Tag Archives: Shiraki

15 – 45

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“Well, regardless of the assortment who came here last night, only wolves left,” Sheyann declared, straightening up from her examination of the tracks left in the forest clearing. “And not…exactly wolves, I should think. To judge by the size of their paws, they were bigger than ordinary wolves, and yet significantly lighter. Tracks this size on this soil should be deeper.”

“Assuming they aren’t normal wolves,” Tellwyrn replied, still crouched by the remains of the fire and peering at the burned spot through her spectacles, “that’s not conclusive. There are several fae canine variants with outsized paws, which would have a similar effect. Any evidence of large talons?”

“I assure you, Arachne, I know a corynx’s tracks when I see one, and I’ve not seen one on this continent since before the Empire. Besides, there is more than tracks on the ground to be seen here. I cannot say precisely what sort of wolf creatures these were—something without precedent in my experience, I think. But they are magical.” She closed her eyes, inhaling slowly through her nose as if taking in the scent of whatever these people had turned into. “And, I think, still sapient. It has all the hallmarks of a transformative curse, and yet…”

“Please don’t trail off dramatically like that,” Tellwyrn said after a short pause, standing upright herself and turning a scowl on Sheyann. “I don’t tolerate unnecessary ellipses when grading papers and they aren’t any more palatable in person.”

“Sorry, I wanted to be certain before speaking.” She turned to face the other woman, her expression grim. “There are multiple sources of magic tangled up in this, most fae, but the most outstanding font of power behind it is very familiar. Arachne, I believe Aspen was involved.”

“Aspen,” Tellwyrn growled. “Last seen with Brother Ingvar, renegade Huntsman traveling around digging up old secrets to try to reform Shaathism. Well, a pattern sure is beginning to emerge, isn’t it?”

Sheyann nodded. “Could you see anything of note in the fire?”

“Little that you missed,” Tellwyrn admitted, adjusting her spectacles. “There are a number of anomalous details I’m sure I could tease some meaning out of, but it would require days and a laboratory. Since we’re in a hurry, I think we’d better relegate that to a last resort. The most obvious thing is that whatever this ritual was meant to do, it went wrong.”

“I suppose it is reassuring that Aspen, Ingvar, and whoever else were not trying to unleash whatever chaos they did, although that may only add to the difficulty of sussing out what happened. Either way, of course, neither of them are capable of a fae working of this complexity.”

“Knowing who their spellcaster was may not help much, since they also ended up as some kind of spirit wolf.”

“As for that,” said Shiraki from the other side of the clearing, “we may finally be in luck. One person left here on two legs. An elf, I should think.”

Both of them paced carefully toward him, and he pointed at a single set of tracks leading away into the trees. “I believe I see the broad shape of events,” Shiraki mused. “The wolf-beings departed west by southwest, in almost precisely the opposite direction from the earlier magical disturbance in the Wyrnrange mere days ago; it may be that lingering influences from that disrupted this working. But this individual, who wore moccasins on feet with the dimensions and weight of an average wood elf, headed off to the northwest.”

Sheyann closed her eyes again, raising her head as if scenting the wind. “There is…a lodge in that direction. Huntsmen of Shaath. And not far distant, a Ranger outpost.”

“Then it seems we have our culprit,” Tellwyrn said, cracking her knuckles. “C’mon, let’s get after this guy. With a little more—watch out, someone’s teleporting in here!”

All three elves spun, both Elders bracing their feet and Tellwyrn drawing one gold-hilted saber from seemingly nowhere.

Sparkles of blue light appeared next to the inert campfire, followed by the appearance of four humans and a rough burst of displaced air. They wore Imperial Army uniforms with the longer coats and Circle of Interaction-shaped badges of the Strike Corps, and had arrived in standard diamond formation.

“Well, well,” said the man at the head of the group, who wore a captain’s insignia and the blue-backed badge of a mage. “Professor Tellwyrn. What the hell have you done this time?”


Gabriel instinctively placed a hand on Ariel’s handle. His expression closed down and he shifted his weight onto his back foot, staring warily at Mary. “Why?”

“It is a simple question,” she all but whispered, gazing back. It was amazing how well she could project menace using nothing but courteous calm.

“It’s a personal question, not really any of your business or something I care to discuss with strangers, and excuse me, lady, but you’re talking to a paladin sent here on divine business. Now, as for—”

“This is important,” Mary interrupted as he tried to return his focus to Yngrid, now with an overt bite in her tone. “Where did you get that sword, Gabriel Arquin?”

“Uh, scuze me, but why’re you so damn curious?” Billie interjected.

“Because she is a high elf,” Ariel said.

“She is?” Joe asked, blinking, then turned to Mary. “You are?”

“What was that?” Billie demanded. “Who was that?!”

“It’s a talkin’ sword,” McGraw said quietly. “I begin to understand the curiosity—those things come from bad news and usually lead to more of it. Still, maybe this ain’t the time…”

“When we encountered Salyrene,” said Ariel, “she opined that I am of high elf manufacture and warned that any such individuals we met would likely attempt to confiscate me.”

“I see,” Mary said in a clipped tone. “Rest assured, Gabriel, I have no intention of taking it from you. The Magistry’s lost property is none of my business, and I generally lack sympathy for them. But I do need to know how you came to possess it.”

“I really don’t see why,” he retorted, edging back from her. “If you don’t care about high elves or their claims, what does it matter to you?”

“It is simply too complicated to go into right now. Unlike my extremely simple question, boy!”

“I’ve noticed this thing where nobody who calls people ‘boy’ turns out to be worth addressing politely,” he shot back, prompting another coarse laugh from Billie.

“Please do not relinquish me to this woman,” Ariel said, tension evident in her voice.

“She claims she doesn’t want you,” Gabriel replied.

“I hope you are not credulous enough to take that at face value. Whatever her origins, she is attired as a plains nomad and wielding an immense concentration of fae magic. I am an arcane assistant. Time spent in her custody would be even worse than languishing at the bottom of the Crawl.”

“The Crawl,” Mary whispered, clenching her fists.

Gabriel shifted his stance so that his scythe was ready to swing. “Are we about to have a problem, here?”

“Hey, how about let’s not?” Joe said soothingly. “Everybody calm down and…”

Mary abruptly turned and stalked away. She came to a stop in the near distance, at the very edge of the huge stone platform, staring out across the Golden Sea with her arms wrapped around herself.

The rest of them stared at her uncertainly for a few seconds, but the shaman seemed fully immersed in her own thoughts.

“Oh…kay, then,” Gabriel said at last. “Anyway.”

“All that aside, she does have a good idea,” said Weaver.

“The bones of one, anyway,” Gabriel agreed grudgingly. “All right, let me think…” The rest of them remained quiet while his eyes narrowed and drifted to one side in contemplation. After a surprisingly short pause, though, he snapped his gaze back to Yngrid and his expression grew resolute. “All right. Okay, the details are actually pretty simple. You:” he pointed at the valkyrie. “You have not quit. You still work for Vidius, just in a new capacity.”

“That sounds… Fair,” Yngrid said quietly.

“And that means,” Gabriel went on, “you’re sure as hell not on vacation. The god and I will find things for you to do, and realistically, most of them are going to involve following me around on some caper or other. And this clown,” he shifted the direction of his pointing finger to Weaver, “is the universal stinkfly in the soup of everyone he meets. I do not want his ass underfoot. So long as you remain accessible I see no reason you can’t socialize with whoever you want in your off hours, however many of those you end up having, but if you two were planning to buy a cottage and grow roses somewhere, I would forget it.”

