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“The point is this: I don’t believe we are under attack.”
Basra’s pronouncement had the desired effect; the undercurrent of murmuring in the office immediately ceased, and all those present fixed their eyes on her, most frowning. In many places such a statement might have brought on a rush of shouts and denials, but the individuals here were all of a more disciplined nature.
Governor Tamshinaar’s spacious office was very nearly cramped with the full complement of those assembled. Basra occupied the middle of the central floor, with the rest of her party—now including Mr. Hargrave—spread along the wall behind her. The Governor herself sat behind her desk, with her secretary Mr. Dhisrain standing discreetly against the wall behind. Assembled on the upper tier of the office around the desk, and spilling down the steps where space ran out, was nearly the entire upper leadership of Vrin Shai and Viridill itself. Generals Ralavideh and Vaumann, who commanded the Fourth and Second Silver Legions, respectively, stood together to the left of Tamshinaar’s desk, with Legate Raizheh Salindir, the ranking priestess of Avei in the Vrin Shai temple and the province itself. The city’s mayor, a stout and surprisingly young woman named Lorna Mellon, stood on the other side of the dais with Colonel Nintaumbi, who commanded the Imperial forces in Viridill. Nintaumbi was a broad-faced Westerner whose wide frame was all muscle and a testament that he didn’t take his rank as an excuse to sit behind a desk, and incidentally the only man on the dais aside from the Governor’s secretary.
“How would you describe these events, then, your Grace?” General Vaumann asked pointedly, arching a blonde eyebrow.
Basra partially turned to glance behind her. “I spent the early part of the morning with Mr. Hargrave, here, and several of his friends. For those of you who don’t know, Hargrave is a practicing witch and a respected figure in the local community of fae magic users; when I first set out from the Abbey to investigate the elemental incidents, he was the first person I visited, and has spent the last few days meeting up with his fellow witches from around the region. Mr. Hargrave, would you kindly summarize the situation for them as you did for me earlier?”
“Of course, your Grace,” he said politely, stepping forward and pausing to give a deep bow to the assembled dignitaries. “Ah, Ladies, officers…everyone. I’m sorry, I’m more accustomed to my little town…”
“Please don’t be self-conscious, Mr. Hargrave,” Lady Tamsin said with a kind smile. “I appreciate you putting forth so much effort on behalf of our province. Now, what can you tell us about this?”
“Yes, well,” Hargrave said more briskly, “as Bishop Syrinx said, I went to meet with some of my…well, I suppose ‘colleagues’ is a word, though the nature of our association…is immaterial, sorry.” He paused, grimacing, and tugged on his collar. “Most practitioners of the fae arts are rather solitary creatures, aside from being the least popular type of magician among humans. There are probably several hundred scattered throughout Viridill, but I’m personally acquainted with a few dozen, and it was them I sought out to consult about the elemental problem. And actually, I am back here so quickly because many had the same idea. I was spurred into action by Bishop Syrinx, but it seems many of my friends have been receiving…portents.”
“Can you be more specific about that?” General Ralavideh asked sharply.
“It’s…the answer to that question is generally going to be ‘no,’” Hargrave said hesitantly. “I presume you are familiar with the basics, but the main difference between arcane scrying and fae divination is the tradeoff between specificity and…you might call it penetration power. Scrying gives you very precise information, almost perfect pictures if you do it just right, but scrying is quite easy to block or deflect with counterspells. A mage of sufficient skill can even intercept scrying spells and feed them false information, so I’m told, though it’s not really my field…”
“Mr. Hargrave,” Colonel Nintaumbi interrupted, “everyone here is either a military professional or works with them closely. We know the nature and limits of tactical scrying.”
“Ah, yes, I’m sorry.” Hargrave was clearly badly out of his element; the normally self-confident man hunched his shoulders slightly under the rebuke.
“Kindly refrain from badgering the specialist I’ve brought in to help, Colonel,” Basra said coldly.
“Yes, let us keep the side commentary to a minimum until we’ve heard everything, shall we?” the Governor suggested. “Please continue, Mr. Hargrave.”
