The entire group materialized in a clear area nestled between three hills; the largest gap was on the southern edge, directly to their right, through which a road was visible in the near distance. Fortunately, there was no traffic along it at present, though this was significantly closer to N’Jendo’s population centers.
They were still arranged in a line, approximately, though adjusted for the terrain; the group was positioned carefully along the slopes of the roughly bowl-shaped little vale, with new gaps in the formation so that nobody was standing in the small creek or the old firepit which marked this as a popular campsite. Other than that, they were in the same basic order: the elves (including Rainwood) in the center, flanked by the two Imperial strike teams in their own diamond formations, and past them the ranks of the Huntsmen of Shaath on one side and the Rangers on the other.
It had been a hectic and yet tedious morning, spent getting all of these individuals together and brought up to speed, but despite the inherently chaotic nature of such an effort, it had to be said that the Shaathists and Rangers had bowed to necessity and agreed to cooperate with a minimum of grumbling and (so far) no actual infighting. If they did so by keeping themselves as physically separate as possible, well, whatever worked.
“Even adjusted in transit for the terrain,” said Lieutenant Tehradjid, the bespectacled mage of the second strike team which had been busy trying to interrogate the Rangers when Antevid’s team had linked back up with them. He leaned forward to look past Rainwood and Shiraki at Tellwyrn. “Are you all right? Can I do anything to help?”
“That’s sweet,” she said flatly. “Also absurd, and a little patronizing.”
A hint of color rose in his cheeks. “I just mean, to teleport this many people to a previously unknown location, even without actively compensating for terrain—”
“Leave the archmage alone, Lieutenant,” Major Luger ordered. “A person doesn’t live three thousand years without knowing her limits. We appreciate your work, Professor. Khadaan, report. Any sign of our targets?”
“I’m still trying to orient myself, ma’am,” her team’s witch replied, the diminutive woman’s eyes narrowed in concentration as she turned slowly to scan their surroundings. “The spirits are slightly less disturbed here, probably due to distance from the event site, but it’s still not easy to listen.”
“Rolf?” Captain Antevid asked quietly.
“Same, sir,” Lieutenant Schneider reported. “I’m trying to center myself, but I expect we’ll get answers from the elves before either of us can discern anything.”
The three shamans had fallen still as trees immediately upon arrival; Sheyann and Shiraki had their eyes closed, while Rainwood’s were darting about the clearing as if following motes of dust in the air. Lieutenant Khadaan gave Schneider and then the elves an irritated look before returning to her own taut focus.
While the Imperials conferred, the two outlying wings of Huntsmen and Rangers subtly drew together, pulling away from the central groups—and, by extension, each other. Both their leaders, Arjuni and Brother Djinti, had deemed this crisis enough to warrant their full attention, and thus brought every able-bodied hunter not essential to the running of their lodges, which meant that with thirteen present the Rangers outnumbered the Shaathists, chiefly because they hadn’t left all their women at home. They were now busy conferring softly and soothing their animal companions, which seemed generally well-behaved but had not enjoyed being teleported.
It was perhaps fortunate that the elves and both strike teams kept the groups physically separate, as the fur-clad Huntsmen were giving some very long looks to the cloaked Rangers with their half-female complement, not to mention the domesticated animals among them. Huntsmen were known to dislike dogs, and there were three of those, plus a golden eagle and a giant lynx.
“They come,” Sheyann stated, opening her eyes. “You placed us well, Arachne. It will be minutes at most.”
“Of course I did,” Tellwyrn grunted, folding her arms. “I’m just glad we found Rainwood. Would’ve been a real hassle to try to locate them on the move via scrying.”
“Stand ready,” Major Luger murmured, staring to the northeast. “We’ll give the shamans every chance to settle this amicably. If they can’t get through—”
“Then we’ll try something else,” Tellwyrn interrupted, “and I suggest you remind yourself that one of these creatures is one of my students before you finish that sentence, Major.”
Luger, following the pattern of Strike Corps personnel Tellwyrn had encountered, had shown no sign she was impressed by the presence of a magic caster for whom she was nothing approaching a match, and now gave the archmage a very flat look.
“I was under the impression you understood the stakes, Professor. How much damage has to be done to the entire world before you judge it an acceptable price for ruffling the hair of someone you happen to care about?”