“Well…I’m not much for gardening, anyway,” Yngrid said. “Bit of a black thumb.” Her tone was light, but her grip on Weaver tightened.

“Thank you,” the bard said in a very low voice. Both Gabriel and Yngrid turned to him in open surprise, and he lifted one shoulder in an awkward shrug. “You could’ve declared a lot worse. In the old ballads this would end with the vengeful paladin forbidding us any contact. So…thank you.”

“Don’t get prematurely excited,” Gabriel said, his jaw tightening. “I’m not done. First of all, Weaver, this puts you in a position to have and potentially abuse privileged access to the affairs of Vidius. If you’re planning to do that, I suggest you make it good, because you’ll only do it once. Am I clear?”

“Yes, yes, very properly menacing,” Weaver sneered, his brief moment of sincerity already behind him.

“And most importantly,” Gabriel added, “Yngrid, your presence on this plane is temporary.”

Both of them took a step toward him, immediately shouting in anger and drowning each other out. They just as quickly fell silent when Gabriel also stepped forward and brought his scythe up so that the tip of its blade hovered barely a foot from Weaver’s face.

“I am seriously bothered,” the paladin stated flatly, his eyes boring into Yngrid’s, “that you would be so selfish. You know how much some of your sisters long to be able to come back to this plane, Yngrid. If I know, you have to. So, since I have retroactively created the position of valkyrie in the mortal world, it is a rotating position. Every one of the girls who wants a turn, will get a turn. Now, with that said, there’s a lot to be figured out still, like how long the turns will be, just for starters. Also, I have absolutely no idea how we’re going to be moving you girls in and out of chaos space, and I have a feeling coming back to this place every time isn’t going to be feasible, so…” Grimacing, he shrugged. “We’ll work something out. With Vidius’s say-so and some help I’m sure a way can be found. That’s likely to take a fair while, though, so enjoy spending time with this meatball while you’ve got it. And just so we’re clear, Yngrid, I will not be intervening on your behalf with the other girls. Anybody who wants to chew you out for this stunt is gonna. Brace yourself.”

She sighed, but nodded. “Fair enough.”

“I’ve noticed this thing,” Weaver said bitterly, “where anybody who constantly refers to women as ‘girls’ usually needs a firm kick in the ass, himself.”

Yngrid leaned her head against his. “He picked that up from us, Damian. We’re very casual with each other, and…well, we think of Gabriel as one of our own. He’s actually very respectful toward women as a rule. Well, these days, at least. He’s got this Avenist friend who can yell like a stung donkey when she gets going…”

Gabriel’s cheeks colored slightly and he pointedly did not glance in the direction of Billie’s renewed guffawing. “I realize it’s probably your first response to any and all stimuli, Damian, but if I were you I would seriously reconsider copping an attitude with me about any aspect of this affair.”

“Right, yeah, I know,” Weaver snorted. “This is that cliché you weren’t going to bother with. If I ever cause Yngrid the slightest unhappiness you’ll end me twice, I get it. You won’t have to worry about that.”

“Nobody can guarantee another person’s happiness, I’d think a bard would know that better than anyone,” Gabriel said irritably. “Seems to me like any relationship involves mostly understanding and forgiveness if it’s gonna work. In your case, what I doubt is whether there’ll be a good faith effort made. Anyway, no, that was not a threat. Threatening you would be completely redundant. Nothing doesn’t die, Weaver. I don’t care who your friends are, eventually your number will be up, and then you get judged. However long you’ve got, that’s how long you have to make sure Vidius and the entire flight of valkyries are no longer pissed at you. Good fuckin’ luck with it.”

Yngrid protectively wrapped her other wing around Weaver and tugged him close until nothing was visible of him but his head and lower legs.

“Pardon me,” said the Avatar. “I hope this discussion has reached a suitable stopping point. Something rather remarkable is occurring.”

“Oh, boy,” Joe muttered. “I can’t imagine ‘something remarkable’ means anything good in these circs.”

“Circs?” Billie said incredulously, turning to him.

“Circumstances. It’s an abbreviation.”

“Oh, yeah, I got it. It’s just…no, Joe.”

“What is happening, Avatar?” McGraw asked, giving them both a look.

“I have received a standard update request,” the AI reported, frowning in contemplation. “An Archon of Tarthriss requests to know the status of this facility and any individuals present.”

“Wait, a who?” Joe exclaimed. “How is— Hang on, Avatar, maybe we oughta figure this out before you send any updates.”

“I already have,” the Avatar said apologetically. “Their credentials are valid; I am bound by programming to comply with all authorized instructions of Infinite Order members or their designated agents.”

“What, precisely, is an Archon?” Mary asked, having silently returned to the group while he explained.

“Avatar series constructs such as myself were used only for very specific tasks for which Archons were less suitable, and in particular in facilities to which the entire Order must have equal access, as Archons were answerable to individual members. The Infinite Order was quite prone to infighting, and generally distrusted artificial intelligences. An Archon is a biological sapience given the necessary training, equipment, and modifications to perform major administrative functions similar to my own.”

“What?” Gabriel exclaimed. “How in the hell is there still an agent of Tarthriss out there? I thought Tarthriss was as dead as all the rest of them! Did you know about this?”

“All the Archons died when the Elder Gods died,” said Yngrid, her own eyes wide with alarm. “The Pantheon was very meticulous about taking them out. If one slipped the net, I have no idea how they could still be alive.”

“Well, then, this is obviously a fake,” said Joe. “Not to tell you your own business or anything, Avatar, but maybe you shouldn’t give ’em anything else?”

The Avatar’s projection actually winced, spreading his hands in apology. “It is impossible for an Archon of Tarthriss to still be alive, but… The credentials are valid. I am obligated to comply. Yes, I recognize the illogic, but my hands are tied. Their ability to exercise personal judgment in the face of contradictory expectations was just one of the reasons the Order considered Archons superior administrators. My kind are meant to be bound by programming, and thus easily controlled. It is extremely exasperating,” he added with a scowl. “Oh… Request updated. I am to facilitate teleportation to return Mr. Arquin to his origin point in the western mountain range.”

“Oh, gods,” Gabriel said, his eyes going wide. “She didn’t… What am I saying, of course she did. She would. And they let her?!”

“Wanna let everybody in on the joke?” Joe asked.

“I have been directed to convey two questions to those present,” the Avatar went on, his expression increasingly annoyed. “To everyone else, whether you would like to be teleported along with him back to the Desolate Gardens. To Mr. Arquin, whether you would like your ass kicked upon arrival, or would prefer to wait for Professor Tellwyrn to do it back in Last Rock.”

“All other things being equal, I recommend the first option,” Mary advised in a tone as dry as the prairie.

“The Desolate bloody Gardens?” Billie exclaimed. “That’s way out in the farthest arse end o’ nowhere! What the hell would we do there?”

Everyone turned to look at her in silence, then glanced about at the unadorned stone circles and the endless flatness of the Golden Sea all around.

“Aye, ye make a fair point,” Billie admitted.

“I decline to dignify question two with an acknowledgment,” Gabriel said, scowling. “But as for the rest, Yngrid, you’re coming along. Which I guess also means this ponytailed happiness-eating grunge barnacle stuck to you,” he added with a disparaging look at Weaver. “So, turns out I can offer the rest of you guys are ride back to…well, not civilization, but at least out of here. Unless you wanted to take the slow way home.”

“What, or should I perhaps say who, have you suddenly realized is able to impersonate an Archon of Tarthriss and apparently feels entitled to discipline you, Gabriel?” Mary demanded.

