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The winter wind carried a particularly bitter chill just after dawn, when the sun was only barely up, not that it slowed them down. Ingvar naturally kept an eye on the trainees, but what they lacked in acquired skill they made up for in sheer grit, which only made sense given where they’d come from.
It was a sizable group, for what amounted to a standard patrol party, but it wasn’t as if the woods of western Tiraan Province needed much patrolling; the greater part of the purpose in being out was to help the newest Shadow Hunters get accustomed to woodcraft. He had brought November, a spirit wolf, two pixie companions, and three of the Harpies who were just along for the experience. Of them, little Mittsin, who at thirteen was the youngest of the entire group to be treated as an apprentice rather than one of the children, was by far the most intent and seriousness. Ingvar could relate, remembering well what it was like being that age and having so much to prove. The others, a woman in her late twenties and one who had to be pushing fifty, both tended to break into snickers any time they glanced at one of the fairies or the wolf.
It was the names, of course. Ingvar couldn’t begrudge them having a chuckle at Zap and Flicker; the pixies preferred simple, evocative names like that, and rather than being offended seemed pleased when humans found amusement in it. Now, though, he was starting to wonder if giving their wolf companions Stalweiss honor names had been a good idea; only people raised in the traditions of the Stalrange would even be able to interpret them, but he would have expected any such to take them seriously. There was a reason such names were seldom translated for the benefit of outsiders—exactly the same reason the Empire had made sure Heshenaad was remembered by the Tanglish version Horsebutt, where he was remembered at all. So now here he was, in the woods with a cherished packmate and two women who both knew that Nirtaath literally meant “nice bitch” and couldn’t seem to stop giggling about it.
“Really?” November demanded sharply, turning to give them a flat look at the latest round of snickers. Both of them quieted, having the grace to look abashed. Ingvar tried to take a gentler tone with these women, given what they’d been through, but he couldn’t deny that November’s razor tongue had its uses. Mittsin gave them a matching look of disapproval, which fortunately for her they weren’t positioned to see.
“Sorry,” Hilden muttered. Illia nodded agreement, keeping her mouth shut.
“I don’t get it,” Flicker whispered loudly, drifting over by Ingvar. “What’s funny?”
“Nothing is funny,” November stated, turning back around, “and some people should keep that in mind.”
“This is one of those things,” Zap added.
“Ohhh.” Flicker bobbed once in midair, chiming in acknowledgment. “Got it.” The pixies in general were remarkably sanguine about social dynamics which they recognized their failure to understand, once they recognized one of those was going on.
Ingvar cleared his throat, pointing off to the group’s right. “Look there, in that clear area between the trees. What do you see upon the snow?”
“Animal tracks,” Mittsin answered quickly, her voice slightly muffled by the scarf wound over the lower part of her face. She and the other two Harpies trudged forward through the snow to get a closer look, stopping only when Ingvar held out an arm to forestall them. Both pixies floated closer; Nirtaath glanced in that direction, then turned to survey the nearby woods, her ears pricked.
“Specifically, a story,” said Ingvar. “That’s one of the best things about tracking, in my opinion. It’s far more than recognizing when something has passed this way. Once you know how to read them, the signs of the wild are as clear as text on a page. Can any of you tell what this one says?”
“They just…end, suddenly, up there,” Illia answered, pointing. “Look, it’s like a bit splash.”
“But there are no tracks leading away,” Hilden added. “Did the animal just start flying?”
“It did indeed,” Ingvar said gravely, “but not on purpose. Those are a hare’s tracks. Look, follow the progression of events. It starts out from within those bushes, see? Hopping this way and that, in no great hurry, likely foraging. But then, suddenly, the tracks are deeper and much farther apart; it suddenly started running.”
“Something scared it,” said Mittsin.
“Exactly,” he said with an approving nod. “Look how it zigzags; the hare was dodging back and forth, trying to evade something.”
“I don’t see any other tracks, though,” said Illia.
“But you see the splash, as you called it. That disturbance is where the last struggle happened. Look at those shallow, wedge-shaped marks to either side of the crater. What do you think of that?”
They were silent, all three squinting at the spot in puzzlement.
“Wings!” Mittsin said suddenly.
