Tag Archives: Ingvar

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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Prologue – Volume 5

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After everything, it was strangely pleasing just to be out in nature.

He walked at a moderate pace, being in no hurry. Golden tallgrass stretched away in all directions, a sight familiar from the border of the Golden Sea, though this was subtly different country. The ground here rolled and undulated slightly, the grass helping to conceal little valleys and subtle hillocks; it was the kind of terrain that could easily have tripped him up had he tried to rush through it, city boy that he was. This grass, too, seemed a shorter variant than what lived around the Great Plains. Its upper fronds rose barely to the level of his chin, not obscuring his view the way the tallgrass of the Golden Sea did. It was darker in color, too, closer to amber.

The sun was arcing toward its zenith and beating down from a cloudless sky, the kind of weather that threatened to burn exposed skin, were his skin vulnerable to that. He found the heat a little tiring, but also not unpleasant. Cicadas, invisible in the grass all around, provided a constant music underscored by a faint, refreshing breeze and the rustling it caused among the stalks. Once in a while there came the cry of a distant hawk.

On he walked, toward the line of trees in the distance. Though he hardly needed the support, he had his scythe out, held in one hand near the blade, and used it as a walking stick. Occasionally a strand of tallgrass would be nicked in passing and immediately wither, but luckily the weapon was long enough that few reached it. It was a good few miles from the nearest town—not a small hike. He had time, though. He’d never been an outdoorsy person, really, but something about the peace and quiet made him begin to appreciate some of Juniper’s speeches.

He tilted his head slightly, glancing to the side and listening to a voice not physically audible. After a few moments, he came to a stop, planting the butt of the scythe’s haft on the ground and slowly peering about. As far as the eye could see, he was totally alone out here on the rolling plain, still a long walk from the forest and already beyond sight of the town.

“Well, I appreciate not being shot,” he said aloud. “How close were you planning to let me get before saying anything?”

There was no sign of any response for another few moments. After pausing, he shrugged and took another step.

The elf seemed to materialize right out of the tallgrass, holding a staff and garbed in a robe dyed in patterns of white and bronze that blended perfectly with the plants. He inclined his head, expression remaining impassive. Three more popped up, one carrying a bow, two with tomahawks in hand. Though armed, they kept their weapons at their sides and their stances free of aggression, staring flatly at the person they had surrounded.

“Well met,” the man with the staff said. “I am Adimel. What brings you?”

“I’m Gabriel Arquin,” he replied, carefully nodding his head back to precisely the same degree.

“The Hand of Vidius.”

“Oh!” Gabriel blinked. “You know about that, then.”

“We live in a grove,” Adimel replied dryly, “not the underside of a rock.”

“Uh, sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it,” Gabriel said, wincing. “I’m not used to being…known. It’s barely been a year and I was kind of a nobody before. It’s eerie that word’s traveled all the way out… Y’know, that’s neither here nor there. First of all, I’m not looking to bring trouble, don’t worry.”

“Most of the trouble brought to the groves of woodkin has come packaged in good intentions,” Adimel said evenly. “I intend no disrespect. To answer your question, we have been studying you, and considering. An uninvited human would have been intercepted already, but you present…a puzzle.”

“I get that a lot,” he said solemnly.

“You smell of demon blood and divine magic. You have a soul reaper following you, which could be a great character reference or the opposite. You carry a weapon of the gods, but also…” Drawing his lips into a thin line, Adimel pointed at Ariel. “That.”

“I didn’t make Ariel, if that’s what you’re concerned about,” Gabriel said, placing his free hand on her hilt. “I don’t know who did. She’s helpful, if not exactly personable…”

“That wasn’t the worry at all; no one your age would know such craft. And…Ariel?” The elf raised an eyebrow. “You couldn’t find one called Jane?”

“What does everyone think that’s so very clever?” Ariel asked aloud.

“Shh.” Gabriel patted her scabbard. “Look, I know elves like your privacy, and I’m sorry to just show up like this. It isn’t my intention to be disruptive; I just need to ask your Elders for help with something.”

“What do you need, paladin?” Adimel asked in a neutral tone. “Your status as Hand trumps most other considerations, in the end. The grove would ordinarily be glad to host you, but this is an awkward time. If your request is important, the Elders will still hear it, at the least.”

Gabriel hesitated, glancing to the side; the elf followed his eyes, clearly somehow able to perceive Vestrel even if he couldn’t actually see her.

“I would like to speak with the Avatar.”

The cicadas sang over the wind in the silence which followed.

“I encountered one in an old Elder God complex under Puna Dara,” Gabriel explained when it became clear none of the elves intended to say anything. “That facility is, uh…no longer accessible. Vestrel said there are only two others still open on this continent, and the other one’s under Tiraas and being used by the Imperial government. I sort of figured the grove Elders would be more reasonable to talk to than the Emperor.”

“Why,” Adimel said slowly, “do you want to speak with another Avatar?”