“This isn’t going to end the world,” Tellwyrn said, rolling her eyes. “Worst case scenario, it’ll make it more interesting for a while. I have lived through actual apocalypses, and a recurring lesson from them is to snuff out the wand-happy idiot who thinks they can avert disaster by shooting the right person. Never works, usually makes it worse.”
“Arachne, behave yourself,” Sheyann said curtly. “Major, this is a process. We are unlikely to find unequivocal success on our first attempt. We will get through to them as quickly as we can, but using force is certain to help nothing and likely to worsen the ripples through Naiya’s magic.”
“The Elder’s right, Luger,” Antevid added. “If the wolves attack, take a defensive stance, but we should be careful not to harm them even so. Arcane shields should drive them off, as fae as they are.”
“They won’t attack if they aren’t attacked,” Rainwood started to interject, but Luger rolled right over him.
“I did not ask your opinion, Captain,” she snapped, glaring right through the elves at Antevid.
He shrugged. “If you have a problem with my decorum, Major, you can take it to the Lord-General at any time. I would rather explain that to him than why I stood around letting your hot head kick off a catastrophe.”
“Lance, you’re posturing,” Lieutenant Agasti stated. “This is not the time for it.”
“Verily, the warlock still speakest the purest truth on this mad day,” Shiraki intoned, folding her hands. “Hark, all. The time is upon us.”
It was slightly less upon them for those without the benefit of elven hearing, but it was only a few more minutes before they arrived, just enough time for the Huntsmen and Rangers to arrange themselves in two wide arcs to funnel anyone who came at the clearing from the northeast right at the shamans in the center.
They were, if nothing else, beautiful. Nearly a score of wolves bounded out of the shade beneath the trees which crowned the hills all around, bringing their own light with them. In color, they were predominantly white, with patterns on their fur in green, blue, and violet, where normal wolves would have shades of gray and brown. Most of them also bore strangely regular markings in the same colors, faintly luminous and forming abstract glyphs. The creatures were notably larger than average wolves, and carried with them a faint, pale glow as if moonlight fell wherever they stepped.
Upon entering the clearing, the pack came to a halt arrayed along the slopes beyond the treeline, staring down the assembled bipeds facing them.
“Magnificent,” one of the Rangers whispered. All of them, as well as the Huntsmen, were staring at the creatures in open awe.
A single growl sounded from deep within the chest of one of the wolves; the others shifted their heads just enough to watch him without taking their main focus off the humans and elves.
Arjuni went down to one knee, followed by the rest of his Rangers. One of them struck a small handheld bell, while another began playing a soft tune on a wooden ocarina. Several of the others started humming along.
“What in hell’s name,” one of the Huntsmen began, only to be shushed by Brother Djinti.
“Let them work,” the lodgemaster said softly. “Shadow Hunters are known to charm animals to their will.”
It did not appear to be working, however. The large wolf who had growled sprang forward, prompting Antevid and Tehradjid to snap arcane shields into place around their respective teams.
The wolves closed half the distance before the world around Tellwyrn slowed to a halt.
Adjusting her spectacles, the sorceress stepped forward past her associates, currently frozen in time along with the humans around them. She ducked her head to avoid an immobilized butterfly and walked right up to the wolf who was apparently the leader, a pure white specimen whose only marking was the shaft of an arrow in glowing green running down the center of his face, its tip almost touching his nose and the fletching branching across his forehead.
“Ingvar,” she said, bending forward to peer into the wolf’s luminous eyes. “Well! Inconvenience notwithstanding, I can’t say it doesn’t suit you.”
Tellwyrn turned and paced back to the others, reaching out to lightly touch Sheyann, Shiraki, and Rainwood in turn. All three elves began moving at the brush of her fingertips.
“What…oh, Arachne,” Sheyann said, heaving a sigh of exasperation.
“This is creepy,” Rainwood muttered.
“Complaints will be accompanied by better ideas or dismissed as the pointless noise they are,” Tellwyrn snapped. “Don’t waste time.”
“Can we?” Shiraki asked pointedly.