“Wings,” Ingvar agreed, grinning. “Looks like a hawk; none of the owls that live around here are big enough to eat a hare. That one’s journey ended right on that spot.”
“Aw. Now I feel bad for the bunny,” Flicker chimed.
“All life exists by consuming other life,” Ingvar explained, more for the benefit of the three apprentices than the pixie. “We hunt to sustain ourselves; so do hawks, and wolves, and every predator. Animals exist within the balance and are intrinsically part of it. It’s only humans who learn to hunt, consume and destroy without respecting what they take, and what they take it from. Our duty as guardians of the wild is to understand that balance, so that was can protect it. We kill, but with respect, and gratitude.”
Suddenly Nirtaath growled softly, and he turned to follow her gaze. She was staring through the trees in the other direction from the hare’s tracks, ears forward.
“What’s the matter?” November murmured, kneeling beside her.
Ingvar didn’t speak, just following the wolf’s gaze and scanning for signs of anything amiss. Those who had undergone the fey transformation, human and wolk alike, had gained an instinctive understanding of one another’s communication. Nirtaath obviously didn’t speak Tanglish and it was debatable how much actual language she grasped, but she picked up on intent very well. He and November could read her lupine signals just as clearly; something was amiss in that direction, something she did not expect to find in this forest, but not something that alarmed her.
“Is…is something wrong?” Hilden asked.
All three of the other women gasped when the light swelled around November and she changed, standing beside Nirtaath in the form of a golden-coated spirit wolf with white wingmarks gleaming at her shoulders. She lifted her head, scenting the air for a moment, then shifted back.
“I smell magic,” she reported. “Fairy; not hostile, but it doesn’t belong here. And something else, underneath it, almost wiped away. A scent I don’t recognize. Almost…reptilian?”
“Zap, Flicker,” Ingvar said. “What do you think?”
Both pixies fluttered forward, drifting back and forth among the trees in that direction. Zap’s blue-white glow could be difficult to spot against the snow, but Flicker was a fiery orange and easy to follow. She was the first to come back, bouncing in midair in excitement.
“Wind magic!” she reported. “Something made a strong breeze blow through here last night. Right through here. Definitely magical, it wasn’t part of the normal air.”
“Hey, yeah!” Zap chimed, shooting back to join them. “I think it was covering tracks!”
“He’s right,” said November, shuffling forward in a crouch. “Look, the snow here’s more windblown. In a straight path through the trees, there. Something used a fae wind spell to wipe tracks and blow away most of their scent.”
“What kind of fairy would do that?” Illia asked nervously.
“I don’t know of any,” Ingvar mused, staring through the trees with a frown. “The few fairies that bother to cover their tracks either obliterate them with no trace or just use mental magic to deflect attention. This is more likely to be a witch.”
“Elves?” Mittsin asked.
“If an elvish shaman didn’t want their tracks to be spotted, we wouldn’t have spotted them.”
“It was more than a shaman,” November added. “Look how wide the area covered is. Could be…ten people walking abreast, and no telling how many deep.”
“Hm.” Ingvar looked back at his three charges, rapidly thinking. All three met his gaze and matching looks of stubbornness fell across their features; he decided not to bother trying to send them away. This was no time or place for an argument, and anyway, they had to learn sometime. “Neither November nor Nirtaath smelled a threat. Still, per our arrangement with the Duchess, we are responsible for these forests and this is something we need to investigate. Illia, Mittsin, Hilden, you three stay behind us and keep a sharp eye out. Flicker, would you please head back to the lodge and let Aspen and the others know we found something?”
“You got it!” the fire pixie chimed, swooping around him once and then shooting off through the trees, back the way they had come.
Ingvar rested a hand on Nirtaath’s back. “Let’s go see who our visitors are.”
“So, can…can you smell hostility?” Hilden asked as they proceeded slowly after the obscured tracks, Nirtaath at the head of the group with her nose to the ground.
“It’s debatable whether ordinary canines can pick up on things like that,” Ingvar replied, eyes ahead. “Our wolf blessing is fae in nature, and fae magic is excellent for discerning emotional states. Let’s proceed quietly, now, we don’t know who we’re approaching.”
“It goes right for that big ridge,” November said, pointing. “Look how rocky it is; do you think they could have climbed it? Or turned aside?”
“Depends on who it is,” he murmured.