“I have questions. About where the world comes from, how it ended up this way. About the gods, in particular.”

“Some of those answers may be dangerous to acquire,” the elf warned.

Gabriel nodded. “Vidius also has questions. He called me because of that. Because he thinks the gods have been wrong about some important things, and fears what might happen if they don’t adapt. The Pantheon is shifting all over; the new Hand of Avei is a half-elf who’s been trained by Eserites. My whole purpose is going to involve changing things. And… It’s dangerous to introduce change into a system you don’t understand. I’d think elves would know something about that.”

Adimel glanced at each of his comrades in turn; none of them spoke, but stared back with subtle changes of expression which seemed to communicate something to him.

“Well.” The shaman thumped the butt of his staff against the earth once. “At the very least, the Elders will wish to hear your request, Gabriel Arquin. If nothing else, it is news to us that there are accessible Elder God systems available to the Tiraan and Punaji. I will not make you a promise on the Elders’ behalf, but I believe that if you are willing to share information, they will respond in fairness.”

“Well, that sounds good to me,” Gabriel said with a broad grin. “Fairness is pretty much the best anybody can hope for, right?”

“Indeed,” Adimel said gravely, inclining his head again. “If they are very lucky.”


“I don’t know,” Aspen said worriedly. “This place… It’s not safe for humans. I mean, with us he’s fine, but if you want to leave him out here…”

“All of that,” Kaisa said severely, “would have been worth considering before you insisted on dragging him along, girl.”

“If you really thought I was gonna just leave him behind,” the dryad flared.

“Please.” Ingvar nodded to the kitsune, reaching over to touch Aspen’s cheek. “I am very honored to have been included this far. No Huntsman has ever journeyed so far into the Deep Wild. If I can go no farther, it’s not as if I’ve a right to complain. This is family business, after all. And if Ekoi-sensei says the protection she has left will be enough, I see no reason at all to doubt her. Has she misled us yet?”

“She was pretty much a butthole to me in Last Rock,” Aspen grumbled, folding her arms.

“No offense, sis, but you kinda brought that on yourself,” Juniper pointed out.

“I was worried about you!”

“Yeah, I know. And I love you for it. But that, and then what happened to you right after…” Juniper shook her head, turning to Kaisa. “That’s really what all this is about, isn’t it? Maybe it’s just the two of us so far, but dryads are starting to interact with the mortal world. And we can’t keep doing it the way we have. It just gets people hurt.”

“That is the heart of it, Juniper,” Kaisa replied. “The world is changing. The daughters of Naiya must change, as well, and change is an inherently difficult thing for us to face—but no less important for that. I have done everything I can to make my own sisters see this, and by and large they simply will not. Perhaps we can still salvage something of your generation, however. I allowed you to bring your young man on this journey which is manifestly none of his business, Aspen, because I deem him an extremely positive influence on you. I strongly advise you to listen when he speaks. And for that alone, you can be certain I won’t allow him to come to harm.”

“Go see to your sister,” Ingvar said gently, squeezing Aspen’s hand once. Then he stepped back, beneath the branches of the cherry tree Kaisa had just caused to sprout from nothing. It now fanned overhead to a great height, heavily laden with pink blossoms which continually drifted downward, already having laid down a plush carpet over its roots, delineating a circle of protection. “I will be here when you return.”

“Stay safe, Ingvar,” Fross chimed, zipping around him once in a quick pixie hug before returning to the others.

Kaisa led the way into the deeper, darker grove, Fross hovering along right behind her and casting a silver glow upon the shadowy underbrush. Aspen brought up the rear, constantly turning to look back until Ingvar was out of sight through the trees. He stood calmly, with his longbow in hand, gazing out at the jungle of the Deep Wild.

Within the forested crater of Jacaranda’s grove it was both cooler and darker, with moisture in the air as well as resounding through the stillness in the form of numerous streams trickling down toward the deep pool in the center. Tiny flickers of light and color were visible in the near distance, but none of the pixies were brave enough to approach the group.

“You’re unusually quiet, Fross,” Juniper observed softly as the procession picked their way steadily downward.

“Yeah, sorry. It’s just…memories, you know? This place seemed a lot bigger in my mind than it looks now. And scarier. Now it’s just…trees.”

“It’s called growing up,” Kaisa said from the head of the group, not glancing back at them. Amusement faintly laced her voice. “By and large, Fross, you have done well at it. The price for wisdom is innocence, but that is life’s best bargain. The only value of innocence is that which it persuades you it has—which is a lie.”

“Um, Professor Ekoi?” Fross chimed, drifting forward to flutter along beside the kitsune.

“It’s very unlikely I will be returning to Arachne’s school, Fross,” she replied, glancing at the pixie with a smile. “At least, not as a teacher. Since there is only family business between us now, you should call me Kaisa.”

“I, uh…okay. It’s just… Do you really think we can help her?”