“Yes, of course,” Hargrave said quickly. “Well, oracular divination is the opposite: nearly impossible to interfere with, but far more…vague. The information one gets that way tends to be rather symbolic. Any serious witch performs divinations at various times for specific reasons, but we also make ourselves receptive to them; the spirits and beings with which we have congress often communicate most readily in that manner. And that is why many of my fellow practitioners were urged into action at the same time I was, despite having different kinds of urgings. We met near the center of the province, not far from here, and compared notes. It seems many of Viridill’s witches have been contacted quite deliberately. It is, as I said, vague, but we believe these visions to have been sent by the being responsible for the elemental attacks.”
“Indeed,” Lady Tamsin replied, leaning forward and frowning intently. “And what does this person have to say?”
“Filtered through the perceptions of a dozen different practitioners,” said Hargrave, “and after comparing notes amongst ourselves, we feel the visitor is trying to court us. Well, them. I was not approached.”
“Court,” General Vaumann said sharply, “as in recruit?”
Hargrave nodded. “The overtures varied somewhat by individual, but the common theme among all was a sense of friendship.”
“You mentioned, Mr. Hargrave, that you were prompted into action by Bishop Syrinx,” said Mayor Mellon. “Does that mean you did not receive such an invitation?”
“Indeed not, your…ah, ma’am,” he said. “For a fairy practitioner of sufficient skill and power—which this person surely is—it’s possible to send out a message tailored to a certain range of emotional perceptions. Fae magic is very good with emotional states. Any time you hear of some ‘chosen one’ being designated without a god doing it specifically, you can bet you’re dealing with fairy magic. We think this mysterious summoner was sending out his message to target those most easily agitated against the establishment here in Viridill.”
“I see,” the Governor mused. “And yet, many of these who got this message came to discuss it with you.”
“Well, m’lady, we’re all creatures of emotion,” he replied. “But we are not ruled by our feelings. That’s just…being an adult. Due to a certain dark chapter in Imperial history which I’m sure you all know, witches in particular tend to be rather standoffish toward the rest of society; it’s a state of mind which could attract such a questing spell. But we all know which side our bread is buttered on, so to speak. Especially those of us here in Viridill; the witches of this land may be reclusive, but we greatly appreciate the shelter offered by the Sisterhood of Avei, and certainly have no wish to see our neighbors harmed. Presented with the likelihood that someone was trying to undermine Viridill itself, most of my friends were moved to meet and compare notes, see what we can do about this. Not being a receiver of the message myself, I wasn’t included in the dream summons they sent out until I was already on the way to investigate, and then it naturally picked me up. But since Bishop Syrinx spoke to me, I was able to direct everyone back to Vrin Shai. Well, first to the Abbey, but she was already gone from there so we thought…”
“This ‘everyone’ you speak of,” Legate Salindir said quietly. “I know you and your witches were instrumental in pacifying the water elementals last night, for which you have our appreciation. I was told there were fourteen of you present?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, nodding. “And more who didn’t come here. Once we brought each other up to speed, helping the capital was one concern; the others have scattered through the province to gather up more support and direct it wherever more elementals may pop up.”
“Seventeen others when we left them, your, uh…ma’am. There will be more by now, I’m sure.”
“And,” the Legate continued, staring piercingly down at him, “how many practitioners do you think will respond favorably to the aggressor’s overtures?”
Hargrave tightened his mouth unhappily. “There…are always a few, aren’t there? Much as I’d like to think my folk have better sense and better morals, there just aren’t any barrels without a bad apple or two. I shouldn’t think more than a handful, if that. Honestly I don’t know of anyone I’d consider likely to turn against the Sisterhood or Viridill that way, but I hardly know every witch in the province.”
“Nonetheless, your insights are extremely helpful, Mr. Hargrave,” said the Governor.
He grinned, bobbing his head. “Well, ah, thank you, m’lady. I try to be useful.”
“It was the other thing you told me that I thought everyone most urgently needs to hear,” Basra said pointedly.
“Oh! Yes, right, I’m sorry.” Hargrave turned to nod to her, then faced the dais again, his expression growing dour. “A constant in everyone’s visions and dreams has been… Athan’Khar. After talking it over, we’re reasonably sure the messages are coming from there. That’s probably where the summoner is hiding.”
“When I spoke with the elves in the Green Belt,” Basra added, stepping forward again and raising her voice over the murmurs that sprang up, “they hinted at the same. All current evidence is circumstantial, but I consider it a solid working theory at this point that our enemy is hiding in Athan’Khar.”