Nirtaath growled very softly, but kept going, and her ears remained up. Ingvar patted her fur once again, continuing to creep through the snow.
“Oh,” Hilden whispered, peeking over November’s shoulder. “It’s a cave.”
“So it is,” Ingvar agreed softly. “Big one, too. All right, you three, remember never to do what I’m about to when you’re first out on your own. A cave in the winter more often than not means a sleeping bear. Stop here, stay alert, and if I shout to run, you run, straight back to the lodge. Look after your own survival first; I can take care of mine.”
He left them, trusting November and Nirtaath to keep them calm despite how alarming that last instruction must have been, creeping forward until he passed gingerly below the rocky overhang into the deep depression beneath the ridge.
At first, Ingvar’s eyes could discern nothing, accustomed as they were to the white landscape outside under gray dawn light. Then Zap floated up by his shoulder, casting a dim but helpful bluish illumination into the underground space.
The cave was much bigger than he would have expected, broad and so deep there was not even a hint of the back visible, but that was not what commanded Ingvar’s attention. In the pixie’s glow, hundreds of tightly-packed red eyes glowed back, all staring right at him.
At least Kheshiri got to disguise herself. Natchua would have preferred the comfort of a disguise charm, given how much attention she drew even at this pre-breakfast hour of the morning. There was only one resident drow in Veilgrad and she had been a well-known figure even before everybody wanted to hear her opinion of the new Elven Confederacy. Unfortunately, making herself known was the point of this excursion. She just had to endure the cheerful attention of passersby who weren’t the people she wanted to encounter.
“Nothing?” she grumbled aloud as the two of them paced through a still-sleepy residential street, where for once nobody was around to approach her. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think these jackasses didn’t want attention.”
“Well, aside from the relative likelihood of finding traces in any given disused warehouse or empty lot,” Kheshiri said reasonably, “the prospects of finding them in one of those at all is a coin toss. The odds are not in our favor, mistress, not taking this approach. To be really thorough we’d need to investigate influential people with whom they might have ingratiated themselves. That’s a Wreath standard, and usually preferable to skulking in squalor, for a whole host of reasons.”
“I don’t fucking have time for that,” Natchua grumbled, tapping the thick folder she carried against her thigh. “Anyway, it’s not like we’ve got a reasonable chance of finding them no matter what; the idea is make it easy for them to find me, the way Mogul seems obsessed with doing. You really think they’ve wormed their way into Veilgrad society?”
“You have to remember, mistress, the warlocks who know dangerous secrets are only a fraction of the Black Wreath, by the numbers. They’re the only fraction that’s important, but for every one of them there are a hundred cretins who’ve just learned a secret handshake so they can get off on how naughty they’re being, dabbling in Elilial’s business. Mostly that’s just the true Wreath’s recruitment pool, but it does provide them with connections to hide in places with indoor plumbing, when they need to. There are bound to be at least a handful in a city the size of Veilgrad.”
“Huh,” Natchua grunted. “After Ninkabi I bet they’ll be relaxing their recruitment standards.”
“They do need to replenish their numbers,” the disguised succubus agreed. “But they may actually find that harder after the truce. Elilial’s no longer as eeeeevil. That takes away a lot of the appeal.”
“I really want to insist that nobody’s that stupid,” she said with a sigh. “But we know the truth, don’t we.”
Kheshiri grinned maliciously. “Everybody’s that stupid, mistress.”
“I’d like to think I’m not. Hopefully, most of my personal friends and acquaintances aren’t.”
“Actually, you’ve got yourself a pretty good group, yeah. But statistically everybody.”
“Oh, Kheshiri, ever the pessimist.”
“Finally!” Natchua exclaimed, stopping mid-stride and turning to face the man who’d suddenly spoken from right behind them. “You took your damn time. Is this it, today? Oh, don’t tell me, everybody’s still at breakfast.”
“Now, now, the Black Wreath aren’t stray dogs,” Embras Mogul informed her, stuffing his hands into his pockets and slouching indolently against somebody’s front gate. “You’re generally not gonna get results with a ‘come hither’ as pitifully obvious as this one. If this is your idea of a trap, Natchua, I’m not impressed. And are you aware who this succubus is, exactly?”
