Tag Archives: Ingvar

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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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15 – 14

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“So…now what?” November asked the next morning.

The group stilled, all turning expectantly to Ingvar.

“With one path closed,” he said slowly, standing and beginning to kick dirt over the last embers of their campfire, “we would naturally move on to the next. Aspen and I have been traveling widely across the continent, seeking answers and wisdom among the elves and the Ranger enclaves. If we were to keep to that pattern, this would be the time to move on to find another of those.”

“There aren’t any groves west of the Wyrnrange,” Rainwood pointed out. “You might find a few pilgrims or hunters around the Deep Wild’s frontier, but this isn’t elf country.”

“There’s more Shadow Hunter lodges, though,” Taka added. “All the way up north along the mountain range, just like the temples I was talking about yesterday.”

“But,” Ingvar said patiently, “I believe it is time to pursue a new course of action. Something more purposeful.”

“Do we really need to?” Aspen asked. “I liked what we were doing.”

“So did I,” he said with a smile. “But the world turns. All living things must be aware of the season and act accordingly. Our circumstances are suddenly different, and I feel it’s time to take more direct action.”

“So,” November repeated, “what do we do now, then?”

“First,” said Ingvar, “we hunt.”

Tholi grinned and Taka grimaced.

“Well, good,” Aspen said irritably. “Since you lot have eaten all our food, I guess we sorta have to now.”

“It’s only right for companions to share,” Ingvar said. “Food for two stretched between six will naturally disappear quickly. It was freely offered, Aspen, so that’s the end of it. Never hold a favor over someone if you gave it without asking payment in the first place. Still, you are right; we weren’t expecting to provide for this many people, and with our stores depleted, we should restock.”

“You guys have any money?” Taka asked. “Because this is the backcountry, but it’s still in the Empire. There’s places where you can buy stuff; I know where most of them are.”

“We hunt,” Ingvar said again, firmly. “There is more at stake than a need for supplies. I am planning for our next steps beyond survival, for the fulfillment of this quest. Rainwood has offered some helpful advice toward that end. That, too, will require hunting. Both to seek out some things we will need, and to engage in the spiritual act of the hunt.”

November grimaced. “Spiritual act? You’re talking about hunting.”

“If you bothered to understand the slightest thing about Shaathist faith,” Tholi said, rolling his eyes, “you wouldn’t even think of asking such a question. To begin with—”

“Hey, I have an idea!” Aspen interjected. “How about Ingvar explains this part? Listening to you two screech at each other stopped being funny after the first five minutes.”

“Again, Aspen is right,” Ingvar said, not troubling to hide his amusement. The dryad preened visibly at the praise while he continued. “The hunt is sacred in Shaath’s faith because it is the ultimate act of participation in the wild. Hunting requires you to immerse yourself in nature, to know and respect it. Approached in the proper way, it encourages you to be grateful for what nature gives, and to give back to it.”

“I see,” November mused. “Fair enough. I’m actually sort of curious to learn more, now.”

“That’s what all of this is about,” Ingvar said, smiling. “And so, we hunt. Let’s head east, into the foothills.”

“All righty, then,” Taka said easily, rising to her feet and beginning to saunter in that direction. “What’re we hunting for, exactly?”

“Uh, we?” Aspen said, raising her eyebrows.

“I mean no offense, Taka,” Ingvar said more politely, “but…why are you still here? Obviously I wasn’t about to chase you off in the middle of the night, but you’ve fulfilled Brother Nandu’s request to guide us here. I thought you would be returning to your own temple.”

“Eh.” She shrugged, turning to lean against a tree. “The temple’s probably better off without me. I was just about to decide Omnism wasn’t for me, anyway.”

“You didn’t seem to fit in there,” November agreed.

“And you want to come with us?” Ingvar pressed, frowning. “I’m not sure you understand what we’re doing.”

“The broad strokes,” Taka said. “This is some kind of Shaathist reform thing you’re up to, right? I mean, I’ll leave if you don’t want me here, but if it’s okay I’d like to stick around, yeah. Maybe this isn’t the path I’m looking for. Then again, maybe it is.”

“We did find our way to her just as you were being guided to new allies,” Rainwood added. “Sometimes a chance encounter is just that. Sometimes it’s not.”

“That’s fantastically helpful, thank you,” Aspen said acidly. The shaman made a grandiose bow in her direction.

Ingvar hesitated a moment longer, thinking rapidly. Taka’s eyes were on him, but so were everyone else’s.

“Very well,” he said. “I can see no good reason to turn away a willing soul. I will ask for respect for our purpose and one another from everyone here, but…” He cast a quick glance over Tholi and November. “…it seems a little two-faced to turn you away based on that when we haven’t really established that respect among those of us already involved.” Both of them looked away, from each other and from him.

“I will do my best to rein in the attitude,” Taka promised solemnly. Ingvar hoped he was imagining the sarcasm behind it.

“Well…I guess we’re off, then,” Tholi said, lifting his bow. “It’s been a while since I hunted with younglings, and they were…well, young. I don’t expect this is going to go hugely well, with a whole bunch of amateurs along.”

“Again,” said Aspen, striding up alongside him as the group began moving off toward the mountains. “Elf, dryad, two Huntsmen. It’ll be fine. It’s just the girls who’ll need some hand-holding.”

Tholi nodded. “Well, Stark, I apologize in advance if I lose patience. Since it’s your first time I’ll handle your share of the cleaning. Taking a blade to a dead animal makes some people queasy, I understand.”

“Haven’t we already been over this?” she retorted. “I’ve been on wilderness excursions. Not to the extent you have, I’m sure, but the whole point was to go out there and not die. You know what there is to eat in the Golden Sea? Animals. That’s about it.”

“Really?” He gave her a legitimately interested look, falling back to walk beside her. “I haven’t had the privilege myself, yet. What sort of game is there in the Golden Sea?”

November looked at him askance, as if expecting a trick, but answered openly. “Mostly the kinds of game you find in the Great Plains in general. Rabbits, antelope, bison. Also coyotes and the odd lion, though those aren’t exactly game.”

“Predators aren’t good for eating,” Tholi agreed, nodding. “Good hunting, though, for trophies!”

“I don’t see the point of killing a living thing if you’re not planning to do anything with it.”

“The point is not to do so unless you have specific need,” he said seriously, and Ingvar marveled to see her turning her head to listen. “There are a number of practical reasons to hunt predators. If they grow too numerous they can wreck an entire ecosystem; Huntsmen develop a close relationship with the wilds in which we hunt, and sometimes protecting them involves recognizing when a species has gotten out of hand and culling a few. We’re also called in when a particularly dangerous specimen starts going after farm animals—or worse, people. That last is a necessity, but I always hate to do it. Big cats, for example, rarely take to attacking humans unless they’ve been maimed by humans and left unable to hunt their natural prey.”

“Not the cats that live on this continent, anyway,” Ingvar interjected. “Tigers have been known to take people.”

“Right,” Tholi agreed, nodding. “But of course, to fulfill that responsibility, Huntsmen have to be trained, and that means occasionally going after predators just to learn how. The trophies we take from those hunts are highly sacred, and are part of many of our rituals.”

“I see,” November said neutrally. “I guess…you lot do serve a purpose.”

“Everyone serves a purpose,” Tholi grunted.

“That isn’t even close to true,” Taka said wryly.

He chuckled. “All right, fair enough. I meant, all the cults. We have arguments between ours that I don’t think we’re ever going to resolve, but even Huntsmen won’t claim that priestesses of Avei are useless. Well…the Huntsmen I respect don’t say such things,” he added more pensively. “Unfortunately, that isn’t all of them… Well, anyway. I’ve heard stories of more exotic things that live in the Golden Sea, have you seen any?”

“Oh, yeah! There are some fae and magical animals out there. Unicorns, of course, but you don’t mess with those unless you wanna be up to your neck in angry plains elves. My class saw a roc, once, but not up close. We chased it off with spells before it could get any ideas. And there are extinct species, too; apparently the space-twisting nature of the Sea also twists time sometimes. Trissiny told me she saw a smilodon out there once—a really big lion with saber fangs, basically.”

“I know what a smilodon is. That’s a rare find! Did she kill it?”

“No, just scared it off. My class once saw a bird that I swear was twenty feet tall!”

“Right, you mentioned the roc.”

“No, this was a flightless bird, like an ostrich. Except ten times the size and pretty barrel-chested, with a mouthful of fangs instead of a beak.”

“Sounds like a tyran,” Rainwood said. “You’re lucky to have been within sight of one of those and lived to tell about it.”

“Yeah, they don’t like being pelted with arcane bolts any more than rocs do, as it turns out. Pretty much any mundane animal will flee from magic, modern or prehistoric.”

“Most animals,” Tholi corrected, grinning. “Don’t ever fire a wand at a honey badger.”

“What’s a honey badger?”

“They have those up in Onkawa,” Ingvar said. “Fortunately not this far south. They’re basically dog-sized rodents that don’t know the meaning of fear. It’s only in the age of modern science that they’re understood to be animals; for centuries people thought they were demons. That was the simplest explanation for that level of aggression.”

“Sooo,” Taka drawled, “what I’m hearing is, I’m the only one here with no hunting experience.”

Tholi turned his head to frown at her. “What? I thought you said you’ve spent your life traveling up and down this mountain range. How have you done that without knowing how to feed yourself?”

“I can feed myself just fine without hunting, thanks for your concern. Do work, get money, buy stuff. You know, like a normal person.”

“We’ll teach you,” Invar assured her, giving Tholi a look that caused the younger Huntsman to shut his mouth. “Knowing and learning the ways of the wild is going to be a central part of what we do as a group. For a while, I expect all our hunts to be at least half training exercises.”

“So basically,” Taka said, grinning, “we’re gonna starve.”

“If our beginners don’t have much luck,” he replied with a smile, “Tholi, Aspen and I will take care of finding game while the rest of you take a break. I promise we won’t reach the end of the day without fresh meat.”

“That was a joke, I wasn’t actually worried. Like Aspen said, more of this group than otherwise knows what they’re doing in the woods.”

“At least somebody listens to me,” Aspen muttered.

“And what about non-food?” Taka continued. “You said we were hunting for something else. Something you expect to find in the mountains.”

“Yes,” Ingvar said more seriously, nodding. “And thank you for mentioning it. Tholi, Aspen, Rainwood, I’d like you to keep your eyes open for signs, as well. As soon as we can, we need to find some wolves.”


The three of them walked down the broad, arched tunnel which passed for one of the city’s underground streets in silence, the noise of traffic and commerce being left far behind along with the sunlight. This, clearly, was a night spot; it being still early in the morning, nobody here was up and about.

“Always wanted to visit Ninkabi,” Jonathan mused. “The architecture is really something else, even more amazing in person than in the paintings I’ve seen. So naturally, first thing we do is go underground.”

Both women looked sidelong at him.

“Yeah, I know,” he said with a tiny grin. “We’re not here to sightsee, anyhow. The irony just jumped out at me. I’m finding myself a little more sensitive to those, these days.”

“Not necessary,” Natchua said. She was carrying her carved ebony staff, but holding it horizontally at her side rather than using it as a walking aid. “Remember, we’re here to gather information. A certain amount of sightseeing is implied in our mandate, so long as we don’t lose focus.”

“Well, good,” he said thoughtfully. “Much as I hate to do the tourist thing, I’d like to see if I can pick something up for Gabriel. I bet he’d love this place.”

“As long as it’s got girls, he would,” Natchua muttered. Suddenly she halted, raisin her staff up to bar their way.

“Problem?” Jonathan was instantly on the alert, one hand coming to rest on the wand holstered at his belt.

“An obstacle, not a problem,” she said tersely, narrowing her eyes as if studying something they could not see. “There are wards across this passage. Infernal wards…more sophisticated than anything I have ever seen. In fact… That’s amazing, I believe these are keyed into an arcane field. I can’t sense it directly, but the infernal magic intersecting with it…”

“What would be the point of that?” Melaxyna asked. The succubus wore the face of a Tiraan woman of average looks, having opted to match herself to Jonathan’s appearance rather than trying to pass for a local.

“Information processing. All magic is information processing, up to a point, but infernomancy is only so useful as an aid to calculations. Arcane magic is excellent for that, though.”

“This is a public street,” Jonathan protested, then glanced around. “Isn’t it?”

“I note that we’re standing even with the last doors on the side walls,” Melaxyna said. “Which means the wards are blocking off the door that’s at the end down there. Second Chances… Looks like some kind of bar.”

“Then that’s our destination,” Natchua observed. “You stay here, Mel, these wards will identify you instantly. And I can’t see the alarm function directly, but you don’t weave permanent wards of this quality and not have one.”

“Won’t they spot you?” the succubus protested.

Natchua grinned. “My presence, yes. Possibly that I’m an elf. But I know things about the craft of magical stealth that even the Black Wreath doesn’t. My magic will not be detected until I decide to make it so. Wait here, you two, and watch each other’s backs. I don’t anticipate trouble, but this is obviously another powerful warlock we’re dealing with, and those are nothing if not unpredictable.”

“Don’t I know it,” Jonathan grunted.

She gave him an unreadable look and then stepped forward, now carrying her staff upright and setting its butt down on the stone floor with every step. Natchua walked slowly, peering about as if taking in every detail of her surroundings.

“Welp, here we are, then,” Melaxyna muttered when the drow had advanced up ahead. “Am I the only one standing her waiting for her to commit the inevitable screw-up that’ll damn us all?”

“Isn’t that the theme of this entire hambrained quest? And I don’t know why you seem to think you’re talking behind her back. You know she can hear you.”

“I have a simple policy about elves,” Melaxyna said primly. “Never say anything behind their backs you wouldn’t say to their faces. Don’t get me wrong, I like the girl. Really, I do, she reminds me of pretty much every person I have liked, historically.”

He glanced at her briefly before returning his attention to Natchua, who was now pacing along one of the walls and examining it closely. “Every person, huh.”

“I’m not really drawn to sly people,” she said, smirking. “It’s idealists who move my spirit. The ones who see an injustice in the world and are so furious at it that they never stop struggling to burn it down. Even if they have barely any plan and no real hope of succeeding, nothing ahead but the prospect of an early grave.” Her smile had faded as she spoke, and by that point she was gazing almost sadly at the drow. “Maybe it is narcissistic, in the end. I was like that, when I was alive the first time.”

“What changed your mind?” Jonathan asked quietly.

She snorted. “Nothing. That’s exactly why I spat on Vidius’s offer of paradise. Why I took Vanislaas’s bargain. I’d seen what the gods were about. You can’t fight gods, not realistically, it’s a hopeless prospect. But I couldn’t face the prospect of not fighting.”

“Mm.” Jonathan turned look back the way they had come, finding no one approaching them from the tunnel’s mouth. “Well, I guess I can’t say I know you all that well, but you don’t really strike me as the do-or-die type. Something must have changed.”

Melaxyna went still, staring ahead with a blank expression that hinted she wasn’t actually looking at anything.

“…maybe,” she answered at last. “We all change over time, even those of us not bound to powers beyond our scope. I guess spending a few centuries as a succubus is enough to warp anybody’s viewpoint. Heh. That also reminds me of our friend up there.”

He turned back to her, glancing at Natchua’s back again before meeting Melaxyna’s eyes. “Really.”

