fingers spread to cast a spell circle around herself. “Let’s all kill the nice demon who’s trying to help, can’t let any of the rest of them get the idea they might be able to turn against the Dark Lady. That would be just awful.”

Three concentric rings of light solidified about her at waist level, marked with indicator arrows; they shifted and swayed like the needle of a jostled compass before settling down to point in the general direction of the Tree, helping her home in on what she had come here to find.

“All right, then,” Xyraadi murmured to herself, taking two cautious steps forward.

That was when a streak of orange fire burst upward from behind one of the structures ahead, and she froze. The fireball ascended straight up before spreading her wings and slowing.

“Zut alors,” Xyraadi whispered, staring up at the archdemon who was now staring at her. “Why did it have to be that one?”

Vadrieny let out a piercing shriek that echoed from the mountains all around and hurled herself forward in a dive.

“Wait!” Xyraadi shouted, waving her hands overhead. “Truce! I’m a fr—”

She didn’t take the risk of waiting to see whether the force of fire and claws shooting at her planned to break off at the last second, instead shadow-jumping a few feet away. She still felt the hot breeze stirred up by the archdemon’s passing.

Vadrieny banked skillfully on one fiery wingtip, pivoting back around for another pass.

“My name is Xyraadi! I know—”

This time she jumped a good twenty feet distant to evade the next diving attack.

“Would you cut that out?” she exclaimed as Vadrieny recovered and swooped widely around for another pass. “I want to talk! In the name of Avei, truce!”

Arcane magic prickled nearby and by sheer instinct she reached out with one hand and clawed it away.

“Rude!” exclaimed a shrill little voice, followed by a swell of nauseating fae energy and then a barrage of icicles.

Xyraadi melted them before being shredded by their wicked points, shadow-jumped again to evade another swooping attack by Vadrieny, and sourly reflected that this was going about as well as she’d dared hope. On the one hand, her reflexive dismantling of whatever that arcane spell had been might have saved her life, but on the other it probably counterindicated her claims to have come here in peace.

She still couldn’t see who had cast either that or the fae ice spell, either. Nor could she detect any invisibility nearby.

Then a white ball of light darted past, momentarily more visible against an old stone wall than it had been against the daylit sky, and she narrowed her eyes.

A pixie?

“Truce!” she shouted again. “Would you please listen—”

Vadrieny’s screech cut her off, and Xyraadi thought very seriously about just knocking the archdemon out of the sky. She could definitely do that; it wouldn’t even harm her. Damaging a creature like that was beyond her power, but messing up her flight path wouldn’t be difficult. But that would be the unequivocal end of any conversation.

“I DO NOT HAVE TIME FOR THIS!” she shrieked, jumping yet again to evade a wide-area blast of ice. “I NEED YOUR HELP!”

Hoofbeats approached with astonishing speed, and she resignedly whirled to face whatever the new threat was.

The new threat looped around her, though, waving his scythe in the air and not at her. Between the scythe, that green coat and especially the shadow-wrought mare on which he rode, Xyraadi had to admit that Gabriel Arquin cut a dashing figure.

“Stop! It’s okay!” he yelled. “She’s a friend, we know her!”

More hoofbeats, and she took the risk of stopping her evasive maneuvers to turn and see. Trissiny’s silver-armored steed was not as fleet or nimble as Gabriel’s, leaving her a few seconds behind.

“This is Xyraadi, we met her over the summer!” Trissiny shouted at the sky, as both paladins guided their mounts closer to hover protectively around her. “She’s a long-standing ally of the Sisterhood.”

“And she saved my butt,” Gabriel added. “Plus all my other parts.”

“Well, okay,” squeaked the tiny ball of light, drifting over to hover near Gabriel. “But she messed up my barrier spell pretty hard. That did not feel good! Have you ever had a a spell you were shaping torn apart mid-invocation? That crap stings!”

“Well, if you were doing magic at her, what do you expect?” Gabriel asked, grinning.

“Wait a moment,” Xyraadi exclaimed. “Was that pixie doing arcane magic?”

Then Vadrieny hit the ground right in front of her, talons sinking into the ancient stone with an unsettling crunch. The archdemon folded her arms but not her wings, staring mistrustfully.

“I suppose it really shouldn’t surprise me that you two managed to befriend a khelminash sorceress,” she said, her voice like a choir. “Are you absolutely sure she’s trustworthy? Her people are among my mother’s staunchest allies.”

“She’s earned my trust,” Trissiny said firmly. “Xyraadi, are you all right?”

“I haven’t been incinerated, thank you for asking,” she replied, straightening her robe. “So this has already gone better than I anticipated.”

“I assume something seriously urgent is happening if you came looking for us here, of all places,” Gabriel said, soothingly patting his mount’s neck. The shadow-maned mare was clearly not pleased by Xyraadi’s presence, turning to snort angrily at her with ears laid flat back.

“Yes, exactly,” Xyraadi agreed quickly. “I will explain as much as I can, but we have not the luxury of time. Ninkabi is under severe threat and we urgently need the aid of paladins…” She looked quickly between Vadrieny and the pixie. “…plus whoever else you trust to help.”

More figures were approaching, led by, of all things, an elven woman with black hair wearing bronze Avenic armor. And, to Xyraadi’s surprise, a crow, which lit on the ground nearby and suddenly wasn’t a crow anymore.

“Xyraadi,” she said, tilting her head. “I confess, I never expected to see you again.”

“Kuriwa,” she answered warily. “Still alive, then? Well…good. The more help, the better.”

“Help for Ninkabi,” said the other elf, coming to a stop beside the Crow. “Just out of curiosity, have you been spending any time in Veilgrad recently?”

Xyraadi blinked twice in surprise. “Now, how in the world did you know that?”

Trissiny heaved such a heavy sigh that her armor rasped softly. “Locke, I have a feeling we may be about to break the terms of our field trip and leave the area.”

“I am struggling to contain my astonishment,” Locke answered with a grimace that did not look surprised in the least.

Toby pushed forward out of the gathering crowd, giving Xyraadi a welcoming smile that quickly faded into a more serious expression. “Let’s let her speak, everyone, she took a serious risk by coming here. Xyraadi, how bad is it?”


She set them down in the same nondescript alley where they had originally confiscated Kheshiri’s reliquary from Shook, and immediately it was clear that things were already worse than expected.

The first sounds to greet them were screams and wandshots, prompting Hesthri and Jonathan to raise weapons and shift into a triangular formation with their backs against Natchua’s.

“Oh, this is bad,” Natchua muttered, raising her head and narrowing her eyes in concentration. “I can feel… Kheshiri, get a look at the immediate area.”

The succubus shifted to invisibility even as she unfurled her wings, shooting upward and ruffling their clothes with the backdraft.

“No organized resistance near here,” Jonathan muttered, squinting at the mouth of the alley. “I hear staff and wand fire, but just piecemeal. Soldiers would fire in a volley. Natch?”

“There are demons everywhere,” she whispered, her eyes now closed in concentration. “Plus… Fuck. We were right. Multiple open hellgates. Omnu’s breath, there are so many I can’t focus enough to count them. Plus…”

She opened her eyes and turned, the others instinctively pivoting to keep their formation intact. That left all of them looking directly at blank walls, but no one relaxed.

“There’s something big happening in that direction,” Natchua stated. “I think… It’s not a hellgate, exactly, but it’s putting off energy that’s similar enough but distinct. I think someone is trying to summon something. Something large, and powerful.”

Kheshiri popped back into view, hitting the ground just behind them. “This is bad, mistress. This city is under a full-scale invasion. It’s not just randos fleeing from Hell through the gates, either, I saw khelminash in formation on those flying discs of theirs.”

“Flying discs?” Jonathan exclaimed.

“Battlefield superiority,” Hesthri murmured. “Three warlocks on a mobile platform, raining spells from above.”

“Plus,” Kheshiri continued, “khaladesh troops, also marching in formation rather than rampaging around. These are Elilinist forces, and they’re organized. But, there are also some of the other kind; just in this area I saw khaladesh fighting with ikthroi and shadowlords.”

“They brought their feuding here?” Natchua breathed. “Oh, no, I do not think so. Well, Kheshiri, seems your big idea about this all being a trick was way off the mark.”

“I maintain my reasoning was sound,” the succubus said, scowling, “but yep, I obviously called that one wrong. Mistress, there is just plain nothing we can do about this mess. No matter how big and bad a warlock you are, this will require organized forces to clean up, lots of them. We need to get out of here.”

“You will shut your mouth and do as you’re told,” Natchua snapped. “Did you get a look at the cathedral?”

“Yes, the spire’s visible from here,” Kheshiri said, her tail lashing in agitation. “That’s going to be an even tougher nut to crack than we thought, because the Dark Lady’s followers had the same idea. The biggest concentrations of them are converging on that area.”

“Typical,” Natchua muttered. “Well… I guess I owe you two yet another apology. After all that, instead of going after Elilial herself… I’m sorry, but I have to do something here. I have to.”

“Natchua, you might just be the most ridiculous person I’ve ever met,” Hesthri said fondly, looking over her shoulder. “Imagine, apologizing to us for dropping your crazy revenge to protect people.”

“It does seem like a sudden waste of a lot of preparation,” Kheshiri commented.

“Oh, shut up,” all three of them chorused.

“Right, that’s enough standing around,” Natchua added. “Charms on, weapons up. Kheshiri, stay invisible and reconnoiter; kill any demons you have an opportunity to assassinate without risking yourself, but focus on watching our perimeter and bring me any new information that comes up.”

“That’s why they pay me the big bucks,” Kheshiri said sourly, then shot upward and faded out again.

Natchua strode boldly out of the alley into an ongoing firefight, the others flanking her.

Immediately, arcs of lightning flashed across the street in front of her as one woman in a police uniform rapidly retreated, firing her service wand fast enough to risk overheating it. The gnarled, sinewy black shapes of shadowlords already lay smoking on the street, thanks to her and a man with a battlestaff leaning out the door of a nearby pawn shop, but at least a dozen more were still upright and charging forward, their attention grabbed by the show of resistance.

As the trio emerged from their landing alley, a squad of khaladesh demons, graceful and deceptively dainty humanoid figures with clawed feet, thick tails, and curling horns, charged out of a side street and right into the rabble of shadowlords.

Both armed humans, and now a third from a second-story window, continued firing indiscriminately into the ensuing melee, at least until Natchua put a decisive stop to it.

She gestured upward in a lifting motion with both hands, fingers clenched into rigid claws, and an entire forest of bruise-colored energy tendrils sprang out of the very pavement, entangling every brawling demon on the street. Natchua lifted them twenty feet into the air and then slammed the lot back down so hard their bones shattered. The shadow tentacles didn’t stop there, ripping straight through their victims as they vanished back into the ground and leaving them strewn about in pieces, which immediately began to disintegrate into charcoal.

“Holy shit,” exclaimed the policewoman, turning to point her wand at Natchua.

“You need to get people inside,” Natchua barked. “Gather up whoever you can and retreat to a defensible position. Fight only if you must! Demons are pathologically aggressive, and will be drawn to attack anybody who’s violent. Try to hide as many people as you can rescue.”

“Who the hell are you?” the officer shouted back, not lowering her wand.

“The lesser evil,” Natchua said, and turned her back to look down the street in the other direction. “I gather that’s where the cathedral is.”

She could see flying platforms like Hesthri had described, each with three slender figures balanced atop it. They seemed to move in triangular wedges of three platforms each, and dozens were converging on the spire of Ninkabi’s cathedral from the air. Down the street right in front of her, another small company of khaladesh rounded a corner and began moving in their direction. In addition to the khelminash warlocks, the sky was cluttered with the sinuous forms of katzil demons, diving into clusters of buzzing hiszilisks and scorching them to char with gouts of green fire.

“The succubus called it: that’s a much bigger mess to wade into than we were expecting,” Jonathan noted, raising his staff to point at the khaladesh now loping toward them. “Still wanna try for it?”

“Yes…just not yet,” Natchua decided. “It’s not impossible, it’s still the primary target, but we need Xyraadi and the paladins. And the rest of their group; that entire class are serious heavyweights. Let’s hope she can find them quickly.”

She moved her hands in front of her body as if shaping a globe out of clay, and in the space between them a single point of light sparked into being. Natchua abruptly jerked her arms to both sides and it shot forward, bursting alight and casting off beams of white light in all directions as it sped right at the oncoming demons. They tried to break ranks and dodge, but not fast or far enough; it struck the street amid their formation in an explosion that left a crater and seared fragments of khaladesh strewn about the street.

Natchua turned and pointed in the opposite direction. “That way, toward the front gates of the city. See those flying khelminash? I don’t know what they’re trying to conjure up, but I’ll bet putting a stop to it is a good use of our time.”

“We’re right behind you,” Hesthri promised.

They set off up the street at a run, cutting down stray demons with lightning and shadowbolts on their way toward whatever the greater evil was.


Branwen, to the surprise of the rest of them, was the first to step out into the square.

She paused, the others clustering behind her, to take in the scene. Pillars of fire decorated the skyline in ever direction, and from all of them demons were emerging, either swarms of wasp-like hiszilisks or sinuous katzils. There were no other portal altars within view, denying them the sight of whatever land-bound demons were coming out, but even those had already made it into the square.

Ninkabi had been on high alert, which was the only reason the carnage was not a complete massacre. Even the heavier-than-usual police presence was quickly being overwhelmed by ikthroi and shadowlords streaming out of several side streets piecemeal. Fortunately, the two types of demons seemed to pause and attack each other as often as not, but even so, there were already bodies lying on the pavement, and swooping katzils were making it difficult for the police to organize.

Branwen threw out her hand, and a streamer of golden light flew forth, lashing out to wrap around the neck of a passing katzil. It hissed and bucked as she hauled it down to the ground, but stilled upon being drawn into arm’s reach.

“Shhh, shh,” Branwen soothed, actually patting the demon on its beak. She continued to stroke the infernal animal’s scales as the loop of holy magic shifted, forming a collar that hovered about its neck without touching. Then she took one step to the side and gestured again, and her snared katzil shot upward, where it began making wide passes around the front of the historic trading guild hall, where beleaguered officers were trying to herd civilians inside. Bursts of green fire incinerated any other demons trying to get too close.

“Did you ever get around to more than the basic holy summoner training, Antonio?” she asked.

“Not to the point of actually summoning, but I think I remember how that trick goes,” he said, throwing out another tendril of light and seizing a katzil that was in the process of fleeing from Branwen’s thrall. This one struggled more as he reeled it downward. “Vanessa, get out of here.”

“You want to send the warlock away?” Khadizroth asked pointedly.

“Now’s a good time for the Wreath to do what they do,” Darling grunted, still struggling with his quarry. “We’d best stay here and help, but they need to be hunting down and closing those damn gates! Unless you can shadow-jump, K, that’s a job of the highly mobile casters who can sense demon magic directly.”

“You’re right,” Vanessa said bitterly. “I don’t know how much we can do about this, but Embras will have more information. You three… Try not to die.”

Shadows gathered and whisked her away.

“Demons will be drawn to whatever resists them the most fiercely,” Khadizroth stated, striding forward into the square. “The trading hall seems a serviceable place to hide the civilians, as the police have already discovered. Therefore, we shall draw attention elsewhere. Come.”

“Yes, sir,” Darling drawled, finally getting his demon under control. He hadn’t done this since the attack on Tiraas, but the divine spell worked just as well as it had then. Unfortunately, a katzil was about the most potent type of demon he was able to control, and the holy summoner who had instructed him had warned that a skilled warlock or spellcasting demon would be able to disrupt his link, and if he lost control of a thrall it was likely to immediately attack him with near-suicidal rage.

He and Branwen flanked the dragon, directing their katzils to sweep the surrounding area clear of shadowlords and ikthroi, while Khadizroth casually hurled glowing leaf-pods to the ground which caused the spectral shapes of animals to burst into being. Though they looked fragile, they were constructs of pure fae magic, and the stag, bear, and lion he summoned immediately tore into the nearest demons with devastating effectiveness.

Unfortunately, the three of them were drawing more attention. The western edge of the square was a broad flight of steps down to another, lower square on the next level of the city as it descended toward the first waterfalls. Something was clearly happening there; flying discs carrying khelminash sorceresses were moving in a slow circle, their warlocks directing streams of orange spellfire into some working they were creating on the paved area below. They clearly did not welcome the kind of intrusion a dragon and two priests represented, as a whole company of khaladesh demons immediately surged up the stairs and charged at them.

Khadizroth continued calling up spirit animals to harry the miscellaneous demons on the upper square as he led the way further from the trading hall. As he had predicted, most of the demons already up there were now following them.

Unfortunately.

There was a sufficient concentration that even the fae workings he’d left were beginning to vanish; despite being an excellent counter for demons, they clearly were as fragile as they appeared, and the infernal-addled beings now on the attack did not hesitate to throw their lives away piling onto the translucent shapes. The sheer numbers were overwhelming them.

“Not to overwork you, Khaddy,” Darling grated, guiding his katzil to strafe the front line of khelminash closing on them, “but we could use something bigger…”

“Try to buy me time,” the dragon ordered.

They managed to decimate the first line of the attackers with aerial fire before the next rank harpooned both katzils to the ground. Their golden chains flashed out of being upon the demons’ death. Darling and Branwen exchanged a flat look, and both of them lit up with divine shields. All around them, the last four remaining spirit animals trampled the last of the loose ikthroi; their cousins had managed to deplete a good five times their number, but now both sides of the melee were almost exhausted.

Khadizroth was busy drawing a spell circle on the pavement with a leafy branch he had pulled out of nowhere. Branwen planted herself in front of him; Darling drew his wand and fired shot after shot into the khaladesh, which only seemed to make them madder.

A bare three yards before the charging demons piled into the priests’ shields, Khadizroth paused in his work to gesture. Cold wind rose around them, suddenly carrying with it bladelike autumn leaves, and ripped into the phalanx. The fae-driven leaves tore through flesh and armor alike, slaughtering the demons even as the wind bowled them bodily over backward.

In seconds, the entire force was decimated.

“I feel like we’re redundant here,” Darling commented to Branwen.

“You are not,” Khadizroth replied before she could, already back at work on his circle. “Every second I am distracted from this is precious. Damn Kuriwa and her curse, but I cannot work as fast as I should.”

“We’ll be…oh, bollocks,” Branwen cursed uncharacteristically.

The next wave to charge at them was only five demons, but these were a good eight feet tall, writhing masses of tentacles and heavy pincers stomping forward on heavy legs.

“Well, hey, smaller numbers’ll be easier for us to block, as long as the shields hold,” Darling said lightly, shooting one of the things twice. The wandshots slowed it, but that was all. He couldn’t even see its face, if it had one. “I don’t suppose you can command this particular caliber of ugly?”

“Khroshkrids,” she said curtly, “and no. Try to burn that one down before they get here; I think we can stop four with our shields alone. They hit hard but are not very durable.”

Indeed, the fifth wandshot made the targeted khroshkrid stumble to one knee, and two more caused it to slump over, twitching. Unfortunately, even before the rest reached them, another squad of khaladesh topped the stairs at a run.

Darling gritted his teeth, pouring energy into his shield in anticipation of the impact of tentacles and claws. Even with the intermittent pace of reinforcements from the khelminash up ahead, they were soon going to be overwhelmed just by sheer numbers. “K, may need to interrupt you again—”

Of all things, a white wolf dashed past him. Then another, and suddenly there were over a dozen of them swarming forward, great glowing beasts which charged fearlessly at the hulking demons.

“Oh…kaaay,” Darling said, blinking. “I don’t get it, but I’ll take it.”

He had never actually seen wolves take down large prey in the wild, but these clearly fae beasts showed how the power of the pack was more than a match for a moose or bear. They snarled and lunged, distracting and infuriating the demons while others dashed in behind to hamstring and bring them down.

Then one of the wolves about to be trampled flashed white and became a slim young woman with short dark hair, planting herself in a kneeling position with one arm upraised. A divine shield flashed into place around her, as well as a hardlight construct in the shape of an Avenic shield in her grasp. Both shields soaked up the blow of the descending pincer; she didn’t even flinch. It created the opportunity for two more wolves to flank the khroshkrid, savaging its legs to pull it down, and then another wolf flashed as it approached at a run, changing to the shape of a woman with pale green hair who rammed into it with her shoulder.

Under the dryad’s onslaught, the demon was utterly pulverized, its fragments already drying to charcoal as they sprayed the oncoming khaladesh behind.

Then more people were darting past Darling from the city’s open gates, a mixed group of cloaked Rangers and Huntsmen of Shaath, skidding to a halt to draw bows.

The first volley of arrows ripped the oncoming khaladesh apart. By the time they’d fired a second volley, the attackers were done.

One particularly large white wolf loped up, changing to human form as it approached. A form Darling recognized.

“Antonio,” Ingvar said with a grim smile. “I am surprised at how unsurprised I am to find you in the middle of this.”

“I get blamed for everything,” Darling complained. “Ingvar, I’ve got a rousing chorus of ‘what the fuck’ I wanna sing you later, but for now I am just damn glad to see you and all the rest of this…I don’t even wanna know, do I?”

“What exactly is the situation here?” Ingvar asked, turning to scowl at the flying khelminash sorceresses.

