Tag Archives: Lanaera

14 – 1

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The forest was like a cathedral with columns of redwood and pine, the air cool and dim except where shafts of sunlight pierced its canopy. In other ways, it resembled a park more than a real woodland, with a carpet of lush moss interspersed with bushes and saplings whose placement was both ideal to support them and ensure their future growth, and also aesthetic in the symmetry and balance it created. It was vibrantly alive, deep and mysterious, and yet not truly wild. This was a land deeply cared for, created by the people it sustained. One with them, in a way.

“And that is what those old hard-liners forget,” said the older of the two women walking hand-in-hand beneath the trees. “The rhetoric about mad, nature-destroying humans is dismally short-sighted. Of course there are humans who do that, just as there are those who deliberately cultivate the land around them… But either way, it is the nature of all life to find equilibrium with its environment, sapient or otherwise, and humanity is far from the only species which can devastate its surroundings if allowed to run unchecked. Any predator and most herbivores will do the same; viruses do literally nothing but. Trying to single out a mortal race for it is nothing but a political agenda.”

Trissiny nodded, gazing around her at the forest. There came faint flickers of motion from overhead, betraying the passage of the birds whose singing livened the quiet.

“I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about this place that reminds me of Viridill. At a glance, it doesn’t look anything like the mountains, but… I think you just jogged my mind.”

“Oh?” Lanaera smiled at her.

“It’s a shaped land. That’s the quality they have in common. Viridill… It’s all so old. These ancient twisted trees, old paths and stone steps cut in the slopes, stone walls that are half-fallen. Everything’s weathered and just feels ancient. But it’s ancient in a way that’s shaped around the people who’ve lived there for thousands of years. The people and the environment are…” She frowned, groping for a word.

“Balanced?” Lanaera suggested.

“Yes.” Trissiny nodded again. “Integrated. There’s a harmony. I’ve been in true wilderness, too. The Golden Sea, the forests around Veilgrad. Really wild country doesn’t feel the same at all. It doesn’t care about you, it’d kill you in a second if you let it, and just…something about the place carries that constant reminder. But Viridill reflects its people. Like your grove reflects the elves. People belong in these places; they aren’t really wild.”

“That’s not how I would put it,” the shaman commented, still smiling. “I like your phrasing, though. You have an intuitive grasp of such things that’s unusual for someone with no education in naturalism.”

Trissiny came to a stop, tilting her head back to let a sunbeam warm her place. “I wish I’d been able to visit a grove before. I missed out on that, in Sarasio. Something about this place is peaceful, like nothing I’ve ever felt before.” She opened her eyes, turning to Lanaera with a quizzical little frown. “Is that…genetic?”

“That’s a very large question,” Lanaera mused. “In an absolute sense, definitely. Forests are always calming to the spirit; they connect to something ancient and primal in all of us. But if you mean because you are my granddaughter, or a half-blood… Maybe, though I would not ascribe too much weight to that. If the forest speaks to you, then it does, and that’s good. That is a spiritual thing. Spiritual things are to be experienced, not analyzed. I agree, though,” she added. “You already look more relaxed than when you first arrived.”

“I think I’ll have to make these visits a regular thing,” Trissiny said, smiling back. “If that’s all right, I mean.”

“So respectful.” The elf shook her head ruefully. “That isn’t genetic, I can tell you that much. It’s all right to be a little presumptuous, Trissiny. You are blood, and I have welcomed you here. Unless you do something specifically to negate that welcome in the eyes of the Elders, this place is yours to visit as you please. And to be quite frank, you already seem less likely to make that kind of mess than some who were born here.”

“I appreciate it,” Trissiny said quickly. “I just don’t want to be an imposition on anyone who didn’t have a say in that. I know elves like routine, and privacy.”

“Mmm…” The shaman gave her a sidelong look, the faintest hint of smile glinting in her eye. “Let me put it this way. Have you ever met someone about whose opinion you simply could not force yourself to care?”

She grimaced. “Frequently.”

Lanaera laughed, startling a rabbit out of the bushes nearby. “Well! The tribe does value harmony—both with nature and with one another. A big part of life in elven communities is avoiding conflict. That doesn’t mean there are no irritating idiots among my tribe, merely that I do not seek out opportunities to thwart them, and in fact do not take every opportunity that arises. So, if someone did happen to object to my own granddaughter being welcome in my home, not only would I utterly disregard their entire existence, I would take a degree of satisfaction in so doing that probably reflects badly on my moral character.”

Trissiny couldn’t help grinning along with her at that.

“All that aside,” Lanaera continued, her expression sobering, “I do think you needn’t worry about the likelihood. There are very few elves who truly hate humans, at least on an individual level, and none in this grove. Most of the strongest anti-human sentiment among us comes from a suspicion and fear of humanity, collectively. We tend to think of people as groups, whereas you tend to as individuals. A human may earn welcome among us, and many have over the years.”

“Do humans come to live in the groves?”

“That’s extremely rare, but…occasionally, yes. Few humans have the mindset to get along in tribal life, and fewer still the patience to earn a tribe’s trust and acceptance. Half-bloods do somewhat more often. Having family among the tribe gets you in, which is the most difficult thing—you have that part covered. Halflings often come to groves, even if they were not born in one, to extend their lives.”

They had begun walking again, but at that Trissiny stopped, frowning. “Extend their lives? How so?”

Lanaera gave her a considering look, then sighed. “All right. This requires some explanation… You do understand, I hope, how the elvish metabolism works?”

“Yes, Professor Tellwyrn explained that to me. I did some experimentation to see what traits I’d inherited. I have the metabolism, but not the instinctive recognition of relatives.”

“Ah. That’s good to know. What I’m about to tell you is a secret, Trissiny.”

“Then I’ll never repeat it,” Trissiny replied immediately.

Lanaera squeezed her hand, then stepped away and pulled her gently along. They continued walking slowly through the shadow-dappled forest while the shaman collected her thoughts. Trissiny wasn’t quite used to the hand-holding yet; for as generally aloof as the elves were, they were amazingly touchy-feely between friends and loved ones. It didn’t make her uncomfortable enough to object, though.