“Girl got burned by trying to use something she couldn’t control. Failed to understand or respect its power, and ended up the way any ignorant person does from playing around with dangerous tools whose use they weren’t schooled in.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Jonathan muttered. “Nothing’s ever gonna make me comfortable with all this infernomancy. Frankly, I think my skepticism is pretty damn well warranted.”

“Infernomancy?” Melaxyna turned a wide-eyed gaze on him. “Oh, that’s what worries me least. Natchua can handle the magic, with the knowledge swimming in her head. That girl is the one warlock in the world I’d trust to avoid blowing us all to bits by mistake.” She shifted again to watch the drow, folding her arms and smiling faintly. “I was talking about sex.”

Jonathan found nothing to say in reply to that. As the silence stretched out, Melaxyna’s smile grew by tiny increments.

It vanished moments later, however, when Natchua brazenly stepped up to the closed door of Second Chances and tried the latch. When it didn’t budge, she rapped sharply upon it with her staff.

“What the hell are you doing,” the succubus hissed. “Kid, no. You are not good at conversational persuasion!”

“Give her a chance to work,” Jonathan murmured. “She’s more savvy than you give her credit for.”

Melaxyna huffed and crossed her arms, but made no response.

Natchua had to rap twice more before anybody answered. The door opened just a crack; whoever was on the other side was concealed by her body, but after a short conversation it clicked shut again and Natchua turned and strode back to them.

“That was illuminating,” she said, wearing a pleased little smile.

“I cannot believe you just knocked on the door,” Melaxyna exclaimed. “I thought we were being stealthy.”

“Too much creeping about is counterproductive,” Natchua replied. “Remember, we are trying to recruit Xyraadi, not ambush her, and definitely not scare her off. So yes, we do need to sniff out where she is hiding, but it’s leading up to approaching her. Something tells me that won’t go over so well if we just leap out of the shadows.”

“Well, you’re not wrong, there,” Jonathan agreed. “So what’d you find out?”

“Second Chances is a popular nightclub, which is closed at this hour. We can come back after sundown like everybody else. It is owned by a certain Mortimer Agasti, who I suspect may be the architect of these fascinating infernal wards all over the place. We’ve got the whole day to see what’s known about this chap here in town.”

“Did you learn anything about Xyraadi?” Melaxyna asked.

“Oh, yes,” Natchua said scathingly. “I walked up and asked if they were keeping a six-hundred-year-old khelminash sorceress squirreled away in the basement. What’s the worst that could happen?”

“I can’t believe I was standing here defending your character a minute ago,” the succubus pouted.

“I can’t believe that’s how you would characterize that exchange. What was really fascinating is that this Agasti fellow has a revenant demon answering his door.”

“Ew.” Melaxyna curled her lip in disgust.

“Actually answering the door?” Jonathan demanded. “Those things are illegal as hell, pardon the pun.”

“One more thing about which to inquire whilst we peruse the local scuttlebutt,” Natchua said, now wearing a distinctly mischievous smile. “Jonathan, stand back, if you would.”

“Him stand back?” Melaxyna said warily. “What’re you up to now?”

“Hold still.” Before the succubus could render another opinion, Natchua gestured with her staff and a spell circle materialized on the floor around her. This one hovered an inch off the ground in roiling black lines which, after existing barely a second, dissolved into mist which swirled up and streamed straight into Melaxyna’s nose and mouth, causing her to double over coughing.

“Excuse me,” Jonathan said incredulously, “but aren’t we standing within a few yards of some incredibly powerful infernal wards?”

“Yes, quite,” Natchua said cheerily, taking Melaxyna by the arm and setting off back up the tunnel. “So let’s clear off before their owner comes to investigate. Now he knows we’re here and sniffing around.”

“Can’t—believe—you little—bitch,” Melaxyna rasped, still gasping.

“You wanna let the rest of us mere mortals in on the joke?” Jonathan demanded, trailing along after them.

“That will get Mel through the wards, when we come back. I’ve already told you,” she said patiently, “Xyraadi is in there, and we want her. But we want to talk with her, not seize her. That will mean some manner of frontal approach eventually, and that is far more likely to succeed if she is already curious about us. Really, despite what absolutely everyone seems to think, I do know what I’m doing.”

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15 – 12

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The road swung away to the west, and at that point Taka led them off it, tromping through the ragged grass into the foothills northward, where the trees began to thicken. No one offered any commentary at the change, including Rainwood, who presumably also knew where they were going. It was in the general direction the monks and other travelers had indicated the lodge could be found, so Ingvar saw no reason to debate their route.

He was debating, at least inwardly, asking Taka how far they had yet to go. Orange sunlight still streamed across the foothills, but the sun was sinking rapidly and within another hour it would be wiser to seek a campsite rather than risk trying to continue. This sort of hilly, rocky terrain was particularly treacherous in the dark; it was challenging enough to find footing when one could see one’s feet.

It wasn’t Ingvar, though, who broke their silence, half an hour or so after they left the road.

“I’m impressed,” Tholi said.

Ingvar, Aspen, and Rainwood all glanced back, where he and November were bringing up the rear. Taka, leading the way ahead of them, did not seem interested in the discussion.

“Get this into your head right now,” November said curtly when she found Tholi addressing her. “Nothing I do, ever, is calculated to impress you.”

Tholi sighed. “Yeah, you actually did manage to convey that already. My mistake, thinking you might respond to civil conversation rather than shouting.”

“Your mistake was not trying civil conversation the first time! You don’t get a second first impression.”

“You didn’t make a spectacular one yourself, princess.”

“Listen, you—”

“Don’t.” Ingvar didn’t look back at them again, but projected his voice enough to be clearly heard. “There was good advice hidden in that exchange. If you can’t speak to each other politely, just keep quiet. I don’t know why you two are so determined to needle each other and it doesn’t matter. If you’re going to be traveling with others, I expect you to show them some basic consideration and not make tremendous pests of yourselves.”

He glanced meaningful at Aspen, who rolled her eyes and sneeringly waggled her lips in a silent mockery of him.

“Don’t you?” Rainwood mused.

Ingvar gave him a look. “What?”

“You said you don’t know why they’re determined to needle each other. I don’t see a mystery, there. A Shaathist and an Avenist, and both teenagers with all the maturity and restraint that implies. Everything that’s followed from putting them in proximity has pretty much been arithmetic.”

“I am twenty-two years old,” November said acidly.

“Oh, sorry,” Rainwood replied in a tone of purest innocence. “So only he gets to use that excuse, then. My mistake.”

Aspen and Taka chuckled aloud; Ingvar, out of simple politeness, contented himself with a smile which the two following were not positioned to see.

“It was just a compliment,” Tholi said after a pause. “I actually am impressed. I was thinking you’d start whining about your feet and tripping over them immediately, but you’re clearly an experienced hiker. Maybe not up to Huntsman standards, but then, nobody is.”

“Have you ever trekked into the Golden Sea and back, boy?” she retorted. “I have, multiple times. You just worry about your own feet, mine are more than capable of doing their job.”

“Don’t call me boy,” he growled.

“Ooh, struck a nerve, did we?” she replied. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize a big, strong man’s man like you would be so easily offended.”

“It is a matter of serious import in Shaathist faith,” Tholi explained, the clenching of his teeth audible in his tone. “A man who has undergone the rites of adulthood is recognized as such. Claiming otherwise is a serious insult.”

“Ah, I see,” she said solemnly. “I didn’t realize that. Well, live and learn! So now when I call you boy you’ll know I mean it personally.”

Ingvar slammed to a halt and whirled, and even so by the time he turned around Tholi had grabbed his tomahawk and November had braced her feet in an Eagle Style combat stance, which even he knew wasn’t the best choice for someone not actually holding a sword.

“You’re entitled to your opinion of Shaathists, Stark,” he said flatly. “The gods know I have had my own issues with them. But whatever else you can say about them, Shaathists do not express themselves through spiteful, disrespectful, juvenile insults. Until this day, I would have comfortably said the same about Avenists, and I have rarely found reason to compliment the Sisterhood. I don’t know enough of your story to even guess where this venom comes from. It isn’t Avenist and you certainly weren’t taught it by Tellwyrn or anyone she employs. Whatever your issues, you are an adult, and as such expected to conduct yourself with a bare minimum of courtesy toward other people, even those you dislike. If you refuse to be civil for the sake of your traveling companions, or out of simple decency, perhaps you will at least refrain from being an active embarrassment to Avei?”

By the end of that, her cheeks were burning and she had clenched her fists at her sides. Ingvar held her stare anyway. Tholi, though he had to have been itching to pile onto that, at least recognized he could not do so without making himself guilty of exactly the same failing, and in fact it represented a growth in his maturity that he understood that fact before it was pointed out to him. He kept silent and did not add to November’s embarrassment even by looking at her.

As it turned out, he wasn’t the problem.

“You,” Aspen announced, pointing at November, “have just been told.”

Ingvar sighed heavily. “Aspen.”

“Yeah, yeah, fine,” she said, throwing her hands up. “Well that was fun and all. Let’s just keep moving, we don’t have a whole lot of daylight left.”

When the party resumed walking, Tholi and November drifted away, both behind the rest of the group and off to both sides so they were not within convenient earshot. After a momentary contemplation, Ingvar decided to let them be. He’d have to call them closer as it got darker, but for the moment he’d take whatever kept the peace.

“So,” Taka drawled after they had hiked in silence for a couple more minutes, “who’s taking bets on how long it’ll be before those two are sharing a bedroll?”

“What are you talking about?” Aspen demanded, mystified.

“Oh, please,” Taka snorted. “You could cut the sexual tension with a wooden spoon. When two healthy young people go at each other like that it usually means they’re too awkward to admit how much they wanna bone.”

“Nope, she’s gay,” the dryad said immediately, then hesitated, glancing over her shoulder at November, who was trudging along almost ten yards away. “And weirdly…defiant about it. It’s been interesting getting to know new people and sensing information about their sexuality, but some of ’em are muddled up in ways that just confuse me.”

“Wait, dryads can actually sense things like that?” Taka glanced back at her. “I always figured that was a myth.”

“Yeah, people have some really strange ideas about dryads. That one is true, though. I’ve never smelled anything quite like November. It’s like she’s…I dunno, wanting to fight with somebody about it. I don’t mean she’s sexually aggressive, actually kind of the opposite. But more generally aggressive, in a way that’s tangled up in her sexuality. I don’t understand it. I haven’t met anybody else who’s…that way.”

Taka gave her another look over her shoulder, this one distinctly wry. “Haven’t you?”

“We haven’t had the opportunity to meet a lot of Avenists,” Ingvar explained.

“Ah,” Taka said, nodding in understanding.

“That’s not true, we met a whole mess of them at Athan’Khar,” Aspen objected. “There were hundreds!”

“You went to Athan’Khar?” Rainwood said in clear surprise.

“Just within a mile or so of the border,” Ingvar explained. “There was a Silver Legion there. So yes, I suppose we did meet quite a few Avenists, but mostly from a distance. Bishop Syrinx was the only one we spent any significant time around.”

“That woman was just off,” Aspen opined. “Cold and empty. A healthy enough sex drive, but not connected to anything or aimed at anything, just roiling around in an empty space inside her like bees in a bottle.”

“Aspen,” Ingvar interrupted, “I would rather you didn’t reveal other people’s personal business. Sexuality is private. That applies to people in general, but especially people we’re going to be traveling with.”

“Yeah, you’ve said,” she replied with a sigh. “Sorry, Ingvar. I’ll try to do better at remembering. It’s just interesting to me, is all. I don’t really understand people very well yet; that is something I can grasp just by instinct. About how much farther is this place, anyway? I don’t really see anything that looks like a human dwelling. Can we get there before dark?”

“Not far, in fact,” Taka said. “And actually you can sort of see it from here, it’s on that ridge under the mountainside straight in front of us. The actual lodge isn’t visible due to the terrain, but you can see its location.”

“That may be farther than we can travel in the daylight that remains,” Ingvar said, frowning.

“Yeah, maybe,” Taka agreed. “But not much farther. If you wanna call a halt and camp, I’m game. Not like I’ve got anywhere to be. But if you’re comfortable going on after sundown, we can probably make it not too long after that.”

“Pretty close to the Omnist temple, isn’t it?” Tholi observed, having wandered close enough to join the conversation. “I thought these Shadow Hunters liked to hide away from other people.”

“The Rangers,” Ingvar emphasized, “probably chose this site because of its proximity to the Omnists. There is also a Shaathist lodge not too far from here, and Omnists are great peacemakers.”

“I thought the whole point of this site is being distant from anybody,” Tholi grunted.

“Yeah, but it’s not like these guys are the first ones to have the idea,” Taka said lightly. “The whole Wyrnrange is dotted with temple complexes all up and down its western edge. Especially near the big cities, and we’re a bare few miles from Ninkabi here. There’s a big, super important Izarite temple up north in Thakar, on the falls, and little retreats and lodges peppered the whole way from the Deep Wild’s frontier to Onkawa’s northern coast. It’s just the right balance of remote but still accessible to civilization that most of the cults have planted a flag somewhere along the way. Good place for peaceful retreats, or shifty business they don’t want in the public eye. Either one. Sometimes both. I’ve been hiking up and down the western row since I was fifteen. I never stopped in with the Shadow Hunters, though, so this’ll be interesting.”

“Having trouble picking a cult?” Rainwood asked.

“Yup,” she said laconically.

“I still don’t understand why we’re doing this, Brother,” Tholi muttered. “Shadow Hunters? I know you said you’re looking for secrets to help Shaath, but… These people are a disgraced offshoot who couldn’t keep to the ways of the wild.”

“Bear in mind, Tholi, that I have spent much of the last year journeying around the Empire and meeting with various lodges of the Rangers—which is what they prefer to be called, and I’d like you to start using the term. You know nothing about them but what you’ve been told by your brother Huntsmen, who regard them as a doctrinal threat. The truth is more complex.”

“They have women in their ranks!” Tholi insisted.

Everyone instinctively snuck a glance back at November, but she was tromping along behind them, still out of easy range of hearing.

“Have you ever considered that the way our lodges treat women is pretty hypocritical?” Ingvar replied. “What is the point of valuing a wild spirit, if our entire approach is to domesticate them?”

“You’re talking like an outsider,” Tholy protested. “That’s not how it is at all! A spirited woman is more valuable than a meek one, but in the pack the female yields to the dominant male. That is the way of the wild, the way emphasized by wolves, Shaath’s sacred animal sent to teach us his path!”

Ingvar drew in a slow breath and let it out just as slowly. “There are things about wolves that you don’t understand, Tholi. If you’re going to come with me on this quest…that’s going to be one of the hardest lessons ahead of you. It’s something I don’t think I can convey with words alone. You’ll have to learn it the way I did. And it is the Rangers who hold the means to do so.” He patted Tholi firmly on the shoulder, giving him an affectionate shake for good measure. “Have patience, Brother. You obviously trust my opinion, if you went to the great trouble of hunting me down all the way out here in N’Jendo. I will do my utmost to be worthy of your regard, but for the time being, I have to ask you to be patient and believe I am leading somewhere with this.”

“I do trust you, Ingvar,” Tholi said, not without reluctance. “Well, you’re right, I am already well into it now. I guess it would be pretty foolish to run or start arguing at this point. Just don’t ask me to address one of these women Rangers as Brother.”

“I don’t expect they would greatly appreciate it, anyway,” Ingvar said gravely.

