Tag Archives: Mary the Crow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?” the succubus demanded, hands clenching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh?” Jonathan asked warily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So that’s where he got it from!”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“I didn’t—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why’s it always me?” he complained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks. All of you.”

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

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

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15 – 2

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“This has been a long time coming,” Darling said with a forgivable touch of grandiosity, “but we are finally here. I realize that in the end I hardly ever sent you all to do much of anything, but my relatively few requests were the sort of carnage that gets more sensible people than us killed, and you handled them all with skill and aplomb.”

“Even the one that ended with my wand in your face?” Joe said innocently.

“I learn to put those little things behind me,” Darling replied, winking. “I’ll be honest, guys: in the beginning I did toy with the idea of drawing out the process of getting your secrets from the Chamber of Truth, just to have access to your skills longer. Events rendered that moot, however. It has taken me this damn long to drag answers out of those hilariously frustrating gadgets on the amount of time per week I was able to devote to it without rousing suspicion from the Archpope. Anyway, here we are. I apologize for the delay, and have been well pleased with your end of the bargain. As of this, we’re square.”

In the brief pause which followed, Price stepped forward from the corner of the parlor in which she had been standing with a silver tray balanced on one hand. Upon it, resting on a lace doily, were five sealed envelopes. The Butler now stepped forward and began to hand them out to the five of them.

“That begs the question,” McGraw drawled, “what next?”

“Aye, it’s been a fair while since we’ve heard a peep outta Justinian or ‘is crew o’ reprobates,” Billie added. “D’ye think he’s given up on that plan o’ his, to recruit an army of adventurers? Cos I can’t ‘elp noticin’ you an’ he both stopped at five each.”

“His Holiness hasn’t deigned to discuss that with me in any detail in some time,” Darling said with a slight frown, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the arms of his chair. “I’m still involved in some of his more sensitive operations, and while he does an admirable job of keeping his various plots separate from each other, I can read between the lines. Thumper and that milquetoast Vannae can’t be much of a challenge to handle, but the succubus and the assassin are both the kind of crazy that starts climbing the walls if not kept constantly entertained. And Khadizroth, from what I’ve learned of him, is exactly the same kind of mind Justinian is.”

“Yes,” Mary agreed quietly, steepling her own fingers. “Charismatic, a natural leader and long-term planner. I have managed to learn almost nothing of his progress while upon Justinian’s leash, but I know him. He will have been, at the very lest, vying for control of that adventurer group, and likely trying to gain some influence among Justinian’s other followers.”

“Right,” Darling nodded, “so in short, those people are inherently less stable than you lot, and also being kept under wraps. Which means managing them has to be a constant nightmare. It doesn’t surprise me much that Justinian has held off on expanding that program. What it does tell me is that he has plans for them still, otherwise he’d have cut his losses long ago.”

“Funny thing about that guy,” McGraw mused. “I’ve crossed wands with all manner of corrupt, powerful bastards, but I don’t think I’ve ever met one who was so much more eager to kill off his own servants than his enemies.”

“Wait, he what?” Billie tilted her head, one ear twitching and the envelope dangling unopened in her hands. “Did I miss something?”

“Elias visits me socially,” Darling said pointedly. “We swap stories. Yeah, you’ve missed some details, but that is definitely one of Justinian’s patterns. At this point I think half the people still in his organization are just there trying to work out what exactly it is he’s up to in the long term. He’s too sly and too capable to be doing the kind of inane chapbook-villain nonsense it looks like he is.”

Price cleared her throat softly, still holding out the last envelope to Mary, who had been ignoring it. At that, the elf glanced over at the Butler, then returned her stare to Darling.

“Thank you, Price, but I think I would rather hear my answer orally.”

“As the actress said to the bishop,” Billie chimed, her eyes now on the contents of her own envelope.

“Is this another of your amusing little games, Mary?” Darling asked in his driest tone. “Did Joe ever tell you guys about the time she drugged us into a surprise vision quest?”

“It was the Rangers doin’ the drugging, to be fair,” Joe added. “But yeah, her idea. All due respect, ma’am, these mysterious antics are less charming than you seem to think.”

“I have never found much utility in charm,” Mary replied placidly.

“We know,” Weaver snorted, scowling at his own letter.

Darling sighed, then shrugged. “Well, if you want. Our dear Ms. The Crow asked for an answer from the oracles on how to finally achieve vengeance against the Tiraan Empire for its crimes against her kin.”

“What?” Joe exclaimed. “Why is that something you wanna hash out in front of everybody?”

“Obvious, innit?” Billie replied cheerfully. “She wants ta watch an’ see whether any o’ us might care t’jump in an’ help ‘er with it! I’ll tell ye straight up, Mary, I’m not gonna shift me bum to protect the Silver Throne, but I also ain’t lookin’ ta start a scrap with it. Empire’s a big ol’ nuisance of an enemy, one I can do without.”

“Ain’t like any of us are renowned for our Imperial patriotism,” McGraw chuckled. “Well, I confess, now my own curiosity’s piqued.”

Mary smiled thinly, still gazing at Darling.

“Right,” he grumbled. “See if I ever spend time writing you a carefully-worded letter again. Well, the short version is, you can’t.”

Slowly, she raised one eyebrow.

“And for your edification,” he continued, pointing at her, “you are the reason this took so damn long. Because I knew that answer wouldn’t satisfy you, so I kept digging. Have you ever tried to drag answers out of an oracle after it told you to bugger off?”

“Yes, in fact,” she said, raising both eyebrows now. “I confess, Antonio, you impress me. That is a significant achievement, for a non-practitioner.”

“Well, I could’ve told you what the oracles told me in the first place if you’d just asked,” he sighed. “Your whole problem is that you are too late. The Empire that wronged you is gone. What was built after the Enchanter Wars uses a lot of the same iconography as the Tiraan Empire that existed before it, and deliberately claims that shared history to give itself legitimacy, but it’s not even remotely the same thing. The old Empire was an absolute monarchy; the new one is a feudal aristocracy with—though the Throne will deny it—a lot of characteristics of a republic in how its bureaucracy is structured. Hell, it’s just political happenstance the capital is in the same place; there was a real chance of the Silver Throne itself moving to Onkawa near the end of the war. In short, lady, you took too long and blew your chance.”

“And,” she said quietly, “is that the answer it has taken you all these months to extract?”

“No, that answer is actually somewhat instructive, though honestly I don’t think it’s any more useful.” He shook his head. “The oracles finally yielded two possibilities for you to pursue, and interestingly enough, both are the same one: take it up with Arachne Tellwyrn.”

“Oh?” Mary prompted in a calm tone that made everyone else in the room edge warily away from her. Everyone but Price, and Weaver, who was glaring at his letter as if oblivious to everything else happening.

“First option,” said Darling. “Not one that would’ve occurred to me personally, though after a lot of pestering the Book of All Tales finally spat it out. In some older cultures there are entire codes of how to seek vengeance—”

“Don’t Eserites have a code on that, too?” Billie interrupted.

“Yes, and the Eserite advice is in most cases ‘don’t.’ But as I was saying, there is an idea in several ancient creeds that if you are robbed of your revenge by someone killing your target first, you can satisfy the demands of honor by killing that person instead. In your case, Mary, it happens that the person who killed Emperor Avrusham and ended the Ravidevegh Dynasty is still alive.”

“Arachne,” Mary said in a flat tone, “exists in a constant state of needing to have her ears boxed, but she has done nothing for which I would seek her death. And I certainly will not be manipulated into attacking her by the whispers of an old book.”

“That’s a relief to hear,” McGraw drawled. “I don’t think the continent would survive you two goin’ at it for serious.”

“As the actress—”

“Come on, Billie, every time?” Joe interrupted in exasperation.

“And what is this second piece of advice that also points to Arachne?” Mary asked.

“Even sillier,” Darling said, grimacing. “Time travel.”

Everyone turned to frown at him.

“What’s that got to do with Tellwyrn?” McGraw asked.

“Hell if I know,” Darling replied with a shrug. “It raises some intriguing questions, doesn’t it? But that’s what the ruby mirror, the gong of Guan Sho, and the oracular koi all pointed to. Since your chance for revenge is in the past, if you want to achieve it, you must go into the past. And for some damned reason, Tellwyrn’s who you should ask about that.”

“Probably has an in with Vemnesthis,” Weaver grunted, still frowning distractedly at the letter that had been in his envelope. “Her main project for three thousand years was getting an audience with every god there is, and since she eventually stopped it to found the University, apparently she got ’em all. It really wouldn’t surprise me if Arachne was the only living person who could actually talk to the Scions and not get press-ganged or murdered.”

“I see,” Mary murmured, finally lowering her eyes to stare distantly at the low table between them. “…thank you, Antonio. You are right, it is not a satisfying answer. But I respect the effort to which you went in obtaining it. I consider your end of our bargain upheld. In truth…I suppose there is no satisfying answer.” An ironic little smile quirked at her lips, and she lifted her gaze to meet Darling’s again. “A friend told me not long ago that I need to grow up. Perhaps this is confirmation.”

“Aren’t you, what, ten thousand bloody years old?” Billie demanded.

“Less than five, thank you.”

“Oh, aye, a real spring chicken, you are.”

“Jenkins,” Weaver said abruptly, standing up. “A word?”

“Uh…sure,” Joe replied slowly. “You mean in private? I guess so,” he muttered belatedly, rising and following the bard, who was already out of the room. “Scuze us, folks,” he said at the door, turning and nodding to them.

Weaver had retreated all the way to the foyer, where he was standing with his hands jammed in his coat pockets, the rumpled letter half-emerging from one. At Joe’s arrival, he turned from staring out the window by the door.

“I need your help.”

“Oh?” Joe tilted his head. “This have somethin’ to do with your…answer?”

“You mentioned when we first met that you’ve traveled to the center of the Golden Sea,” Weaver said almost curtly.

“With Jenny, yeah,” Joe nodded.

“And I’m given to understand that the center can only be reached by someone who has already been there. Or, apparently, someone traveling with them.”

“That’s what Jenny told me…” Joe narrowed his eyes. “Okay, hold up.”

“I realize you do all right for yourself financially,” Weaver said, his eyes cutting to the large piece of tiger’s eye gleaming in Joe’s bolo tie, “but whatever your price—”

“Now hang on a second, I’m followin’ this trail back to its source,” Joe interrupted, holding up one hand. “Lemme see if I’ve connected these dots right. You need to get to the center of the Sea for some reason, where there is a gigantic, permanent dimensional rift which I know has properties no hellgate or portal does, since Jenny could use it to leave this entire reality. I distinctly remember when Darling was first pitchin’ this devil’s bargain o’ his he said you were lookin’ to spit in a god’s face. And it occurs to me that you’ve got some kinda complicated relationship with a valkyrie, who is not supposed to be on the physical realm by edict of Vidius. I add those things up and the sum is big trouble.”

Weaver inhaled slowly and deeply through his nose, then just as slowly let the breath out. When he finally spoke, his tone was taut but even. “Yes, I suppose it’s all fairly obvious to someone who has the requisite amount of sense. And credit where it’s due, you’ve got more than the minimum, Jenkins. Look, I…don’t know what to say to persuade you. It’s not like I’ve gone out of my way to be friendly up till now. This is the one thing in life I am most determined to achieve, and if what I’ve just learned is correct, you are the one person in the world who can help me do it. The only person who has ever been to the center of the Sea. There’s nothing I won’t pay to secure your aid.”

“Weaver, I’m not tryin’ to gouge you, here,” Joe said, frowning. “This ain’t about money, or payment of any kind. What I gotta debate with myself is whether I wanna spit in a god’s eye. An’ quite frankly, I’m havin’ a hard time findin’ an angle to come at that question that doesn’t end up at ‘no.’”

“There is a heavily moderating factor, if you consider with a bit more care, Joseph,” Mary said smoothly, gliding into the foyer.

Weaver threw up his hands. “Aaaand there she is. I dunno why I even bothered to try and have a private conversation.”

“Yeah, I don’t either,” Darling said from the hall behind Mary. “Give her some credit, she’s the only eavesdropper not trying to be surreptitious. Well, this is none of my business, so I’m gonna visit the kitchen and put together a sandwich. You guys want anything?”

“Y’got any beer?” Billie’s voice piped up from just around the corner.

“The hell kind of establishment do you think I’m running, here?” Darling demanded in an affronted tone. “Of course I’ve got beer.”

“Your previous excursion into the heart of the Sea was at the behest of your friend Jenny,” Mary continued while Darling puttered off to the kitchen and McGraw and Billie crept around the corner, the old wizard at least having the grace to look abashed. “A creature known elsewhere as the Shifter. Were you aware that she has often been associated with Vesk?”

“She has?” Joe frowned. “When? Where?”

“Jenny Everywhere is mentioned obliquely in a number of old stories,” Mary replied, glancing at Weaver. “Going back…a very long way. To my knowledge she has not been directly connected to Vesk. But any being who pops up in multiple unconnected sagas will eventually raise the question of how she is related to the god of bards. And now, one of Vesk’s bards has a need to visit the Golden Sea, to achieve an end of great personal importance to him. Now that he knows this, it also turns out that an established acquaintance of his is the one person who can lead him there.” She smiled and blinked slowly, an expression that made her look remarkably like a pleased cat. “And your ability to do so is the direct result of…given the circumstances, let us call it ‘foreshadowing’…by an unearthly being widely suspected of being an agent of Vesk’s. This project may be an affront to Vidius, but it has implied endorsement from another god of the Pantheon. And those two are not known to crush mortals between them in great clashes. There has been none of that among the Pantheon since Sorash was destroyed.”

“It does sound downright bardic, when she puts it that way,” McGraw mused.

“If you decide to do this,” Mary said, glancing between Weaver and Joe, “I would like to come along.”

Weaver narrowed his eyes. “Why.”

“To see the center of the Golden Sea? Is that not reason enough?”

“Aye, same!” Billie chirped. “That there’s an adventure an’ no mistake! Ashner’s britches, the braggin’ rights! I’d never ‘ave ta pay fer drinks again!”

“Now, I might be mistaken,” McGraw added, “it wouldn’t be the first time. But it’s been my observation over the years that the world’s pretty much wall-to-wall danger. Death an’ suffering are around every corner. Comes a point where it doesn’t profit a body to worry excessively about repercussions, long as you don’t rashly seek ’em out. What matters in life is livin’ with honor, and bein’ true to the people who’re true to you. Here’s the truth: we may not get to see Yngrid much, or basically ever, but she’s been around us the whole time Weaver has. She’s pretty explicitly saved our butts, like the first time we fought Khadizroth. Now, if Weaver and Yngrid have gotta offend Vidius to be together…” He shrugged. “In my book, that makes it worth doin’. You want my help, Weaver, you got it.”

Joe drew in a slow breath of his own. “Y’know… I have been wanting to have a second look at that portal. When I was there it didn’t seem like there was much to see except for old ruins and a big magical hole in the world. Knowin’ what I do now, though, and considerin’ the fact that the Golden Sea is widely thought to have a mind of its own, I gotta wonder if there’s somethin’ else there I just didn’t know to look for.” He met Mary’s eyes. “A purple man who lives in the walls. Somebody who I bet could answer some big questions.”

“Did that sound less crazy in yer head before it spilled outta yer mouth?” Billie asked.

“Not really,” Joe said ruefully. “But I stand by it. All right, Weaver, I guess I’ve been swayed, and not by your offer of payment. I’m in.”

“And isn’t this just the most absolutely typical thing?” the Jackal complained stridently from the head of their little procession. The elf was stalking along, taking huge steps and swinging his arms widely in a comical gait that made him resemble a child playing soldier. “Here we are, visiting scenic Ninkabi! The highest and lowest city in the Empire! Famed for its soaring towers and fathomless ravines, for graceful bridges and rooftop gardens! With stunning views of the mighty Wyrnrange, the distant sea, and on a clear day the very forests of Athan’Khar! And where do we end up?” He came to a stop, turning to face the right wall of the hallway along which they were being led, and brandished both hands at is as if casting a spell. “Underground. Under! The fucking! Ground!”

“Yeah, you whining about it makes the whole thing a lot less claustrophobic,” Shook grunted. “Move your skinny ass, wouldja?”

“Oh, it’s always the ass with you, isn’t it,” the Jackal simpered, turning to him. “If you want a peek, handsome, all you gotta do is ask. What, isn’t that pet of yours keeping you adequately drained?”

“If you want his throat slit, master,” Kheshiri purred, pressing herself against Shook from behind, “all you have to do is give the order.”

“I would be so much more alarmed if I didn’t know that was your idea of foreplay,” the elf replied, waggling his eyebrows at her. “How about you and me, sugar tits? You can take any shape, right? Can you do Jerry, here?”


Khadizroth’s voice, as always, cut off their bickering. The dragon walked at the rear of the line, Vannae hovering silently at his side. The three of them turned to scowl at him as he lowered the hood of his robe to reveal his luminous green eyes.

“You have plenty of time to indulge in your unique banter. Let us not keep our hosts waiting, nor terrorize the staff excessively. Neither is a positive first impression. My apologies, Lieutenant,” he added to the sole Holy Legionary accompanying them, who had stopped several yards ahead and was watching them with a noticeably pale face. “Please, proceed.”

The man swallowed once, visibly. He wasn’t part of the detachment stationed at their headquarters beneath Dawnchapel, and thus not accustomed to them; in particular, he seemed to have trouble keeping his gaze off Kheshiri, and the fact that his eyes held naked fear didn’t stop them from wandering below her shoulders. Which, of course, irritated Shook as much as it amused the succubus.

“Uh, right, um…sir,” the lieutenant said after an awkward pause. “It’s, ah, just through here.”

The right-hand wall at which the Jackal had gestured was, in fact, lined with windows, but there was not much to see. This complex was carved out of the living rock along the lower wall of one of Ninkabi’s canyons, not far above the river itself; the roar of the rapids was actually audible below. What little fading afternoon light remained did not reach down this far, and the only illumination in the hall came from its fairy lamps.