Two wood elves, one with a goatee and the other with short black hair, had also approached; the bearded one spoke. “Lord Khadizroth, if we might assist?”

“Please,” the dragon said fervently. Both stepped up beside him, raising hands and adding streams of pure fae energy into the glyphs he was embossing on the pavement.

An arcane sparkle in the air heralded the arrival of an Imperial strike team, led by a mage who took one look at the situation and shouted, “What in shit’s name?!”

“Hellgates,” Branwen reported. “Lots of them.”

“Well, that explains it, all right,” said Tholi. “This looks to be a challenging hunt, Brother.”

Everyone whirled, the various hunters raising weapons, as the shadows swelled out of nowhere right next to them, but what materialized was Vanessa, along with Grip, Thumper, Vannae, Schwartz, Jenell, Flora, and Fauna.

“Omnu’s balls, you were not kidding,” Thumper stated, drawing his wands and staring at the nearby demons. Vannae immediately scurried over to join Khadizroth and the other elves, followed a moment later by Schwartz.

“Young lady, I thought I told you to go find your fellow warlocks,” Darling said severely to Vanessa.

“Luckily for you, old man, you’re not the boss of me,” she replied with a thin smile. “I told you three not to die, and as I expected, you were doing a piss poor job of it. Here are your buddies; try to manage a little longer this time, cos this is all the reinforcements you’re getting.”

She sketched a mocking salute and shadow-jumped out.

“I like her,” Grip remarked. “Prolly gonna end up punching her teeth out before all this is settled, of course.”

“Incoming,” the warlock attached to the strike team reported in a clipped tone. Another phalanx of khaladesh was topping the stairs, this one much larger. Hunters drew arrows again and the four Imperials readied spells.

Before they could attack, the demons were hit from the rear by something which exploded with the force of a mag cannon burst. Khaladesh were hurled into the air like dolls, those who weren’t incinerated outright in the initial impact. Only those at the edges of the formation survived, but as quickly as they regained their footing and tried to turn on their attackers, they were felled by a barrage of staff fire and shadowbolts.

Whatever had dared to skirt their formation finally drew the full attention of the khelminash sorceresses, and one platform broke from the group, the warlocks turning to pelt the area with fireballs.

Their platform was seized by a single giant tentacle of shadow-magic which sprang up from the ground below and yanked it out from under them, then while all three plummeted screaming to the ground, whipped about to smack it against the next in the formation.

While the warlocks were forced to turn and subdue that, three figures dashed up the stairs, hesitating only momentarily before making a beeline for the group assembling around Khadizroth.

“Hold,” Ingvar called, raising one hand. “These don’t smell of enmity.”

“Excuse me, they don’t fuckin’ what?” Thumper demanded.

The drow woman in the lead waved frantically at them as she approached, the staff-carrying man and woman behind her half-turning as they ran to take potshots at the khelminash.

“We have to stop them!” Natchua shouted. “Whatever fairy magic you’re doing here, pour it into the middle of—”

She broke off, whirled, and reached out with both hands, just in time. One of the khelminash trios had just conjured up a carriage-sized ball of fire and hurled it in their direction. Natchua swept her hands to one side, and it veered off course to slam into the unoccupied middle of the upper square.

“What?” Captain Antevid demanded. “What are they trying to do?”

It seemed the khelminash had decided to suspend their operations, though, and most of the flying discs broke off, coming in their direction. A dozen points of multicolored light appeared around them as infernal spells were gathered.

“Khad, now would be a good time!” Darling shouted.

“Yes,” Khadizroth agreed, striding into the center of his meticulously-arranged spell circle while Schwartz and the elves backed hastily away. The dragon stomped one foot upon the spiraling central rune.

Seven tree trunks of luminous white wood sprang from the ground all around him, shooting upward and bending in the middle to twine into a single colossal tree. It shot skyward, branching out in all directions and spreading its canopy over the entire square. Pale green light shone from the white tree’s fern-like leaves, filling the air with a healing, floral scent and the soft sound of whispers.

At the sheer intensity of fae magic which roiled out across the square, the incipient attacks of the warlocks fizzled, the foremost disc wobbling and then careening drunkenly to the ground to crash against an abandoned carriage. The woman with Natchua gasped and buckled to her knees, clutching her chest, and as the drow and Jonathan whirled to catch her, a flickering outline of another person intermittently betrayed itself behind them.

“Hey, is she okay?” Branwen asked, raising one hand. “I can—”

“No!” Natchua and Jonathan shouted in unison.

“That is a demon, wearing an arcane disguise charm,” Khadizroth stated. “Hethelax, I believe. Hello, Kheshiri.”

Shook’s head snapped around. He clenched his fingers on his wands, but pressed his lips together into a line and said nothing.

“Excuse me,” said Schwartz, “but at this point I’d say we’ve worked with enough friendly warlocks—well, maybe not friendly, but clearly allied…”

“Yes, I concur,” Khadizroth said, nodding and raising a hand. Immediately Kheshiri’s outline vanished again and Hesthri straightened up, gasping for breath. “My apologies. We are in no position to turn away any potential allies, I fear. This tree will buy us a moment of sanctuary, but by the same token it makes this spot a target, and I cannot say with certainty how long it will last against a prolonged assault. We must use this time to formulate a plan.”

“Hey, you guys should really see this,” called Jenell, the only one among the growing group clustered under the dragon’s tree who was turned to face Ninkabi’s front gates instead of the beleaguered city beyond them.

Being mounted, Trissiny and Gabriel were the first to arrive, with Vadrieny and Yngrid swooping in above while Fross darted about the paladins. Behind them came the rest of their class at a run, accompanied by Principia and Merry in full armor, lances at the ready.

“As I live and breathe,” Darling cackled. “Hey! I thought you lot were on vacation!”

“Dunno whatcher talkin’ about,” Billie called back, riding on McGraw’s shoulders as their group brought up the rear. “This here’s where the demon invasion is! What the hell did ye think was my idea o’ fun?”

Mary fluttered down to settle on Darling’s shoulder, where she ruffled her feathers and croaked in irritation.

“You said it,” he replied sympathetically.

“Somehow, your Grace, it just ain’t a surprise to find you here,” McGraw drawled. “Really seems like it should be, but it is not.”

“Why do people keep saying that to me?”

“People have met you,” Grip replied.

“General!” Khadizroth called, striding forward out of the group toward the new arrivals, ignoring Juniper and Aspen as they ran squealing right past him to hug.

“Holy shit, is that guy a dragon?” Ruda asked.

“These hellgates are conjured through some highly improvised combination of necromancy and modern enchanting equipment,” Khadizroth said, ignoring her and fixing his attention on Trissiny. “Each is beneath one of those columns of fire. They are numerous, but fragile, and highly unstable. We’ve found that destroying the altars to which they are synced on this plane will cause a backlash that destroys the other side as well. So long as we reach them all before they stabilize and become permanent, we can shut all of this down.”

“Thank you,” Trissiny said, nodding to him. “That’s the best news I could hope for. Natchua! Xyraadi says you know something about the source of this?”

“There’s an ancient facility under Ninkabi’s central cathedral,” Natchua called, striding forward through the crowd. “Apparently there’s some kind of sealed hellgate there. We think that’s where the Tide cult that created this mess is concentrated. So do the demons; a lot of them are heading in that direction.”

“Will shutting that down shut all of this down?”

“It is far too late for that,” Khadizroth said gravely. “There are too many gates, and not all under Elilinist control. Before we can even begin cleaning up the demons, every one of these portals must be destroyed.”

“There are both Elilinist demons and various other factions coming through,” Natchua added. “Don’t get me wrong, there are no allies here. They all need to die. But they’re working on culling each other, which helps a little bit.”

“All right,” Trissiny said, turning Arjen to face the city and the stairs down to the lower plaza. “First things first…”

Before she could go further, the assembled flying khelminash began to chant, loudly enough to be clearly audible to those clustered under the tree. They spoke in alternating groups, one syllable each.

“KEL!”

“VRETH!”

“KEL!”

“VRETH!”

“Mes dieux, non,” Xyraadi groaned, pressing one hand against her forehead crest.

“Wait a second,” Branwen exclaimed. “They’re not saying—”

The chant rose, the assembled masses of khaladesh demons gathered below the flying sorceresses adding their voices. Around them, a sullen red glow had begun to rise from whatever the warlocks had been crafting upon the square.

“KEL!”

“VRETH!”

“KEL!”

“VRETH!”

“Kelvreth of the Eyes,” Vadrieny stated. “Elilial’s chief general. One of the greatest demons in existence.”

“Oh, good, that’s all,” said Weaver, deadpan. “For a sec I was worried.”

“ALL RIGHT!” Trissiny roared, raising her sword into the air and projecting above the noise. “I want three groups of highly mobile fighters to destroy those portals! Vadrieny and Yngrid take the north bank, strike team take the central island, Natchua’s group the south bank. You will move as quickly as you can from one portal site to the next. Shut them down, and only fight as much as you must to protect yourselves.

“We do not have the forces to contain the city or even gather up civilians—the best thing we can do is draw attention from them. Demons are compelled to attack anything which attacks them, so you will demand their attention! Hit every infernal thing you see with everything you have. No quarter, no hesitation, and maximum destruction! We will press west till we reach the cathedral, slaughtering every invader in our way, and drawing the rest to face us. The best thing we can do to protect the city is to buy the defenders time by forcing every demon to turn and face the most destructive force here: US.”

A tremendous pulse burst out from the lower plaza, sending a gust of wind and sheer kinetic energy across the city, pushing all of them bodily backward a half-step. The branches and leaves of the dragon’s tree rustled, whispering in protest.

Below them, a single, skeletal arm rose, by itself twenty feet in length, formed seemingly of gigantic iron bones bound together by pulsing green sinews. Its clawed hand came to rest upon the top of the stairs between the plazas, and the assembled demons’ chanting rose to a frantic pitch as they chorused Kelvreth’s name over and over.

“Tall fella, ain’t he?” McGraw said laconically, puffing on a cigarillo.

“Pushing ourselves against that will definitely suffice to gather their attention,” Shaeine observed, her expression eerily serene.

Hunters drew arrows, soldiers and enforcers readied weapons, casters of all four schools began charging spells, and a dozen wolves raised their melodic voices to howl a fierce counterpoint to the demonic chanting.

“We are not going to charge at the warlord of Hell,” Trissiny thundered, drawing her lips back in an animal snarl. She brandished her blade and burst alight, golden wings flaring. “WE GO THROUGH HIM!”

Arjen trumpeted as they galloped forward, and with a combined roar, the assembled forces with her hurled themselves into motion, charging into Ninkabi and straight into the teeth of Hell.

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15 – 59

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“Schneider says the spirits are still severely agitated,” said Captain Antevid.

“My witch reports the same,” Major Luger said more stiffly, shifting her focus to the two serene-faced Elders. “Considering that, as well as all the developments we’ve seen here, you’ll excuse me if I’m not ready to consider this entire matter settled.”

“For each matter settled this day,” Shiraki replied solemnly, “seven more shall arise in the days to come. Thy wariness serves thee well, soldier-priestess. But there are matters, and then there are matters.”

“What he means,” Sheyann interjected as the Major’s eyebrows lowered precipitously, “is that it’s likely to be a long time before there is an overall settling. The fae spirits through which power and information are channeled are living, feeling things. But not, in all circumstances, thinking things. Given the stress to which they’ve been subjected, they will be agitated for some time to come. The situation is less like ripples from a stone dropped in water than… A large flock of birds whose nesting tree had been struck by lightning.”

“Evocative,” Antevid said approvingly.

Sheyann glanced at him before returning her attention to Luger. “With all due respect to your respective witches, whose competence I have no reason to doubt, Shiraki and I have practiced our craft longer than the traditions in which you trained have existed. We can assure you that the source of this disruption has been pacified. In time, the spirits will reach a new equilibrium.”

“Didn’t sound a hundred percent pacified to me,” Luger grunted. “Now we have no less than the assurance of a god that he means to keep doing this specific thing.”

“A more specific thing, in fact,” Sheyann clarified. “He means to subject devoted Shaathists to visions of wolf pack behavior, like the Ranger ritual to do the same. Every night in their dreams. While I’m sure there will be vast repercussions from that, it is an entirely different class of event from insistent howling from everywhere in the world every night, accompanied by agonizing spiritual urges in everyone connected to the fae. This is now explicitly a Shaathist problem; everyone else may breathe easily again.”

Luger pursed her lips, glancing to the side. The group of elves and Imperials had remained under the shade of the trees, with the exception of Rainwood, who had joined the group of Ingvar’s new pack. In addition to the recently-transformed group of people he had brought with him, there were the remaining spirit wolves, who showed remarkable equanimity in the presence of so many humanoids. The Shaathists and Rangers were sitting around Ingvar on the grass, their numbers now mixing together instead of remaining separated by faction as they had been before, while he spoke and answered questions in a quiet voice which forced them to listen closely.

“It is, of course, your privilege to proceed in whatever manner you think best,” Sheyann added in a tone of gentle reproof, “but I cannot imagine what reason you think I might have to deceive you, Major.”

“Don’t henpeck, Sheyann,” said Tellwyrn. “Not that I don’t have my issues with stuffy military types, but not blithely accepting the dictates of foreign nationals on a mission’s status is just a case of being good at her job.”

“Appreciate the validation, Professor,” Luger said sardonically.

“For my part,” Tellwyrn continued, “I do accept your recommendation. Gods know I have plenty of personal observation that you’re both the best out there at what you do. If what’s been injuring my students and staff is done, I need to get back to them.”

“Yes, of course,” Sheyann agreed, nodding deeply to her. “By the same token, we should return to our grove. Even with the source pacified, these events placed great stress upon our shaman, especially the young learners. Our guidance will be needed.”

Tellwyrn smiled lopsidedly, raising an eyebrow. “Well, then! Can I offer you a lift home?”

“The offer is, as always, appreciated, Arachne,” Sheyann said with wry fondness. “But as this is no longer an actual crisis, I believe we can do without having our molecules dismantled again. With our own blessings we can be home by tomorrow. I judge that, now, to be sufficient haste.”

“Don’t be absurd, you don’t disconnect the molecules,” Tellwyrn said seriously. “That’d never work, you’d rematerialize as so much mud. The entire package is converted to data and moved via fundamental entanglement.”

“Thank you,” Sheyann said, affecting deep and solemn gravity, “for correcting me.”

Tellwyrn grinned, glanced one last time over at Ingvar and his various wolves, and just like that was gone, leaving behind only a faint puff of air filling the space she had been.

“Well, there she goes,” Antevid said lightly. “Before you also vanish, Elders, the Empire appreciates all your help. I’ll make sure ImCom knows the elves from Sarasio are good neighbors when the need arises.”

She inclined her head politely to him before turning to Shiraki, who was facing the clearing now. “Well, then, shall we?”

He answered softly in elvish, still watching Ingvar’s impromptu teaching session. “The restorative work should be minor; mostly, everyone will just need rest. Would you forgive me if I left it for you to handle, Sheyann?”

Sheyann turned fully to face him, replying in the same language. “You are right, and I would. What are you thinking, Shiraki?”

“I think,” he said, slowly and pensively, “I would like to stay, for a while, with this Ingvar and his…pack.”

“We are in the midst of a great general upheaval,” she reminded him. “As much as we butt heads, times of transition are when traditions and the conservative voices who speak for them are most important. This is an awkward moment for you to go tauhanwe.”

He gave her a sidelong smile. “A wise shaman bends with the wind; a fool demands that it part around him. I have made my case against involving ourselves with the world and others with our business, but that time has passed. And in truth, events have shown me that I was misguided.” Shiraki returned his focus to the group in the glade; Ingvar had beckoned one of the luminous spirit wolves to his side, and now had an arm around the creature’s neck in a light embrace, continuing to talk to his followers both established and new. “It is fatal to ignore what is happening in the wider world. And this, Sheyann, is happening. Someone should be watching where it goes. Not to mention that these puppies could perhaps benefit from the perspective of an Elder. Or do you really want Brother Ingvar to forge a new Shaathism with Rainwood as his only source of shamanic wisdom?”

That brought a soft laugh from her.

“I don’t suppose you speak elvish?” Lugar asked Antevid.

“It’s on my to-do list,” he said.

“Spirits gather,” Shiraki said abruptly in Tanglish. “Attend, something is—”

Ingvar had stepped away from the wolf next to him, and a pale glow coalesced upon him of light drawn seemingly from nowhere; it resembled the visible effect of shadow-jumping, but with moonlight instead of darkness. Like a shadow-jump, it dissipated immediately, leaving behind the great form of a white spirit wolf bearing an arrow mark on his face where the hunter had stood.

“What?” Antevid exclaimed, though softly. The rest of his team stepped forward to stare. “We just fixed that!”

Shiraki glanced at him, raising an eyebrow. “We?”

There was a similar reaction from the onlookers closer to the action, with many of the assembled humans scrambling backward. The other spirit wolves were unperturbed, however, and the rest of those who had previously been transformed all straightened up in unison, frowning as if suddenly considering a surprising new thought. Rainwood had bounded to his feet, and was now peering rapidly between Ingvar and the others in confusion.

The white wolf himself raised his head, turning to face the west with his ears alert. While the humans muttered among themselves, the wolves watched him closely.

Shiraki lightly touched Sheyann’s upper arm once, then walked forward into the glade at a serene pace.

Before he reached the group, the light coalesced again and left Ingvar once more restored to human form. He stood upright, still facing west with his eyes narrowed in concentration, but after a second jerked backward in surprise, blinking. The Huntsman turned to look at Aspen.

“Did I just…?”

“Yeah,” the dryad replied. “What I wanna know is how you did that?”

“Yeah, me too,” Rainwood added.

“Do you think we can all…?” November trailed off, turning to Rainwood, who shrugged.

“Sure am glad we’ve got this shaman here to share his understanding of the currents of magic,” Taka said solemnly.

“A transformation which cometh without will or warning is one triggered by outside effect,” said Shiraki as he paced into the group. Everyone turned to regard him, the gathered Rangers and Huntsmen shuffling aside to clear a path for the elf to Ingvar, who had fixed his full attention on him immediately. “The magic, it is clear, lies within thee, only the reaction was to another source. It may be that thou canst gain conscious control, but then, it may not. Thy circumstance is mingled of the powers of gods and fae, young hunter. Thou shalt learn more as must we all: through time and experience.”

“That’s very helpful, Elder, thank you,” Rainwood drawled.

Shiraki paused, turned to him, and spoke calmly in elvish. “I am neither Kuriwa nor the Elders of your home grove who tried to douse your spirit, young man. If you cannot direct your petulance elsewhere, please keep it leashed while we are trying to sort out matters of life and death.”

He returned his gaze to the now-bemused Ingvar, switching back to his archaic Tanglish. “Recall thy mind in the moments before it came over thee, Brother Ingvar. I saw no craft at work in this place, felt only the spirits around thee responding to a call from within.”

“You think if we can identify what caused it, we can learn whether it can be controlled?” Ingvar nodded slowly, his expression pensive.

“Perhaps,” said Shiraki. “Tis the first step, regardless. Though the Huntsmen are no ascetic creed, thou art trained at least somewhat in the arts of the mind. Still thy thoughts, feel thy breath, and seek back within to that moment, ere the memory fades.”

Ingvar nodded again and his expression turned inward, though he did not close his eyes. Everyone around grew still as well, watching him closely; Rainwood followed suit after a last, lingering scowl at Shiraki. The Elder, for his part, kept his gaze fixed on the contemplative Huntsman, though he did not fail to take note of the demeanor of this group of mixed Huntsmen and Rangers, the way they hung on his every word and now even on his silence, waiting for him to unravel another mystery for him. Though Shiraki had not spent overmuch time among humans in a handful of centuries, he had seen no shortage of heralds, prophets, teachers and charismatic troublemakers during his long life. They were a significant part of why he had not encouraged human visitors to his home grove.

What followed this, if it did not fizzle out abruptly, would affect the course of the world for great good or ill. Another reason it needed a guiding hand. If his people could no longer afford to ignore human progress, perhaps they should take part in shaping it.

“There was…a scent,” Ingvar said slowly, his eyebrows drawing together in concentration. “Except…not a scent. I feel,” he added, focusing on Shiraki’s face, “like the sensation was partly an effect of my mind trying to parse something for which it did not have terms or context.”

Shiraki nodded. “Thus is ever the way of those who reach beyond their ken; when not done in recklessness, tis a valued tool by which the shaman man perceive more of the world. Didst thy mind sense an ineffable touch whilst in the form of the wolf, tis likely ‘twould reach thee as a smell.”

“Then…you think it was a remembered scent, Elder?” he asked. “Something that would bring back the form of the wolf?”

“Scent is a powerful key to memory,” Shiraki agreed, nodding, “and memory a powerful key to an altered state, if it be one thou hast attained ere now. Mind, also, that thy powers are now granted at the behest of they god. If more gifts art thou granted, ’twill be for use in his service. Canst thou give a name to this smell?”

“Evil,” said Aspen before Ingvar could answer. “I remember it. While we were first in the wolf dream, that was the part where it started to go wrong.”