A faint frown settled on Kaisa’s features, and one of her triangular ears twitched sideways twice. “A basic rule of life is that you cannot help a person who refuses to be helped. This entire situation…is tricky. Jacaranda’s predicament is not entirely her own fault. Any more than Juniper or Aspen’s is. Or yours. Or mine.” She shook her head. “Our mother scarcely deserves to be called by the word; we are all abandoned in one way or another, and none of you were taught anything you need to know before being hurled from the nest. This kind of intervention carries risk and no promise of success. But we must act on the presumption that any sister of ours is worth the effort. Jacaranda will not thank us for what we’re about to do…at least, not any time soon. But in the fullness of time, she yet may.”

“…okay.” Fross chimed a soft descending arpeggio.

“And Fross, purge irritating non-communication like ‘uh’ and ‘um’ from your speech. A wise person who has nothing to say says nothing; fools fill the air with meaningless noise. You are the daughter of a goddess, even if once removed, and the heir of a cultural legacy older than life on this world. Act like it.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

“Welcome to the family,” Aspen muttered from the back of the line.

The pool was visible before they reached it, and the thick clustering of multicolored pixies around it apparent long before that; their chiming was audible form halfway up the sides of the crater, even with the intervening trees and underbrush to soak up noise. Activity over Jacaranda’s pool itself was a lot more fervent than normal. Clearly, the Pixie Queen had been warned of their arrival.

“How dare you come here?” she shrieked as they lined up at the edge of her pool. She had gone so far as to rise from her usual reclining position, and now hovered upright above her little island in the center of the water, gossamer wings buzzing furiously. “I will not have dryads in my realm! Vile creatures, begone with you!”

“Good to see you, too, Jackie,” Aspen said dryly, lounging against a tree trunk and folding her arms. “How’ve you been?”

“DON’T YOU CALL ME THAT!” Jacaranda screamed, turning vivid pink with rage. “Pixies! I want these invaders gone. Get rid of them, my little ones!”

“Fross?” Juniper said warily as the hundreds of glittering lights around began to swirl menacingly, raising a cacophony of shrill little voices and buzzing wings.

Fross hovered forward, putting herself in front of Kaisa; in this proximity to so many of her kind, it was immediately obvious that she had a much brighter glow and larger aura. The surrounding pixies surged forward at the four on the bank of the pool.

Fross emitted a single pulse of pure arcane magic. A blue corona rippled out from her, instantly disorienting and stunning their attackers. Little voices switched from threats to shocked outcries as pixies tumbled from the air all around them, or drifted off-kilter in confusion.

After the first blast, Fross maintained a steadier, more subtle arcane current; not enough to do anything, but plenty to create an unpleasant reaction with the fae magic which absolutely saturated the heart of Jacaranda’s little kingdom. An abrasive whine of protest rose from the air itself, a sound that was thicker than sound, that crawled across the skin.

“Stop that!” Jacaranda wailed, planting her hands over her ears. “Stop it, stop it! No, wait—where are you going? Come back! Don’t leave me!”

All around, the pixies were fleeing, shooting desperately away from the noise and disruption despite their queen’s pleas. Aspen and Juniper were wincing and Kaisa had laid her ears flat against her skull, but none of them seemed nearly as badly affected.

Once they were all gone, Fross let the effect drop. After it, the silence was somehow even louder.

“Hello, my queen,” Fross chimed quietly. “I don’t suppose you even remember me.”

“Remember… You. Fross.” Jacaranda lowered her hands slowly from her ears, her face twisting into a snarl. “How dare you betray your queen? I gave you everything—your very existence! You’re mine, do you understand? I made you. I own you! You will bring the rest of my pixies back here right this second!”

“My queen,” Fross replied evenly. “…mother. It’s time we had a talk.”


“This is unexpected, of course,” Ravana said as she led him through the halls of her ancestral home. “When I submitted my application to the Service Society, it was with the presumption that I would not have an honored place on the waiting list. To be frank, I had not expected to interview a prospect for several years.”

“The Society takes great care to match a Butler with any prospective client with the utmost caution, your Grace,” Yancey said diffidently, following her at a perfectly discreet pace which called no attention to how much longer his legs were than hers. “It is a matter of compatibility rather than seniority. Clients are obliged to wait until a suitable match is made, irrespective of how long it takes.”

“Of course,” she agreed, “a wise system. I understand the relationship is considered quite intimate—though, naturally, my data is all secondhand. I applaud your regard for custom, Yancey; I am something of a traditionalist, myself. Still, Grace is a somewhat archaic form of address for my rank—technically correct, but more commonly associated with Bishops these days. I am phasing it out, along with the rest of my father’s ponderous pomposities.”

“Very good, my lady.”

“I understand,” she said thoughtfully, “you were previously Butler to Duchess Inara of House Tiradegh.”

“I had that honor, my lady.”

Nodding pensively, Ravana paused while Yancey slipped ahead of her to open the door at the end of the hall. He held it for her, bowing, and she glided through.

“I do not wish to seem indelicate.”