As it happened, they did arrive before the fall of full darkness. Apparently it helped their speed that the party mostly strode along in tense silence for the remainder of the journey, with the sole exception of Rainwood, who passed the time by telling them stories of his days as an adventurer. And he, of course, could both see in the dark and balance on one toe on a marble, so the falling light did not impede his speed.

It helped further that they did not need to trek the entire way. Twilight had descended and the remaining sunlight morphed from red to an eerie faint gold when they first beheld the lamps descending the ridge which hid the Ranger lodge. Taka fell back without comment (for once), allowing Ingvar to take the lead. He kept them going, now to meet the figures who were approaching them from ahead.

There were five, arrayed in an arrowhead formation like migrating geese. The lamps were held by the two flanking the central figure; as they came closer, those on the edges were revealed to be carrying longbows very like those used by Huntsmen of Shaath. The tall man striding in the center, instead, held a staff which towered over him, its carved head containing a sizable chunk of crystal. All five of the Rangers wore hooded cloaks like those Ingvar and Aspen had encountered elsewhere, these dyed in a lighter green that blended well with the local terrain. The archer on the left end of their formation looked Tiraan, but the rest were Westerners.

“Hail, fellow travelers,” he called as the two groups neared, raising one hand.

The leader of the Ranger group lifted his staff once in acknowledgment, its crystal head glinting in the dying light. “Hail. What brings you to this wild corner of the world?”

“We came seeking the Rangers at the local lodge,” Ingvar replied courteously. They had come within three yards of each other now, and they stopped, so he did likewise. When meeting armed strangers in the wilderness it was wise not to press closer than they were comfortable with. Fortunately, the rest of his group followed his lead. He had been far from certain that they would, considering that they were all either fae creatures far older than he or unpredictable, poorly-behaved youths.

“You’ve found them,” the man replied, planting the butt of his staff in the dirt and tilting his head back to study them. He was of thin build, taller than most Jendi, with his wiry hair trimmed close and a neatly cut beard outlining his jaw, just beginning to be tinged with gray. “And by description, you must be Brother Ingvar.”

“I am,” Ingvar said with some surprise. This was the first group of Rangers to indicate that they had heard of him. “And this—”

“Aspen, daughter of Naiya,” the leader interrupted, nodding to her. “An honor. More than that, I was not expecting.”

“I’m surprised to learn you expected us at all,” Ingvar replied. “Truthfully I wasn’t expecting any of these companions, either; Aspen and I have known them all for less than a day.” He stopped, letting the silence hang expectantly. That this man had not introduced himself yet verged on rudeness.

“You and your dryad companion have stirred up a fair amount of curiosity, Ingvar of the Huntsmen,” he said, his expression inscrutable. “Enough that the lodges of the Rangers have begun sending messages to one another, forewarning fellow Rangers of your coming, and the general course you have set. We have ways, also, of tracking the movements of strangers in the areas we hunt. Your imminent arrival was known to us days ago.”

“I see,” Ingvar said slowly. Something about this situation was beginning to make his hackles rise. Thus far, he had found Rangers to be insular folk, but courteous and hospitable. These were standing rigidly, two with weapons at the ready, and their tension was infectious. Aspen had gone quiet, frowning. Ingvar trusted her not to be aggressive without cause, but Tholi was high-strung and November seemed even more so. “Of course, I’ve learned by now that the Rangers are custodians of a great deal of lore that the Huntsmen have forgotten. We would be greatly honored at the chance to learn from you.”

All four of the companion Rangers shifted their hoods, turning to look at their leader. He inhaled slowly and deeply, his hand working unconsciously on the wood of his staff as if he were gearing himself up for something dangerous.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice abrupt after the silence. “There is no welcome for you here, Ingvar. You and your companions must go. The lodge of the Rangers cannot harbor you.”

“I…don’t understand,” Ingvar said, frowning. This was totally unlike any previous reception he had received from their order.

“I’m sorry you have come so far for nothing,” the lead Ranger said, his voice almost curt now. He turned to go.

“Hey!” Aspen exclaimed. “None of the rest of your guys were this rude!”

“And I have apologized for it, daughter of Naiya,” he replied, having paused. “But my word is final.”

“I am a dryad,” she said incredulously. “You can’t tell me what to do!”

“I cannot compel you,” he agreed. “Nor must I offer you anything.”

“You know,” she said, more angry by the second, “if we really want to go into your lodge there’s not really anything you can do about it, now is there?”

“Aspen!” Ingvar barked. “We will not force ourselves upon them.”

“But—”

“No.”

“You may of course do as you choose,” the Ranger said evenly. “If you decide to press on…then fate will decide what follows. For now, we return, and I ask you again to go.”

“The world has changed even more than I had allowed myself to see,” Rainwood said quietly, “if a lodge of Rangers turns away travelers at sunset.”

The leader hesitated again, but then finished turning around and set off back the way they had come, offering no further answer. His companions followed, with some hesitation. The lantern-bearers backed away for a few steps before turning to catch up with him and the man on the edge of their formation, who had already started moving off.

The other archer hesitated, and then actually stepped forward instead of back.

“You see that tree?” she said in a low voice, pointing with her longbow. “The Kharsa pine with the cleft top? Camp within sight of it, and on the southeast side of the ridge. That’s well within our territory, in sight of the lodge. None of us with bother you, and as long as you are that close, the Huntsmen won’t, either.”

“Dimbi,” the lead Ranger called. She turned and strode away after them.

“Thank you,” Ingvar called after her, and received no response.

“What was that all about?” Aspen demanded as the Rangers disappeared back into the trees below the ridge on which they lived.

“I don’t know,” Ingvar said slowly. “Rainwood, you have known of Rangers longer than I. Can you offer us any insight?”

“My spirit companions may know something,” the elf mused, “though I would prefer to find a place to camp before invoking them. That was very strange, Ingvar. Hospitality is an important virtue among all decent people, and has been an agreed value among the wardens of the wild since long before any of their present names. Before there were Shaathists or Rangers or even Silver Huntresses, the archetype existed, and they offered succor to travelers in need. This is a new and troubling development.”

Tholi grunted. “I can’t say I’m impressed with your Shadow Hunter friends, Ingvar.”

“Every group of Rangers we have met before now was glad, even eager to host visitors,” Ingvar said, frowning after the bobbing lights that still flickered between the trees ahead.

“Well, I don’t know what you expect,” Tholi said disdainfully. “These are from a corrupt tradition that couldn’t manage to keep Shaath’s ways.”

“They claim it’s the other way round,” said Aspen.

“The truth, as usual, lies in the middle,” Rainwood added. “It would be most accurate to say that the Rangers and the Huntsmen are both heirs of much older traditions.”

“What was that about Huntsmen?” November added nervously. “What did she mean? Surely they wouldn’t be in this area, not with a Shadow Hunter lodge that close. I thought you were kidding about that, Ingvar.”

“Actually, nearly all Ranger lodges are positioned close enough to Shaathist lodges to cause some overlap of hunting grounds, and general friction,” said Ingvar.

“See, I was right,” Taka chimed. “Putting themselves right in the Omnists’ backyard would keep them out of a lot of trouble, if they’re bumping up against the Huntsmen.”

“Why would they court trouble that way in the first place?” November asked.

“Disaffected Shaathists are their major source of recruits,” Ingvar explained. “Lodges recruit pretty aggressively from cities and outlying farms, in part because they constantly lose people. Women run away fairly regularly, and for exactly that reason young men are often cast out. The rites of manhood that Tholi insisted upon you acknowledging are not easy. Shaathist marriage customs depend on a lodge having more women than men, particularly among the young. Conditions for a man to be initiated into Shaathist traditions as a man are harsh. Many fail. And once they have failed, they have no place in the community of the faith.”

“That sounds like a pretty damn terrible idea,” Taka said dryly. “Not to mention kinda dickish.”

Ingvar nodded. “Among other things, it’s the main reason the Ranger traditions still exist, as I said. Shaathist lodges constantly bleed a trickle of apostates and rejects, and a few of those always find their way to the Rangers.”

“Well, if there is a true lodge nearby, that solves that problem,” Tholi insisted. “They, at least, keep to the law of hospitality! A lodge would offer shelter to even a shrill, abrasive Avenist whelp without criticism or judgment, even if she didn’t have us with her.”

“I don’t know why you’re talking like we need a place to stay, anyhow,” Aspen said petulantly. “Have you seen who you’re traveling with? A dryad, two Huntsmen, an elf, and a couple of girls who obviously aren’t half as useless as they both act. Nobody here is uncomfortable sleeping outdoors.”

“I don’t think I wish to approach the local Huntsmen until we know more, anyway,” Ingvar agreed. “The Rangers do honor the law of hospitality, Tholi. This turn of events is strange for exactly that reason. I want to learn the lay of the land before risking that the next group of people from whom we should be able to expect welcome greet us with worse than these. Come, let’s look for a sheltered place.”

The group followed him east, toward the mountains. Ingvar set a much slower pace now, making sure to keep the pine tree with the split top in view, but mostly being wary of where he stepped. In truth, they needn’t be very picky about a campsite. Aspen alone was ten times as dangerous as anything that prowled these hills, and any threat on more than two legs would instinctively avoid her anyway. All they needed was a flattish space big enough for everybody not on watch to lie down around a small firepit. Still, he kept going, seeking a spot that could be easily secured.

Unnecessary, perhaps, maybe even irrational, but something odd was afoot in these hills, and Ingvar wanted every small piece of security he could grasp. There was no objection from any of the group, now straggling after him in single file. Most of them were smart enough to observe that they weren’t in any direct danger; he interpreted their silence as a reflection of his own unease.

“Rainwood,” Ingvar murmured into the darkness, barely audible even to himself. In moments the elf was at his side, strolling along as blithely as if he had always been there. “You are a shaman.”

“Thanks for noticing!” Rainwood said, cheerful as always.

“If I described to you a sacred rite based at least in part upon fae magic,” Ingvar continued quietly, “could you replicate it?”

“Almost certainly not,” the shaman said immediately. “Fae magic isn’t like arcane; it’s made of feelings and relationships, not math. There are no formulae. But if you can describe to me what this rite is meant to do, there’s a good chance I could devise one that achieves the same end.”

“I’m a little afraid to improvise,” Ingvar murmured, “but then again, it may be appropriate to make a break with older traditions. I suddenly find that I have…followers. It has occurred to me that the specific needs of what I must accomplish will require me to either change the thinking of a lot of Huntsmen of Shaath, or build my own splinter sect. I have been avoiding that realization as neither is a comfortable idea for me, but…here it is.”

“You’ve got spirit guides and apparently Avei herself deciding this is the time,” Rainwood agreed. “It might not be smart to procrastinate any further.”

Ingvar nodded. “And so, I have pups who must be shown the truth about wolves. I know the way this must be done, to make it a meaningful revelation. I only lack the means.”

“Be sure of what you are doing,” said the shaman, “and be careful. Wolves don’t bite nearly as hard as truth.”

He could not disagree.

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15 – 11

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“Do we really have to go already?” Aspen whined. “I like these people! They’re nice!”

“Do mean that in the sense that they actually are nice, or just that they fed you?” Ingvar replied dryly without slowing his pace.

“There’s no reason it can’t be both. Anyway, it’s afternoon! This is just about the worst time to be leaving a safe place to sleep, we’ve only got a few hours of travel time before dark.”

“There are hardly any unsafe places to sleep when you travel with a dryad,” Rainwood pointed out merrily.

“More important,” Ingvar added before Aspen could make another comment, “it is because these people are nice that we are taking ourselves and our very disruptive business away from their temple.”

“Oh.” Aspen scowled, turning her head to direct the expression over her shoulder. “Good, then. At least I know who to blame.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Tholi muttered. November, trailing along behind him at the end of the group, at least had the sense to keep her own mouth shut.

“It was pretty bad,” Ingvar stated. “When your shouting match can be heard through stone walls, you are officially not fit for civilized company. And I say that as someone who, like any Huntsman, does not have an excessively high opinion of civilized company. It isn’t hard to show some extremely basic consideration for other people. I can’t fathom any reason for two adult humans to be screaming like children in the front hall of monks who have offered them hospitality.”

“All right, all right!” Tholi exclaimed. “That was…a lapse. How long am I going to be hearing about it?”

“I’ll treat you in the manner your actions up to the moment have earned, Tholi. If you wish to be treated differently, every moment is an opportunity to begin building a new impression.”

“I’m just so glad all these people are coming with us,” Aspen groused. “I was getting real tired of all the peace and quiet when it was just the two of us.”

“Well, the good news is your sarcasm has improved greatly. I would never know you hadn’t been doing it your whole life.”

“Thanks a lot, Ingvar,” she demonstrated. “Why is the elf still here? I thought your spirit thingies just wanted you to bring us to the temple and…these two.”

“Evidently not,” Rainwood said. He was walking on the other side of Ingvar from her, a jaunty spring in his step that clashed with everyone else’s mood. “It’s a funny thing, spirit guidance; sometimes, the things it tells you to do are so downright odd as to seem like terrible ideas. I don’t mind admitting it took me longer than the average human lives to begin trusting my guides every time, but more than once my life has been saved by following guidance that at the time sounded suicidal. I’ve no idea where this merry adventure is leading us, but the word from the spirits is that my part in it is not over! Ah, and here’s our other new acquisition.”

“Other?” Aspen looked over at him with a frown, then forward again, and came to an abrupt stop. “Oh, no.”

“Oh yes, I’m afraid!” Rainwood said brightly, swaggering on ahead.

“Who’s that?” November asked in a stage whisper. “What’s the problem?”

They had descended the terraces of the Omnist temple complex in a different direction than the one from which they had come, and were now nearing the outer border on the road leading north west. A few yards ahead of them, on the edge of the lowest stone terrace, sat the same grouchy young woman who had first led them to the ziggurat. She was now perched in an indolent pose, kicking her legs against the retaining wall, and had traded her monk’s robe for a colorful tunic-like garment that was popular throughout N’Jendo and Thakar.

“There you are,” she said, hopping down to the road with a grunt. “I hear you’re off to the Shadow Hunter lodge next, right?”

“You hear that, huh?” Aspen said warily.

“I grew up in this hick-ass backwater, so I know where just about everything is,” the girl said. “I’ll take you there. My name’s Taka Mbino.”

“Nice to meet you again,” Ingvar said politely. “I’m—”

“Pretty sure I remember everybody,” Taka interrupted, grinning. “The great and famous Ingvar, Aspen the dryad, Rainwood the elf with the especially improbable name. And those two who obviously are too childish to matter.”

“Hey!” November protested. Tholi just scowled, adjusting his grip on his longbow.

“Yeah, thanks, but we’ve got an elvish shaman,” said Aspen. “Pretty sure we can find the way.”

“It’s no trouble,” Taka assured her, still grinning. There was a mocking cast to her features that few people had used with Aspen, to her visible annoyance. “It’s about time I moved on from here anyway. I gave Omnu a fair chance and I mean the big guy no offense, but I’m coming to the conclusion that this place is not for me. Maybe the Shadow Hunters are a better option.”

“Okay, fine,” Aspen snapped, “I’ll just come right out and say it. We don’t like you, Taka Mbino. You’re rude and snotty and full of yourself. I tried, Ingvar,” she added, turning to him. “I was polite and subtle at first, you saw me do it!”

“Uh huh,” Taka drawled. “And are you upset because I hurt your feelings, or because you don’t want the competition for the role of bitchy drama queen in the group?”

Aspen’s jaw fell open. For once, she appeared to have been rendered silent.