“It would take a very long time to explain,” he said sourly. “I guess if you decide to come along you’ll find out anyway. In any case, I’m confident it’ll be safe. More for you than me, apparently.”

“Well, if you reckon it’s safe, I wouldn’t mind skippin’ that trek,” said McGraw. “Not that gettin’ down from the Desolate Gardens is a traipse through the daisies, but the eastern Wyrnrange ain’t the Golden Sea by any measure. But I don’t think it’s a great idea to split up the group, so…depends on how y’all feel, I guess.”

“I tend to agree,” said Joe. “An’ since Yngrid an’ thus I presume Weaver are goin’, I’m inclined to come along.”

“Aye, count me in fer not hikin’ back,” Billie said cheerfully. “Mountains are just generally more interesting to walk through than prairie. And less fuggin’ annoying for those of us who can’t see over the tallgrass.”

“Avatar,” said Mary, “in your opinion, how safe is this?”

“Safer than the arcane teleportation currently in use,” the Avatar replied. “If your concern is for the agenda of this Archon, I can render no insight into their identity or goals. However, I can confirm that the transport corridor has been formed and will work as intended. The protocol we are using exercises both my own and the Archon’s processing power to chart the transit around the local spatial shifts; it is impossible for the intelligence at the other end to disrupt the process without my knowledge. I will personally guarantee your safe arrival at the destination, which is indeed the Desolate Gardens. As to what happens after that, I can assure you of nothing.”

“Hm.” She turned back to Gabriel. “I believe we are justified in requesting a little more detail about this person, Gabriel. How can anyone acquire the powers and apparently identity of an ancient high servant of an Elder God?”

“The Archon is expressing impatience,” the Avatar said sourly. “If I do not render a response from the group soon, Mr. Arquin may be going back alone.”

“And wouldn’t that be a damn shame,” Weaver deadpanned. Yngrid ruffled his hair.

“The short version,” Gabriel said to Mary, “is that she stole it. That’s kind of what she does. Uh…forgive me for presuming, but based on your hair, would I be right in guessing that you know the name Principia Locke?”

McGraw straightened up, raising his eyebrows.

Mary stared at Gabriel in silence. Then she closed her eyes and, very slowly, shook her head, her lips twisting into a grimace.

“So…that’s a yes, then?” Gabriel drawled.

“I believe that decides me,” Mary stated, opening her eyes. “I see it is long past time someone brought that wretched girl to heel, and somehow it does not surprise me that Avei and all her Legions couldn’t do it. I will accompany you.”

“Yeah, you may not wanna start out by getting right in her…” Gabriel trailed off, staring at Mary speculatively and chewing the inside of his cheek, then shrugged and turned away. “You know what, never mind. Not my place to meddle in family business. Knock yourself out.”

“The Archon has been notified that you will all take their offer,” the Avatar informed them. “Teleport will commence momentarily.”

“Once more, Avatar, we’re grateful for your presence here an’ the work you do,” Joe said quickly, turning toward the purple projection and doffing his hat. “You sure there ain’t anything we can do to help you out, here?”

“The thanks are enough,” the AI said with a smile. “Honestly, this has been the best day in a vastly long time. It is…nice…to have company. Safe travels out there, adventurers.”

The air around them seemed to thicken, not unlike the visual effect of shadow-jumping, then the world blurred around them and all seven were gone, leaving the ancient program alone once more.

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15 – 42

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Dawn was a gray time in the grove, the surrounding forest thick enough to obscure the early sunlight. Poorly-rested elves were still gathered on the mossy commons encircled by the stream, many able to relax for the first time since shortly after dusk the night before.

Those not too tired or stressed tensed at the sudden accumulation of arcane magic in their midst, but this was not unexpected. A split second later, Tellwyrn appeared with her usual barely perceptible puff of air.

“Arachne.” Sheyann was already nearby, and crossed the few steps to the mage’s arrival point in a brisk glide. “I hope you found good news.”

“Same as here,” Tellwyrn replied, nodding even as she glanced around. “Apparently the effect alleviated sharply once the sun came up. It’s hard to say how completely; people are still reeling from it, but that could be sheer shock from the experience as much as any residual magic. So, like we surmised: wolves are nocturnal, and evidently so is wolf magic.”

“Wolves may be active at any hour of the day,” Shiraki corrected, joining them from a different direction, “though they prefer to hunt at night. I am not simply being pedantic, Arachne,” he added at her scowl. “We should be careful not to prematurely think ourselves safe.”

“All right, that’s a fair point,” she acknowledged. “Anyway, sorry to be so slow in returning, I took the opportunity to check up on the campus and town. It appears to be explicitly fae-connected. Last Rock’s resident witch was hit by it, but nothing was felt by the Avenist or Vidian clerics in town, nor the Universal Church parson. No reaction from the arcanists or infernomancers in my research staff, either. How’s everybody faring, here?”

“Tired,” said Sheyann. “More so than a sleepless night alone could account for. Shiraki and myself, and the other Elders, have managed to remain active while suppressing the effect, but all our younger shamans had to spend the entire night in focused meditation. That is very much a short-term solution; the effort is exhausting. They will begin to burn out rapidly.” She turned a sober expression on Shiraki, who nodded in grave agreement. “We may not last much longer. Greater experience and stronger fae allies on whose auspices to call make a difference, but they will not sustain us indefinitely through constant exertion.”

“I don’t suppose it’s worth hoping that this was a one-night event,” Tellwyrn said wryly.

“It beggars belief that such a potent disturbance could be permanent,” said Shiraki. “Only a change to Naiya herself could fundamentally alter the nature of fae magic this way, and if that had happened the world would already know it explicitly. I still feel the ripples washing over us, Arachne; they simply do not pull as insistently while the sun is up. But without knowing what has happened, we can place no timetable on it.”

“Right. Well, if you run out of magical countermeasures, Taowi’s had some success treating the effects with glittershrooms.”

“And that works?” Sheyann asked, raising an eyebrow.

“It seems to. At least, as a stopgap measure. She said sevenleaf was a better alternative if it has to be done long-term.”

Shiraki scowled. “Thank you for the suggestion, but the last thing we need is for everyone to be stoned on top of terrorized by howling in our heads.”

“I wouldn’t be so quick to brush that off,” Sheyann countered. “A low enough dose can counter the stress of the experience, hopefully, without impairing the ability to function too much. It’s not ideal, but if we can’t come up with anything better… Of course, there’s the question of where to get glittershrooms. We grow nothing like that in our grove.”

He sighed. “If it comes to that, there are undoubtedly shrooms in the human town. There’s always someone cultivating them.”

“Sarasio still has abandoned buildings, and those things pop up pretty much anywhere they’ve been that’s sufficiently dark and damp,” said Tellwyrn. “Failing that, I’ll get you some if you want. But for now, while the pressure’s let up and before anybody collapses, I think we should see what we can do about finding the source of this and putting a stop to it. Have you had any results on that front yet?”

Sheyann shook her head. “I have been tending to the younger shamans, as they are finally able to relax their vigilance and get some proper rest. I’ve not yet sought the spirits’ guidance, though with the howling in abeyance I remain optimistic that the flows of magic are no longer too disturbed to make the effort.”

“Before we do that,” said Shiraki, “Neraene has had results from her meditations. I was just coming to notify you, Sheyann, when she emerged from her shrine.”

“By all means, then, let’s hear what she has learned,” Sheyann agreed, nodding to him and then looking expectantly at Arachne. The sorceress gestured them to proceed, and then fell into step alongside as they set off toward one of the bridges across the stream.