“I remember, too,” said Rainwood, frowning. “That was the tipping point. I was guiding their vision, but something reared up and sent them into a fury.”

“Well, that’s a little reassuring, I guess,” Tholi noted. “Here I was thinking you’d just done the ritual wrong.” Rainwood turned a scowl on him, but Dimbi barked a laugh.

“Peace,” Ingvar said, his voice firmly cutting off the burgeoning byplay. “I thank you, Elder, for your insight. This all makes perfect sense. While we must contend with the corruption existing within the cult of Shaath, that is simply a thing to be dealt with, not the reason we are called together. These events, this quest, cannot all have been for the sake of making politicians of us. Servants of the wild god are called to protect his realm. And something threatens it. As if…”

He raised his head again, narrowing his eyes in concentration, and the light gathered again. This time, Ingvar’s transformation into the white wolf brought murmurs from his audience, but no further panic.

The outcries began again, though, when there ensued another flash and where November had been sitting there was suddenly a golden spirit wolf with wing marks on her shoulders. The other members of the pack, those who had been normal gray wolves before the transformation and not changed back, stood and paced forward to join her and Ingvar; all of them were staring away to the southwest.

Ingvar growled once, and took a single step in that direction.

Swiftly but smoothly, Shiraki glided forward to block his path. “Patience, young wolf,” the Elder remonstrated. Ingvar straightened up, his ears perking forward in attention. “If evil rises, it must be answered, and shall be. Yet thou must not yield thy mind to instinct. Only with time will mastery come, but thou must gain a basic understanding of this gift before thou canst use it in the hunt. Rainwood and I shall lend our craft to thy aid. Attend, now.”

Some yards distant, under the trees, Major Luger turned to her fellow team leader while Shiraki continued calmly instructing the mingled wolves and humans. “Did you notice he was pointed in the same direction they were going when they got here?”

“Mm hm,” Antevid murmured, nodding. “Right at Ninkabi. Maehe’s from there.” Lieutenant Agasti pressed her lips into a thin line but offered no comment.

Luger nodded once in return. “I’m going to report all of this to field command while there’s a lull. I’d like you to stay on this group, Captain. This all looks calmer, but…not settled.”

“Do you actually think they can smell evil from halfway across the province?”

“These things are brand new, Antevid; we have no frame of reference for what they can do. All we know is they were set this way by a god of the Pantheon. And on that subject, ‘evil’ in the context of paladins and such usually refers to either demons or undead.”

“Ah, I think I follow you, Major. If they are going after a real target, not only is it important to verify their capabilities, but it’ll be a good idea to have some troops present in event of…evil.”

“I was more thinking I’ll feel better about this pack of madness charging into an Imperial city if they have a military escort.”

“That, too,” he said sagely.

“Thank you again, Elder, for your help,” Luger said politely to Sheyann. “Fall in, and take us out.”

Shadows coalesced around them, and they were gone.

While Antevid gathered his own team together, Sheyann continued to watch and listen as Shiraki walked Shaath’s new pack through the basics of a blessing that might unlock whatever potential their god had granted them.


“Natchua, un moment, s’il vous plait?”

“Sure,” Natchua said agreeably, then her eyebrows drew together. “Oh. Did you mean in private?”

Xyraadi hesitated, glancing rapidly around at the others. Though Sherwin and Melaxyna were absent, most of the household was in the manor’s broken great hall, where Jonathan and the hobgoblins were installing new floorboards. Natchua was perched on what remained of the stairs, watching, while Hesthri sat above and behind, gently kneading her shoulders with the fortified gloves covering her claws. Even Kheshiri was there, perched atop a ruined column with her wings spread to ruffle in the breeze, watching everyone as superciliously as a cat.

“No, I don’t think it will be a problem,” Xyraadi finally answered. “I am sorry to distract you, that’s all.”

Natchua smiled and leaned back against Hesthri, who in response shifted forward, pausing her massage to drape one arm around the drow’s neck and shoulders from behind. “No worries. What’s on your mind?”

“I would like to make a quick jump back to Ninkabi,” Xyraadi said seriously. “There’s something important I want to discuss with Mortimer.”

“I see,” Natchua murmured. “Well. Thank you for letting me know, but you don’t require my permission, Xyraadi. Just be careful. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what’ll happen if somebody spots a khelminash wandering about.”

“I hardly plan to wander,” she retorted with a wry smile. “Actually, I wished to inform you before going because I think this may be important. One of my wards near Second Chances was triggered, and I sent a pulse through it to see what happened. Natchua, I clearly detected the dimensional warping caused by a one-sided casting of an incipient hellgate in four places near the club.”

Natchua straightened up, as did Hesthri. Jonathan turned from the horogki to watch them, frowning and letting the hammer dangle from his hand.

“How certain are you?” Natchua asked.

“I am very confident of my spellwork, but this result is so…so very strange, I will not assume anything until I have looked more closely. You know as well as I that our infernal methods of divination are deeply imperfect. But Natchua, it is worse than that. To verify, I pulsed every ward of mine still intact around the neighborhood. I found no less than twelve such sites in Ninkabi, just in the relatively small area I was watching over. If these are hellgates, and if they are in the same concentration everywhere, there is nearly one per city block. Just waiting for someone on the other side to activate them.”

Natchua stood, gently caressing Hesthri’s arm while removing it. “Kheshiri, get down here.”

The succubus immediately launched herself into space, swooping down to land gracefully on the floor nearby. Jonathan also wandered over, and even the horogki paused in their work, watching the conversation unfold.

“Your team in Ninkabi was pursuing some kind of necromantic cult, right?” Natchua asked.

“Every word of that carries an implied ‘allegedly,’ but yes,” Kheshiri replied with a little smirk. “I know nothing of any hellgates, but the Tide did use shadow-jumping when we encountered them in Tiraas. They also summoned a few highly sophisticated undead constructs, and most of them were hopped up out of their gourds on some kind of alchemy. It seemed like mostly a horde of disposables under the command of a few people with magical skill.”

“Some of which, at least, was infernal,” said Natchua.

The succubus shrugged. “Shadow-jumping and dimensional mechanics are wildly different fields of study. Although…”

“Yes?” Natchua prompted impatiently when she trailed off.

“Well, this is conjecture, but both are only infernal-adjacent.”

“She is correct about that,” Xyraadi agreed. “Shadow-jumping uses only minor infernal craft in conjunction with shadow magic, and a dimensional portal of any kind is made through universal principles that are far easier to make with arcane than infernal methods.”

Natchua narrowed her eyes. “So…a mystery cult whose magical approach consists of dabbling in multiple fields could well be capable of both.”

“Conjecture,” Kheshiri repeated, “but yes, sure. Honestly, not to question Xyraadi’s skill, which I’m sure is impressive, I highly doubt whatever she detected were actually hellgates.”

“Ah, oui?” Xyraadi folded her arms and raised an eyebrow. “You have some deeper insight than I, after all?”

“Down, girl,” Kheshiri said, raising her hands in surrender even as she grinned. “My specialty is people, not magic, and the Tide are Justinian’s.”

“You’re sure of that?” Jonathan demanded.

“Well, the evidence is circumstantial, but pretty overwhelming. There is no record or trace of these assholes anywhere, which means they were trained in total isolation. Doing that with a drugged-up, highly equipped, well-disciplined secret cult capable of the kinds of maneuvers they’ve pulled would require a lot of resources. In the Empire, basically the only bodies capable of pulling that off are the Church, or the Empire itself, and last time I actually saw these guys, they were trying to assassinate the Emperor. So yeah, that’s Justinian. He’s not gonna open a bunch of hellgates in a major city.”

“If something like that happened,” Melaxyna said, emerging from the shadowed doorway to the hall, “not only would the Silver Throne lose an enormous amount of credibility for its failure to prevent it, but the cults and the Church would gain a great deal of position as they would definitely be called on to counter a demon invasion. Historically, Archpopes are a mixed bag, and I’m pretty recently free of Arachne’s charming little oubliette. Is this Justinian ruthless enough to do such a thing?”

A chilled silence fell.

“He’s… Well, yeah,” Kheshiri finally answered, speaking slowly as if contemplating while she talked. “Justinian is admirably unencumbered by scruples. But it’s not his style. Trust me, I’ve been working for this guy for the last two years, and he’s all about control. Every detail just so, with himself pulling every string from out of sight. A bunch of hellgates is the opposite of a controlled situation.”

“So you see,” said Xyraadi, turning back to Natchua, “I must go to Ninkabi. To do my own investigation, to ask Mortimer if he knows anything of this, and warn him if he does not.”

“Yes, quite right,” Natchua said briskly. “I’d like to come along, if you don’t mind.”

Bien sûr.”

“Actually,” Natchua added, “and I can already feel myself regretting this… Kheshiri, you know the situation on the ground. You come, too.”

The succubus grinned, and the explosion of delight in her aura was convincing. Not so much that Natchua didn’t feel the need to add a warning.

“My patience for antics from you is zero,” she stated, leveling a finger at Kheshiri’s face. “One wrong move…”

“Mistress, it’s me,” she purred. “I don’t make wrong moves. I guarantee you will be nothing but pleased with my performance in action.”

Again, the currents of emotion Natchua could read in the spells that made up her body and aura seemed to agree; there was eagerness, fondness, and a thin spike of ambition. It altogether felt more like happiness at the prospect of climbing in Natchua’s estimation than anticipation of some trickery. That did not mean she could relax her guard around the demon, though.

She glanced sidelong at Melaxyna, who she could likewise read, though not so clearly. She hadn’t spent nearly as much time examining those currents of magic, and besides, her pact with Mel was less formal and less coercive, which seemed to have an effect. At the moment, Melaxyna’s aura appeared wary, as it always did around the other succubus, though her expression was calm.

“All right. Xyraadi, if you would handle the jump, please? You are more familiar with the city than I.”

“Not by much—it is not as if I went sight-seeing. But I shall be glad to.” Xyraadi smiled and raised both hands in one of the grand but unnecessary gestures she liked to make when spellcasting. “Brace yourselves, ladies.”

“Be careful,” Jonathan said quickly as they clustered together.

“We’ll look after everything here,” Hesthri added.

Natchua gave them both a warm smile, then shadows swelled and they were gone.


It was hidden away in a culvert, where the constant damp had done the arrangement of bones and already-rotting meat no favors. The whole construction looked on the verge of collapse, or would have had there been anyone to see it. This supremely out of the way location served its purpose, however; the altar had not been found by anyone since being placed there. This close to the waterline, with Ninkabi itself rearing up from the top of the canyon high above, no one would even come here except city maintenance crews, and not only were none scheduled, their activities had been significantly scaled back due to a serial killer being loose in the city.

As such, there was also no one to see the faint trembling in the prominent rib bones poking upward from the construct, or the subtle flexing of nothing in the air above it, as though something were making an indentation upon reality itself.

The altar shivered.

A pale blue glow gathered in reflections upon the inside of the culvert, accompanied by the rapidly approaching sound of slapping feet upon the walkway outside. She skidded around the corner, the arcane bolt already formed around her hand; one abrupt gesture hurled it forward.

The bolt was overkill for this particular task; the altar was reduced to fragments and droplets by the impact, and a jagged hole blasted through the culvert itself.

She almost doubled over, panting, and then sank to the damp ground, letting her ax handle clatter on the stone as she leaned back against the wall to catch her breath. Running had not done her already disheveled appearance any favors; the homeless girl’s hair was plastered down with sweat.

Soon enough, in fact before she fully recovered her breath, she straightened, picked up the shaft of wood, and made a swirling gesture with her free hand. A wisp of green light sparked to life above it, bobbing in space for a moment before zipping off around the corner.

The girl sighed, but immediately set off after the wisp as it led the way to the next one.

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15 – 57

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As one, the gathered spirit wolves stood, raised their heads and howled in response. The mingled music of the pack and the wolf god filled the sky, both eerie and beautiful, and evocative of a moonlit night even under the sunlight.

“Back away,” Tellwyrn said, her voice just barely audible beneath the wolves’ song. She stepped out of the small activation circle and paced toward the edge of the clearing in deliberate, even strides. “All of you, give them as much space as you can.”

The other elves had already drifted into the trees, and at Tellwyrn’s order the rest of those gathered began to follow suit, retreating till they were all shaded under the foliage, just in front of the outer row of trunks where they could still see what was happening in the glade.

Even to those present not attuned to the fae, there was clear power in the cries of the wolves, especially those of Shaath himself. The sound shivered deep in the mind as it did in the air, resonating with emotions which defied naming and struck the watchers to their core. They gaped in pure awe, some with tears in their eyes, others wearing expressions of consternation, many seeming unsure how they felt as the call of Shaath heard from so close pulled them toward something they did not understand.

The god of the wild howled again and the spirit wolves edged closer, answering. For an instant his very presence burst across the glade like an explosion, causing both two- and four-legged watchers to flinch and one of the Rangers’ hound companions to yelp as if hurt, and then it receded, leaving the god with nothing more than the appearance of a great gray wolf.

“Wolves howl to find one another,” Brother Djinti whispered.

“They howl to answer any who howls first,” Sheyann replied just as quietly. “The instinct is primal.”

The Huntsman lodgemaster shook his head slowly, still staring into the glade at his god. “He howled first… As if he was looking for them. But they are right there. Why does he not growl? He should be asserting his dominance.”

“Because that’s not how it works,” Rainwood stated gently. “That is the point of all this.”

Shaath lowered his head, gazing across the clearing at the woods beyond. He did not focus upon any of the spirit wolves watching him; it was as if he didn’t see them. They fell quiet as well, gazing at the great one with their heads lowered and ears forward.

He flickered again; he was a giant presence of burning gold looming against the sky, and then a simple shaggy beast. The very air faltered around him, refracting light as if reality were unsure what its shape was. In the confusing haze, for just an instant, it seemed there was a man standing in the place where the wild good waited, but that was gone immediately.

His coat was now white and glowing like the spirit wolves around him, but free of markings. He raised his head, sniffing at the air, and it was a nondescript brown again. The spirit wolves edged closer, their body language inquisitive. Still, Shaath appeared not to see them, turning to stare in another direction at the horizon where a gap in the trees revealed it.

Light fluttered, dreamlike, blurring the sight of Shaath as though he were seen underwater, and he was suddenly standing several feet to one side, his coat a different plain pattern of gray and his size now rivaling that of a draft horse. Still the wild god appeared to notice nothing going on around him, not the cautiously approaching spirit beasts or the oddities attached to his own appearance. He sniffed the air again, then turned around to snuffle at the ground.

“What is wrong with him?” Djinti asked in a soft but anguished tone. “Is this your doing, Tellwyrn?”

“It is yours, Brother,” Arjuni said quietly.

Djinti finally tore his gaze from his god to glare at the Ranger leader, grasping the handle of the fae-blessed knife hanging at his belt.

“Not yours only, or specifically,” Arjuni added with a soft sigh. “Or that of your lodge alone. This is what the Huntsmen have done to their own god; this is Angthinor’s legacy. He is trying to be a man, a beast, and a lie, because that is what his people demand. Even a god will tear if pulled in so many directions.”

A muffled noise like a choked sob came from one of the assembled Huntsmen. All of them were tense as bowstrings, staring helplessly at their insensate and apparently disintegrating god.

As they watched, Shaath turned fully around and began meandering toward another side of the clearing, his form flickering back to a smaller size and then glitching to another spot again. A sun-like burst of his immense aura flashed across the forest, then vanished again. The spirit wolves milled about in confusion and apparent worry, while Shaath himself wandered blind and puzzled, resembling nothing so much as an old man lost to the grip of senility.

“He is leaving,” Djinti choked as the god meandered near the treeline. “You can call him, Tellwyrn! Please, call him back.”

“I earned the right to do that once,” she said softly, “and this was it. Gods and wolves don’t always come when summoned. He wasn’t like this before,” she added, her eyebrows drawing together in consternation. “Always the recluse, but he could at least talk… Of course, that was way back when. Before Angthinor.”

Djinti clenched his fists so hard they quivered, and took one step forward into the clearing.

“I wouldn’t,” Tellwyrn warned.

“I must,” he choked. “He has not done anything. He was meant to deal with this. If I can aid him…”

“How?” Arjuni asked.

He was spared having to answer by sudden moment from the glade. The arrow-marked white wolf who led the pack suddenly bounded forward, placing himself in front of the confused wild god. Shaath paused, sniffed in his general direction, then turned aside, taking a step to wander off again.

Ingvar hopped to the side, again blocking his way, and this time darted forward to clamp his jaws around one of Shaath’s forelegs.

Four of the assembled Huntsmen nocked and drew arrows.

“Do not!” Sheyann ordered, and for a wonder, they obeyed.

Shaath, meanwhile, had jerked back, the sensation of teeth on his leg finally getting through to him. He also flickered again, going pure white and then dappled gray, transitioning rapidly between a wolf and a discorporeal presence whose very proximity was an assault on all the senses before settling again, now again as a horse-sized wolf with a coat of golden bronze like rippling autumn sunlight. Finally, as if the touch of the spirit wolf had changed something in him, he truly looked like a wolf god.

Ingvar had released him immediately and bounded back, but rather than further aggressive action, he splayed his front leg across the ground and lowered his head to rest his chin on the earth between them, looking up at Shaath with his ears pricked forward.

The god finally appeared to see him directly, staring down at Invar with his head tilted quizzically.

“Is… Is he trying to play with Shaath?” one of the Rangers asked aloud in disbelief.

As if to answer, another of the spirit wolves ventured forward and suddenly nipped Shaath’s hindquarters.

The god of the wild emitted an undignified yelp and leaped, whirling in midair to face her.

The offending wolf, a smaller specimen whose coat ran in dappled shades of violent and blue, retreated and circled widely around him in a cantering gait clearly not meant to get anywhere quickly, her tongue lolling in a goofy expression.

“And that’ll be Taka,” Rainwood said, grinning.

Ingvar dashed around in front of Shaath again, distracting him from following Taka and placing himself almost under the much larger wolf, bouncing upward to nip at his vulnerable neck.

“He’s going to be obliterated,” Captain Antevid said in a fascinated tone.

“No,” Sheyann replied, smiling now.

Shaath’s great head descended, jaws wide and teeth exposed, ready to clamp around Ingvar in a grip that could have crushed his skull like a melon. But instead, Shaath let the smaller wolf rear up to meet him, their open maws fencing with neither quite clamping down. After a few moments of this, Ingvar dropped back to all fours, running a quick circuit of Shaath’s front paws that took him under the god’s body. Shaath reared up himself, pivoting on his hind legs, and to the amazement of those watching, took off at a run around the perimeter of the clearing.

Ingvar and Taka—and now, Aspen—all flew into pursuit, though they had no hope of outrunning a beast whose legs were taller than they. Shaath, though, slowed, his gait altering to a series of nearly vertical bounds of sheer exuberance that gave them plenty of room to catch up. He turned on them, knocking Aspen over with his head. She rolled onto her back, paws waving in the air, and Shaath bumped at her with his nose until Taka commanded his attention by nipping his tail. The god spun to chase her in a circle, clearly letting her get away.

One of the Huntsmen abruptly sat down in the grass. Rainwood began chuckling quietly to himself.

The onlookers remained where the were, not daring to break the spell by speaking up, while the rest of the pack took Ingvar and Shaath’s cue and swarmed over their god. Shaath bounded among them in clear delight, and an enormous game of tag ensued, the god of the wild leading the huge spirit wolves about as if they were puppies. They darted from one end of the glade to another, occasionally passing quite close to the onlookers but ignoring them, and incidentally wiping away most of the laboriously-drawn spell circles on the ground by rolling over them.

There were no rules to the game, just fun. Wolves would frequently break off from pursuing their big target to tussle lightly with one another in the grass. When Shaath himself finally flopped over on his side, and then rolled onto his back, Ingvar and several others clambered all over him. The wolf god’s head lay upside-down against the earth, panting with his exertion and his tongue lolling out half over his face in a truly ridiculous expression.

By that point, at least two Huntsmen were laughing, quietly but with a thin edge of hysteria. For a wonder, several Rangers had crossed the invisible boundary between them, kneeling beside the Shaathists and murmuring soothingly. The huge pet cat, apparently not much concerned with the giant spirit wolves nearby, was leaning comfortingly against a Huntsman who had huddled into a ball with his arms around his knees, purring.

Brother Djinti just stood, watching the wolves with his mouth slightly open. Arjuni stepped over to stand next to him in silence.

“The pack is a family,” Shiraki said softly. “Tis love that binds them, not force. Love is a greater command than any of fang or claw.”

Finally, after close to an hour, the wolves seemed to wear out their energy. Their scuffling became lazier, tending to consist of lying on their sides and idly trying to bite at one another without actually getting up. Shaath himself sat down while the others gamboled around him, and soon Ingvar followed suit, sitting beside him and leaning against one of the god’s legs. Aspen, Taka, November, and a few other wolves who were not so easily identified lolled at Shaath’s feet.

He raised his head again, not sniffing the air this time, but closing his eyes and seeming just to pause and feel the wind, the sunlight. Eventually, the rest of the pack grew still as well, turning to regard the wolf god in silence.

Shaath opened his eyes, lowered his nose, and looked directly into the shadows beneath the trees where the humans and elves waited, watching.