“Stopping time is beyond even my power, Chucky; I can only accelerate our passage through it relative to the world, and compensate for little inconveniences like having our skin sanded off by air friction. Don’t touch anything or anyone you wouldn’t want to punch with the strength of a dryad. All right, Rainwood and actually competent shamans, this buys you a moment to examine these creatures more closely. Let’s see what we can see.”
Shiraki tilted his head, listening. “The spirits are silent…or, I suppose, whispering too slowly to be heard. Without their wisdom and their power, Arachne, our own is severely hampered.”
“I don’t suppose that is something for which you can compensate?” Sheyann inquired.
Tellwyrn shook her head. “I know exactly the limits of Vemnesthis’s tolerance, and this right here is it. Even if I could single out your particular fae familiars from the background noise of Naiya’s ruffled feathers, if I started shifting them out of sync with the world we’d be neck-deep in Scions before actually accomplishing anything. Sorry, this is the best I can do.”
“It is a golden opportunity, even so,” Shiraki agreed, nodding. “Very well, let us do what we can, Sheyann. Rainwood, try not to break anything else.”
“I hope you don’t think you’re making an impression on me,” Rainwood sneered. “I have been henpecked by the very best, and none of you are in Kuriwa’s league.”
“Hush,” Sheyann said brusquely, already having strode forth to bend close to a pale green wolf whose coat was striated in patterns of gold, with the gleaming icon of an aspen leaf tattooed on her shoulder, apparently inked in sunlight. “I have never seen a transformation quite like this. Up close, it is clear even without my spirit guides that Aspen’s innate nature played a critical role in causing the effect. That does not account for the entire thing, however.”
“There is a strong divine element in this,” Shiraki agreed, pacing down the line of wolves. “I believe this one used to be an ordinary wolf; it did not affect only the humans. Interestingly I don’t detect the influence of any specific god. Ordinarily, you can pick out the presence of at least one of them where there is this much divine energy.”
“It is remarkably well-integrated into the fae, as well,” Sheyann mused. “The weaving of both types of magic is intricate, and seems quite stable. It would normally take great effort by skilled casters of both schools to do this.”
“Looks like the standard high-level fae curse to me,” said Tellwyrn. “I’ve always somewhat resented how you lot can wiggle your fingers at the right bugaboo and have something so incredibly complex it’d take me all day to design a corresponding arcane spell just sprout up organically.”
“Yes, but it’s the integration that’s anomalous,” Sheyann replied. “Organic growth of complex fae spells such as you describe doesn’t apply to cross-school applications. The spirits won’t, under ordinary circumstances, weave their magic in and around the divine in this manner. Such an effect usually means the influence of a skilled caster, but…”
“Looking at this,” Shiraki added, “I surmise that the weaving was done by the spirits, using borrowed divine power. But that would mean both that it was channeled through a fae source—in this case, likely Aspen…”
“Feasible,” Sheyann mused. “She is a demigoddess, and the dryad transformative effect is known to have unpredictable results.”
“And also,” Shiraki continued, “to have been accessed directly from the divine field without the intercession of a god, any of whom would probably have stopped this from happening had something drawn their attention to it. Dwarves can do such as this; was there one present, Rainwood?”
“No, that’d be her,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh, kneeling in front of one lunging wolf, a smaller specimen with a goat of dappled gold. Eagle wings were emblazoned on both her shoulders in glowing white. “Honestly, November, when you opted to take a semester off this was the last thing I imagined.”
“She was prompted into this business directly by Avei,” said Rainwood. “Which is only part of the reason I’m not panicking about this, despite all your Elder chunnering. It’s not as if I didn’t know the uncertainty and the risks involved. I did this because I trust my guides, as any shaman should, and they were confident that it would work out well.”
“Yes, just look how well it worked out,” Shiraki said, giving him an irritated look.
“It hasn’t worked out,” Rainwood replied. “It is still working; that’s what we are doing here. Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of Elder? I really shouldn’t have to explain the importance of letting things take their course.”
“Enough,” Sheyann said wearily. “We have much to do and no time for squabbling. This has been informative, thanks to Arachne’s knack for temporal magic. The task appears to involve disentangling fae and divine magic of considerable power.”