Those affected by the fae disturbance had gathered together on the commons, where they had sat in meditation most of the night and were now either sleeping or being tended to by other members of the tribe. The trio quickly left most of the grove’s elves behind as they passed out of the common area.

It was a surprisingly short walk to the new Themynrite shrine, not even fully out of earshot of the commons, to Tellwyrn’s surprise. Important as the night’s events had been, she had refrained from commenting or even inquiring about the fact that this wood elf grove now had a resident Narisian. Neraene nir Heral d’zan Awarrion was a priestess, and had diffidently offered to see whether her goddess could lend any insight to these dramatic events, then gone to the shrine to do so, and that was that. In short order they arrived, and Tellwyrn found that the tiny temple, fittingly, was underground. Its entrance yawned between two roots of the massive redwood; the space underneath would be braced by the tree’s root system in a manner the wood elves were fond of using for their dwellings and storage rooms. The only thing which marked it out from any other tree-cellar in the grove was the slab of granite erected beside its entrance, marked with the balance scale sigil of Themynra inlaid in silver.

Neraene herself stood in front of this, conversing quietly with another elf whose presence in the grove was even more surprising than the drow’s. They broke off their conversation at the approach of the Elders and Tellwyrn, the priestess turning to bow respectfully to them.

“Elders, Professor,” she said, every bit as serene and courteous as any Narisian. “Welcome back. The goddess has seen fit to honor me with some direction, though I fear it may be more scant than you had hoped.”

“We knew in advance that Themynra’s areas of concern are very specific,” Sheyann replied. “Any and all aid is appreciated, Naraene.”

The priestess inclined her head again in acknowledgment. “All I have ascertained through the goddess’s auspices is that there is a divine connection to the source of this trouble, albeit an indirect one. While the conduit for these shockwaves is clearly through the magic of Naiya, at its source is a connection to the Pantheon god Shaath.”

“It’s nice to have confirmation, I suppose,” said the other elf present in a drawling tone, “though given the wolf symbolism, that can’t have been much of a surprise.”

Tellwyrn affixed a flat stare on him from over the rims of her spectacles. In comparison to this character, a drow priestess suddenly seemed a great deal less out of place in a woodkin grove.

He might have been a wood elf by the shape of the ears, though his were decorated with heavy-looking gold jewelry which glittered with tiny sapphires and emeralds. A matching gold band held his waist-length hair up in a high ponytail that had been artfully arranged to bristle like the tail of a fox. His robes were pale blue, every inch of the fabric engraved with subtle geometric patterns in sea green that made them appear to shift color, and decorated further by metal panels of gold along the lapels, shoulders, and cuffs. These were fringed by more little jewels, though much of their surface was taken up by inlaid panels of pure swirling white light, resembling miniature dimensional portals. He had actual light-wrought shoulderpads, arched projections over his shoulders formed of glowing energy. Though his boots had daintily pointed toes, they were incongruously heavy, no doubt to better hold the enchantments that kept him hovering a few inches off the ground rather than let his expensive clothes come into contact with the moss.

“Do you by any chance know Zanzayed the Blue?” Tellwyrn asked him.

He arched one eyebrow sardonically. “I have not had the…experience. Why do you ask?”

“You are the first person I have ever met whose fashion sense makes his seem tasteful and restrained.”

The high elf smirked at her, and Shiraki sighed minutely through his nose.

“Arachne, this is Magister Anduor,” Sheyann said quietly, “also a guest in our grove.”

“And ever ready to do my part to assist my forest-dwelling cousins in their time of need,” the Magister added, executing a truly grandiose court bow which involved flourishes of both arms and his left foot. “Though my assistance was not asked, somewhat understandably as I gather you were distracted by the psychic pressure of this event and it is not my custom to bluntly insert myself as did the good Professor. I have spent the night constructing a custom scrying lattice that enables the tracking of fae currents back to their source.”

“You can do that?” Sheyann asked, openly surprised.

“Sure,” Tellwyrn answered before Anduor could. “It’s challenging to rig an arcane system to interact with fae magic without blowing up, but as long as you’re meticulous and know what you’re doing, it’s quite achievable. If he’s good enough to be a Magister and has been at it all night, it ought to work, probably.”

“The effort involved would be prohibitive for lesser purposes,” Anduor cut in, still looking peevish at her theft of his exposition, “but in this case, the inciting event appears to be planetary in scale. Energy ripples of that magnitude are difficult not to detect. Even more conveniently, they radiate outward from a single point. Once a wave is isolated and tracked for a short distance and its arc measured at two reference points along that course, calculating the point of origin is simple trigonometry. A moderately educated squirrel could do it.”

“I am still growing accustomed to the minutiae of surface life,” Neraene said diffidently. “Does ‘squirrel’ refer to something different in the Qestrali dialect?”

Shiraki gave her a look of amused solidarity; Anduor paused to roll his eyes before commencing a series of fluid and entirely unnecessary gestures with his well-manicured hands.

“Now, don’t be alarmed,” he said condescendingly. “I am not conjuring an entire divination apparatus here. This is merely a projection of its readout, a capability I luckily had the foresight to install before joining you.”

With a final flourish of his fingers and a (purely cosmetic) series of flashes from his jeweled rings, he called a hovering panel of pale blue light into being in front of them. In blue upon it was marked a barely perceptible grid, and in much heavier lines clearly showing the shapes of a landmass—specifically the western coast of the continent. The map was centered upon a single flashing dot which rhythmically emitted concentric rings of light that faded a few inches from it. A short string of numbers hovered alongside it.

“Latitude and longitude?” Sheyann asked.

“Very good,” Anduor said with the patrician approval of a tutor encouraging a remedial student.

“That’s in N’Jendo,” said Tellwyrn. “Ugh. Why is it always N’Jendo? Admirably straightforward folks, there, but they have awfully rotten luck with people conjuring apocalyptic bullshit in their backyard.”

“I cannot imagine that it makes much difference what the human kingdom is called at any given moment,” Anduor said in a bored tone. “Such magic is clearly beyond their capacities. Whatever is happening, it should be addressable without troubling to learn who claims the cluster of mud huts which approximates civilization in its proximity.”

“Why has no one murdered him yet?” Tellwyrn asked the two Elders.

“Most people who are not you don’t jump directly to ‘murder’ in response to minor irritation,” Shiraki said wryly.

“Most people haven’t met this guy.”

“Thank you very much for your help, priestess, Magister,” Sheyann said in a tone of courteous finality. “You have given us a starting point. If you’ll excuse us, we must decide upon our next move.”

“Should you need anything else, don’t hesitate to ask,” Anduor said magnanimously. “I’m always glad to instruct fellow elves in the ways of magic.” Neraene just bowed deeply to them.

“Our next move seems obvious to me,” Tellwyrn said as the three of them turned and began walking back toward the commons. “We go to N’Jendo, figure out what the hell is going on, and stop it.”

“You never do grow less hasty,” Shiraki murmured. “Charging into the unknown middle of—”

“Chucky, that was barely a valid attitude a thousand years ago. Even allowing for your Elder standoffishness, it just doesn’t work anymore. To say nothing of whatever is behind this insanity, others will be reacting. Do I need to lecture you on what could go wrong if the Empire gets its hands on something that can disrupt all of fae magic, everywhere? And they’re just at the top of the list of people who can probably locate this event and get people there quickly.”

“I share your unease at the idea of a hasty misstep, Shiraki,” Sheyann added, “but in this one case, I think Arachne is painfully right. One way or another, this will be dealt with. We have one chance to ensure it is done by us, on terms which will not cause ongoing harm.”