“Let any who are friends of the wild come forth.”

He did not move his jaws to speak, but there could be no doubt who was talking. His voice, though a light tenor, resonated through every breath of air and blade of grass. It could be felt in the bones as much as heard with the ears, though it was gentle.

Antevid and Luger exchanged a long look, and by unspoken agreement stayed right where they were, their respective squads also holding formation. The Huntsmen, Rangers, and elves all stepped forward into the sunlight at the god’s command, however.

“Arachne,” Shaath’s voice echoed through them again. “Always the meddler.”

“You are welcome,” she said pointedly, planting her fists on her hips.

Shaath dipped his head once in acknowledgment. “Debt between us is not settled. Though you invoked it in payment of my promise, this summons has been the greatest kindness I have been paid in uncounted turns of the seasons. I am still in your debt for this, Arachne. You are a good friend, prickly though you may be.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she said with a wry smile. “Anyway. I actually did call you here for a reason.”

“Yes.” Shaath lowered his head again, regarding Ingvar from close at hand. The white wolf gazed seriously up at him, a picture of calm. “This was awkwardly done, and went wrong. I empathize greatly with that, with the best intentions trapping a friend of the wild in a savage form, unable to think or remember the truth of who he is.”

Several of the Huntsmen had tears running down their faces now. Shaath turned his head to study them directly, and more than one flinched.

“Malice threatens the wild less than simple, selfish thoughtlessness,” said the god, his tone purely weary. “Recrimination is pointless. The harm you have done—all of you, those who claim to be my Huntsmen—was with the best intentions. And still there are so many. All believing lies, defending lies, imposing their madness upon the world. Upon the wild. Upon me.”

Slowly, he stretched is forelegs forward, lowering himself to a sphinxlike pose, and languidly blinked his eyes.

“I am tired,” the god announced. “Already I feel the fog pressing in upon me again. This was a pleasing reprieve, but it will not last.”

“Lord!” Djinti burst out, stepping forward. “How can we help you? What must we do? If we have wronged you, there is nothing we will not do to make amends!”

“But can you?” Shaath asked. He lifted his head again, nose to the wind. “We will see. I taste the madness of this magic on the air, nightmares cast through the realm of the spirits to plague the world. The howl of the wolf will rise every night until this is put to rest. But if it is simply wiped away, what shall become of me? If all returns to what it was, why should my followers stir themselves from their complacency?”

“We will not forget again!” Djinti swore. “Tell us your truth, lord, and by my blood and my soul, I will see it spread to the world.”

“You…will…see,” Shaath stated slowly. “Yes. You will see what happens when people are shown truth. You will see what marks people apart from the wild: what they do when faced with a truth they do not like. You will see what you have shown me all these years, the stubborn madness of those who seek to substitute their will for that of the world. I will not silence the howling.”

“Now, see here,” Tellwyrn began.

“Not completely,” Shaath clarified, turning to look at her. “This madness helps no one. I see how it has infected the flows of magic; that I can fix, and will. But while I am here, and lucid, and before it takes me again, I curse my people with the harshest fate I can: truth. All who presume to call upon my name will know the truth of the wolf every time they dream. All my Huntsmen will face what they have done, every night, until I can finally rest in truth. And you will see how many of them can bear it.”

He lowered his head completely to rest upon the ground, blinking again.

“If you would walk the way of the wild in truth, follow the one who is my true Huntsman. The brother who has sought to free me.”

There was no flash or fanfare, no display of magic that could be seen; suddenly, they were simply restored. Ingvar, Aspen, Taka, Tholi and November stood or sat closest to Shaath, with the smaller groups of younger Rangers and Huntsmen who had gone with them nearby, all human again and blinking in bemusement. The rest remained as they were, the wolf family who had joined them still pale as moonlight and marked with the colorful favor of the spirits they had invoked.

Ingvar knelt, wrapping his arms around Shaath’s great neck, and pressed his face into his bronze fur. As if at his signal, the others did likewise, coming forward to lean against or on top of the god until even his huge form was almost covered by their bodies.

“Thank you,” Shaath said, his voice already fading. “Thank you.”

Then they all stumbled to the ground, as he was gone.

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15 – 41

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The Shaathists were the last to arrive.

Ingvar had known in advance there would be three; the awareness was a constant tingle in the back of his mind, something to which he was not accustomed. There were six in his own party, and three Rangers had showed up. His learned sense of social and political rhythms combined with instinctive understanding of the balance inherent in nature, and a growing intuition he didn’t quite comprehend yet, to forewarn him of the shape of the thing forming before his eyes. Six of his own followers, six skeptical seekers, and the final party Rainwood had quietly told him was coming—also, he expected, six.

They were in the realm of the spirits, now. These things didn’t just happen. Ingvar was no shaman, could not speak directly to any invisible fae, but there was definitely something guiding him along.

Dimbi had brought two fellow Rangers, both older than she. So far, both Sha and Intima, as they had been introduced, had opted to remain silent and watch, leaving their more garrulous junior to do the speaking. Sha had kept the hood of the Ranger cloak up and clutched her longbow in front of herself as if for comfort, while Intima simply regarded everyone impassively, his broad features schooled into almost meditative stillness. Huge man that he was, a head taller than Ingvar and correspondingly broad, even that was vaguely menacing, but none of them had offered the slightest hostility. They were, after all, here. Had Dimbi or anyone she spoke to wished harm upon this endeavor, they could have just taken the story directly to their leader. Ingvar had to trust that they had come out of sincere curiosity, if only because suspiciously grilling them would just undercut what he was trying to accomplish.

Their location was not difficult to find for anyone remotely skilled in tracking; of the six of them, only Rainwood might have been hard to follow. Specifically wanting to be found, Ingvar had not troubled to walk with care once their daily hunting for necessary food was done, and they had left a veritable highway to this clearing. Now, in the center, there glowed a most unusual bonfire, created by the shaman’s craft from living branches piled with their still-green leaves emerging. The flame was white and put off no heat, but a steady glow not unlike the moon. Rather than the flickering glow of fire, it was as intense and even as a fairy lamp. The quiet blaze produced numerous little dancing lights, which one moment resembled nothing more than the sparks put off by any campfire except in clean white, and the next looked more like glowing butterflied fluttering under their own impetus, but fading from existence before they could be observed closely.

Shortly after full dusk, a lull had fallen, the Rangers exhibiting patience even as their expressions remained cynical; Ingvar had asked them to wait for the last arrivals before commencing the true purpose of this gathering. There was quiet, then, when the Shaathists emerged from the shadows of the trees.

Two of them Ingvar recognized as the youths who had accompanied three full Huntsmen previously, the Tiraan boy Samaan and another whose name he hadn’t heard. It was no surprise that it would be the young who were most curious and adventurous. Unexpectedly, though, they followed a man who was genuinely old, his hair fully white and his posture slightly stooped. He was a full Huntsman, though, carrying a blessed longbow and wearing both a bearskin cape and a bronze wolf’s head pin. Lean, wiry and still tall despite his aged hunch, he stepped fully into the clearing, sweeping a quick stare around all those assembled.

“Well, well,” the old man said aloud, his voice creaking slightly with age but still strong and clear. “It seems we’re expected!”

“Welcome,” Ingvar replied, nodding to him. “You are, indeed. All of us are some degree of surprised to find ourselves here; I simply have the benefit of a little more time to being ushered along by forces I cannot see.”

“And that would make you the famous Brother Ingvar,” the elder Huntsman said, eyeing him critically up and down.

“I suppose I’ll have to get used to being the famous Brother Ingvar,” he replied with a sigh.

“I imagined someone taller,” the old man grunted, then grinned. “But then, that’s exactly what I say every time I pass a mirror.”

“What are you of all people doing sniffing around this apostate, Dantu?” Sha demanded in a growl. “Going to switch sides yet again?”

“Brother Dantu has a bit of a history,” the second Shaathist apprentice, the local boy whose name Ingvar didn’t know, interjected with a wry smile, stepping closer to the eerie firelight and placing a hand on the old man’s shoulder. “He left the lodge in his youth to join the Shadow Hunters, and years later returned to the true path.”

“True path,” Dimbi repeated, her tone precariously heavy with sarcasm.

“That must be a long and remarkable story,” said Ingvar in a deliberately calm tone before more hostility could emerge.

“Right and wrong are usually not as simple as true and false,” Dantu said with a more sober expression. “Sometimes they aren’t even as simple as right and wrong, and that’s when you really have to watch your step. We tend to paint ourselves into intractable moral dilemmas by trying to make things simpler than they are. The Huntsmen say one thing, the Rangers another, and leave nuance to the fairies. Something tells me, Famous Brother Ingvar, you’ve come to make all our lives good and complicated again. I’ve come to see whether the upset you bright might be a solution, or just more problems. The boys, here, tell me you put on quite a show.”

“Oh, he does at that,” Taka agreed. “I’m still not sure how into all this mystic hunter business I am, but I’ve gotta say Ingvar’s never boring.”

“Glad to see you two again,” Ingvar said, making eye contact with each of the lads. “Samaan, and…?”

“How’d you know that?” Samaan demanded, one hand falling to the tomahawk hanging at his waist.

“Easy, there, Sam,” the other urged, smiling faintly. “Last time, you made Djinti call you down by name, remember? I’m Kanatu,” he added, nodding deeply to Ingvar, “the one who remembers details.”

“Oh, shut up,” Samaan grunted. “Very well, you expected us to come looking for you, we’re all impressed. Obviously you’ve gone to some trouble to set all this up. Let’s hear what you have to say, then.”

Ingvar looked over at Rainwood, who nodded to him.

“I have little enough to say,” Ingvar answered. “If it were that simple, all of this would be unnecessary. I’ve warned both of your groups, respectively, that I bring you painful, disruptive truths, and that I’m only a messenger; this business won’t leave you in peace if you drive me off. I wouldn’t have listened to the truth when it was first shown to me. That’s why it had to be shown.”

“Well, we’ve come all this way,” Kanatu said with a shrug, glancing warily over at the three quiet Rangers in their gray-green cloaks. “Say, show, whatever it is, whip it out.”

“Several of you are already well acquainted with this,” Ingvar said, now looking at the Rangers himself. Sha nodded and Dimbi quirked an ironic little smile, though Intima remained impassive as a tree. He made eye contact with Dantu, whose previously animated features had gone inscrutable. Ingvar had known several men like this one during his time with the Huntsmen, free thinkers who skirted the boundaries of tradition, never quite transgressing enough to be called down by the lodgemaster but subtly thumbing their noses at everyone. They were always the most willing to entertain unconventional ideas. Now, he had to wonder how many of those men had learned shocking truths and yet chosen the comfort of faith and community over harsh reality, as Dantu evidently had. “In fact, this is a pivotal moment for those following me, as well. Tholi in particular has been more than patient with my vague hints up till now.”

He paused, feeling the weight of everyone’s expectant stares, and turning his eyes to the mysterious white flame.

“For some of you, this will be a repetition of an old revelation. For others, merely…trivia. But for some, it will be a shock that may strip away everything you understand about the world. I have known tribulation in my time, as you can only imagine. Not every lodge is equally welcoming of a man in my position, and my career with the Huntsmen has been an often painful balance between the path to which I was called and a community that sometimes despised me. Yet I will warn you now that what you are about to see was the thing that hurt me the most. There is no pain quite like having your beliefs carved away. If any of you choose to walk away rather than face this, I will not name them coward.”

The Rangers didn’t react at all; Dantu’s thin shoulders shifted in a soft sigh. Kanatu just folded his arms.

“I’m not afraid of anything you have to show me,” Samaan snorted. “Let’s see you impress, Ingvar.”

Ingvar was positioned near the middle of the row of his own party, lined up along one side of the fire; he now glanced to both sides, taking in their expressions. Rainwood and Aspen both smiled encouragingly, while Tholi looked downright eager. Taka was going out of her way to appear as skeptical as the Rangers, and November just looked reserved. He suspected she was grappling with her own questions about why Avei had sent her into the middle of this business.

“Then I’ll ask you to please be respectful and hold your peace while the last members of this gathering arrive.”

“Who the hell else is coming to this?” Samaan muttered.

“Lad, when you’ll find out just the same whether or not you ask, it’s always better to keep quiet,” Dantu advised.

Ingvar was watching Rainwood sidelong. The elf had closed his eyes, breathing slowly and deeply. He could not feel shamanism at work, at least not explicitly or directly, but that sense was there. Of pressure, of potential, something vast in motion and not related to him but certain to determine the course of his next actions. It was, he reflected, very much like the sense of a thunderstorm rolling forward.

Then they arrived, and he swept all of that from his mind.

Where before only the single female had answered the call, now Rainwood’s entreaties via the spirits had successfully summoned the whole pack. The whole family.

There were six of them, rounding out the formation. Six of Ingvar’s party to start, the three Rangers and three Shaathists making six more, even more obviously now as they shifted away from the new arrivals with gasps and muffled exclamations, forgetting the tension between them to make way for the pack of wild wolves who stepped out of the darkness and up to the firelight.

“The Rangers have a rite for this purpose,” Ingvar said while the assembled group stared in mingled awe and fear at the predators joining them in the firelight. “I lack access to their secrets, and so this is not that. Rainwood has lent us his talents and the aid of his spirit guides to ask these guests for their guidance. In the faith of Shaath, there is no creature more sacred than the wolf. It is their ways which are held up as the ideal of living. The crux of the problem with the Huntsmen today is that they believe things about wolves which are purely untrue. Now, tonight, these honored guests, with the aid of the fae spirits all around us, will show us the truth of their lives. Please, sit.”

He folded himself smoothly to the ground, sitting cross-legged. One by one, the rest followed suit, several obviously reluctant to adopt a less defensible stance in the presence of so many of nature’s perfect hunters. It helped that the wolves appeared to hear his request and themselves sat down in a loose arc around their edge of the fire, all six gazing impassively at the humans with their ears up and alert. One by one, the rest of the party sank to the earth.

“This may be disorienting in its first moments,” Ingvar said quietly, accompanied by an intensifying glow from the white fire. “Rest assured that you are safe here. We meet under a pact of peace; these are friends and companions. What now unfolds is the craft of a master shaman. Still your unease, and trust the process as it comes to completion.”

The fire continued to glow while he spoke, its light beginning to waver almost like a natural fire’s, and mist poured out from its base to wash gently across the clearing in a luminous white carpet. The wolves showed no reaction to this, though several of the two-legged participants in the ritual shifted uncertainly, eyes darting.

Ingvar breathed in and out, deliberately following his own advice. He had checked again with Rainwood before beginning this; the shaman said that the spirits in the world were still agitated, but it was nothing to do with them and should have no impact.

The “should” was worrying. But they were here at the behest of those same spirits, as well as the gods themselves. At a certain point, a person simply had to have faith, and keep going.

In unison, the six seated wolves raised their noses skyward and cried aloud, their mournful howling echoing across the forest. It was a stunning music, and a truly astonishing thing to experience so close. Also, at that proximity, incredibly loud.

This time, none of those gathered made any noises in response, but Ingvar could tell just by glancing across them that they felt what he felt. The howl of a wolf was a call to family, a summons. It stirred, tugged at something inside himself placed there by the magic in which they had all partaken.

The mist rose around each of them, drifting upward in twelve little banks to wash smoothly over them, and then each began to take shape. Around every person, the shadow of a wolf cast in white moonlight formed, raising its head to cry mutely in answer to the call.

Of their own volition, he felt his eyes closing. By the time they had fully shut, the spirits and the wolves had supplanted his vision.


They were a large pack, and an uncertain one, still growing used to one another. They trusted him, though, and he honored that trust, devoting himself to leading them as best he could. He looked after is family, and they did after him. It was not a matter of asserting his will, but simply of the love between them, the same force that bound all living things. If it ever came to be that one of the younger ones would become stronger and a better leader, he would encourage that one to take the role. For now, they lived in an uncertain world, and he was the one with the knowledge and the confidence to guide them through it.

He missed his brothers, at times. The wise, canny older brother with the golden pelt, and the younger, darker one with his piercingly analytical mind. Not only because they were brothers and he wished to be alongside family, as was only natural, but because both were smart, and there were many strange smells in the air. He could have used their support. But what was, was. He was leader, now, and had his own family to look after.

They lived, were conscious, at a fixed point within a spectrum of memory, with the awareness of their lives in this forest stretching away both behind and ahead. It was a strange thing…and yet, not. This was just the world and what it was like to be alive within it, and yet he had the sense, sometimes, that there was something else. That things were supposed to be different. But he put that aside and dealt with the now. It was a good land, and a good life. They hunted in the darkness, and never went hungry. They played together in the shadowy times between day and night, curling up to share warmth and closeness during the sleepy sunlight hours. Games of chasing and scuffling were ways for him to teach the younger ones about the struggles of living.

And yet, there was that scent again. One of those troubling smells, wafting down from the mountains. He paused, raising his head. What was it? It was not food, or friend. Was his family in danger? The smell was new, impossible to place. It was…uneasy. Something about the world that was not what it should be.

No, Ingvar, that’s not the lesson.

He growled softly. Words were just noise, and the more troubling because he could not tell where they were coming from.

Don’t follow that scent. Listen to me, Ingvar. Trust the spirit of the wolf, not the other spirits.

Responding as always to his uncertainty, she stepped up beside him, leaning her bulk against his own in affection and support. His longtime partner, the one most special of all his beloved family, with her wild green eyes and the golden pattern like leaves dappling her pale coat. Her scent always reminded him as much of trees as of family. She raised her head to smell it as well. Beautiful and proud, and no less precious because she was rather unpredictable.

She bared her teeth in displeasure, echoing his soft growl.

Aspen, no! Don’t get involved in that, you’re too—

He snapped his jaws in anger. That was worse. Whatever that smell was, it was pushing at them. Pushing at her. At his family.

As one, they wheeled and gathered up the pack. Something menacing lurked in the wilds, and it was time for them to go. He raised his voice to howl, calling the rest together.

Please, Ingvar, remember peace. Don’t…

She howled alongside him, and her voice echoed through the forests, across the mountains, across the world beyond.

Aspen, NO!

The scent swirled violently, a storm gathering where there was no storm. Suddenly frantic, the whole family howled to one another, gathering together, turning to flee from the tumult. He led them away. He did not know where safety was, or what kind of threat encroached, but they trusted and followed him. They were his responsibility. He would let nothing harm his family.

The pack dashed away from the mountains, seeking safer ground. As they went they called out to one another, making sure no one was lost. The strange scent in the wind followed them, and called back.

And in the distance, on all sides, other wolves answered.


“Twenty-three,” Branwen said with a sigh, making a notation on her map. “I thought he said twenty hellgates?”

“If these people have even the most basic sense, they will have built themselves the most generous margin of error possible,” Khadizroth said absently, his attention focused on the diorama he had built on her dining room table. Assembled from dust he had called seemingly from the air itself, it formed a monochrome scale model of Ninkabi, with swirls of colored light dashing this way and that through its streets and canyons like errant gusts of wind. “Not all of these sites will produce viable hellgates, and they must be planning on at least some being discovered beforehand. It is a good strategy, but it means we must be unfailingly diligent.”

“Yes, the one we miss will be the worst,” she agreed wryly. “Isn’t that always the way… Any sign from your spirit guides of how many of these ritual sites are left to find?”

“As with much fae craft, it unfolds like relentless nature herself,” the dragon replied, giving her a sidelong smile. “It will be done when it is done. For now—”

“My lord!” Vannae said suddenly, shooting upright out of his seat.

“I sense it too,” Khadizroth replied, frowning now in alarm. “What on earth is…”

The entire model of the city shattered into a cloud, swirling chaotically until it formed a new shape.

Now, suddenly, it had made a moving statue of a wolf. The creature raised its head toward the ceiling, and emitted a howl as vivid and loud as if the living animal were right there in the room.

The door burst open and Shook staggered in, disheveled with sleep but brandishing a wand. “The fuck is that?! Everybody okay?”

Khadizroth was staring at the wolf in an unaccustomed expression of shock and disbelief.

“Ingvar,” he whispered. “What have you done?”


It seemed he’d barely had time to drift off to sleep, despite his intention to get an early night in preparation for tomorrow’s plans, but Darling shot bolt upright in bed to find both his apprentices at his sides, clutching his arms.

“Wha,” he burbled, “whazzat, I thought…”

The bedroom door burst open and Price appeared, her eyes sweeping the room.

“It’s okay!” Fauna said quickly. “He snapped out of it.”

“What happened?” the Butler demanded. “I have never heard such a sound. So help me, if you two are keeping a pet coyote…”

“That wasn’t us,” Flora objected. “It was him.”

“I had this dream…” Darling scrubbed a hand across his face. “I swear it was somewhere I’ve been before.”

“There was some serious fairy fuckery clustering around you out of nowhere,” said Fauna. “Seems to have dissipated, though.”

“We got here just before you started howling,” Flora added. “Are you okay, Sweet?”

He blinked twice. “Excuse me, I started what?”


The darkness of unconsciousness faded from his vision, replaced by Mary’s face, her eyes wide with uncharacteristic worry. He was breathing heavily as if he’d just run a mile, he realized, and almost toppled over, spared only by the grip of her slender hands on his cheeks. She was surprisingly strong, for an elf.