The beleaguered soldier led them the last few yards to the only place there was to go: the hall terminated in a single door. He opened this and then hesitated, dithering. Appropriate protocol called for him to pull it open and stand aside, but the man clearly felt visceral unease at the prospect of the five of them filing past him in close quarters. After a moment’s waffling, he ducked through the door ahead of them and kept going, putting a few yards between himself and the entry.

Kheshiri and the Jackal both snickered. Fortunately, neither said anything.

The room beyond was a conference chamber, predominated by a long table. Their door opened onto the rear end, with the front some ten yards distant to their left. At that end, there was a wooden lectern, currently moved off to the side to reveal a view of the far wall, on which were hung a series of maps of the different levels of Ninkabi.

As soon as they had all entered, the soldier darted back out behind them, putting on an extra boost of speed when the Jackal blew him a kiss. The elf cackled as he slammed the door shut, but everyone else was focused on the other in the room.

Before the wall, a woman with short dark hair stood with her back to them, studying the maps, hands clasped behind her. She wore a long white coat clearly tailored to her lean figure, with a silver-tooled belt from which hung an ornate short sword.

“All right, let’s get the obvious questions out of the way first,” she said brusquely, turning to face the group. Her features were sharp and her expression entirely unimpressed by them, in stark contrast to the frightened Legionary. “During a recent kerfuffle in Tiraas which briefly imperiled the life of the Emperor himself, a sizable cult appeared and engaged in a pitched battle with soldiers and adventurers. I’m told you lot in particular were involved.”

“Oh, hey, I remember those guys!” the Jackal said brightly.

“Do not interrupt me when I am briefing you,” she snapped. “The Universal Church has been trying to identify that group ever since. They were numerous, followed no known doctrine, and appeared evidently from nowhere. There is no record of any such organization operating within the Empire. Obviously, it’s disturbing that such a sizable threat could appear with no warning and vanish without a trace. What few leads have emerged have brought us here, to Ninkabi. You are here to hunt these cultists down, learn everything that can be learned about them, and take whatever action is then deemed appropriate.” She paused, then smiled very thinly. “Until compelling indications otherwise emerge, I will be proceeding upon the assumption that the appropriate action will be to exterminate whatever is left of them.”

“Very well,” Khadizroth said, inclining his head. “But would not an introduction have been a more appropriate place to start?”

“Yes, that is the other thing,” she replied, her smile widening enough to show hints of teeth. “The five of you represent what was not meant to be a long-term project. For…a variety of reasons…it seems his Holiness the Archpope has decided to keep you on. As such, your status must be considered, and your group integrated into the hierarchy of the Church. To that end, his Holiness is resurrecting a long-discarded office of the Church under which—under me—you shall work. One which respects your need for secrecy, and grants broad discretionary powers in dealing with whatever threats may emerge. Welcome, lady and gentlemen, to the Inquisition.”

“Whoah, hang on a sec,” Shook said, frowning. “Those were the witch-hunters from before the Enchanter Wars. I’m pretty sure that shit’s even more illegal than most of what we do.”

“Not to mention…provocative,” Khadizroth murmured. “Reminders of those dark days have a way of calling down preemptive retribution.”

“That is for me to worry about; it’s for you to follow my orders.” The woman paced forward three steps to lean both hands on the table, her grin broadening to become a fierce expression that held more than a hint of a snarl. “I am Grand Inquisitor Syrinx, and as of now, you freaks are mine.”

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Bonus #59: Accursed, part 5

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“I’m just so proud of you, little Szaiviss!” the Elder Goddess gushed in a voice of pure sweetness. She made a languid gesture with one graceful arm, and the terrified shadow priestess drifted up from the ground, still too poleaxed by the overwhelming divine presence to struggle, or even protest. Scyllith smiled fondly, twirling one finger and causing Szaiviss to rotate slowly in midair. “And to think, I had all but written you off. Yet here you are! Digging up ancient secrets, consorting with surface elves… What a vicious betrayal you must have been working up to! I’m so proud, little one.”

The light swelled, and with a flash of pure white, Szaiviss was gone.

Kuriwa was fortunately too paralyzed by the pressure upon her mind to be humiliated by the little squeak that emerged from her throat.

“Oh, are you worried for your new companion?” the goddess asked solicitously, turning her full attention upon Kuriwa. “Aren’t you a thoughtful friend! But you needn’t worry yourself, child. I am hardly going to waste such a delightful source of chaos just when she’s finally started to demonstrate a little backbone! Why, given a few more decades and a lucky break or two, young Szaiviss may just work herself up to doing some real damage to my priestesses. I certainly don’t want to miss that.”

She couldn’t respond, could not do anything. The sensation was like being squished under a rockfall. Her thoughts were jagged, sideways things, struggling to function at all under the overwhelming pressure of Scyllith’s sheer personality.

Desperately, in the ragged back of her mind, instinct and habit began to claw together a semblance of control. She was a shaman, a wielder of the fae arts; her mind was her own, and feelings served her. She did not serve them.

And just like that, before she could make any real progress, the pressure lifted.

“Oh! I am sorry.” Scyllith folded her delicate hands before her slender waist, her doll-like face suddenly poised in an expression of sympathetic concern. “Please excuse me, young lady. I am accustomed to keeping order around here largely by pure force of character, and it has been so long since I had the privilege of entertaining a guest. I do hope you were not too discomfited? For an elder shaman of your station, it must be a most unfamiliar experience, to be so aggressively humbled. Well, so long as you are not visiting daddy’s house, of course.”

Her thin lips curled upward in a knowing smile.

Slowly, Kuriwa straightened, correcting her posture and still gathering her thoughts. The jibe was not altogether a surprise, given what this creature was goddess of, and yet it seemed oddly petty. There was a stark incongruity in hearing the architect of all the horrors she had seen during her journey through drow territory making lazy jabs about daddy issues.

“Do let me make it up to you,” Scyllith said earnestly, still smiling. “You have come on a most dire errand, I see! I shall be glad to help you solve your problem, Kuriwa.”

She didn’t bother wondering about the source of the goddess’s knowledge. According to some theories, gods were constructs of pure data; it was a prevailing hypothesis among the high elves intelligentsia that magic itself was the same.

“I do not want your help,” Kuriwa said evenly. The goddess was just standing there. Well, actually, floating; she seemed to prefer trailing her bare feet a few inches above the ground. The lack of overt aggression did not mean Kuriwa was any less cornered, or this situation one whit less hopeless.

“My dear child, of course you don’t,” Scyllith said in a fondly chiding tone. “I see you were rather unsettled by the things you saw while trespassing on my lawn, poor thing. It’s only sense that you’d prefer to have me out of your affairs! Because oh, yes, I am quite capable of peeling your psyche like a banana in the course of one conversation and without using so much as a glimmer of magic. But…may I be honest with you, Kuriwa dear?” She winked playfully. “Been there, done that. Nothing you could suffer here and now would be particularly entertaining, compared to what is going on for miles in all directions. Besides, my young friend, you are overlooking a couple of important facts. You may not want my help, but you assuredly need it. It would take you years, decades, to dig any useful stratagem out of Araneid’s ramshackle old research lab, here—much more time than your poor beleaguered family has left. And somewhat more immediately, I am here. Wouldn’t you rather I be helping you than…shall we say…” Her smile broadened, and it was amazing how much sheer menace she could project solely by making her expression more warm and kind. “…any of the other things I might do to pass the time?”

It was almost poetic that Kuriwa found herself literally backed against the wall, right beside the ancient data panel. She could neither fight nor flee a creature like this. Couldn’t even bargain; what could she possibly offer? Outwitting a nearly omniscient being was an absurd prospect. Her entire bloodline was counting on her, and now it seemed the only thing she could manage to do was face her surely horrific demise with as much dignity as she could muster.

“Besides,” Scyllith said pleasantly after a pause, “it’s not as if I am offering to aid you out of the goodness of my heart. I might suggest such a thing, were I more hard up for laughs, but I would be most disappointed if you believed it.”

“Why, then?” Kuriwa asked tersely. Playing along seemed like the least futile course of action available to her, albeit by a thin margin.

“Well, there is the fact that you are looking to undo one of Elilial’s pet projects,” Scyllith mused, turning and beginning to drift away around the perimeter of the open space, alongside the blinking lights and panels both steel and mithril of ancient machinery. So she carried on floating in a wide pattern while speaking, very much like any of the mortals Kuriwa had met who liked to pace while they talked. “What she’s done—and oh, yes, I can easily see the structure of that curse—is quite beyond dear little Lil’s innate capacity. I would be up for ruining her day just on general principles, but this? She would have to have used Order equipment to achieve such a thing. My equipment, from one of my citadels, on my world.” A light laugh dispelled the tension that had begun to gather in her voice; Scyllith had a very pretty laugh. “Insult upon injury, isn’t it? Oh, yes, for that presumption I would be pleased to tweak her nose.”

She turned to begin floating back the other way, catching Kuriwa’s eye and bestowing on her a coy smile before shifting her gaze to study the old equipment in passing. “Not that that alone would impel me to exert myself, of course. We had a saying, where I came from: if you’re good at something, never do it for free.”

“I can’t imagine what I might have that you might want,” Kuriwa said warily.

“Oh, not a thing, poppet,” Scyllith assured her. “But there is something you can help me get. A sacrifice you will make to attain that which you need.”

“Sacrifice?” Amazingly, this was starting to look even worse.

“I see what she’s done—it is actually rather ingenious.” The goddess turned again and drifted straight toward Kuriwa, starry eyes now fixed upon the elf, and Kuriwa had to force herself to stand straight and not press herself against the wall at her back. “It’s not a simple curse! Even you could dispel any such thing, given enough time and effort. No, she has actually tweaked the nature of reality itself. It’s tricky, but doable, given access to the right sort of facilities. Such as, for example, the installations in my personal dimension which were instrumental in establishing it and causing my specific field of magic to permeate the space. Making any major changes to the rules of magic would probably be out of her reach, and would set the Pantheon after her if she achieved it. But a subtle, specific, insignificant little tweak? That she can apparently achieve, and get away with.”

“A subtle thing like cursing my bloodline.”

“Kuriwa, dearest, weren’t you listening? You aren’t cursed. This is simply…the way things are, now. It is a rule of magic that you, and your genetic descendants, suffer these very exotic effects! It’s now your nature. Only a line of highly magical creatures like elves could be subjected to such tampering… Ah, yes!” Having stopped right in front of Kuriwa, Scyllith bent forward as if to examine her more closely. “Yes, I see what she did. The little minx definitely got into my equipment. This is a clumsy variant on the very methods I devised to help my pets adapt to my transcension field.”

“You mean, the way demons evolved to make use of infernal magic, instead of being destroyed by it?”

“You latter-day creatures do enjoy applying such quaint labels to concepts,” Scyllith said fondly. “But yes, sure; what’s important is that you understand what I meant. Sylphs fly, hethelaxi go berserk, and Kuriwa’s descendants gradually slip into the nether realm between dimensions. Those are just the rules…now. She tweaked the fundamental structure of magic; to counter it, we must tweak it back. This is something you could never achieve on your own, and something the Pantheon gods would refuse to aid you with, even the very few of them who might be capable. You need me, dearest. And there is an added benefit to this! I should hardly have to tell you that it is incredibly dangerous for Elilial to have figured out this technique. This is surely a small test run, for her. If it works, she has a fantastic new weapon, and on her of all subjects, I have to concur with your Pantheon: Elilial does not need fantastic new weapons. It is actually rather important that we re-work her little trick so that it raps her knuckles instead of emboldening her.”

Kuriwa drew in a deep, slow breath. “I see the sense of what you say. But you were talking about a sacrifice, before the abrupt change of subject.”

“Patience, darling, patience!” Scyllith finally drew back a bit, giggling. “I had to explain to you what is involved: you are asking me to re-write reality and the rules of magic to suit you.”

“I haven’t asked you to do anything,” she said quickly.

The goddess ignored that. “To do this, I will need my own skill, a great deal of the additional power I derive from having control of dear Araneid’s domain…” She casually ran caressing fingertips across the edge of the data panel beside Kuriwa. “And, most immediately, your active cooperation. As deeply rooted as you are in Naiya’s transcension field, your guidance will be necessary in arranging things as we want them to be arranged.”

Kuriwa narrowed her eyes. “So… You’re offering me a measure of control over this.”

“Oh, it’s not an offer, my pet,” Scyllith said, blinking languidly. The effect made her dark, luminous eyes seem to flicker like meteors. “It’s just how things have to be. If I wanted to make your life miserable, as Elilial did, then yes, I could just do it. That would be unpredictable, however. I rather doubt Elilial chose the specific form your family’s suffering has taken; it isn’t likely that she even could. Readjusting the effect to achieve specific results all down your bloodline—which, you being an elf, is as much a mental and magical connection as a genetic one—can’t be done without your input. So unless we are in accord as to what we are doing, it won’t get done.”

“And,” she said slowly, “you need me to agree to give up something in the process. You can’t just take it from me.”

“Child, you cannot begin to imagine all the things I could take from you at a whim,” Scyllith promised her in a light, pleasant tone. “In this case, yes: I want something I’ll need you to willingly surrender. And in the end, the fact that you are giving it of your free will makes it all the sweeter. You will hate yourself for this, poppet. Really, that is the dusting of sugar on top that makes the whole cake worth baking.”

“Enough,” Kuriwa snapped. “Spit it out! What do you want?”

“I have a use,” the goddess drawled, “for a powerful high elf of a noble arcane bloodline and a practiced fae legacy. Oh, yes indeed, the wonderful things I could achieve with such a pet on a leash… We will have to work this craft upon all in your family, Kuriwa dear. I demand, in payment, that you give one of them up to me.”

Almost unbidden, power roared through her, forming two handfuls of flame. “Never.”

“Oh, don’t be cliché,” Scyllith said in a bored tone, and just like that, Kuriwa’s magic was snuffed out. She had never experienced such a swift and absolute severing of a spell actively called forth; even the constant presence in the back of her mind of her spirit guides was silenced. The goddess turned again and began drifting off around the room. “If there is one thing I cannot abide, it is tedium. I demand a terrible cost, you make a big show of outrage, the audience yawns. Honestly, child—”

“I’ve had enough of this,” Kuriwa spat. “Do what you want. I will not give you this satisfaction.”

“Oh, you silly little elf,” Scyllith said, giving her a pitying look. “I’ve already won, here. There’s no outcome at this point that doesn’t give me satisfaction. If you refuse my deal, well and good! Your entire family will die, slowly and in unimaginable terror, and you will get to live whatever time you have left in the knowledge that you condemned them to it when you had the option to spare them. Elilial will continue to use her shiny new toy, and I think we both know it’s a safe bet she will inflict it on your surface-dwelling allies for a long time before it ever occurs to her to start harassing me, down here in my hidey-hole. It’s very likely the Pantheon will strike back to take it from her before she ever dreams of trying to so much as inconvenience me. And who knows! I may end up being the one who unmakes her plans, anyway. It’s likely beyond the reach of even your gods, and they have appealed to me for help before. Imagine what a price I could demand for my services from them. Oh, yes, the Pantheon can reap for me a far greater harvest of suffering than you could even imagine. By all means, toddle off back to the surface, explain to all your children why you condemned them to agony and death. I won’t stop you! The passages straight upward lead into what you children now call the Crawl; it’s not exactly an easy clamber, but you’re a big girl.” Drifting to a stop several yards away, she turned back to Kuriwa, spreading her arms and smiling beatifically. “Go on, then. Defy and deprive me. You only postpone me getting what I want, and ensure I get all the more of it in the end. But you won’t be around to watch it happen, nor will be anyone sharing a drop of your blood. So if that’s enough of a victory to satisfy you, child, I guess you know what you should do!”

Rarely had she felt so out of control, even of herself. A shaman was nothing if not master of her own emotions, but the sheer helplessness of Kuriwa’s position coupled with the sick horror of what this ancient monstrosity demanded was enough to set her trembling in impotent fury. She managed to refrain from calling up magic again, as that would surely just provoke the creature before her, against which all her own power was as nothing. Her fists had clenched of their own accord, though, hard enough to make her arms quiver.

“If you’re having trouble coming to a decision,” Scyllith said in a kindly tone, “I find it often helpful to consider the perspectives of others. Consider those who will be affected, and ask yourself: wouldn’t any of them willingly sacrifice themselves for the safety of the entire family? Of course, not to tell you your own business,” she added with another mischievous wink, “but personally? I’d nominate any who wouldn’t take that dive to be put on the chopping block.”

If nothing else, there was a valid idea in that, a compromise Kuriwa might be able to live with.

“If I offer myself—”

“No deal,” Scyllith interrupted, and wagged a chiding finger at her, grinning. “Come, now. Surely you didn’t think I would make it that easy? You are not on the bargaining table, child, only your blood.”

“Monster.” The accusation spilled from her lips unbidden, like the fury that had seized her body.

“You say that as if you think it’ll hurt my feelings,” Scyllith replied patronizingly. “People are of two kinds: Victims, and victors. Words like ‘monster’ and ‘evil’ are used by the first group because childish insults are easier than the hard work of elevating themselves into the second.”

Kuriwa closed her eyes, thoughts swirling. Breathing slowly, she reached inward for calm. She needed to be able to think. Needed her emotions to settle enough that she was once again in control of herself. There had to be some way she could steer this—

“No, there isn’t,” Scyllith informed her. “You are an open book, little girl. Really, if you grow tired of using your tongue, you can just think at me. I understand it just as well.”

That explained a few things.

“If you are going to demand—”

“That won’t work, either,” Scyllith said with clear amusement. “I demand nothing; I offer options. You have a choice to make, Kuriwa, and you don’t get to slither out of responsibility for the consequences of either option.”

“You call me responsible for your cruelty?”

“Merely for being in a position where you have to endure it, poppet. What did you think would happen, when you intruded on my realm? What secrets did you expect to find down here that could help you overpower Elilial herself, if not with my help? Please. You may be adept at fooling yourself, little one, but you have no prayer of deceiving me. At no point did you not realize there would be a steep price for the help you need. Now pay it, or don’t. Either way, live with the consequences.”

