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“Why the hell are we losing now?” Taka shouted immediately upon flashing back into human form, pausing to grimace and wipe at the acrid stains around her mouth. Seconds prior, in the shape of a wolf, she had just torn out the throat of a khaladesh demon armed with notably better weapons than most of them, likely some kind of officer. “We killed the big one! That always works in stories!”

“We?” McGraw muttered, his attention on the next wave of khaladesh which he was pelting with arcane bolts.

“Don’t swallow,” Khadizroth ordered, pausing in his own work to lay a hand on Taka’s forehead. She scowled at the sparks of drifting green magic which momentarily swirled around her, but made no complaint. Nobody sensible turned down a free cleansing after getting a mouthful of demon. “It is the difference between an army and a rabble,” the dragon continued, releasing her and resuming his previous task; he was rapidly summoning more light creatures to attack the demons still trying to swarm them. “Our forces charged in no order, with no plan and without leadership, at an organized counter-force which deftly split us off to be defeated in detail. This is why Hands of Avei are important, even in the presence of allies who can objectively hit harder. While we had a plan and they did not, we were winning. The tables have turned.”

“There’s a lot o’ things I doubt about you, Khadizroth, but your intellect ain’t one,” said Joe, also facing forward and firing his wands as steadily as he could without overheating them. “If you got a plan, I’m all ears.”

“Plans are one thing; most of those here will not listen to me as readily as they would Avelea,” Khadizroth replied. “What we need to do is regroup, and have an orderly force ready for her to direct when she gets back.”

“How sure are we that she’s coming back?” Taka asked pointedly. “I mean, the other two paladins are still here and she got—”

“I have seen Avei’s champions fall in battle,” the dragon said with a thin smile, still conjuring magic against the demons. “Never to anything as prosaic as a great big explosion. And this one was trained by Arachne; she will have numerous tricks up her sleeve.”

“I can’t say I’m not worried about Trissiny,” Toby added, “but I’m not panicked yet. She’s survived worse, and come back to yell at us for falling out of formation.”

“That has also been my experience,” Khadizroth said gravely. “If you will all take my advice, then…?”

“Of course, Lord Khadizroth,” Vannae said quickly and predictably. Beside him, Rainwood rolled his eyes.

Gabriel brought Whisper cantering back up to them after another sweep; he and his scythe had been keeping the khaladesh in the vicinity from forming up, and also taking potshots at any khelminash flyers who got too close with the beams of black light it produced. The khelminash, though generally fearless, had failed to come up with anything that countered that, and were keeping their distance from the upper plaza, where Khadizroth and the much smaller group with them had been pushed back to the magic tree.

“Joe, you trust this dragon?” Gabe asked.

Joe glanced sidelong at Khadizroth, grunted, then nodded. “Here an’ now? He’s smart an’ no friend o’ demons. This is a good time for listenin’ to our elders.”

“I shall try not to disappoint,” the dragon acknowledged. “As I said, we must regroup. I see no bodies on the street from here, so hopefully everyone has taken shelter, but they are now scattered around this city block and beyond. The largest concentration are over there in the trading hall with the civilians and soldiers; being closest and most fortified, that is the least concern. We must gather the isolated groups and individuals, and protect them while bringing them back here. It’s Taka, yes?”

“I don’t recall telling you that,” she said suspiciously.

“Forgive me, but you are teeming with some of the most talkative fae spirits I have ever encountered,” Khadizroth said, pausing in his casting to nod deeply to her. “I need you to call your family, please.”

“My family are—oh, right. I see what you mean.”

With a flash of moonlight, she was gone and a huge, luminous wolf in her place. Taka raised her head and let out a long, warbling howl; immediately, the two spirit wolves which had gathered together with them followed suit.

Within seconds, more howls answered them from the nearby structures. Also, as if at the same cue, several squadrons of flying khelminash switched their maneuvers from sweeping the outlying streets to heading toward them in formation.

“Mr. Arquin,” Khadizroth continued, “how do you feel about antagonizing a large number of incredibly dangerous women into making you the main target of their ire?”

Gabriel barked a sardonic laugh. “Like I’ve been training for this moment my whole life!” Whisper whinnied a challenge and the pair of them charged off, Gabriel immediately disrupting the nearest khelminash formation with several well-placed scythe beams.

“Longshot, break off attacking and conserve your energy, please,” said the dragon. “I want you to watch for stragglers coming in; if they are pressed by demons, teleport them to us.”

“Can do,” McGraw agreed, bringing his staff up to a vertical position and tipping his hat. “For a while, anyway. Porting takes it out of a man.”

“I shall bolster you as best I can. Vannae, Rainwood, please prioritize healing any wounded we gather here, and otherwise continue defending this spot. Mr. Caine, can you sweep the surrounding structures and escort survivors back to us?”

“I can,” Toby said, “though I don’t move as fast as Gabe or Triss, obviously.”

Khadizroth opened his mouth to reply, but before he could a column of sunlight plunged down from the sky straight above to illuminate a wide circle next to them, just outside the radius of the tree’s branches. Golden light intensified in the place where it met the pavement, and in the next moment a horse stepped out of it.

She was a palomino, her coat a shade of golden blonde that shimmered as if literally gilded, with a contrasting black mane and tail. The creature might well have been made of sunlight, by her appearance. She wore a plan, well-weathered saddle over a woven blanket of warm brown with green embroidered designs and thread-of-gold Omnist sunbursts in each corner.

“Roiyary!” Rainwood practically squealed, rushing forward to throw his arms around the horse’s neck. “There’s my girl! How’ve you been?”

The mare whickered affectionately at him before gently pulling away and stepping over to an awestruck Toby.

“Good timing,” Khadizroth remarked. “But then, your performance a few minutes ago was just the kind of achievement that often earns a paladin their mount.”

“I have to warn you,” Toby said, gingerly stroking Roiyary’s nose, “I’m not the most experienced rider.”

“Don’t you worry about that,” Rainwood said, grinning. “She’s taught worse. Just trust her and let her do the work.”

Roiyary nickered in agreement, turning to present her left side to Toby. He reached up and placed one hand on the saddle horn, and then smoothly flowed upward to land in the saddle as if he’d been doing so his entire life, somewhat spoiling the effect by looking comically startled that it had worked.

The sunlit mare whinnied, reared once, and then charged down the nearest side street, Toby balancing smoothly astride her; one would never guess from watching them that he was a less than expert horseman.

“The gods are with us,” Khadizroth commented. “Good, we’ll need them. Joseph, you know your business well; I caution you to prioritize dealing with ground forces as they approach. Your wands have proved very effective against the khelminash, but for that very reason the more of them you shoot, the faster they will develop a counter to your skill. Try to save those shots for a pressing need. You can judge such for yourself.”

Joe made no reply except to keep shooting.

“We have a solid defense on the ground, but those flyers are going to become a major problem as soon as we have people trying to rejoin us. Kuriwa… Do something.”

She had not been obviously in evidence, but at his demand, the little black crow landed right in Khadizroth’s green hair and pecked him twice on the forehead before fluttering off again.