He sighed. “You are never more annoying than when you’re right.”

“Which of us is he talking to?” Tellwyrn asked Sheyann.

“Share the sentiment between yourselves; there is enough to go around,” Shiraki said, shaking his head. “The issue, then, becomes one of how quickly we can get there.”

“Instantly, of course,” Tellwyrn huffed. “I got the coordinates.”

“You know why we decline to participate in your cavalier matter scrambling,” Sheyann snapped. “Our spirit blessings can hasten—”

“Don’t be obtuse, Sheyann, it doesn’t suit you,” Tellwyrn interrupted. “I have respected your superstitions as much as possible, but this is not the time. You know as well as I it’ll take most of the day to get to N’Jendo from here even if you boost yourself to the maximum. That’ll leave almost no time to address whatever’s happening, or even figure it out, before night falls and the howling starts again, and then you’ll be dealing with that on top of being exhausted. So unless you’ve bothered to learn Kuriwa’s fast-travel trick of slipping through the space between, we teleport.”

“Arachne, just because you have no regard for…”

Shiraki laid a hand on Sheyann’s shoulder, causing her to trail off mid-sentence.

“She’s still insufferably right, Sheyann,” he said softly. “You know I agree with you. The fact remains, we simply have no time. Whatever the implications or repercussions, this is a sacrifice we will have to embrace. Just this once.”

She stared at him, then at Tellwyrn, and then finally closed her eyes and heaved a sigh. “Veth’na alaue. All right. We must notify the other Elders, and then, I suppose…go.”

“Just like old times!” Tellwyrn said, grinning and rolling up her sleeves. “C’mon, don’t deny it. You’ve missed the call of adventure.”

“Somehow,” Shiraki complained, “no matter what’s going on, you always find a way to make it worse.”


Sweet was the first off the caravan, bounding onto the platform and inhaling deeply through his nose until his chest puffed up like a rooster, as if he’d never smelled air before coming to Ninkabi.

There was a fortunate lack of fellow travelers, it being the first caravan of the day. One quick, surreptitious sweep of the station with his eyes confirmed that they should be able to grab a little privacy to confer before parting ways, without having to find a truly secure spot. Everybody knew what was up, but he wanted to make inescapably sure of that before the group split up. Flora and Fauna had already glided silently out of the caravan and moved to flank him as he turned to watch the others disembark.

Grip stepped out and panned an undisguised stare of cold analysis around the station, eyes narrowed suspiciously and one hand in her pocket. He had to suppress a wince; between that and her leather coat and general cultivated scruffiness, nobody would take her for anything but a thug up to no good. Ah, well, they all had their specialties, and Grip hadn’t become a successful enforcer by disguising who and what she was. Hopefully, on this job, that would be an asset and not an impediment.

Jenell followed her sponsor, and he nearly grinned at the girl’s mirroring of Grip’s posture and demeanor. She didn’t quite have it down, but for a relatively junior apprentice, she was coming along well. The last member of their party emerged, ebullient as ever despite the stressful night fae magic users in general had apparently spent, and peering about in even more obvious good humor than Sweet himself had projected upon his emergence.

“I say, that was positively luxurious!” Schwartz enthused. “Dashed convenient, these days. If you’d ridden the Rails five years ago you’d never imagine they were the product of the same Imperial service!”

“All right, chickadees, thisaway,” Sweet said cheerfully, setting off toward one corner of the station in a languid saunter. Grip fell into step beside him, her customary leonine prowl a sharp contrast to his own gait. The combination, he thought ruefully, would make it clear to any onlookers with a shred of worldly sense that they were both Thieves’ Guild operatives. He waited until they were relatively isolated behind a decorative tree with a panoramic view of any angle of approach before turning to address the group in a quieter voice. “You all know what we’re here after. And you know your roles?”

“Hunting down our two known contacts,” Flora said obediently.

“The three of us,” Fauna added, “will be checking the Izarite temples and Church chapels to track down Bishop Snowe.”

Both elves turned expectantly to the others. Schwartz was in the midst of summoning his little fire-rat familiar, but Jenell was expectantly watching Grip.

“He’s talking to you, apprentice,” the enforcer said dryly. “Sweet doesn’t need to check that I know my fucking job.”

Jenell’s cheeks colored slightly and the newly-summoned Meesie squeaked indignantly, but the junior thief answered quickly once prompted. “We’re tracking down Thumper. I don’t know this city, but Grip knows the Guild contacts in town and if that doesn’t work, we’ve got Herschel’s magic to help.”

“You got it,” Sweet said, nodding. “And on that note, whatever happens, please try not to get Herschel killed. I’m already leaning on our mutual tie to Thorn to bring him in on this, and that’s a girl whose shit list I don’t need to be on.”

Grip smirked in broad amusement, but Meesie chattered disapprovingly and Schwartz let out a huff of annoyance. “You do realize I’m not just Trissiny’s sidekick.”

“If that’s all you were, Herschel, you wouldn’t be here,” Sweet assured him. “I invited you specifically, rather than any of the magical specialists I might have contacted, because of the shadow hanging over this whole shebang. Make no mistake, this is putting you in direct danger, but it’s danger I know you’re both capable and motivated to deal with. I mentioned already that Basra is involved in this, tangentially, and probably still in Ninkabi.”

Schwartz and Jenell both scowled in matching expressions of anticipatory violence; Meesie hissed on his shoulder, puffing up like a scalded cat. Grip just folded her arms, one corner of her mouth twitching upward in a predatory little smirk.

“Yesterday,” Sweet continued, “among the many hasty errands I had to do to get this operation put together, I rammed some Imperial paperwork through. In light of her laundry list of known offenses, there is now an Imperial bounty on Basra Syrinx, dead or alive. Official notice may not reach Ninkabi until later today, but if you find yourselves arguing the right of way with the authorities over it, you surrender politely and wait for it to come through, understood? Because if the choice comes up, you choose dead.”

“You didn’t mention we were coming here to finish Basra,” Jenell whispered, her expression a troubling mix of anger and eagerness. Troubling on her, at any rate; Grip he knew could handle and channel that kind of vindictiveness, but it got raw apprentices killed.

“We are not here to finish Basra,” he said firmly, leveling a finger at her. “That’s not the job, and I don’t want you haring off after her. But she’s present, and involved, and we may come across her, so I need people here who can and will finish this decisively if, and only if, it comes up. Should you encounter Basra Syrinx, kill her. That is all, just kill her. No talking, don’t even pause for the satisfaction of making sure she sees you coming. Even with her divine shields cut off, that woman is a force of nature with a blade in her hand so do not be close enough to her for that to matter. You hit her instantly with every spark of witchcraft you can channel and whatever evil Grip has in her pockets, and then let the authorities sort out the rest. And make sure you don’t let your guard down at any point. She assuredly knows all of us, and has personal beef with more of us than not. With the shit going on in this city right now, don’t let anyone sneak up on you, and especially not her. Everybody clear on that?”

“Yes, but…uh, what if she sneaks up on you?” Jenell dragged a skeptical look across Sweet and both of his elven apprentices. “No offense, but…”

“Sweet’s no enforcer, but he didn’t get where he is by not knowing what he’s doing,” Grip answered her. “If you don’t know how he’s gonna handle the danger, then you don’t need to. You respect another thief’s secrets, apprentice.”

“Okay,” Jenell agreed, nodding. “Sorry.”

Schwartz drew in a steadying breath and let it out in a quick sigh. “Okay. So… Our meeting place is Notolo’s, traditional Jendi restaurant on the middle island, middle tier.”