“Joseph, it’s all right,” she said soothingly. “You’re safe. Are you back with us?”

“I…” He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, shaking his head. “What happened? I feel like I was just…somewhere else.”

“Damn, son, you scared the life outta me,” said McGraw, looming over him.

“Aye, that was a right wake up an’ no mistake,” Billie agreed, popping up at his side. “I never heard a human throat make a sound like that.”

“A sound like…what?” he asked weakly.

All around their little campsite, the Golden Sea stretched in every direction, seemingly infinite. Out of the darkness, suddenly from every direction there rose distant howls. They reminded him of the familiar voices of coyotes he’d often heard growing up in Sarasio. But…not. Their cries were longer, deeper…

Even more familiar.

“Like that,” said Weaver, standing a few yards distant with his back to the group, gazing at the dark horizon.


He was awakened by Hesthri climbing across him to the other side of the bed. The room was cool, its one window open to admit the evening breeze.

That, and sudden, surprising music from the hills all around Veilgrad.

Natchua already stood at the window, moonlight forming a gleaming corona on the darkness of her skin. Jonathan swung his legs over the side of the bed and followed Hesthri to join her.

“Aren’t there supposed to be werewolves in this area?” he asked, setting one arm across the drow’s slender shoulders while Hesthri laid a hand against her upper back.

“That,” Natchua said quietly, “and the normal kind of wolves. But not so many.”

It was true, he realized. Those howls were seemingly coming from every direction, repetitive and so unrelenting that he could hardly discern where one ended and the next began.

“It’s so beautiful,” Hesthri whispered. “What kinds of creatures are these?”

“Dangerous ones,” Jonathan said, stepping closer and taking advantage of the long reach of his arm to tug both of them against his side, gently squishing Natchua between them. “Though normal wolves hardly ever bother people unless starving or severely provoked. Werewolves are another matter.”

“This is another matter,” Natchua whispered. “I can’t tell what magic is at work here, but…it’s something big. Something in the world just changed.”


Andros Varanus took the risk of barging into the Grandmaster’s quarters without knocking.

Fortunately, the whole household was assembled, and awake, though still in sleeping clothes. Both of Veisroi’s wives turned on him with scowls at this sudden intrusion into their domain, but the Grandmaster himself raised a hand in a mute order for silence before either could upbraid him.

“You too, then, Brother Andros?” he asked, turning away from the fireplace into which he had been gazing.

“And not just me,” Andros rumbled. “Every man in this lodge is awake, due to the same dream. Every man but one. Hrathvin is in a trance from which his apprentice cannot stir him.”

Veisroi’s chest expanded with a long, deep breath. “Give him time. I named him shaman of this lodge for a reason; the man knows what he’s about. If he has not roused by dawn, we will send to the Emerald College for help.”

Andros nodded. “And the dream? You know this can only mean one thing, Grandmaster.”

“In the context of the telescroll I just received from N’Jendo…yes, I do,” the old man said, turning back to the flames. “Damn it all, Andros. I had such high hopes for Ingvar. When he set out on his quest from Shaath himself, I dared to think…”

“Ingvar also knows what he is about. He has more than earned our trust, Veisroi.”

“And how long has it been since we’ve had word from him? And now, just on the heels of warning that he is preaching apostasy in the West…this.” The Grandmaster clenched his jaw. “I hate to do it, Andros, you know I do. But a man does what he must, even when he does not wish to. Right now, do what you can to calm the men, make sure they’re seeing to their wives. It’s always the women who are most upset by things like this. In the immediate turn we will make sure Hrathvin is well. And when that is dealt with, for good or ill…”

“I protest, Grandmaster,” Andros said, as insistently as he could without making it a direct challenge.

“And that is your prerogative, Brother,” Veisroi replied without looking up from the fire. “But protest or not, tomorrow I will summon a Wild Hunt.”


Atop his watchtower on the ancient walls of Shaathvar, Roth stood with his back to the brazier’s warmth, staring out at the cold darkness. All around rose the pine-clad peaks encircling the valley directly below the city itself. And from all sides came the relentless howling.

“How can there be so many?” one of the two younglings assigned to join his watch asked, eyes wide. “Surely there can’t be that many wolves in the valley!”

“There aren’t that many wolves in the whole of the Stalrange,” Roth replied, his voice flat. A man did not flinch even in the face of…whatever this was. “I will keep the watch here; go rouse the captain. And you,” he added to the other, “fetch the barracks shaman. Keep your minds on the task before you, lads. This is a dire omen of something, but omens are a shaman’s work. Don’t borrow trouble for yourself until this has been interpreted by men who know the craft.”

“Yes, Brother,” they chorused, and both dashed off down opposite staircases toward the walls.

Roth just gazed out over the frigid, howling wilderness, wondering what had just happened to the world.


“This is not our business,” Arkhosh insisted, glaring at Mother Raghann. He had to raise his voice to be heard above the ceaseless howling of wolves which split the night all around. “People are agitated enough by this without you riling them up worse. Let the kitsune handle Sifan’s affairs and calm your own people, shaman.”

“This is not the kitsune’s business, either,” the old woman retorted, implacable as always. “These are ripples from a mountain dropped in the ocean, not a pebble in a pool. It began far from Sifan and extends farther still. The agitation of the spirits sings of a world in the grip of tumult, Arkhosh. And that makes it their business, and ours, and everyone’s.”

The other orc blew out a snort of irritation. “We are in no position to worry about the world, woman, or even Sifan as a whole. And we certainly owe the world no favors. It is the kitsune who are our hosts, and Tsurikura which is our business. If action is needed on our part, they’ll ask us for it. For now, we should tend to the walls. I can’t speak for spirits, but I know agitated wolves when I hear them.”

“Have you ever heard this many wolves?” she asked dryly. “What do you think our village walls would do if they took a notion to come here?”

“What say you, Aresk?” Arkhosh demanded, turning to his son, the only other orc gathered with them outside the gate. “Do they howl to us?”

The last and first priest of Khar stared out into the darkness, listening to the cries of wolves. The faintest glow of golden-white light limned him as he attuned to the faded power of their distant god. “Nothing in this tells me it pertains to us directly. But Mother Raghann is still right,” he added, turning to meet his father’s eyes. “We exist in the world, father. I agree that we should not meddle in what is not our business, or exert ourselves to aid those who would not do the same in turn. But waiting around to be told what to do by the kitsune is weakness. And just ignoring the world in the hope that nothing bad will happen is madness.”

Both of them bared tusks at him. Very recently, Aresk would have instinctively yielded to the displeasure of either of his elders, let alone both. But things changed, and he changed with them. It was that, or die.

“I suggest a middle ground. I won’t agree to our shamans rushing out to try to placate…whatever this is. But they should at least do what they can to learn what is happening. Whatever the spirits will tell us. With more information, we can better decide what to do. We should protect and support them in whatever rituals will best accomplish this.”

Raghann grunted. “Well. I can’t say the boy doesn’t talk sense. Very well, it’s at least a start.”

“A good compromise,” Arkhosh agreed, reaching out to squeeze his son’s shoulder. “Very well, Aresk, I concur with your council. We will start there. And then…” He looked sourly at Mother Raghann, and then out into the howling darkness. “…we shall see.”


“Elder?” the young woman asked, creeping up to the mouth of the cave just behind him. “What does it mean?”

The old lizardfolk shaman glanced back at her, and then at the rest of the tribe taking shelter, their eyes glowing in the dimness as they watched the cave mouth for danger.

He turned back around, facing outward and listening to the howls of the wolves, far too many wolves to actually live in this desolate land.

“It’s as I told you: a great doom is coming. This is only the beginning.”


Hamelin Hargrave stood in the open door of his cottage, gazing out at the normally peaceful hills of Viridill, listening to them. The spirits were so agitated he could glean nothing through the Craft; whatever was happening was clearly way over his head.

Tomorrow, he decided, he would make the trip to Vrin Shai and seek help. But not tonight. Magical or not, no matter how civilized an era it was, you didn’t set out on the roads after dark when the wolves were in a frenzy.


“Urusai,” Maru whined, curled up in the fetal position and clutching his head. “Urusai, urusai, urusai!”

“What’s that he’s chanting?” Professor Yornhaldt asked, craning his neck forward to peer as closely as he could without getting in Taowi’s way. She had a sharp tongue for people who interfered while she was tending to a patient.

“It means ‘loud,’” said Tellwyrn, herself standing on the other side of her currently crowded office, but watching closely as the campus healer tended to her prone secretary.

“Really?” asked Rafe. “I thought it meant ‘shut up.’ Kaisa used to say that to me all the time.”

“Language reflects culture,” Tellwyrn said absently. “To the Sifanese mindset, commenting that something is noisy suffices to demand that it stop. Taowi, please tell me that’s not what it smells like.”

“It’s exactly what it smells like, Arachne,” she said impatiently, still coaxing Maru to put the shriveled object she held in his mouth. “It’s worked on the others affected thus far.”

Tellwyrn took an aggressive step forward. “Do you mean to tell me you’ve been feeding glittershrooms to my students?!”

“To your students and to Stew,” Taowi Sunrunner replied, undaunted by the archmage’s ire. “There you go, Maru, don’t forget to chew. It’s affecting everyone fae-attuned, Arachne. What in the hell did you get me dried glittershrooms for if you didn’t think I was going to use them medicinally?”

Tellwyrn snorted. “I figured you’ve been an exemplary healer and as long as it didn’t interfere with your work I wasn’t going to begrudge you whatever you needed to relax.”

Maru was weakly chewing the wedge of dried glittershroom; Taowi took her eyes off him for a moment to give Tellwyrn a blistering look. “The principle harm done by this is simply stress. For most things I would simply apply a sedative, but this is clearly fae in nature and affecting people through the dreamscape somehow. Putting someone to sleep would just trap them in it. You’ll notice I asked you to procure a supply of shrooms right after that clever little fool Madouri did exactly that to herself by combining Nightmare’s Dream potion with the Sleeper curse. Glittershrooms induce euphoria without causing sleepiness; it’s the best spot treatment. Once everyone is stabilized I mean to switch them to sevenleaf oil, but considering how bad some of the reactions are, I advise the potency of shrooms to take the edge off.”

“How is everyone faring?” Tellwyrn asked more quietly.

“It hits fairies worse than witches,” Taowi said absently, her focus again on Maru as she soothingly stroked his fur while waiting for the glittershroom to take effect. “Stew was nearly this bad. Oak says she’s getting the same visions, but they don’t bother her, which makes me feel less worried about Juniper and Fross. Dryads are generally under different rules. With the students…it varies. Most of them welcomed a bit of shroom, but Iris declined. She wants to stay lucid to help keep watch over the others, and frankly I’m grateful for the assistance. She seems to be suffering the least from the effect.”

“And it’s the same for all of them?”

“They report the same visions.” Taowi looked up to meet her eyes. “Wolves howling. More than just the noise, this is hitting them right in the emotional center, as fae magic does. They’ve all said they feel they’re being called to something, but they can’t understand what, much less answer it, and that’s what’s causing the acute stress. This is some kind of compulsion which can’t be fulfilled. There are few things more psychologically excruciating.”

“We unfortunately lack a fae specialist,” Rafe said, turning to Professor Tellwyrn, “since Liari retired and Kaisa buggered off mid-semester.”

“And isn’t that the long and the short of it,” Tellwyrn said, shoving both fists under her spectacles to rub at her eyes. “It’s the area of magic I’m least equipped to analyze, but the geas on this mountain would at least warn me if the effect were targeted here. If it’s a general effect over a wide area, then wherever it’s coming from, we’re not the only ones feeling it. All right. Alaric, keep order here as best you can. Admestus, help Taowi with the afflicted.”

“You have an idea?” Yornhaldt asked.

She grimaced readjusting her glasses. “The only idea I have is begging for help. I’m going to Sarasio to see if Sheyann and Chucky know anything about this. Hold the fort, everyone.”


Rainwood stumbled backward with nothing like an elf’s usual grace, staring at the wolves in the clearing around his snuffed-out faefire.

They were beautiful, but nothing about them appeared natural. Patterns were set in their fur that looked dyed, geometric and clearly designed, and most strikingly, they glowed. Each a different pattern in a subtly different color. Their eyes were glowing wells of power without pupils; even their fur seemed to put off a gentle aura of moonlight.

In the spot where Ingvar had sat, the largest wolf turned to bare fangs at Rainwood, his pure white fur marked with sigils in luminous green and blue on the shoulders and forehead. He raised his head and howled once, and loud as the sound was, it was nothing compared to the metaphysical shockwave it sent out.

Rainwood actually fell backward, landing on his rump and gaping.

The pack gathered themselves and loped off into the trees, heading west toward the sea—though they would reach Ninkabi long before they got to the coast. Seventeen enormous, glowing, unprecedented creatures departed from the wilderness on a collision course with civilization, leaving behind a magical storm that roared outward in every direction, dwarfing the disturbance which had rocked the fae up in the Wyrnrange the previous day.

This one would be felt across every inch of the planet.

“Kuriwa’s going to kill me,” he said aloud, staring after the departed pack. “Literally, this time.”

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15 – 35

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“Are we in danger?”

“You mean, more than usually and aside from the obvious?” Rainwood made a wry face, glancing back at the others trooping along behind Ingvar and himself at the head of their loose formation. His expression quickly returned to the pensive frown he’d worn all day, though. “I don’t think so, specifically.”

“I realize we’ve not known each other long, but based on what I have seen from you in the last few days, the fact that this development clearly alarmed you stood out in my mind,” Ingvar said, watching him sidelong as they walked through the patchy brush toward the ridge. “Whatever happened… The main thrust of what I’ve asked you involves reaching out through these spirit companions of yours. Obviously I have to wonder whether this will affect our business, but more immediately, I don’t want you to do something that might expose you to harm on my behalf.”

“I wish I knew,” Rainwood murmured, shaking his head in frustration. “I don’t…think this is dangerous, at least not immediately or to us. It’s all whispers and portents, great events in the offing, something big having begun up in the Wyrnrange. Something quite sudden, unexpected. I’ve lived long enough to have seen this sort of thing before, and it can take years to lead to anything concrete. If it’s the birth of someone destined to be a great hero, for example. Or the death of one, or the forging of a magic sword, just to list a few specific incidents I remember.”

“So you don’t think we will be affected?”

Rainwood narrowed his eyes. “That’s the part I can’t exactly tell, Ingvar. I…think not. My intuition tells me it’s not to do with us directly. It is complicated because the spirits are agitated over my own link to this event; fae magic in general responds strongly to connections. But that, I think, is because a relative of mine was present and involved.”

“We’ve already leaned on your power considerably, my friend. If you need to go aid your kin, please don’t let my business stop you.”

“The spirits directed me here, to you, not there to her,” the elf said, waving a hand airily, then grinned. “Anyway. The kinswoman in question is one of the most capable individuals alive, and has gotten along just fine without my help for nearly her entire life. No, I believe we should proceed as we agreed.”

“I didn’t feel anything,” Aspen said petulantly, pushing forward to walk between them.

“Is there a reason you would?” Ingvar asked, patting her on the back. “You’ve never indicated you were sensitive to oracular portents before.”

“Well, if it was that big a deal and had to do with fairy magic, surely I would’ve felt something.”

Ingvar and Rainwood glanced sidelong at one another around her, saying nothing.

“I saw that,” she snapped.

“What I’m curious about,” Taka said from behind them, “is precisely what fuckery you’re wanting to get us into that might be affected by giant fairy nonsense up in the mountains.”

“All life is connected through the Mother,” Tholi murmured.

“Oh, very profound,” she said scathingly. “Now tell me what it means.”

“It’s an old Shaathist truism, something recited to give us comfort in painful times. As for what exactly it means, the elder Brother I asked that same question told me it meant to trust the shaman, if you’re lucky enough to have one to listen to. If Rainwood says it’s fine, I’m going to assume it’s fine.”

“I said I think it’ll be fine,” Rainwood clarified.

“And we have no reason not to trust him,” Ingvar added in the tone he’d developed to put an end to pointless discussions. He had rapidly gotten very good at it in the last couple of days. “Please let us know if anything changes, Rainwood. Barring that, we can do nothing but press on.”

“Sounds good and all,” November piped up, “but on the subject of pressing on, it’s still not clear to me why you think this is going to go any better than the last time.”

“In fact,” Ingvar said, gazing up ahead at the place where the Ranger lodge lay hidden atop the ridge, “I rather expect it to go worse. But circumstances have changed, and therefore so must our strategy. I wish I could be more certain this is the right thing to do,” he added in a softer tone, “rather than just the best thing I can think of.”

“We definitely trust your judgment, Brother,” Tholi assured him.

“Ingvar is very smart,” Aspen said proudly.

He patted her back again, saying nothing. With the rest of the group behind him, he could not see November or Taka’s expressions, and at that moment felt he was probably better off.

The lodge wasn’t any less hidden now that they were approaching it in daylight; Ingvar still had nothing but Taka’s say-so to tell him they were going in the right direction, and might have actually doubted had they not met five lantern-bearing Rangers descending toward them from that same ridge in the twilight.

Paradoxically, it seemed the Rangers were better at hiding in the daylight. Of course, it probably helped when they were not carrying lights and trying to be seen.

“Back already?”

Ingvar stopped; behind him, Taka muttered a curse and November yipped softly in surprise. He glanced over at Rainwood and Aspen, who had surely been aware they were approaching a human, but hadn’t seen fit to say anything. From that, he interpreted a lack of danger.

She sat in the fork of a tree, some ten feet up, motionless; even having spoken, Ingvar might not have spotted her had she not moved her head. It was a good hiding place, giving her a vantage over the surrounding area while concealing her behind a convenient spray of leaves. Her traditional hooded cloak, a garment that more resembled elven camouflage than any Tiraan or Jendi attire, certainly helped.

“Good day,” Ingvar said. This woman’s voice was familiar, now that he focused on her. Yes, in fact, she was the Ranger who had paused to direct them to a safe campsite even after her lodgemaster ordered them away. “It’s…Dimbi, am I correct?”

“Not bad,” she said, not sounding particularly impressed. “Last time, you seemed pretty adamant you weren’t going to push your way into our business. What changed your mind?”

“Your leader did,” Ingvar replied. “I am certainly able to deal with Huntsmen of Shaath, but I was very surprised when the master of a Ranger lodge deliberately sought them out and set them after me. For this, I feel, he owes me an explanation.”

With her hood shadowing her dark face, he couldn’t make out her expression. “That’s a hell of an accusation, Huntsman. If you had trouble with your own kind, why would Arjuni have been behind it?”

So he had a name, at least. “The party of Shaathists who intercepted us said they were sent at his urging.”

She let out a soft huff. “And you believed them?”

“I am very familiar with Huntsmen; I know their virtues and the faults to which they are prone. If you are like most Rangers, I suspect you have some insight into both those things as well, do you not?”

“What of it?” Dimbi asked in a more guarded tone.

“Well, of all their flaws, have you ever found the Huntsmen to be prone to political maneuvering?”

She stared down at him in silence, her eyes hidden.

“Personally,” he went on after a momentary pause, “I have found them more likely to err on the side of pride, and not likely to give Rangers credit for anything if it wasn’t warranted. When a Huntsman of Shaath tells me he was sought out and warned by a Ranger of my presence, especially when said Ranger has already expressed surprising hostility toward me, I see little reason to doubt him.”

More silence; she might as well have been part of the tree. Had he not already spotted her shape among the leaves Ingvar could still have failed to detect her.

“Am I wrong?” he asked in a deliberately mild tone. “If so, I’d like to know it. If not, I think I am sufficiently entitled to an explanation to insist. This is very strange behavior for a Ranger, is it not? I would be foolish indeed not to investigate closer, when I don’t know what other out of character hostility your lodge might produce.”

Still, she said nothing, just staring down at them.

Finally, Tholi snorted. “It appears this is pointless, Brother. Let’s be on our way.”

“Hey, Aspen,” Taka cackled, “can you knock down that tree she’s in?”

“I’m not gonna hurt the tree,” Aspen snapped, offended. “The tree isn’t hurting anybody.”

Dimbi suddenly surged into motion, spooking Tholi into nocking an arrow. She plunged straight to the ground, her cape streaming behind her. The Ranger landed as fluidly as a drop of water, compressing her body into a deep crouch to absorb the impact, then just as quickly straightening back upright.

“Arjuni sent up the signal smoke first thing on the dawn after your visit,” she stated. “A Huntsman came within the hour. He spoke to him alone, then he left, and Arjuni told us all to forget about it.”

“I see,” Ingvar said. “Perhaps you are finding it as difficult as I to forget these things?”

“What’s so dangerous about you?” she asked softly.

He spoke slowly in answer, buying time while his brain tried to race ahead. Ingvar was too long away from Tiraas and the currents of Veisroi and Andros’s maneuvers among the city folk; his political instincts were slow to reawaken, and yet he was keenly conscious that this was a delicate moment within a more broadly delicate situation.