Before it could become apparent what Mary planned to do, the enormous silver-armored bulk of Arjen burst out of a side street on the lower square, Trissiny astride him and blazing with light. Alongside them ran the lion-sized form of Meesie. They bowled right into a mass of khaladesh who were trying to form up for a charge, creating immediate disarray and ensuing slaughter.

“As I said,” Khadizroth murmured with a vindicated smile, conjuring up another spectral stag to join the fray. “They don’t fall that easily.”


Their campaign grew progressively more difficult the longer it went on, as the encroaching demons began to realize what was happening—or at least, the Elilinist ones, who had some kind of command structure and communication system in place. By the time they arrived at the final portal site on the south bank, there was no question of a swift ambush such as they’d been able to execute at the first few sites. Now, the resistance was fierce.

For Natchua and Xyraadi, massacring khaladesh foot soldiers was not an imposition, and they even had little to fear from the three khelminash sorceresses with the group. Xyraadi observed that these were probably still in training, or they’d be on a flying platform; at any rate, they had nothing to throw at the attackers but a barrage of shadowbolts, which the two warlocks easily deflected. Jonathan and Hesthri focused their staff fire on the khelminash, and they went down in minutes.

Matters became more difficult as, apparently, a warning was passed through the portal and a hulking baerzurg charged out of it. Then more difficult still as a shockwave of fire hurled the already-disintegrating bodies of demons and sheer infernal energy out at them. This, clearly, was one of the rare high-caste baerzurgs who were quite intelligent and able to cast spells.

Xyraadi grimaced in concentration, barely managing to gather the loose infernal magic into a single point, which she sent hurtling right back at its caster. The blast of pure entropic destruction rocked the baerzurg back a few steps, but not for nothing were those creatures considered to be impervious.

“Incoming flyers, twelve o’clock!” Jonathan barked, raising his staff to fire at the flying disc which topped the roof just beyond the portal to charge at them.

Two more followed, and they were entirely unimpressed by his lightning bolt, which one of the sorceresses swatted contemptuously to the side.

“Take out the portal,” Natchua growled. He and Hesthri both repositioned themselves, firing rapidly at the portal altar which was being physically blocked from their view by the armored baerzurg, with whom Xyraadi was rapidly exchanging spells.

Natchua was almost pleased by the intervention, having an idea she had developed a few portals ago by watching the flying discs. Reaching out with her mind, she could feel the complex infernal spells powering those devices. Complex, fully self-contained, and warded against meddling—by lesser warlocks than she, that was. There weren’t many gaps in the coverage that could be exploited, but there was a relatively open entry point in the spell lattice where they had to draw power from their pilots.

She simply poured an uncontained blast of pure, unfocused infernomancy into the networks, and the three platforms immediately continued doing what they were doing, but about five times as hard. As they were currently swooping down on the mortals below, this sent them accelerating well beyond the ability of their pilots to control. Two slammed into buildings to either side, the third overshooting them and impacting the ground behind in a deafening explosion.

Then either Hesthri or Jonathan scored a lucky hit, and with the last altar’s destruction, the portal winked out.

With a bellow of rage, the baerzurg caster charged bodily forward, shrugging off the bolts of viridian fire with which Xyraadi pelted it, and stepped right into the invisible spell circled the sorceress had been surreptitiously creating on the ground while keeping the other demon busy with spellfire.

The baerzurg was abruptly crushed like a tin can in the depths of the ocean, its impervious biological armor crumpling inward to a ball the size of a pumpkin, which landed on the ground, oozing black ichor.

A gurgle from behind in the sudden quiet was all the warning Natchua got; she turned just in time to see one khelminash sorceress, a survivor from the final crash, crumple to the ground, clutching her bleeding throat. Behind her, Kheshiri faded into visibility, holding an evil-looking dagger carved from something’s claw, which she had clearly looted from one of their foes.

“You have no idea how satisfying it is to murder these smug bitches,” the succubus commented.

“Au contraire, I have seldom felt anything so therapeutic,” Xyraadi rejoined.

“Yeah, no offense,” added Jonathan, “but are you just…better than all of these others? ‘Cause I notice we’ve been burning through ‘em pretty rapidly, and you don’t even look winded.”

“These are soldiers,” Xyraadi said contemptuously. “Trained and drilled to fire a prescribed sequence of spells in unison. Very dangerous in large numbers, but not individually impressive warlocks. I am a specialist, an artist.”

“Kheshiri,” Natchua ordered, “get aloft and double-check we don’t have another target.”

“I told you that was the last one, mistress,” Kheshiri said petulantly.

“You also told me these portals weren’t going to be opened,” Natchua snapped. “Do it!”

It was hard to perceive the succubus’s emotions directly with all the infernal magic flowing about, but this one time Kheshiri wore her petulance openly on her face. But she did, after a cursory bow, shoot upward with a powerful flap of her wings while fading back to invisibility.

“I think she is right, though,” Xyraadi murmured, stepping over closer to Natchua. “I can feel no more portals nearby.”

“Me, either,” Natchua admitted. “I just like making her jump.”

“Ah, yes,” the other warlock said, grinning. “It is good for her character, n’est-ce pas?”

“If that was the last one, what next?” Hesthri asked, also stepping closer and transferring her staff to one hand so she could slip her other arm around Natchua’s waist.

“Back to square one,” Natchua said, squeezing her back. Jonathan approached them from behind, tucking his staff into his elbow to rest a hand on each of their shoulders. It had been non-stop fighting for who knew how long, since they had set out from the square at the other end of the city. This moment to breathe was very much needed. “The cathedral and the ancient hellgate secured under it is still our main target, and it’ll also be the focus of the Elilinist demons coming in. Assuming the other teams have been doing their jobs, they’ll be low on reinforcements, but…”

A whoosh of air passed over their heads, and Kheshiri popped back into view as she landed nearby.

“Yes, about that,” the succubus said, folding her wings back. “I still see five pillars of fire, but none on our bank of the city. The strike team and Vadrieny are clearly faring well—we’re just better. The hellgates should all be cut off within minutes. But there’s more trouble, mistress. All the khelminash who’d been converging on the cathedral have moved away; they’re attacking the square inside the gates, up where we started from. I can’t see details from this far but it looks like a pitched fight.”

“That’s not good,” Jonathan stated, frowning. “Avelea’s plan was to push forward through the city. If the fighting’s still concentrated at the starting point, it’s all gone wrong.”

Natchua drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long hiss through her teeth. She was so close to something important to Elilial she could taste it.

“It sounds like an opening,” Hesthri said, looking at her inquisitively. “If the forces are being drawn away, the cathedral site is vulnerable.”

They were all looking at her, with varying expressions. It was true; this was exactly the opportunity for which she’d assembled them here.

Scowling, Natchua shook her head once. “Not while we have friends and family under attack. I’m not going to sacrifice anyone who hasn’t signed up for it specifically. We’d better go help them. Xyraadi, you’re better than I at jumping; find us a landing spot.”


Another baerzurg charged in through the broken gap in the wall, and Juniper punched it square in the chest.