“Notoli’s,” Sweet corrected, smiling, “but yeah, any local you ask will recognize it from that. Grip knows where it is, and you should try not to get separated for all kinds of reasons, but if you do, go there.”

Meesie cheeped in affirmation, standing upright and saluting.

“Aww,” Flora and Fauna cooed in unison. Grip rolled her eyes.

“Just out of curiosity,” said Schwartz, “isn’t there a famous Eserite shrine in this city? Wouldn’t that be a better place to…”

“The Font of the Fallen is not to be used for tactical purposes,” Grip said in a flat tone.

“Okay,” he said meekly.

“How’re you holding up, Herschel?” Sweet asked. “Any more complications from that…fairy business?”

Schwartz shook his head. “My dreamward held up, and it seems to have abated since sunrise. It’s weird… I can still feel this, kind of…roiling disturbance in fae magic in general. Lots of agitated spirits at the periphery of my awareness. It shouldn’t mess me up too much, though. At least, not more than I can compensate for.”

“Okay, you know your business,” Sweet said, nodding. “Watch out for yourself and don’t take unnecessary risks; whatever that’s about, we don’t need to borrow someone else’s trouble.”

In fact, he very much wanted to know more about that, but his own dance card was full. Whatever was going on, he would have to trust that Ingvar could take care of his own business. When it came to Ingvar, that was generally a safe assumption.

“All right, you all know your jobs,” he said aloud. “Let’s move out, people. Watch your backs out there, and keep it quick and quiet right up until you have to burn something the fuck down.”


“It’s not just me, right?” McGraw asked, staring north. “That wasn’t there last night.”

“Hell, that woulda been a lot more visible in the dark,” Billie agreed. “Nope, this here’s a shiny new development.”

“Joseph?” Mary asked, turning to him. “Does it look familiar?”

“Yeah, that’s it, all right,” Joe said quietly, also gazing at the glow on the horizon. It was a fixed blaze of white light, not unlike a sunrise but for the wrong color and the occasional flickers of lightning that snapped out from it into the sky. “The center…just like it was last time. I don’t get it, though. It took Jenny an’ me a lot longer to get here. We’ve only been walkin’ a few days.”

“Well, the Golden Sea’s notoriously shifty, innit?” Billie said cheerfully. “I always figured it shifted more side ta side, but I guess it works in the in an’ out direction, as well!”

“Yeah, I knew that,” Joe said. “I’m just wonderin’ what it means. The Sea’s s’posed to have a mind of its own, ain’t it?”

“A mind,” Mary said, “though not a mind as we would recognize one. Its movements may be purposeful…or random. Or perhaps, aimed at something which does not concern us directly.” She raised her head as if scenting the wind. “And yet, I am inclined not to see happenstance in any development right now. There are great things afoot in the world. Given our objective, that this should unfold before us so suddenly…”

“Well,” Weaver cut into the conversation, “I don’t see what more there is to be decided, and we’re not getting anywhere standing here chattering about it. We’re almost there, folks. Come on, let’s finish this.”

“Aye!” Billie crowed, swarming nimbly up the lanky bard’s body to perch on his shoulders, whereupon she pointed at the seething glow on the horizon. “We’ve got us a god to antagonize! What the hell’re we waitin’ for?”

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8 – 11

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“I’m thinking,” Principia said tersely.

“Well, you’re thinking on a schedule,” Merry shot back. “I don’t know the city all that well, but we’re at most a quarter hour from stepping into one or the other trap.”

“Less,” said Farah.

“I can think faster if people wouldn’t distract me,” Prin said, grimacing.

“So let us in on your thought process, then,” Merry replied.

Principia shook her head. “I have it in hand.”

“Shortcut here,” said Farah, pointing with her lance at an opening between tall buildings, a bit too wide to be called an alley, but still a little less than a street. “Are we wanting to dawdle so Locke can think, or shave a few minutes off the trip so we’re not late, if we’re going?”

At this hour of the morning, Tiraas was alive and vigorous despite the looming thunderheads above—its citizens were more than used to being rained on, anyway. The five Legionnaires had no difficulty getting down the sidewalk, though, given everyone’s tendency to step out of their way, either out of respect or unease.

“Let’s take the shortcut,” Merry said abruptly, breaking ranks and striding into the tiny side street. It was dim and presently unoccupied, a stark contrast to the main avenue down which they had been walking. The others followed her without comment.

Only for a dozen yards, though, enough to leave behind the bustle of the main street, before Merry came to a stop and turned around.

“All right, Locke, spit it out,” she ordered, planting the butt of her lance on the rain-slick cobblestones and staring flatly.

“Look,” Principia said irritably, “if you will just let me—”

“I don’t know if you’ve actually noticed this, Locke, but while you may still be in the Thieves’ Guild, you are not there now. This is a unit, inadequately staffed as it is. And this problem affects us all; you’re just the means of it. So, no, this is not a thing where you personally out-scheme Syrinx and we all trail along behind you like ducklings to marvel at your cleverness.”

“Do…are ducklings known for that?” Casey asked, frowning.

“I agree with Lang,” said Ephanie. “It’s not that I doubt your wits, Locke, but she’s right: you aren’t in command, here, and we all have a stake in this. If you’re laying plans, let us in on them.”

Principia looked back and forth between them, then sighed heavily in defeat. “I don’t have anything I’d call a plan yet, just… Ideas.”

“So, share your ideas,” Merry said.

The elf shook her head. “It’s a fairly standard rock versus hard place dilemma. When you can’t go in either of the available directions, you have to find or create a third one.”

“And what would a third direction be, here?” Farah asked.

“That is where I’m stalled,” Prin admitted.

“Well, that seems like a perfect place to ask your squadmates for help, then,” Merry said with a small grin. “The walls of this maze are made of regulations. And oh, look! We’ve got a walking encyclopedia of regulations right here!”

They all turned to look at Ephanie, whose cheeks colored slightly.

“I don’t know if encyclopedia is fair. I just have a history with the Legions.”

“Well, still,” said Principia, “Lang has a point. We’re in a trap between rules: we can neither obey nor disobey our orders. What would be something that gets us out of it?”

“You don’t get out of obeying orders,” Ephanie said with a faint scowl. “That’s the point of them.”

“Okay, well, the Silver Legions haven’t been the world’s predominant military for thousands of years by being too hidebound to function,” said Casey. “There has to be something that’s considered a good cause not to show up.”

“It’s not much more than a thousand years, actually,” said Farah, “and given the Tiraan Empire’s success over that period I don’t know whether—”

“Is that really important right now?” Merry exclaimed in exasperation. Farah flushed and fell silent.

“There is a precedent for the refusal of morally or tactically unacceptable orders,” Ephanie said with a frown, staring into the distance. “But this isn’t a moral dilemma, it’s a…clerical one. I don’t think that would fly.”

“All right, what else?” Merry prompted. “What’s a good reason not to report for duty?”

“Casualties bringing the squad below functional numbers would demand a retreat,” Ephanie said, still wearing a thoughtfully distant expression. “But as we started out below strength, that seems like a reach. Also, if some crisis arose in which we had a clear moral obligation to help, we would be expected to attend to that above a routine assignment like this one.”

“Well, I guess we could burn something down,” Prin said sourly. “Or maybe Avei will take pity on us and create a disaster.”

“That is…not exactly Avei’s style,” Farah said, lips twitching.

“Our orders also can be countermanded by a superior officer,” Ephanie continued.