“You, uh, do realize this is a dryad, right?” November said hesitantly. “I don’t know if it’s a great idea to take that tone with somebody who can tear you in half the long way.”

“A daughter of the Mother is owed some consideration,” Tholi agreed, nodding reproachfully.

“I’ll keep it in mind. Welp, daylight’s burning. It’s this way.” Taka turned her back and set off up the road.

“What do the spirits say about this?” Ingvar asked quietly.

Rainwood just winked at him and set off following the young woman. Ingvar heaved a sigh, patted Aspen soothingly on the back, and followed. The dryad was growling to herself as she fell into step beside him, but at least she did so.

The other two started walking after a short pause, as well, but they both remained a few paces behind, where it was relatively safe.


Manor Dufresne was not laid out with guests in mind, these days. There seemed to be very little furniture in the public rooms and almost no decoration. Nonetheless, it did feature a dining room, and Malivette’s four thralls were quick to seat their reluctant visitors and kept them well-plied with tea, cookies, and as the time stretched on toward the dinner hour, sandwiches and soup. The four of them were never less than gracious hostesses, which at least somewhat offset Sherwin’s reminder that they were a significant physical danger, and the fact that they were, effectively, holding the group against their will.

When the door to the dining room abruptly opened and Natchua poked her head in, Melaxyna was the first on her feet.

“Well?” the succubus demanded, hands clenching.

“We’re leaving,” Natchua said tersely. “Come on.”

Pearl cleared her throat, gliding forward. “Your pardon, but…”

“It’s quite all right, lovey!” Malivette cooed, appearing in the doorway behind Natchua with her chin practically resting on the drow’s shoulder. “So sorry to keep you all waiting so long! We’ve had a lovely chat and come to a series of understandings. Melaxyna, dear, I do apologize for all the rough talk earlier. I’m ever so glad that this isn’t going to turn unpleasant after all!”

“Oh, well then,” Melaxyna said tonelessly. “As long as you’re sorry and glad, I guess what’s a death threat or two between friends?”

“I realize you’re mocking me but in all seriousness that is a very healthy attitude to take in this situation,” Malivette replied, nodding solemnly. Natchua, giving her a peevish look over her shoulder, edged out of the way while the vampire continued. “I meant it when I said I empathized with you, y’know. People are about as excited to see a vampire move into the neighborhood as a succubus, and for a lot of the same reasons. With the shoe on the other foot I’m sure you’d have reacted exactly the same. At least, if you were seriously looking after the welfare of the city. But that’s all in the past now!” she added, beaming delightedly at them.

“Wait, really?” Jonathan asked. Standing with his hand protectively behind Hesthri with his hand on her shoulder, he looked mostly confused by this turn of events. “Just…like that? After just…talking? Is that really all it took?”

“Dunno what you mean ‘just like that,’” Sherwin groused. “We’ve been kicking our heels in here over an hour…”

“And why are you arguing, she is letting us go,” Melaxyna hissed.

“I guess I’m just surprised,” he said, frowning. “Natchua, is everything all right?”

“Everything is wonderful,” the drow spat. “Now come on. I think we have imposed on the Lady Dufresne’s hospitality quite enough for one day.”

“Hear, hear,” Sherwin grunted, shoving himself away from the table with poor grace and stalking toward the door.

The rest of them followed, subtly encouraged by the herding motion of Malivette’s four companions gathering at the opposite end of the room. Their hostess and Natchua had both already retreated into the broad entrance hall onto which the dining room opened.

“And don’t you worry a bit about my hospitality,” Malivette nattered on, looping her hand into Natchua’s elbow as they walked toward the front doors. “My door is always open, and there are so few who would even want to take advantage! That goes for you, too, Sherwin. I know you’re a houseplant by choice, but seriously, you’d be welcome.”

He sighed heavily and produced a rusty pocketwatch from his trousers, looking at its face and then giving Natchua a very pointed stare.

“Anyway, now that we know we have actual things to talk about, I do hope you’ll pop by again.” Malivette affectionately bumped Natchua with her hip on the last word. The drow sighed and gently but insistently disentangled her arm, stepping away from the vampire.

“Seriously,” Jonathan said, frowning, “are you okay, Natchua? Keeping a succubus near a city isn’t a small matter. I hope you didn’t have to do anything too…”

“Nothing,” she interrupted. “It’s just as she said, we talked and reached an understanding. And now I really would like to be moving along.”

“Yeah, so,” Sherwin said, frowning himself now, “I’m glad Mel’s safe, then. Did you—”

“Sst!” Natchua rounded on him, baring her teeth.

“If this is about the hobgoblins,” Malivette said kindly, “I don’t care about that, so long as you stick to your plan of only summoning females. Very clever solution, that! And really, Sherwin, you could use the help. What would your family say if they saw the state you’ve let their manor come to?”

“Oh, who cares,” he exclaimed. “Good riddance to them. I’m not absolutely certain, Vette, but I’m reasonably sure they had a hand in what happened to your family.”

“No.” The cheer faded from her expression rather abruptly. “Have you been carrying that all these years? See, this is why I think we should talk more. No, Sherwin, that wasn’t their doing.”

“Oh.” He blinked. “Well. I guess…I’m glad to hear that. Not like I was close to your folks or anything, but the gods know they were better people than mine. Not that that’s setting a high bar.”

“I’m serious, Sherwin,” she said, her smile returning and looking all the more sincere for being smaller. “Visit me. But for now, I imagine you’re feeling a little overstimulated; this has to be more social interaction than you’ve had in the last year. Yes, you’re all clearly eager to be heading back, and I’ve already delayed you too long. My sincere apologies for the inconvenience, but the important thing is we got it all sorted in the end! Ruby, Jade, would you bring the carriage back around, please?”

“No need,” Natchua said curtly, gesturing the others toward her. “We’ll see you around, Vette.”

“Don’t be a stranger, Natch,” the vampire said, as brightly as ever. The last thing they all saw as the shadows rose up around them was her waving cheerily.

The darkness fell away to reveal late afternoon sunlight and the clean air of the mountains, with Manor Leduc’s ruined bulk rising in front of them. Sherwin heaved a deep sigh and immediately slouched off, heading for the half-overgrown path around the corner toward the old kitchen entrance.

“Whew,” Melaxyna exhaled. “I could have done without that. My kind like room to maneuver, not being tucked away under guard. Are you sure you’re okay, Natchua? You probably had it worse than any of us.”

“I appreciate everyone’s concern, but I wish you’d all drop it,” Natchua said in a strained tone. “It was fine. We talked. I’d have preferred keeping Malivette and everyone else out of my business, but sometimes you have to compromise. And I learned some interesting things today.”

“Oh?” Jonathan asked warily.

“I learned that drow are not edible to her kind,” she said, turning and following after Sherwin at a much more sedate pace. He had already disappeared around the corner. “And apparently vampires can drink demon blood, but it works more like a drug than food. I learned that vampirism is exceedingly difficult to cure even for modern alchemical science. I learned that Ravana bloody Madouri has been making political overtures to both Malivette and Sherwin, which surprises me not in the least given that sneaky little egomaniac’s idea of a good time. I even learned a good deal I didn’t particularly need to know about why she has four attendants instead of three or five and what exactly she does with them. It was all very educational.”

“Uh…huh,” he said, frowning at her back. “Well, sorry for prying, I guess. I can’t help feeling a little responsible for any, um, compromises you had to make, since it was all our necks on the line…”

“Compromises?” she snorted, glancing over her shoulder at him. “I said I’d try to protect you and I meant it, Jonathan. That doesn’t mean my first act in a crisis would be to offer my neck to a vampire on your behalf.”

“Well, that wasn’t…” He grimaced, glancing to the side, and thus missing Hesthri urgently shaking her head to ward him off this line of conversation. “I just meant, well, it was obvious enough from those four women what sort of personal company that vampire prefers, and… Not to be indelicate, but we pretty well know that you’re willing to—”

Natchua slammed to a stop and whirled so fast her streaked hair flared out behind her. Jonathan Arquin was nobody’s coward, but at the expression on her face he actually backed up a step, instinctively moving one arm partly in front of Hesthri.

The very sunlight seemed to fade, as if the drow’s fury were leeching brightness from that piece of the world. Shadows lengthened around them, followed by an unintelligible whispering at the faintest edge of hearing that was barely distinguishable from the now-vanished sound of wind through the grass.

Just as quickly, it all faded away. The sound and light returned abruptly to normal, and the rage melted from Natchua’s features. Followed, apparently, by most of her energy, as her shoulders slumped and she dropped her head to stare at the ground.

“Well, look at that,” she said dully. “Turns out I have absolutely no right to even be angry about that remark. Go…rest up, Jonathan. This mess has delayed us a whole day and I have another prospect to look up first thing tomorrow.”

Natchua turned and trudged away, visibly dispirited, even from behind. The rest of them stood as if rooted until she had rounded the corner into Sherwin’s kitchen apartment.

“Very nice,” Melaxyna finally said, veritably dripping with venomous sarcasm.

“I don’t need criticism from you,” Jonathan retorted with a scowl. “I was just… Never mind, she’s right. Doesn’t matter, not my business.”

“Oh?” The succubus leaned toward him, sneering. “Then why so protective, and why do you care what she does, or with who?”

“What kind of idiot wouldn’t care about the well-being of a warlock he’s agreed to follow arou— Hey!”

He shied back, but not fast enough to prevent her from lashing out to smack the side of his head. She moved almost like an elf when she wanted.

“Next time you get an armored hand,” Melaxyna threatened. “You want to care about Natchua’s well-being? Try not hurting her, you dumbass. Honestly, I didn’t see it till right now but you are so Gabriel Arquin’s father. He clearly didn’t get it from this one!” She pointed at Hesthri, who had kept her mouth firmly shut through the entire discussion.

“Oh, please,” he said stiffly. “I’m here to look after Hesthri, not…her. We know for a fact she was only ever using me.”

“You absolute fucking idiot,” Melaxyn said, shaking her head. “Have you really never had a girl fall in love with you? Pfeh.” The succubus turned and flounced off after the warlock, leaving the two of them behind.

Hesthri sighed softly, but then pressed herself against Jonathan’s side, slipping an arm around his waist in half a hug. He draped his own around her shoulders unthinkingly, still staring ahead with a blank expression. She just looked up at him in silence until he suddenly laughed.

“So that’s where he got it from!”

“He?”

Jonathan shook his head. “Toby Caine reports that our son has amazingly good luck with women, provided he’s not trying to. Apparently it’s the trying that trips him up. Hes… I don’t even know what to say. This whole mess—”

“None of this is your fault,” she interrupted, reaching up to rest her clawed fingertips gently on his lips. “I know what she did and why. You’re not to blame for having feelings. Natchua is to blame for…doing this. I am out of Hell, free from your government and Church and facing a possibility of seeing my son again; I can’t find it in me to complain too hard about all the downsides that have come with it. Honestly, I can’t even blame the girl for having emotions herself, or failing to understand them. It’s her mess, but we were young and blind ourselves once.”

“I seem to recall that,” he replied, looking down at her with a wry little smile.

“Me, too.” Hesthri smiled back at him, though the expression faded a moment later. “Johnny… Remember what happened to us when we assumed nothing as intangible as feelings was going to trip us up? This thing with Natchua is not your fault, but it’s also not going to go away if we just ignore it.”

He closed his eyes, and drew in a deep breath. “…yeah. Damned if I know what the hell to do now, though.”

“You may be a little too close to the situation, my dear. Maybe…take a step back, and let me try?”


As a consequence of traveling into a mountain range from the east, the sun had slipped out of sight far earlier in the evening—late afternoon, really—than the group from Last Rock were accustomed to. Their guides had insisted on calling a halt due to the dark, and though none of them were anywhere near sleepy yet, the day of hiking had left them well ready for a rest. Camp had been made on a smallish ledge which provided them sufficient room not to worry about falling off, but not room to wander too far from each other.

And yet, Principia had managed to be rebuffed by enough cold shoulders to find herself drifting away to the very edge of the firelight. As with everything, she bore this with good humor and no sign of resentment, even as Merry was drawn into the group around the fire, sitting between Ruda and Juniper and chattering animatedly with both.

A shape detached itself from the small crowd throwing shadows along the cliff wall behind them, stepping toward her with both hands carrying laden plates of cornbread and baked beans.

“Hungry?”

Given the Legion schedule of mealtimes and her own frugal magic use, it could well be years before Principia needed to eat again. She was not, of course, about to make an issue of that.

“Why, aren’t you thoughtful! I’m surprised, though. I thought it was Toby who made a point to look after everyone.”

“I am nothing if not a gentleman,” Gabriel said, grinning and offering one of the plates. “Shut up, Ariel.”

“I didn’t—”

“You were going to, and don’t. Please, allow me.” He actually bowed as she took the plate, then bent to brush dust and loose scree off an uneven little lip of stone against the wall behind them before gesturing for her to sit.

“A gentleman indeed,” Principia replied, perching on the edge and smiling up at him. “Which, no offense, doesn’t exactly square with your reputation.”

“Yeah, that’s the bane of my existence,” he said solemnly, sitting down beside her. “I can deal with the demon prejudice and the gossipy newspaper stories and all the silly rumor-mongering, but I wish everybody would stop repeating facts. Hope you like cornbread, by the way, because there’s going to be plenty left over. Most of this group won’t touch the stuff. Apparently they had a bad experience in the Golden Sea, once.”

“You’ve gotta learn to let these things go,” she said sagely, scooping up a bite of baked beans with the tin fork that came with the plate. “If I turned up my nose at everything that had ever been used against me at some point or another I’d starve. So, Gabriel, if you don’t mind a little nosiness, what makes you so willing to come hang out with the local pariah? As you noted, Toby I understand…”

“A little nosiness?” he mused, looking at her sidelong with a small smile, idly pushing beans and cornbread around on his plate. “Impressive restraint. In your position I’d be going whole hog and demanding everyone’s backstory.”

“Seems unfair,” she acknowledged after swallowing the bite. “Since I don’t really intend to recount my whole history. Of course, there’s the fact that we literally don’t have time for that…”

“Shaeine is your problem,” he said, now gazing at his friends around the fire. “She’s the most reasonable person I’ve ever known and I don’t think is even that vindictive. But you have to understand the Narisian mindset. Shaeine as a person is a distinct entity from Shaeine the daughter of her matriarch; the one can forgive little offenses, while the other has to insist on repercussions for shit done to her. Besides, not much is more important to Narisians than their reserve. Slipping her something that took that away, in public, is a far more serious insult than it would be to basically anybody else.”

“I see,” she murmured. “That’s…all fair.”

“Teal will follow Shaeine’s lead, of course,” he continued in a pensive tone, his gaze now faraway in thought as if he were lost in this mental exercise. “As will Vadrieny. I hardly think you need to worry about being torn in half by an archdemon, though. She’s a little impulsive, but above all Vadrieny cares for Teal, who hates violence.

“Trissiny is likely to back Shaeine in this. Apart from her own issues with you, those two have a unique bond, in this group. Not the closest bond, that would obviously by Shaeine and Teal. But they’re both devout, composed, and value all the things that implies. And they both have a slight cultural bias—not a really bad one!—against males, thus why Toby doesn’t get the same benefit of that sisterhood. If you want Triss back on your side, you will need to persuade Shaeine.”

He paused, shrugging idly, and had a bite of cornbread. Principia just chewed in silence, watching him as if she didn’t dare to interrupt.

