Tag Archives: Elder Linsheh

12 – 1

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“Don’t worry about it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m aware—”

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

“Magnan didn’t actually do that—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like I said—”

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

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

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

“I was a priestess of Izara.”

Slowly, he sat back down.

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

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

“I’m not familiar with them…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you ever regretted it?”

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

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

“Not once.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Be silent, Adimel,” Linsheh ordered curtly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both women pointed fingers at him.

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

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

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

“Ah, if I may?”

Both turned to glare at the speaker.

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

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

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

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

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

“So polite, these Awarrions,” Tellwyrn mused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you all right?” Linsheh asked Adimel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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10 – 35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adimel sighed.

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

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

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

In short, it was an elven grove.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adimel chuckled, shaking his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You need to leave.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Bet you don’t,” Flora muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They won’t,” Fauna said simply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ain’t that the truth,” Joe agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh,” said Joe.

“Yup,” Darling agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh,” said Ingvar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was, at least, a smiling face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And shadow elementals?” she said patiently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It had claws,” Basra pointed out.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Two?” Covrin exclaimed in horror.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What will you do?” Adimel inquired.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why afternoon?” Joe asked, frowning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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