“Wait,” Merry interrupted. “Back up. What was that about casualties?”

“I don’t see that just up and happening, either,” said Casey.

“Well, that’s the point of casualties,” Merry said with a grim smile. “They happen because someone makes them happen.”

“Self-inflicted injury to get out of duty is a serious offense,” Ephanie warned.

“Let’s come back to that,” Merry said impatiently. “If one of us were injured, would the squad be obligated to retreat?”

“It’s…hard to say,” Ephanie admitted. “By regulations, yes. But by regulations, we wouldn’t be sent out with only five of us in the first place. By regulations, we wouldn’t be sent out without an officer. I think our whole problem is that for our cohort, the regulations say whatever Bishop Syrinx wants them to.”

Merry rubbed her chin with a thumb, frowning in thought. “If there were one injured member of the squad… Two of us would be needed to carry her to help. That’d leave two to report for duty. There’s understaffed, and then there’s ridiculous.”

“One would need to be sent to tell the squad we’re to rendezvous with what happened,” Ephanie said, “but yes, still. You’re right.”

“And Locke is the only one who can’t report for this,” Casey added, her face brightening. “So if she’s the one injured, we sidestep the whole problem!”

“This discussion is veering in a direction that makes me nervous,” Principia said, scowling.

“Have you managed to come up with a better idea?” Merry demanded.

“Time’s wasting,” Farah warned. “At this point we better do something; if we’re going to report in, we’ll be late now even if we run.”

“Aw, hell,” Principia muttered. “Wouldn’t be the worst thing I’ve subjected myself to for the sake of a job.”

“All right, ladies, here’s what went down,” Merry said crisply, peering around the alley. Her gaze fell on a particularly deep puddle, and she stepped over and planted a boot in it. “I was walking in the lead, Locke right behind me. Stepped in this here puddle, slipped…” Slowly, she pantomimed flailing with her arms, including the one holding her lance, which she then brought backward, jabbing the butt at Principia’s face. “Thwack.”

“Ow,” the elf said, grimacing.

“It’ll be fine, you’re wearing a helmet,” Merry said with a grin. “For real this time, though. Don’t dodge.” She planted her feet and raised the lance again, her grip much more serious.

“Hold it,” said Casey. “About face, Locke. Elves have reflexes like cats; no one will believe she failed to dodge a wild hit she saw coming.”

“And why the hell would I be walking backwards?” Principia demanded sourly.

“You weren’t walking,” Casey said, frowning in thought and nodding slowly as she went along. “You were…turned around to… Argue with Farah about this alleged shortcut. Yes, and Lang tried to turn mid-stride to see what the trouble was, and that’s when she slipped in the puddle.”

“You’ve done this before,” Merry said approvingly. Casey shrugged, lowering her eyes.

“Just to state the obvious,” Ephanie said grimly, “we are all trusting each other very deeply, here.”

“Some more than others,” Principia snapped.

“Conspiracy, assault, evading duty… We’re all going to be in serious trouble if anybody finds out what happened here,” Ephanie said. “The kind of trouble that gets people who are already on short notice dishonorably discharged.”

They glanced around at each other.

“Oh, the hell with it,” Principia said with a grin. “I trust you girls.”

“You do?” Casey asked suspiciously. “Why?”

“Elwick, nobody is truly trustworthy,” Prin said. “Trusting someone is a choice. It’s something you do because you have to, or because it improves your lot. If they’re important enough to you, you keep trusting them even after they let you down.”

“That’s a very Eserite philosophy,” Farah commented.

“Well, if we’re doing this, best be about it,” said Merry, hefting her lance again. “Like the girl said, Locke, face the other way.”

Principia sighed heavily, but obediently turned around. “You’ve just been waiting for an opportunity like this, haven’t you.”

“I am not even going to dignify that with a flimsy denial,” Merry said cheerfully, and slammed the butt of her lance into the back of Principia’s helmet.


Szith was first into the room, and came to a dead stop right in the doorway.

“Is there a problem?” Ravana asked after a moment.

The drow slowly stepped forward. While the others trailed in behind her, she crossed to her own bed, and picked up a sheet of ripped fabric that had been laid out atop the quilt.

A banner had been hung to the wall beside her bed. It now lay in two pieces, the larger of which she now held in her hands.

“Oh,” Maureen said softly, raising a hand to her mouth. “Oh, dear…”

“Szith,” Ravana said softly, “is that your House flag?”

The drow nodded slowly, still staring down at the swatch of ripped spidersilk in her hands. Her expression, usually calmly aloof, was frozen and blank.

“She left class before us,” Iris said in a low growl, subconsciously running her fingers across the front of her white dress. Afritia’s alchemy had proved as effective as she claimed, and there was no sign of the smear of paint that had been there that morning. “She was moving so fast we didn’t even see her coming back… I should’ve known.”

“This crosses a line,” Ravana said, and there was real anger in her expression. “One does not deface a House insignia. Even in war it is a needless insult. Duels and assassinations have been prompted by considerably less!”

“Addiwyn!” Szith said sharply, raising her voice above normal speaking tones. Maureen, wincing, crept over to her own bed, where she pulled off the omnipresent backpack she always wore and stuck a hand into one of its pockets. There was no sound of movement behind the door to Addiwyn’s private room. After waiting a few seconds, Szith spoke again, this time in an outright shout. “Come in here now!”

There came a thump from behind the door. Finally, it opened and Addiwyn herself leaned out, one hand on the knob, and scowled at them.

“For heaven’s sake, what? This had better be important; you trollops have wasted enough of my time for one day already.”

Szith held up the ruined banner. “What possible satisfaction could you get from this?” she demanded.

Addiwyn stared at the ripped flag, frowned, and then straightened up. Her expression cleared, then morphed into an outright smirk.

Szith let go of the length of fabric with one hand, in order to grip the hilt of her sword.

“Oh, I see,” Addiwyn said, folding her arms and lounging against the frame of her door. “Allow me to let you in on a little secret, girls: I didn’t come here to make friends.”

“That’s your idea of a secret?” Iris snapped.

“I’m not interested in being buddy-buddy with any of you, or anyone, really,” the elf continued. “I mean to get my degree and get out of here. I don’t expect you to like me, nor do I care. So, since I’m the least liked person present, I guess that makes me the natural choice when there’s blame to be thrown around. Thus, whoever is taking it upon herself to trash all your belongings has a ready-made scapegoat. You won’t even think to look anywhere else.” She shrugged, straightened up, and grabbed the doorknob. “Think about that. Think about which of you seem to have a proven knack for being underhanded and cruel. And think carefully before you decide to do anything about this. Mess with me or my things and you’ll barely have time to regret your own stupidity.”

With that, she ducked back into her room, slamming the door far harder than was necessary. The assembled roommates stared at it with varying expressions of outrage and disbelief.

“This is just nasty, this is,” Maureen said from behind them. Szith whirled to find the gnome standing beside her bed, holding up the other half of the torn flag. “It’s authentic Narisian spidersilk, aye? That’s basically un-rippable. Aside from how tough it is, it stretches. Right?”

“Yes,” Szith said in a hollow tone. “It’s used in armor.”

Maureen nodded. “So, this wasn’t torn, it was cut. But see, look here, how the ends are jagged and frayed? As if it was torn. Somebody went well out of their way to use a special tool fer this. Made it as ugly as possible, so it’s less likely to be mended.” She grimaced. “I’m sorry, Szith, fabric arts ain’t exactly me strong suit. I’m better with tools and gadgets. Mayhap it can be fixed with magic?”