“That casts another color on this entirely,” General Ralavideh said sharply. “We all know there’s only one kind of powerful spellcaster native to there…”
“In point of fact,” said Basra, “I consulted with Colonel Nintaumbi just before this meeting on that very thing. Colonel, if you would kindly share with us what you told me?”
“Certainly,” he said, nodding and turning to face the others on the dais. “I know what you’re all thinking, but it needn’t necessarily be a headhunter, and in fact I think the circumstances counter-indicate that, even if we accept the hypothesis that our enemy is hiding there. Everything we know of this summoner suggests a fae magic user of immense skill and power, correct? Headhunters, by contrast, are not notably skilled or strong in any one school of magic. In terms of straightforward destructive ability, they aren’t really comparable to an archmage, paladin or sufficiently talented warlock. What makes them dangerous is their ability to counter any kind of magic used against them, and the fact that their magic is not wielded consciously, but by the spirits within them. They have faster reaction times than even an elf, and an arsenal of spells that enables them to mitigate any attack, even one far stronger than their own.”
“That,” said General Vaumann dryly, “and they are homicidally insane.”
“Indeed,” the Colonel agreed, nodding to her. “And that’s another point. All this indicates planning. Headhunters simply don’t do that, at least not in the long term. Whatever the personality traits of the elf who makes the journey to Athan’Khar, when dealing with a headhunter our business is with the spirits within, and those are wildly aggressive. There has never, ever been a case of a headhunter doing something so well-planned and subtle. To the extent that when they do exhibit such controlled behavior, it’s usually the elf’s personality breaking through and attempting to subdue the voices of the spirits, which some have been able to do for fairly long periods at a time.”
“What’s to stop a headhunter from being in total agreement with those spirits about needing to destroy humanity and the Empire?” General Ralavideh asked pointedly. “I assume no elf makes that pilgrimage without knowing what to expect.”
“Not impossible,” Nintaumbi conceded. “Interviews with headhunters have been necessarily brief. It would be without precedent, though. I cannot imagine having a brain full of screaming maniacs is good for anyone’s mental stability.”
“Surely nothing but a headhunter could live in Athan’Khar,” the Mayor protested.
“Actually, that’s not necessarily true, ma’am,” Schwartz piped up, seemingly not noticing the quelling look Basra directed at him. “Anyone powerful enough to do what we’ve seen them do could contend with the forces in there. Especially if they’re not human; the spirits of Athan’Khar are dangerous for anybody, but it’s only humans they always go out of their way to attack.”
“Bear in mind that anything we conclude at this point is speculation,” said Basra. “We are just barely beyond the realm of guesswork; there’s scarcely enough information to begin forming theories. But we have been dealing with this individual long enough for certain patterns to emerge, and from those we can draw some preliminary conclusions.”
“And just what have you concluded, your Grace?” the Governor asked.
“Elder Linsheh made the point that for a witch or shaman to accumulate this much power they would have to be quite old,” said Basra, beginning to pace slowly up and down the floor. “Humans possibly can live that long, especially lifelong practitioners of fae crafts, but as Schwartz points out a human inside Athan’Khar would be too constantly on the defensive from the inhabitants to arrange anything like this. We are, therefore, likely dealing with an elf or a green dragon, if not some kind of miscellaneous fairy. Naiya’s get are not well-categorized.”
“The Conclave of the Winds insist they represent every living dragon on the continent,” Colonel Nintaumbi mused. “There are several names of dragons the Empire presumed active missing from their roster, which we had taken to mean those dragons were dead. A few of them were greens. Then again, there’s no reason the Conclave would be entirely honest with us. Dragons are always cagey about their business.”
“And,” Basra added, “Mary the Crow is active. I myself met her in Tiraas last year.”
“I’m surprised you survived that,” the Governor said over the mild stir caused by this.
“Don’t be,” Basra said with a shrug. “She’s a crafty old bird, more prone to making long plans than violent outbursts, which is why I mention her in this context. It’s somewhat off-track,though. What’s significant right now is my original statement: looking at this pattern of events, I do not believe our antagonist is actually trying to assault us.