“I beg that you speak your mind, my lady. A Butler does not take offense, and the aim of our discussion is to assess honestly our suitability to form a contract.”

“Very well,” she said, eyes forward and voice contained. “Part of a Butler’s function is, of course, as a bodyguard. Rumors abound concerning the late Duchess’s passing, but the official and most credible account is that she was murdered. I wonder how it came to be that you were unable to prevent this.”

“A most reasonable concern, my lady. Please take no insult at the question, but may I presume that anything said between us will go no further?”

“You may rely on my discretion.” He walked at her side, a half-step behind, positioned just forward enough to discern her very faint smile though she didn’t turn to look at him. “I realize trust between us is not yet earned; for the moment, rest assured that I am not fool enough to antagonize the Service Society by betraying a confidence.”

“More than adequate assurance, my lady. Her Grace the Duchess left this world at a time and in a manner of her own choosing, in the pursuit of her own goals. I would have considered it a rank betrayal of our relationship to intervene, however her passing grieved me.”

“Ah. Then Lord Daraspian did not kill her?”

“He did, my lady. She arranged it with the utmost care.”

“Thus disgracing House Daraspian,” Ravana murmured, eyes narrowing infinitesimally in thought, “and further bringing down the scrutiny of the Empire, effectively cutting off its largely illicit sources of funds. And thereby assuring the future of its principal rival, House Tiradegh. What a fearless and fiendishly elegant maneuver. If there is one thing we aristocrats consistently fail to anticipate in one another, it is a willingness to embrace sacrifice.”

“Just so, my lady.”

They had arrived at another set of doors, and again he stepped ahead to open them and bow her through. Ravana emerged onto a balcony, Yancey following and closing the door behind them.

After a thousand years of rule, the manor of House Madouri was a huge complex completely encompassing the rocky hill upon which the city of Madouris had originally been built. The manor itself was a relatively small structure at the apex of the miniature mountain, itself palatial in size but dwarfed by the sprawl of gardens, lawns, fortifications, and other structures which made the complex a self-contained little city within Madouris and the most heavily fortified House position in the Empire.

Madouris itself stretched out in three directions; the towering outcrop of the manor abutted the canyon through which the River Tira coursed far below. It was a sizable city, rivaling Tiraas in scope, though not nearly so tightly packed. Madouris didn’t have much heavy industry compared to its neighbors, and thus had preserved more of its traditional architecture than Calderaas or Tiraas; the scrolltowers were concentrated at a central location for efficiency’s sake rather than spread across multiple offices over the city, and there were relatively few factories. The huge bulk of Falconer Industries rose ominously past the city walls to the northwest, fairly bristling with lightning-wreathed antennae. It, like much of the newer construction, had grown up outside the old walls. The age of fortifications had ended with the Enchanter Wars, according to conventional military wisdom.

The manor had the best view in the province, and this, Ravana’s balcony, had the best view in the manor.

“I am…dithering,” she said pensively, gazing out across the city her ancestors had ruled for a millennium. “The prospect of retaining a Butler may weigh my decisions in one direction or another. Classes resume in a few weeks, and I must decide before then whether to return to Last Rock, or take my education in a different direction altogether. If I do return to the University, having a Butler along would present difficulties. I rather think Professor Tellwyrn would make them even more difficult than necessary. She vividly disapproves of what she considers presumption in her students.”

“I will keep this under consideration, my lady. We are, of course, only in the earliest stages of our acquaintance. It is yet too early to commit to a relationship.”

“Of course, of course. I simply want you to be aware of my situation.”

“I appreciate your candor, my lady.”

“So. You have come to meet me, because you perused my application and felt we might have some compatibility.”

“Just so, my lady.”

“Knowing what I do of Duchess Inara Tiradegh, I take that as high praise indeed. What is it, Yancey, that attracts you to the prospect of my service?”

The Butler’s posture remained exquisitely poised, his expression neutral and speech perfectly diffident. “You remind me of her, my lady, both by reputation and by the details you yourself provided in your application.”

“House Madouri is not presently in nearly so secure a position as House Tiradegh, it pains me to admit. We are older, wealthier, more powerful by any measure, that is a fact. But secure… In truth, my position is precarious indeed. Thanks to my father, many of our old alliances have been squandered to nothing. The Silver Throne is tentatively well-disposed toward me, but entirely out of patience with the Madouri name. I have just barely salvaged a relationship with the Falconers, and I fear I rather traumatized Teal in the process. And after my recent illness in Last Rock, any confidence my people had in me is shaken. You should know that any number of potential calamities might sweep me from power at any moment.”

“Yes, my lady.”

She turned to give him a cool look. “This appraisal does not surprise you, Yancey?”

“I made certain to be aware of it, my lady. It is part of what drew me to you.”

She raised one eyebrow mutely.

“I cannot say what the future holds for you or for House Madouri, my lady. But I can say with certainty that you will continue to face your trials as you have already: with cunning, ferocity, and to the great surprise of your enemies. I confess I am drawn to the prospect of seeing it firsthand.”