“An elf is not a body,” Lanaera said finally, “but an aura centered upon one. You and I, walking this way, are partly within each other. Mingling and resonating. This fact is at the root of the unity and harmony toward which all elven communities strive; simply by living in proximity, we are connected in a way that humans are not. It would drive us mad if we didn’t maintain that harmony. Those who can’t or won’t do so do not remain within the community.”

“Tauhanwe,” Trissiny said, nodding.

Her grandmother squeezed her hand again. “Yes. This has other implications. Wherever there is an elf, any human in their proximity is within their aura—their magic, their very being. And for humans and every non-demonic species, this is extremely healthy. An elf’s aura encourages life, and the balance thereof. You mentioned that Principia’s squad has two elves? Well, none of those women will be inclined to catch so much as a sniffle for the duration of their association. A standard Silver Legion period of enlistment will probably add five years to each of their lives.”

Trissiny slowed again, coming to a stop; Lanaera did so along with her, watching her face closely.

“I see,” Trissiny said finally, eyes wide, “why that is a secret.”

“Yes.” The shaman grimaced. “About five hundred years ago, a rumor circulated among the nobility that drinking or bathing in the blood of elves could grant immortality. The results of that were predictable and horrific. It would be bad enough if human communities learned the truth, that they could just keep an elf chained in their bedroom and… Fortunately, the gods and their cults help us suppress the knowledge. The Veskers expunge it from their tales, and Avei and Eserion alike have been zealous in punishing any such abuses.”

“I gather Kuriwa makes a point to punish people who abuse elves, too.”

“Right,” Lanaera said sourly, “and then pats herself on the back for how protective she’s been by agitating every human power in the vicinity against our whole race. Frankly, child, I consider Arachne a better woman than Kuriwa. The main difference between them is that Arachne doesn’t pretend to herself that she’s helping.”

This time it was Trissiny who burst out laughing.

They were interrupted by a shape bounding toward them through the trees. Like a stag in form, but with sweeping horns instead of antlers, and the entire creature seemingly made of mist and light. It leaped soundlessly past trunks and over bushes, passing within arm’s length of them and coming to a halt in a glade up ahead. The ghostly figure turned, one foreleg upraised as if about to leap away again, watching them in silence.

A much less graceful and less quiet shape came pounding along after it. Schwartz was out of breath, his hair and robes disheveled from rushing through the forest and glasses slipping down his nose. He shoved them back into place, staggering to a halt alongside the two women.

“Whew! Good morning, Trissiny, Lanaera! Didn’t see you at breakfast.”

“Should you really be chasing that, Herschel?” Trissiny asked pointedly. Meesie, squeaking in greeting, leaped from Schwartz’s hair to her shoulders where she scampered a complete lap around Trissiny’s neck before bounding onto Lanaera.

“Oh, it’s just a game of tag,” he wheezed cheerfully, grinning. “Fae spirits! Very playful!”

“Herschel, at least, knows better than to pester fairies who don’t care to be approached,” Lanaera said with clear amusement, scratching an ecstatic Meesie’s head with a fingertip. “There are no dangerous fae in the grove, regardless.”

“I say, since I’ve run into you, d’you think it would mind if I augmented myself with a spot of magic to keep up? Cos I don’t mind telling you, I’m already bushed. Or would that be cheating?”

“Cheating isn’t even a concept to most fairies, as you well know,” the shaman said, gently depositing Meesie back on his shoulder. “You are not going to catch that stag, Herschel. If you wish to avoid boring him, better use every trick up your sleeves.”

“Rightyo!” he said brightly. “I’ll see you later then, girls. Come on, Meesie!”

The little elemental bounded back atop Schwartz’s head, where she grabbed a fistful of his hair and pointed at the stag, trumpeting a tiny charge. He bounded off after the spirit again, this time as lightly as a gazelle. Whatever craft he had employed still didn’t make him a match for the fairy, which took off immediately. In seconds, the two had vanished into the forest.

“Well, he’s having the time of his life,” Trissiny observed. “I’ve never seen him that happy without a book in his face.”

“Mm.” Lanaera was watching after the departed witch with a smile. “That was more family than I expected to come visiting, but I’m glad you brought him.”

“About that,” Trissiny said more cautiously, “I hope…”

“I assure you,” Lanaera said in a wryer tone, “the rest of the tribe is not bothered by Herschel. He is blood of my blood—apparently—and his family is known to us. He’s a follower of Naiya’s craft, besides. No, you’ve both made an excellent impression here in just a few days. If anything, I imagine most of them were gladder to meet him than another Crowblood. You should be aware that our clan is generally heralded by a great rolling of eyes. You know the real irony, though?” she added, giving Trissiny a thoughtful look.

“Do I want to know it?” she replied, with the same expression. “I’ve had mixed luck with ironies.”

Lanaera grinned and squeezed her hand. “It’s just that you make a better elf than either your mother or I did at your age. I look forward to antagonizing a few specific individuals with the idea that it’s the Schwartz blood which does it.”

Trissiny looked mostly confused. “A…better elf?”

The shaman shook her head and resumed walking, her granddaughter again falling into step beside her. “An awkward way to put it, sorry. You’re just so…centered. Calm, respectful, and you have an innate tendency to adapt to your surroundings and the rhythms of those around you. When I was twenty I most got into fistfights and set things on fire.”

“Hm,” Trissiny murmured. “Funny. For most of the last two years people have been telling me I’m judgmental and stuck up.”

“Yes,” Lanaera said dryly, “and that’s exactly what they usually say about elves.”

Trissiny made no response that time, just gazing ahead with a faintly pensive frown, now, rather than peering around at the forest. After glancing curiously at her, Lanaera left the silence alone.

They continued on their way, the elf gently steering their course around little hillocks and bushes, till they reached a bank overlooking a bend in a small stream. Atop this hill was a small tree—small, at least, in comparison to its towering neighbors, all of which stood far enough away that ample sunlight penetrated. It was an old and sizable specimen of its kind, though. The tree leaned far out over the stream from relatively high above, its fern-like foliage casting iridescent shadows upon the water.