The massive demon staggered backward, a fractured dent in its chest armor, and fell right into the gap in the stones through which it had come. Juniper brushed back the charred remains of her hair, planting her feet in a balanced stance and waiting for the next one, which did not come. She was severely singed and soaking wet, due to the demons discovering that setting fire to her was the only thing that worked, and Fross constantly dousing her in a freezing mist to compensate.

Ruda stabbed the last of the fallen baerzurgs behind her which was still twitching, causing it to fall still. The slender mithril blade of her rapier pierced their hide as easily as if it were paper; she had been finishing them off after Juniper brought them down. “Is that the last of ‘em?”

“There are no more large footsteps outside,” Shaeine reported. “I would not call this over, but I believe we have earned a breather. Juniper, we have never tried this, but if you are willing to risk Themynra’s judgment, I believe she would deem you more than worthy of healing, fairy or not.”

Juniper shook her head, eyes still on the tumbled gap in which the last baerzurg slouched, still twitching. Ruda stalked past her, rapier at the ready. “I don’t need it yet, Shaeine, but thanks. I’m more pissed off than hurt.”

Ruda speared the creature directly through the eye, causing it to emit an incongruously high-pitched squeal as it died. She yanked the blade out and turned to rejoin them, absently wiping acrid ichor off on the hem of her coat. “I dunno what this place was supposed to be, before, but it was not built with a siege in mind. We got way too many fuckin’ entrances to guard already without these assholes making more!”

“This is the main trading hub,” said the police captain who’d joined them, looking haggard but still unbent. He had wands in each hand, but had stepped back to let the students cover the baerzurgs coming in through the wall after they’d lost two soldiers learning that lightning weapons did absolutely nothing to them. “You’re right, it was designed for accessibility, not defense. Ninkabi’s outer walls have never been breached, for all the good that does us now.”

“City’s got lots of natural choke points, with all those stairs and bridges,” Ruda said, giving him a grin, “but yeah, that’s no fuckin’ help to us in here.”

“Hey, guys!” Fross zipped back over to them. “The dragon is trying to rally everybody out in the square.”

“More baerzurgs,” Shaeine said tersely. “Heading this way. They’ll be here in minutes.”

“Those fuckers need a hobby,” Ruda complained.

“They’ve got one,” Juniper said with a sigh. “Us. Guys, the soldiers can’t hold off baerzurgs. I’m glad things are going better out there, but I don’t think we can afford to regroup with the others while we’ve got those things coming in and civilians to protect in—uh, hello?”

To her amazement, as well as that of the others, one of the beleaguered refugees had scampered forward out of the crowd to wrap her arms around Juniper in a hug. She was a filthy, underfed, and generally ragged-looking young woman with bare feet, garbed in threadbare castoffs and clutching an ax handle with which she had nearly clonked Juniper on the head.

“Excuse me,” the dryad said in annoyance, gently but inexorably pushing her off, “but I’m kind of busy, here. Please step back with the others and concentrate on not dying. Hey!”

The woman surged forward again as soon as she was pushed away, giving Juniper another hug, this time accompanied by a kiss on the cheek, but then retreated of her own volition without having to be moved a second time.

“I think she is just grateful,” Shaeine suggested. “She is right, though, miss. It’s about to be very dangerous here.”

“Whoah!” Fross had to dart higher in the air as the ragged girl began hopping about in excitement, apparently trying to catch her. “What are you doing? Please don’t grab!”

“Oh, this one,” said the officer distractedly. “Mute beggar. She’s a little nuts, homeless people usually are. Lady, do you need to be restrained?”

The homeless woman turned and brandished her ax handle menacingly at him.

“That’s a yes, then,” he said in clear annoyance. “Ontu, Disrimi, get this—”

“Wait!” Fross chimed, descending again. “Wait a second, please…”

She fluttered down to hover right in front of the woman, who raised her hands again, gazing at the pixie with a rapturous expression. This time, though, she did not snatch, finally dropping the handle to cup her hands gently around Fross’s buzzing form without touching her. She brought her face forward till her nose was nearly touching Fross, smiling with a joy so intense it looked nearly painful. A tear cut a swath through the dirt staining one of her cheeks.

“Yeah, pixie shiny,” said Ruda. “Fross, you may wanna lead your friend back over there with the other civvies if you don’t wanna lose her.”

“They’re coming,” Shaeine said, expression intent as she faced the broken wall. The others still could not hear the approaching baerzurgs, but took her at her word. “Do you see any way we can seal up that wall in the next…sixty seconds?”

“Nope,” Juniper said tersely, rolling her shoulders. “Same song, new verse, just like the first. Should go a little smoother now we’ve had some practice.”

“Hey, guys,” Fross chimed softly, still cradled in the homeless woman’s grip. “Um. How much do you trust me?”

All three of them turned to study her curiously.

“It is not a question of how much,” Shaeine answered. “We trust you.”

“Yeah, jinglebell, you got more brains an’ heart than any of us,” Ruda agreed, grinning. “If you got an idea, we got faith.”

“Okay,” Fross said, emitting a descending arpeggio of chimes like a sigh. “All right. I’m gonna play a…a hunch, here. If this all goes horribly wrong, you can take turns kicking my ass later.”

“How,” Juniper asked sardonically. “Do you know a spell to enlarge it?”

All joking ended as Fross fluttered upward out of her new acquaintance’s cupped hands, producing the small flicker of light that accompanied her withdrawal of something from her aura storage.

The Mask of the Adventurer dropped down to land in the ragged girl’s hands.

“Whoah!” Ruda said in alarm. “I, uh… Fross?!”

“Okay, having said all that, I guess we can’t complain now,” Juniper added, “but what are you doing?”

“It’s gonna be okay,” Fross chimed, addressing both them and the woman now curiously turning the mask over in her hands.

“Time’s up,” Shaeine stated, and in the next second, the stomping of enormous feet sounded just outside the broken wall. Moments later, the dead baerzurg tumbled forward, knocked inward by a blow from without.

Juniper dashed forward, meeting the next demon to push in through the gap with a haymaker that sent it spinning right back out. Then the dryad herself was knocked backward by a counter-punch more than hard enough to fell a tree. She stumbled back, regaining her footing, but in her moment of distraction another baerzurg pushed its way into the building. A wall of silver light immediately slammed into it, halting its advance only momentarily but giving Juniper time to gather herself and attack again.

“Don’t worry about that,” Fross said to the woman now frowning at the artifact in her grasp. She raised her eyes to look inquisitively at the pixie. “Just…clear your mind. Whatever you’ve been through, try to put it aside. Remember who you are. We need the real you.”

Her expression grew more pensive. She adjusted her grip on the Mask, raising it toward her face, then hesitated again, looking uncertainly at the pixie.

“It’s okay,” Fross chimed soothingly. “Remember. It’s gonna be okay.”

She blinked once, then nodded slowly, and finally pressed the Mask against her face.

Light roared through the old hall, fanning out in a shockwave that washed harmlessly over all of them and smashed the three baerzurgs which had just forced their way in backward against the wall.