Ravana considered him for a moment, then gazed south, toward Tiraas; the capital was just barely too distant to be seen from Madouris, close enough that the two cities had viewed one another as severe threats before the Imperial era. Then she turned, directing her eyes north. Calderaas lay many miles in that direction, well beyond the horizon. And still further beyond that lay Last Rock, at the edge of the Golden Sea.

“Let me pose you a hypothetical question, Yancey,” she said at last, eyes still on the endless distance. “Say that you had it on good authority, from a source so trusted that you must take it as given despite the poetic melodrama of the very claim, that…a great doom is coming. How would you recommend proceeding?”

“I would advise, my lady, that you make yourself a greater doom, and lie in wait for it.”

Slowly, a smile curled her thin lips.

“Yancey… I have a very good feeling about this.”

 

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12 – 63

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“My clan will not be interested in this, but there are others that definitely will,” Haunui said, nodding with his customarily solemn expression. “In particular, the idea that any representative sent will have equal footing with that of the Empire will sell it, alone. I will raise the matter at the next moot.”

“I appreciate it, Haunui,” Tellwyrn replied with a smile.

He nodded again. “It has been good to see the old campus once more. Surprising, how little it has changed. I’m grateful I got this opportunity, since it seems change is about to come in great force.”

She sighed softly. “Yes…it always does. Anyhow, if you’ll give me a few minutes I can take you home…”

“There’s no rush,” he said, finally smiling. “Actually, if you don’t mind, I would like to stay a few days. There are interesting new constructions in the town, and quite a number of people gathered here with whom I would like to have conversations.”

“You’re welcome, of course,” she said. “The guest chambers will be available as long as you need them. Just so you know, teleporting back to Tidecall is the work of seconds, but finding a few spare seconds might be increasingly tricky in the coming days. You may have to wait a bit on my convenience to go home.”

“The wind blows where it wants,” he intoned. “There is no rush.” Turning to go, the shaman paused and bowed politely to each of the others waiting nearby. “Huntsman. Daughter of Naiya.”

“Wavespeaker,” Ingvar replied, bowing with equal respect.

“Yo,” Aspen said, waggling her fingers.

Tellwyrn let out a sigh as Haunui strode down the hall toward the stairs descending to the lobby. She had spent the morning mobbed by people wanting a slice of her attention, dealing with dozens of conversations while slowly retreating toward her office, and even still hadn’t quite made it there. Most of those discussions had been with relative newcomers to the mountain; only Ingvar, Aspen and Haunui had had the foresight to wait in the upper corridors of Helion Hall.

“Well, Ingvar, you’ve certainly been more than patient with me during your time here.”

“We’ve kinda gotten used to being patient,” said the dryad.

“Aspen,” Ingvar said pointedly. She rolled her eyes, but subsided, and he continued more courteously to Tellwyrn. “We haven’t felt put upon in the least, Professor. We did, after all, appear out of the blue with a personal request for your time and attention, and you have clearly had more important things to deal with. We inadvertently picked a very trying time to visit, it seems.”

“Nonetheless, you’ve been quite helpful while you were here, and I’m sorry to keep you waiting for so long. I have given some thought to your questions, mostly while doing other things; I regret that that is as far as I’ve managed. Barring some fresh nonsense, though, things will hopefully be settling down here in the next few days.”

“Seems kinda like you’ve managed to make things more busy in the next few days,” Aspen said, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes,” Tellwyrn replied with a grim little smile, “but with plans. Lots of stuff to do, but stuff that will be done on my schedule, not while I run around willy nilly reacting to whatever fresh idiocy the Sleeper and whoever else throws. As such! Ingvar, this promises to be a somewhat involved conversation. Would you and Aspen join me for lunch tomorrow?”

“Gladly.”

“Perfect. I’m not absolutely certain how germane my insights will be to your quest, but I can describe in detail how I approached Shaath, as well as giving you general strategies for dealing with gods. Naiya might be the hardest to get to, but you have a big advantage, there.” She nodded at Aspen. “Additionally, let me take the rest of today to check some of my old notes; I believe we have quite a few volumes in our library that may be relevant to your search. Some are in the restricted archives, but I don’t think they are necessarily too sensitive to show you. I’ll put together a reading list and have Crystal assist you with it. You are, of course, welcome to stay on campus as long as you need. It’s the least I can do, after the help you’ve already given.”

“That is tremendously helpful, Professor,” he said, bowing. “Thank you very much. We’ll rejoin you tomorrow, then. After this morning I’m sure you’re eager to have a few moments to yourself.”

“Well, you know what they say,” Tellwyrn snorted. “Rest when you’re dead.”

“That’s just silly,” Aspen huffed. “A person needs rest. While alive. That’s the point.”

“It’s just an expression, Aspen,” Ingvar said, gently steering her toward the stairs.