Both came to a stop, gazing up at the lone mimosa.

“They don’t usually grow in places like this, do they?” Trissiny asked quietly.

Lanaera shook her head. “It was a gift from a tribe which visited us from a very distant land. They are not native to this continent, and have not spread here. The few which grow in these lands are transplants, most lovingly cultivated.”

“There’s one on the Abbey grounds in Viridill.”

“I am in no hurry, granddaughter,” the shaman said in a gentle tone. “Things are better allowed to come in their own time. I have time aplenty. But I am not sure how much you have. Avei’s business will call you away soon enough, and likely allow you few breaks in which to return. It might be better to speak of her sooner than later.”

Trissiny heaved a heavy sigh. Releasing Lanaera’s hand, she paced slowly up the hill to the tree, and placed her palm against its bark. The shaman followed more slowly along behind her.

“I’m not really accustomed to having family,” Trissiny said after a long pause. “I’ve heard people say it’s possible to love someone with all your heart and not really like them all that much. I always thought that was the strangest idea…”

“That’s a very apt description of what it’s like to have family,” Lanaera replied with a rueful little chuckle. “Yours, especially. If you go on to meet more of our clan I suspect you’ll come to understand it very well.”

“I don’t love Principia,” she whispered. “And I don’t like her. But…I no longer resent her. I gave up on that because carrying a grudge is just…exhausting. Pointless. Gradually, I’m learning to…appreciate her. I feel that I could grow to love, or like her, in time. Maybe.”

Lanaera stepped past her and seated herself on the main trunk of the tree, which grew as much to the side as up. It was vertical enough that Trissiny wouldn’t have tried balancing on it that way, but the elf perched with no sign of difficulty.

“Almost every Crowblood I’ve met has told me we come in two kinds: the tauhanwe and the aggressively ‘normal’ ones who work extra hard at being traditional elves to compensate for the rest. Personally? I think there’s only the one kind. Our bloodline has a tendency to be magically gifted, strong-willed, and more than a little iconoclastic. It’s just that some of us choose to pursue a conventional tribal life—and pursue that with the same single-minded disregard for what anybody else thinks as ardently as the most rambunctious runaway tauhanwe goes haring off after adventure. I am even more prickly than most, if anything. That I am a respected shaman of an ancient grove is because that’s what I want.”

She hesitated, looking out over the stream at the quiet shade of the forest beyond.

“My daughter and I are very much alike… And that may as well have doomed us. I’m just not a very good mother, Trissiny. It takes a degree of patience, empathy, and self-sacrifice that is simply not in my personality. If I had been more flexible, more understanding, maybe… Well. If ifs and buts were berries and nuts we’d be knee-deep in squirrels. Principia and I were butting heads by the time she could talk. In hindsight, I suspect that a large part of what drove her to such a violently idiosyncratic life was my constant badgering when she behaved so badly as a youth.”

“No one’s responsible for who they are but themselves,” Trissiny murmured, reaching up to lightly run a green frond through her fingertips.

“It’s not so simple as that,” Lanaera said with mild amusement. “Not that you’re wrong; that is an important insight. But… Take this tree. I could have shaped it, from a sapling, had I wished. Guided its growth, coaxed or forced it to take a form unnatural to it, to stand upright and spread horizontal branches from a single trunk, like these redwoods. But no matter what craft I employed, no matter what shape I convinced it to take, it would never be anything but a mimosa. We are shaped by those around us, and yet we are defined by our choices, and our essential nature. Either, and both.”

“Balance. Harmony.”

“It isn’t all one thing,” Lanaera agreed, nodding. “Too much harmony is like too much of anything: destructive. There is an extent to which you must avoid being influenced by others. Children are uniquely vulnerable, especially to their parents. They have shallow roots and slender trunks, and are easily swayed into forms which will define them forever. I tried to make Principia what I thought was best. But in my carelessness, I attended only to the shape of her, paying no mind to what kind of tree she was. And so…here we are. You are not the only one, by far, to suffer for her antics, though I think you have been cut more deeply than most.”

“Oh, no. It’s not like that at all.” Trissiny stepped over to her grandmother and took her hand again, smiling. “She’s never hurt me. The worst thing I felt when Principia revealed herself to me was just shock. I had a mother, and a good one. I had an upbringing that I give credit for most of my strengths. And some of my flaws,” she added with a grimace. “But Prin… She came along years later and the disgust I felt at her for abandoning an infant daughter was a general one. It wasn’t personal; it’s not as if I had any memory of it. I think I’ve had a better life than I would have if she’d kept me.”

Lanaera slipped down off the trunk and wrapped her arms around Trissiny in a hug. They stood that way for a few minutes. These long demonstrations were another thing Trissiny was still growing accustomed to; with eternity in which to do everything, elves tended to take their time, and a hug could draw on till it became almost tedious. At least at first; she was learning to appreciate just being close to a loved one while time paused around them.

It was Lanaera who finally drew back with a soft sigh. “Well. I prompted the subject for a reason, granddaughter. Your visit may be somewhat abbreviated. The grove has another guest, and I have a sneaking suspicion he is here for you.”

The grove stood on the prairie, but within the shade of the trees, the ground was quite uneven, rolling and heaving up in hills and valleys. They were smoothly rounded shapes, as there wasn’t much rock in this soil. Water helped define the shape of the land, rising up from springs and vanishing back into sinkholes. Long ago, these features had been carefully coaxed into being by fae craft from what had once been a flat stretch of prairie no different from that which surrounded it.

Most of the elves lived near one another, along a high bank of the widest stream in the grove. It rose almost three yards above the water, and was held in place by a line of mighty redwoods. Their homes were dug into the soil, using the root systems of the trees to define these spaces. Common areas for gathering, eating, and pursuing crafts and various tasks were built higher up, a network of platforms and bridges stretching between the branches. All of these were grown from the living wood; not one nail had been driven into one tree.