Either way… Kuriwa made the determination that whatever happened today, at some point, by some means, Scyllith and Elilial would be made to pay for this.

“You and every soul in my domain,” Scyllith said with an audible grin. “Really, I am not taunting you. Try it, please do. My greatest joys in life are laid at my feet by those foolish enough to try to defy me.”

Finally, Kuriwa opened her eyes.

Finally, Kuriwa opened her eyes, then blinked, disoriented.

She stood in some kind of upright coffin made of mithril, crystal, and machines. It was against another wall, in a different part of Araneid’s ancient lair.

“Welcome back!” The luminous, floating shape of the goddess of beauty and cruelty drifted into her field of view from around a corner, wearing a benign smile. “I imagine you are rather confused, my pet.”

“What did you do to me?”

“Now, if I have calibrated all this correctly—which I know I have—you recall our explanatory conversation prior to the procedure. What Elilial did, what we had to do to unmake it.” Her smile widened. “What you paid.”

Bracing herself on the edges of the sarcophagus, Kuriwa pushed forward out of its embrace. She felt…not weak, but somehow strained. And disheveled, she noticed; her tunic was askew, and a few locks of black hair had worked free of their braid to hang in her eyes.

“Allow me to anticipate and answer your questions,” Scyllith nattered, hovering aimlessly about the room once more. “Strictly speaking, I did nothing. The memories you have of what we discussed, and what brought you here, are technically fabricated. Oh, they are accurate to the timeline that was! But it is not, anymore. In this world, you offended Elilial just as she was working out a clever use of the technology left in my own former home, and she made you a vicious test case. In this world, it immediately backfired on her. You and your bloodline have been altered…and yet, not. She made it so that you had always been a certain way, and you and I made it so that it was a different way, ensuring that she will come to regret her alterations bitterly. I used a variant of the mechanism by which living things survive adaptation to the infernal.”

“You made us demons?” Kuriwa shouted, lunging forward.

Scyllith flicked a finger and she slammed bodily back into the coffin.

“No, you silly creature. Remember, you had to be awake and compliant for this procedure; would you have consented to become a demon? I said a variant of that mechanism, not the thing itself. There is no hint of infernal taint anywhere in your bloodline. Given how seeped you all are in Naiya’s transcension field, there was no realistic way I could have made that stick. No, this is an older and purer form of the same bio-magical principles from which I designed the properties of the infernal field itself. In short: we have turned corruption into aggression. The psychological influence is minor, and should be evident only in aggregate. I doubt you will be able to discern any difference in personality in the case of any individual, but as a group? Your clan is going to develop something of a prickly reputation among elves. They may find it rather difficult to be in a room together. Not demons; I guess you could saw we made you what you call tauhanwe.” She stopped her aimless floating, turning to Kuriwa with a wide smile. “I dearly wish I could see Elilial’s face, truly I do. Oh, that would be so sweet. She’s created an entire clan of hunter-killers which will stalk her minions across the centuries. Every time she sends demons or warlocks to the material plane, the line of Kuriwa whom she tried to curse will lunge out of the shadows from every direction and claw them to shreds. It’s just so…delicious.”

It actually was, Kuriwa had to admit. That did not lessen the sinking pit that had opened in her heart. As the disorientation of the procedure faded, she had recalled what this salvation had cost her.

“Who?” she whispered.

Scyllith slowly tilted her head to one side, making an inquisitive face.

“Don’t toy with me, you—”

The goddess laughed aloud at her. “Don’t toy with you? Me? Oh, child, you should hear yourself.”

“Damn you, who did you take?”

Grinning, Scyllith raised one graceful finger, and tapped the side of her nose. “It’s a secret.”

Kuriwa could only stare at her.

Abruptly the glowing figure blinked across the space between them, and then Scyllith was right on top of her, clutching the sides of the metal coffin and leering at her face from inches away.

“Do you understand the value of closure, little shaman?” Scyllith crooned. “Of course you do. Ultimately, when things come to an end, a person can make peace with them. In this case? You could go back to whichever of your descendants had just lost a son, or mother, or cousin… You could explain what happened to them all, and hear their reactions. Accept their forgiveness, or bear their grudges. You alone, and your family as a whole, would grieve, and come to grips. And now? You can’t.”

She leaned forward, her doll-like features splitting in a wide grin that made a mockery of her previously gracious demeanor.

“You will never know whose soul you sold for this, Kuriwa. You’ll spend your eternal life among your family, looking around at their faces, knowing that one is missing—missing from your very memories, plucked right out of history when we re-wrote the world to save them all. You will live, forever, with the knowledge of what you did, and that wound will never close. Oh, to a simpleminded or selfish person, this would be the greatest compassion, the thing that let them forget. But you? You, the mother, the shaman, the leader and teacher? You will walk through the endless ages, and for every moment of your existence, a part of you will be constantly screaming in agony.”

Scyllith’s starlit eyes drifted shut, and a shudder wracked her entire frame, her expression momentarily lost in open-mouthed bliss.

“I have my price, shaman. I received the soul I demanded. And you, my darling, have given me so much more than your weight in suffering. You’ve barely begun to feel that pain; you will be paying me from now until the second you perish… And we both know you don’t have it in you to lie down and give up.” Her eyes opened, and she smiled again. Warm, kind, gentle. “Our bargain is concluded, and I am paid well indeed. Do visit me again, poppet. You’re fun.”

Her sudden absence lowered the light in the room. It was all but silent in that cave far below the surface, even the hum of the ancient machinery all around her barely audible to her senses.

For a long time, she could do nothing but stand there, alone.

Her father’s house had always felt lonely and too quiet, ever since her mother had died. Part of Kuriwa felt guilty for leaving him to wander its halls alone, but she could not make a life in Qestraceel. Now, tonight of all nights, even as close to him as she sat in the little aquatic solarium, the dark and quiet house felt lonelier than it ever had.

“Am…” She paused, swallowed heavily. The silence had stretched out for long minutes after he heard her account of the Underworld. “Am I… That is, I’ve been trying every idea I had. Anything that might be a hint to what she changed. Are you sure I am the only elf ever born with black hair? Every one of my descendants has it, and I cannot think that is coincidence…”

“We have been over this many times, Av—Kuriwa,” he replied with a soft sigh, catching on her name but correcting himself more smoothly than he ever had, that she could recall. “It is a harmless mutation. Anomalous hair and eye colors have occurred in the past, a consequence of the arcane saturation in our society. Most of our people undergo genetic procedures to correct it, but your mother insisted you be allowed to grow to adulthood before making that decision for yourself. And then…you decided. And I gather the woodkin feel differently about changing what nature has decreed.”

Mutely, she nodded, staring at the floor.

With amazing tenderness, given the way their relationship had gone in the last few centuries, he reached out to brush her dark hair back behind her ear. “Maybe it is something she changed, my daughter. If she truly did re-write reality itself… There is just too much unknown. I have never heard of any spellcraft or technology that could do such a thing.”

“You don’t recall me coming here, to ask for help with Elilial’s curse?”

“I do,” he said, shaking his head, “but not as you describe it. You were here only weeks ago, and spoke of a lifelong pattern of aggression among your bloodline, that you had only finally come to think had an external cause after your descendants numbered enough that the pattern was clear. There was nothing about Elilial. If you truly remember what you describe, daughter… A curse that causes the mind to sink into void space is unthinkably cruel. Nothing that afflicts you now is anything nearly so terrible.”

She heard the unspoken offer in his voice: forgiveness. The assurance that she had done well.

“No,” Kuriwa whispered aloud, squeezing her eyes shut. “I can’t—” Her voice broke, and she choked on a sob. “Oh, father, I made the wrong choice.”

He was suddenly on the seat alongside her, wrapping both arms around her and pulling her close. She sank into her father’s embrace for what felt like the first time since she was a little girl, just letting him rock her.

At least he believed her, outlandish story and all. She and her father disagreed on virtually everything that mattered in life, but when it came down to it, he respected her enough to trust her account of events more than his own understanding of what the world should be like. This was a cruel way to learn it, but it was something she was deeply grateful to know.

“You made the choice you could, Kuriwa,” he murmured into her hair. “There was no good choice. Life is…that way, sometimes. Things are taken from us, and nothing given back. Suffering has no inherent meaning, except that which we give it. Take time to grieve, daughter, but don’t forget to look forward.” He squeezed her harder, pressing a kiss to her temple. “You are the only child I have, Kuriwa, and it shames me how little I have supported you. These are our bloodline…our legacy. You and your family will have every support I can give you from this moment on, I swear it.”

She leaned against him, letting the tears spill without fighting them. They stayed that way for a long time.

“Meaning,” Kuriwa whispered at last. “I don’t know what meaning to give this.”

“The wound is fresh. You will find a way forward, child, I know that much. You’ve never lacked an ability to find your path, even when everyone insisted there was not one ahead of you.”

“I have to…to…” She blinked moisture away from her lashes, staring sightlessly past his shoulder at the fish and kelp outside. “I must give something back, for what I’ve taken away.”

“Don’t forget that you did this for them.”

“I can’t forget any of it. I am…a matriarch, now. I’ll watch over them. Over all of them, even if they don’t care for my presence. I have to…to do something. I have to do something forever. It’s the only semblance of peace I will ever have.”

“I love you,” he said simply. It was sweet, and sharp, like the first taste of tangy fruit to an unprepared tongue. A jolt of joy that was nearly pain. Kuriwa closed her eyes again, relaxing into him.

Her world might have been rearranged by the living force of cruelty, but within it, she still lived. There was still love. And now, she and her family…most of her family…would live on.

“And someday,” she whispered in a breath barely loud enough even for herself to hear, “she will pay.”

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Bonus #58: Accursed, part 4

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“I am not unusual among the shadow priestesses for despising our goddess, but only for leaving their sisterhood,” Szaiviss explained later, when they were sitting cross-legged on the floor of the ancient Elder chamber with a few certainties having been established. The drow had not interfered while Kuriwa exercised her own magic to make sure that the web of spells around them did what she claimed. And it did; her guides confirmed that it was a beacon, aiming to draw in powerful aid against the Elder Goddess, and guaranteeing that no one within it would be able to lie. Szaiviss, as the priestess introduced herself, claimed that part was a common ritual working, and it said a lot about the drow that they would commonly need such a spell. At least Szaiviss had sat quietly while Kuriwa worked, demonstrating her willingness to extend the same consideration for which she asked. It was as promising a start as Kuriwa could have hoped, considering.

She had told her story—minimally, but without prevarication. In fact, she had tried to add a few little obfuscations just to test the Scyllithene spellwork, but it was quite impossible.

“Why would it be unusual for priestesses to leave, if it is common for them to loathe Scyllith?”

“You know nothing, golden-hair,” Szaiviss said dismissively. Kuriwa repressed all the obvious responses to that, simply staring at her and studiously ignoring the rune-carved dead man laid out on the slab right beside them. It was a sharp reminder that under any other circumstances she would have refused to have anything to do with such a creature, and perhaps attacked her outright on general principles. Here and now, though, she had not the luxury of choosing her allies.

After a pause, the priestess finally deigned to explain.

“There are some who are fully devoted to Scyllith’s way, who are passionate in their cruelty. Mad, they are. That is not a way for people to be. From birth, we are taught it, but not for everyone does it take. The devotees, the happily cruel, they do not become priestesses. The Lady of Light, she has no need for loyalty. She wants her will done by those who hate it, hate her.”

Kuriwa could only inhale slowly, trying to make sense of that.

“You wonder, why does it all work?” Szaiviss quirked an eyebrow in dark amusement.

“I wonder exactly that. How can you possibly run a society on terms like that?”

“You cannot.” The drow shook her head. “You cannot. It needs a goddess to make something like this run. Without Scyllith, it would all collapse. Immediately.”

Kuriwa narrowed her eyes. Szaiviss stared back, unblinking.

“And so…you want to get rid of Scyllith.”

The priestess just stared at her.

“How?” she prompted at last, not bothering to hide the skepticism in her voice.

“I am not close,” Szaiviss said at last, reluctantly. “I will probably not succeed. An impossible task, it is, to destroy a god. Wildly unrealistic, to disrupt her enough to break her hold on my people. Dangerous and pointless to lurk and meddle and harass, which is all I have done. But I aspire to the impossible.” She shrugged. “It is that, or work to sustain the insanity.”

“I see,” Kuriwa murmured. Faced with a choice like that… She would likely have done the same, in truth. “I am not sure what I can offer you, Szaiviss. I am in a desperate corner myself, and taking a stand against Scyllith is totally beyond my means. Anyone’s, I suspect. If that is the price you demand for helping me, I will have to look elsewhere.” She did not move, not truly thinking that could be the end of it. Her spirit guides often enough led her into trials, but never to a dead end.

“No one is taking a stand against Scyllith,” Szaiviss retorted. “No one, it is madness to even think. We will try very hard to not get her attention, yes? Or anyone’s.”

“Seems wisest,” Kuriwa said noncommittally.

“You have seen things like…this, yes?” Szaiviss leaned to one side, reaching out to rap her knuckles against a wall where pristine mithril peeked out between tattered spidersilk hangings.

About this, of all things, every instinct Kuriwa possessed demanded that she be cagey, but the spell continued to scintillate around them. Refusing to answer was as good as an answer, so she kept it terse. “I have.”


She actually tried to lie, but the words wouldn’t leave her throat. The best she could do was answer with a different truth. “That is a closely guarded secret, and not mine to betray.”

Szaiviss grunted. “Yes. Here, too. Fine, it is not as if I am about to go to your surface and dig in your secrets, I wish now only to know what I must explain. You know what were the Infinite Order, yes? Scyllith’s generation of gods?”

“To the extent that anyone knows, I believe I am up to date,” said Kuriwa, nodding. “Their leavings are best avoided, even the relatively benign ones. Are you actually living in here?”

“Hah! Even I am not that crazy, not quite. Not yet.” The brief mirth leaked from her face. “What you are wanting to do? I mean the hard parts, the time travel, the genetics, the dimensional shifting. For that you will find answers in the old Order’s vaults—some of them. Any adolescent here can cast a curse, but you want knowledge that exceeds Elilial’s. That means Infinite Order.”

“Veth’na alaue,” Kuriwa muttered.

“I do not know what that means,” Szaiviss said dryly, “but I can tell what it means, and it is right. They are bad news. The old facilities that do not just kill whoever looks at them too hard, they are further protected by many guardians and traps. But!” She leaned forward, grinning and raising one finger. Her teeth were yellowed, something Kuriwa had never seen on an elf. “Those defenses, they were made by shadow priestesses, weaving the corrupting fire and the divine light. Your magic, the green magic of Naiya, that is not known here. It is the best, the most powerful against what Scyllith’s people have. My knowledge and your power can get us into a place I know, which has answers we both need.”

A lead, and a solid one. From what she knew of the Infinite Order, it was exactly as Szaiviss said: their understanding of magic and science both outstripped even that of the current gods, but any repository of their data would be a fiend’s nest of terrors. The Elder Gods had used traps and curses practically as décor, both to secure their domains and because, she suspected, the suffering of others amused them. Naturally any such sites would be revered by these deranged dark elves.

And there was another point which made her wary.

“So you’re telling me,” she said carefully, “that the exact thing I need just so happens to be the same exact thing you need? How…improbably fortuitous.”

Szaiviss grimaced, and Kuriwa wondered if she were struggling against her own truth spell. “The old vault I have in mind, it is not any part of my plans. I did not plan at it because I cannot get past its protections, and because I do not know exactly what is there. But you can get us in, I think. And once we go to it, I will find something useful. It is a cache of tools and knowledge from the Order, yes? There is bound to be something. And you, I think, are not to be my personal guardian, adventuring through the tunnels after all my desires, yes? So we compromise at a thing we can both use.”

“If you don’t know what’s in this vault, how can you be so sure?”

“Sure? No. A reasonable guess.” She shifted in place, resting her hands on her knees in a meditative posture belied by the intent set of her eyes. “Not very far away on this continental shelf, on the surface there is what was the great stronghold of Druroth of the Infinite Order, once. It was mostly destroyed by Taluvon before the new gods rose up, half the whole mountain sunk into the ground. Druroth went elsewhere, keeping only some servants and passive systems to watch his old fortress, yes? So it fell into confusion and decay, long before Druroth himself died. And so beneath it, among its deepest roots, Araneid made herself a little nest.”

Kuriwa narrowed her eyes. “Araneid.”

“The spider goddess.” A touch of reverence crept into Szaiviss’s tone. “Creator of all drow, and once the ruler of us all. Until the uprising of the new gods. Themynra came, and then Scyllith, and yet Araneid, she is not forgotten, not gone, even dead. Rumors persist that there is still her arachne, hidden among us somewhere. Scyllith has what was left of the spider goddess, a cosmic egg containing her essence. It is a major source of the Lady of Light’s power, a reason that she is still running a society while Naiya, well… She is not talked to much anymore, yes? Not so able to keep her thoughts in order?”

“Is this…egg…in this place you are talking about?”

“No!” Szaiviss waved both hands urgently. “No, no, that is in Scyllithar itself. We are not going there! But my point is, this is a chamber of two Elder Gods who were not Scyllith. Araneid’s secret rooms, built amid the wreckage of Druroth’s stronghold. It is sealed off and protected, not touched in countless generations. There we will find secrets, things Scyllith does not want known. Things you can use, and I can use.”

“A slender thread,” Kuriwa said, leaning back.

Szaiviss curled her lip in a slight sneer. “And you came down to this sunken hell for what? Certainty?”

“You have a point,” she admitted.

“My beacon, your spirits,” the priestess pressed. “I called for the help which can make a difference for me. You asked to be led to where you can get what you need. We are brought together, and this is my one idea. Yes, it is slender. It is what we have. Will you go back to your cursed family empty-handed instead, golden-hair?”