“You keep saying that as if it justifies some of the dumbest ideas people keep spouting,” she complained while following him down the hall. “If someone’s wrong, the fact that it’s an expression doesn’t make them less wrong!”

“In fact, I think you’re onto something, there. My point was, expressions are part of culture. Challenging them isn’t going to get you anywhere; it just makes people dig their heels in, mostly. And anyway, even if someone is wrong, throwing it in their face usually doesn’t help.”

“Who said anything about helping?”

“We talked about persuasion, remember…?”

“Oh, sure, but honestly I don’t all that much care what nonsense people choose to believe. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta tell a bonehead they are one.”

Tellwyrn stood alone in the hall, staring abstractly in the direction they had gone, until their receding voices had departed the building entirely.

“I hope,” she finally said aloud, “you don’t think you’re sneaking up on me.”

“Well, one hates to interrupt,” Inspector Fedora said, materializing from empty space nearby. He was holding two brown bottles, and tossed one to her. “Here—compliments of Raffi Chandrakeran.”

“Mermaid’s Bite?” She raised her eyebrows, studying the label. “Impossible to get outside the Punaji Coast.”

“Can’t imagine why,” Fedora said, grinning and pulling the stopper from his bottle. “Absolutely vile stuff, but it is one of your favorites. Cheers.”

“Now how the hell did you oh never mind, don’t answer that.” She opened her own and took a swig; the drink made her grimace and shudder, but she let out a soft sigh of satisfaction after the first swallow. “Ahh, that takes me back. Well! You clearly want something, but so does everyone else today, and not one of them had the basic courtesy to bring me booze. That earns you the privilege of speaking.”

The Inspector took a more judicious sip of his own. “Bleh. Not the worst thing I’ve ever put in my mouth, to be sure. Well, you know quite a bit about what my kind are like, Professor. And not just due to your age, or long adventuring career, or magical proficiency. I’ve met archmages and ancient elves aplenty who clearly had no clue what they were dealing with. You, though! I know for a fact you’ve got Melaxyna and Rowe squirreled away down in that Crawl of yours. Impressive you managed to ensnare even one, much less both.”

“Just Melaxyna now,” she said sourly. “I failed to keep them separated.”

Fedora barked a laugh. “Aw, those two. I always did think they’d make a lovely pair. Well, anyway, I suspect you understand…the urge.” He began moving, at a slow amble, and Tellwyrn followed gamely along, sipping from her bottle and watching him. “It starts as an itch, right in the back of your head. Like that tickle in the throat that comes when you’re first getting sick. If not indulged, it grows…slowly, at first. Till it’s like ants crawling all over and under your skin, everywhere. The need to sow some chaos, cause a little misery. Flex your wings and your skills and break somebody. Infernal aggression, almost—almost suppressed.”

“Feeling itchy?” she asked in a deceptively mild tone.

He shrugged. “Less now than a week ago. Even if I’ve yet to catch the little fucker, stalking the Sleeper has been most therapeutic. See, when the Empire first picked me up, my new handlers spun this lovely story—it was positively Vesker in its overwrought romanticism. The lone incubus who turned himself to hunting criminals and outwitting those who took advantage of others, on a personal quest for redemption.” He grinned broadly. “I let them think it. Vex, of course, wasn’t fooled, but he of all people recognizes a useful lie; it enabled his spooks to work with me without being too jumpy about it. Truth is, I just found criminals the most satisfying challenge. Sure, you can destabilize a whole country by ensconcing yourself in the capital and pulling the right threads; that’s what most of my kind end up going for. Maximum collateral damage. It’s kind of fundamentally unsatisfying, though, playing a game with people who don’t know the rules. All those scheming aristocrats and priests and bankers and kings—they just can’t grasp that another player in their great game isn’t trying to win it, but just to make sure everyone loses. Almost unfair.”

“Somehow it’s even creepier to hear one of you admit it,” she grunted. They passed the closed door of her office without pausing.

“Crime, though,” Fedora continued, seemingly lost in his thoughts now, “that’s a game. There are laws and customs to form a neat board and a set of rules. The crook is trying to get away with something; I’m trying to stop them. One against one, now that is a challenge. Given a certain level of intelligence on the part of one’s opponent, of course. As I worked out an ever-better method for detective work I had to raise the stakes, till I needed to thwart the schemes of nobles to really get my fix. Those evil bastards are as ruthless as any incubus; I think I could’ve kept on indefinitely that way. Except…”

“Except nobles aren’t the only ones paying attention to themselves,” she said. “That’s a quick way to get Intelligence after you, as you discovered. Fedora, it’s not like you to make long speeches. Or reveal anything about yourself. I trust this is going somewhere relevant to my interests?”