They returned to the central meeting space, a platform suspended between three redwoods which grew unusually close together, to find much of the tribe present, gathering around the new visitor. He was apparently human, wearing colorful silks and an improbable floppy hat which trailed a long peacock feather almost to his heels behind him. The man sat strumming a guitar, evidently waiting for them.

“There she is!” the bard said cheerfully, hopping to his feet when Trissiny stepped onto the platform, Lanaera right behind her. “My, but you’re looking well, Triss! I’ve never seen you so serene. I guess a little vacation time was pretty much called for after spending months with Eserites, eh?”

She studied him dispassionately for a moment, then glanced around at the assembled elves. Their demeanor was notable; the tribe hadn’t been this carefully aloof even when she and Schwartz had turned up unannounced. Usually, gatherings in this public spot were relaxed and full of talk. Now, the elves stood warily at a distance from the bard, watching. No hands went near weapons and no spells were held at the ready, but…still.

“Lord Vesk,” Trissiny said finally, bowing. “What can I do for you?”

“Straight to business, then,” Vesk said with a dramatic sigh. “Very well, I’ve dealt with enough Avenists to know better than to waste your time with banter.”

“And yet…” Lanaera murmured. Trissiny’s lips twitched.

“Trissiny Avelea,” Vesk intoned, suddenly with ostentatiously put-on grandiosity. “Hand of Avei, hero of the Pantheon, I hereby call you to perform a quest.”

She narrowed her eyes slightly. “When a bard says ‘hero,’ they mean ‘victim.’”

At that, he broke character to grin. “Well, look at you! And here everybody warned me you have no imagination. But you even quote stories to me! Granted, it’s just the Aveniad, but we can’t expect miracles.”

She stared at him, impassively.

“You must retrieve for me a key,” the god of bards continued, resuming his excessively solemn delivery when his jibe failed to get a response. “A very special key, which is scattered across the land in several parts. Its pieces must be gathered from the princess in her palace, the scoundrel in the shadows, the maiden in her tower, and the monster in its sepulcher.”

Silence reigned for long moments, while Trissiny studied the god through faintly narrowed eyes. Several of the onlooking elves were watching this exchange now with openly skeptical expressions, including Lanaera.

Finally, the paladin spoke. “Why?”

“Why?” Vesk’s eyebrows shot upward. “Why, she asks me? I come here, a freakin’ god of the Pantheon, to deliver a sacred charge, and the paladin asks me why. What happened to the dutiful soldier Avei raised, eh?”

“She grew up,” Trissiny said sharply, “thanks to some excellent guidance from friends of yours.”

“Yeah, well,” he replied, grinning, “if you’ve gotten this defiant, this quickly, you’ve been spending too much time with Eserion, y’ask me. A nice, old-fashioned quest’ll be just the thing you need to get all that out of your system!”

“Lord Vesk,” she said flatly, “I am glad to serve the gods toward a genuine need, or specific purpose. But you have a long history of sending people on long, convoluted errands for no reason except that you think the result will make for a good story. Yes, I was warned specifically about you, and not by Eserion. So if you can explain what you need this mysterious key for and why you need a mortal’s help to find it, I will be glad to help you. But if you’re just going to spout cryptic free verse, you can go find yourself another paladin.”

“Ah, well, as to that,” he said, his grin widening and taking on a degree of mischief that bordered on malice, “I already did. So, by the way, in addition to my quest, somebody really ought to go rescue those boys.”

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11 – 35

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Kuriwa had her breathing evenly and counting backward from one hundred with her eyes closed, while the droned a soft tune in elvish and did something magically that made the air feel warmer. Shamanic touches aside, the process was not unfamiliar. She had learned meditative techniques growing up, and more advanced ones since being called by Avei. It was the depth of this trance that was a new experience; the Sisterhood’s mental exercises were meant to still the mind, control the breath, heighten awareness of the body. Practical things. Deep inner journeys were not part of Avenist spirituality.

She never managed to count all the way to one, though. The world faded around her, senses dissipating into darkness. Then she faded, until there was nothing.

When the shaman, at last, gently prompted her toward what she had gone inward to seek, she was not there to hear it.

The door burst forcefully open, and a hooded shape stepped through.

“Excuse me!” The caravan master, a foppishly-dressed man with a heavily waxed mustache, strode toward the entrance of his rented stable, arms outstretched. “This area is only for circus personnel! Don’t worry, the animals will be caged in the main tent for two hours before the performance—you’ll have plenty of time to view them! Do you have your tickets already?”

He stopped, eyes falling to the sword in the shrouded figure’s hand. It was an old and unprepossessing blade, scarred from long use and never particularly decorative, but the leather gauntlet holding it was reinforced by a plate of gleaming silver. The figure’s other hand, similarly gloved, reached up to open the cloak’s throat clasp and tug the garment off, and the caravan master swallowed convulsively.

The slight widow’s peak of her thick black hair emphasized the angularity of her face, and suited the fierce expression in her dark eyes. Even that, though, was not what made him pause. He had never seen it in person, nor hoped to, but he knew what the tall woman’s silver armor signified. Everyone knew.

“Why, my lady,” he said smoothly, executing a grand bow. “We are greatly honored by your—”


He scrambled out of the way as she strode straight toward him, but she simply brushed past, heading toward the stalls at the opposite end of the stable without so much as glancing at the exotic beasts watching her from the improvised cages on both sides.

“Ah, your pardon, miss, ah, your, um…excellency,” the caravan master said, some of his bravado beginning to leak away. “The animals are only to be handled by specialized—”

“Shh.” A slim hand patted him on the shoulder and he jumped, whirling to face the new arrivals. The hand belonged to an elf, a man in a richly embroidered green robe, with raven-black hair tied back in a simple tail. Behind the elf walked a truly enormous horse, a heavy-hooved draft animal built like a stack of barrels, pure white and bedecked with more silver armor. “Best you keep a lid on it, friend, else you dig yourself deeper.”

“Rainwood!” the Hand of Avei barked. “Get over here!”

The elf made a sardonic face at the caravan master, then strode past him. The horse followed, pausing momentarily to aggressively snort in his face.