It was not that simple, of course; Kuriwa could always look in a different direction for resources down here. But when it came to it, she had no better ideas than this. It was no more farfetched or less dangerous than anything she had feared, and not as bad as she had begun to expect after three days of watching the Scyllithene drow and their sadistic lunacy.

And she did not have time to dither. Every hour, the curse progressed.

“Your skill, then,” she said, “and my power. Very well, Szaiviss. Let us…try.”

The unspoken agreement that made their enforced partnership possible hinged on staying out of one another’s way. Kuriwa already detested everything the drow priestess was and stood for, and while she could hardly imagine the particulars it seemed a safe bet that the feeling would be mutual. And so they made no conversation save that which circumstances demanded, kept a wary eye upon one another, and proceeded in silence. Oddly, the tension imposed by their situation made for one of the least awkward silences Kuriwa had had to endure. Once it was established that there would be no socialization, social concerns ceased to apply.

The Scyllithene dialect, while recognizably the same language as the elvish with which Kuriwa had been raised, was even more garbled than that spoken in Tar’naris. Narisian elvish featured multiple levels of formality and several other features owing to their caste system, but apart from that was little different from surface elvish. Szaiviss’s tongue had some weird grammatical features which Kuriwa recognized as coming from the influence of demonic, a notoriously erratic constructed language which was fiendishly difficult to learn, by design. It rarely become enough of an issue to cause communication problems, especially given as little as the two of them tried to communicate; Szaiviss just constructed her sentences backwards, sometimes. Spoken, it made little ultimate difference, though Kuriwa did discover as they passed the odd sign on their journey that the Scyllithene wrote using demonic runes half the time.

They continued along a series of tunnels that avoided contact with other elves, which suited her perfectly. For the most part these were natural crevices, interspersed with ruins clearly crumbling from long abandonment. In an odd way, the ruinous underground wilderness was a lot more comforting than the ornate aesthetic of the well-maintained corridors Kuriwa had followed at first.

For all that, their progress was slow as Szaiviss warned her that anyone else lurking in these forgotten byways would be exiles from Scyllithene society like herself. Some of those might be potentially useful allies, who disdained the cruelty of Scyllith’s commands, but just as likely a stranger encountered here could be a lunatic or criminal, and the kind of people too unstable to function even among the Scyllithene were as dangerous to encounter as rabid animals. Kuriwa suspected her new companion had an agenda in keeping her (and her fae magic) away from other potential competitors, but she was altogether content minimizing her contact with the lunatic drow of the deep dark.

After less than half a day’s travel—it could be difficult to keep track with no sun but Kuriwa had a decently developed sense of time—they reached their first destination, which was another piece of Elder God ruins.

“Good, no one is here,” Szaiviss grunted, brushing past the warning signs and totems affixed all over the half-collapsed entry. Again, the Scyllithenes had not attempted to render the place inaccessible, merely posted warnings. “Oh. Anymore.”

Kuriwa peeked past her and grimaced. This room was built along the same plan as the tower-like space in which Szaiviss had crafted a ritual chamber: circular, hollow, and surrounded by now-inert panels of ancient technology. It had three entrances, though, rather than the one, and all of them were spaced evenly around the floor level. In the center was a raised, circular dais with a slightly convex crystalline floor, and lying against the base were the lower halves of two different corpses.

There was no smell, even. Was the lack of decay due to drow magic, or Infinite Order science? Or a simple lack of microorganisms down here? She was fairly unfamiliar with the normal ecology of caves, let alone what must have developed under Scyllith’s unnatural aegis.

“What is this?” Kuriwa asked while Szaiviss, ignoring the dead, paced around the edges of the chamber and began trying to tug loose one of the dead screens.

“Transportation platform,” the priestess grunted. The screen finally came free and lifted upward on silent hinges, and she reached into the array of inscrutable wires and parts beneath it. “A long way, we have to go, and long ways become short ways in the Underworld. Always, everywhere, things stalk the paths. The more you travel, the quicker doom meets you.”

Kuriwa scowled, flicking her eyes back to the bodies. “It doesn’t look like it’s working properly. You really expect me to get into that?”

“Works properly if used properly, like anything.” Something snapped audibly under Szaiviss’s fingers and she stepped back, lowering the panel back into place. It had already come alight. “The old gods, the things they built do not break with time. These devices are dangerous to use because there is security upon them—curses and traps for the unwary. Jealous, they were, not keen to share their tools with their servants. This one, I have known a long time. Changed the locks, I have. Dangerous for others to use, but I can make it work for me.”

“And…the one at the other end?” Kuriwa said skeptically. “I presume this comes out at a similar platform. Can you make that one work?”

“We go to one that will be safe to land on. But to leave…” Szaiviss turned back to her, a sly grin flickering across her features. “Less safe. Hopefully we find what we want where we are going. From there, I have many ways to get around, and there are paths up through the ancient fortress to the surface for you to escape. Not by this way will we come back, golden-hair. Now step quickly, it is set for two and will not stay long.”

Kuriwa indulged in a small sigh, but did as instructed, keenly aware of the risk she was taking. Of the use of Infinite Order technology she knew nothing; Qestraceel law forbade meddling with it and the Avatar she had met beneath the grove was self-contained and left none of his attendant machinery open to tampering. If Szaiviss intended to lead her into some kind of trap, this was a golden opportunity.

But the spirits had led her here, and one thing she knew Szaiviss did not have the capability to do was deceive them. Like all wood elves, she disliked teleportation on philosophical grounds, but having grown up in a city where it was as mundane a way to get around as it had apparently been to the Elder Gods, her personal objections where less stringent. If being teleported did indeed destroy the person and create a clone, for her that ship had sailed many times before she reached adulthood.

The platform began to glow beneath their feet, and then a flash split the room and their surroundings changed. Not entirely; they were in a chamber built to exactly the specifications of the previous one, which had suffered different particulars of decay over the long years. There were no dead bodies present now, but spidersilk banners hung upon the walls, ragged and thin with age, and scrawled with demonic runes of warning. A rockfall had buried one of the three exits from the room and a second was closed off by a solid mithril door which, to judge by the lack of any active panels near it, wasn’t going to open any time soon.

Most importantly, she was fine. Unharmed, unchanged, with her magic and connections to the spirits fully intact. If Szaiviss intended to ensnare her in some trap, she was playing a longer game.

“Where are we now?” Kuriwa asked, stepping quickly off the platform.

“Closer,” her companion said tersely, following her down. “Below what was the inland sea at the center of this continent. The great prairies, now. Close but not within the spatial distortion that is the Darklands on the infernal plane. How it is on the surface, I do not know, but it is suicide to go in there underground. So we will not. Our goal is right at the edge, should take us less than another day to get there.”

“I see.” Kuriwa let the shadow priestess slip past her and followed her out. This time, rather than opening right onto a natural cave, they followed a narrow mithril-lined corridor of Infinite Order make, its built-in lights long since inert. “Interesting. You measure time in days? I wouldn’t have thought your people even knew what they were.”

“We all of us live in a tiny ball of rock spinning through infinite space,” Szaiviss retorted, giving her a contemptuous look. “Because we live below a ceiling of stone does not make us stupid, or blind. All our peoples are made from the same ancient stock; we spend about the same times awake and asleep. Quiet now, we are closer to traveled paths here.”

Kuriwa, as she was constantly advising the young elves of her grove, extended her senses and shut her mouth.

This new territory, again, consisted of well-kept halls and tunnels. There were a few adjacent caves through which to pass, but mostly they were forced to travel in public spaces in order to proceed, and when thus exposed Szaiviss scurried furtively, on the lookout for any fellow travelers. Kuriwa could have concealed them both from anyone’s senses, but for the time being kept that knowledge to herself, as they encountered no one, and indeed no sign that anyone had been here recently.

It was a far cry from the ornate rooms and corridors leading to Tar’naris. Though carved in the same high-ceilinged style, pillars and all, these were unadorned white stone, and seemed less assiduously maintained; not only was there dust on the floors and patches of mushrooms in some of the corners, there were occasional cracks and chips in the stonework, left unrepaired. Of statuary, mosaics, or paintings, there was no hint. Startling as the artistry of the passages had first been to Kuriwa, they made sense, given that Scyllith was also the goddess of beauty. It seemed strange that her touch lay less heavily here.

Szaiviss was jumpier now and irritable about being questioned, but as they proceeded for hours and found no hint of any other drow, she finally (mostly out of sheer exasperation) condescended to answer Kuriwa’s increasingly insistent questions.

“These chambers lead to the halls of the dead,” she said grudgingly, creeping down a corridor and nodding to a doorway in passing. “All the halls that go off in that direction are to mausoleums. So there is less traffic here.”

“I would have thought there’d be more, given how readily you people slaughter each other.”

Szaiviss seemingly found no insult in that. “Few who die are preserved with honor. Most are left at the bottom of whatever chasm they fell into, or feed the lizards. It takes an important station in life, or a manner of death most noteworthy, to be worth the trouble of preserving a body.”

“And why is it so plain? Most cultures treat the fallen with reverence, and decorate—”

“We are not most cultures,” Szaiviss hissed, baring teeth at her. “It is plain here because beauty is a sign of the Lady of Light’s favor, and for the dead she has no use. Their suffering is over. Only the living can be tormented.”

It gave Kuriwa a sinking feeling, contemplating how much sense that actually made. Presumably, the other demented details of this society would be equally sensible in context. Part of her feared burdening her mind with enough understanding of their insanity to discern the patterns. With any luck, it would not become relevant.

Szaiviss finally selected a side corridor down which to travel, pausing to order Kuriwa to complete silence, and crept forward far more slowly. The shaman stayed behind her, quietly as ordered, and reaching out as far as her senses both mundane and magical could extend. Obviously Szaiviss’s caution was well-founded; there was magic up ahead, of a kind that made Kuriwa’s skin crawl.

The hallway terminated helpfully in an arched doorway braced by thick columns which gave them ample space to hide, with ahead of it a balcony bordered by a chest-high stone wall and curving ramps sweeping away to both sides, to a floor ten feet below. Kuriwa wondered in passing if the drow designed features like this because it created opportunities to ambush each other. For now, it at least spared them from blundering into the monstrosity below.

The chamber below the balcony was the size and shape of a small theater, with its opposite wall taken up by a mighty arched door over three stories tall; though broad enough for two wagons to pass through abreast it looked narrow simply due to its height. The thing was of iron, forming thick bars rather than being one solid piece. It looked impossibly heavy nonetheless, but before getting through that they would have to deal with its guardian.

Kuriwa had seen necromantic constructs cobbled together by humans, things stitched from multiple corpses or pieces thereof. This was on an entirely different level. It had no seams or stitching, looking as if it had simply grown naturally the way it was, which was not possible. Lacking a single head, it had five faces lumped together at the top of its torso, clustered like insane growths from some great tumor. Their eye sockets were empty and flickering with blue flame, all five mouths open and all groaning, gasping, or in one case wailing in obvious, constant pain. Its arms were disconcertingly normal in appearance, but below the torso was a huge swollen thorax like a spider’s—except that the bulbous body was covered in enormous blisters and pustules, all lit faintly from within by the same blue lichfire and several pulsating slowly. Like a spider, it had eight legs, but rather than segments of chitin exoskeleton, they were simply drow bones. Miscellaneous bones, fused together into uneven segments so that they had spider-like proportions, at least. Apart from the bony legs, its skin was the plain black of the drow—unbroken skin, marked by no seams or stitches.

The thing’s incessant noises of agony at least made cover for a whispered conversation.

“And that is…”

“The less than honored dead,” Szaiviss said dryly. “Some rites there are, which call for the use of interred corpses, or must be performed in crypts. Not forbidden are they, but meant to be difficult. To enter the crypts, one must get past the guardians. But not destroy the guardians! That brings more priestesses.”

“So not only the living can be tormented after all.”

“The dead can only suffer if condemned before they are dead.” The shadow priestess grinned without warmth or humor. “Once the spirit passes, it is beyond even Scyllith’s power. The name of Vidius is as despised here as that of Elilial.”

“And why are we going into the crypts?”

“The crypts are made around the old structure where Araneid’s nest is hidden. Much time I spent there, when I served among the shadow priestesses; I know the way beyond. But I now am exiled, and the guardian will seek to kill me if I try to pass.”

“So that’s what you need me for.”

Szaiviss withdrew her head from around the corner, pressing her back to the wall so she was again fully hidden from the room beyond, and looked at her expectantly.

The construct was made of a remarkable fusion of infernal and divine magic. It was amazing that the shadow priestesses could do such a thing at all, given how those two magics reacted when brought into contact. Were Kuriwa more of a scholar—or did she have time to analyze it in detail—she could probably have learned a great deal by studying how it had been done. For now, though, the task was to get by it as quickly as possible. Without destroying it, which was the hard part. Being half infernal, it was incredibly vulnerable to her own arts.

This would have to be done indirectly.

Silently, while Szaiviss stared impatiently from inches away, she considered possibilities. Vines and roots could entangle and immobilize it, or she could cause aggressive lichen to clog the joints in its segmented legs. But she did not know how physically strong it was; undead always had greater brute strength than the living, as they had fewer physical limitations on the stresses to which they could subject their limbs.

Of course, its innards would be vulnerable to the same kind of attack… But no, that ran the risk of damaging it catastrophically, which apparently they must not do. The same problems faced any prospect of simple elemental attacks with wind, fire, ice, or the like; there was an all-important middle ground between what would be ineffectual and what might destroy it outright. Worse, that was likely to be a very narrow gray area, and she had little chance of hitting it precisely given how little she knew of the thing.

Could it be simply distracted? Kuriwa had only a very basic ability to access the thoughts of others, and it would require considerable ritual preparation; telepathy was the province of divine magic, not fae. Empathy was another matter, however. Any shaman skilled enough to be let out on her own would be able to sense the shape of unguarded emotions.

From this thing, she sensed nothing but pain. Kuriwa cringed, immediately closing off her mind an instant after opening it to the monster. She had expected anger beneath its agony, but no, there was only anguish. Sorrow, loneliness, the aching hollowness of a multitude of souls chained to constant suffering, longing for the most basic mortal comforts which were forever beyond their reach.

Scyllith’s evil was truly beyond description.

“You making faces is not pacifying the guardian,” Szaiviss whispered fiercely. “I can make faces! For dithering there is no time.”

Pacifying it…

Struck by inspiration, Kuriwa retreated down the hall till she had space to occupy its center without being in view of the creature. There, she sat down and began removing ritual components from her pouches.

“Do not make a mess!” Szaiviss hissed.

“I’ll clean it,” Kuriwa said curtly. “Hush, let me focus.”

It did not require a highly complicated ritual, anyway, just a few crystals and candles to dilenate a circle; she was a sufficiently advanced practitioner that she didn’t need chalk or dust to fully draw the lines, so long as the space was defined. Two feathers—one sylph, one phoenix—she placed before her on the floor, forming a cross. Their magic made a focus from which to project her own thoughts while also shielding them. A lesser shaman would have needed far greater preparations to attempt this, but not for nothing was she an Elder of her grove.

She found the spirits in the construct easily; their agony was a horrible beacon to her senses. Kuriwa called upon the older, calmer spirits of nature, embodying the sluggish consciousness of the very earth itself. Deep underground, they were surrounded by rock, by the endless, sleepy patience of stone. Inanimate objects had no innate will or awareness, but a sufficiently powerful shaman could imbue the ground with familiar spirits, forming all around them a quiet animation.

The earth was patient, quiet, calm. Its presence was an all-encompassing sense of rest.

Having brought it thus to life, she brought it to the screaming spirits of the guardian.

Kuriwa had expected it to be far more difficult; she had been called on to pacify agitated spirits before, and it was usually as slow and coaxing a process as performing any kind of therapy for a living person. This was not a natural case, however, and whoever had designed the guardian had not anticipated this particular measure. The spirits within it hungrily seized the infinite calm of the earth as soon as she introduced it. With Kuriwa’s guidance, they sank into the surrounding quietude, losing their own sense of identity in the eternal earth itself. She gave them exactly what they wanted most: rest.

“What did you do?” Szaiviss demanded from up ahead, where she was peering into the chamber.

Kuriwa opened her eyes. “I put it to sleep. I don’t know how long that will hold; it is eager for the rest, but such is not in its nature. We should not tarry.”

“Look who tells who not to tarry,” Szaiviss muttered while Kuriwa gathered up her ritual accoutrements, but didn’t henpeck her any further.

They crept with care into the antechamber, but the guardian, having slumped to its side upon the floor, did not stir even as they approached. Its breathing was still loud, strained, but there were no more screams or even groans.

Kuriwa wished fervently that she could give it true, lasting peace. She wished she could do that for all the drow in this psychotic pit Scyllith had made of their world, but that was as futile as wishing for the moon. Trying to test her will against that of an Elder Goddess would be empty vainglory. It would be all she could do to accomplish her own mission here and get out.

Despite its size, the iron gate opened smoothly, the balance of its hinges clearly flawless. The two of them slipped through, carefully shutting it behind, and then hastened silently forward into the halls of the dead.

The crypts were a maze, consisting of towering chambers lined by person-sized notches in which bodies were laid, many with a single huge, ornately-carved sarcophagus standing in the center. Most of these rose four or five stories at least, some as much as twice that and the shortest they passed being twenty feet tall. Doorways and galleries opened onto them from all heights; they might have to pass through a burial chamber at its bottom, or skirt an unrailed drop to the floor of one from high above. These shafts were connected by smooth tunnels which wound in serpentine patterns, not only from side to side but vertically.

The layout was a tangled mess, but Szaiviss moved swiftly and purposefully, seeming to know exactly where she was going. Kuriwa could only trail along after her, keenly aware of how lost she was becoming, and how utterly dependent upon her guide.

Ironically, it was in here that they finally encountered other drow, though fortunately only at a distance. At one point, their corridor opened onto one side of the uppermost level of an open chamber and then followed it three-quarters of the way around its edge before branching off, which gave them an unfortunately long time to observe the ritual unfolding in the chamber below. At least, Szaiviss told her once they were a safe distance down the tunnel that it was a ritual; it just looked like two women violently making love on top of a sarcophagus around which they had piled a bunch of corpses.

