“Schneider says the spirits are still severely agitated,” said Captain Antevid.
“My witch reports the same,” Major Luger said more stiffly, shifting her focus to the two serene-faced Elders. “Considering that, as well as all the developments we’ve seen here, you’ll excuse me if I’m not ready to consider this entire matter settled.”
“For each matter settled this day,” Shiraki replied solemnly, “seven more shall arise in the days to come. Thy wariness serves thee well, soldier-priestess. But there are matters, and then there are matters.”
“What he means,” Sheyann interjected as the Major’s eyebrows lowered precipitously, “is that it’s likely to be a long time before there is an overall settling. The fae spirits through which power and information are channeled are living, feeling things. But not, in all circumstances, thinking things. Given the stress to which they’ve been subjected, they will be agitated for some time to come. The situation is less like ripples from a stone dropped in water than… A large flock of birds whose nesting tree had been struck by lightning.”
“Evocative,” Antevid said approvingly.
Sheyann glanced at him before returning her attention to Luger. “With all due respect to your respective witches, whose competence I have no reason to doubt, Shiraki and I have practiced our craft longer than the traditions in which you trained have existed. We can assure you that the source of this disruption has been pacified. In time, the spirits will reach a new equilibrium.”
“Didn’t sound a hundred percent pacified to me,” Luger grunted. “Now we have no less than the assurance of a god that he means to keep doing this specific thing.”
“A more specific thing, in fact,” Sheyann clarified. “He means to subject devoted Shaathists to visions of wolf pack behavior, like the Ranger ritual to do the same. Every night in their dreams. While I’m sure there will be vast repercussions from that, it is an entirely different class of event from insistent howling from everywhere in the world every night, accompanied by agonizing spiritual urges in everyone connected to the fae. This is now explicitly a Shaathist problem; everyone else may breathe easily again.”
Luger pursed her lips, glancing to the side. The group of elves and Imperials had remained under the shade of the trees, with the exception of Rainwood, who had joined the group of Ingvar’s new pack. In addition to the recently-transformed group of people he had brought with him, there were the remaining spirit wolves, who showed remarkable equanimity in the presence of so many humanoids. The Shaathists and Rangers were sitting around Ingvar on the grass, their numbers now mixing together instead of remaining separated by faction as they had been before, while he spoke and answered questions in a quiet voice which forced them to listen closely.
“It is, of course, your privilege to proceed in whatever manner you think best,” Sheyann added in a tone of gentle reproof, “but I cannot imagine what reason you think I might have to deceive you, Major.”
“Don’t henpeck, Sheyann,” said Tellwyrn. “Not that I don’t have my issues with stuffy military types, but not blithely accepting the dictates of foreign nationals on a mission’s status is just a case of being good at her job.”
“Appreciate the validation, Professor,” Luger said sardonically.
“For my part,” Tellwyrn continued, “I do accept your recommendation. Gods know I have plenty of personal observation that you’re both the best out there at what you do. If what’s been injuring my students and staff is done, I need to get back to them.”
“Yes, of course,” Sheyann agreed, nodding deeply to her. “By the same token, we should return to our grove. Even with the source pacified, these events placed great stress upon our shaman, especially the young learners. Our guidance will be needed.”
Tellwyrn smiled lopsidedly, raising an eyebrow. “Well, then! Can I offer you a lift home?”
“The offer is, as always, appreciated, Arachne,” Sheyann said with wry fondness. “But as this is no longer an actual crisis, I believe we can do without having our molecules dismantled again. With our own blessings we can be home by tomorrow. I judge that, now, to be sufficient haste.”
“Don’t be absurd, you don’t disconnect the molecules,” Tellwyrn said seriously. “That’d never work, you’d rematerialize as so much mud. The entire package is converted to data and moved via fundamental entanglement.”
“Thank you,” Sheyann said, affecting deep and solemn gravity, “for correcting me.”
Tellwyrn grinned, glanced one last time over at Ingvar and his various wolves, and just like that was gone, leaving behind only a faint puff of air filling the space she had been.
“Well, there she goes,” Antevid said lightly. “Before you also vanish, Elders, the Empire appreciates all your help. I’ll make sure ImCom knows the elves from Sarasio are good neighbors when the need arises.”
She inclined her head politely to him before turning to Shiraki, who was facing the clearing now. “Well, then, shall we?”
He answered softly in elvish, still watching Ingvar’s impromptu teaching session. “The restorative work should be minor; mostly, everyone will just need rest. Would you forgive me if I left it for you to handle, Sheyann?”