“What succubus?” Kheshiri asked innocently. “I am a pure maiden from a good family of—”
“Don’t bother,” he said curtly. “As tempted as I am to just let you try to control this creature and suffer the consequences—”
“I’m not gonna take any sass on the subject of Kheshiri from the jackass who went and let her out of her bottle in the first place,” Natchua interrupted. “And for what, to try to cause trouble for some rando Eserite? Shit like this is why nobody takes you seriously when you start ranting about how the Wreath actually protects the world. Now listen up, I’ve already wasted enough time on your lollygagging today.”
“I feel I should remind you,” he said with a brittle grin, “that you should always worry less about the Wreath you see than the many you do not. Whatever you planned to spring today, Natchua my dear, I highly suggest—”
“Yes, all right, shut up.” Natchua calmly tossed the folder at him; by simple reflex alone, he caught it, his grin disappearing. “You’ll note I added colored tabs to the pages. The green ones are fairies and the black ones possible chaos events; I recommend you steer clear of those, or at least approach with care if you won’t take my word for it. The orange ones are infernal, that’s what I want you to focus on. If you get done with those, maybe have a look at the black tabs; undead problems aren’t exactly your purview, but if there’s one thing infernomancy is good for it’s breaking shit and you usually can’t go wrong just destroying zombies.”
“I beg your god damned pardon,” he said, clearly affronted.
“Every entry has a rough map and a serviceable description. Have a look at the kraagthshnorik entombed up in the hills,” Natchua advised. “It’s been there at least a couple hundred years and might hibernate forever, but being asleep it’s an easy target. It’s a place to start, anyway. The hedge warlock who’s camped out by the northern lumber camp probably just needs a scare put into him; I’d appreciate it if you approach that circle of imp summoners in the city with more care. They’re stupid teenagers and probably just gonna kill themselves, but they all have rich parents and I don’t need you stirring up the whole city. I was just going to collect evidence on them and turn it over to the Empire.”
“Are…are you… Are you giving me homework?” Mogul demanded incredulously.
“You Elilinists always make such noise about your mandate to protect the world from demons, right? Well, I went and found a bunch of demons for you. There they are, go nuts.”
“Listen here, you preposterous knife-eared wench,” he hissed, his usual facade of conviviality fading away, “the Black Wreath are not your fucking lackeys.”
“Here’s how it is, Mogul,” Natchua stated while Kheshiri grinned in insane delight. “I don’t know what you’re up to around here except that what you’ve told me you’re up to is a load of nonsense. And you know what? I officially don’t give a shit. I have things to do and no more time for your hogwash. The next time you want my attention, you can come to the Manor and knock like a civilized person. As long as you’re not bringing me hostility I will guarantee you safe passage. But if you want my attention, you’ll bring proof that you’ve done something to help protect Veilgrad or you will be directed to fuck right off. If you’re going to hang around my city, you will make yourself useful. That is all.”
“Now, you listen—”
Rather than listening, however, she snapped her fingers and shadow-jumped both of them away, cutting off Kheshiri’s howl of delighted laughter and leaving him glaring at empty space, holding the folder of local threat assessments.
Breakfast and the dining room of Madouri Manor was a cheerful affair reminiscent of the cafeteria at the University, despite its opulent surroundings, mostly due to the familiar company.
“I really wouldn’t want to put you out,” Toby assured Teal. “It’s fine, all three of us have mounts!”
“Toby, for heaven’s sake,” Teal replied in exasperation, “it is freezing out there and it’ll take you an hour to get to Tiraas on horseback. Let us give you a ride.”
“But weren’t you going to teach Shaeine to drive later? I mean, a big multi-seater coach can’t be the best vehicle for that…”
“I would like to think I thrive in extremely minor adversity,” Shaeine said primly.
“Is this that thing again?” Fross asked, floating over Toby’s plate. “The one where you’re so determined to take care of everybody you won’t let us do the same? I thought we talked about this.”
“Shame Raolo’s spending the winter break at his grove,” Iris added. “Raolo can always make him behave.”
“Hey, that’s a point!” cackled Ruda. “Maybe we should get him! Is there a scrolltower near his folks’ place?”
“Please don’t interrupt Raolo’s vacation,” Toby exclaimed.