Gabriel continued after swallowing. “Toby is everybody’s friend. Fross is not going to bother you; she hates practical jokes. She’s making good progress at grasping humor but she doesn’t really get the difference between attacking somebody playfully and aggressively, and I don’t think Fross is capable of harming anyone she doesn’t fully think deserves it. Juniper is trying to be a good Omnist now, and is scared of her own propensity for violence, anyway. You’ll have no trouble from her.

“Ruda…” He trailed off, then grinned. “Hell if I know. She values loyalty, fighting, playing rough, standing on your own, and freedom. That leads to some weird combinations of values. Ruda’s always doing stuff that I would never have expected but then in hindsight makes perfect sense. So far Shaeine’s just been tripping and poking at you, but if this keeps up Ruda might join in or butt out entirely or maybe try to get her to back down. I have no damn idea. It’s always an adventure with her.”

Principia had given up all pretense of eating now, just watching his face. She let the silence hang for a few moments before speaking in a carefully neutral tone.

“That’s a very thorough report, Gabe. And what about the last person it’s missing?”

“Well! I’m not really objective about that, am I?” He turned a grin on her, setting his fork down on his plate. “Tell you what: after Puna Dara, I bet a smart lady like you has a pretty good measure of me anyway. And you’re also a hobbyist enchanter, right? So I bet you’ll have plenty of time to suss out where I stand on this whole thing while you’re figuring a way off that adhesive charm you just sat on. G’night, Lieutenant.”

He stood up with no more ado and sauntered off back to the fire.

Principia watched him go for a moment. Then she experimentally shifted. Her hips had barely an inch of leeway to move and wouldn’t rise at all off the stone. The elf grinned and leaned back against the cliff wall, spearing a bite of baked beans.

“Well. She’s got a good group of friends, anyway. Excellent.”


“Whew,” McGraw grunted, glancing back at the town. “Not to carp on about it, but why that town? I’m pretty sure I mentioned I am specifically unwelcome in Last Rock.”

“Aw, y’big baby, it’s fine,” Billie said cheerfully, slapping his thigh. “We didn’t get arrested or blown up, which is my standard fer a successful visit. Oy, this tallgrass is a towerin’ pain in the arse! I can’t see fer shite. Who wants t’give the gnome a piggyback ride?”

“What, all the way to the center?” Weaver snorted. “Dream on. Just keep making noise so we don’t lose you.”

“You wanna get from Tiraas to the Golden Sea frontier, Last Rock is the most direct route,” Joe said, pushing strands of tallgrass out of his way. “Anyway, no harm came of it. Which is good; it was enough of an ordeal getting this one into the caravan.” He grinned and flicked the tail of the nigh-omnipotent immortal hitching a ride on his shoulder. Mary didn’t deign to transform back and make a comment, though she did turn and peck him on the ear. “Ow. So, I take it spending the night in the inn back there is off the table? Cos not to complain, but it’s not more’n two hours before dusk. Basically the worst possible time to be headin’ out on a camping trip.”

“Everyone in this group is either perfectly comfortable sleeping rough, or actually prefers to,” Weaver grunted. “Under the circumstances I figure we can afford to cater to McGraw’s irrational fear of that poor little town.”

“A pissed-off archmage ain’t an irrational fear,” McGraw retorted. “Least, I wouldn’t call her that to her face.”

“Almost a shame,” Joe said lightly. “I was sorta lookin’ forward to explorin’ back there. Man, that place has changed—an’ fast! Sarasio’s havin’ kind of a boom the last year or so, too, but nothin’ like that.”

“Sarasio doesn’t have a world-famous University,” said McGraw. “These little frontier villages rarely get the luxury of stasis, Joe. They either wither away or grow into somethin’ more. Progress marches on.”

“Aye, lotta marchin’ goin’ on here, innit?” Billie said. “Ey, Joe, how’s about ye lend me yer other shoulder?”

“Why’s it always me?” he complained.

“Cos Elias is old an’ delicate an’ Damian’s a fuckin’ grouch.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Weaver grunted, and suddenly bent over in the tallgrass. One short scuffle and a whoop from Billie later, he reappeared with her riding on his shoulders. “Omnu’s balls, you just like to complain, I swear.”

“Oh, an’ that doesn’t describe you to a ruddy T, eh?”

He strode through the tallgrass and the falling dusk in silence for a few yards, holding her ankles and staring ahead at the distant horizon.

“Listen… All of you. Not that I want to make a whole thing of this, but—”

“Aw, come off it,” Billie said fondly, patting his head. “Breakin’ character fer one minute won’t kill ye. We’ll all still know yer a ruddy asshole come sunup.”

Weaver came to a stop, and the others did likewise. He regarded each of them for a moment in the fading orange sunlight.

Then he actually smiled. The unaccustomed expression transformed his whole face.

“Thanks. All of you.”

McGraw and Joe both tipped their hats in silence. Mary croaked and ruffled her feathers.

Then, as one, the group turned and marched off again, heading north toward the frontier and the unconquerable wilderness beyond.

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15 – 7

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Ingvar yielded to their pleading, since they at least managed to do it without descending back into shouted insults at each other, and so the conversation was taken to a more private venue. Brother Nandu was just as happy to offer them a quiet place to hold their discussion, where Tholi and November would incidentally not be within range of any of the monks going about their business in the temple. The chamber offered was a small prayer room, with a tiny round window opposite the door which projected sunbeams onto the floor, and stone benches lining both its longer walls. It was a little cramped with four people present, but not uncomfortably so. It was, additionally, located clear on the other end of the monastery and featured thick walls and a thick wooden door doubtless intended to provide a meditating monk with silence and privacy, which coincidentally would serve just as well to shield everyone else from any yelling which broke out within.

Four people because Aspen so blithely assumed she was included that nobody bothered to contradict her. Brother Nandu gently shooed away the surly monk who had met them on the road, and Rainwood accompanied them, chattering on about catching up on the news. Tholi frowned when Aspen strolled into the cell with them, and got as far as opening his mouth to comment before Ingvar caught his eye.

“Very well,” Ingvar said as soon as he had shut the door behind them. “Here we are. Now I want to hear those explanations. Starting with you, Tholi.”

“Excuse me,” November exclaimed, “but I was sent here on a divine quest, which I am sure is more important than—”

“So, nothing would happen if I just clobbered her, right?” Aspen said cheerily.

They all turned to stare at her, November going white.

“I mean, if I understand what people tell me about Imperial law,” the dryad continued. “How it basically doesn’t apply to me. So, if I was to get tired of someone mouthing off and punched her through the wall, nothing important would actually happen, right, Ingvar?”

“Several important things would happen,” he said patiently. “To begin with, a human being would be dead, which is a serious matter as we have discussed several times. Our hosts would be horrified, and I would hope you would not do them the discourtesy of making them clean up such a mess. Also, just because the Empire doesn’t claim dominion over dryads does not mean they wouldn’t do anything if you murdered an Imperial citizen. In particular I think our own mission is better off without drawing that kind of scrutiny.”

“Ah, I see,” she said gravely. “Okay, thanks. Anyway, you were about to talk, Tholi?”

November swallowed and edged away along the bench until she was bunched into the corner. Tholi gave her an openly amused glance, but at least refrained from any active needling. That was probably the best behavior Ingvar could hope for, from either of them.

His expression quickly sobered when he turned back to Ingvar, though. “Things have been getting…strange at the lodge since you left, Brother. That’s why I came looking for you: looking back, that’s the moment that it started getting serious.”

“Strange in what way?”

“With every passing day we feel less and less like Huntsmen,” Tholi said, now frowning deeply. “At least to me. And…I’ve kept my mouth shut about it, mostly, because I know I’m young to the brotherhood. And also because when I have said anything, I either get told to mind my place or brushed off because nobody has the time to educate me. That’s the thing, I remember when brother Huntsmen did have the time to educate each other. You in particular, Brother Ingvar, bopped my nose at least twice a day when I was a youngling, but you always explained. The younglings growing up now… They’re being taught to obey, not to understand. I feel like I’m the last Huntsman raised to actually grasp what being a Huntsman means.”

“What’s happening to the lodge, Tholi?” Ingvar asked quietly.

“Well, we hardly ever see Brother Andros anymore, he’s constantly down at the Cathedral or doing something with the other cults. Much more than he used to, even—it feels like it goes well beyond him being Bishop. There are strangers in the lodge all the time, Church people and others I don’t know. The Archpope keeps sending that Snowe woman with the jugs and the slimy blond Eserite around, and the both of them are wrapping Huntsmen around their little fingers like… Well. At least that rabid Syrinx woman has been gotten rid of.”

“Bishop Syrinx?” Ingvar said, raising his eyebrows. “Not that I’m surprised, but what happened to her?”

Tholi sneered contemptuously. “Apparently even the Avenists had enough of her. The way I heard, it came out that she was molesting Legionnaires. The Hand of Avei herself came to Tiraas and whipped the shit out of her right in the middle of Imperial Square, and good on her for it, I say.”

November was practically shaking with some repressed emotion; Ingvar gave her a level look, concluded that she was continuing to repress it, and opted to leave well enough alone. “Interesting. Well, go on. The Church is meddling in the lodge?”

“It’s worse than that,” Tholi said, frowning again as his thoughts returned to the matter. “Men are coming and going in a way I don’t like. Huntsmen do less hunting now, rites have become more and more infrequent and they keep being sent to do things with other cults, and on secretive missions…”

“What kind of missions?”

“Don’t know.” Tholi shook his head, looking frustrated. “I guess I’m too young. And also I haven’t been happy about the way things are shaping up; that probably contributed to me being cut out. But the Huntsmen in Tiraas are becoming agents of the Archpope’s agenda. Like, brazenly. It feels like Justinian leads us as much as Veisroi does. The Grandmaster had already sent away every Huntsman from the lodge who might challenge him for the weakness and brought in men from other lodges who’ll support him. You saw that happening when you were still around, Brother.”

“I do remember the trend,” Ingvar murmured. “I trusted the Grandmaster to have a plan and the good of the Huntsmen in mind, though, and Brother Andros to check him if he went too far.”

“Well, I think your trust may have been misplaced, Brother Ingvar,” Tholi said grimly. “Since you left it’s been getting worse. Veisroi has moved on to chasing away anybody who raises a voice to protest what’s happening, and surrounded himself with bootlickers. Men who like power, and politics, and see following him and the Archpope as a way to get them. And Brother Andros hasn’t said or done a thing about it. I wasn’t close enough to know why—he might be fully behind the Grandmaster, or maybe Veisroi and Justinian just keep him too occupied to protest. Either would explain him being gone all the time. When I left… Well, I was starting to get pretty firm hints that I’d be better off moving to a different lodge, anyway.”

“I see,” said Ingvar, frowning. “I’m sorry, Tholi. You deserved better than that. It doesn’t explain why you are here, though, or how you knew I would be.”

Tholi’s expression brightened. “I was led here, Brother! I heard that before you set off on your vision quest, you started to have dreams telling you to go, right?” He paused just long enough for Ingvar to nod in confirmation before pressing on. “Well, I have too! I…honestly tried to ignore it for months. I’ve never thought of myself as some kind of spirit-speaker—I just wanted to embrace the wild and hunt alongside my brothers. You know, find a good wife, provide for a family. A simple life, that’s what I felt I was heading toward. But every night I had these dreams, too vivid and always clearly remembered when I woke up. They didn’t feel natural. I kept seeing…” He hesitated, glancing at the window. “…guides. Birds leading me west. Sometimes they talked, and told me to find you. When I started to see wolves as well, always urging me west, and the men at the lodge were starting to freeze me out anyway, I gave up and left. I guess sometimes the spirits don’t care if you’re not attuned to them. If they have a task for you, they won’t let up until you get off your butt and do it.”

“I can relate to that,” Ingvar said wryly.

“And I was right!” Tholi unconsciously gripped his bow in both hands, gazing avidly at Ingvar now. “I found you, Brother! The spirits led me here, to some backwater at the ass end of N’Jendo where there’s no reason I could’ve expected to find you and you didn’t even know you were going to be. It has to mean something! Doesn’t it?”

“Isn’t that kind of exactly what happened to you, Ingvar?” Aspen prompted.

“Kind of exactly,” Ingvar agreed. “Well, who knew. All right, November, you’ve been patient. What’s your story?”

“As I told you,” she burst out with a sudden force that suggested she had been struggling to contain herself while Tholi talked, “I was sent here on a direct mission from Avei herself!”

“Avei,” Ingvar said, not troubling to disguise his skepticism. “The goddess personally told you to come find me?”

“Well, she also ended up here, after all,” Tholi said somewhat grudgingly. “Not that I think much of this brat, but that’s obviously…not insignificant.”

“Oh, you’re right about that,” said Ingvar, still studying November thoughtfully. “I’m just trying to make sense of it. Gods rarely reach out to people in person. I doubt if anybody but Trissiny Avelea and Farzida Rouvad have heard directly from Avei in the last decade.”

“Well, I can assure you I did,” November snapped. “It’s not the sort of experience I could be mistaken about. Furthermore, Professor Tellwyrn herself validated my quest and gave me the semester off for this. Whatever else you may think about Tellwyrn, she knows the gods as well as anyone does.”

“I do have a lot of respect for Tellwyrn,” Ingvar acknowledged. “A very impressive woman, and more sly than she likes to appear.”

Tholi shrugged. “I guess the girl’s a priestess of Avei, after all. And clearly something is going on that’s getting the attention of gods and spirits.”

“She’s not a priestess of Avei,” Aspen said.

“What?” Tholi frowned at her. “No, I saw her using divine light, she’s definitely a priestess.”

November opened her mouth, but Aspen blithely chattered over her. “No, I’ve been sitting here remembering. I pretty much forgot all about November after we left Last Rock because she wasn’t all that important to me, but I do remember Juniper talking about her while we were there. She’s an Avenist and kind of a bitch about it, but not a priestess—she’s a mutant.”

“Now, just a minute!” November burst out.

“A…mutant?” Tholi frowned quizzically.

“Yeah, she’s a whatchamacallit, an anomaly. She can use divine magic without a god’s help, like a dwarf. Juniper also said most of her classmates find her annoying, she’s in love with Trissiny Avelea, and is pretty mediocre in bed.”

November went scarlet and began physically shaking. Tholi impressed Ingvar by not overtly piling mockery on the young woman’s humiliation, though clearly his discretion had improved only a little since they had last met. The young Huntsman turned his back, but either couldn’t or didn’t bother to stifle the shaking of his shoulders.

“Aspen,” Ingvar said flatly, “we have talked about this. People have the right to privacy, especially with regard to romantic and sexual matters. The fact that you can sense things they’d rather keep quiet means you have a responsibility to keep such knowledge to yourself. I know your sister Juniper understands and practices this; there is no reason you can’t.”

“Right,” she said with a sigh. “Sorry, Ingvar.”

“Don’t apologize to me,” he ordered. “I’m not the one you offended.”

“Oh, okay then.”

Aspen smiled brightly, placing her hands demurely in her lap, and looked deliberately innocent.

He stared her down. “Aspen.”

“Oh, all right,” the dryad said with poor grace. “Sorry, November, that was rude of me. I won’t do it again.”

November answered with the red-faced silence of someone who did not trust her own voice.

“Tholi, act your age,” Ingvar said disapprovingly. “Laughing at someone else’s misfortune is childish and unbecoming a Huntsman of Shaath. Putting all that nonsense aside, Ms. Stark, what was it exactly that Avei ordered you to do?”