The thrum of her wings was a much more powerful counterpoint to Fross’s as she surged forward, her violet hair and diaphanous gown streaming behind her. The three baerzurgs barely had time to get back to their feet before she threw her hands forward, and streams of sparkling dust poured out with the force of geysers. One nailed each hulking demon right in the chest, and they each exploded in harmless showers of glitter.

A fourth tried to push in through the wall, and met the same fate.

Ruda lowered her sword. “…huh.”

The graceful woman held aloft on dragonfly wings descended to the ground, then turned around to grin at them.

“Jacaranda!” Juniper shrieked. This time it was she who dashed forward, and the Pixie Queen caught her in a hug, laughing as the two of them spun around.

A moment later they parted, and Jacaranda raised a hand for Fross to flutter forward and settle down in her palm.

“Oh, Fross,” she whispered, tears glittering in her eyes. “Can you ever forgive me?”

“I’m just so glad to see you’re okay,” the pixie squeaked. “I was really worried. I didn’t feel good about…y’know, leaving you in that place, but Kaisa said… I mean, Kaisa’s kind of insufferable, but she’s usually right, which just makes it worse but also I’ve found it’s best to do as she says even when it doesn’t seem to make sense because it mostly works out all right.”

“Yes…that tower was no fun,” Jacaranda agreed, gently drawing her hand forward so Fross could hug her cheek. “But it was just the no fun I needed. Thank you. And you, too, Juniper. You saved me.”

“Aspen’s here, too,” Juniper said. “Well, uh…somewhere. It’s kind of a mess out there.”

“Yes, so I see,” Jacaranda said archly. “Demons. Ick, they’re everywhere. I do not like demons.”

“That is a commonly held opinion,” Shaeine said gravely.

“Here.” Jacaranda buzzed off the ground again, swooping over to pick up the fallen ax handle and hand it solemnly to Juniper. “Look after my stick, please. It’s a really good stick. I want it back.”

“Uh…okay?” the dryad said, nonplussed.

Jacaranda winked at her, gave Fross a final smile, then turned and shot out through the open front doors of the training hall, leaving behind a faint trail of glitter which slowly dissipated in the air.

“Okay, so,” Ruda said pleasantly, “is anybody gonna explain to me what the fuck?!”


She tore right through the closest formation of khelminash flyers, sending them spinning away in all directions. The Pixie Queen turned to pirouette in midair, spraying mocking streamers of fairy glitter at the warlocks, before shooting straight upward with a whole squadron of enraged sorceresses in pursuit.

As she rapidly gained altitude, she turned this way and that, pointing her fingers and blasting long sprays of sparkling pixie dust in the general direction of wherever she could see any concentration of demons in the air. The pure fairy magic did not agree with them at all; being demons, those who weren’t smashed outright from the air by her attacks turned and came straight at her in a vindictive fury.

She climbed ever higher, and the ripples of attention spread outward, demonic aggression compelling them out of formation to face this new threat. Glittering and giggling, Jacaranda made for a very obvious target.

Being faster than they, she quickly put space between them, so that when she finally came to an abrupt halt to hover in the sky above the city, there was a great deal of distance between her and her nearest pursuers. Shadowbolts and other infernal spells reached her long before they did; the Pixie Queen yawned contemptuously as the magic fizzled out just from coming too close to her.

Only when they were almost upon her did she suddenly fold in upon herself, pressing her wings flat against her back, wrapping arms around her torso and hunching her legs in a midair fetal position. Before she’d even had time to begin falling, she exploded.

Jacaranda went off like one of Billie’s fireworks, spraying a massive ball of shooting streamers of multicolored flame in all directions, vaporizing the approaching demons and continuing downward, while she herself remained completely unharmed at the epicenter of the blast. Each of these streaks of light exploded in turn, setting off chain reactions that caused an ever-spreading shower of sparks to drift downward over the city.

Except that unlike actual fireworks, they did not dissipate. Every one of those tiny points of light carried on floating downward, and as they grew closer to the ground, a vast chorus of tiny chimes could be heard. This was followed shortly by gouts of fire, water, lightning, ice, air, and other elemental spells when they descended within range of the nearest demons.

Jacaranda hovered in place, gazing smugly down at her handiwork.

Demons began to perish in droves as thousands of furious pixies streamed down into the streets of Ninkabi.

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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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Bonus #6: A Light in Dark Places

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Jacaranda’s grove had been formed eons ago during the Elder Wars, when a rival god had launched an attack into the Deep Wild, aimed at Naiya. That wasn’t even his greatest mistake, but it was his last; Mother Nature had little sense of humor and no capacity for forgiveness. Jacaranda hadn’t come along until uncounted centuries later, long after life had come back. At this point, she’d had plenty of time to make it her own, and her claim was respected by all the Deep Wild’s inhabitants, even the dryads. Occasionally they, or the odd satyr, would poke their heads in at the very edges, and sometimes would stop to talk with a pixie if they met one, but mostly the grove was left to its own peace. There was ancient bad blood there.

Of course, the little frost fairy knew none of that; she mostly knew that it was safest where it was loneliest, around the uppermost, outermost edges. Dryads, satyrs and the odd questing adventurer were interesting and a little scary, but for the most part, they were harmless.

The crater had, over time, been reclaimed by nature, as everything ultimately was, and now was home to a deep, ancient forest of towering sentinel trees that all but blotted out the sky above, leaving only deep blue-green gloom throughout the crater’s floor. Relatively few plants could flourish in the dimness, just mosses, lichens and fungi, several of which were luminous. A few streams cut through the massive roots, descending to form a deep pool at the very bottom. From the center of this rose a little rounded hill, topped by lushly soft moss, where perched the Pixie Queen, surrounded by her court.

There were no animals in the grove beyond insects, and of those, only species adept at hiding. Nothing else lasted long.

She went in cycles, lurking in the outer reaches, then gradually drawing closer to the middle before fleeing back to safer, darker territory. The closer one flew to the center, the more pixies one encountered, and the reverse was true; the outer reaches were dim and silent, nothing but wide open spaces between massive tree trunks. At the very middle and the bottom, of course, Jacaranda’s mossy throne was the center of pixiedom, and they buzzed about her with such intensity that the whole clearing was always as bright as day. The frost fairy was one of relatively few who could make the comparison; she had flown up above the canopy to see what daylight looked like, several times.

This time she was drifting closer to the middle again, warily greeting other pixies as she passed through the gradations of population density. There were lots of new pixies today; the Queen had made a bunch more, which was the thing that had piqued her curiosity enough to draw her in. New pixie days were always…interesting. She would get carefully closer and closer, possibly until she could see the court itself with all those hanging about their Queen, until something happened to spook her into retreat. An encounter with an aggressive pixie, perhaps. Or maybe, if she stayed long enough, a brush with that idea which had begun growing in the back of her mind. She wasn’t sure quite what the idea was, just that when it came almost close enough to consciousness for her to recognize, it scared her into fleeing.

The woods weren’t quite bright at this elevation, but they were neither silent nor as dim as she was used to. Pixies were about, not in any great concentration, but on all sides, filling the near distance with their chiming and their multicolored glow. She paid careful attention to them. None seemed too interested in her, unless—

“Hello!”