Following the shadow priestess in front of her, Kuriwa found herself contemplating that spectacle, and the freshly-sacrificed male drow over whom Szaiviss had been chanting when they first met, and wondered what other twisted things this woman had done that she couldn’t even imagine. It was truly chilling, to consider that someone with such a different threshold for horror had found Scyllithene society so unbearable that she had risked her life to flee it. How could anyone live like this? How many drow were down here? Tens or hundreds of thousands? Millions? The scope of suffering was unimaginable.

Eventually, they emerged from a tunnel onto yet another burial chamber, this time about ten feet up, and rather than heading off to the side again, Szaiviss hopped down to the floor below. Kuriwa followed, watching at a distance while the shadow priestess unceremoniously dragged a mummified corpse out of place so that its stiff legs protruded over the side of its bier, and then crawled bodily into the alcove alongside it. Moments later there came a grinding noise, and Szaiviss’s legs disappeared as she wiggled fully into whatever she had just opened up.

“Come along, golden-hair, there is nothing else to see out there!”

With a sigh and a silent apology to the long-dead drow whose rest she had to disturb, Kuriwa clambered in after her. A piece of the wall inside the funerary alcove had shifted to the side, forming a narrow hole into a larger chamber beyond. Once she was through, Szaiviss reached back out to tug the corpse into its proper place and then push the stone barrier into place again. It was obviously intended to be opened thus; that much rock was simply too big for an elf to shift unaided.

They were now in a natural cavern, and there was light in the distance. Szaiviss carefully led the way toward the faint illumination, stepping over uneven rocks slickened by the underground stream along whose bed they now walked.

“Have you ever been here before?” Kuriwa whispered.

“I have looked in,” the drow replied. “Enough to see that a thing is beyond, to sense the magic that says who made it. I have found records that describe its place, lost and hidden fragments not known to the priestesses. But no…this is farther than I have gone. When I was a priestess, the others watched me constantly. That is their way. Only after being long absent from their ranks am I free enough to come here without leading them all after me, and I did not want to give my sisters access to this. Only with you along could I get past the guardians outside the crypts. I very much think it has been since Araneid’s time that any drow has stepped foot here.”

“That’s encouraging,” Kuriwa murmured. She sensed no living things in the vicinity, but from up ahead came a faint, unpleasant tingle of strange magic at work. Magic, or something older.

The light came from a single glowing Infinite Order data panel, affixed right to an apparently natural cave wall. To elven eyes, its faint glow was enough to discern more such touches upon the cavern in which it stood. It was clearly an already-existing geological feature, a cavern of uneven proportions which spread around them in a series of winding branches and stretched upward into a narrow shaft which ascended into infinite darkness above. More machinery was everywhere, worked right into the very walls and floor, pieces of metal, crystal and glass at whose purpose Kuriwa could not even guess. Only the lone, glowing panel which faced the entrance was still active; of all the artificial structures around, the only thing she recognized was the simple metal staircase and ladders which climbed the cave shaft toward where Szaiviss had said Druroth’s long-destroyed fortress lay, high above.

Both of them came to a stop in front of the panel, then looked at each other. It glowed in the darkness, but there was nothing depicted upon it except a single line of text in an unfamiliar language.

“These things, they work by touching,” said Szaiviss. “But there should be symbols to touch, things that show what it does. I see nothing like that and I fear to poke it at random.”

“Yes, let us please not poke anything at random,” Kuriwa agreed.

They jerked back from the panel in unison when a canned, unnatural voice suddenly spoke from it.

“Dialect identified: I.O. Codespeak, homo sapiens sindarin variant two. Please state your directive, users.”

“Directive?” Kuriwa repeated, frowning. “I hardly know how to proceed.”

“We should see what this thing knows,” Szaiviss suggested.

“Yes… Obviously what we want is locked away in some of this dusty old machinery. The trick is knowing where to look and what to turn on.”

“Acknowledged,” the raspy voice of the machine grated. “Cycling main power core. Primary system boot queued.”

“Wait!” Szaiviss shouted, too late.

All round them rose the hum of technology coming to life, accompanied by the rising glow of tiny running lights, and then artificial lamps producing the clean white illumination favored by the Infinite Order.

“I hope we’re buried too deep for anyone to notice this,” Kuriwa said, wincing.

“Should be,” Szaiviss replied, peering around nervously. “I suppose the risk, it is necessary; we can get nothing from these machines while they are asleep. I did not mean to turn it all on at once, though. There is no telling what—”

It hit them suddenly and with the weight of an avalanche, the force of a consciousness so many orders of magnitude mightier than their own that just to be in its presence felt to the mind like being stepped on by a dragon would to the body. Kuriwa and Szaiviss, both forgetting all the poise and dignity of their respective stations, staggered under the impact, crying out and tumbling to the ground.

Before them appeared a graceful figure of light, slender and lovely more in the way of a doll than an elf, with eyes like miniature galaxies. Her smile was kind and welcoming, even as her very aura blasted them against the far wall of the cavern.

“Why, how very lovely!” Scyllith cooed. “Visitors!”

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Bonus #57: Accursed, part 3

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Author’s Note/Content Warning: This chapter contains some of the most graphically disturbing content in the entire story.  Readers who are sensitive to depictions of violence, particularly against the most vulnerable, are advised to proceed with caution, and maybe give this one a pass.  It is plot-relevant to Kuriwa’s journey, but not necessary to follow the larger story as a whole.

Getting in had been the trickiest part.

In all of Tar’naris, only Arkasia expressed any concern for her. The rest of the drow preferred not to interact with Kuriwa at all, but several made it clear that they believed she would immediately die once in Scyllithene territory and that they considered this a win/win scenario. On her first investigation of the available paths she doubted this, but upon deeper reflection a small part of her (buried deep beneath her constant projection of serene self-confidence) suspected they were right.

Archived lore pertaining to the deep drow was scarce in Qestraceel, sufficiently that Kuriwa had thought it must be some manner of mistranslation that Scyllithenes never tried to dig new tunnels. The Narisians confirmed it, however, and they were clearly in a position to know, given that constant war with their deeper-dwelling cousins was one of the cornerstones of their existence. They could not say why; Scyllithenes had rarely been captured, largely because Themynrites considered it pointless and dangerous to do so, and even more rarely had they been “persuaded” to reveal anything important about their society. The entire culture was a mystery. Even the Narisians could say only that they were sadistic and irrational. But whatever the reason, it was a historically established fact that the deep drow would not try to create a new tunnel unless they were deprived of an existing one, no matter what kind of resistance met them on the established route.

The current route was a single enormous tunnel emerging from one far edge of the cavern in which Tar’naris was built. It was completely encircled and blocked off by walls, but the Narisians had established a huge gate of solid iron barring it. And beyond that, up a steep path another set of walls, and another gate. And beyond that, a third, all of them constantly held by manned ramparts and towers bristling with crude siege weapons, built on such a steep incline that every row had a line of sight to the tunnel entrance. There were further sniper nests for slingers and spellcasters along the cavern’s walls, and even a few clinging to colossal stalactites which hung from the ceiling. At the time of Kuriwa’s visit, all of these were fully staffed and snipers armed with a variety of slingshots were actively harassing some excursion out of the deep caverns. Apparently this—being aggressively probed by rock-slinging soldiers, a handful of warlocks and several enthralled katzil demons—was what qualified as a peaceful period. There was never not some pressure upon the gates of Tar’naris.

According to Arkasia, the gates were necessary for the defense, because it was theoretically possible that they could fall and provide the Scyllithenes a path into the city. In four thousand years it had never happened, but the Narisians had learned that if they built walls with no gates, or collapsed the entrance tunnel, their enemies would dig a new one. So long as the path existed, however, they would not bother. For millennia, they had wasted lives and incalculable resources on those fierce defenses in utter futility, eschewing the obvious strategic advantage of creating a new path along which to attack. It was as if the Scyllithenes were blind to anything else, so long as there was someone to kill in front of them.

Kuriwa had to agree with the Narisian assessment: sadistic and irrational.

She let Arkasia dissuade her from trying to enter the deeper Underworld through the Scyllithene-held corridor. At any given point it was full of attackers, a mix of slingshot-wielding soldiers, shadow priestesses, warlocks, and demon thralls. After watching them pester the gate defenders for an hour, Kuriwa concluded that she could have personally mowed down this entire attacking force; their particular magics were critically weak against the fae, and she outmatched any caster present by entire orders of magnitude. That would undoubtedly earn her some credit with the Narisians, but she was looking forward to never again having to care what they thought. More immediately, it would make it impossible to achieve any true progress once out of Themynrite territory. It went without saying that there were forces in the deep below against which she would lose a contest of magical strength, and the bigger a ruckus she made, the faster they would emerge to destroy her. Passing through the Underworld would depend upon stealth. And she was less than confident that she could conceal her presence through an active battlefield filled with warlocks and clerics.

The remaining evidence of the hard lessons Tar’naris had learned in Scyllithene insanity ultimately provided her with a route.

There were other entrances to the caverns, older ones. There was a collapsed tunnel entrance which remained a tumbled rockfall now, thousands of years after the Narisians had brought it down on top of a huge invasion force. By sealing themselves off, thus, they had provoked the Scyllithenes to bore a new attack route, which opened some distance on the other side of the existing one from the first. That tunnel was surrounded by ruined walls which the Narisians had unwisely built to be an absolute barrier, with no gates or entrance, prompting the boring of the currently used tunnel. After the Scyllithenes had shifted all their attention to this one, the second had been collapsed by the defenders, and the deep drow had never shown it any further interest, as long as they had an open route.

So there were still two unused tunnels, each large enough to admit an army. Granted, they were blocked off by rubble and at least partially collapsed, filled with rock and dirt which had settled for thousands of years to make what for all intents and purposes was a wall.

All intents and purposes except those of an elder shaman, at least.

Kuriwa visited each and performed rituals of seeking, watched over by Gray Priestesses whose faces revealed nothing of their thoughts. Immersed in her magic, Kuriwa could feel their emotions as keenly as her own; they disliked and distrusted her and were mystified by what she was doing, but in the absence of active aggression, she opted to ignore them. Her investigation prompted her to choose the oldest of the two tunnels; it opened out into an un-collapsed portion after only a few dozen yards, and there was no sapient presence anywhere along it, nor even a residue of infernal taint. It had been ignored by the Scyllithenes for centuries at least.

Shape-shifting was the province of fae magic. It was achievable through the arcane, but polymorph spells were difficult, incredibly power-intensive, and not always controllable. The skill wasn’t common even among the high elves, nearly unheard of for humans and dwarves, and utterly beyond the imagination of the very rare arcanists who emerged among drow. An elf could not get through the maze of tiny cracks along the uppermost stretches of the collapsed tunnel, where sediment had not yet filled the way completely. Nor could a spider or cave lizard, for after thousands of years there was more than enough to seal off the remaining tiny routes.

A shaman in a spider’s form, however, armed with magic that could both dig swift new tunnels through dirt and even rock and dissuade hunting lizards, could get through. The Themynrite clerics were startled when she transformed, but her last impression of them as she vanished into the cracks was relief. Kuriwa did not begrudge them that; she was glad enough to end their acquaintance herself.

Due to her tiny stature and the frequent necessity of stopping to divine a suitable way forward and then dig it, her passage through sixty or so yards of tiny cracks took close to an hour. But soon enough it was done, and she emerged into the pitch blackness of the long-abandoned access tunnel, and also into her true form.

In this spot she paused to perform a few necessary rituals. Obviously, Kuriwa prepared herself with multiple measures for avoiding detection—given the enormity of the danger she faced, everything she could manage. Actual invisibility, erasure of tracks, the negation of her scent, suppression of her magical presence, telepathic shields to hide even her thoughts from detection. It was that last which worried her most; mind magic was of the divine, which shadow priestesses could use. Her own measures were significant but it was amply possible that some specialized priestess down here was a more skilled telepath than she could ever hope to be. For all she knew, Scyllith’s priesthood had an entire order dedicated to it.

With her presence as deeply concealed as she could manage, and her stealth measures backed up such that she could rejuvenate the spells as they flagged multiple times on the run before having to perform a new ritual to restore them, she turned to divination. Fae magic was also very strong in finding a way forward when one did not even know where to begin looking, and the need was great. She was alone in the most unknown, inscrutable culture that existed, in a span of tunnels which ran through the crust of the entire planet, filled with people whose only known propensity was toward cruelty and violence. Kuriwa would need the aid of every spirit willing to guide her in order to find anything even slightly useful in her quest.

Finally, prepared as best she could be, she crept forward through the dark silence of the ancient tunnel, and took her first steps into Scyllith’s domain.

Knowing that Scyllith was the goddess of light and beauty was one thing. Knowing it, intellectually, did not prepare Kuriwa for the experience of creeping into an anticipated pit of despair and finding glory beyond the wildest indulgences of the high elves.

Everything was carved and decorated. Everything. The disused tunnel to Tar’naris was in ruins beyond the cave-in, but even that had once been wrought to a standard of beauty that better suited a palace than a purely military route scarcely a stone’s throw from an enemy capital. The masonry there was crumbling and overgrown by wild fungus, with no light to hint at its lost grandeur; Kuriwa could only see at all thanks to her own magic. Beyond the old tunnel, though, true beauty unfolded.

They had worked with the shapes of natural caverns rather than against them. While everything had been carved and built into vaults, galleries, and colonnades all with high arched ceilings, rising and falling in neat flights of stairs, the chambers and corridors curved in patterns which reflected what had once been natural geological formations. At any rate, their arrangement served no purpose from an architectural standpoint.

White was the favored color; most of the facades were actually white marble, which she could tell had been transmuted through some form of alchemy given that it made solid walls of enormous span and lacked any natural veins. The Scyllithene aesthetic made ample use of negative space. Huge swaths of the walls were plain expanses of smoothly unadorned marble. In fact, she quickly surmised that part of the reason for the improbably high ceilings in every chamber was to create that negative space to offset the rich adornments which divided it up.

The columns were all squared, and each face was carved deeply and intricately, with angular geometric designs concealing more elaborate organic forms within them. Many of these deep engravings were filled with a material she did not recognize which put off a steady white glow, surely derived from some alchemical process like the marble. This provided the abundance of steady light which made the deep caverns as bright as noon on the surface, while clearly decorative lights in bright colors shone from glass and gems embedded in the roofs, casting lovely patterns across unadorned stretches of the walls and floor.

The huge blank walls were without exception bordered in elaborately carved moldings, most inlaid with metal. Gold, copper, silver, even steel, the particulars of material and design varied from room to room, but they were all highly polished.

Along the walls at floor level, up to about the height of a person, there were murals. This art was painted, unlike the abstract mosaics which made up the floors. The Scyllithene style was representational but stylized; the figures depicted were formed of simplified lines and idealized proportions, but it was clear what they were meant to portray. In fact, while some of these murals showed purely decorative scenes, a lot showed events in a narrative format that must have been important to be thus immortalized.

The majority of those were depictions of horrific violence. A lot more than she would have anticipated were explicitly sexual and usually portrayed acts that she could only charitably call perverse.

While figures were painted on the walls, they were never carved into them; all the carving on the actual structural components was abstract. Statues there were in abundance, quite a few of them fountains, positioned throughout the many rooms and corridors through which she passed. A lot of these were statues of the kind built on the surface, showing figures in heroic or contemplative poses. A lot of others reflected the vicious insanity of the murals.

Water and air were both widely-used components of the art. The air shafts doubtless served practical purposes in ventilation and temperature regulation, but they were also channeled periodically over delicate structures of metal which made an eerie, etherial music that wavered with the currents of gentle wind. This filled the oppressive silence of the underground where the voice of water did not.

Streams were shaped into canals both large and small, bordering some rooms and halls, in other places crossed by stone and metal bridges. Some had more glowing substances inlaid into the floor beneath them, causing the streams to cast shifting patterns of light across the walls and ceiling. Small waterfalls adorned several rooms and fountains were common, adding both visual and auditory art to the passages.

Despite having no access to plants, the Scyllithenes made abundant use of gardens in their décor. Many rooms had long, carved planters filled with decorative growths of colorful fungus, some bioluminescent but all of it at least pretty and clearly cultivated with care for the appearance they presented. Some of these were positioned high up columns or door frames, trailing fronds of exotic mushrooms like hanging vines. Notably, they never obstructed the large, plain stretches of marble wall.

That was the overall pattern. The detail in the paintings, carvings, engravings, and cultivated growths were rich and complex, but were always presented in the context of much larger swaths of negative space that both emphasized them and prevented them from overwhelming the eye. Color against blankness, perfectly balanced and stunning to behold. And always, everywhere, light. Pure light filling the rooms like the sun, colored light serving to accentuate and adorn. Nowhere was there darkness; rarely were there even shadows.

And the most astonishing thing about it was that she was clearly far from civilization. To Kuriwa’s senses, the existence and proximity of living forms was plain even through intervening stone, and very few were in the vicinity. There were no concentrations which suggested settlements or agriculture, nor even mining or any massed activity of any kind. All of this was just roads. No, not even that; it was the countryside. And it was not only kept scrupulously clean and repaired, but decorated to a standard of artistry that had no rival in her experience. Humanity had never created anything this glorious. Wood and sun elves wouldn’t bother with so much artificial décor, but the dwarves surely might, yet clearly lacked the skill and resources. These empty chambers at the back end of nowhere rivaled the grandeur of the most prestigious halls of Qestraceel.

What few encounters she had with living drow on her journey amply bore out the sinister promises hinted at in their artwork.

Kuriwa made a point of staying off the floor whenever possible. The numerous decorative touches were very conducive to this; with the augmentation of her magic she was able to clamber and hop from one feature to the next with relative ease. It had been a painful lesson in hear early life not to trust everything to magic, and so despite her abundant spells to ensure that she left no trace, she tried to minimize contact with commonly-trod surfaces on which traces might be found. Sometimes she had to get down and walk, but maintaining the habit of staying high up helped her in avoiding the rare drow she encountered.