“To find you.” November was still red-faced and trembling, but clearly grateful for the change of subject. “Avei said… She said that you are undertaking an important quest, Huntsman Ingvar, something that greatly concerns the entire Pantheon, and that you would need help. She commanded me to find you and help you in any way you need, and told me to come to this location to meet you.”

“Avei said that,” Ingvar muttered. “That’s… I’m not questioning your word, November. After all, if you were lying or wrong I don’t see how you could have ended up here, looking for me. But it’s a lot to take in.”

“For me, too,” she mumbled.

“Hey, Tholi,” Aspen said suddenly. Ingvar looked up to find the dryad staring at Tholi with an almost predatory interest and Tholi himself looking uncomfortable and shifty. “You said you dreamed about birds leading you here, right?”

“Uh, yes.”

“What birds, exactly?”

He shrugged. “You know, just birds…”

“Yes, but what kind?”

“Crows.” Tholi glanced over at November, then finally met Ingvar’s eyes, and finished with visible reluctance. “And… A golden eagle. I didn’t… That is, at the time, I didn’t think it could possibly… Well, a bird is a bird, and dreams are just… Brother Ingvar, what is going on?”

Ingvar stepped over to the window, staring at the mountain beyond. “First this…frankly incredible quest. This whole time I’ve been thinking there was no way I could do this, just because it would require a kind of shift from within the Huntsmen that… And yet, it sounds like the Huntsmen are already suffering the beginnings of what could become a schism if it isn’t mended. And now… Now, another god of the Pantheon takes an interest. The absolute last one I would have expected. Well.”

He turned around to face them, nodding once. “Very well. You two are not the help I would have summoned for this task. Then again, if I’d been the one handing out cosmic assignments, I would not have nominated me for it, either. We must trust that the gods know something we don’t.”

“Of course they do,” Aspen said reasonably. “They’re gods.”

“Gods are creatures with agendas,” Tholi added, “just like anyone. I’m not so sure I like the sound of running around doing Avei’s bidding.”

“I’m pretty sure Avei doesn’t want you trying to do her bidding, either,” November sneered.

“Are you?” Ingvar shook his head. “You may both feel differently once you hear what is actually happening. All right, where to begin…”

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15 – 5

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“All right, let me just make sure I’m following this,” said Aspen. “People have all these customs and they’re all arbitrary and I try to be real certain of details when something confuses me.”

“Entirely reasonable,” Rainwood replied, giving her a smile.

“So… We need to go to this Omnist temple.”

“It’s more a compound; there is a temple on the grounds but the monastery encompasses a large farm, too. But yes, that is the crux of it.”

“Uh huh. And you don’t know why we need to go to the temple.”

“When dealing with spirit guides, it’s best not to press for details they don’t want to give. So no, I do not.”

“And you don’t know who we’re going to meet there.”

“Well, Omnists, one presumes! But I’m open to being surprised.” He grinned at her, an expression she did not return. “We’re going to meet someone, that much is given. There are people there who will be instrumental in your quest. But no, there’s no hint yet of who they are.”

“Right.” She turned her head toward Ingvar, who was walking on her other side. “And… You want to go with this guy because…?”

Rainwood laughed, which she ignored, but Ingvar patted her shoulder. “All that is bog standard fae divination, Aspen. I would be more perturbed if these unknowns were truly unknowable, but all of this is exactly what I have come to expect from fairy magic.”

“Don’t tell me about fairy magic,” she said petulantly. “I’m a fairy. I’m made of the stuff!”

“And is that the same as knowing how it works?” he replied mildly. “I could not assemble a working human from the pieces of one; the greatest medical minds alive can’t do that. And hasn’t it been something of a running theme with you that your mother rather neglected to teach you anything useful about yourself before turning you loose?”

“I guess,” she muttered, kicking a rock out of the path hard enough that it sailed into the canopy and impacted a tree trunk with a crack that resounded through the forest. “This is just…a lot of I-don’t-know-what for us to be suddenly running off and doing what he wants.”

Ingvar patted her again, soothingly. “As I said, it’s familiar enough to me that I don’t inherently mistrust it. We Huntsmen work with the Mother’s blessings more than with divine magic, and I in particular have followed a quest commanded through visions. That’s how we met, remember? Fae spirits may be helpful, if they are so inclined, but very rarely do they give straight answers.”

“Well put,” Rainwood agreed. “There’s also the old saw about the journey being more important than the destination. Which I’m not so sure I concur with, actually, but I’ve found that the journey always matters. Finding your way and figuring stuff out is exactly how you become the person who can accomplish the goal. If you just skipped to the end without struggling along the way you wouldn’t know what to do with it when you got there.”

“Hnh,” Aspen grunted.

“I think it’s time, Aspen,” Ingvar added more solemnly. “Remember, I have been given a quest of the utmost seriousness. The last several months have been a lot of journeying with no destination in sight. We have learned and grown from our various visits with Rangers and elves and even your sister’s school, but none of it so far has been explicitly germane to Shaath’s predicament.”

“I like journeying with you,” she said quietly. “It’s been… It’s been good, Ingvar. I’m not sure I’m ready for things to change.”

“I’ve enjoyed traveling with you, too,” he replied, smiling at her. “Watching how quickly you’ve grown has been a privilege. But everything does change, you know. That’s the one absolute in all of nature. The time was always going to come.”

“Yeah, but are you sure you wanna trust this guy in particular?” she muttered, glancing sidelong at Rainwood. The elf grinned as he strolled along, clearly taking no offense.

“I can’t say that I’m sure about much,” Ingvar mused. “All I ever wanted was to hunt in the company of my brothers; I used to think that adapting myself to the political needs of the Huntsmen and tangling with Tiraan society was the great bend in my path. Now everything revolves around gods, ancient secrets, and trying to tease out the lies that have wormed through my faith. Not to mention grappling with huge questions of how to actually change a god.” He shook his head slowly. “If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that it does not pay to become too attached to an idea of what you think the future should be. And anyway, I guess I have a good feeling about this guy.”

“Yeah, well,” she said grudgingly, “I guess if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that feelings matter when it comes to fae magic. And dealing with people. And a surprising number of other things.”

“Tell you what, I reckon I’m as surprised about all this as you two,” Rainwood commented. “I’ve learned to trust my spirit guides—it’d be crazy not to, considering how many centuries I’ve been nurturing those relationships. Still, though. I was minding my own business in Calderaas, enjoying a semi-retirement from the adventuring life, and all they told me was that a great quest was afoot and I was to come here and meet some people, then guide them on the next steps. A Huntsman of Shaath and a dryad were definitely a surprising fill-in of that blank. And now I find out you’re after no less than a cure for the core problem of the gods themselves.” He snorted. “Next person who tells me the Age of Adventures is over is getting turned into a mushroom.”

Aspen gave him a much more interested look. “You can do that?”

“One way or another,” Ingvar said, “in the end, everyone gets turned into mushrooms. At least, if they are fortunate enough to die in a forest.”

“See, he gets it!” Rainwood chuckled.

She sighed. “Glad one of us does…”

The forested hills of eastern N’Jendo provided exactly the kind of territory Ingvar and Aspen both loved. Rainwood, clearly a wood elf by the shape of his ears, was doubtless equally in his element here, but in delivering them the urgings of the spirits who had taken an interest in Ingvar’s quest, he had steered them from the truly wild country they preferred and onto an actual path. It was no highway, merely an old game trail, but clearly saw enough traffic that the underbrush had no chance to swallow it up again. Aspen did not particularly mind, though Ingvar couldn’t help being concerned at the prospect of meeting human travelers. They reacted unpredictably to encountering a dryad, he had found, and Aspen reacted very predictably to people shouting at and threatening her.

Elves and Rangers alike were delighted to meet a dryad, but the list of people who felt that way was vanishingly small. And now they were apparently heading right to a Pantheon temple. Well, Omnists were probably likelier than most to welcome a living fertility spirit into their midst, and if worse came to worst, they were rather famous for their equanimity under pressure. Hopefully no pressure would be applied. After all, they were being led here for a reason.

Ingvar did have a good feeling about Rainwood and his guidance, and had learned to trust his intuition, but despite his reassurances to Aspen, the elf’s arrival did raise some thorny questions. If fae spirits were interested enough in Ingvar’s quest to send help his way, who else was aware of it? The Crow herself had seemed to feel positively toward it, but once she had guided them to that last encounter in Viridill, he had heard nothing more from her. Perhaps the intervening months making the acquaintance of elven shamans from Vrandis to Viridill had helped draw the attention of the fae to his cause. Whatever was coming, it would be wise to greet it with circumspection.

If nothing else, Huntsmen were often attuned to the stirrings of the fae. Ingvar himself had needed Mary’s careful guidance—and, it must be said, manipulation—to come to a point from which he was mentally prepared to accept the revelations thrust upon him, and even for him it had been a painful struggle. Other, uninitiated Huntsmen were unlikely to take it so well, if they caught wind of his mission. To them, his goal could very easily seem like nothing less than an assault on everything they valued.

Because, in a sense, it was.

The three of them climbed into more sparsely-wooded territory as the morning wore on. Around midmorning, they emerged from beneath the boughs at the peak of a ridge to find the land changed ahead. The forest had not ended, precisely, but where there had been constant coverage of pines all the way from the Athan’Khar border, there now was rocky, rolling territory ascending to the solid wall of the Wyrnrange in the east, dotted with isolated stands of trees interspersed with windswept open areas. Through these gaps, their destination was clearly visible.

“There she is!” Rainwood said with good cheer, pointing at the complex a few miles ahead, which was truly impossible to miss. The traditional Omnist ziggurat surmounting it stood out from the lower buildings clustered around, but even had there been no visible structure, an entire stretch of the terrain had been carved into terraces for farming, each supported by stone retaining walls. In the distance beyond the temple complex a waterfall plummeted from a great height in the mountains, and away to the southeast wound a river disappearing into the forest beyond. Rainwood shifted his arm to point north. “The Shadow Hunter enclave you were headed for is off to the north thataway, where the trees get thick again. Seems a likely next stop on your journey even after this diversion, but who knows? As we were just discussing, the road ahead is often surprisingly twisty.”

“Rangers,” Aspen corrected primly. “They don’t like to be called Shadow Hunters. That’s a perjorative the Shaathists made up to discredit them.”

“Why, right you are, Aspen,” Rainwood acknowledged. “Forgive me, I’m not accustomed to conversing with people who know that.”

“We told you we’d been visiting their enclaves,” she said in exasperation. “What did you think we talked to them about?”

“I should imagine you discussed a great many things,” he said diplomatically. “Well! The day is only getting older while we stand here, and the temple no closer. Shall we?”


Rainwood, despite all his hints about having been on many adventures over the course of a long life, had clearly never traveled with a dryad before. He tried to set a faster pace once they were walking on open ground and had their destination in sight. Ingvar, though it probably didn’t reflect well on him, took some amusement in not warning the elf.

Aspen’s usual diatribe about dryads and cross-country hiking was swift and loud. Ingvar had noticed that she rarely complained about the walking when they were traveling under trees, but as soon as they were out in the open, suddenly dryads were just not suited for long periods of walking, especially not at speed. Rainwood, to his credit, simply slowed his pace and offered no argument.

Despite being the one slowing them down, Aspen also insisted on keeping in motion rather than stopping for a break as noon neared, blithely commenting that Omnists were so well-known for feeding strangers that even she knew their reputation, and there was no sense in using up their own supplies when there was a free lunch waiting for them straight ahead. As she had grown more accustomed to interacting with people on their travels Ingvar had been pleased to see her maturing rapidly and developing the habit of considering the perspectives of others, but such episodes of unthinking childish greed were still very much in her character. Privately, he wondered if the Omnists would prove to be a good influence on her, or a very bad one. He could imagine that going either way.

In the end, it was over an hour past noon by the time they reached the temple complex. Their little path had led them onto an actual road nearly a mile back, a wide one not paved by Imperial engineers but which clearly saw regular wagon travel. Luckily, this was still the backwoods of N’Jendo and they did not encounter any fellow travelers until the road brought them to the first of the cultivated terraces upon which crops were being grown, and with it their first Omnist monk.

At least, she wore the customary brown robes. The monks of Omnu were famously humble, industrious, and pleased to labor with plants in the fields, but this one was engaged in nothing constructive, ignoring the crops growing around her. Instead, she sat on the edge of the terrace’s stone wall with her legs dangling over the path, whittling a piece of wood with a belt knife. Or had been, anyway; her eyes had remained fixed on the three of them ever since they came into view, the blade and half-carved block sitting immobile in her hands.

“Oh, good,” the young woman said sourly as they stepped into conversational range. “More weirdos.”

“Excuse you?” Aspen snapped, stopping and planting her fists on her hips.

The monk just looked the dryad over insolently, then did the same to the other two. “Let me guess,” she finally drawled, pointing with her knife. “You must be Ingvar.”

He stiffened unconsciously in surprise. “That I am. Forgive me, I did not realize I was expected.”

“Yeeeaaah, this has been a day of surprises all around,” the girl said sardonically. She was very young, clearly only a few years into adulthood, if that; perhaps that played a part in explaining her overtly un-Omnist attitude. The monk was a Westerner, but unless he missed his guess, not local; her lean frame, round face and deep mahogany complexion were more characteristic of the Onkawi from up north than the paler, stockier Jendi. “Well, the important thing is you’re here. Bout time, too, there are some people who are very anxious to meet you.”

“I…see,” he said uncertainly. “Well, then, I am sorry if I kept you waiting. It wasn’t intentional.”

“Well, at least he’s polite,” she said, tossing aside her piece of wood and hopping nimbly down to the path. There she hesitated, squinting at Ingvar. “Um…or is that she?”

“He,” Ingvar said, firmly but without aggression.

“Okay,” the young monk replied with a single nod. “Follow me, then.”

He did so, making soothing gestures at Aspen, who clearly did not care for this girl’s attitude. Ingvar didn’t either, to be sure, but her last comment had raised her half a notch in his estimation. Well, a quarter of a notch. It wasn’t uncommon for people to be unsure of his gender, or to be rude enough to ask, but far too many went so far as to argue with him about it, or at least shamelessly gawked. Sad as it was, a basic modicum of respect was an unusually positive character trait. Rainwood just strolled alongside him, grinning as if this were the most fun he’d had in years. For all Ingvar knew, that was literally the case.

“So,” the monk said, loudly enough to be clearly audible even though she didn’t turn around while walking, “how come your elf has black hair? I’m not even gonna ask about the dryad.”

“He is hardly my elf,” Ingvar replied in the tone of wry disapproval he had cultivated for quelling the excesses of younger brother Huntsmen, the ones who hadn’t outgrown constantly strutting around as if they had something to prove. “If you’re curious about Rainwood, the thing to do would be to ask him.”

“Guess that’s so,” she said laconically, then fell silent.

“I can already tell I’m gonna like it here,” Rainwood said cheerily.

Aspen leaned forward around Ingvar to peer at him. “Is that sarcasm, or are you just some kind of idiot? That’s a serious question, it can be really hard to tell the difference.”

“Eh,” the shaman replied, still grinning irrepressibly. “Little of column A, little of B. Life’s all about balance.”

“I thought life was all about change,” she grumbled. In front of them, the monk chuckled, which earned her a sullen glare from Aspen.