One popped up from under the dirt, hovering right in front of her. The frost pixie jangled in alarm and shot upward and back, quivering. He just hovered there, staring quizzically up at her. He was a dirt fairy, with a green glow. She’d begun to think, lately, that the earth-type elementals really ought to be brown or something, yet they were always green. She wasn’t sure where the thought came from.

“Hello,” she said cautiously. “You startled me.”

“I’m sorry!” His tone was bright and obliviously cheerful, even by pixie standards. “I’m exploring! I like it out here. How are you?”

Comprehension dawned. “Ohh. Are you…new?”

“Yes!” He bobbed up and down. “I am! It’s nice to meet you!”

The frost fairy relaxed, drifting down closer to him. “You should be more careful. If you startle people, something bad might happen.”

“Like what?”

She sighed, chiming softly. “You’ll find out soon enough, I suppose. Nice to meet you.”

She fluttered by him, giving him a respectful berth, and continued on her way toward the middle. The concentration of other pixies was growing; at the point where she could see the constantly-shifting inferno of multi-hued light around Jacaranda’s throne sparkling through the trees, but not quite see the clearing itself, she paused, darting upward to hover above a thick branch and observe. Most pixies, she’d noticed, didn’t go up too high, not much farther from the ground than the Queen could physically reach them if she happened to be standing there. Not that she ever left her perch. They also tended not to look up; sitting on a branch or just over it kept her relatively hidden.

“You’re making frost on the bark! Are you an ice fairy?”

She chimed in alarm and shot straight upward. That silly earth fairy had followed her and was now floating just behind her perch.

“What are you doing?” she demanded furiously.

“Following you!” he said brightly. “You’re my first friend! It’s nice to meet you! Are you going to the middle? I like it in the middle, everyone’s there. She’s there,” he added with a dreamy sigh. “It’s so busy, though, very crowded, so I decided to go exploring. You know, have a look around.”

The frost fairy slowly drifted back down as he spoke, her alarm abating. He seemed harmless. “Yes, I’m an ice fairy. And I might go closer to her throne. It depends on what I see. Sometimes it’s risky.”

He chimed in puzzlement. “Why?”

“Um… Have you ever had a…bad encounter with another pixie? Or seen one?”

“What kind?”

She sighed. “Nevermind. I’m going closer.”

“Okay! Wait for me!”

She was annoyed. The fool fluttered along behind her, chattering aimlessly and making stealth quite impossible; she had to keep a careful eye out for other pixies, but despite their increasing prevalence as she drew closer to the middle, none approached. The frost fairy kept to the higher reaches, going up a few more feet whenever she saw another pixie rise to her elevation; it was the surest tactic she’d found for being left alone. Though she wasn’t exactly alone this time; her new friend hovered right with her.

Even he fell silent, though, when she brought them to stop in the high fork of a tree, just where they had the best view of the throne. This tree leaned inward, as a lot of them did so close to the pool, and the frost fairy’s selected perch put them only a short distance away from Jacaranda’s spot and nearly above it, closer horizontally than vertically.

“Hush,” she urged. “Someone will hear you.”

He didn’t seem to hear her. “There she is,” he whispered in awe. “Isn’t she beautiful?”

“Yeah,” the frost fairy agreed, sighing. Some of the tension slipped away from her and she joined him in just staring dreamily down at their Queen.

She really was beautiful. Jacaranda resembled an elf in size and general build, though her hair was a cloud of wispy azure the floated about her in the breeze. Her ears, too, were resplendently long, though basically elvish in shape; they towered above her and leaned somewhat out to the sides, sort of like a rabbit’s. Glorious dragonfly wings sprang from between her shoulder blades, sometimes waving slowly, sometimes buzzing as she moved about, this way and that. They glittered with a profusion of colors, four crystalline stained glass sculptures carrying her on the breeze. All she wore was a sheer, diaphanous “dress” assembled from scraps of fabric that concealed nothing but accentuated nicely. The effect was wasted on the pixies, but Jacaranda liked to occasionally take lovers from the adventurers who stumbled into her grove.

Right now, the Pixie Queen drifted above a patch of luminous toadstools on her island, reclining backward in the air. Her wings fluttered slowly, not enough to keep her aloft through aerodynamics; like her little creations, she flew by magic. The wings were mostly decorative.

Those creations were putting on a show for her benefit. The little coterie of pixies who constituted her present court swirled and danced through the air around her, creating trails and flashes of their elemental effects; the rest of the eager cloud of pixies had retreated from the immediate vicinity, likely after a few of them had been singed, splashed, and/or blasted. Little bursts and streamers of fire followed the largest, an orange flame fairy; there were sprays of water, artful gusts of wind that swirled fallen leaves into their own little dance (before being incinerated in a spiteful display by the fire fairy), shoots of grass that sprang up from the moss and danced to their own rhythm. Flowers blossomed from nothing, even a few in midair, where they drifted down to rest in the water. Even small spires of rock and crystal sprouted artistically from the ground around the island, quickly crumbling and falling into the pool.

These were the pixies who had names. The others were nearly as much in awe of them as they were of Jacaranda herself—largely because those names were a sign of her favor, of the lucky recipients’ intimate place at their Queen’s side. A pixie’s fondest dream was to one day be given a name and join Jacaranda’s court.

The frost fairy didn’t know them all; their roster tended to shift. She recognized Fiero, though, as well as Flurr, Arokk, Wautri, Gusti and Kistral. A few she remembered from previous visits were missing; a few others were here now. Fiero, the fire fairy, was the only one who had always been here, at least since the frost fairy had been made. By this point, he was the biggest and brightest, and unquestionably Jacaranda’s favorite. Everyone knew it, even if they didn’t come out and say it.

Their uncoordinated display staggered to a rather destructive halt as flashy elemental effects interfered with each other until most of their individual efforts to show off had turned into clouds of steam, dust and ashes. Just when it seemed about to devolve into an outright fight, however, Jacaranda sat up straight, beaming with happiness, and applauded, as though the mess had been a perfectly orchestrated climax. And just like that, the pixies forgot their ire at each other, swooping over to swirl around her adoringly. From around the clearing came enthusiastic chiming from the rest of those present.

“Didja see that?” the earth fairy chattered. “How she brought them all together like that? She’s so smart!”

“Yeah,” the frost fairy said with a wistful sigh. She really was. Smart and beautiful and just perfect.

And then, like the creeping scent of a predator stalking her through the trees, that thought began trying to bubble up. She tensed, about to shoot off into the darkness as usual. She couldn’t flee from her own mind, but the act of fleeing was usually enough to distract her…

“Oh, how you do keep me entertained,” Jacaranda said below, and her voice—her beautiful voice—arrested the frost fairy completely. “Whatever should I do without you, my little friends?”

“You’ll never be without us!” Wautri cried, the assurances of the others coming a split second behind her. Fiero aggressively bumped into the water fairy, irked at not being the first to praise the Queen, but it went no further than that.

“I’m just so in need of distractions lately,” Jacaranda said with a melancholy sigh, settling backward to lounge in midair and raising a hand to her brow. “It’s just so tedious, all these…these people. I can’t get any privacy in my own grove anymore!”