“Oh, quite,” he assured her with a grin. “Indulge me just a moment longer, if you would. You see, Professor, I’ve been sensing a change in the wind, lately, at Imperial Intelligence. Vex made certain to let me indulge myself against real opponents—at first, for a while. Lately, though? It’s been all about administration. Organization. Teaching my methods to other Inspectors, to the Army, the police, his spies… Oh, it’ll be to the overall good of society, having police actually able to solve crimes rather than just grabbing the first likely bloke and clubbing a confession out of him. I’m going stir crazy, though, cooped up in that office, and Vex is far too canny not to fully understand what he’s doing, keeping me on administrative work. The pisser is, even knowing his game, I can’t help it. The pressure builds up, till eventually I’m going to have to do something. Something that’ll give him all the excuse he needs to stick me in a bottle and lose it in a vault somewhere.”

“That sounds like a Vex move,” she agreed.

“So!” Fedora stopped, turning to face her and grinning. “It seems to me it’s a good time for me to seek other employment.”

Tellwyrn faced him as well. “Something tells me the terms of your arrangement with Imperial Intelligence are not the kind of job one simply quits.”

“Oh, quite. Ordinarily? No, utterly out of the question. Matters become different, however, if my new employer, who had just given a speech about how nobody tells her what to do on her campus and could use a convenient excuse to prove it, were to tell Vex to keep his grubby fingers off her new head of campus security.”

She stared at him. “…all right. As thanks for the drink, and largely out of morbid curiosity, I’m willing to hear your pitch.”

“I was very impressed with what I heard at that assembly.” His jocular expression suddenly gone, he stared back intently. “It’s honestly a brilliant move, and all other things being equal, I think it’ll work. You can’t stop the world from changing, so you position yourself to be the administrator of that change. You do realize, of course, that the logical move on the part of all those people you brought here would be to boycott your University, cut you out of the loop and let you remain isolated until it finally puts you out of their misery once and for all?”

Tellwyrn snorted and took a gulp of her drink. “You’re suggesting the great powers of the world might do the sensible thing, when the alternative is to scheme against each other for tiny scraps of advantage? Don’t make me laugh.”

“And that’s it exactly.” He pointed the mouth of his bottle at her. “How those people think. It’s one thing to remind everyone that you’re Arachne goddamn Tellwyrn and they’d better mind their manners. But in your whole life, Professor, when you’ve come up against people intelligent enough they should know better than to test you, yet they didn’t… Who were they?”

There was a pause before she responded. “What, you want a list?”

“Just a category,” he said with a grim little smile. “Because I think you’ll find there’s just one.”

“Quite a few, in fact,” she said slowly. “Largely aristocrats. Kings and queens, which is the same thing, really. Priests—”

“Average priests, or high-ranking ones?” When she didn’t respond, he nodded. “That really is one category, along with all the other sub-groupings you can list. The rich, the powerful. At their core, Professor, powerful people simply cannot accept the idea that they won’t get their way. Even no matter how many times other powerful people thwart them, they keep coming back for more. They don’t know restraint or moderation; they are driven by the unshakable conviction that they are entitled to possess absolutely everything, and the irrational belief that they one day will. It takes a certain amount of adversity to shape someone’s mind into knowing their place in the world. The mighty, the kings and popes and bishops and bankers? They’ll never stop.”

“And?” she drawled.

“And I like what you’re about to do here, Professor. Irrespective, even, of my own need to find different employment, I’d like to be a part of it. But more important to your interests… You do not appreciate what you’ve begun, Tellwyrn. I mean it: they will never stop. In the long term, no matter what rules you lay down or what consequences you impose, the people you’re planning to gather here will scheme and plot and not hesitate to threaten your students if it gets them what they want.”

“I’m well aware they will,” she said irritably. “The point is not to prevent them from scheming but to enforce rules upon how they do.”

“Good!” He pointed the bottle at her again, nodding approvingly. “Then you grasp the basics of the situation—but not the details. Professor, the fact that you can destroy all these people with a wave of your hand isn’t going to deter them. To do that, to really keep this court you’re assembling under control, you need someone cunning. Someone who thinks the way they do, and is tireless and relentless. Someone who needs the challenge.”

“Someone like you.”

“Well, Melaxyna would also do,” he said with a grin, “if you think you can trust her.”

She grunted. “Fortunately, decades of teaching adolescents have burned away any shame I once felt at stating the blazingly obvious. I don’t trust you, Fedora.”

“Well, obviously. Trust is earned; that takes time. I don’t know how you came to be hooked up with someone like Admestus bloody Rafe, but I can’t imagine it was all snuggles and puppies at first sight. And in the shorter term, we have something better than trust!”

“Oh, this should be absolutely priceless,” she muttered.

“Self-awareness!” Fedora held out his arms, beaming. “Nobody can offer me a better deal than what I’m asking from you, Professor. It’s protection from my enemies, and assurance that I will never get bored. I have nothing to gain by screwing you over, and everything to lose by pissing you off. And you, for your part, need someone to do this for you. You couldn’t even control the Sleeper, Tellwyrn. You can’t run your University and herd the cats you’re proposing to. This plan of yours involves filling your campus with people you cannot trust, and who are all working their own angles. Even if you had the right temperament to engage in the necessary conniving, you’re only one person. I, however, am a bloody well avatar of deceit. All you have to do is keep your eye on me, while I keep mine on all the others. It’s simple delegation.”