In the temple complex, finally, they began encountering people. Ingvar couldn’t fault them for stopping to stare, especially the younger ones; any of the three of them was an unusual sight, and in combination were worth staring at. Still, he found the Omnists a more courteous group than he had expected of humanity in general; all but the obviously immature novices quickly got over their surprise, greeting the travelers with smiles and polite bows. No more than that, though, as they were clearly being led by the young monk. That was a relief; explaining their business here was going to be interesting enough, since Ingvar himself didn’t fully understand it. He was just as happy not to have that conversation with every single person they passed.

Their guide conducted them on a winding route that was probably still the most direct path, considering how many switchbacks were necessary to ascend the terraces into which the hill had been carved. It quickly became clear that she was leading them all the way to the uppermost level, where the ziggurat itself stood with a a long stone structure extending from one side, which would be the monastery itself. The monk remained nonchalant and quiet for the rest of the walk. None of them minded the silence, if the alternative was her acerbic idea of casual conversation.

Despite the solid stone construction of the monastery, they could plainly hear raised voices in an argument as they approached its doors, a sound most unsuited to the grounds of an Omnist temple complex. The young monk finally turned to give them a wry look prior to entering.

Ingvar frowned, then his eyes widened. “Oh, no.”

“No? What no?” Aspen demanded. “What’s the matter?”

He sighed heavily. “I recognize one of those voices.”

“Yep,” the girl leading them said dryly. “I had a feeling. Welp, here we are.” She pulled one of the double doors open, stepped in and immediately moved to the side, leaving them to file into the monastery.

The entrance led to a long antechamber from which doors branched off in both directions behind a double row of columns. At the far end a fountain splashed in front of a mural depicting the sunburst of Omnu upon the wall. Ingvar and company took all this in with a quick glance before focusing on those present.

The only person who seemed to belong was an older monk who sat on a bench against one of the columns, watching the two young people having their shouting match with the long-suffering expression of someone who had given up trying to peacefully stop this.

Ingvar discovered that he had been wrong: now that he could see them, he recognized both these people. Which meant he could have warned the poor monk of the futility of trying to keep peace here. The prospect of these two being in a room together was so remote he had never had to consider what a disaster it would inevitably be.

“Oh, go out back and play with your bow, you overgrown child!”

“I’m a child! Where I’m from, a woman who acted the way you do would be put over someone’s knee until she learned to act her age!”

“Yeah, well, everywhere you’re not from, people have discovered fire and writing and not behaving like wild animals!”

“A wild animal would be a vast improvement over you, you vulgar gutter wench!”

“If you like animals so much, why don’t you go screw one? That’s what you Huntsmen do, right?”

“Jealousy suits you even less than petty spite, girl.”

“Oh, please, like anyone would touch you except with a weapon.”

“Every word out of your mouth proves the absolute necessity of keeping women—”

“I would like to see you even try—”

“You are very close to seeing—”

“Silence!” Ingvar roared.

It fell, momentarily, both young people and the long-suffering monk turning to him in surprise. Then the two of them immediately began yelling again, though at least this time it was without hostility, now that they were addressing him and not each other.

“Ingvar! Brother, you are here! I’ve been—”

“Brother Ingvar, I have been sent by the goddess to—”

“Oh, no one cares about your fool goddess, you tramp. Let the men talk.”

“That is it!” She burst alight with a golden glow of divine energy, and he hopped back, nocking an arrow to his longbow.

“WHAT DID I JUST SAY?” Ingvar’s voice thundered through the room, again bringing quiet.

“So, this is the famous Ingvar,” said the old monk, his soft voice seeming to quell the aggression in the room. He rose and approached them with a smile. “Welcome to our humble monastery. And you bring even more surprising company! Daughter of Naiya, it is an unprecedented honor. We shall do all in our power to make you comfortable here. I am Nandu, a humble administrator.”

“Brother Nandu is the abbot in charge of this whole place,” said the young woman who had led them here, now lounging against the wall by the door with her arms folded.

“Brother Nandu, I thank you humbly for your hospitality,” Ingvar said, bowing to him. “I am Brother Ingvar, Huntsman of Shaath. And I deeply apologize for the headache I can see you have been dealing with. I had no idea anyone was looking for me, and still don’t know why. Had I known these two of all people would be coming into contact I would have acted swiftly to steer them away from any hapless bystanders.”

“Well, life is an endless surprise,” Nandu said with an amused little quirk of his lips. “Omnu sends us no more trials than we can bear to face.”

“Soooo,” Aspen said pointedly. “Ingvar, why don’t you introduce everybody to your shouty friends, here?”

“One of them you’ve met, Aspen,” he said, turning a quizzical frown on the two before him, both of whom had the good taste to look embarrassed. “The last time we saw her, which was briefly, November Stark was a student at the University at Last Rock.”

“Oh, yeah,” Aspen said, nodding. “I do remember. She’s the one who was mad at you for existing.”

November blushed and looked mulish, simultaneously. “That is not what happened.”

“It lacks nuance, but Aspen also isn’t wrong,” Ingvar said flatly, “and I think you know it. And this is Brother Tholi, a very young Huntsman from the lodge in Tiraas. In point of fact, he is only recently elevated to full membership in the lodge, and it is very much not common practice for one his age to be wandering on his own a thousand miles from his elder Brothers. Not to mention that I am pretty sure the academic year has begun, and something tells me Professor Tellwyrn doesn’t know how far astray one of her lambs has gone. This promises to be two very interesting stories, before we even get to the matter of why you two are looking for me, of all things. And why here. Even I didn’t know I was going to be here until last night!”

“The spirits knew,” Rainwood said smugly.

November and Tholi glanced at each other, then both averted their eyes, scowling in unison.

“Well?” Ingvar prompted. “Explain yourselves.”

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15 – 1

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“You’d be welcome, if you wanna come along,” Toby promised.

“Nah, I need to get a head start on my research project; Yornhaldt and Tellwyrn both signed off on it, but with the clear understanding they expected to see me buckling down to the work.” Raolo grinned and leaned in to kiss Toby’s cheek, squeezing his hand. “Sides, it’s been close to a year since your whole group was together again. You guys go catch up; we’ll have plenty of time.”

“All right. I’ll come by and keep you company while you work tonight,” the paladin replied, unable to keep the grin off his face.

“It’s a date.” Raolo took two steps back, stretching their clasped arms out between them, before finally releasing Toby’s hand and turning to go skipping off back up the path through the center of the mostly-constructed new research campus toward the old gates. Toby was still smiling when he turned back around to face the rest of the newly-minted junior class.

“Aww,” Juniper, Teal, and Fross cooed in unison.

Ruda’s commentary, as usual, was less saccharine. “Has anybody else noticed our social circle is disproportionately queer?”

Trissiny sighed. “Ruda.”

“What? I’m serious! This makes two thirds of the full-blooded humans in our year. The species can’t possibly be this gay; even the elves would outbreed us!”

“Three individuals is not a statistically useful sample size, Ruda,” Fross said severely. “I realize you’re not a mathematics major but I would expect you to know that much.”

“Guys, relax,” Toby interjected, still smiling. “It’s just us here. If anything, I’d be offended if Ruda thought I was too fragile to face the rough side of her tongue.”

“See?” Grinning, Ruda punched him on the shoulder. “Paladin boy gets it!”

“Hey, as long as Ruda can have her fun without fucking stabbing someone, I say leave her to it.”

“You’re just tetchy because you’re the only one who ever gets stabbed, Arquin.”

“Oh, shoot,” Juniper said suddenly, pressing a hand to one of the pouches hanging from her belt. “I forgot to bring my money purse…”

“It’s okay, June, we’ll spot you,” said Trissiny.

“No, that’s all right, this is an opportunity. Sniff!”

Juniper knelt and the dog-sized creature which had been pacing silently alongside her chirped, skittering around in front to meet her gaze. He was covered in feathers and generally bird-shaped, albeit with a long, flat head filled with jagged teeth and a serpentine tail which ended in a colorful spray of plumes. His wings were clearly arms despite the pinions which flared outward from the wrist joint; they had already observed Sniff’s ability to pick up objects in his little clawed fingers. Now the crest of feathers atop his head stood upright in attention.

“Go back to the bedroom,” Juniper instructed slowly and clearly, staring into the creature’s eyes, “and get my money bag. Okay? You understand?”

Sniff made his croaking little chirp again, bobbed his head once, then stepped around her and dashed off back up the path into the campus.

F’thaan growled, taking a few steps after him, but Shaeine snapped her fingers and pointed at the ground by her feet. The little hellhound immediately scampered over to lie down beside her.

“It’s good for him to have tasks,” the dryad said, straightening and watching him go. “Part of where I went wrong with Jack was treating him like a pet. A druid’s familiar is meant to be helpful. I guess now we’ll find out if he knows what my money bag is… If not, I may need to owe somebody for drinks.”

“We’ll spot you, don’t worry,” Teal assured her with a smile.

“Well, since we’re talking about it now,” said Ruda, “what the fuck is that thing?”

“Sniff is not a thing,” Juniper replied, turning a frown on her. “He’s my companion.”

“Okay, point taken, but what is he?”

“He kind of resembles a sylph,” Trissiny mused.

“Sniff is a proto-bird!” Fross chimed. “I assume you found him in the Golden Sea, Juniper? That’s the most common place to find extinct species. You guys remember the smilodon we met on our first expedition? But yeah, I dunno his exact species; this school doesn’t have a lot of material on the subject in the library. You’ve gotta go to Svenheim for a university with an actual department of paleontology. Proto-birds are the general group of species that evolved into modern birds.”

“Yeah, I found Sniff in the Sea,” Juniper said. “Out by the edge of it, but still. I was performing a sunrise ritual Sheyann taught me how to incorporate into shamanic practice, and…there he was. It seemed kinda like fate.”

“Yeah, I didn’t wanna press you or anything,” said Gabriel, patting her shoulder, “but it’s obvious you had a busy summer.”

“I don’t mind talking about it,” Juniper said, smiling at him and unconsciously reaching up to touch the sunburst pendant resting on her upper chest, bound by a golden chain around her neck. Her entire appearance had undergone a change since the spring. In addition to her green hair being now combed back and bound in a single severe braid, the dryad’s customary sundresses had been traded in for dyed garments of traditional wood elven style which both covered a lot more skin and hugged her figure more closely. They had to have been made specially for her, as no elves had a frame as generously curvy as Juniper’s. She was also wearing a heavily laden tool belt rather like Trissiny’s, bristling with pouches of both shamanic reagents and mundane supplies. And, in its own leather holster, an Omnist libram whose cover glittered with the same golden sunburst sigil she now wore around her neck. Another sunburst hung, along with a string of prayer beads, from the tie holding the end of her long braid together. “After…you know, what happened at Puna Dara… Well, it was clear to me I needed some source of calm and focus, like you guys have. I mean, Toby, Trissiny, Shaeine. It may be all different religions but you’re all centered in a way I suddenly realized I was missing. Druidic traditions are great but they don’t exactly provide that. And, well… Themynrite worship seems pretty drow-exclusive, and no offense, Trissiny, but it didn’t seem to me like Avei was offering what I needed.”

“No offense is taken,” Trissiny assured her. “I think that was a good call, Juniper. Avei fills a crucial need, but…” Her eyes caught Gabriel’s, and she smiled. “Everybody does not have the same problem.”

“And so the dryad is an Omnist now,” Ruda chuckled. “Ain’t life a show?”

“I’m proud of you,” Toby said, also patting Juniper’s back. “And not because you picked my religion, Juno, but because you’re working on yourself. I hope you find what you need in Omnu, but remember: if you don’t, you’re allowed to keep looking. It’s a lot more important to me that you be happy than that you follow my own faith.”

“You’re a good friend,” she replied with a smile. “And a good monk.”

They had no sooner resumed their way down the mountain staircase toward Last Rock than Gabriel abruptly slowed. “Heads up. Vestrel says we’ve got company coming.”

“There’s usually some kinda company coming and going, it ain’t like this is a cloistered campus,” Ruda replied. “What’s got Spooky’s feathers in a ruffle?”

“Don’t call her that,” Gabriel said with a long-suffering sigh.

“I see them, too,” Shaeine interjected, and the rest all turned to her in surprise at the wintry undertone in her normally serene voice. Beside her, F’thaan growled, picking up on her mood. “Vestrel is right to be concerned. Trissiny, you should perhaps step to the front.”

It took only moments longer for the pair coming up the mountain to ascend within range of non-elven eyes, Shaeine’s vision being mostly adapted to sunlight after two years on the surface. The bronze Legion armor was evident as soon as the two were in view, and it wasn’t long afterward that at least one of the oncoming Legionnaires was personally identifiable.

“Well, hidey-ho, kids!” Principia Locke called, waving broadly as she and her companion came up the stairs toward them. “Fancy meeting you here!”

“We are supposed to be here,” Trissiny said pointedly. “And just because classes are out for the day does not mean I’m going to drop everything to spend time with you. Have you forgotten your last visit to this University? Because nobody else has.”

“Well, Trissiny, I’m always glad to see you,” Principia said with a grin, coming to a stop in front of them and a few steps down. Beside her, Merry came to attention, saluting. “And I hope we have a chance to catch up while I’m in town. But, and I’m sorry to have to tell you this, the sun does not rise and set on your golden head. We’re here to see Professor Tellwyrn. Legion business.”

Trissiny narrowed her eyes slightly. “I don’t think I saw a salute, Lieutenant.”

“You’re out of uniform, General,” Principia replied with unruffled calm.

At that, Trissiny cracked a faint smile of her own. She did have her sword buckled on over a casual leather longcoat, but no other indicators of her rank. “Well, she’s right, as it happens. At ease, Corporal Lang.”

“I’ve developed a policy of not taking risks when Locke starts getting shirty with people who can kill us, ma’am,” Merry said, relaxing a bit.

“I guess we know who’s the brains in this operation, then,” said Gabriel.

“Is there something you’d like to tell me about, Locke?” Trissiny asked.

“Yes,” Principia said with clear emphasis, meeting her eyes directly. “In my personal and professional opinion, you should be fully briefed and involved. But the High Commander’s regard for my opinion runs pretty thin these days, especially after our little game of tag with Syrinx this summer, and until she says otherwise our business remains classified.”

“I see,” Trissiny murmured.

Principia cleared her throat and shifted, nodding politely to Shaeine. “Ms. Awarrion, I’m very glad to see you up and well. You weren’t at Puna Dara with the others, so I missed the chance to apologize—”

“I’m sorry, Lieutenant, but matters are not that simple,” Shaeine interrupted tonelessly. Beside her, Teal stuck her hands in her coat pockets, fixing Principia with an extremely level stare. “I am on this campus in my capacity as a representative of House Awarrion and Tar’naris. If you wish to offer amends for any slights given, you will have to take it up with my mother. Excuse me.”

She turned and resumed walking down the mountainside, Teal following her after giving Principia a last lingering stare. F’thaan growled at the two Legionnaires before trotting off after them. Slowly, the rest of the students began filing past after their classmates, Ruda with a dark chuckle and a wink at Principia.

“…that’s a trap, isn’t it,” Principia mused aloud, half-turned to watch Shaeine’s back retreating down the staircase.

“Yep,” replied Trissiny, the last of the juniors still present. “I suggest you don’t go within a mile of Tar’naris unless you want to spend some time in a spider box. Ashaele is about as forgiving as any drow matriarch. And I am assuredly not going to expend what little political capital I have to rescue you from the consequences of your own nonsense.”