“Stupid adventurers!” shouted Arokk. “Stupid humans, bothering our queen!” There came a chorus of outraged agreement from the others. Above, the frost fairy buzzed her wings thoughtfully. Not more than a handful of adventurers came to the grove a year; Jacaranda usually wanted them brought to her pool for sex before having them disposed of. Was that too many? How often had they come before? For that matter…how old was she?

“So…do you not want us to bring them to you anymore, my Queen?” Gusti asked hesitantly when it quieted enough for him to be heard.

“Oh, don’t be silly, my pet,” Jacaranda chided, laughing. She raised her hand, allowing him to perch on her fingers for a moment to take the sting out of the rebuke.

“It’s just awful that you should have to suffer for this,” Fiero said decisively.

“We should try to catch some satyrs or something to patrol the grove!” Arokk added.

“Yeah,” Flurr chimed, sparking in excitement. “The big dumb fairies outside should be doing their jobs! What are those dryads thinking, letting humans into your grove?!”

“What was that?” Jacaranda sat bolt upright, her expression suddenly fierce. The overall light level in the clearing plummeted as panicked pixies fled in all directions from her displeasure.

Flurr’s lavender glow dimmed as she realized her mistake. “Oh, I… I didn’t mean… I didn’t say… It was just a slip—”

“Those creatures are not to be spoken of in my presence!” the Pixie Queen raged. “I won’t have it! I hate them! You’re not to remind me! You know this!”

“I’m sorry!” Flurr wailed. “I didn’t mean—”

“Remove her!” Jacaranda commanded.

“Yes, my queen!” the rest of the court chimed in unison.

“Nooo!” Flurr sped off toward the treeline in terror.

Not fast enough.

It was Fiero who caught up to her. It was almost always Fiero anymore, the frost fairy noted, shifting her position to watch. A blast of fire sent the flower fairy fluttering to the ground with singed wings; in half a second, he was on her.

Despite their distance, the two fairies lurking on the branch high above could clearly see what followed. It took only seconds; Flurr’s wail died away quickly as Fiero landed on top of her, her glow diminishing to nothing and the tiny physical form beneath it withering away to wisps of vapor that streamed upward and into the fire fairy. His own aura flared brighter for a moment, and then he sprang upward, giddy with the rush of energy.

“How awful,” the earth fairy whispered. “Why would he do that?”

“Because he can,” said the frost fairy just as quietly. “That’s what I meant about aggressive pixies. We have basically infinite energy, you know; we’re all connected directly to the Queen herself. There’s really only one kind of creature that’s a threat to a pixie.” She buzzed her wings once. “Other pixies. Look around. Down, outward, at the others.”

He drifted over to the other side of the branch, peering down. Now that she’d pointed it out, he could see the spectacle of Fiero and Flurr being repeated here and there amid the rest of the random gyrations of pixie lights.

“…why?”

“That’s how we get stronger,” the frost fairy said noncommittally. “It’s how you gain power. You have to get a lot to be allowed close to the Pixie Queen. If you’re not strong enough to assert yourself to the rest of the court…they’ll eat you. I mean, literally. This is what happens to most new ones. Not a lot last.”

“Wow,” he said in an awed tone. “Wow, I’m really lucky to be up here with you.”

The frost fair buzzed again, turning to peer at him. “You know, I’m older and a lot stronger than you. What makes you think I won’t do that to you?”

“You wouldn’t do that,” he said immediately. “You’re my friend.”

She chimed in confusion. “Why are you so convinced we’re friends?”

“Why wouldn’t we be?”

She was spared having to answer by the sound of the Queen’s voice, which immediately commanded the full and undivided attention of every pixie in earshot.

“Well, anyway,” Jacaranda tittered, “what were we talking about?”

“How pretty you are!” Arokk proclaimed. He was swiftly echoed by the others.

“Oh, stop, you,” Jacaranda said modestly, beaming.

The frost fairy quailed. That thought was creeping up on her again.

“We really ought to do something,” the Pixie Queen went on, again seizing her attention. “The humans have never been so aggressive before. I mean, there’s an awful lot of them these days. I don’t know what they think they’re even doing in the Deep Wild, but if Naiya won’t rein them in, I suppose it falls to me.” She sighed tragically. “As it always does.”

There came a round of sycophantic condemnation of Naiya and humans from the surrounding pixies; they all blended together. The frost fairy didn’t bother trying to pick out individual voices, fixated as she was on the Queen.

Jacaranda, for once, seemed to be ignoring her hangers-on, frowning in thought. “All right, it’s decided,” she said suddenly, cutting them all off in an instant. “We must address the humans directly! I’ll send them an emissary. Let’s see… Who rules the nearest kingdom?”

She peered around expectantly; bashful pixies dimmed, drifting downward to hover a bit lower.

“Oh, honestly,” Jacaranda exclaimed, planting her fists on her hips and frowning in disapproval. “Doesn’t anyone know?”

“We…we don’t like to leave your side, my Queen,” Wautri said hesitantly. “We don’t know much about the world outside your grove.”

“What else could we want?” Fiero added. “You’re here!”

“Aww.” Jacaranda gave him a little smile, then suddenly brightened in earnest. “I know! I’ll send someone to the Arachne. She knows fairy ways and human ways; she can introduce my emissary to the human king. It’s perfect!”

Above, while the pixies of the court fell over themselves to assure their Queen how brilliant it truly was over her modest protests, the earth fairy asked, “What’s the Arachne?”

“I don’t know,” the frost fairy admitted.

“But who shall I send?” Jacaranda asked in a voice that made the question a proclamation. “Who shall go forth into the world on my behalf?”

Her court hesitated, caught on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, they longed for nothing more than to please her; on the other, this duty would mean leaving her side, when everything they had struggled for was represented by being in her presence.

Other pixies, not having made the same risks and sacrifices to attain their positions, were not so conflicted. They also weren’t accustomed to being addressed directly by their Queen, and so the cloud of would-be volunteers drifting out over the pool was slow, hesitant.

With the exception, of course, of one who’d not yet learned circumspection.

“Me!” shouted the little earth fairy, plunging over the edge of the branch and down into the court. “I’ll go!”

“What are you doing?!” the frost fairy hissed, unheard.

“I’ll go!” he cried obliviously, fluttering down toward the Pixie Queen. “Send me, my Queen!”

Jacaranda glanced up at him, and he froze in midair, poleaxed by her smile.

“Hey, now!” Seizing an opportunity to deflect attention from his own recent failure to volunteer, Fiero shot upward, hovering menacingly before the earth fairy. That close, the differences between them were blatant; the fire fairy’s aura was a whole order of magnitude larger and brighter. “Who do you think you are to bother the Queen? Were you given permission to approach?”

“She—she asked for someone to go,” the earth fairy said dumbly.

“She asked for someone to go,” Fiero mocked, eliciting a chorus of derisive giggles from the rest of the court. “And you thought that meant you?”

“Well, I—hey!” He plunged a few feet, buffeted by a burst of flame. “Ow! What’d you do that for?”