“Don’t take this for a deflection, but why is it you think I am dangerous? Aside from the obvious, I mean.” He patted Aspen’s shoulder, and she tossed her hair proudly. “For months, Aspen and I have been traveling across the continent, visiting Ranger lodges and finding welcome. Even the elves have hosted us gladly, and I’m sure you know they are not over fond of strangers. Arjuni’s reaction to us is very strange. I’m wondering if it makes some sense to you?”

“He’s frightened,” she said, grasping her bow in both hands. “Arjuni is no weakling; he doesn’t scare easily. But he has some gift toward witchcraft himself, and I think he sees a portent of something dire in you. I don’t see it myself,” she admitted. “I don’t know what to think. Do you? I have a feeling you have some idea why it is you’d scare him. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we were told of a Huntsman traveling with a dryad, and instead you show up with an entire party of followers?”

“Oh, are we followers, now?” Taka muttered.

“I think I understand,” Ingvar said, nodding slowly. “Well. Perhaps Arjuni is not wrong to be alarmed. But I believe he has the cause and effect mixed up.”

Dimbi shifted her stance subtly, sliding one foot backward and putting more weight on it. Poised to flee.

Ingvar kept his voice low and calm, as if to soothe an animal, or a child, but deliberately avoided any cadence that she might take as condescending. It was coming back to him after all. “Until a very few days ago, it was just Aspen and myself on a journey to gather knowledge. With no schedule and no end point in sight, the ultimate goal distant and so unattainable… Well, I confess I got myself through the days by focusing on what was right in front of me, and not on that. I saw no way to it.”

“Ultimate goal?” she asked warily.

“Shaath is bound,” he said. “Imprisoned by his own believers—who are, themselves, imprisoned by belief. The code of the Huntsmen has been corrupted, used against our own god. He reached out to me to seek a solution. Tell me, wouldn’t you be awed by the scope of it?” he added with a self-deprecating little chuckle. “I’m just a hunter, not a prophet or even a priest. I know more than I want to of the ways of people; I would rather just know the ways of nature, and immerse myself in it. Who could approach such a task? How would you even start?”

“By asking questions, I suppose,” she acknowledged, though he hadn’t really expected an answer. “Elves and Rangers are a good enough starting place if you want to learn secrets the Huntsmen have tried to bury. Why does that make you dangerous?”

“I have the impression you’re aware of at least some of what is wrong with modern Shaathism; the Rangers in general are experts on it, or so I’ve found. Tell me, how do you think they will react to being told their faith is built on lies? If Arjuni is in contact with their lodges and aware of their movements, then yes, I am likely to create a stir he will feel directly.”

Behind him, Tholi shifted in muted agitation, but held his peace. Ingvar wanted to reach out comfortingly to the lad, but he sensed it would be a mistake to divide his attention away from Dimbi.

“These last days have brought sudden change on me, though,” he said. “It has been made vividly clear that my sojourn will not be indulged any longer. With me is Rainwood, a shaman of the line of the Crow, who was directed by his own spirit guides to seek us out and lend aid.”

“Just Rainwood to my friends,” the elf added wryly. “In fact, it’s worth knowing that elves of the line of the Crow don’t generally care to be reminded of it.”

“Tholi is an old friend from my previous lodge,” Ingvar continued, finally turning to give the young man a nod, which he returned. “He had an experience amazingly similar to my own: dreams and visions, directing him to find me. November is a follower of Avei, and was given the same from her goddess, who I am frankly astonished to learn knows or cares of this at all. I might be skeptical of both their claims, except they were both sent exactly to the place where they could meet me, here in the back wilds of N’Jendo where even I did not expect a month ago that I would be. And then Taka just sort of invited herself along.”

“Nice,” Taka said irritably. November and Tholi both grinned at her.

“And so, to my own amazement, it’s as you said: I have followers, now. More alarmingly, they are being sent to me by gods and spirits of various sources. And others are beginning to accrue, apparently just of their own will.”

He turned back to face Dimbi directly. “So it sounds to me like Arjuni is both correct, and mistaken. There is a storm coming. Gods know I want nothing to do with it, but I’ve been placed at the center of this thing, and I have better sense than to try to flee. I have never yet encountered a storm that obligingly blew the other way when I turned my back on it. What I would tell your leader is that I’m a messenger, nothing more. None of this will go away if I do. The next time the storm roils over his lodge, it may come in a shape less willing to hear him out.”

She stared at him in silence a moment longer, then lifted one hand from her bow to pull back her hood. Dimbi was younger than he, to judge by her face, though not so young as Tholi or even November. Her expression was troubled, but focused.

“So you’re going to…what? Reform Shaathism? How, exactly?”

The others all shifted minutely, looking at Ingvar.

“I have no idea,” he admitted. “The wind is at my back, here. I am following what guidance I am given as best I can, and trusting that I was chosen for this for a reason, as little sense as much of it makes to me.”

She nodded once. “The storm cares not.”

“Old Punaji proverb,” he said, nodding back.

“Heh…not many people know that. Around here the sea folk are the Tidestriders. But a well-traveled fellow like you… Arjuni is not going to listen to you,” she said abruptly. “He’s a good leader and a good man. But he’s the most godawful mama bear, and it never occurs to him that he doesn’t know best.”

Ingvar let out a slow breath. “The last thing I want is to get into a confrontation with Rangers. Do you think Arjuni will continue to create trouble for me?”

Dimbi nodded, her expression unhappy. “Until you either leave the purview of our lodge, or something happens to make him listen. If you’re being pushed along by gods and the spirits of the wild, that might actually… What kind of storm are you talking about, Ingvar?”

“I don’t know that either,” he said, shaking his head. “I came here to find answers, not bring them. Whatever agenda is pushing these matters forward now isn’t mine. We’ll all find out what kind of chaos gods and spirits can unleash at the same time. All I can do is try to position myself to ride it rather than be swept away, and bring as many as I can with me.”

She chewed her lower lip for a moment, glancing to the side. “There…are others who will listen to you. A lot of us have complicated feelings toward the Huntsmen. We have ample reason to be hostile toward them, but also…attached. Arjuni seems to think you’re going to try to agitate the Rangers into some kind of war against the Shaathists, and I know a few of our number would be up for that. But a lot more of us would be interested in helping cut the rot out of them, trying to save what’s worth saving…. If you truly think you can do that.”

“An inquisition is absolutely the last thing anyone needs,” he said firmly. “Shaath can’t be freed by destroying the Huntsmen, but by showing them the truth. And leading them to accept it for what it is, which will be the harder part. You can’t persuade anyone by declaring war on them. I also didn’t come here looking to incite a schism within your lodge,” he added.

Dimbi snorted softly. “No, just within the Huntsmen, I suppose. It’s different with us. Arjuni won’t listen to you, but if you can reach enough of our number…even if it’s just a few. He’ll listen to us above an outsider.”

“You’re taking this awfully well,” Taka said, wearing open skepticism on her face. “I’ve been following this guy for a couple days now and I’m still not a hundred percent on these shenanigans. Why’re you so eager to believe him, if your own leader isn’t?”

“Willing,” Dimbi said with a soft sigh. “I wouldn’t say eager, but…willing. I gather you don’t have a background in the nuanced philosophical differences between Rangers and Huntsmen. In light of that, all of this makes way too much sense. And besides, even so I might dismiss someone showing up making these claims as a con artist or a madman, but neither of those is likely to hoodwink an elvish shaman. Let alone a Crowblood.”

“Why does everyone insist on bringing that up?” Rainwood complained. “You wouldn’t find it nearly so nifty if you’d ever met the meddlesome old bag.”

“If you go to the lodge,” Dimbi continued, again addressing herself to Ingvar, “Arjuni will just get his back up. I doubt he’d try to shoot you, not with a dryad and a shaman right there, but any direct confrontation with him will only make all of this harder. I can persuade some of our number to give you a chance, though. Quietly.”

“And you would do this?” Ingvar asked. “Forgive me, but it does seem the more logical action in your position would be to warn Arjuni against this.”

“You’ve got some face,” she retorted, “to show up out of nowhere asking for this kind of trust and not offer any in return.”

“Yes…I see the fairness in that. You’re right.” He made a shallow bow toward her. “Forgive me.”

“We have less need to offer trust, too, as long as I’m here,” Rainwood added, now watching Dimbi through half-lidded eyes. “She means well, and speaks truly.”

“I’m not sure whether that’s an honor, or creepy,” the Ranger muttered, giving him a wary stare before returning her focus to Ingvar. “So. When I gather a few sympathetic souls, where will we find you?”

That made him hesitate; it was a question to which he simply did not have an answer. Providential as her offer of help was, it jumped him farther ahead than he had planned. In truth, Ingvar had refrained from planning in detail beyond the point where he could straighten out just what the local Rangers were up to, which he had assumed would involve a tense encounter with their standoffish leader at the very least. Now he was suddenly two steps past that, and needing to fit these new developments into a framework he hadn’t even built yet.

But that feeling was still there, the sense guiding him toward what he was sure was the right path, even if he couldn’t have said why to save his life. In this case, it prompted him to make use of an old training exercise he had used to induct Huntsman initiates.

“By the end of today, at dusk,” he said, “I intend, with Shaath’s blessing and Rainwood’s assistance, to reveal a truth you Rangers know well, which has been kept hidden from the Huntsmen. The truth about wolves. You know of what I speak?”

It was very slight, but her eyes did widen and she leaned her head back. That was all the acknowledgment he required.

“It was revealed to me through the Ranger ritual with which you are familiar; our method will be somewhat different. But we will do this at the proper time and place. And anyone who has a purpose in being there will be able to find us.”

In these circumstances and with his delivery, it had a suitably mystical sound, but it was also simple practicality. Anyone who deserved to call themselves Ranger or Huntsman would have no trouble tracking down a party of six people in the woods, especially when two of them were November and Taka.

Dimbi regarded him pensively for another long moment. Then her full lips suddenly quirked in a smile, and she reached up to pull her hood back into place, casting her features in shadow once more.

“Till the proper time and place, then, Brother Ingvar. I guess we’ll see…what we will see. You’d better impress, or this reform of yours may not get off the ground.”

She turned and bounded off into the trees heading toward the ridge and her hidden lodge without waiting for any response.

“Twerp,” Taka muttered.

“Sooo…once again, we’re not going to the mysterious Ranger lodge?” Aspen asked irritably. “I’ve gotta say, all this bait-and-switch is getting tiresome.”

“The truth about wolves,” Tholi murmured to himself.

Ingvar had narrowed his own eyes in thought, letting their chatter pass him by. Still hovering in that fugue-like state, as if being urged forward by unseen guides, he was suddenly aware of connections and patterns that had not occurred to him before, but now seemed obvious.

“Rainwood,” he said, turning to the shaman, “I am about to ask you for another favor.”

“You’re always so polite,” the elf chided gently. “They’re not favors when I’m explicitly here to help you, of my own free will. What do you need, Ingvar?”

“If your guides are not too disturbed by whatever has upset them, can they reveal whether another party of Huntsmen of Shaath will be intercepting us tonight? Not, perhaps, to offer hostility, but to see whether I do indeed have truth to offer them is something they want to hear, out of sight of their leadership.”

Rainwood let his eyes drift closed and leaned his head back, drawing in a slow breath that made his thin chest swell to its maximum extent. Sunlight shifted through the leaves above, a stray beam illuminating his face directly. Seemingly from nowhere, a small cluster of white butterflies danced about the elf for a few seconds before dispersing into the trees around them.

Then Rainwood opened his eyes and turned an incredulous frown on Ingvar. “Now, just how exactly did you know that?”

“I can’t say that I knew it,” he admitted. “But the shape of it was there. All of this… It’s politics, it’s organized religion, and there’s a certain predictable kind of theater to both. All the more so when we’re being ushered along by divine and fae influences. I just had to make a very similar speech to the one I made to those Huntsmen. All the same points, but an opposite tone. These two encounters…they are a parallel. It’s a pattern, leading to a point.”

“Man,” Taka muttered, rubbing her palms unconsciously on her tunic, “every time I start to convince myself you’re full of it, you come out with something like that.”

“I told you Ingvar was smart!” Aspen added.

“Rainwood,” Ingvar said, “are you certain it will be well?”

“No one can have certainty of anything,” the shaman demurred. “I promise you, Ingvar, I won’t deliberately lead you into trouble. I have trust in my spirit friends, and I will take every possible precaution. What more can we do?”

“What more indeed,” Ingvar murmured. “Well. Back the way we came, I supposed. Those who will be coming after us will have to find their own way, but they’re well suited to do so. We have the whole day, but by the end of it we need to be positioned somewhere suitably distant from both Shaathist and Ranger lodges, and in proximity to the wolves we must call.”

“And then we’ll learn this mysterious truth about wolves you’ve been hinting at?” November asked.

“One way or another, we will,” he replied, deliberately keeping the grimness he felt out of his tone, and turned to lead the way. “Come along. There should be plenty of time to find and cook something to eat before tonight, and we should have our strength at its fullest.”

Inwardly, he could not help but worry, despite Rainwood’s reassurances. They were proposing to perform an improvised variant on a Ranger ritual without the alchemical component that he knew made it work, trusting the elf’s spirit guides and guardians to enable them. And now, they would be doing so when the spirits were unaccountably agitated by something which had evidently sent unknown shockwaves across the magical world. Common sense told him this was no time, that they should wait for a calmer certainty.

But now, there was the pattern of events already set in motion and too late to stop. Come dusk, he would be found by the young and inquisitive among both the Huntsmen and Rangers, and would have to prove the truth of his mission to them. If they showed up and Ingvar failed to produce dramatic results, that would be the end of it, and likely, the end of his entire quest. He had been around the circles of clerical power enough to know the damage such an embarrassment could do to a young spiritual movement. It had to be tonight. Whatever was wrong in the spirit world, they would have to risk it.

And hope that what awaited them in the wolf dream was only truth, which he knew from experience would be painful enough for many of those who saw it. If there were some additional danger caused by whatever had just happened in the Wyrnrange, there was no telling what might unfold.

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15 – 29

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Ingvar was accustomed to relatively quiet evenings in Aspen’s company, their natural rhythms attuned to the cycles of the world around them, and so they were rarely up past dark. It was well into the night, now, and the group remained awake around a hearty fire, but he had decided to leave them to it since they were conversing with apparent harmony and goodwill—traits sorely needed in this fractious group. It was the first promising sign that they could get along and simply find some enjoyment in each other’s company. He decided that was worth more than a couple of hours of sleep.

When Rainwood had stepped over to whisper to him earlier, the rest of the group was mostly too engrossed in Taka’s current anecdote to notice, though Aspen turned her attention to him. Upon rising, Ingvar paused to murmur an explanation to her. Tholi looked up curiously, but Ingvar demurred the attention with a gesture, and so he and the shaman were able to slip off into the trees without disturbing the party.

He returned minutes later at a far more deliberate pace, striding forward to stand in the firelight at the edge of the group. At this entrance, the others all shifted their attention to him with expressions of curiosity.

“I have something important to show you,” Ingvar stated. “Please remain seated. And above all else, remain calm. You are in no more danger here than you create. Be peaceful, and peace will reign.”

“That is pretty ominous,” November commented.

He smiled. “I’m serious, though. Trust me.” Pausing only to sweep a look around at each of them, Ingvar then stepped aside, positioning himself so that he could see both the firepit, the four of them clustered by it, and the spot in the trees from which Rainwood now silently emerged.

The shaman slipped back into their little clearing and immediately moved off to the side, bowing low in the direction of the gap between trees from which he’d come. After a momentary pause, another shape slowly emerged out of the darkness.

There was a sharp indrawing of breath from multiple throats and a rustle as several of them shifted as though to jump up.

“Peace,” Ingvar murmured, keeping his voice low but projecting it firmly. The group stilled at his reminder, watching in wide-eyed silence as she came.

The firelight reflected in her eyes as she approached, a huge dark shape slipping out of the night with two burning points directed at them. In silence, she padded forward, her footfalls precise and stealthy but still audible against the carpet of grass and fallen leaves due to her sheer weight. One deliberate step at a time, the wolf emerged into the circle of light, ears upright and alert; as she came into the illumination, the dark shape she had seemed at first coalesced, revealing the mottled gray and brown coloring of her pelt.

She stopped, just at the perimeter of the light, where they could see her clearly. For several seconds, there was only the sound of the crackling fire, and the crickets in the woods outside. The wolf stared at them, shifting her head only minutely to focus on each of them in turn.

Then, ears still on the alert, she sat down on her haunches.

Taka drew in an unsteady breath. “It’s huge.”

“She,” Ingvar corrected quietly.

“She is like a pony!”

“Not quite,” he said with an amused little smile. “But they are not dogs. Domestication does a great deal to change an animal.”

“To call wolves,” Tholi whispered. “Only the most blessed among the Huntsmen’s shaman have this skill.”

“Wolves are not to be called,” Ingvar said firmly. “And a Shaathist shaman so blessed has not been known in so long that I, and many others, suspect that is nothing but an old story. She has agreed to come visit us. Remember: this is her land, not ours. Her family lives and hunts here. They know the nearby Rangers, and the Huntsmen of the lodge, and keep their distance. Wolves and people have no business with one another. We do not belong in each other’s homes. Only through the auspices of a skilled shaman,” he turned and bowed toward Rainwood, “can they be asked to join our company for a short time. And it is never more than a request. Of the pack which lives in these woods, only she decided to come.”

“Why?” November asked in a bare whisper. The wolf shifted her head to look at her directly.

“That is her business,” he said. “I can tell you this much, though. There are a number of myths about the world’s creation that seek to explain wolves; Aspen and I have gathered a few in our recent travels. The Huntsmen have their own story… Which I have learned, to my own very great chagrin, is a falsehood.” Tholi’s head snapped around to stare at him, but Ingvar simply continued in the same even tone. “I think the story told by the elves is the most likely to be true. They claim that it happened on another world far away, that none of our kinds are native to this world but were brought here by the Elder Gods. In their version, in the unthinkably ancient past, the first humans all lived as we are tonight: in small bands, hunting to survive off the land, clustering around their tiny fires at night. Over countless years, they tamed and bred wolves, developing them into the dogs we have today, creatures uniquely responsive to human beings because they were made for and by human companionship. But it all began with exactly what you see here.” He turned toward the wolf, inclining his head deeply to her. She looked at him then resumed her slow study of the rest of the group while he spoke. “One who was curious, and brave, and willing to extend a little trust. We will not be domesticating our visitor tonight, I can tell you that much. But you should also know this moment for what it is: a moment that, if we chose to make it so, could start this ancient process anew. This is a rare thing, a pivot point which we could seize, and initiate the process of making a slice of the wild our own.”

He hesitated, letting the pause hang.

“What makes us who we are, who we have gathered to become, is that we shall not do this, even as we respect the possibility.”

Ingvar shifted his focus to study each of them in turn, as the wolf was doing. The three humans looked exactly as he hoped, now that the initial shock had abated: all three were gazing at the wild creature avidly, their faces matching pictures of awe and wonder. Even, he was faintly surprised to observe, Taka. Perhaps the gods had indeed sent her to this group on purpose. Aspen, of course, was much less impressed by a wolf, but was regarding the creature with an expression of calm thought, her head cocked to one side as she did when mulling over something he had just explained to her.

“There is an awkward dichotomy to Shaathism,” Ingvar continued after the pause, again turning to regard the great beast among them. “Outsiders to the faith often use it to deride the Huntsmen. Shaath is the god of the wild, and so it is the wild that we take as both mission and guidance. We revere the example of the wolf—or at least, the Huntsman claim to, though they suffer from several severe misconceptions about wolves in the process.” Again, Tholi glanced sharply at him, but resumed gazing at the wolf as Ingvar kept going. “But that always leads back to the question: at what point must we stop being wild, and be tamed? If we truly immersed ourselves in the way of the wild to the utmost degree, we would simply be running naked through the woods scavenging for berries. Obviously, the Huntsmen do not seek to do this. And though I have been called specifically to correct them to the path from which they’ve strayed, I have no intention of doing so, either.”

He paused, drawing in breath and just looking at the wolf, drinking in her presence. She moved her head again, meeting his eyes.

“This is the balance the Huntsmen seek…that we must seek. If you, living in this moment, can feel the weight, the sacredness of what you are experiencing, then this is a path you can walk. This is what it means to be guardians of the wild. We sit here with our fire and our weapons, our clothing and our magic, our complex language and philosophies. But we do so out in the wild space, knowing—and respecting—that we are not the masters here. We invite the wild to sit at the edge of our fire, and are honored by her presence.

“We are not wild, nor tamed. We stand between two things and apart from both. Protecting them, from themselves and from each other.”

He fell silent, and no one spoke this time. The night stretched out, none of them willing to interrupt the reverence of the moment.

Until, fittingly, it was interrupted from outside. In the distant darkness, a single voice arose: the long, lonely howl of a wolf. Immediately it was followed by another, and then a third, singing together in harmony.

Right in front of them, the wolf at the edge of their firelight raised her own head and howled in reply. That close, her voice was almost piercing, but it was no less musical for that. She let out a single long note, ending it on a soft warble.

Then she stood up, turned around, and padded off into the darkness, in the direction of the family calling her back.

All of them stared into the night after the departing visitor, while wolves continued to cry from deep in the darkness beyond.