Principia turned back to her, grinning. “Appreciate the concern, kiddo, but that’s one thing I will never ask you to do. Trust me, I got by just fine for centuries without having anybody to watch over me.”

“That’s right, keep calling me funny little pet names,” Trissiny grunted, finally turning to follow the rest of her friends toward the town. “Way to rebuild those bridges, Locke. Have fun getting immolated, which I assume you know is what’s going to happen the instant Tellwyrn finds you on her campus again.”

“Relax, Thorn, you know my tag. I always have a way in!”

“Your funeral.”

“Will you send flowers?” Principia called after her. Trissiny, now several yards down the path, didn’t turn or respond. For a moment, the elf stood watching her go, then turned back to meet her companion’s eyes. “Oh, shut up, Lang.”

“Didn’t say a word,” Merry replied innocently.

“Well, could you think it a little more quietly?”

“Don’t think I can, LT. C’mon, let’s go get you immolated. I don’t wanna miss that.”


She lay awake—normal enough for the late afternoon, though he slept deeply beside her. He was always a deep sleeper, especially after sex. Two months ago she had found it an annoying habit, but had begun to find charm in it. That warned her that it was probably past time to go.

Fortunately, she had what she needed, now.

Natchua turned her head to watch him breathe for a long moment. He lay on his side, facing her, mouth hanging open and making a raspy noise with each breath that wasn’t quite a snore. As always, he had thrown an arm over her waist. In the beginning, it had been to paw sleepily at her breasts while drifting off, but more and more, lately, it seemed he just like to hold her close.

Definitely past time to go. And a layered irony that after all her snooping and needling all summer, the tiny piece of information that had been her whole purpose in coming to Mathenon had slipped from his lips in the last few mumbled words before he faded into sleep. Well, that had been the whole reason she had let this entanglement become so intimate. Information could be effectively sealed away from all scrying by the Church and the Empire and still be carelessly spilled by a man in his lover’s arms; every spy in history understood that basic fact.

She had the name, and he was asleep. There was no reason to still be lying there, except that it was comforting… And yes, that just served to emphasize how necessary it was to get out and put all this behind her before she got in any deeper.

Natchua slipped out from under his arm, freezing when he stirred and shifted. He didn’t wake, though, and she dressed in swift silence, the grace of an elf more than a match for a sleeping human’s senses. That should have been the very end of it.

Still, she hesitated.

On impulse, she stepped back to the bed and leaned over Jonathan, bending to lay a last kiss against his temple. Inches away, however, she paused. Foolish risk; the touch of her lips had a way of making him wake and reach for her. But the thought of just ending it like this, with nothing but a silent disappearance, sent a pang through her.

That was the final warning. Natchua straightened up, backing away from the bed, then turned and slipped in total silence out of Jonathan Arquin’s apartment, and life.

Long past time.


“What are you humming?” Ingvar asked.

“I don’t know!” Aspen said cheerfully, actually dancing a few steps. One of the elven groves they had visited had introduced her to dancing, and already her fondness for it bordered on passion. All it took now was a few bars of music to set her off. “Just going along with the music. It’s pretty!”

“Music?” Ingvar raised his head, paying more careful attention. There was no threat to be found in the forest; birds and squirrels were active and loud in the trees all around them, signifying a lack of nearby predators or disturbances. Those, plus the sound of wind whispering among the leaves, were all he could hear. “What music?”

“Oh, sorry. Sometimes I forget my ears are so much better than yours,” she said with an impish smirk.

“I’m sure,” he replied dryly. “Perhaps I could hear better if there weren’t another source of music so much closer at hand?”

Aspen made a face at him and he ruffled her hair. In the momentary silence, though, he could barely make out the thin notes of a flute.

“Hm,” Ingvar murmured, turning to look in that direction. The forest was just the way he liked them: too thick to see that far. Very thick, in fact; to judge by the concentration of underbrush, these woods were overdue for a burning. “I wonder who would be out playing a flute in the middle of the woods in N’Jendo, and why?”

“Because it’s pretty,” she explained slowly, as if he were being obtuse. “What more reason does anybody need for making music?”

“You really have taken to some of these mortal art forms, haven’t you?”

“My upbringing kinda missed out on…all of them,” she agreed. “C’mon, let’s go visit whoever’s playing.”

“Perhaps they would rather be left alone,” he suggested, even as he followed her in the direction of the notes. “Many who venture this deep into the forests don’t seek company. We’re out here for exactly that reason, remember?”

“Well, if they don’t want company, we can always leave ’em alone,” she said reasonably. “But I bet they do! Anybody who fills the forest with pretty music has to be nice.”

It was amazing how naive she could be, for a creature who predated the Enchanter Wars and could pick up a grizzly bear with one hand. Ingvar offered no further argument; he found that Aspen learned about people more quickly when allowed to interact with them, and immediately grew bored when he tried to lecture her. By and large, it was a good enough way to proceed. Obviously they couldn’t enter any actual towns, save the elven groves and scattered Ranger enclaves where she was a celebrity rather than a feared monster. Encountering isolated individuals who would not be enthused to meet a dryad was probably good for her, overall.

Reddish light filtered through the trees from the west; the shadow of the Wyrnrange in the east had already gone fully dark. It was about time to be looking for a campsite anyway. Hopefully whoever was playing that flute would be willing to share. If not, they would have to keep looking and probably risk traveling after dark. On his own, Ingvar would have been more perturbed at the prospect, but these woods held nothing that would challenge a dryad. Actually, they were too far below the mountains for cougars, and the small local black bears probably wouldn’t get aggressive with a human anyway. Still, traveling with Aspen had started to spoil him a little.

They found a stream before they found the music, and in fact followed the path it cut through the ground uphill to a flat stretch of rock that jutted over the water, upon which no trees grew. It had been cleared of underbrush and a fire built near its center. Upon a fallen log next to the fire sat the music maker.

It was an elf. He had black hair. Ingvar narrowed his eyes, studying him.

“Oh, that’s a weird flute,” Aspen blurted out.

The elf was apparently unsurprised by their appearance—but then, he had doubtless heard them coming for the last half mile, even with his music. He lowered the little potato-shaped instrument from his lips to grin at the.

“It’s called an ocarina! Bit of a family tradition, you might say. Well, then!” He looked back and for between them a few times. “I’ve gotta say, you two aren’t what I was expecting.”

“What were you expecting?” Ingvar asked warily.

“It’s a funny thing, how you can have absolutely no idea what’s coming and still be surprised at the form it takes,” the elf said cheerfully. “Any shaman my age has to get used to the effect. The spirits told me that this is where I needed to come, that there was someone I needed to meet, and that I’d need to guide them to the next stage of their quest. But a dryad and a Huntsman of Shaath? That is a new one. Regardless, be welcome at my fire, daughter of Naiya, Brother of the Wolf. Consider the hospitality of my camp yours, as the hospitality of the forest is for all of us. My name is Rainwood.”

“Hey, thanks!” Aspen said brightly, trotting right up to him like a domestic horse and stretching out next to the flames with a pleased sigh.

Ingvar followed more judiciously, pausing to bow to the elf. “Our thanks, Rainwood.” It felt lacking; clearly the shaman’s welcome had been some manner of formal benediction, but it was one Ingvar had never heard. No great surprise, really. One could never tell how old an elf might be, and after their various visits with grove Elders he had grown almost accustomed to anachronistic etiquette. As long as the intent was clearly polite, he had found, showing courtesy in return never went amiss.

“So!” Rainwood tucked away his ocarina and tossed another piece of wood from the stack next to him on the fire. “I’m sure you two will have plenty of questions, and so do I. Let’s talk about quests, adventures, and the long road ahead of us.”


“Now that we stand upon the cusp of fruition,” Melaxyna intoned, “I feel I should state yet again, mistress, that this is surely one of the dumbest, most hare-brained—”

“Thank you, Mel, for sharing your opinion with me,” Natchua said flatly. “Double-check the spell circle.”

“Oh, come on, how many times—”

“Just do it!”

The succubus rolled her eyes, but obeyed, which was pretty much the pattern with her. Natchua had not found it necessary to impose discipline on her reluctant familiar, which she thought was for the best. Melaxyna already had a low opinion of every part of her plans, and adding tension to their relationship could only make it worse. So far, she followed orders without any funny business, and given the tendency of Vanislaad demons to creatively reinterpret instructions to their masters’ detriment, Natchua was quite content to endure backtalk if it meant Melaxyna actually did what she wanted her to do.

“It’s perfect,” the demon reported moments later, after pacing a full lap around the summoning circle, head bent to examine it closely. “And I’m sorry for jabbing at you about it.”

Natchua turned to her in surprise. “You’re sorry?”

“About that last bit,” the succubus clarified. “Precision and attention to detail are always vitally important in infernomancy, it’s a good idea to have me double-check your work, and I shouldn’t have downplayed that. I was not apologizing for my commentary on this dumb, pointless step in your hysterically asinine master plan.”

“Thanks, your approval means the world to me.”

“You know, kid, if you just wanted to fool around with that silver fox, I’m the last person in the world you need to justify it to with some grandiose plot.”

“I promise you, Mel, I will never justify anything I do for your benefit.”

“I kinda like that about you,” Melaxyna admitted.

Natchua turned back to the circle. “No more reason to wait then.” Raising both hands, she deftly channeled infernal power into the precise points on the circle, causing orange light to spread across the chalk lines on the floor and the five power crystals spaced around it to begin glowing. “You are summoned, HESTHRI!”

At the demon’s name, the infernal runes spelling it out in multiple places around the circle’s edge burst into flame.

“This whole thing has got to be the silliest use of infernal magic I have ever seen,” Melaxyna muttered. “And I once watched a guy burn down his house trying to curse rats out of the walls.” This time, Natchua ignored her.

A pillar of smoky light rose from the center of the floor, oscillating slowly. Within it, wisps of shadow coalesced into a humanoid figure, then solidified fully, and the light melted away. The circle itself continued to glow, though at a much dimmer intensity, with the only significant light sources being the power crystals and the still-flickering runes that spelled out Hesthri’s name.

Within, a hethelax demon spun rapidly about in confusion, spitting a few obscenities in demonic.

Natchua studied her with a more personal curiosity than she had expected to feel when this moment finally came. Yes…she could actually sort of see it. Hethelax demons were not generally held up as attractive specimens, not when there were the likes of Vanislaads and khelminash to which to compare them. The armor plating on their limbs made their elbows and knees permanently flexed, giving them a hunched posture like an ape’s. Additionally the scales and chitin protecting the forehead and cheekbones made a hethelax seem to be perpetually scowling. With this one, though, she could see how he had found her desirable. Her features were fine, if rather angular, and even her bent posture did not hide a quite fetching figure, which was well-displayed by a diaphonous garment in brown gauzy fabric not unlike a sundress in cut.

Hesthri’s eyes fixed on Natchua, and she switched smoothly to elvish in what was presumably the Scyllithene dialect.

“In a circle you can bend yourself and your own asshole chew upon until you can taste—”

“Tanglish,” Natchua interrupted in that language. “I understand your confusion, but no. You are in the Tiraan Empire, and won’t be meeting many drow apart from myself.”

At that, the hethelax hesitated, narrowing her golden eyes suspiciously. She answered in the same language, though. “Tiraas? Really?”

“The Empire,” Natchua repeated. “This is Mathenon, rather a long way from the capital.”

“Very well, then. Why in the Dark Lady’s name am I in Tiraas? You are overstepping your bounds, warlock. I am a servant of Princess Ixaavni, who does not take kindly to having her belongings tampered with. Send me back, or learn to fear her displeasure!”

“Well, this must be the one, all right,” Melaxyna drawled. “I never heard of a freshly-summoned demon being anything but delighted to be out of Hell.”

“Have you ever heard of this Ixaavni?” Natchua asked her.

The succubus shrugged. “Nope. That’s a khelminash name, though, and in the khelminash caste system hethelaxi are two steps above domestic livestock. Look, she’s got no tools, armor, or weapons, which means she’s not assigned any special use. I’d be amazed if this Princess gives half a shit about her going missing.”

“What about it, Hesthri?” Natchua inquired pleasantly. “Are you of any importance to your dear Princess?”

“She has no idea who I am and won’t miss me,” Hesthri replied immediately, and then scowled. “Oh, you conniving little twat. A truth compulsion ward built into a hethelax summons? Who does that?”

“My name is Natchua,” she said, folding her arms, “and I’ve called you here for a good and specific purpose.”

“I don’t care in the slightest, but I guess I’m not going anywhere until I hear you out, am I?”

“Very perceptive, Hesthri. I will explain in more detail in due time, but here’s the short version: I intend to punish Elilial herself for her overreaching, and toward that end I require the aid of trustworthy demons.”

Hesthri stared at her.

“No questions?” Natchua prompted lightly.

The hethelax turned to face Melaxyna and wordlessly pointed one finger at Natchua.

“I know,” the succubus said sympathetically. “Believe me, I know.”

“Okay, skipping the obvious,” Hesthri said with a heavy sigh. “If you want to kill yourself, fine, go nuts. But why me? If you think I am a trustworthy demon for this purpose, you’re even stupider than you already sound, and that’s really saying something. I am not going to join some demented crusade that’s only going to kill everyone involved. Even if I was, what good is one hethelax? You know we have no magic, right?”

“As I keep explaining to Melaxyna, here,” Natchua replied, “power is nothing. Trust is everything. You’re right, Elilial is far beyond me, and any force I could possibly conjure up. What matters is the situation. A great doom is coming, an important alignment at which the Dark Lady desperately needs everything to go her way. And yet, in the last handful of years, she has been handed a string of crushing defeats on the mortal plane. The Black Wreath has been viciously culled and is now on the run, and six of the seven of her own archdemons have been destroyed, right when she planned upon having their help. When the time comes, I will strike. It will be at a moment when all that is needed is one little thing to tip the balance. In that moment, it won’t matter what forces I have gathered, only that I can rely upon them to do what must be done, without being chivied, manipulated, or compelled by me.”

“Uh huh,” Hesthri said, manifestly unimpressed. “I still don’t care, though. I’m not your girl, warlock.”

“When you’ve been brought fully up to speed on the situation in the mortal world, you may feel differently,” Natchua said with a smile. “Of course, the important factor in this is your son.”

All expression immediately left Hesthri’s face. The demon stared at her, rigidly immobile and silent.

“That tense pause will be you struggling while under a truth compulsion to say you have no son, or some such,” Natchua stated, and couldn’t help but smirk at the twitch of Hesthri’s left eye in response. “Relax; I intend him no harm. Gabriel is…a friend of mine. Not a close one, but his well-being does matter to me. More important to you is the situation in which he finds himself. If you want to protect your son, you will help me bring down—”

She broke off, inwardly cursing herself. The sounds outside the basement door would have been inaudible to a human, but there was no such excuse for her elven senses. She had simply become wrapped up in the summoning and conversation, and missed the noise of feet on the stairs outside until too late.

“Melaxyna!” she barked, whirling. “The door!”

The succubus spun on command and got two steps toward it before the heavy door swung open and he stepped in, aiming a wand at them.

Everyone froze.

Jonathan Arquin’s eyes met Hesthri’s, then Natchua’s, and the blood drained from his face.

Hesthri emitted a little squeak totally unlike her previously defiant tone.

“Ooooh,” Melaxyna cooed, her tail beginning to wave behind her like a pleased cat’s. “Awk-warrrrrd.”

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