Sheyann turned fully to face him, replying in the same language. “You are right, and I would. What are you thinking, Shiraki?”
“I think,” he said, slowly and pensively, “I would like to stay, for a while, with this Ingvar and his…pack.”
“We are in the midst of a great general upheaval,” she reminded him. “As much as we butt heads, times of transition are when traditions and the conservative voices who speak for them are most important. This is an awkward moment for you to go tauhanwe.”
He gave her a sidelong smile. “A wise shaman bends with the wind; a fool demands that it part around him. I have made my case against involving ourselves with the world and others with our business, but that time has passed. And in truth, events have shown me that I was misguided.” Shiraki returned his focus to the group in the glade; Ingvar had beckoned one of the luminous spirit wolves to his side, and now had an arm around the creature’s neck in a light embrace, continuing to talk to his followers both established and new. “It is fatal to ignore what is happening in the wider world. And this, Sheyann, is happening. Someone should be watching where it goes. Not to mention that these puppies could perhaps benefit from the perspective of an Elder. Or do you really want Brother Ingvar to forge a new Shaathism with Rainwood as his only source of shamanic wisdom?”
That brought a soft laugh from her.
“I don’t suppose you speak elvish?” Lugar asked Antevid.
“It’s on my to-do list,” he said.
“Spirits gather,” Shiraki said abruptly in Tanglish. “Attend, something is—”
Ingvar had stepped away from the wolf next to him, and a pale glow coalesced upon him of light drawn seemingly from nowhere; it resembled the visible effect of shadow-jumping, but with moonlight instead of darkness. Like a shadow-jump, it dissipated immediately, leaving behind the great form of a white spirit wolf bearing an arrow mark on his face where the hunter had stood.
“What?” Antevid exclaimed, though softly. The rest of his team stepped forward to stare. “We just fixed that!”
Shiraki glanced at him, raising an eyebrow. “We?”
There was a similar reaction from the onlookers closer to the action, with many of the assembled humans scrambling backward. The other spirit wolves were unperturbed, however, and the rest of those who had previously been transformed all straightened up in unison, frowning as if suddenly considering a surprising new thought. Rainwood had bounded to his feet, and was now peering rapidly between Ingvar and the others in confusion.
The white wolf himself raised his head, turning to face the west with his ears alert. While the humans muttered among themselves, the wolves watched him closely.
Shiraki lightly touched Sheyann’s upper arm once, then walked forward into the glade at a serene pace.
Before he reached the group, the light coalesced again and left Ingvar once more restored to human form. He stood upright, still facing west with his eyes narrowed in concentration, but after a second jerked backward in surprise, blinking. The Huntsman turned to look at Aspen.
“Did I just…?”
“Yeah,” the dryad replied. “What I wanna know is how you did that?”
“Yeah, me too,” Rainwood added.
“Do you think we can all…?” November trailed off, turning to Rainwood, who shrugged.
“Sure am glad we’ve got this shaman here to share his understanding of the currents of magic,” Taka said solemnly.
“A transformation which cometh without will or warning is one triggered by outside effect,” said Shiraki as he paced into the group. Everyone turned to regard him, the gathered Rangers and Huntsmen shuffling aside to clear a path for the elf to Ingvar, who had fixed his full attention on him immediately. “The magic, it is clear, lies within thee, only the reaction was to another source. It may be that thou canst gain conscious control, but then, it may not. Thy circumstance is mingled of the powers of gods and fae, young hunter. Thou shalt learn more as must we all: through time and experience.”
“That’s very helpful, Elder, thank you,” Rainwood drawled.
Shiraki paused, turned to him, and spoke calmly in elvish. “I am neither Kuriwa nor the Elders of your home grove who tried to douse your spirit, young man. If you cannot direct your petulance elsewhere, please keep it leashed while we are trying to sort out matters of life and death.”
He returned his gaze to the now-bemused Ingvar, switching back to his archaic Tanglish. “Recall thy mind in the moments before it came over thee, Brother Ingvar. I saw no craft at work in this place, felt only the spirits around thee responding to a call from within.”
“You think if we can identify what caused it, we can learn whether it can be controlled?” Ingvar nodded slowly, his expression pensive.
“Perhaps,” said Shiraki. “Tis the first step, regardless. Though the Huntsmen are no ascetic creed, thou art trained at least somewhat in the arts of the mind. Still thy thoughts, feel thy breath, and seek back within to that moment, ere the memory fades.”