“We will meet her again,” Ingvar said quietly. “We have business with three packs in this area before it’s time for us to move on: the Huntsmen, the Rangers, and the wolves. Now that we are acknowledged by all three, we can truly begin tomorrow. It is from the wolves that we, and the other two, must learn the truth of the wild. It is a truth that I suspect they will not like. But they will hear it.”

The group were silent, listening to the wolves cry.


“I thought demonology and necromancy were completely separate things,” said Shook.

“Distinct, yes,” replied the stocky warlock introduced to him as Bradshaw, “but if by ‘completely separate’ you mean there are zero points of overlap, then no magical disciplines are completely separate, not even the four cardinal schools. Ultimately it all comes back to subjective physics—”

The woman, Vanessa, cleared her throat loudly.

“Yes, right,” Bradshaw said hastily. “Point being, what we are looking at here is soul magic. That’s not so much a school of magic in itself as a category of things you can do with magic—like necromancy itself, which you can do with infernomancy or fae craft most easily. There are some well-known uses of souls in infernal magic, notably the creation of incubi and succubi. Or those half-assed revenant things the local back-alley warlock is so fond of,” he added with a disparaging scowl. “Soulcraft is also well-known to the caster demons, too. Human souls barred from paradise by Vidius end up in Hell and only a very few impress Prince Vanislaas enough to become his children; the rest tend to get snapped up for use in spells by the khelminash or vrardexi.”

“I am torn between flattery that you think I understand any of this, and annoyance that you seem to think I give a shit,” Shook informed him.

Bradshaw blinked at him once and then turned to Mogul. “Embras, are you absolutely sure we need this clod alive?”

“Let’s show a bare minimum of courtesy to our guest, now,” Mogul said, grinning. “Think of it as setting an example.” The voluptuous, under-dressed woman clinging to his arm tittered, and Shook barely managed not to flinch. What with his recent experiences he was even more jumpy around succubi than a sensible person would be ordinarily. If anything, the fact that Vlesni was more overtly vampish than Kheshiri made him less alarmed by her. It was the innocent, well-behaved facade he feared.

“So,” he said pointedly, pushing down a surge of anger over Bradshaw’s crack at his expense, “these guys are using necromancy to get souls to power their magic?”

“Souls aren’t a power source,” Bradshaw said in a long-suffering tone that would’ve gotten anybody else punched. Shook might have punched him anyway, had there not been two other warlocks and a demon present. “They’re… Ugh. Comparing them to golem logic controllers is horribly inadequate and feels disrespectful, but the principle applies. A soul can process information, which is basically what casting a spell is, and serves as a focus point enabling the use of magic. The ability of a conscious being to observe and determine a reaction is key in any magical effect.”

“What about passive enchantments?”

“Those were made by a conscious caster, the effect is just delayed and tied to secondary stimuli. With a soul, you can do several interesting things. Attach it to something you want to animate, for example, or boost your own spells by adding what amounts to a secondary focus so it’s as if you are two casters working in concert, rather than one. What this does, as near as we can tell by examining the half-made array, is a kind of portal magic.”

“Huh,” Shook grunted, studying the spell circle scrawled in dried blood upon the warehouse floor. Empty warehouse: the best friend of anyone up to urban skullduggery. It was an open question whether the person who owned the place had any inkling what was going on here, much less whether they were complicit, but he didn’t bother to ask. This was the Black Wreath, they had undoubtedly seen and covered all the angles well in advance. “So. Basically, these guys are doing some kind of ritual sacrifice to make portals. Neat, I didn’t know that was possible.”

“All other things being equal, it should only be possible in theory,” said Mogul, patting Vlesni’s hand and then disentangling her from his arm to step forward and join them at the edge of the circle. “Here’s the fundamental problem with soul magic and necromancy in general: it is stepping very directly and aggressively on Vidius’s toes. Theoretically you can achieve almost any end with almost any type of magic, if you’re creative enough and powerful enough. The limits of possibility with necromancy are mostly unexplored, though, because as soon as you start doing necromancy on any significant scale you’ll find yourself ass-deep in valkyries.”

“And pause for dramatic effect,” Shook said dryly when Mogul did just that. “Next you’re gonna explain how these guys are doing this without pissing off Vidius. Oh, sorry, were you waiting for me to ask that?”

“Why is he here, again?” Bradshaw demanded.

“Oh, calm down,” Vanessa said with an amused little smile. “I like him. Or at least, I would if I knew a little bit less about his personal history.” She winked at Shook, who curled his lip. Vanessa was pretty enough, but he couldn’t get an idea what kind of figure she had thanks to that dumpy gray Wreath robe. Thinking back to Alan Vandro’s advice about women, he was keeping his focus on the fact that she could snap her fingers and boil his blood where he stood. In an ironic way, the conscious effort of reinforcing Vandro’s teachings above the habits Kheshiri had spent the last two years encouraging was helping to keep him grounded and alert.

“That is, indeed, the bloody knife in this little mystery,” Mogul drawled, showing no signs of annoyance at Shook’s attitude. “The last major necromantic event was that disaster at Veilgrad last year, which was caused by a chaos cult. Chaos, of course, fucks up all calculations by its very nature and can indeed be used to obscure the gaze of the gods. Once the Hand of Vidius was on-site, that place was swarming with soul reapers putting down skeletons. Last one before that was Tethloss the Summoner, who we killed because the son of a bitch had somehow got his mitts on a tome of Black Wreath spellcraft and was using our own workings to hide himself from the gods.”

“Hey, I remember that guy,” said Shook, interested in spite of himself. “I was up in Thakar when he got done in. I seem to recall it was the Fourth Legion that did it.”

“Pfft, they cleaned up his lingering summons. Which we left for them, as housekeeping is the proper duty of the Silver Legions once the real work is out of the way.” Mogul waved one hand in a languid gesture of dismissal. “No, the point is that when you see an organized use of necromancy, it always hinges upon some mechanism for hiding its use from Vidius. In this case, we have not identified the specific one, at least not precisely. What we have is circumstantial indication of who is behind this, and that provides a hint.”

“The Tide shall wash away impurity,” Bradshaw intoned, pointing to an arc of demonic runes scrawled around the edge of the circle. “This outer ring of text is in demonic, but it’s not spellcraft; it appears to be just dogma. And mostly gibberish, but…”

“But,” Mogul continued, “it fits. You are here ostensibly to hunt the cult that tried to kill the Emperor and was using some pretty damn advanced necromancy right in the middle of Tiraas.”

“We have no information on who or what that cult is,” Vanessa added, “which is incredibly suggestive. Nobody knows anything about these people, even the Thieves’ Guild and Imperial Intelligence. You know how hard it is to raise up an entire religion full of suicidal shocktroopers without anybody noticing? The very idea is ridiculous. It can be done, in theory, if you’ve got access to the huge amount of resources to keep the whole group—of hundreds, apparently—in total isolation. Plus a willingness to aggressively recruit—by which I mean borderline abduct and then brainwash—a lot of the kind of back-alley undesirables whom nobody will miss from cities all across the Empire. The Universal Church is one of the very few organizations with that kind of funds, and Justinian is probably the first Archpope since Sipasian who has cultivated enough personal loyalty from his clergy that enough of them would be willing to do something so skeevy and keep it under wraps.”

“And,” Mogul finished, nodding, “we’ve known for a while now that Justinian has some means of deflecting the notice of the Pantheon gods from some of his pet projects. Therefore this Tide is his creation.”

“Hn,” Shook grunted. “We more than suspected that already, but it’s nice to have a chain of evidence leading to it.”

“Circumstantial evidence, of course, but still,” Mogul agreed. “And that leads us to you, and as my dear friend Bradshaw keeps incredulously demanding, why I am bothering to bring you into the loop.”

“Pretty curious about that, myself,” Shook admitted. Bradshaw nodded emphatic agreement.

“Let me ask you this,” Mogul said to him in a less jocular tone. “Was the Jackal aware of any of this before he started his killing spree?”

“Well, I sure as fuck wasn’t, and I don’t think any of the rest of my crew were,” Shook said thoughtfully, “though Syrinx obviously has information she’s keeping from us. I don’t think Jacko was ever out of our sight before today enough to pick up details but…fuck if I know. Why?”

“Because this is the only example we’ve found of this Tide actually trying to do something magically constructive. Every previous indication was merely the site of a ritual sacrifice, where they murdered someone in a back alley to capture their soul. You said the Jackal is trying to rile the police; what he’s doing looks an awful lot like what the Tide were doing, only they were at least trying to be careful. He’s being the opposite.”

“Maybe,” Shook said reluctantly. “I have no reason to think so, specifically. That explanation does make sense, but honestly that twisted fuck might just as well be doing this because he thinks it’s funny.”

“What charming company you keep,” Bradshaw said flatly.

Shook pointedly turned to look at Vlesni and then back at him. “You don’t get to criticize, petunia.”

“The reason I’m showing you this,” said Mogul, “is so you can go back and inform your cronies. Because it doesn’t seem they have any idea what is happening here, and they really need to. Not that I trust most of your lot to buckle down and do what’s sensible, but you and Khadizroth, at least, I believe have that much basic intelligence. Plus that other elf who follows him around. Victor, was it?”

“Vespa,” Vanessa corrected.

“Vincent,” said Bradshaw.

“Close enough,” said Shook.

“This isn’t about trust, you see,” Mogul continued. “Syrinx, the Jackal, and Kheshiri neither know sense when it bites them on the nose, nor would they let it restrain them from scheming for their own advantage even if they recognized it. You, Khadizroth, and I think Snowe are another matter. I don’t mean to underplay the many, many currents blowing here, but this is more important.”

“Yeah?” Shook said warily, again reminding himself how dramatically untrustworthy these people were. It was an important reminder; Mogul was a very compelling speaker when he tried to be. “What the fuck is this, specifically?”

“That,” said Mogul, pointing to the scrawled circle, “is incomplete, but it is clearly intended to use a captured soul to open a dimensional portal, and its guidance runes are scribed in demonic. We have identified a dozen ritual murder sites where souls have been stolen and are assuming there are at least twice that out there since we haven’t once caught one of these bastards in the act. When I said twenty hellgates, Thumper, I wasn’t just trying to give you an example of the scale of the problem. I strongly suspect that that is the literal, specific plan.”

Shook let out a long, low whistle. “Why the fuck would anybody want to do a dumbass thing like that?”

“As for these Tide people, there’s this bit about washing away corruption,” said Bradshaw, wrinkling his nose as he stared down at the circle. “That’s bog standard doomsday cult horseradish. The world is corrupt, the world must be cleansed, yadda yadda. The kind of thing the ignorant think we set out to do.”

“But they’re just pawns,” Vanessa said quietly.

“What concerns me here is Justinian’s motivations,” Mogul agreed. “Unleashing huge amounts of random destruction is the desperate act of someone who considers himself cornered and urgently needs to upset the whole board. Believe me, I know. I’ve found myself repeatedly backed into that corner in the last few years. Why do you think I was willing to put a creature like Kheshiri into the hands of a creature like you?”

“No offense taken,” Shook said flatly.

Mogul grinned at him, but his expression just as quickly sobered. “What worries me, old boy, is what it means if Justinian feels he’s in that position. He’s one of the most powerful men in the world, and if we’re reading this right, he is willing to burn down a major city and unleash demons across half of N’Jendo just to create a distraction. The question is why, and no possible answer isn’t terrifying.”

“A great doom is coming,” Bradshaw murmured.

“Or,” said Shook, “to put it less pretentiously, shit’s about to get real.”


Merry emerged from the darkened old structure to creep up behind Principia. Trying to keep quiet was simple respect for their surroundings and the late hour; she was under no illusion that she was capable of sneaking up on an elf.

“I’ll take over,” she said softly, coming to a stop at the lieutenant’s shoulder.

Principia shook her head slowly, still staring across the flat plateau at the place where the eight students and their animal companions were arranged around the bonfire they’d built. “That’s okay, Lang. Go back to sleep, I’ve got this.”

“You need sleep too, LT.”

“Less urgently. I’m an elf.”

“Yeah, an elf who forgets I’ve got Shahai to fact-check your bullshit stories with. You need less food and air, not less sleep.”

“That sideways-eared race traitor,” Principia grumbled without rancor.

“Prin,” Merry said very quietly. “Go rest. Nothing’s gonna happen here. I can keep watch.”

“You know what they’re doing?”

Merry shifted her gaze to the students. The eight of them had arranged themselves in an equal formation around the bonfire, and were still awake despite it being well past midnight. Since coming back from the tree yesterday and arranging themselves thus, they hadn’t kept any specific pattern, for the most part staying in their assigned places, though they all moved around a fair bit. Sitting and kneeling in a variety of meditative postures, in some cases pacing (or in Fross’s case, hovering) back and forth in apparent thought. Occasionally they had crossed to one another’s positions for quiet exchanges, though they always returned to their assigned places.

Right now, Toby and Juniper were talking softly with their heads together, the only two currently out of position. Teal and Shaeine were both kneeling, eyes closed, facing each other across the distance between their specific spots around the edge of the firelight, F’thaan belly-up and fast asleep in the drow’s lap. Gabriel lounged on the ground, frowning at the horizon, while Trissiny stood at parade rest, staring at the Great Tree in the near distance with her hands behind her back. Ruda was pacing back and forth, absently swishing her jeweled rapier through the air and muttering to herself. Fross, for a wonder, was actually sitting on the ground at the moment, almost invisible in the firelight.

“Can’t say I do,” she said at last, “though it sure does look a lot more goal-directed than most of what they’ve done since Last Rock.”

“It’s a vigil,” Principia said quietly. “This is some Vidian thing Arquin suggested. They are going to do a ritual at dawn. Dusk and dawn are the powerful moments in Vidian ritual magic, boundaries between the two phases of the day. But first, an all-night vigil. It’s time to watch, to contemplate…to prepare.” She paused, then finished in a whisper. “I’m not sure what exactly they are keeping watch for, but I’m holding my own. I am not going to sleep, Lang. You may as well; there’s no sense in both of us being up all night. I’ll get a nap tomorrow, while they’re off at the tree.”

Merry stood behind her for several drawn-out seconds, studying the University students thoughtfully. Then she stepped forward and sat down at Principia’s side.

The elf shot her a sidelong frown. “Corporal…”

“I’m gonna crawl way out on a limb and guess they didn’t ask you to keep watch over them tonight,” Merry stated. “This is more one of those things you get to do because you avoided them telling you not to by not asking permission, right?”

Principia made an annoyed grimace at her.

Merry leaned over to bump the elf with her shoulder. “I’m not asking you, either.”

Principia shook her head, but didn’t protest any further. The plateau was quiet, then, as they all kept their vigil.


Dawn as always brought warmth, which was confusing when she opened her eyes, because it was not dawn. Yesterday she’d been awakened by sunlight streaming through the window right onto her bed, as the ramshackle old room in Leduc Manor lacked shutters, or even curtains. The sky outside was still just barely gray, though, at least an hour before sunrise. But it was so warm…

Hesthri stirred in her arms, and Natchua went fully rigid as memory and wakefulness crashed down on her. The demon mumbled in her sleep, burying her face back in Natchua’s collarbone. She was so warm, and surprisingly soft where she wasn’t armored, the texture of her skin smooth but patterned, almost like a snake’s. All of her skin, pressed close to all of Natchua’s.

The two of them entangled on one side of the wide bed, because the other was still a big damp patch where they’d…

Natchua squeezed her eyes shut again as if that would blot out the evidence of her most recent stupidity.

“Ssssshit.”

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15 – 18

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The good news was that they had finally found a way to take some of the attitude out of Taka.

“It might be better if you let it out,” Tholi suggested when she spun away from the group and fell to her knees, covering her mouth with a hand and heaving. “If your body wants to do something, it’s not a good idea to deny it. And the forest can absorb anything you spew.”

Ingvar had been impressed by Tholi today. The young man’s regard for November had increased markedly when she demonstrated that she knew how to build a proper snare and had no fear at all of skinning and dressing the rabbit whose fate had just rendered Taka almost incapacitated. At any rate, he hadn’t launched any barbs at her and had even shrugged off a couple of her own without rising to the bait. He was doing well with Taka, also, not only refraining from mocking her lack of wilderness skill but also not trying to woo her or suggest she should be tending someone’s firepit, as Ingvar would have expected a young man raised in a lodge to do. Tholi was impetuous and hot-headed as only a youth not yet in his second decade could be, but still he was showing surprising depths. Ingvar himself had needed the Rangers and their vision quest to truly confront how wrong the Shaathist cult was about its concept of the world, but so far it appeared his own say-so had been enough for Tholi to take on faith.

“I’m fine,” Taka grumbled unconvincingly after swallowing a couple of times. “I just never… I mean, the insides of animals are supposed to stay on the inside.”

“That’s hard to arrange, if you intend to eat them,” Tholi said, grinning.

“You’ve had meat before, haven’t you?” November added, raising her eyes from her work with the bloody skinning knife still in her hand.

“I don’t need shit from you,” Taka snapped, starting to round on her and just as quickly averting her gaze from the sight of the half-dressed rabbit.

“Whoah, hey.” November raised both hands peaceably, a gesture that was somewhat sullied by the dripping knife in one of them. “I’m not getting on your case, sister. I had just about the same problem the first time I had to do this. I’m just telling you something I was told, that helped me get used to it. If you eat meat, you’re better off knowing firsthand how it turns from a living thing into tasty food. All the steps, especially the nasty ones. Being kept in the dark about harsh truths is for children.”

“Well put,” Tholi agreed.

“Indeed,” said Ingvar, stepping over beside Taka. He had planned to kneel beside her, but she straightened upon his approach, trying to look defiant despite still looking queasy. “This is about being involved in every step of your own existence, having knowledge and respect for the chain of life that sustains you. And yes, parts of that are ugly, which is the point. Everything lives because something else died. The way of the wild demands that those sacrifices be honored.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she muttered. “And the upside is…?”

“Hard to see, from your position,” he replied, smiling. “It’s just difficult and gross when you’re introduced to it the first time. The satisfaction that comes from being a conscious part of the chain is difficult to express in words. A lot of the details of a life connected to life are really only comprehensible through experience.”

“Now, that’s Shaathist mumbo-jumbo if I ever heard it,” she said skeptically.

“I can see how you’d think that,” he said. “Let me just double-check with the least Shaathist person here. November, am I right?”

“He kind of is right, Taka,” she said, addressing herself to the other woman rather than answering him directly. “Though I personally would’ve pointed out that being self-reliant and able to survive on your own is a plenty good deal and not hard to put into words. But…yeah. Food you have to out and get yourself does make you feel, I dunno…linked to life.”

“I’m always astonished at how people fumble around trying to grasp the most basic concepts of existence,” Aspen said.

“That’s the result of people growing up separated from nature,” said Ingvar. “It leaves an absence in us, and that is part of what the way of the wild seeks to repair. You don’t truly know what you’re missing until you confront the lack. But people can and do live getting all their food from markets, with money they earned doing work that brought them into no contact with anything living. That seems like a barren sort of life to me, but I think it’s best not to judge anyone else’s path. I just want to make it clear, Taka, that if you can’t handle this, that doesn’t reflect badly on you as a person. But this kind of thing is going to be central to what we’re doing out here. If it’s not for you, then probably none of this is.”

“I didn’t say I was quitting, did I?” she retorted. Her eyes fell on the rabbit and she flinched, but then visibly steeled herself. “You guys are starting to sound like the Omnists. Well, like the parts of their lecturing I found the least annoying. Appreciating the chain of life is a whole other matter when you’re growing carrots than when you’re gutting fluffy bunnies…”

“It’s true,” Tholi agreed. “Look, don’t force yourself. Getting used to bloody work can take some acclimation; if you want to start by just watching, hey, that’s a place to begin.”

“You’re more laid back about this than I would’ve suspected, listening to you and this one tear into each other,” Taka commented, glancing at November.

“Any Huntsman worth his salt knows how to indoctrinate a woman into his cult,” November said, resuming work on the rabbit. “They always need more women. Can’t imagine why.”

“Is it really that hard to not needle at Tholi?” Aspen asked. “Come on. Half of everything you people say sounds like mad nonsense to me, but do I go and tell you about it every time?”

“Yes, you damn well do!” November exclaimed, earning a laugh from Tholi.

Ingvar was spared having to intervene in yet another argument by the appearance of a flurry of sparks in the air around them. The whole group bolted upright clutching whatever weapons they had at hand, save Rainwood and Aspen, who just watched curiously as streamers of reddish-gold light swirled through the air, fading to a pale green before dissipating.

“What was that?” Tholi demanded.

“Fairies,” said Aspen. “Little ones, not very interesting. I think they were here for him.”

“On the contrary, my dear, that was rather interesting,” said Rainwood, shooting her a smile. “My little friends rarely show themselves to others. I guess they like you.”

“Oh. Well.” November looked nonplussed. “Lucky us?”

“Lucky indeed,” Tholi said reverently. “The messengers of the Mother are a rare honor to behold. Any sign of their favor is a great occasion.”

“As the only one here whose mother she actually is,” Aspen said dryly, “I think you would be pretty disappointed.”

“I wonder what brought that on?” Ingvar kept his tone light, but fixed his stare on Rainwood, who was frowning pensively at the trees around them.