“It’s her,” the woman said softly, standing at the door of the stall. Inside stood a horse, a buckskin wearing a bridle and a heavy yoke such as would be attached to a plow. Both gleamed faintly with blue runes. The horse itself was even more remarkable, her coat a color akin to true gold rather than the tawny shade that gave buckskins their name. The black of her mane and tail, muzzle and legs, was true black, the color of a crow’s plumage, with peculiar highlights as if it, too, had thread of gold woven beneath the surface.

“Ohh, poor girl,” the elf whispered, sidling up beside her and reaching a hand into the stall. “Hello, Roiyary. It’s all right, pretty lady, we’ve found you. You remember me, right? And Dailah? We’re your friends.”

The mare had pressed herself against the back wall, head lowered and ears swiveling fearfully. She was thin, clearly ill-fed, her lustrous coat ragged. The unmistakable marks of a whip marred her flanks.

“Shastra is on her way,” the paladin said soothingly. “You must have known she’d come. We only got here first thanks to Rainwood’s spirit guides. Can you get those infernal things off her?” she added more sharply to the elf.

Rainwood narrowed his eyes. “Those are arcane, not infernal. Tricky…my craft could cause them to…well, explode.”

“Now, just a moment!” the caravan master blustered, striding toward them. “That horse is my property! I’m not interested in selling—”

He froze and fell silent the moment Dailah turned, aiming her sword at his heart.

“That horse,” she said icily, “is the summoned mount of the Hand of Omnu. You are holding a steed of the very Pantheon prisoner—and you have clearly abused her. If you wish to extract yourself from this situation alive, you will keep your mouth shut.”

“Whoah, wait a moment,” he said, waving his hands and not heeding the warning. “This is all news to me. If the mare really is—ah, of course, but I’ll take your word. I purchased her from a mage—”

“You had to know what a horse like this must be,” Rainwood said with his back to the man, still trying to coax Roiyary over to him. She simply stood, head hanging, as if too weary even to look at him. “It’s not impossible that a mage would do something as brazenly vile as this, but…you knew him?”

“I, ah…” The caravan master’s eyes darted back and forth, and he licked his lips. Meanwhile, the white draft horse came forward and nickered softly at Roiyary. She finally twitched her ears in his direction, lifted her head, and whickered in response. “Well, you know, one meets all sorts… But, ah, yes, of course, I trusted the man, otherwise I would never have accepted his assurance—”

“And you had no hint that he wasn’t actually a mage?” Rainwood asked with deceptive mildness, glancing over his shoulder. “Are you in the habit of buying stolen property from the Black Wreath?”

The caravan master seemed to finally find his spine. “Now, see here! I am a victim of a bad deal; I’ll not be accused of such evil doings!”

“And what of the evil doings we can plainly see?” Dailah asked flatly. “All these animals have been visibly mistreated.”

“Look, lady,” the caravan master snapped, the mask of servility falling away, “if you’ve a claim to the horse, fine, I’m not one to argue with the gods. Consider her my gift, and we needn’t even discuss the cost of her upkeep, which was considerable. But I’ll not be told how to run my business, clear? I don’t tell you how to round up cultists, so don’t—”

With a bellow of fury, the white horse suddenly whirled, forcing Rainwood to leap nimbly aside, and charged him. The caravan master squealed and tried to flee, but for such a bulky animal, the draft horse was remarkably nimble. He reared and brought down his front legs, bearing the caravan master to the floor and landing on him with a sickening crunch.

“Thank you, Arjen,” Dailah said mildly, patting her steed’s neck. Arjen snorted in disgust and shook his head.

“That’s not helping me calm her,” Rainwood noted dryly, glancing down at the caravan master, who was screaming all but non-stop, trying to clutch at the pulverized remains of his right leg, which was a mangled pulp starting just above the knee. Arjen was a tremendously heavy creature and had hooves the size of dinner plates. “And she’s going to need to be calm if you want me to pry this thing off—it’s going to be very dicey, unmaking those runes without detonating it.”

“Easily remedied,” Dailah stated, taking two steps forward and planting a booted foot on the caravan master’s throat.

“You couldn’t just leave me alone?” he shrieked, hunching forward and bracing his hands as if holding a large ball. Purple lightning flickered between them, and a second later a bruise-colored stain on the face of reality formed in his grasp and flashed forward.

She was more than capable of summoning a divine shield which could withstand such a blow, but she simply twisted her body, letting the shadowbolt flash past without sacrificing her footing. Her tactics were not the only departure from the tradition of the Hands of Avei; instead of the customary armor, she wore soft leather breeches, vest and shirt in the wood elf style, dyed dark gray, with over that a white tabard bearing Avei’s golden eagle.

“I was leaving!” the man snarled, hurling another shadowbolt. This one she calmly batted aside, her hand flashing gold as it impacted the infernal blast, which then careened harmlessly into the sky. The paladin continued coming forward at a slow walk which could hardly have been considered aggressive. “It was over! I don’t want any more trouble—I never wanted any of this! Why can’t you let it go?”

“Why’d you do it, Aross?” she asked quietly.

“YOU KNOW WHY!” He lashed out with a whip of pure darkness; Laressa held up her forearm, and the weapon coiled around it, blazing against a shield of divine magic. Then, with a series of retorts like corn popping, it sparkled away into nothingness, causing him to stumble backward. “She was my daughter!”

“And you couldn’t let that go?”

The scream he unleashed didn’t even pretend to be human. Aross gestured, and streaks of black fire burst out of the air above him, peppering her in an infernal storm.

This time, she did call upon the shield, continuing implacably forward. The destructive magic sparked and smoked, making not the slightest impact on the sphere of golden light surrounding her.

She waited for it to subside before speaking again, quietly.

“And how many sons and daughters should now be let go, so you can leave quietly?”

The warlock froze, staring at her, wide-eyed. Laressa just gazed back, her expression open and faintly sad.

He let his hands, half-raised in another gesture of conjuration, fall limply to his sides.

“No one was supposed to get hurt,” he whispered. “I just… I just wanted her back, Laressa. Was that so wrong?”