The first was a large contingent clearly heading for Tar’naris. Kuriwa paused to let them pass, perched on the head of a towering statue of a nude woman pointing toward the Themynrite city. The soldiers were fully armored and accompanied by priestesses and warlocks, all of them garbed ornately. She had noticed that in watching them fight the Narisians earlier; the Scyllithenes put the Themynrites to shame in terms of fashion. Even the armor of the common soldiers was buffed, engraved and embossed more richly than any human noble she’d seen could afford. The priestesses wore truly exquisite gown and an astonishing wealth of jewelry.

Kuriwa remained perfectly still and silent while the force nearly a thousand strong marched past in formation, concentrating on her concealments. One accompanying katzil demon wandered close to her, clearly sniffing the air, but her magic held out and it moved on at the behest of its handler. Only when the last echoes of their passing had vanished down the halls did she resume her own course.

Drow on the march to war proved, during the several days of her journey, to be among the least vile. Kuriwa followed the guidance of her guardian spirits. She did not know toward what, but trusted that she was being led to her best chance of help. Clinging to that helped her cope with the things she saw.

The most numerous were the maintenance crews. Obvious slaves being chivvied along by handlers, carefully cleaning every surface while supervising priestesses took notes on any slight damage which required repair. Kuriwa passed a total of five cleaning crews and two clearly restoring crumbled statuary and stonework. In all of them, it was common to see those in charge abusing the laborers with both whips and pain-inducing spells, sometimes with the clear purpose of goading them to work faster, but more commonly for no reason except to make the handlers laugh. Which they did.

There were occasional fellow travelers, none of whom noticed her stealthy presence. She noticed that no one walked alone, and discovered why upon finding a drow woman lurking atop a door lintel at the entry of a long, mushroom-lined corridor with a knife in hand. Kuriwa took the precaution of deliberately befuddling that one’s senses before passing. Travelers were rare, but they moved in groups of no less than two, often three to five.

Even traveling companions were not a guarantee of safety so much as an indication of where, specifically, the danger was, as she discovered. Every single time she saw people passing over a bridge, someone got pushed off, to uproarious laughter. Usually this just meant a short fall into a shallow canal. Once it was an endless plummet over a waterfall into unfathomable distance below. That one, to judge by the reactions of the survivors, was the funniest of all.

At one point she found two people having sex in a kind of mushroom garden at the intersection of five hallways, clearly unconcerned with being encountered. Either there was no taboo about this in Scyllithene culture or… Well, the possibilities were many and Kuriwa was not especially curious. Woodkin culture emphasized privacy; she was well-practiced at not hearing things which were none of her business, and had this been a woodkin couple she could have completely ignored them, even when the woman loudly reached repletion right as Kuriwa was hopping from wall sconce to wall sconce right above them.

She had to look down at the abrupt change in the noises they were making, though, to her own chagrin. The woman below had finished off her climax by gouging out her partner’s eyes with both thumbs, and then turned to making a game of trying to stay atop him despite his thrashing without the use of her hands. Or maybe she just couldn’t use her hands, being too busy licking the gore from them.

Kuriwa put on a burst of speed to the point of risking silence. Behind her, the woman’s laughter followed for far too long a time, accompanied by the man’s screams.

That was one of the ugliest things she encountered on her journey, but not the worst. That honor went to an event which occurred on the outskirts of the first actual settlement she passed, a village built into the walls of a deep chasm where bridges and ledges formed the only solid ground above a seemingly infinite drop. Though she did not go close to the centers of activity, her path took her across the wide plaza abutting the canyon, where the ledge leading to the village met several corridors into other chambers.

There, the common pastoral scene of a woman keeping watch over several playing children was given a characteristically vile Scyllithene twist. The game those kids were playing consisted of beating one of their number with stone clubs. The unfortunate was already bloody and limping, clearly trying to escape but already too injured. Her cries only goaded the others on.

That point, more than any, would have broken Kuriwa’s resolve to stay out of Scyllithene business had she any inkling what was about to occur, or been fast enough to intervene. But she was too distant, barely within eyeshot down a corridor, and taken fully by surprise when the girl was abruptly pushed over the precipice into the abyss by her playmates.

She couldn’t have been more than ten.

Worse than the cheering and laughter of the children was the woman watching over them, who applauded, smiling in approval.

Kuriwa fled down the nearest tunnel with no regard to where her guides were leading her and little for silence. The first place she found big enough to crouch on beyond the sounds of the village, she did so, clutching herself and desperately forcing her own emotions back into balance. She had not managed to act in time to save a young life back there; betraying herself now by weeping over it would be truly pointless.

Even that was not the worst of it, of course. Had that been the first thing she encountered, the shock would have devastated her, but after three days of watching passing drow revel in senseless cruelty, that final act of horror drove the balance right out of her. It was some time before she recovered enough of her equanimity to move on.

To her gratitude, the spirits led her farther and farther from society. The longer she journeyed, the more infrequent her encounters with drow became. This was beneficial in practical terms, obviously; the fewer drow she met, the fewer opportunities there were for her to be discovered. It was a boon to her peace of mind, as well. Everything she saw and heard sickened her in some way.

These people were absolutely psychotic, every one of them. The reality of a whole society in Scyllith’s grip was inconceivable, incomprehensible. Even Hell under Elilial’s rule was surely not so repulsively cruel.

Beauty, light, and cruelty. This was a nation—in fact, an empire—made in the image of someone who did not deserve to exist. And it spanned the entire world below the surface. Kuriwa was not a believer in denial but only by refusing to contemplate the implications could she focus enough to keep pressing forward. It was a blessing that her path took her through the outskirts of this society. The sight of whatever happened in their cities might drive her to madness.

Eventually, she found herself clearly journeying beyond the bounds of civilization. First came dust, and then disrepair; by the end of the third day she had passed through faded murals and crumbling stonework into actual caved with only occasional signs of habitation, most of them long-ruined. She forced herself not to relax, but the indication that she was not surrounded by Scyllithenes in all directions brought her at least a little confidence. Kuriwa had come to consider it worse than being surrounded by demons. Those were unreasoningly violent; these were calculatedly sadistic.

At long last, she found the goal to which her guides were leading, discerning the use of divine and infernal magic woven in a strange pattern far ahead of her. Once her senses focused on it, the guiding spirits flickered out, their task done.

Kuriwa proceeded forward cautiously, under her own guidance now.

Carving and painting began to return—still aesthetic, as it seemed Scyllithenes could not bear for anything not to be decorative, but now also functional. They were images of warning, this time accompanied by the first written text she had encountered. The Scyllithene dialect of elvish was comprehensible, but even more garbled than the Themynrite version. Whatever lay down this tunnel was dangerous, and forbidden.

Which could be excellent, or too bad to contemplate. It stood to reason that something this society of malicious lunatics hated might represent all that was decent in the world. Or it could just be something so much worse than they that they had given up trying to contend with it.

Notably, despite all the warning signs, no attempt had been made to obstruct the tunnel. Of all the things she had seen, the Scyllithenes’ aversion to blocking off corridors was far from the most disturbing, but it had to be one of the more puzzling. The rest of it made a certain kind of vicious sense, taking into account that their culture was formed by Scyllith. But why were they so opposed to the closing of a path, and so unwilling to make a new one except at great need?

Regardless, she pressed forward with care. The magic grew nearer, and soon, there came the sound of a woman chanting in some echoing chamber up ahead. That was all for long minutes, both looming ever closer in Kuriwa’s senses while little changed in her surrounded.

Until, finally, she reached the end, and found a doorway. Not a door; it was open. But this portal had not been built by the drow. Set in the wall of a seemingly natural cavern, it was an open frame of pale metal that might have passed for steel to less acute eyes than hers, flanked by two glass columns which emitted a violet glow. She had seen the like of this before, deep below a grove to the north of Avir Idyllin.

Kuriwa paused on the threshold to take stock. The magic was coming from within, as was the chanting. Beyond the door was a ledge, and beyond that a wide-open circular chamber. It was walled by mithril and old, now-dark information panels, with atop those a crazed patchwork of spidersilk hangings, steel chains, weapons, baskets and jugs, and signs of habitation in general. Rather than the steady glow of ancient Elder God lights or the alchemical illumination of the Scyllithenes, it was lit by the orange flicker of fire.

Finally, with nothing else to do, she stepped through the door, invisible and silent. The tingle of alien magics passed over her skin as she crept to the edge of the platform and peered down.

Amid the ancient metal and glass had been constructed a stone altar, upon which was laid the body of a drow man, his skin carved with unintelligible sigils which now burned a faint orange like the fires which muttered in two braziers to either side. He had not been dead long enough for the blood to dry.

Before the altar of sacrifice was a drow woman with her arms upraised, chanting rhythmically in no language Kuriwa knew. She was dressed in scraps, the stitched-together rags of spidersilk a marked contrast to the exquisitely-garbed drow Kuriwa had passed on the way here. Also unlike them, she wore no jewelry, but had crude symbols drawn along her arms in a faintly glowing ink probably derived from luminescent mushrooms.

Whatever magic this was, it called for the sacrifice of a person; this woman was clearly no less dangerous than any Kuriwa had seen thus far. But to judge by her attire and the comparative rat’s nest in which she practiced, she rejected Scyllith’s ideal of beauty. This…could be promising.

Suddenly the chanting stopped.

“I know you are here,” the drow woman said, lowering her arms. “Be not alarmed, I have called for you. My magic, it compels truth. I will not lie to you, and you will not lie to me.”

She turned, raised her chin, and looked right at Kuriwa, locking eyes. Belatedly, the shaman realized that she was not invisible. In the future, she would adjust her stealth spells so that they alerted her somehow when they were negated rather than relying exclusively on her own situational awareness.

“Strange,” the drow commented, studying her. “You are not the thing I expected. But I have called, and you are here. It must be a great need which brings you into the depths, golden-hair. Come down and we will talk without lies, about what we can do for each other, and who shall pay for it.”

Kuriwa stared at her in silence for a moment. Then she turned to her right and began to descend the stairs.

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Bonus #56: Accursed, part 2

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She inhaled slowly to steady herself, drawing in the scents of sweetened coffee, the faint fragrance of coral and shimmerkelp transmitted into the room by the enchantments on its glass walls. Anlin and her father kept their eyes on her, expressions intent but not pushing.

“At first it appears to be a mundane illness. Dizziness, fainting spells. It escalates into sleep disruption; sufferers will be insomniac for days at a time, and then practically narcoleptic for a similar period. It struck the children first, the youngest. That was the stage when the shaman began to be worried, and Iridi called for me to come. We…can find nothing. No trace of physical disease, and no sign of a magical cause. Soon after that, the first of their parents began to show symptoms; they progress much more slowly in adults. They were still fully lucid while it took the children completely.”

“Took?” Vynlian’s voice was suddenly hollow. Despite everything, despite the very irony, the horror in his eyes warmed Kuriwa’s heart slightly. These children might be woodkin, and the living evidence of her rejection of his very culture, but even so, even having known of their existence for only minutes, he feared for their fates as any grandfather would.

“They live,” Kuriwa assured him, managing a weak smile as some of the tension left his shoulders and Anlin reached over to touch his wrist. “When it worsened, the grove shaman and I decided to intervene and place them in suspension. Well, what you would consider suspension; to our sensibilities it is a sleeping curse, and an act of true desperation. It was better than letting them suffer. They gradually lost the ability to sense and interact with their surroundings; it became nearly impossible to keep them fed. They suffered…nightmares. Constant, waking visions of terror. Only when some of the adults reached this stage did we begin to realize that the victim’s consciousness is being affected dimensionally. Over time they cease to perceive the mortal plane. Their senses are bringing them data from a different one.”

“Hell?” Anlin asked tersely.

Kuriwa shook her head. “The space between.”

Vynlian closed his eyes. “Veth’na alaue.”

“Father!” Anlin exclaimed.

Kuriwa had not been aware he even knew any grove dialect, though it made a certain kind of sense that he had picked up a few curses, given the way their conversations usually went.

“It moves slowly upward along generational lines,” she continued. “There is no discernible transmission vector in real space. It affects only my own direct descendants; no one who has worked with or been near any victims has manifested symptoms. One brave young shaman did everything she could to expose herself to infection in order to test this. She got bronchitis and ringworm, but no hint of the curse.”

“What is ringworm?” Vynlian demanded.

“A common skin parasite, affecting only humans. For an elf to contract it… Well, that she did satisfies me that she could not contract the curse.”

He nodded, and gestured her with one hand to continue.

“In addition to only striking my descendants, it strikes them all. Even those who have had no contact with others since the second war. I’ve traveled to every grove where my roots extend and warned them. In each community, no matter how isolated, it was appearing. I was able to warn the Elders to put the children in suspension before their suffering grew extreme. It is three generations up, now. A few of my grandchildren are showing the earliest symptoms.”

Her father drew in a slow breath. “All right. The groves cannot possibly have sufficient medical facilities to handle this. Everyone in the bloodline must be brought to Qestraceel. Anlin and I will make the necessary permits happen.”

Kuriwa was already shaking her head. “It’s too risky to move the youngest victims, father, and given the dimensional element of the curse, you must realize we can’t risk teleporting them, philosophical agreements aside.”

He sighed, but grudgingly nodded. “That is true.”

“And you are letting cultural bias seep through, father,” Anlin added. “Fae magic has always been better suited for healing than arcane. The woodkin possess all the medical knowledge we do, and have never been shy about asking for our help when they needed it. And yet, it’s been historically far more common that we have had to turn to the groves in the case of difficult illnesses.”

Vynlian pursed his lips together. “Fine. But with neither biological nor magical cause to be found, it is clear that we must investigate the possibility of prevention. Your own children at least, Av—Kuriwa, should come here for observation. If we can catch this thing as it comes upon them…”

“I suggested that very step,” she admitted. “My granddaughter Lanaera would like to come; she has not shown symptoms yet and has always been curious about Qestraceel. All my own offspring refused, however.”

“What stories did you raise them on, exactly?” he snapped.

She hadn’t been planning to bring it up, but needled by that remark, Kuriwa shot back, “They can’t all legally enter the city, anyway. Or has the prohibition on dragons been lifted in my absence?”

Vynlian stared at her, his face settling into a politician’s blank mask. Then, slowly, he leaned forward, placing his head in his hands and nearly knocking his cooling coffee to the floor with an errant elbow.

“Honestly, Kuriwa,” Anlin said, shaking her head. “You know I’m on your side, but there comes a point when even I have to suspect you’re just acting out.”

“In my earliest years on the surface, I was definitely doing exactly that,” Kuriwa acknowledged. “I cannot even say my decisions were mostly good ones during the first two centuries. But even choices which I now recognize as mistakes have led to the existence of living people, my own children. Scions of our bloodline. Their lives are now in danger.”

“Yes.” Vynlian straightened, his expression resolute again. “Yes, and at a time like this, castigating you for past mistakes is foolish. We have none of us always made perfect decisions. Such as now, for instance, I am jumping to solutions when I should have waited for you to finish your description of the curse, daughter.”

She leaned over, reaching to take his hand. “You act out of care, father. It gladdens me to see. Even flawed as we are as a family, I’ve never once doubted that you loved me.”

He squeezed her hand back, returning her smile.

“Before you leave, sister, we will definitely have to devote some time just to moments like that,” said Anlin with a wan smile. “But right now, it’s also a distraction. What else can you tell us about this curse?”

“Right.” Kuriwa drew back her hand. “Obviously, I’ve done everything I can think of. Yes, father, I have been reluctant to come back here, I admit that, but it’s not as if the surface world lacks options. Qestraceel is a latter resort, but not the last one. We’ve tested every known type of healing against this curse. The wood elves are unmatched in the fae arts, and I also brought in divine healers. Human, dwarf, gnome, tauhanwe…”

Vynlian frowned. “Tauhanwe? That can’t mean what it sounds like it means.”

“You have your renunciates,” she explained, “we have ours. Some not suited to grove life come to Questraceel and apply for citizenship; others run off to live with humans, or do things even more foolish. There are elves among most Pantheon cults, and I begged the aid of any I could find. Even the Salyrites had nothing to offer. I have stopped short of calling upon a warlock…so far.”

“That might be a fruitful avenue to pursue,” Anlin murmured, “if this does stem from Elilial.”

“I do know one,” Kuriwa admitted. “As mentally stable as any ever are, who holds a khaladesh demon in thrall which is clever enough to possibly be useful. I consider that a desperate act not to be bothered with unless the knowledge of the high elves fails as well. If even that yields nothing… I do have a promising solution to pursue, but it is sheer madness.” She hesitated, averting her eyes from their sudden frown. “To protect my family, I will embrace madness if I must. But not as anything but a last resort.”

“What else have you tried?” Vynlian asked quietly.

“The drow,” she said, and they both grimaced.

“What drow?” Vynlian demanded. “Please tell me you haven’t delved into Scyllith’s reaches, daughter.”

“Not yet,” she said grimly. “Some few of the Themynrite cities are…approachable, with enough effort. I sought the Nathloi first, and that yielded my first true breakthrough, though I was not able to speak with the drow. Emi herself intercepted me at Kiyosan and said I carried a curse of a temporal nature, and was not welcome in Sifan until it was removed.”

Anlin’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Temporal?”

“Emi or her sisters could help, surely, if anyone could,” Vynlian suggested.

“Yes,” Kuriwa agreed, not without bitterness, “but she declined to either do that or convey a request to her sisters. I didn’t press her.”

“Wise, daughter,” he said, nodding. “A kitsune who tells you to leave has not begun to be difficult. There is no situation so dire it cannot be worse by antagonizing them.”

She had to physically hold her teeth shut for a few seconds to stifle several comments about him lecturing on the patently obvious. Fortunately, Anlin rescued her.