Ingvar nodded again and his expression turned inward, though he did not close his eyes. Everyone around grew still as well, watching him closely; Rainwood followed suit after a last, lingering scowl at Shiraki. The Elder, for his part, kept his gaze fixed on the contemplative Huntsman, though he did not fail to take note of the demeanor of this group of mixed Huntsmen and Rangers, the way they hung on his every word and now even on his silence, waiting for him to unravel another mystery for him. Though Shiraki had not spent overmuch time among humans in a handful of centuries, he had seen no shortage of heralds, prophets, teachers and charismatic troublemakers during his long life. They were a significant part of why he had not encouraged human visitors to his home grove.
What followed this, if it did not fizzle out abruptly, would affect the course of the world for great good or ill. Another reason it needed a guiding hand. If his people could no longer afford to ignore human progress, perhaps they should take part in shaping it.
“There was…a scent,” Ingvar said slowly, his eyebrows drawing together in concentration. “Except…not a scent. I feel,” he added, focusing on Shiraki’s face, “like the sensation was partly an effect of my mind trying to parse something for which it did not have terms or context.”
Shiraki nodded. “Thus is ever the way of those who reach beyond their ken; when not done in recklessness, tis a valued tool by which the shaman man perceive more of the world. Didst thy mind sense an ineffable touch whilst in the form of the wolf, tis likely ‘twould reach thee as a smell.”
“Then…you think it was a remembered scent, Elder?” he asked. “Something that would bring back the form of the wolf?”
“Scent is a powerful key to memory,” Shiraki agreed, nodding, “and memory a powerful key to an altered state, if it be one thou hast attained ere now. Mind, also, that thy powers are now granted at the behest of they god. If more gifts art thou granted, ’twill be for use in his service. Canst thou give a name to this smell?”
“Evil,” said Aspen before Ingvar could answer. “I remember it. While we were first in the wolf dream, that was the part where it started to go wrong.”
“I remember, too,” said Rainwood, frowning. “That was the tipping point. I was guiding their vision, but something reared up and sent them into a fury.”
“Well, that’s a little reassuring, I guess,” Tholi noted. “Here I was thinking you’d just done the ritual wrong.” Rainwood turned a scowl on him, but Dimbi barked a laugh.
“Peace,” Ingvar said, his voice firmly cutting off the burgeoning byplay. “I thank you, Elder, for your insight. This all makes perfect sense. While we must contend with the corruption existing within the cult of Shaath, that is simply a thing to be dealt with, not the reason we are called together. These events, this quest, cannot all have been for the sake of making politicians of us. Servants of the wild god are called to protect his realm. And something threatens it. As if…”
He raised his head again, narrowing his eyes in concentration, and the light gathered again. This time, Ingvar’s transformation into the white wolf brought murmurs from his audience, but no further panic.
The outcries began again, though, when there ensued another flash and where November had been sitting there was suddenly a golden spirit wolf with wing marks on her shoulders. The other members of the pack, those who had been normal gray wolves before the transformation and not changed back, stood and paced forward to join her and Ingvar; all of them were staring away to the southwest.
Ingvar growled once, and took a single step in that direction.
Swiftly but smoothly, Shiraki glided forward to block his path. “Patience, young wolf,” the Elder remonstrated. Ingvar straightened up, his ears perking forward in attention. “If evil rises, it must be answered, and shall be. Yet thou must not yield thy mind to instinct. Only with time will mastery come, but thou must gain a basic understanding of this gift before thou canst use it in the hunt. Rainwood and I shall lend our craft to thy aid. Attend, now.”
Some yards distant, under the trees, Major Luger turned to her fellow team leader while Shiraki continued calmly instructing the mingled wolves and humans. “Did you notice he was pointed in the same direction they were going when they got here?”
“Mm hm,” Antevid murmured, nodding. “Right at Ninkabi. Maehe’s from there.” Lieutenant Agasti pressed her lips into a thin line but offered no comment.
Luger nodded once in return. “I’m going to report all of this to field command while there’s a lull. I’d like you to stay on this group, Captain. This all looks calmer, but…not settled.”
“Do you actually think they can smell evil from halfway across the province?”
“These things are brand new, Antevid; we have no frame of reference for what they can do. All we know is they were set this way by a god of the Pantheon. And on that subject, ‘evil’ in the context of paladins and such usually refers to either demons or undead.”
“Ah, I think I follow you, Major. If they are going after a real target, not only is it important to verify their capabilities, but it’ll be a good idea to have some troops present in event of…evil.”
“I was more thinking I’ll feel better about this pack of madness charging into an Imperial city if they have a military escort.”
“That, too,” he said sagely.
“Thank you again, Elder, for your help,” Luger said politely to Sheyann. “Fall in, and take us out.”