“That will take time,” said Shiraki. “Quite a bit of it. And as we cannot do it without our spirit guides—or without risking the antagonism of the Scions—it will have to be in real time. That raises its own host of problems. In the immediate term,” he added, turning to look back at the staggered row of humans, “how best to prevent this from becoming another debacle?”
“I believe it will work out,” said Sheyann. “These humans, I think, possess sufficient restraint not to become violent without necessity, and the wolves are not attacking. Look.” She paced around behind Ingvar and pointed forward in the direction he was bounding. “He is leading them into the gaps between groups; the others are collecting together to aim for other breaks in the line. None of them are baring teeth.”
“Funny,” Tellwyrn grunted. “For a man on a crusade to debunk Shaathist alpha male nonsense, Ingvar sure does have this whole group eating out of his…paw.”
“It’s instinct to follow the lead of whoever seems to know what they are doing,” Sheyann replied, giving her a faint smile. “Most social animals will do that, including people.”
“Especially people,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “Just imagine what the world would look like if competence were rewarded the way confidence is… All right, thanks for your insight, all three of you. I believe I know how to cut through this knot. This is going to feel weird, but I promise it’s not harmful. Just go with it.”
She made a swirling gesture with one fingertip, and all four elves rose slightly off the ground. Fortunately, they all possessed the sense to follow her advice and relaxed into the effect as they were floated bodily through the air and repositioned right where they had been before she accelerated them out of sync with the world.
Immediately the flow of time resumed around them, most compellingly expressed by the whole pack of spirit wolves lunging straight at the line.
The elves remained still and unfazed, the Imperials held their discipline behind the glowing blue shields their mages had up, and the Rangers did not pause in their musical attempts to connect with the pack. There were a few outcries from the Huntsmen, and one of the younger among them was knocked to the ground in passing.
But aside from those very minor brushes, the wolves flowed smoothly through them, pouring into the gaps opened up in their line and swiftly disappearing up the hill behind and once more into the trees.
Captain Antevid heaved a sigh and dropped the shield around his strike team. “Well, that was good and pointless.”
“Not at all,” said Tellwyrn. “We were able to gather some crucial insight from their presence.”
“Do tell,” said Arjuni, standing back up and turning to face her.
“The transformation is sustained by fae and divine magic, woven together in a way we can’t easily untangle. It’s doable, but it would take time, and we would need to find a way to pacify the creatures that doesn’t kick off another big spiritual disruption.”
“Which is a significant risk,” Sheyann added, “connected as they are to the flows of fae magic and sending their calls into the minds of everyone attuned.”
“Time is going to be an issue,” Major Luger said curtly. “Given the rate at which they’re traveling, on this course they’ll be in Ninkabi by tonight.”
“They will turn aside long before reaching it,” said Djinti. “Wolves will not enter a city unless forced. That raises its own problems, of course; once they change direction we will have to find them again, and N’Jendo becomes more populous toward the coasts. It will not be long before they can no longer avoid encountering people.”
“All right!” Tellwyrn said briskly. “The core issue, then, is that we do not have the time or the resources to solve this intractable problem before it becomes exponentially worse. The good news is I know just the person to cut through this knot. It’ll mean calling in a favor I’ve held onto for more than a thousand years, but what the hell. The need is dire and honestly I can’t imagine what else I’d ever want from him. It will be tricky to even get his attention—certainly took me long enough last time—but with skilled divine and fae casters here I’m confident we can jury-rig something. First of all, witchy types, we need to know where the pack is heading and have another open space where we can get in front of them to set this up. While you’re figuring that out, let me walk the rest of you through what I’ll need you to do. Shaathists, you’re going to find this tremendously exciting and possibly fairly sacrilegious, so I’ll ask you to consider what’s at stake and try to keep your pants on.”
Brother Djinti stared at her for a moment, then shifted to address the other elves. “Is she always…”
“Yes,” the Elders answered in unison.
The actual work of magic was not prohibitively complex, once they got to it; the hard and time-consuming part, just as Tellwyrn had predicted, was in convincing both the Huntsmen and the Rangers (and to a lesser extent, the strike teams) that what she planned was both possible and not an unforgivable offense against the gods. She gave them patient explanations at first, gradually escalating into bullying everyone into compliance by the time the three shaman had finished their oracular work to find a new site to intercept the pack.