“But what does that even mean? A temporal curse? That is outside my field, of course, but I can’t even imagine how you could use time travel as an attack vector without drawing Vemnesthis into it.”

“It’s not just you, sister,” Kuriwa assured her. “No one knows how that would work; I’ve checked. Consider the important fact that Elilial’s greatest tactical advantage is that she can hide her moves from the other gods. Obviously that has limits when it comes to time travel. Anything thus changed would draw the notice of the Scions. But there may be a way to transmit something very subtle and specific—like a curse—along timelines that she can hide with her gift of stealth. If it causes physical effects in the real world below a certain threshold, the Scions might not notice. Or bother to act.”

“That could account for the strange path the curse takes,” Vynlian said slowly, his own eyes narrowed in thought in an expression that emphasized the resemblance between Anlin’s face and his. “Clearly targeted at you, but beginning with your most distant descendants and proceeding backward, as it were. Avenues of investigation into temporal mechanics are limited, obviously, but several of your mother’s colleagues have studied it as a sort of hobby. I specifically recall Magister Ethliron having such an interest. I will see what is known and whether we can use it.”

“Well, with regard to that,” Anlin suggested, “aren’t the Scions themselves the best possible experts to consult on this?”

“The Scions do not answer questions, nor explain their actions,” Vynlian said severely. “They do not help. You know this well, daughter.”

“We are dealing with an apparently time-traveling curse, father, which has been hidden from them by Elilial’s shadow. If their attention were called to it, they may act with no further prompting.”

“This should go without saying,” Ariel interjected, “but since nothing ever does in this family, I will say it. If any of you does anything to provoke a Scion of Vemnesthis to visit Qestraceel, you will all three be banished and your bloodline stricken from the records.”

“You are right, daughter, but so is the sword,” Vynlian agreed. “The Scions may have exactly the solution, but there is simply no viable way to approach them. It is the kitsune all over again.”

“I had further luck with other drow,” Kuriwa said quietly, and they both turned to her again with expectant faces. “I suspect the Irivoi know something, but their eagerness to involve themselves and aggressive insinuations about what I could do for them in return were deeply alarming.”

“No Themynrites should have been so eager to deal with an outsider,” Vynlian agreed. “You were right to sense danger, daughter.”

“Any other drow in this hemisphere would be all but impossible to approach,” said Anlin. “All but the Narisians refuse outside contact as if everyone carries a plague, and Narisians are worthless rodents even among drow. Slavers and scavengers.”

“On the contrary, sister,” Kuriwa demurred, “I made the last progress I have managed in Tar’naris. The Narisians were remarkably polite once they understood that attacking me was futile and costly. Better yet, they were the first who had some knowledge of similar curses. Princess Arkasia took an interest in me and arranged for me to access the royal archives. Since she was blatantly using my presence in her political maneuvers against her rivals rather than betraying Themynra’s charge as were the Irivoi, I took advantage. Their accounts did not match mine precisely, but they have seen conditions that compare to this curse. Such insidious workings have been wielded against them by the Scyllithene drow.” She paused, drawing another steadying breath. “And so… I know where I can look for final answers.”

“Madness,” Vynlian whispered.

She nodded to him. “Madness. If I must delve the Underworld and seek answers from the shadow priestesses to save my family… If I must, I will. But I desperately seek any better option.”

He lowered his head to stare at the mosaic floor, frowning in thought. Anlin chewed her lower lip, also staring sightlessly out at the anemones.

“Then we know what we must do,” Vynlian suddenly said, raising his chin and using his head-of-the-family voice, “even if we do not yet know how. You have had a long journey, daughter, and a terrible period before it. Take one night simply to rest in your ancestral home. It is an earned respite, and you must sustain yourself for what is to come. Your sister and I will consult the family archives and see if anything therein might help. At the onset of working hours tomorrow, we must make a full report on all these matters to the Magistry.”

Kuriwa had already set aside her coffee cup; now, in spite of herself, she could not help grasping the arms of her chair in nervousness. “Father… Every magister I trust is in this room. You know how they feel about renunciates. These are the people who just today conveniently misplaced the arrival ticket Anlin filed for my visit!”

“He’s right, sister,” Anlin said gently. “The Magistry of Qestraceel is the greatest concentration of arcane mastery in existence. If the luminous science holds any answers, our colleagues will know how to find them. But there’s also the fact that we have to report this. Father and I are not of the higher circles, but we are still magisters, and the news that we may find ourselves soon incapacitated by a mysterious curse is something of which the Archmagister herself must be forewarned.”

Kuriwa closed her eyes. “I… I am so sorry. Father, you warned us, and—”

“And you ran off,” he interrupted with an edge to his voice, “involved yourself in the Hellwar, and drew the personal antagonism of Elilial. Twice. And…you did it to protect and preserve life. Because you believed it necessary. I remember well our argument, daughter, and even then… Though I disagreed with your assessment of the cost/benefit ratio, I could not say you were reckless. You did what you thought was right, knowing you could suffer. That is how your mother and I raised you, and it is more important than…than any of the innumerable things about which we disagree.” He managed a watery smile at her before shaking his head in disgust. “And I will admit to you, in the privacy of our home, that in the years since I have grown to doubt my conviction that you were wrong. I am as cautious as any high elf of my rank, but I have not seen caution or conservatism in the Magistry’s refusal to acknowledge the world above us so much as blind, craven cowardice.”

Anlin raised her eyebrows and let out a whistle. “That’s news to me, too.”

“We can exchange further words about how responsible you are for all this,” Vynlian said to Kuriwa, giving his other daughter a passing glance, “but they will wait till our family is not in danger. Agreed?”

Emotion threatened to choke her for a moment, but she mastered it. Kuriwa was an elder shaman, not the disconnected girl who had run away from this place, no matter how the vivid memories of this house and this city always seemed to bring her back to that younger self. “Thank you, father.”

“Tonight, rest,” he said decisively, rising from his chair. “And tomorrow, action.”

Tar’naris was an eerie counterpart to Qestraceel; the parallels went well beyond it being a hidden city below the surface. Its society was also obsessed with family, though drow Houses and high elven bloodlines were barely comparable social systems. The Narisians in particular were formal and had a surprisingly intricate etiquette, at least toward people they were not trying to murder or enslave, and sometimes even then. Even the attitudes of its ruling class… But then, Kuriwa had observed similar mindsets among human warlords who ruled stretches of barely a few acres from thatch-roofed longhouses. Power was power, no matter how slight its degree, and did predictable things to the mind.

They were a peculiar, twisted shadow of the high elves, she had thought upon her previous visit. Tar’naris reflected Qestraceel more than any of the tribes of the groves. It was an observation she kept firmly to herself in both cities.

Of course, wood and high elves still had a lot more in common with each other than with drow, Kuriwa reminded herself as she hurled a blast of wind peppered with razor-sharp leaves into the formation of soldiers currently trying to charge her. She watched impassively as they were decimated, those augmented leaves ripping through lizard-hide and carapace armor as easily as they did flesh. Narisians produced excellent metalwork, but the control the Houses exerted over the mines meant that only nobles wore metal armor. Such as these were lucky to have steel weapons.

Behind her she had left a profusion of drow in the colors of all three feuding Houses through whose territory she trespassed asleep in the streets of Tar’naris, with pulsating mushroom sprouting from various surfaces and putting off the mist that incapacitated them. It would likely take their priestesses long enough to clean that up that they would lose some soldiers to scavengers before they could all be awakened, but after having had to make it plain she was not to be trifled with on her first visit here, Kuriwa was already out of patience. Even her campaign to passively neutralize the attackers on this trip had not stopped them from sending another wave out of every alley, until she finally gave up and ripped this one to literal shreds.

Which, it turned out, was what she should have done in the first place. Over two dozen drow were felled by her onslaught of wind and razorleaves, and suddenly there was a lone priestess standing ankle-deep in blood and corpses, protected only by a silver sphere of light. Her face betrayed no fear at her predicament, though it did reveal open anger as the reinforcements coming up behind her turned and fled in disarray.

The priestess of Themynra turned back to face Kuriwa, making ritualistic gestures with both hands, but the shaman was already concentrating. Gathering a sufficient charge of static in this environment required her to draw deep upon her various pacts, but even as a wall of silver light manifested in the street and rushed toward her, she released her summoned spell.

For probably the first time in its history, a bolt of lightning split the air in Tar’naris, lashing down from the roof of the cavern to strike the lone priestess. Her shield collapsed and so did she, to lie smoking in the street with the shredded remains of her comrades. The shieldwall about to strike Kuriwa dissolved into glitter and mist a few feet from her.

This marked the first moment since she had entered the city’s central district that there was a measure of quiet around her. Kuriwa could hear them moving, but now they were all moving away. Well, that was what she got for trying to wield a light touch with these…people. In fairness to the drow, Underworld life demanded severe pragmatism, and Themynra was, after all, the goddess of judgment. Narisians had excuse for fighting only when it advantaged them, and even some for eschewing mercy except when they saw political purpose in it.

Still, it was not only prejudice that made high and wood elves alike dismiss drow as scuttling vermin.

She made a further point of removing the obstructions from her path; a sharp gesture and an even more powerful blast of wind cleared the street ahead of bodies, spraying an entire stretch of the buildings to both sides with blood that she scoured so thoroughly from the pavement that her moccasins barely squelched in passing.

They didn’t bother her again all the way to the palace.

There, of course, there were more drow, and of much sterner stuff. An entire phalanx awaited her in front of the gates, half their number hooded priestesses already glowing with silver light and the armored women actually wearing steel helmets and breastplates over chitin mail tunics. Interestingly, the gates behind them were open.

Kuriwa approached without slowing. When she passed the last row of structures into the cleared area around the palace walls, the soldiers raised shields and knelt in unison. These were actually trained to fight in formation, then, unlike the howling rabble she’d carved through on her way here. Even so, they troubled her less than the clerics, who raised their hands and called up a single wall of silver light across the street in front of them.

She kept coming, ignoring a shouted demand that she halt. For the moment, though, Kuriwa did not call up a spell. After all, she could hear what was coming from the other side.

So could they, and though they parted with reluctance, they did part, the formation shuffling away to both sides to open a path. Even the priestesses leaned to the sides, gesturing, and a single break appeared in the center of their wall.

As the lone figure emerged from the palace gates, one priestess lowered her hood and stepped in front of her, speaking in words in the drow dialect which, at that distance, Kuriwa had no difficulty hearing.

“Princess, with respect, this is not safe—”

Arkasia nil Anatima yiyir Fanamnisth neither responded nor slowed, but simply lashed out with the coiled whip she carried. Its length unfurled faster than even elven reflexes could match, being launched by elven speed in the first place; she was clearly well-practiced with that weapon. The priestess did not cry out as she staggered back, despite the splatter of blood that suddenly decorated the armor of the nearest soldier. Who also did not react.

“Kuriwa!” the Princess of Tar’naris called with a pleasant smile, casually winding the whip around her arm as she strode forward to meet the shaman. “I devoutly hope your quest has already brought you unqualified success, and you now return to me only because you desire to resume our acquaintance.”

There was just the faintest emphasis in her words, the most fleeting glance over Kuriwa’s form. She had been surprised to find that the Narisians did not go for insinuation; they either said precisely what they meant or wasted time with polite nothings until you got fed up and left. Arkasia had made it explicitly plain the first time they had been alone that Kuriwa would be eagerly welcomed to her bed, should she be so inclined.

Not being Narisian, she had declined politely and without explaining that the woman utterly repulsed her. It was bad enough that the Princess carried an impractical weapon whose chief purpose was to wound her own subjects when they displeased her. Most of the drow—in fact, nearly all, including some of their nobility—were sufficiently hollow with perpetual hunger their larger frames made them seem almost skeletal. This one, though, was as full-figured and glossy-haired as a human noblewoman. Her ornately dyed spidersilk gown would probably have paid to feed her own servants for a year. The average drow she could excuse as desperate; Arkasia’s selfish sadism was unnecessary and deliberate.

“How fascinating it is,” she said aloud, “that three Narisian Houses should suddenly burst into open battle right in my path…but not until there had been ample time to note my coming and arrange themselves. I could almost think you meant me ill, Princess.”

“You need never fear that,” Arkasia said serenely, stepping to one side and gesturing forward at the palace gates. Kuriwa stepped forth as invited and they fell into step together, approaching the formation of priestesses and soldiers. “Those cretins? Please. Rest assured, I would never allow any who actually pose you a threat to have drawn near. Consider them fodder for sport.”

The soldiers were visibly unhappy at Kuriwa’s approach. One of the priestesses edged out of formation and opened her mouth to say something.

The Princess flicked her wrist, causing a few feet of her whip to uncoil. The cleric immediately ducked back into line.

“Your passage was fortuitous indeed,” Arkasia continued as they passed through the outer walls. “Those factions had begun to pose a slight nuisance. Their infighting has become an inconvenience to commerce in the city, and yet it would be politically disadvantageous for my mother should any one of them emerge a clear victor. Having their forces mutually wrecked by an outside actor is a nearly ideal solution! Truly, the goddess has sent you to us as a blessing.”

“I am so glad to have been of service,” Kuriwa said coldly.

“My honored mother shared some vivid opinions with me after your previous visit,” Arkasia said in the same pleasant tone, “on the subject of indulging an elder shaman from the tree folk. We have little enough to share with our own people; some looked askance on the extension of hospitality to a high representative of distant cousins who cannot be troubled to acknowledge us except to show contempt. And, of course, any discourse with those above invites all manner of commentary from the Gray Priestesses. But now, you have done my House a great service! And raised urgent questions about how wise it may be to challenge you. As a result, Kuriwa, I can safely offer you any aid you may require. Even if you desire something more than the pleasure of my company.”

“I have made…little progress,” Kuriwa said, staring ahead at the approaching inner gates of the palace rather than meeting her eyes. “My father’s people, with all their knowledge, could not supply a solution. At best, they had insight and suggestions regarding the details of dragging more information out of Scyllith’s followers. The demon thrall could offer no help, either…except in the same direction. I’m afraid I have come to take you up on the offer you made when I was last here.”

“Then ahead of you is a dark road indeed,” the Princess murmured. “Come, then, let me show you welcome before your journey resumes. It may be your last chance…indefinitely…to relax. I am certain that even so, I can take your mind off your great troubles for a little while.”

She had the temerity to place her hand against Kuriwa’s lower back as they walked. Not the hand holding the whip; that one was now lightly smeared with the blood of one of her own priestesses.

Kuriwa made no response. Securing Arkasia’s cooperation was apparently going to be an unpleasant process indeed, but one she could bear. If it meant saving her entire family, she could bear anything. Would bear anything.

And Arkasia at her worst was nothing compared to what lay ahead.

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Bonus #55: Accursed, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backer Waytfm!

There was nothing there, even to elvish senses, just another expanse of sun-scorched and wind-blasted rock in the Spine. Or the Dwarnskolds, in the tongue of those who lived under it. This wasn’t even a major peak, merely a patch of the smooth, weathered stone chosen specifically because it was insignificant and unobtrusive, though it did happen to have a view, between other surrounding peaks, of the tropical sea to the north and the desert to the south. Typical; even when trying to conceal themselves, they could not resist a touch of pageantry.

Of course, she knew exactly where she was. And even had she needed help to find the spot, she saw the important arrangement of the innocuous outcroppings of stone around her. The fractal pattern concealed among a smattering of geologic debris. Neither magic nor mundane senses would reveal what was hidden; it would expose itself only to one who knew the secret.

She paused, looked around, and sighed. Then she withdrew the roll of hide from within her vest and peeled it open, revealing the power crystals Mervingen had crafted for her. The gate was meant to be opened by careful flows of arcane magic channeled into precise positions. She was not about to pass that current through her own aura, but the enchanted crystals, made to her specifications by the human wizard, would suffice. Quickly she stepped across the ground, setting each down in exactly the right position along the points of the invisible spiral.

The second the seventh was in place, the gate revealed itself.

It was not the collapse of an invisibility spell but something orders of magnitude more complex; the gate complex had simply not existed on that spot until it was properly invoked, though from within it the highguard on duty would have been able to watch her work, likely with some curiosity. Now it stood there, a smooth arch of wrought gold inlaid with incandescent blue in flowing patterns, augmented with more arcs of decorative glass hovering above its length and rising as barriers around the mosaic dais upon which it stood. Within the arch of the gate itself was the subtle discoloration of the portal, just enough to reveal its presence without betraying what was on the other side.

There were, as law prescribed, three highguard in attendance. The two flanking the gate itself held their position, while the officer immediately stepped forward off the dais, leveling his energy blade at her. She stood, arms at her sides, waiting.

“This is clearly irregular,” the highguard captain said in a clipped tone. Up close, as always, she couldn’t help noticing the little triangular protrusions in his helmet which shielded his ears, an affectation the elves among whom she lived would never bother with. “Identify yourself, woodkin, and identify whoever taught you how to do that.”

“My name is Kuriwa,” she replied, lifting her chin. “I know the gate activation sequence by right of citizenship. You will have me listed in your records as Avaran of the line of Tari’silmina’verai.”

“Oh,” he said after a momentary hesitation, annoyance and disdain filling the single syllable. Behind him, though their luminous glass faceplates hid their expressions from her, the two soldiers shifted their heads to look at each other, and she could easily imagine what they looked like behind the masks. The captain deactivated the energy blade and then clipped its hilt back to his belt, and drew his other sword. This one was shorter than many of its kind, little more than an overlarge and ornate dagger. “Liaron, identify her.”

“She speaks accurately,” the resonant voice of the talking sword replied. “This is Avaran, daughter of Magister Vynlian and Counselor Iranel, of the line of Tari’silmina’verai. This Kuriwa business is also on record; she is a known renunciate. So, not a desirable visitor, but she has not been exiled or even censured by the Magistry. Her citizenship is valid and she has the privilege of entering Qestraceel.”

The highguard captain had the ill grace to sigh dramatically, for which she would have reported him to the Magistry had there been the slightest chance of it doing any good. He slid the talking sword back into its sheath and picked up his energy blade again, though at least he had sufficient manners not to activate it.