Above, the frost fairy wanted to look away, and found she couldn’t.

“Stop it!” the earth fairy cried plaintively, trying to flutter away now. Fiero was too fast, and too strong. The next wash of flame was in earnest, sending the little earth fairy careening toward the ground with a scorched wing. The fire fairy dived after him.

The frost fairy finally tore her eyes away, edging back over the branch to hide the spectacle from view.

It was only seconds later that Fiero re-emerged. “Pfft, hardly worth the effort. No energy at all!”

The other pixies of the court joined in his mocking laughter.

And suddenly, the frost fairy was mad.

She tried to repress it. Getting mad didn’t help anything. This was the world; this was just how life was.

“Yes, yes,” the Pixie Queen said languidly. “Enough of your little games, now, though, let’s be serious.”

“Little games?” the frost fairy heard herself say quietly. Suddenly that thought was there, clawing at the gates to her consciousness. She could feel it about to break through. Reflexively, she plunged into action to drive it away.

Yet this time, she wasn’t running away.

Fiero was still grandstanding, hovering above the others. Jacaranda was looking in another direction. It was perfect. The frost fairy plummeted down into the court’s space and hit Fiero from behind with a blast of elemental frost.

“WHAT the—” he squawked, buffeted off course. Righting himself, he pivoted to stare incredulously at the icy pixie, no more than half his size and a fraction of his power, hovering a few feet away. The frost fairy gave him another blast for good measure, then turned and buzzed off into the darkness as fast as her wings could carry her.

“WHY YOU!” Fiero was right behind her in seconds.

The rest of the pixies scattered from their path, unwilling to face Fiero’s wrath. Some few might have the foresight to try to curry favor by helping him, but they wouldn’t be willing to risk him in this mood. She could count on there being no interference.

She led him on a spiraling course through the trees, laying down a trail of frost for him to follow across the ground, over roots and through fallen logs. He blasted it to vapor as he went in a showy display of magical ferocity. For the first few tense moments, she wasn’t sure of her surroundings, but soon enough she found a landmark, and then another, and then she was on familiar ground, just outside the center of pixiedom. Leading him on the same course she’d led all the others. Still, she backtracked and pivoted, making ice tracks and permitting herself some grim satisfaction as he blazed them away. It cost her almost no energy to lower the temperature around her, turning the moisture in the air into frost; it was costing him a lot to throw all those fire blasts.

The longer this played out, the less energy he had.

Still, she couldn’t tire him out too much; biggest and strongest pixie or no, Fiero was still a pixie, and had a strictly finite attention span. Very quickly, he began to slow behind her, the fire blasts petering out.

“Yeah, you better run,” he called out, coming to a stop. She halted as well, but he didn’t see; he’d already turned and was fluttering back toward Jacaranda’s pool.

No good.

She hit him from behind with another ice blast.

This time he let out a yowl of wordless fury, streaking off after her again.

The bursts of fire which followed were aimed at her, now, and she decided to cut this short. He wasn’t a very accurate shot, but if he set the forest on fire the Queen would be annoyed. Was he weakened enough? Well, no time to wonder. She followed the familiar turns of the ground, around the big old tree with the tunnel under its roots, then around and down into the darkness, slowing just enough on the turn to make sure Fiero saw which hole she entered.

She’d done this maneuver enough times for it to be nearly instinctive. The tunnel branched off ahead; she coated the rim of the hole leading straight down with frost, then zipped around a blind turn. She was just far enough ahead in the twisting darkness that he shouldn’t have seen which way she’d gone, hence the false trail of ice. This particular tunnel twisted around, coming out right above the fork. She arrived back at that point just in time to see Fiero plunge into the iced hole with a cry of triumph, thinking her cornered.

He was quick; he managed to come to a halt before plunging into the water that filled the deep hole. He wasn’t so quick that he didn’t stop and stare dumbly at it, completely at a loss as to what had just happened.

They all did.

The frost fairy plunged down on him from above, channeling a tight, focused burst of her power onto him. The fire fairy was forced downward into the water, where his power was stifled. He tried to boil the liquid around him, but she continued pouring cold on. He wasted energy flailing blindly, spewing instantly-doused flames in all directions, no longer even sure which way was up, while all around him the water froze faster than he could boil it. Tired out before he’d been lured here, panicked, confused and in the very unfamiliar position of total vulnerability, all his power did him no good. If he’d focused, he could probably have beaten her. Easily, even.

None of them understood what she did: smarter was better than stronger.

The first time she’d done this had been a total accident. A stronger pixie was chasing her, and she’d tried to hide in the tunnels… The second, she’d done it deliberately, remembering the useful twists down here. For a while, the frost fairy had used this tree’s root complex as a defense mechanism for when she couldn’t avoid a confrontation, honing her method, developing the false trail of frost for those enemies a bit more quick-witted than the rest. This was the first time she had deliberately goaded someone into the trap.

Fiero’s critical moment of weakness came, and she reached out with her mind, with her being, seizing that which was him and drawing it into herself. He flailed harder, sensing what she was doing, but he was an aimless ball of panic at this point, and could do nothing to stop her.

Amazing, how quickly that much energy was absorbed. It was almost fast enough that she absorbed the sheer power for its own sake, rather than doing the thing that only she knew how to do…but she held onto herself, and changed the power as it rushed into her.

Pixies didn’t gain the full energy of another pixie they absorbed, not by a long shot. There was substantial energy loss in the process. The frost fairy’s method didn’t take in the energy directly, though, but channeled it into…something else. Something smarter. She didn’t have a way to measure, but she had the impression she kept a lot more of the power this way, even if she didn’t get power from it, exactly. Energy flowed into her mind, sharpening, organizing, heightening. Her senses grew more acute; connections she hadn’t been conscious of before were suddenly there. Everything about the world made a little bit more sense.

Her ice wasn’t any stronger, but that was fine. She had something better.

No…more than a little bit more sense. She’d never taken in a member of the Court before. This changed a lot. Fiero’s power represented enough mental acuity to shift her thinking several steps ahead.

In that moment, an understanding settled on her, followed by an idea.

The understanding was that she hated living here. The idea was that she had the chance of a way out.

The frost fairy shot out of the tunnel complex, making a silver streak back toward the Pixie Queen’s island. This time, not recognizing her, the other pixies didn’t get out of her way; she navigated swiftly around them, single-minded in her goal.

It had only been moments. Tense as her deadly encounter with Fiero had been, it had gone at the highest speeds the two of them could manage, and she made it back before too much had changed.

“Well,” the Pixie Queen was saying with some asperity, “if nobody wants to go, I can always just pick someone. I would have hoped you’d all care enough about me to volunteer, but I see—”

The frost fairy zipped out of the treeline, right past the startled members of the court, and slammed to a midair halt directly in front of the Pixie Queen’s face, where they wouldn’t have dared create a disturbance.

“My Queen, I volunteer! It would be my honor to serve you!”

“Why, what have we here?” Jacaranda said, tilting her head bemusedly. “It’s a little ice spirit. Hello, little one. Have I spoken to you before?”