Shadows coalesced around them, and they were gone.
While Antevid gathered his own team together, Sheyann continued to watch and listen as Shiraki walked Shaath’s new pack through the basics of a blessing that might unlock whatever potential their god had granted them.
“Natchua, un moment, s’il vous plait?”
“Sure,” Natchua said agreeably, then her eyebrows drew together. “Oh. Did you mean in private?”
Xyraadi hesitated, glancing rapidly around at the others. Though Sherwin and Melaxyna were absent, most of the household was in the manor’s broken great hall, where Jonathan and the hobgoblins were installing new floorboards. Natchua was perched on what remained of the stairs, watching, while Hesthri sat above and behind, gently kneading her shoulders with the fortified gloves covering her claws. Even Kheshiri was there, perched atop a ruined column with her wings spread to ruffle in the breeze, watching everyone as superciliously as a cat.
“No, I don’t think it will be a problem,” Xyraadi finally answered. “I am sorry to distract you, that’s all.”
Natchua smiled and leaned back against Hesthri, who in response shifted forward, pausing her massage to drape one arm around the drow’s neck and shoulders from behind. “No worries. What’s on your mind?”
“I would like to make a quick jump back to Ninkabi,” Xyraadi said seriously. “There’s something important I want to discuss with Mortimer.”
“I see,” Natchua murmured. “Well. Thank you for letting me know, but you don’t require my permission, Xyraadi. Just be careful. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what’ll happen if somebody spots a khelminash wandering about.”
“I hardly plan to wander,” she retorted with a wry smile. “Actually, I wished to inform you before going because I think this may be important. One of my wards near Second Chances was triggered, and I sent a pulse through it to see what happened. Natchua, I clearly detected the dimensional warping caused by a one-sided casting of an incipient hellgate in four places near the club.”
Natchua straightened up, as did Hesthri. Jonathan turned from the horogki to watch them, frowning and letting the hammer dangle from his hand.
“How certain are you?” Natchua asked.
“I am very confident of my spellwork, but this result is so…so very strange, I will not assume anything until I have looked more closely. You know as well as I that our infernal methods of divination are deeply imperfect. But Natchua, it is worse than that. To verify, I pulsed every ward of mine still intact around the neighborhood. I found no less than twelve such sites in Ninkabi, just in the relatively small area I was watching over. If these are hellgates, and if they are in the same concentration everywhere, there is nearly one per city block. Just waiting for someone on the other side to activate them.”
Natchua stood, gently caressing Hesthri’s arm while removing it. “Kheshiri, get down here.”
The succubus immediately launched herself into space, swooping down to land gracefully on the floor nearby. Jonathan also wandered over, and even the horogki paused in their work, watching the conversation unfold.
“Your team in Ninkabi was pursuing some kind of necromantic cult, right?” Natchua asked.
“Every word of that carries an implied ‘allegedly,’ but yes,” Kheshiri replied with a little smirk. “I know nothing of any hellgates, but the Tide did use shadow-jumping when we encountered them in Tiraas. They also summoned a few highly sophisticated undead constructs, and most of them were hopped up out of their gourds on some kind of alchemy. It seemed like mostly a horde of disposables under the command of a few people with magical skill.”
“Some of which, at least, was infernal,” said Natchua.
The succubus shrugged. “Shadow-jumping and dimensional mechanics are wildly different fields of study. Although…”
“Yes?” Natchua prompted impatiently when she trailed off.
“Well, this is conjecture, but both are only infernal-adjacent.”
“She is correct about that,” Xyraadi agreed. “Shadow-jumping uses only minor infernal craft in conjunction with shadow magic, and a dimensional portal of any kind is made through universal principles that are far easier to make with arcane than infernal methods.”
Natchua narrowed her eyes. “So…a mystery cult whose magical approach consists of dabbling in multiple fields could well be capable of both.”
“Conjecture,” Kheshiri repeated, “but yes, sure. Honestly, not to question Xyraadi’s skill, which I’m sure is impressive, I highly doubt whatever she detected were actually hellgates.”
“Ah, oui?” Xyraadi folded her arms and raised an eyebrow. “You have some deeper insight than I, after all?”
“Down, girl,” Kheshiri said, raising her hands in surrender even as she grinned. “My specialty is people, not magic, and the Tide are Justinian’s.”
“You’re sure of that?” Jonathan demanded.