“Consider the elemental incidents which have occurred. The early ones disrupted travel and trade, then came a more ominous attack indicating planning ability—misdirecting Silver Legionnaires away from one of their bases in order to attack their stored supplies. In all of these, direct harm to individuals seems to have been avoided; there were some minor burns and bumps, but based on the records I’ve seen, all such could be ascribed to the chaos of the elementals’ presence. Then there were two elemental attacks directed at my party specifically; a shadow elemental which posed very little physical threat, and a large rock elemental which certainly could have but never actually harmed us. My bard responded quickly to distract it,” she added, nodding back at Ami, “but it’s possibly it wouldn’t have done so. Then, last night, the water elementals here in Vrin Shai, which were clearly not dangerous.”
“What are you getting at?” General Ralavideh demanded.
“These were not attacks,” said Basra, “they were messages. This summoner is communicating quite clearly with us. The first events show they understand trade routes and the importance thereof, and that they are capable of executing military tactics. The shadow elemental showed that they can afford to waste valuable agents, so secure are they in their power and resources. Mr. Schwartz commented on the difficulty of diffusing a rock elemental into sand to sneak it into our courtyard, a clear message that they can plant a highly dangerous foe behind our defenses. Plus, by repeatedly dropping elementals on me, specifically, they show they are aware exactly who is on the hunt for them. And as for the water elementals… That demonstrated that the vaunted defenses of Vrin Shai are nothing to them. They can hit us anywhere, and in almost any way. The overall point of all this has been to show that they do not specifically wish to harm Viridill, but they very much can.”
There were no mutters this time, but the various dignitaries assembled on the dais looked around at each other, frowning in thought.
“An interesting theory,” said Mayor Mellon after a moment.
“It does hang together,” General Vaumann acknowledged. “But such a message is, in and of itself, a threat. It’s also missing a vital component: why tell us this?”
“I suspect that’s coming very soon,” said Basra, folding her hands behind her back. “The question has been going around my head ever since this began: who would have such an argument with the Sisters of Avei, and why? The Black Wreath doesn’t and can’t use fairy magic, and the Huntsmen of Shaath lack the manpower, the magical power, and frankly the imagination to do something like this. I realize, now, that I was missing the point. The summoner specifically doesn’t want to attack the Sisterhood, or Viridill. They want to go through Viridill. This is aimed at the Empire, or will be; right now, we are being warned to stay out of it.”
“Doesn’t make sense,” Nintaumbi said sharply. “If someone wanted a clear line of attack at the Empire, why go through Viridill at all? They could avoid the Sisterhood’s defenses entirely by striking to the west into N’Jendo.”
“And that is what a headhunter would do,” Basra agreed, nodding at him. “But if we presume our foe is not insane or obsessed with all humanity, that clarifies their purpose even further. The civilizations of the West are fairly recent additions to the Empire; only Onkawa actually wanted to be part of it, and stayed loyal even through the Enchanter Wars. And that is all the way up on the northern edge of the continent. But if someone had a grudge with the Tiraan specifically, as a society, they would look east. Just beyond Viridill is the Tira Valley and Calderaas, the cradle of Tiraan civilization. To reach that, you have to go through Viridill.
“The fact that they have not defaulted to all-out war as a first measure strengthens the theory,” she continued, starting to pace again. “Even when Athan’Khar was a living country, and the Sisterhood and the orcs skirmished across the border all the time, there was respect there, and a lack of real animosity. Both possessed codes of honor governing battle that enabled them to relate to one another in a way that no one else ever really tried to do with the orcs. Even the Jendi simply regarded them as monsters—but they, at their worst, just tried to fortify their border to keep orcish raiders out. It was Tiraas that razed Kharsor and the entire country, and left it as it is now. Whoever’s in there has a sense of history.”
“If what you’re suggesting is correct,” Governor Tamshinaar said slowly, “soon we can expect a more direct approach from this summoner. Specifically, to propose that Viridill and the Sisterhood stand down while they pass over our lands to attack the Imperial heartland.”
“That is my theory, Lady Tamsin,” Basra agreed, nodding.
“It should go without saying,” the Governor said coolly, “that such a proposal will not even be considered.”
“Absolutely,” the Legate said firmly. “Even without getting High Commander Rouvad’s personal endorsement, I can guarantee that. The Sisters of Avei do not stand by while innocents are attacked over ancient grudges.”