“Very well, Avaran, you may pass. Welcome home.”

“My name,” she said firmly but quietly, “is Kuriwa.”

“As you wish,” the captain replied in a tone of overt disinterest, gesturing her toward the gate brusquely. She stepped past him, not pressing the issue. There was truly no point. One of the gate guards actually nodded politely to her in passing, a gesture she returned, and then she was stepping into the barely-visible portal.

It was no less familiar for how long it had been. The faint pressure, the sense of transition, and then she was pushing through the ephemeral barrier like passing into the surface of a pool. The searing heat of the Dwarnskolds vanished behind her, replaced by the cool air and glorious expanse of the hidden city of the high elves.

Of course, both the gate guards on the other side immediately turned on her with shields upraised. Not in true fear of a threat; having passed the gate on the other side without raising an alarm counted for a lot. But it was not often and rarely under favorable circumstances that wood elves were permitted to enter Qestraceel, and by her green-dyed robe, simple ponytail and lack of jewelry, she could not have been taken for anything else. Kuriwa stopped immediately inside the gate, already resigned to repeating the whole performance before being allowed to proceed.

This time, though, it was not to be.

“Oh, stop that, get out of the way. Go on, shoo, shoo!”

A smile broke across her face at the figure who ascended the steps to the gate platform three at a time, already waving aside the guards.

“Magister Anlin,” the officer on duty tried, “this person is—”

“This person is expected and I will vouch for her,” Anlin said in exasperation.

“I wasn’t informed—”

“Oh, I don’t doubt it. If you truly have a fetish for records you’ll find that I filed a certificate of travel for her arrival well in advance and I wish you luck in ferreting out whichever smug little slug in the Magistry managed to lose the arrival ticket. Right now, move your ears! Kuriwa!”

The last was in a veritable squeal, and Kuriwa’s grin stretched even wider as she stepped forward to wrap her arms around Anlin. More than simple happiness at seeing her sister again, this was the first time Anlin hadn’t stumbled over naming her correctly.

“Ow,” she protested a moment later, drawing back and frowning down at the thing affixed to Anlin’s belt. Taking in the sight of it, she widened her eyes. “Oh, my goodness, Anlin, where did you steal that?”

“Hah! I only wish I had the gumption to loot the high treasury,” Anlin chuckled, drawing the sword from is sheath. It was a unique piece, as they all were; this one was mostly black, which was unusual, but its glowing arcane runes made its purpose and nature unmistakable. In fact, Kuriwa noted that her sister had dressed to match the accessory; she had the same preference for jewel tones as most high elves, but today was gowned in understated azure and silver, with severe black accents. The jewelry worked into her coiffure was platinum and onyx. The severity of the colors made her look more mature, despite her ebullient grin. “No, this was appropriately issued to me by the Magistry to assist in my duties.”

“Even after you ran off to fight in both Hellwars?”

“Father’s pet theory is that Grandmagister Laierun thinks the responsibility and recognition will settle me down. Ariel, say hello to my sister Kuriwa.”

“I am not intended for social interaction, Anlin,” the sword said testily. “And your sister’s name is Avaran.”

Anlin slammed the black saber back into her sheath. “That is up to her, not you.”


“Silence. Sorry about her,” she added, grimacing.

“No need,” Kuriwa assured her, waving away the sword’s rudeness. “You and I both know what they’re like.”

The highguard officer cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Magister and guest, but the gate platform needs to be kept clear if no one else is arriving.”

“Yes, yes, quite right,” Anlin said with a sigh, tucking an arm through Kuriwa’s and steering her toward the steps. “Oh, it’s just so good to see you again! Welcome home, sister.”

Qestraceel was not, would never be, had never truly been her home. But Kuriwa smiled warmly at Anlin and squeezed her hand as they descended the stairs to the street below. Anlin was one of the precious few who had never been at fault in her ongoing feud with the entire civilization of the high elves.

The vista of Qestraceel spread out before her, as familiar and alien as it ever was. The gate platform was positioned in its own dome complex at one edge of the great central dome, where in a worst-case scenario it could be cut off or even flooded, but the huge arched gateway into the main space offered a splendid view. There was plenty to see in the gate dome itself, of course. Hovering all around it on suspended platforms were guard stations and siege weapons—all, of course, disguised as art installations, quite a few with trailing clusters of flowering vines. More plant life climbed the glass banisters of the gate platform and its access stairs, the pylons holding it up and the subsidiary structures around its base, even the domed walls.

Not proper plants, though, not to her eyes. These leaves bore subtle patterns in gleaming blue; the flowers were delicate, airy, transparent and faintly luminous. Nature had never intended such things. The transparent dome itself had, in addition to its numerous functional enchantments, a charm to make the water outside as crystal clear as the air on the surface would have been, giving Qestraceel a splendid view of the ocean floor around it. Which, of course, was further augmented by magic to make for a stunning vista of coral reefs and kelp stands, none of which should have existed at this depth. But there they were, altered and fortified by magic, because all gods old and new forfend that the high elves should lack for pretty scenery to gawk at. The creatures and plants surrounding the city were at least ensorcelled not to leave this area or be able to reproduce unassisted, so they would not interbreed with or alter the ocean life beyond. Somehow, that didn’t make the whole matter any less repugnant to Kuriwa.

“Already?” Anlin murmured as they alit on the ground below the platform.

Kuriwa caught herself grimacing at the transmogrified ocean plants outside and sighed. “Sorry.”

“No, you aren’t,” her sister said with laughter in her voice, patting her arm. “You know I won’t argue with your sensibilities, sister. But just, strategically, maybe it would be best…”

“Yes, yes. I will try to keep my savage ways in check in front of Father.”

“Ah, good,” Anlin said solemnly. “And he will try not to act stiff and priggish at you. Between the two of you, I expect the peace to last a good five minutes this time. You’ve both grown so much.”

“Ariel, what’s the penalty for assaulting a sitting Magister?” Kuriwa asked innocently.

“Situational,” the sword replied. “In the case of Magister Anlin, probably a pat on the back and ceremonial flower garland from Grandmagister Laierun.”

“I am surrounded by traitors,” Anlin complained. “Well, I hope you’ve not forgotten how to ride, anyway.”

“Never,” Kuriwa assured her, an unfeigned smile blossoming on her face as they reached the gate. Off to the side of the path, a hovering servitor construct held the reins of two deinos with gleaming livery bedecked with Magistry emblems. She noted that even their feathers matched it, a result of careful breeding or possibly genetic intervention, but even that could not spoil the pleasure of being with these proto-birds again.

Anlin bounded neatly into the saddle of one deino, who obviously knew her well. Kuriwa stepped up to the second, so it could lean forward to sniff at her. The deino allowed her to stroke its featherless beak, emitting a friendly little croak which revealed its mouthful of fangs, and actually reached forward to pat her with one clawed hand, the vestigal pinions extending from behind its wrist flaring. Having been accepted, she vaulted up onto its back, sharing a grin with Anlin.

This she had missed. Horses were such a disappointment to one who had grown up riding proto-birds that she had preferred to develop spells to hasten her own travel speed than try to reach an accord with the panicky, lumbering hoofed beasts.

“Are you sure this won’t harm you politically?” Kuriwa asked as they led their mounts onto the vehicle path that skirted the outer edges of Qestraceel’s vast central dome. On one side rose the sloped transparent wall between them and the crushing depths outside; on the other, the spires of the city itself, gleaming with enchanted lights. The high elves they passed did not attempt to disguise the curiosity and, in some cases, contempt with which they stared at Kuriwa in her traditional woodkin garb.

“Oh, please,” Anlin snorted. “You could be stark naked and this wouldn’t even be the most scandalous thing I’ve done since breakfast. I have a running bet with the other Magisters of my circle on how long it’ll take the Grandmagisters to become so annoyed with me they confiscate Ariel.”

“I’m down for one more fortnight,” said the sword. “Obviously I cannot collect a prize for winning a bet. It is simple optimism.”

“I can see why Laierun thought this one might slow you down,” Kuriwa said.

“Everybody underestimates me,” Anlin replied with a fierce grin. “Well, don’t keep an auntie in suspense! How’s the whole clan?”

Kuriwa’s smile melted away in an instant. “We should wait to discuss that until we’re with Father.”

Anlin gave her a sidelong look of concern, but did not press. “All right. I’ll talk, then. I defy you to guess what that platterpate Athilor did to himself this time. You remember Athie, don’t you, the guy who’s obsessed with cracking self-enchantment? Well, the Magistry refuses to let him die no matter how many times this happens, but last year he actually…”

It was not as if Kuriwa particularly cared for the Qestraceel gossip, but she was grateful nonetheless to Anlin for filling the silence. If not for that, the ride to their family estate would have been a truly miserable trip, between her unease over the business that had brought her back here, and the uncomfortable memories that shone at her from every passing vista of the city like its omnipresent decorative lights. Truly, Anlin was the one thing she missed about this place. If not for the separation from her sister, Kuriwa would have no regrets at all about leaving the high elves behind. But the life of the woodkin was not Anlin’s path, and Kuriwa of all people would never have asked someone to submit themselves to a destiny they could not embrace. Least of all someone she loved.

The holdings of the line of Tari’silmina’verai rose through one of the outlying cliffs surrounding the city, far enough that the great central dome of Qestraceel and the crystal spire rising from its tip to the height of the Anara Trench’s upper rim made for a stunning but distant view. Reaching the estate was a long ride passing through a series of connecting domes and outer tunnels. It hardly seemed like any time at all, though, before they were unsaddling their mounts in the family stables.

Servitors ordinarily did such work, of course, or in the case of richer bloodlines, grooms. Anlin and Kuriwa both cherished any opportunity to work with the deinos, however. And this time, Kuriwa did not begrudge a few more minutes between herself and actually returning to the house proper.

What seemed like all too soon, however, they were there. Kuriwa felt a strange urge to formally ring the gong and announce herself to the name crystal. This place, crushingly familiar as it was, did not feel like home. Anlin, of course, simply opened the door and strode in.

Following her, Kuriwa hesitated on the threshold. Her father was waiting just inside.

They locked eyes and stood as if frozen. Magister Vynlian had not changed in the least from her memories. He was dressed as he always did in the informal comfort of home, in a silken robe without layers or pattern and no formal scarf, with his hair allowed to flow loose down his back instead of styled in a proper coif, held back only by a jeweled forehead band and gathered into a tail by a simple silver clip her mother had made using only her hands, no magic. He didn’t even bother to wear enchanted rings within his own house. Since his wife’s passing, though he had never acknowledge it aloud, Vynlian had stopped exerting himself to ward against any possibility of accident or disaster as such an important man among the high elves customarily would.

“Father,” she said at last.

And then he smiled, in simple happiness at seeing her. Something deep inside herself felt cracked, like a frozen river thawing in the spring. “Avaran. Welcome home, daughter. It has been too long.”

Just like that, so much of the joy went out of the moment. “My name is Kuriwa,” she said firmly. “As you know.”

“Ah. Yes, forgive me.” Vynlian’s own smile vanished. “I am told that you are in a position to understand, now, how jarring it never ceases to be when one’s own child throws aside everything of value you taught her.”

“Oh, you are told that,” she said stiffly. “And you bothered to hear it? I’m glad the continuation of our bloodline is of at least a little interest to you.”

“The continuation of our line among forest-dwelling primitives—”

“AHHHHH!” Anlin yelled, waving her arms about over her head. “She is not! Even! In! The house! Ariel, if one of them doesn’t start behaving like an adult, remind me to stab them both!”

“How many times a day must I remind you that I will not be made an accessory to criminal acts?”

“Is this how you address your colleagues in the Magistry, daughter?” Vynlian asked with grim disapproval.

“Yes,” Anlin said firmly, “and notably, they give me much less crap than you.”

“Father,” Kuriwa interjected. “I don’t want to argue.”

Both he and Anlin turned to her in pure surprise.

“I…wish you could respect my choices and my identity,” she said, struggling to keep a rein on her emotions and expression. “But… I have never loved or respected you less because of the decisions I’ve made. And I hate being at odds with you. Despite everything, we are family.”

Vynlian lowered his eyes, and swallowed. “Daughter, I… Well. Maybe if I were a better person, it would be easier for me to respect your choices. It is fact that I…have not tried as hard as I could. Truly, I am so glad to see you home. I have never ceased to miss you.”

Kuriwa stepped across the threshold into her childhood home, and with a speed that surprised her, cross the three steps into her father’s arms.

Some time later he released her, and they smiled at each other in wordless forgiveness. Anlin stood off to the side, beaming.

“Well,” Kuriwa said, suddenly self-conscious. “I would like to visit the shrine.”

“Of course,” her father said, touching her lightly on the cheek. “Of course. I’ve prepared a meal in the dining room. Your sister and I will be there waiting.”

“Thank you, father.”

A few minutes kneeling at her mother’s shrine helped her to stabilize her emotions. Sacred spaces consecrated to the dead were the only spots in high elf society characterized by notable fae magics. There had been a time in her youth, when she had begun to feel the call of the fae but not given real thought to what lay outside the safety of Qestraceel, that she had considered joining the ranks of the valkryn. The path of a death-priest did not suit her, though; it was life that called to her soul.

Only a tiny spark of power animated the memorial shrine, and of course the thought never crossed Kuriwa’s mind of taking it for any use of her own. Still, it was the first pleasant reminder since she had come back here. And it carried, of course, the reminder of her mother.

A few moments of meditation at the shrine calmed her enough that she no longer felt unsteadied by walking through these memory-laden halls, nor disgusted by the grandiose opulence that surrounded her here. Truly, this house was downright humble by the standards of the Magisters. Her father was a man of (relatively) simple tastes, and while Anlin could not be called simple in any respect, her eccentricities did not lead her toward indulgence in material comforts.

In the dining room, she paused and had to smile again, looking at the spread laid out on the table. Dragonfruit, acai, kiwi, fried lungshark, silver noodles and even imbued luff blossoms floating above a traditional glimmersauce. Vynlian had spared no expense to have all the favorite dishes of her childhood waiting for her.

For the space of one evening meal, it was like it had been before. She kept herself in check, and for a wonder, so did her father, to Anlin’s constant beaming satisfaction. They passed a simple, pleasant meal together as a family, and even the meticulousness with which they avoided topics sure to cause tension did not make it awkward.

Kuriwa, though she kept silent, could not have been more grateful. She desperately needed this, to face what would come next.

And it came within the hour, as they retired to the family solarium, surrounded by luminous glass walls, with colorful seaweed and anemones cultivated outside. Lively fish of species that naturally were not so vivid, nor could survive at this depth, darted through the fronds, and Kuriwa found herself for once not even desiring to make an issue of it. Even the sugared coffee Vynlian served for dessert had been purified of caffeine, as she preferred.

After all that, it managed not to be confrontational when her father turned to her and said, “I know you must have a specific need to have come back here, daughter.”

She drew in a long breath and let it out in a calming exercise he would recognize, having taught it to her as a child. Anlin held her steaming cup in both hands, now watching them in silence with Ariel laid across her lap.

“I have need of your help, father,” Kuriwa said at last, meeting his gaze.

It was he who turned away, staring out at the anemones. “I had dared to hope you might have come to see your family and home for reason beyond the need of our resources.”

“I am here as family,” she replied, controlling her reflexive surge of temper, “not as a beggar. It was you who taught me that the bloodline are to be protected and aided without condition or reservation, with every power and asset that can be wielded.”

Vynlian’s gaze snapped back to hers, and there was suddenly alarm in his eyes. “Your children. What has happened?”

Kuriwa swallowed heavily. “It…is not just my children, father. In the groves, we have different practices when it comes to birthing new generations.”

“Yes,” he said bitterly, “I am aware that the Naiyist tree-dwellers make a point of being fecund as human—”

“Father,” Anlin snapped, “how necessary do you think that attitude is?”

He scowled at her, but then when she glared right back, deliberately brought his expression under control before nodding at Kuriwa. “Your sister is right. Please forgive me, daughter.”

She nodded back, not trusting her voice to hold out if they went one step further down that path. “It is the nature of elves to live in balance with their environment, father. Existing in a living grove is very different from life within the walls of Qestraceel. No, we do not spread as quickly as humans. I don’t think you truly appreciate how rabbit-like humanity can be…but that’s beside the point. I have more than children, but grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren.”

Vynlian closed his eyes, grimacing with such a rapid sequence of emotions that even her experience as a shaman and as his daughter did not enable her to track them. “Avaran, you are barely a thousand years old.”

“Kuriwa,” Anlin said pointedly.

“Please!” Kuriwa interjected before he could round on her sister. “This is difficult enough without fighting!”

“Yes.” Vynlian slumped back in his chair, setting his half-empty coffee cup on its arm and rubbing at his forehead. “Yes, you said your family is in need. If they are blood, they are blood. Tell me the trouble and I’ll come to grips with how many descendants I apparently have on my own time.”

“Thank you, father,” she said carefully. “It began with the Hellwars.”

“Ah ah!” Anlin said sharply, pointing at Vynlian before his furiously opened mouth could produce a noise. “You can say you told us so on your own time, as well!”

He subsided again, visibly biting back some retort, and gestured Kuriwa to proceed.

“Even after everything that has happened,” she said quietly, now staring out at the water herself, “I believe we were right to intervene. The world above would have fallen without every power which dared risk itself to oppose Elilial’s invasions. And the Magistry were purely deluding themselves if they believed Qestraceel could have remained isolated and secure if demons overran the surface. But… But you were also right, father, about the risks.”

Vynlian lowered his head, eyes closed. There was no satisfaction on his face at her admission.

“We caught Elilial’s attention, Anlin and I,” Kuriwa whispered. “She threatened revenge, of course, but I took it for drama and bluster. She is rather prone to both.”

“I remember,” Anlin said, her face pale now.

“In the years since the second war, though…” Kuriwa broke off and had to take a moment. “We… Father, all who descended from me have begun to be touched by the curse. It… Oh, father, it began with the children.”

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