“Well, the evidence is circumstantial, but pretty overwhelming. There is no record or trace of these assholes anywhere, which means they were trained in total isolation. Doing that with a drugged-up, highly equipped, well-disciplined secret cult capable of the kinds of maneuvers they’ve pulled would require a lot of resources. In the Empire, basically the only bodies capable of pulling that off are the Church, or the Empire itself, and last time I actually saw these guys, they were trying to assassinate the Emperor. So yeah, that’s Justinian. He’s not gonna open a bunch of hellgates in a major city.”
“If something like that happened,” Melaxyna said, emerging from the shadowed doorway to the hall, “not only would the Silver Throne lose an enormous amount of credibility for its failure to prevent it, but the cults and the Church would gain a great deal of position as they would definitely be called on to counter a demon invasion. Historically, Archpopes are a mixed bag, and I’m pretty recently free of Arachne’s charming little oubliette. Is this Justinian ruthless enough to do such a thing?”
A chilled silence fell.
“He’s… Well, yeah,” Kheshiri finally answered, speaking slowly as if contemplating while she talked. “Justinian is admirably unencumbered by scruples. But it’s not his style. Trust me, I’ve been working for this guy for the last two years, and he’s all about control. Every detail just so, with himself pulling every string from out of sight. A bunch of hellgates is the opposite of a controlled situation.”
“So you see,” said Xyraadi, turning back to Natchua, “I must go to Ninkabi. To do my own investigation, to ask Mortimer if he knows anything of this, and warn him if he does not.”
“Yes, quite right,” Natchua said briskly. “I’d like to come along, if you don’t mind.”
“Actually,” Natchua added, “and I can already feel myself regretting this… Kheshiri, you know the situation on the ground. You come, too.”
The succubus grinned, and the explosion of delight in her aura was convincing. Not so much that Natchua didn’t feel the need to add a warning.
“My patience for antics from you is zero,” she stated, leveling a finger at Kheshiri’s face. “One wrong move…”
“Mistress, it’s me,” she purred. “I don’t make wrong moves. I guarantee you will be nothing but pleased with my performance in action.”
Again, the currents of emotion Natchua could read in the spells that made up her body and aura seemed to agree; there was eagerness, fondness, and a thin spike of ambition. It altogether felt more like happiness at the prospect of climbing in Natchua’s estimation than anticipation of some trickery. That did not mean she could relax her guard around the demon, though.
She glanced sidelong at Melaxyna, who she could likewise read, though not so clearly. She hadn’t spent nearly as much time examining those currents of magic, and besides, her pact with Mel was less formal and less coercive, which seemed to have an effect. At the moment, Melaxyna’s aura appeared wary, as it always did around the other succubus, though her expression was calm.
“All right. Xyraadi, if you would handle the jump, please? You are more familiar with the city than I.”
“Not by much—it is not as if I went sight-seeing. But I shall be glad to.” Xyraadi smiled and raised both hands in one of the grand but unnecessary gestures she liked to make when spellcasting. “Brace yourselves, ladies.”
“Be careful,” Jonathan said quickly as they clustered together.
“We’ll look after everything here,” Hesthri added.
Natchua gave them both a warm smile, then shadows swelled and they were gone.
It was hidden away in a culvert, where the constant damp had done the arrangement of bones and already-rotting meat no favors. The whole construction looked on the verge of collapse, or would have had there been anyone to see it. This supremely out of the way location served its purpose, however; the altar had not been found by anyone since being placed there. This close to the waterline, with Ninkabi itself rearing up from the top of the canyon high above, no one would even come here except city maintenance crews, and not only were none scheduled, their activities had been significantly scaled back due to a serial killer being loose in the city.
As such, there was also no one to see the faint trembling in the prominent rib bones poking upward from the construct, or the subtle flexing of nothing in the air above it, as though something were making an indentation upon reality itself.
The altar shivered.
A pale blue glow gathered in reflections upon the inside of the culvert, accompanied by the rapidly approaching sound of slapping feet upon the walkway outside. She skidded around the corner, the arcane bolt already formed around her hand; one abrupt gesture hurled it forward.
The bolt was overkill for this particular task; the altar was reduced to fragments and droplets by the impact, and a jagged hole blasted through the culvert itself.
She almost doubled over, panting, and then sank to the damp ground, letting her ax handle clatter on the stone as she leaned back against the wall to catch her breath. Running had not done her already disheveled appearance any favors; the homeless girl’s hair was plastered down with sweat.
Soon enough, in fact before she fully recovered her breath, she straightened, picked up the shaft of wood, and made a swirling gesture with her free hand. A wisp of green light sparked to life above it, bobbing in space for a moment before zipping off around the corner.
The girl sighed, but immediately set off after the wisp as it led the way to the next one.