The answer to that was simply no, but the frost fairy had a newer, subtler understanding now, derived from all the time she’d spent watching the court from above. “I have never had the honor, my Queen. I’m sorry to presume like this. But no one else was coming forward, and I just couldn’t stand to leave you without the help you need!”

The chiming from the pixies of the court took on a distinctly annoyed tone, but Jacaranda smiled in pure delight. “Why, what a dutiful little pixie you are, my dear. Yes, indeed! For this service… Yes, I believe you deserve a name of your own.”

The frost fairy almost fell out of the air in shock. Volunteering to be sent on a mission outside was one thing, but this… “I…I’d be honored, my Queen,” she whispered tremulously.

“It’s no more than you deserve, my newest little friend,” Jacaranda proclaimed. “Hm, let’s see, you’re an ice fairy, aren’t you? Yes… We shall call you Fross.”

Fross. She had a name!

The sheer bliss of it was spoiled by an unwelcome rush of comprehension. Fross, like “frost.” Fiero, fire, Wautri, water… They were all like that. She’d just named them after their elements, with no imagination at all.

In that moment the thought she’d been avoiding all this time finally crashed through:

The Pixie Queen was kind of stupid.

Very fortunately, the sheer, horrified shock of having had this treasonous thought paralyzed her, preventing her from blurting it out. That very likely saved her life.

“Now, Fross,” Jacaranda was saying imperiously, “my most faithful little servant, here is the task I have for you…”


 

Nothing had prepared Fross for how big the world was. She counted forty-three days of travel, but that was after quite a few had gone by before it occurred to her to keep count.

She’d found a helpful dryad in the Deep Wild beyond Jacaranda’s grove to give her directions and advice. She was nervous about approaching the tree spirit—despite her Queen’s loathing of dryads, she knew very well where they stood on the hierarchy of fairies, and it was well beyond the reach of anyone she should be speaking to. Aspen had been friendly and seemed glad to help, though, and over time her directions had proved spot-on.

Fross had learned to keep up as high as possible. The ground was full of predators; at a given altitude, there were only hawks to deal with. Being eaten wouldn’t have harmed her significantly in the long run, but it would have been inconvenient, not to mention gross. She’d had to ice a good few birds on her journey, but they were the lesser hazard. The winds up high were something else; it was tricky to stay on course.

Choosing to err on the side of caution, she’d swung to the south to avoid the Golden Sea, which, from above, wasn’t really distinguishable from the non-magical prairie surrounding it. Thanks to Aspen’s advice, she learned to recognize the landmarks of human construction as signs she was safely outside the Sea’s radius. In fact, they proved extremely useful. Once she came to the Sea’s edge, she just had to follow the towns, forts and whatever else, making sure to drift southward for safety’s sake in the long stretches between them, before she eventually, finally came to the one she needed.

Last Rock was well-named and truly unmistakable.

Luck was on her side when she finally got there; she didn’t have to look far to find the Arachne. Upon being smacked into a windowsill by an errant gust of wind, Fross decided that was as good a place as any to stop and rest, which she’d not done in several days. The window was open slightly, and she could hear conversation from within.

“But only seven? It’s without precedent.”

“Eight, Alaric. We won’t be seeing Vadrieny most of the time, gods willing, but she’ll be conscious, so I’m putting her on the rolls.”

“Eight, then. Even so, Arachne, that’s less than half the size of any previous incoming class.”

Fross buzzed upward, her weariness forgotten. She was through the open window in an instant.

The room was an office, carpeted in royal blue and surrounded by bookcases, inscrutable devices and old maps on the walls. Four people were present: an elf sitting behind a desk, a dwarf standing before it, a half-elf lounging in a chair against the wall and a human standing at ease near the door.

She knew immediately who her goal was. Quite apart from being the only elf present, the Arachne was just like the dryad’s description: She wore green clothes, gold-rimmed lenses over her eyes and a scowl.

“I refuse to pad the rolls, Alaric,” the Arachne was saying. “Besides, there’s an argument to be made about quantity as opposed to quality.”

“I wasn’t aware we took on students of poor quality,” the human said in a mild tone.

“Ahem,” said the half-elf, looking directly at Fross. None of the others paid him any mind.

“You know what I mean, Emilio,” the Arachne said impatiently. “Consider the names we’ve already got. I very much fear it’s going to be all we can do to attend to them properly. Yes, it’ll be a small class, but as things stand I don’t feel a need to go looking for more. And that’s what we’d have to do, gentlemen. These are the students who’ve been brought forward to us, and that’s how we’ve always recruited. The University does not ask for attendees.”

“Hey, guys?” said the half-elf.

“For heaven’s sake, Admestus, what?” the Arachne exclaimed.

He pointed at Fross. “Whose pixie is that?”

Everyone turned to stare at her.

“Hello!” she said. “My name is Fross!”

“What the hell is this now?” the Arachne said by way of greeting.

“That’s not a very nice word,” Fross admonished.

“Yes, I know. Just what are you doing in here? If your witch is trying to get my attention, there are easier ways.”

“Uh, my… I’m sorry, I don’t have a witch,” she said nervously. This wasn’t going at all the way she’d anticipated. “I’m here on a mission from the Pixie Queen to the human lands!”

“Fross, was it?” the human said in his calm tone. “Are you sure that’s the story you want to stick with?”

“Arachne,” the dwarf said softly, frowning up at Fross.

“Yeah,” said the elf. “I see it.”

“Care to let us in on the joke?” asked Admestus the half-elf.

“This pixie is brimming with arcane magic,” said the Arachne.

“I, uh… I don’t know what that means,” Fross said, keenly aware that this conversation had well and truly gotten away from her.

“It means you’re not much like any other pixie that’s ever existed,” said the Arachne.

“Well…I sort of knew that.”

“Is it even possible?” the human asked, frowning.

“I would not have said so,” replied the dwarf, “but…there she is. Arachne…she can’t be more than a few years old. They have tiny auras, but the energy they draw upon… If she’s somehow converting it into the arcane, and storing it up, why… In a couple of centuries, she could rival any archmage in existence.”

“Is that…good?” Fross asked uncertainly.

“Well, it could be good,” the Arachne mused. “Or, alternatively, it could be very, very, incredibly bad. That all depends on you, Fross.”

“What are you talking about, converting fae magic into arcane?” the half-elf scoffed. “Even I know my Circles of Interaction better than that. Even Ezzaniel does, I bet. Converting pressurized oil into fire is more like it.”

“Do you suppose this is a latent trait of pixies that no one’s discovered before?” the dwarf asked thoughtfully.

“I can’t credit the idea,” said the Arachne, shaking her head. “Witches who have pixie familiars tend to be of the more ambitious sort. Someone would have noticed and made use of it. No… I don’t think pixies are secretly the gnagrethycts of the fairy world. Far more likely we’re looking at an outlier. Sort of like our November.”

“What does that mean?” Fross asked. “And what’s it have to do with me?”

“That is the question, isn’t it?” the Arachne said thoughtfully, staring up at her.

“Well, yes. That’s the question.”

The elf smiled. “I think you’d better tell us your story, Fross.”

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