“No.” She shook her head. “Any father would, Aross. You made a pact with a greater throzkshnid. You know what he did with the access you gave him to the mortal plane. And then there’s your part of the bargain. Did you really think you could reach across the planes to the realm of the gods without consequence? You destroyed a valkyrie. Be glad Vidius does not call Hands.”

The warlock’s face crumpled, and slowly, he sank to his knees, his thin shoulders beginning to shake. The paladin simply kept coming forward at her slow pace, pausing only when she stood right before him. Aross, by that time, had buried his face in his palms, his body heaving with quiet sobs.

Laressa sighed softly, stepped around, and settled herself down to sit at his side.

Aross managed to compose himself slightly after a few more minutes. “She—Ariel. My little girl. You won’t—you won’t punish her for this?”

“For what?” Laressa shook her head. “She’s done no wrong. The shock of transition will take her time to cope with. Compared to the divine plane, this world may as well be Hell. The Izarites are quite optimistic about her progress, though. But yes, Aross, you got what you wanted. There’s every reason to think she will go on to lead as long and full a life as anyone.”

He nodded, staring at the ground before his bony knees and sniffling softly. After another long moment he scrubbed a hand across his face.

“I’m sorry.” The warlock swallowed heavily. “I…know it’s not worth anything. But I am.”

“I know you are, Aross.” She laid a hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently. “And it is worth something. I wouldn’t have bothered talking to you if I did not see the man you still are, under all your poor judgment and corruption. But this isn’t about you, anymore.”

He closed his eyes. “How many died?”

“Do you really want to know?” she asked with a sigh.

“Of course I don’t. But I… But I deserve to.”

“At least sixty.” He flinched, but she continued inexorably. “Raskthnod has been slain, but the cost was steep. And the thing that fallen valkyrie turned into proved at least as dangerous.”

He drew in a long, slow breath, then let it out. “I… I just… I could end it here. Easy enough to do, with my magic. Would…would that be enough? Would it make it right?”

“The man who killed Ariel perished before he could be brought to justice,” she said quietly. “Was that enough closure for you?”

Aross sighed again. “No. No, of course not. Of course you’re right. I…”

He trailed off, and after another long moment, Laressa squeezed his shoulder again, then stood. Aross lifted his eyes to her, and when the paladin offered him a hand, he clasped it, letting her pull him upright.

“Of course,” he said, scrubbing a sleeve across his eyes once more, then straightened his shoulders. “I understand. They all deserve justice. Let’s go.”

Jayanta jerked back on her blade, sending a pulse of divine power through it, and the links of the ak-tra shattered, fragments of sharpened metal flying in all directions. She was protected by her shield of divine light, but the headhunter was not so lucky.

Khraast howled in pain as her flesh was pierced in a dozen places by the shards of her own weapon. The orc reeled, stumbling to the ground. Groping blindly, her fingers closed around the haft of the spear she had dropped earlier in their fight. It was broken, now, but she held the end still tipped with a chipped obsidian blade.

The paladin’s boot slammed down on her fingers before she could bring it up, however. The snap of multiple bones in her hand was drowned out by her scream of pain. Khraast rolled toward her foe, but Jayanta kicked her viciously in the side, and then she could only curl up on herself, struggling to breathe.

Jayanta finally stepped back, staring down at her. Khraast lifted her eyes, glaring. For a long moment, the Hand of Avei and the last headhunter of the Rostnokh Clan simply regarded each other. Both were bruised, bloodied, sweat-slicked and breathless. But in the end, the paladin was still upright and holding her weapons, her injuries minor and already fading due to the torrent of golden light blazing from her. Khraast’s left knee was too damaged to hold her, her right hand was now a crushed ruin, and she was bleeding heavily from multiple deep wounds, most with fragments of her own ak-tra still buried in them.

This was decided, and they both knew it.

“So it is, then,” the orc rasped. “My clan is denied justice. I hope you take pride in this, paladin.”

“Justice?” Jayanta spat directly in her face. “You animals aren’t capable of grasping the concept. Your justice has been nothing but a trail of murder and destruction across the lives of all you encountered. Justice…is proportional.”

“Oh, spare me your thin righteousness. End it, if you have the stomach.”

She drew in a deep, long breath, squaring her shoulders. “You can only die once, Khraast. That wouldn’t be justice.” Jayanta stepped forward, a spear of pure light forming in her hand. “Justice you shall have, headhunter. You will live. As helpless as all your victims.”

The blade of the spear took Khraast’s left hand off cleanly, then blazed with divine power, healing over the wound before she could even scream. As the fallen headhunter gazed up at her victorious foe in horror, Jayanta let the spear vanish. An instant later, it coalesced again—this time as an enormous warhammer.

“No!” she gasped, trying to crawl away. She was in no shape to escape. Her left leg could barely be moved, and all her frantic kicking wasn’t enough to prevent Jayanta from bringing the hammer down again and again. Not every blow struck flesh, but she did not quit until both Khraast’s legs were broken in multiple places.

The paladin was now baring her teeth in an utterly savage expression of exhilaration. “If you humble yourself to beg,” she snarled, “perhaps I will leave you here to be finished by the coyotes. Othewise, you go back to Vrin Shai with me, to enjoy the long rest of your life.”

With that final pronouncement, she released the hammer, causing it to vanish, and threw out her hand, unleashing a directionless torrent of golden light. Healing energy washed over Khraast, knitting the flesh of her mangled legs and hand together—in their current, twisted state, bones shattered and misaligned.

Then, suddenly and utterly, the light vanished.

Jayanta stood, mouth open, looking frantically around her. The light surrounding her was gone—and so was her silver armor, leaving her in only her leather underarmor. Her sword and shield had disappeared.

“Wh—no! What have you done?!”


Golden light rose around them again, this time from the golden eagle of Avei which blazed in the sky above.


The sigil vanished, and with it, the light.

“No,” Jayanta whispered, staring wide-eyed at the sky. “No! NO! I WAS FAITHFUL!”