The passage of two more hours found their whole increasingly strained alliance positioned in another clearing, this one on flat ground surrounded by pines, which they had set up fully according to the improvised specifications of the invocation Tellwyrn wanted to perform. Much of the ground had been decorated with glyphs and spell circles inscribed in a variety of ways, ranging from streaks charred into the soil by fire or simply areas of vegetation stomped flat to more delicate streams of dusts, powders, and crystal fragments supplied by the shamans. All around the perimeter of the space, Shaathist talismans had been hung from the lower branches of the trees. These charms were somewhat improvised as they had been limited by what the Huntsman and a few of the Rangers happened to be carrying, but Djinti and Tellwyrn judged that it would suffice for her purpose.
“This is crazy,” Antevid commented without much emphasis, peering around at their handiwork.
“If you had a better idea, the time to share it was before we started,” Tellwyrn retorted.
“Oh, believe me, Professor, none of this would be going down if I had a better idea.”
“They are coming,” Sheyann announced, staring fixedly to the northeast. “As you surmised, Arachne, the preparations here are drawing them actively.”
“They are wild things,” murmured Shiraki, “and yet magical things. Both instinct and spirit move them—and somewhere deep beneath, the memory of sapience. It may be that they seek salvation from their cursed state.”
“Well, I guess we’re about to find out,” Tellwyrn replied. “Back up, everybody, give our guests of honor space. Their presence in the clearing is going to be the next-to-last catalyst for the invocation.”
The tension was palpable from among the humans. The hunters, at least; the strike teams seemed generally nonplussed about the whole business, going along because, as Captain Antevid had pointed out, they had no better ideas. The rest were as taut as bowstrings, however, over the implications of this.
Tellwyrn just moved calmly to stand in the middle of the small spell circle she had supervised Sheyann forging, just in front of the largest of the rings laid out on the ground.
Again, the wolves emerged from the trees amid a glow which brightened the clearing even under the afternoon sunlight. They ran silently, slowing upon finding themselves confronted by the same group of people. This time, though, they did not come to an abrupt halt, instead slowing to pace forward one cautious step at a time.
Upon their arrival, magic began to rise. Charms hanging from branches rattled as a soft breeze rose from nowhere. Some of the traceries upon the grand began to flicker alight, bringing mossy and floral scents to the air and a faint ringing at the very edge of hearing as fae and divine magic coalesced.
The wolves finally came to a stop, arranging themselves in a neat wedge behind the white wolf with the arrow marking.
Glaring right at them, he bared his teeth, growling softly.
“Oh, boy,” Antevid muttered. “They’re mad, this time.”
“Professor?” Luger prompted in a warning tone.
The wolf moved another step forward, growling more insistently.
“Arachne,” Sheyann murmured, “you do not appear to be receiving the reaction you had hoped.”
Frowning, Tellwyrn looked down at the now-glowing circle in which she stood, then behind her at the much larger one, which was still fully inert.
Another step and another growl from Ingvar brought the rest of the pack forward as well, several of them now growling in unison.
“Orders, Major?” Luger’s warlock pleaded.
“Wait,” she said, staring at Tellwyrn. “Give her a moment…”
“HEY!” Tellwyrn suddenly shouted, tilting her head back to glare at the sky and pointing imperiously at the middle of the large, empty circle. “You owe me, dammit! I demand payment of your debt!”
Lightning blasted downward from the cloudless sky, the flash and thunderclap momentarily blinding everyone present and causing a few of the humans to shout in protest. In the next moment they were silent beneath the weight of the presence which had descended upon them.
He was a simple, average-looking gray wolf, yet also a titanic being which towered over the very forest. The unmistakable impact of a god’s consciousness, the overwhelming force of thoughts which seemed to press every other mind in proximity in on itself, contrasted with the ordinary appearance of the best—when it appeared ordinary. It seemed almost to flicker, his gray and brown coat utterly unremarkable one moment and the next formed out of light itself. His very presence was a dizzying maze of contradictions, as if even he did not fully understand what he was meant to be.
The entire pack immediately folded themselves to lie on the ground, staring at the great wolf before them. Ingvar whined softly.
Shaath raised his head toward the sky and let out a howl that resonated across the world.