“That’s the other thing that’s interesting,” said the elf. “That was a warning: we are being hunted.” He turned his own gaze fully on Ingvar. “I don’t hear or smell anything dangerous out there. If the spirit guides hadn’t warned me, I would never suspect a thing.”

“So…it’s magical?” November straightened up, subtly shifting her grip on the knife in unconscious preparation to stab someone with it. “What kind of magic threats live out here? Taka, this is your country, isn’t it?”

“I’m from Onkawa, and as I think I’ve mentioned, I like travel on roads, sleep in inns, and work in towns. Hell if I know what kind of creepy-crawlies lurk out here in the boonies.”

“There are ways to conceal ones movements specifically from the senses of elves,” said Tholi. “I know that craft.”

Both women turned openly skeptical looks on him.

“I can’t work that craft,” he hastily clarified, “but I know it. That’s shaman stuff. Anyone raised in a lodge would be aware of it.”

“I’m grateful to your friends for the warning, Rainwood,” said Ingvar, looking around at the trees and deliberately projecting calm. He had found that nervous people would take cues from anyone who appeared to know what they were doing. “If the local Huntsmen wish to pay us a visit, I see no reason why they should not. These are the wilds they hunt; we are only passing through. Come, let’s be about our work. If fellow travelers approach us, so be it.”

“And if they ‘approach’ us by shooting arrows out of the trees?” November demanded.

“I can’t think of a single reason why Huntsmen would do such a thing,” Ingvar replied.

“I can think of several! And no, I’m not just being an Avenist. Aren’t you specifically kind of a Shaathist heretic, Ingvar? What exactly does your cult do to people like you?”

“That’s a question,” Aspen agreed. “This whole project of yours for Shaath is kind of a threat to the people in power in your cult. And the way Tholi describes what’s happening in Tiraas these days, they really like being in power.”

Ingvar deliberately breathed in, and then out.

“Rainwood?”

The elf closed his eyes and his lips began to move in a few silent whispers. As if in response, a slight breeze sighed over the group, carrying an oddly minty scent.

“There,” said Rainwood, opening his eyes and grinning. “Arrows out of the trees will not be a problem. For the record, I think Ingvar is right; that wouldn’t be characteristic behavior for Huntsmen. Still, better safe than pincushioned.”

“Thank you, Rainwood,” said Ingvar, nodding to him. “All right, back to what we were doing. Taka, I suggest you take Tholi’s advice and just watch for now. November, you clearly have that well in hand; Tholi, start on the other rabbit, please.”

“And who’s going to prepare the squirrel, then?” Tholi asked.

“Ugh, why even bother?” Aspen groused. “There’s not enough meat on that thing to have been worth killing it.”

“That was what the snare caught,” said Ingvar, “so that is what we eat. If you don’t care for squirrel, that’s more for the rest of us. Would you like to help, Aspen?”

“I’ve watched you do it enough times,” she said disinterestedly. “And you know I like my meat just as well raw.”

“You also like it just as well prepared, unless you’ve misled me about your preferences. Take Taka’s reaction to heart, Aspen; you’re going to be around people more and more, and even seasoned hunters will be put off if you just bite the head off something.”

“One time I did that!”

“And do you remember what I said, then?”

Aspen stomped over to sit down next to Taka, who eyed her warily, but the dryad just planted her cheeks in her hands and made a production of staring at November, who was again working on the rabbit.

Ingvar lightly patted her hair. “Thank you, Aspen.”

In the end, fortunately, there were no arrows out of the trees. November and Tholi finished preparing their rabbits at about the same time, he being a good bit faster at it than she, and another debate had just begun regarding the fate of the unfortunate squirrel when five Huntsmen of Shaath approached out of the trees. Well, three, accompanied by two youngsters in their teens who had neither longbows nor wolf’s head pins. The five of them moved deliberately, making no effort to hide their approach, and aside from carrying their bows as usual had no weapons drawn. They crossed the space between the treeline and Ingvar’s small hunting camp at a pace which gave the group ample time to put down what they were doing and turn to face their visitors.

“Well, met, brothers,” Ingvar said, nodding once.

“Well met, brother,” replied one of the men, marking himself as the leader among them. Unlike the Rangers they’d met the previous day, who had approached in a neat wedge formation, these were a more casual party; he was actually at one end of what varied between a line and a cluster as they navigated around underbrush. “We’ve heard a certain Brother Ingvar and some…allies of his might be in the area. Would that be you?”

“I am Ingvar,” he replied simply. “I apologize for trespassing on your hunting grounds. We intend to pass through without staying long.”

“There’s game enough for everyone,” the leader replied neutrally. “I am Brother Djinti, master of our lodge. Greetings, daughter of Naiya. You honor us with your presence.”

“That’s what they tell me,” Aspen replied.

“I wonder if we have offended you in some way, Brother,” Djinti said, again focusing on Ingvar. “Is it not custom for a Huntsman new to a forest to present himself at the lodge before hunting in its environs?”

“It is, and I apologize if any offense was given,” Ingvar replied. “You have given me none, and I meant none. As you can clearly see, I am traveling with…well, a rather peculiar assortment of companions, somewhat to my own surprise. I have found it the best policy to avoid introducing them to people unless necessary.”

“Guests are always welcome at a lodge,” said Djinti in the same deliberately calm tone.

“I think that’s for your sake more than ours,” said Taka. “These two fight like a pair of strange cats, and while I haven’t actually seen the dryad eat somebody, we all know they do.”

Everyone turned to stare at her.

“Taka,” Ingvar said reprovingly.

“Yeah, yeah, it’s very bad of me to say it,” she drawled, folding her arms. “But be honest: am I wrong?”

“Perhaps I take your point after all, Brother Ingvar,” said Djinti, finally cracking a smile. “You do keep unusual company. I am surprised to see this, in truth. I wouldn’t have expected the Shadow Hunters to speak truth to us, especially when they spun a tale such as this, but…here you all are, exactly as described.”

“The Rangers told you we were here?” Ingvar demanded incredulously. “Why?”

“This one’s demanding,” muttered one of the boys, edging closer to his leader and leaning over as if to whisper, but not quite managing to lower his voice. “Djinti, I think this is a woman.”

He was the only Tiraan in the group, the rest being dark-skinned Westerners, and appeared to be at least three years younger than Tholi to judge by the patchy state of his beard.

Djinti gave him a look of long-suffering annoyance with which Ingvar sympathized, having led more than a few youngsters on their first hunts. “Brother Ingvar is twinsouled, Samaan. Close your mouth before you catch a fist in it. I’m not going to protect you from the consequences of any insult you give.”

The lad grunted derisively. “Oh, please, twinsouled. Where I come from, superstitions—”

He staggered froward, Djinti having roundly slapped the back of his head. “If I remember rightly your reasons for fleeing your last lodge, I don’t care to hear any of their superstitions. Brother Ingvar has passed all the trials of manhood Shaath requires, which is more than you can say, pup. Be still while your elders talk. My apologies for the boy,” he added to Ingvar with a deep nod. “He has much to learn, and to un-learn.”

“None necessary,” Ingvar replied. “I’ve shepherded teenagers, too.”

Djinti smiled again, though the expression quickly faded. “I’m concerned to see that the Shadow Hunters spoke at least some truth, Brother. I’m not inclined to give them much credit, but the rest of what they said about you was… Troubling.”

“Oh?” Ingvar tilted his head back. “And what would that be?”

“The story I was fed is that you are traveling the land with your dryad companion, and now these others, trying to dig up ancient secrets from their lodges to discredit your own faith.”

“Is that how they put it,” he mused, narrowing his eyes.

“That’s a lie,” Tholi snapped.

“It’s a misrepresentation,” Aspen corrected. “You could argue that’s what we’ve been doing, but anybody who chose to put it that way is just trying to stir up trouble.”

“I was beginning to suspect it was something along those lines,” Djinti said, nodding. “You understand, Brother Ingvar, the threat of a heretic prowling my forests is something I have to address. Firmly. Perhaps you could explain what you have been doing, and shed some light on why the Shadow Hunters would try to maneuver you into conflict with my lodge?”

“As to that, I have absolutely no idea,” Ingvar said frankly. “Aspen and I have visited several Ranger enclaves over the last year. While their ways are a little strange by the standards of Huntsmen, I found them to be as hospitable as I would expect from any proper lodge, and generally not inclined to court trouble.”

“Well, those guys we met last night sure weren’t friendly,” said Taka. “You must’ve done something to set them off.”

“I wish I understood what,” Ingvar said, frowning.

“I wouldn’t concern myself too much with the opinions of people like that,” Djinti grunted. “What, then, have you been doing with them? These are heretics and degenerates, Brother. They have nothing to teach a true Huntsman of Shaath.”

“On the contrary,” Ingvar replied, “they know a great deal, Brother Djinti. The Rangers collect libraries and practice healing arts as well as walking the wild as we do. Their enclaves are like a proper lodge, mixed with an Omnist and a Nemitite temple. There’s a great deal a true Huntsman could learn from them—provided he doesn’t keep a mind so open his brain is in danger of falling out. I have been taking advantage of their collected knowledge, but I assure you, I do not uncritically accept anything said to me, by anyone. Most especially not someone with an obvious agenda.”

“Mm.” Djinti’s face had gone impassive again; his two fellow Huntsmen were likewise still and completely silent, while the two youths had grown increasingly fidgety the longer the conversation wore on. To someone familiar with Shaathist ways, they presented an image of carefully controlled aggression. “You are not reassuring me, Ingvar, especially as you have not answered my question. What do you seek to learn from the Shadow Hunters?”

Ingvar thought rapidly, keenly aware that every second that passed without him answering was just digging the hole deeper. He was better at politicking than most Huntsmen, which meant he understood very well the importance of not doing so with them. Shaathists would be offended by disingenuous doublespeak even more than outright lies.

And yet, the Rangers had put him in a real bind with this maneuver. In hindsight, he understood very well why Mary had led him on such a roundabout path to the truth. She had been completely right: there was zero chance of him accepting it had it simply been told to his face, and there was just as little chance of it here. Telling these men what he was up to would as good as confirm their suspicions. And they were right, of course; his goal was nothing less than heresy. Pointing out that their entire religion was the true heresy was not going to help his case.

It had to be truth, though, and not just because trying to weasel out of this would antagonize the local lodge. Ingvar had no idea, as yet, how he was going to introduce his new ideas to the Huntsmen as a whole, but that was the ultimate agenda. They had to know the truth, somehow. Throwing them off the scent was worse than useless, it would be progress in entirely the wrong direction.

This was the situation he was in, whatever he wanted. Sometimes nature sent you a juicy elk and the perfect companions for your quest; sometimes you got a squirrel and a group of suspicious Huntsmen.

“I set out from Tiraas guided by dreams,” he said. “Visions sent to me by Shaath.”

“You’re remarkably blessed, then,” Djinti said tonelessly.

“I resisted them for a long time for exactly that reason,” Ingvar agreed. “Who am I, anyway? The idea of an important destiny is no part of what I see for myself. Shaath did not relent, though, and eventually I had to obey. This quest has taken me places I could not have imagined—places I would have specifically refused to go, had I known in advance what was coming. Even now I do not feel that I am someone who deserves an important role in the world; all I want, all I have tried to be good for, is to walk the wilds and be of service to my lodge as it needs me. At every step, though, I keep being forcibly reminded that there are greater powers in this world, and that they expect me to serve as called. I’ve been guided on this quest by the shaman we know as Mary the Crow. And more recently, her younger kinsman,” he added, nodding to Rainwood, who made a face. “That makes two shaman of that line whose spirit guides have pushed them to give me guidance. I was led to Aspen, here, who is a companion I could never have expected to share a journey with. I’ve walked with elves, with the Rangers, with a green dragon and a kitsune of Sifan. Most recently,” he continued, turning to look at November, “and most surprisingly yet, I’ve been prompted by Avei to continue in this quest, the absolute last being whose input I expected, or would have asked for.”

“That’s a lot of eloquent justification,” Djinti said, “which continues not to tell me what you are doing.”

“What I am doing,” Ingvar said evenly, “is facing extremely difficult truths. That is the long and the short of it, Brother. The world is not as we were taught. I’ve learned things about the gods and about Shaath in particular that have shaken me to the foundations of my soul. I’m sorry for my roundabout way of speaking; I don’t intend to mislead. I am simply aware that baldly throwing a shocking truth in someone’s face invites revulsion and not much else. It has taken me all this time to come to grips with the things I have learned, and I still don’t truly know how to face them. I have even less idea how to go about telling anyone else. That is the answer I am trying to find.”

“With the Shadow Hunters,” Djinti said grimly.

“The Rangers, the elves, the University at Last Rock. The Bishop of the Thieves’ Guild, the Sarasio Kid… And now, you. I continue to be constantly surprised at the people I meet and the things I learn from them.”

“Well, perhaps you don’t give us enough credit,” Djinti suggested. “Tell me your frightening truth, Brother Ingvar, and we will see how repulsed I am.”

And there it was. He had already deflected too much, Ingvar realized; there was nothing for it but the plain facts, and whatever disaster he suspected would follow.

But a strange sensation had come over him, a feeling he knew well from other kinds of hunts. A prickling in the spine urging him into action; a certainty that something in him knew the right way to proceed, even if that thing was not his conscious mind. He might be more surprised than anyone by what he did next, but he had faith that it would be the right thing.

“Angthinor the Wise was a liar,” he said simply.

A stir rippled through the five of them. Samaan and one of the full Huntsmen bared teeth angrily; Djinti held up one hand to insist on calm from his fellows, though his attention remained fixed on Ingvar.

“Very well,” he said, “I see why you hesitated to just blurt that out. What, exactly, did the father of our organized faith lie about?”

“Very nearly everything,” Ingvar said, more nervous with each word but still trusting that feeling. “From the nature of wolves and women, to the nature of gods. I have been traveling the world asking questions of every ancient source I can find because the lore I was taught as a Huntsman contains almost nothing true. And the worst part is that I cannot even indulge my own desire to flee from this and go back to my simple life, because the corrupt state of the Huntsmen today has damaged our very god to the point that even Avei weeps for him. We must change, Brother. We must change everything.”

“You—” The Huntsman who had started to lunge forward came to a halt as Djinti again held up a hand.

“Then what the Shadow Hunters said was true,” the lodge master said quietly. “You’ve come here bringing heresy.”

“My brother,” Ingvar replied in just as soft a tone, “you have been raised in heresy. I come bringing the truth.”

Djinti sighed softly through his nose. “You know what I am forced to do with a heretic, Ingvar.”

All three of them drew arrows and nocked them. The light in the clearing shifted gold as November embraced the divine and Tholi drew an arrow of his own.

There it was. That prickle intensified; this was the defining moment. And suddenly, Ingvar understood what he needed to do.

“You’re not going to do anything,” he replied calmly. “You are caught between two of these lies I speak of, Brother, and can’t move in either direction. Because the way of the wild, as you were taught it, ultimately respects nothing but strength. And yet, the other lie insists that you cannot possibly be brought to heel by a man who hides behind a woman’s skirts. But here we are. Aspen?”

She stepped forward, grinning unpleasantly, and began systematically cracking her knuckles.

All five of the Shaathists widened their eyes; the three Huntsmen stepped back once, and Djinti elbowed Samaan back before he could open his mouth again.

“You’re not going to impress me by playing clever word games, Ingvar. I live in a world where warlocks and wizards exist; it isn’t news to me that an honorable man can be undone by unnatural powers.”

“Unnatural?” Ingvar shook his head. “Brother, do you hear yourself? What is more natural than a dryad?”

He let that hang in the air for a few seconds, watching Djinti’s expression darken and those of his companions grow more uncertain, before continuing.

“I can have your entire party—your entire lodge—demolished at a word, without raising a hand myself. You do not even dare to retaliate, because you know what Naiya will do if you so much as scratch my friend. So which is true, Brother Djinti? Is strength and dominance the only final truth? Or is it the place of a woman to submit and surrender?”

“You know well that different rules apply to the fae. And especially to a dryad!”

“But you are not contending with the dryad, Brother; she would take no interest in you at all, if not for me. You are dealing with a fellow Huntsman who lets her stand before him—and yet, still successfully holds your fate in his hand.”

“I can put an end to all this right now,” Djinti snarled, drawing back his arrow and aiming it right at Ingvar’s face. “Your dryad might well kill us all, but your heresy would be stillborn! That might be good enough.”

The expressions of the other four, particularly the two teens, suggested they didn’t necessarily agree with that analysis.

“You are angry, now,” Ingvar said calmly. “It is worth asking yourself why.”

“Enough of your mind games!”

“You are a man of honor and of action, Brother Djinti; if you deemed it justified to shoot me you would have done so, not told me about it. You respect strength and do not fear pain. Nothing here should disrupt the poise of a Hunstman of your rank except the thing I have already said: you are caught between the falsehoods of your doctrine in a way that forces you to confront them. And I know this outrage, Brother, believe me. I know it well. There is nothing more traumatic than having to face the fact that something fundamental to your very identity is false.”

Djinti loosed his arrow. November yelled and Aspen took a step forward, but neither Rainwood nor his spirits intervened. The shaft whistled past Ingvar’s ear to disappear into the foliage behind him. There was no way a hunter of Djinti’s experience could have missed that shot, at that range, unless he had wanted to.

“This is what I bring you,” Ingvar said, taking one deliberate step forward. “I bring pain. The rites of the Huntsmen send us out to face the worst the wild has to offer. Privation, danger, struggle, suffering—because it is by enduring it that we prove we are men, and grow stronger. I bring you a pain like nothing you have ever known, a pain of the mind and the soul, not the body. I’ve been sent to reach into your life and claw away the lies that form every comforting thing you think you know. You’ll suffer for this, Brother; we all will. But just as with any of our rites, those who have the strength within them to endure will emerge from this tribulation wiser and stronger than you could have imagined before.”

He took another step. As one, all five took two steps back from him.

“What I offer you is far worse than heresy, my brothers: I offer you truth. I can promise you two things. Before this is done, you will hate me. And when it is done, you will thank me.”

The Huntsmen continued to retreat, all of them looking uncertainly to Djinti now.

“You’ve called down hell on your own head, Ingvar,” Djinti said, clutching his bow as if for comfort. “I must send to the Grandmaster himself about this. You’ll be the prey of a Wild Hunt before this month is done.”

“Call them, then,” Ingvar replied. “The truth will break them, just as it broke me. But I emerged from my breaking stronger. Will you?”

Djinti held his gaze a moment longer, then finally turned and loped off into the forest, his fellow Huntsmen following. In seconds, even the sound of their passage was gone.

Taka let out a long, low whistle.

“That,” Ingvar said quietly, frowning after the departed Huntsmen, “was far too easy.”

“Easy?” November said incredulously. “You thought that was easy? I thought somebody was gonna die!”

“A simple rhetorical trick shouldn’t have so ensnared him,” Ingvar murmured, eyes narrowed in deep thought. “I have dealt with far too many faithful of many different faiths to believe they would be so easily cowed. Unless…”

“Unless?” Aspen prompted after he trailed off.

Ingvar turned back around to face the rest of the group. “Unless he, and the rest of them, were already primed for it. If they were already grappling with uncomfortable questions, then I could see that small reminder pushing them over the precipice.”

“I keep telling you,” Rainwood said with an amused little smile, “the spirits know what they’re doing. As, in my experience, does Avei. There’s reason all this is coming to a head right now, and right here. I suspect we haven’t begun to learn the full reason yet.”

Ingvar drew in a deep breath and then let it out in a rush, expelling some of the accumulated tension. “Well. If nothing else, that also helps pin down our next step. I want to have a talk with those Rangers, and this time I don’t mean to politely back away if they get shirty. That little ploy was entirely uncalled for.”

“Not to mention downright weird,” Tholi added. “Shadow Hunters approaching Huntsmen that way is just… I never even heard of such a thing. Why the hell is it so important to those clowns to get rid of us?”

“It’s like he said,” November murmured. “If you confront people with a truth they don’t like, they get really nasty.”

“Time enough for that tomorrow,” Ingvar decided. “For now, we hunt.”

“Yes!” Tholi grinned. “We’ll teach them to mess with us!”

“No, Tholi,” he said patiently, “I mean we literally hunt. Two rabbits and a squirrel will not feed six people, especially when one eats like Aspen.”

“I’m glad you said it and not me,” the dryad agreed. “Apparently it’s unseemly for me to want stuff, even if it’s just food.”

“The word is ‘greedy,’” Taka said helpfully.

“Rainwood,” said Ingvar, “please stay here with the girls. Tholi, Aspen, we’ll go bring down some proper game. It shouldn’t be too terribly difficult once we’re not shepherding two neophyte hunters; I’ve seen evidence of a lot of deer in these woods. And that way, there’s one person with each group who neither Huntsmen nor Rangers will be likely to challenge even if they decide to do something rash.”

“Speaking of that,” said November, “this Wild Hunt business sounds…serious. How worried should we be, exactly?”

“For today,” Ingvar said firmly, “we will address the immediate needs of survival. And then, very soon, we are going to have to deal with the question of who is going to be the hunter, and who the prey.”

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