“Yeah, there’s really no need,” Trissiny agreed. “This’ll blow over as soon as he realizes he just volunteered me and Gabe to freeze our toes off all morning.”
Toby halted mid-interruption, his mouth open, and then leaned back in his chair, groaning and covering his face with both hands.
“We love you too, bro,” Gabriel assured him, leaning over to drape an arm around his shoulders.
“It is seriously fine, Tobes,” Teal chuckled. “If it helps you, we’ve got a new truck model my dad would be delighted to have me show off in the capital. Heated rear compartment and everything. You’d be doing us a favor.”
The dining room door opened, admitting Yancey pushing a cart stacked with small envelopes.
“Ah, good morning, Yancey,” said Ravana, setting aside her teacup. “How is—good heavens.”
“There is no cause for alarm, my Lady,” the Butler assured her, bringing his cart around the table to park near her chair. “These are social invitations, sent by Duchess Dufresne to each of the individuals here.”
“Malivette?” Trissiny asked, blinking. “Us?”
“Oh, that’s right, she never really got to know me, did she?” Gabriel mused, accepting a card with his name in neat calligraphy from Yancey. “Only reason I can imagine why a noble would invite me to a social event.”
“Pursuant to that, my Lady,” Yancey continued while continuing to pass the invitations out around the table, “the Duchess reports that Natchua has acquiesced to her and your suggestion. The social event in question is meant to be the formal announcement of the Houses’ agreement. As protocol dictates, every ruling House and the minor Houses of Lower Stalwar and Tiraan Provinces shall be invited to attend.”
“Natchua?” Gabriel paused in the middle of opening his envelope, looking up with narrowed eyes. “At a social event? With Malivette? Ravana, what did you do?”
“Why does everyone always assume I did something?” she demanded.
The crackle of silverware and paper around the table fell silent as everyone paused in eating and opening cards to stare at her.
“Yes, all right, point taken,” the Duchess acknowledged with a wry little smile.
“One day is extremely short notice for a social event requesting the presence of such dignitaries,” Shaeine observed.
“Yes,” Ravana agreed, “I rather expect Malivette’s intent is to learn who is morbidly curious enough to show up despite the implied insult. One way or another, it promises to be an interesting evening! Was there anything else, Yancey?”
“Yes, my Lady,” he said, handing the last card to Iris and gliding back to her chair, where he folded his hands behind his back and stood at attention. “There appears to be a situation in the west of the province. This morning the Manor received an urgent signal from Sheriff Ingvar. I took the liberty of dispatching Veilwin to the lodge to collect a report.”
“Really? It’s not even eight in the morning,” Ravana said, raising an eyebrow. “I am most impressed that you managed to get her up.”
“I have found that Veilwin’s hangovers respond well to topical hydrotherapy,” Yancey said diffidently.
Gabriel frowned. “What kind of therapy?”
“He dumped water on her,” Ruda said merrily, still tucking into her pancakes. “Works on my Uncle Raffi, too!”
“It seems,” Yancey continued, “Ingvar has discovered a large group of lizardfolk attempting to surreptitiously cross the province, concealing their movements with fae magic.”
Once again, quiet fell over the room as everyone processed that.
“Lizardfolk?” Ravana demanded. “Why? How many?”
“The Shadow Hunters are still attempting to take stock of the situation, but Ingvar has ascertained so far that they are an assemblage of multiple tribes from the entire region of lizardfolk population, extending from Viridill to Mathena and the northern desert. They claim to be going to Tiraas in pursuit of some prophetic vision. The Sheriff has not obtained a thorough headcount, but Veilwin estimates there are at least five hundred of them.”
Ravana blinked twice. “…Trissiny, you grew up near tribal colonies in Viridill, yes? Have you ever heard of such a thing?”
“Uh…” Trissiny was still holding her knife and fork, apparently forgotten in both hands. “Based on what I knew, lizardfolk never live in groups of more than a hundred and usually less than half that, rarely approach human cities, have no organized religion, and hibernate in the winter.”
“Well, of course,” the Duchess said fatalistically, forgetting her manners to the point of placing one elbow on the table and leaning her face into her hand. “Because why should the high elves be the only race of people to suddenly abandon millennia of tradition in my backyard? I don’t suppose Ingvar happened to mention to these nomads that I am on vacation?!”