Despite everything, Khraast managed a hoarse, coughing laugh. “H-you…were right. Justice…is…proportional.”

Jayanta fixed her glare on the fallen orc, a snarl twisting her features. “Oh, really. Well apparently, justice is no longer my concern.”

She fell bodily upon her, hands clasping around the orc’s throat, and squeezed…

“Enough, Trissiny.”

Her eyes snapped open, and she looked around in confusion. It had been like a dream…like three dreams, herself only an observer with no body or single perspective. Now, though, she was herself again—in her armor. Though she couldn’t see her hair, she knew it would be its normal blonde.

They stood on the porch of a humble log house, facing an expanse of flat plain bordered by towering, jagged mountains. In the middle distance, a herd of wild horses thundered past.

“The memories of your past sisters aren’t normally accessible to you,” Avei said with a small smile. The goddess wore an Imperial Army uniform, lacking any insignia and clearly well-worn. “You can only see such things by reaching through your connection to them—which is me.”

“I’m sorry,” Trissiny blurted. “I would never disturb you over—”

Avei placed a hand on her shoulder, smiling. “I am not disturbed, Trissiny. Far from it. This quest of yours is part of the purpose I have in mind for you—to be a new kind of Hand. For that very reason, the past doesn’t hold the answer you need. Press forward, Trissiny; find a new path. The answer you need is already in you, not in ancient history. Seek in another part of your soul.”

Then she was walking along the plain, toward the horses, alone. A single step shifted the world around her—suddenly she stood in the mountains. The next step brought her into a golden prairie with tallgrass waving at her eye level, and with the next, she stood in an ancient forest.

There, she could walk forward, peering about at the cool green depths, listening to birdsong and the nearby sound of running water. The trees…

…were not trees. Glanced at carelessly, they were towering sentinels holding up the canopy high above, but when she looked closer at one, it was suddenly a wooden statue of an elf, carved in exquisite detail. If not for being wood, it could have been alive, so precise was it.

Trissiny studied the calm, narrow face of the woman for a long moment, then turned to study another tree. Under her direct gaze, it was also an elf.

She walked slowly through the grove, peering at each elf-tree as she passed. Something told her, even though the carved figures had none of the colors of life, that each of these individuals would have black hair.

Finally, she found a face she recognized. Principia’s wooden countenance was set in a rakish grin which looked quite comfortable on her features. In fact, a few of the elves she had passed wore similar expressions, which were rather at odds with the staid reputation that elves in general had. She stood, studying Principia for long minutes, but the statue had nothing to tell her, it seemed.

The next one was also a woman, this one with a more serious expression, garbed more traditionally in a simple dress. Hesitantly, Trissiny placed a fingertip on the woman’s wooden forehead.

The statue did nothing.

With a sigh, she shook her head and continued on.

“Who are you?”

Without alarm, she turned back, finding herself face to face with the last statue—now alive, fully colored, and staring at her with naked suspicion. A tomahawk was in the woman’s hand. And she did, in fact, have black hair, tied back in a practical braid not unlike her own.

“I’m…on a journey,” Trissiny replied vaguely. The answer seemed appropriate. She didn’t feel entirely…herself.

The elf stepped toward her, eyes narrowed. “You are…truly here. Why are you here?”

“What’s your name?” Trissiny asked. “Is there something you’re supposed to teach me?”

One corner of the woman’s mouth quirked sideways in a smile that was reminiscent of Principia’s. “I see. Child, these are dangerous magics you are meddling with. I don’t know what books you have been studying, but you should not venture into the dreamscape except under a shaman’s guidance.”

“I am under a shaman’s guidance,” Trissiny said. “I’m looking for an answer I supposedly already have but don’t know it.”

“Then you should look within,” the woman said firmly. “You are traveling, girl. This isn’t your mind.” She paused, glancing around. “Well…partly. But I am not a figment you created. My name is Lanaera. I am a shaman among my people, and I do not much care to have my own dreams encroached upon by random humans. How did you even find me?”

“I don’t…know.” Trissiny glanced around. This situation seemed like it ought to be rather upsetting, or at least exciting, but she felt a calm that verged on lethargy. “Kuriwa said…”

“Kuriwa!” The elf strode forward, grasping her by the shoulders. “Kuriwa sent you here?!”

“Avei said I was reaching through connections,” she mused absently. “I see… I guess I did it again. I’m sorry to have bothered you, ma’am. Since you seem to know more about this than I, is it possible you could help me go back?”

The elf was gazing at her, wide-eyed. She blinked once, then a smile blossomed on her features. “Kuriwa, and now Avei. Trissiny?”

“Yes, that’s me.” Finally, as if the elf’s touch was helping to ground her, the wariness she ought normally to feel in such unfamiliar surroundings began to rise. “Do I know you?”

“I should have known you,” the elf said, and to her amazement, pulled her forward into a hug. Trissiny just stood there in her grasp, uncertain what to do. It only lasted a few moments, though, then Lanaera pulled back, smiling at her in apparent delight. Her expression quickly sobered, though. “I see. You don’t recognize my name? Well…I suppose that should not be a surprise.”

“I’m sorry,” Trissiny said carefully. “Um…”

“I,” said Lanaera with a slightly sad smile, “am your mother’s mother. I am so glad to finally meet you, child.”

“Oh,” Trissiny said, blinking. “I, um… Wasn’t expecting this.”

Again, Lanaera smiled, and her expression was still sly and sardonic beneath its happiness. With that smile, the resemblance to Principia really stood out. “You should not stay here long—you are not prepared for this kind of traveling. Honestly, did you not follow your instructions?”

“I wasn’t given any instructions!” Trissiny protested. “She just… Helped me get here!”

“That unbelievable ass…” Lanaera rolled her eyes. “But that’s Kuriwa all over. Making everyone but herself do the maximum amount of work for any scrap of insight they seek. All right, listen. When you are able, please come visit me in the real world. My grove is close to the human settlement called Port Nonsense, in northeastern Calderaan Province. The nearest Rail terminal is in Saddle Ridge; you will have to travel overland from there. The Imperial road comes directly to the town, and the signs are clear. There are regular stagecoaches if you don’t have your own transportation.”