“And,” said Basra, “as soon as that is made clear, we become targets. At that time, we will see the full power of this enemy, which so far they have demonstrated only in a rather…playful manner.”
A chilly silence fell, in which the expressions of those around the Governor’s desk grew even darker.
“How can we defend against something like that?” Lady Tamsin asked, turning to Colonel Nintaumbi.
“My people are already fanning out through the country, m’lady,” Hargrave chimed in. “They’re not military, but they will be in position to respond to any elemental incident, and on the alert to do so.”
“I also suggest involving the Salyrites,” Branwen added, smiling briefly at Schwartz. “They have already expressed a willingness to help, and this threat is clearly relevant to their expertise.”
“Ah, if I may?” Schwartz said rather diffidently, stroking Meesie, who was perched in his other hand. “Getting elementals summoned long-distance is…hard. It’s plenty impressive that this character can do it, but nobody can keep it up indefinitely. If it comes to all-out war, there’ll definitely be more incidents like that, but if they plan to move a large force of elementals, they’ll have to actually, y’know…move it.”
“Which is the entire point of this,” Basra said, nodding. “If they could just materialize an army in the Tira Valley, they would do it. They want to be able to cross over Viridill, which means their way can be impeded. Specifically, by Silver Legions backed by priestesses, the best possible counter to elementals.”
“I’ll move the Second Legion to the border,” said General Vaumann.
“And I,” added Colonel Nintaumbi, “will be sending to Tiraas for reinforcements, and specifically strike teams. Those will be absolutely essential if this comes down to responding quickly to magical threats cropping up all over.”
“The central problem we face,” said Basra, “is that we are stuck on the defensive. Invading Athan’Khar is totally impossible; what’s in there would chew up an army in hours.”
“Do you have any suggestions, Bishop Syrinx?” asked the Governor.
“Yes,” said Basra. “I would like permission to move my team into Varansis.”
At that, the outcry of protests from the dais took the Governor a few moments to calm.
“Excuse me?” Ami asked pointedly. “But what is this Varansis and why are we just now hearing about it?”
“Fort Varansis,” said General Ralavideh with a scowl, “is a fortress positioned at the mouth of the River Asraneh, marking the ancient border between Viridill and Athan’Khar. It is, obviously, abandoned.”
“What?” Ildrin practically shrieked. “That is in the corrupted zone!”
“Actually, it’s not,” said Schwartz. “The corruption of Athan’Khar has been steadily receding ever since the Enchanter Wars. It’s about a half-mile south of the river, these days.”
“However,” Colonel Nintaumbi snapped, “the Imperial and Avenist defenses are set up well on this side of the Asraneh. You are talking about moving into a crumbling ruin that’s been home to nothing in the last hundred years but monsters, ghosts, and more recently wild animals, well beyond the range of anyone’s ability to help or protect you. This is madness, Bishop Syrinx!”
“No, Colonel,” Basra said evenly, “this is a calculated risk. I am as familiar with the scouting reports as you; spirit incursions as far northwest as the river are rare these days, and in any case, my team represents a range of skills that can fend off most attackers. We will not be going into Athan’Khar proper, and thus should not run afoul of its inhabitants. The point is that placing ourselves that close to the enemy’s base of operations is an aggressive move, which, since we know they are watching my group specifically, will get their attention. The summoner likes to make blustery moves to send messages; well, two can play that game.”
“And what precisely do you intend to do once you have this summoner’s attention?” the Governor demanded.
“Whatever seems necessary,” Basra said calmly. “With us, as the Colonel points out, isolated and beyond help, it’s my hope that this person will finally reveal themselves, or at least communicate more directly. How we proceed from there will depend upon what is revealed at that time. Ideally we can exercise diplomacy, or subterfuge, to prevent all this from coming to a head. First Doctrine of War: war is to be avoided if at all possible. Failing that…” She shrugged. “If they show themselves, that can present an opportunity for more direct action, if such is appropriate and possible.”
“You just will not be happy until you get us all killed,” Ami breathed.
Basra half-turned to give her a chilly smile. “It’s not us I intend to get killed. For the record, none of you have to come.”
Jenell, who had been silent throughout the meeting, subtly moved her hand to her belt, where she touched not her sword, but a book-shaped bulge in one pocket.