She just stared in silence. After a moment, he continued.

“I’ve just heard from Tiraas that the situation with the Hands of the Emperor has been resolved. That being the case, I know the perfect staff I’d like you to hire for me! There are three ex-Imperial soldiers who’ll be needing jobs, and are absolutely perfect for it. They’re already known and liked on this campus, and they are clearly, even famously, not useful for damn well anything—the perfect smokescreen to reassure the people I’ll actually need to be watching that campus security is just a token gesture. I know you’re familiar with this strategy, yourself. Good move, having that Sifanese fairy of yours play the fool so he’s free to do things like impersonate you while you’re away to prevent the Sleeper from trying something in your absence. Didn’t exactly work, but it was a good ploy and it did keep him from doing it on the campus.”

“On the subject of the Sleeper,” she said, “I can’t help thinking it doesn’t speak well of your qualifications that you, the big scary agent from Imperial Intelligence, have done fuck all to actually catch him.”

“Unfair and untrue, and you know it,” he countered without ire. “He’s not caught, yet, but we’re closing in. I hate using this phrase because it makes me sound weak, but it’s true: that’s not my fault. Crime is a game of connections, Professor. The victim and the perpetrator are always linked by circumstance and motivation, and that web of threads is what you have to follow and untangle to catch the guilty. Random crimes of passion or opportunity are always harder to solve than premeditated ones. And serial attackers like the Sleeper, the hardest yet. What he’s doing only makes sense inside his own head. With nothing linking him to his victims, I have no threads to follow. Serial killers are caught when they make a mistake—which they always do. We’ll get him, especially with the pressure you’ve just turned up. Hopefully before he does any more damage.”

“Hnh,” she grunted. “This is all starting to sound very reasonable. That alone makes me skeptical.”

“Good! Run with that—you’ll need that outlook. Because let me give you the bad news now.” Fedora folded his arms, the bottle dangling loosely from one hand, and frowned seriously. “You and your University are about to come under attack like you have never been before, Professor. What you’re doing… You are poised to change the world for the better, and that is the most dangerous position anyone can possibly be in. When the world needs change, it’s because the most powerful people in it are profiting from the way it is now—and the one thing they absolutely cannot stand is the grubby little fingers of do-gooders all over their playthings. They have to stop you. Have to. The crucible will come very early in this campaign, Tellwyrn; someone, or likely a consortium of someones, will strike from beyond your sight, using the very system you’re building here. And they don’t even have to beat you, they just have to make you default to your established methods; that’ll lower you to their level, force you to play their games, and from there it’s only a matter of time. Your force against their cunning is just another contest. You need to outfox them on their own terms, and then impose consequences with your superior firepower. Once you’ve won that first battle, you’ll be in the position you need to go forward: not another player in the game, but the arbiter standing above it, enforcing the rules. That is what will secure the future of this University. First, though, you have to win—and don’t forget that your students are going to be right on the front line of this battle. You’re going to need every ally and scrap of influence you’ve got to pull this off, and what you’ve got isn’t going to be enough.

“You need me.”

“You are wildly overstating the danger,” she snapped.

“No,” he said quietly, “I am not. And you’re pissed off now because now that I’ve said it, you realize I’m right.”

They locked eyes, and the silence stretched out. After a long pause, Tellwyrn took another long swig from her bottle, her gaze never leaving his.

“Fah,” she gasped, coming up for breath. “Well, this is usually the point where I’d threaten someone…”

“You’re used to dealing with people who need the reminder,” he said, suddenly grinning. “We’ve already been over that: I know exactly what I’m getting into.”

“And you understand my rules,” she began, but he cut her off.

“Not in any particular detail, but you can fill me in at your leisure. More importantly, I understand your priorities. The students’ safety is the first and foremost concern. After that, securing the University’s position against the onslaught that’s about to come. And once that’s taken care of, well, riding herd on the scheming politicians you’re filling this place with will be rather more low-key, but it’s never going to stop or relent. There’s plenty to do.”

“But the students come first.”

“The students come first.”

She sighed heavily. “Gods help us all… I’ll pick you out an office.”

He cleared his throat. “Actually, just build me one.”

Tellwyrn had turned to head back up the hall, but now swiveled back, pinning him with a gimlet stare. “Is this how it’s going to be? Because you’ll find I have little patience for demands.”

“Oh, to be sure,” he said cheerfully. “But you’re also going to be constructing a whole new extension of the campus to house the research facilities, right? Those are the whole reason we’ll need security; it only makes sense to have that office housed there.”

“Well, damn,” she mused, regarding him thoughtfully. “You actually are going to be sort of good at this, I suppose.”

Fedora grinned widely. “Best you’ve ever had. That’s a promise.”

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