“Excuse me,” Trissiny said, frowning, “but did you say Port Nonsense?”

The shaman grinned. “It lies right on the edge of the Golden Sea; the first human settlers seemed to find the Sea’s name ironic. I have always enjoyed the joke. Trissiny…if you are going to mix yourself up with Kuriwa, there are things you should know. More things than I can tell you here. The fact that she sought you out—I assume you did not go looking for her—shows how important it is that you be forewarned.”

“I see,” Trissiny said slowly. “Well…thank you. Um, this may be awkward, but… I think I would appreciate even more some insight into Principia.”

Lanaera’s face fell into grim lines. “I see. You have…a relationship with her, after all this time?”

Trissiny heaved a sigh. “Well, I have refrained from punching or arresting her. Whether that’s a relationship…”

The elf chuckled bitterly, shaking her head and finally taking a step back. “It’s as much of one as she manages with most people. Yes, Trissiny, I would be glad to help you understand her…to the extent that I do. My daughter is not entirely her own fault. Some people simply should not have children. She is one… And unfortunately, so was I. Well, regardless. You will come see me?”

“I…” Trissiny hesitated only for a moment before nodding. “Yes, I will. I can’t say when, though. My time is not entirely my own.”

“Of course.” She smiled sadly. “I have known a number of paladins over the years. When you can, though. And I would advise you not involve yourself too closely with Kuriwa until you have learned more about her. She will not deliberately harm you, but she tends to lead people into…complication.”

“I don’t think I need any more of that,” Trissiny agreed fervently, earning another laugh.

“As glad as I am to finally meet you,” Lanaera said more seriously, “this place is not safe. I’m sure Kuriwa has laid protections over you, but brushing the dreams of other shaman like myself is the least of the risks in wandering here. This realm is used by the fae, and many of those will attack you on sight.”

“Wait!” Trissiny said. “I—I keep getting lost. First I reached out through Avei, and then this… I’m supposed to be looking inside for something.”

The shaman tilted her head. “What do you seek, Trissiny?”

“Reconciliation,” she said after a moment’s hesitation. “Yes, that’s the word. I am trying to broaden my skills beyond what Hands of Avei have used in the past—the world is growing too close and too complicated to just lash out with a sword anymore. I’ve been training with the Eserites, but…”

“Yes, I’ve met Eserites,” Lanaera said quietly. “If you meet the wrong one, it is easy to come away with a low opinion of the whole breed.”

“I’ve met a few very good ones,” Trissiny said with a sigh, “but some…who disturb me more than my encounters with the Black Wreath. And yet…”

“Why, in particular, did you seek them out?” the shaman asked. “I think your goal is extremely laudable, but the Thieves’ Guild seems a counterintuitive choice for an Avenist seeking to expand her horizons.”

Trissiny hesitated again before answering. “Well… There was a training exercise Professor Tellwyrn sent us on.”

“You really have stumbled upon the worst elven role models,” Lanaera murmured, shaking her head. “I’m sorry. Please go on.”

“We went into the Crawl, which I suppose you’re heard of. There’s a place down there which shows… Um, possibilities. I was never entirely clear on how it works. But it gave me a glimpse of who I would have been if I’d been raised by Principia. A thief, not a soldier. And… I left with a memory of her, of the woman I could have been. Her mindset, her attitude, the way she reveled in cleverness and had exactly the traits I’d need to contend with the Wreath and…and politicians in general, I’m finding. I can’t recall her skills, though.” She shrugged helplessly. “It was an example I had, one that was me, at least in a sense. I…guess I’m not making any sense, am I?”

“No,” Lanaera said thoughtfully. “No, in fact, this makes things much more clear. It does not mean the Guild is the best source for the knowledge you seek by far…but I can see why it would draw you, and this was not a wrong course of action. One must choose a starting point, after all. The Eserites, if you can learn to stomach what passes for their ethics, know exactly the skills you wish to learn.”

“That’s it in a nutshell,” Trissiny agreed, nodding. “And it’s my sticking point. I can’t get past…the things they do. Their attitude about it. And I can see what I came here to learn in some of them, but I keep being frustrated because they want me to be a warrior.”

“You are a warrior,” Lanaera said with a smile. “It’s not surprising they would perceive it. Thieves by nature are attuned to their surroundings.”

“But that’s not the point of this!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“I believe, now, that I understand,” the shaman said, regarding her with a gentle smile. “Well. I believe I can help you—somewhat more directly than Kuriwa. I do not share her philosophy that no one should have what they don’t earn in the most arduous manner possible. What you need, Trissiny, is a guide.”

“You can guide me?” Trissiny said, suddenly eager in spite of herself.

Lanaera shook her head. “Not to what you seek, granddaughter. But I can send you back within yourself, with some additional safeguards to prevent you from wandering free of your own soulscape again. Given the things to which your spirit is tied, it should hardly be surprising that you keep doing so. And more to the point, you already know the guide you need. Close your eyes.”

“Are you going to make me count back from a hundred?” Trissiny asked wryly, but did as she was told.

The elf let out a soft laugh. “No, that sounds like a measure to induce a trance. You’re already in one, child. Now…let me just give you a nudge.”

Her hand on Trissiny’s forehead was gentle and cool. Except that suddenly, it radiated a sense of enormous pressure.

“Be safe, granddaughter. Come see me when you are able.”

And then Trissiny was falling through blackness.

She landed in a crouch, sword and shield in her hands, and straightened slowly, peering around. This place she recognized. The huge octagonal chamber, the mist-filled hallways… This was the place in the Crawl which dragged fears out and held them up to the light.

“Oh, great,” she muttered.

“Well, it’s nice to see you too.”

Trissiny whirled to face the voice, reflexively raising her shield, but the girl now in front of her just grinned and stuck her hands in the pockets of her fitted longcoat.

“Oh, that’s a nice how-de-do. You came looking for me, remember?” Triss Locke winked at her. “So let’s see if we can’t get you straightened out, eh?”

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