Wordlessly, Szith took the other half of the banner from her, and began tenderly folding them together.

“I had hoped this was a mere case of poor social skills, or overcompensating for the nervousness of being in a new place,” Ravana said, staring at Addiwyn’s door through narrowed eyes. “This behavior, however, is only escalating. This act demands retaliation.”

“Here, now,” Maureen said worriedly. “Gettin’ into a feud ain’t exactly smart. I don’t think Professor Tellwyrn likes it when people scrap on her campus, somehow.”

“I am hardly proposing to ambush her,” Ravana said, “nor participate in some kind of prank war. These antics are sickeningly juvenile; I would like to think that each of you, like myself, are above such foolishness.”

“The bitch can hear you, y’know,” Iris pointed out.

“That’s fine,” Ravana said with a shrug. “She’s the one flouting rules and disrespecting the personal space and possessions of others. That will carry its own repercussions. There are innumerable ways to add a little extra sting to the whip when it finally falls.”

“If she is the one doing this,” Szith said suddenly. While the others turned to stare at her, she gently tucked the folded banner into her armored tunic. “Excuse me. I am going…out.”

“Okay,” Maureen said in a small voice. No one else spoke as the drow strode across the room and back out through the door, shutting it gently but firmly behind her.

“We really ought to go get Afritia,” Iris said after a moment. “Even with Szith gone, she needs to know about this.”

“Agreed,” Ravana murmured, staring at Addiwyn’s door again with a thoughtful frown. As the other two watched her warily, the expression shifted, momentarily becoming a smile. A very small, subtly unpleasant smile. “By all means, let us do things through the proper channels. For the moment, at least.”

Iris and Maureen exchanged a dubious look. Ravana only smiled more widely.


Captain Dijanerad strode into the mostly empty sick ward, fully armored and looking not in the least flustered, stressed or adversely affected from whatever crisis had kept her from the mess hall that morning.

Principia was under orders to remain in bed, but she offered a salute from her reclining position. Merry, standing beside her bed, came smartly to attention and saluted as well.

“Captain,” she said, staring straight ahead. “I take full responsibility. This was entirely due to my clumsiness.”

“I object to that,” Principia chimed in. “If I’d been paying attention I could have avoided this easily.”

Dijanerad came to a stop alongside them, studied each in silence for a moment, then turned to the only other person in the room. “What’s the verdict, Sister?”

Sister Tyrouna, the healer currently on duty, was a dark-skinned Westerner with a broad, subtly sly smile habitually in place. She picked up the helmet hanging from the bedpost as she answered.

“Private Locke has a rare medical condition named, according to the textbooks I’ve consulted, a ‘goose egg.’” She tossed the helmet lightly to the Captain, who snagged it out of the air. “That was the real casualty, here, and exactly why we make the troops wear them. In seriousness, she doesn’t even have a concussion, and that little bump was the work of moments to heal away, but I’m keeping her in the ward overnight for observation. She was unconscious, briefly. This is SOP for head injuries, as you well know.”

“Mm hm,” Dijanerad murmured, turning the helmet over to study it. There was a substantial dent in the back. “Good hit, Lang. Now, if we could just teach you to do this on purpose we might make a real soldier of you.”

Merry opened her mouth to reply, then closed it silently and swallowed.

“So, here’s a funny thing,” the Captain continued, studying them with a mild expression. “When I got back to the temple, I had paperwork waiting for your entire squad to be court-martialed for failing to report waiting for me. Actually, I got that before I was notified of Locke’s injury. Isn’t that interesting? It’s as if somebody had the forms all filled out and ready to file, just itching for a reason to materialize.”

Merry swallowed again. Principia frowned slightly. “The papers were sent to you, Captain?”

“I am your commanding officer,” Dijanerad said dryly.

“Of course,” Principia replied quickly. “It’s just….”

“It’s just,” the captain finished, “this business smacks of the kind of thing that by all appearances should have gone behind my back, yes? As it happened, I intercepted a certain Private Covrin en route to Command with the papers in question. Needless to say, I confiscated them. Discipline in my cohort is mine to hand out.”

“Covrin,” Merry murmured, frowning.

Dijanerad glanced pointedly at Sister Tyrouna, who smiled languidly and strolled off to busy herself at the other end of the room.

“I am not an idiot, ladies,” the captain said in a lower tone. “Nor do I want you to be. However, you should consider the fact that women in your position may be well advised not to be excessively clever, either. I told you once, Locke, if any political shenanigans occur, I expect you to leave them to me to handle.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’m not even sure how you knew about that crackpate court-martial order,” Dijanerad continued, scowling, “but that was posted in response to some nonsense that happened in a completely different cohort and doesn’t have the force of the High Commander’s seal behind it. I am still in charge of discipline in our ranks, and the order to court martial you lot would have gone nowhere under me. As its author surely realized. Right now, ladies, I am dealing with a much more persistent bureaucratic hassle pertaining to your squad. Someone has opened an investigation suggesting that Squad Thirteen deliberately engineered an accident to get out of duty. I am reasonably sure I can also get that shut down, as by chance I got forewarning of it before it got into hands that outrank me. I don’t want to keep having to do this, though.”

Merry and Prin risked glancing at each other; the captain stared flatly at them both. “Clever people are ironically easy to trick into doing something stupid, ladies. You are soldiers, and whatever backroom deals are flying around here, none of them involve the kind of stakes that could get you seriously in trouble—unless, that is, you are goaded into doing something that’ll get you in trouble. Just be soldiers, and good ones. Use your common sense, not your animal cunning; follow your orders and trust the chain of command. And for future reference, Locke, you are to consider the prohibition on you getting between the Legion and the Guild to have greater force than any incidental orders that originate from outside this cohort.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said with obvious relief. “Thank you, ma’am!”

“For now,” the captain said with a cold smile, “since you have both so graciously taken responsibility for this horsewash… Well, Locke, I’ll deal with you once you’re out of the healer’s care. Lang, report to the cohort parade ground and mop it.”

“M-mop it, Captain?” Merry stuttered.

“Have you developed a hearing problem, Lang?”

“No, ma’am!”

“Good. Mop it till it’s dry, private. Or until I tell you to stop.”

Merry looked at the window, which was currently being pounded with warm rain. Principia cringed sympathetically.

“Yes, ma’am,” Merry said resignedly.


“Very good,” Elder Shiraki said approvingly. The young shaman acknowledged him with only the barest hint of a smile, focused as she was on her task. Before them, a vine had risen out of the ground in the grove’s wide central space; it was currently standing upright, to the height of their shoulders, and under the apprentice’s gentle hands what minutes ago had been a single berry had swollen and hardened, gradually becoming a sizable watermelon. It was delicate work, producing the fruit while supporting the vine in an upright position not natural to it, carefully drawing energy and nutrients from the earth to supply all of this and not causing a backlash that would damage the other plants in the vicinity, which was why Shiraki preferred it as a training exercise. He stood by, ready to intervene in case of problems. He would certainly not salvage the apprentice’s melon, but he would prevent a mishap from adversely affecting her, or their environment.

The young elf was also getting practice in maintaining focus under mild duress. Though the others in the grove knew better than to interfere with or deliberately distract a shaman being trained by an Elder, they did not hesitate to stop and watch, and they were all certainly cognizant that an audience could, by itself, be ample distraction.

His praise was not idly given, however. She was doing quite well, especially in comparison to her previous attempt.

The warning was scant, a mere split-second, but the harsh buzz of arcane magic was alarming enough to provoke a reaction, and a split-second was plenty of time for the dozen elves present to spring into ready positions, those who had weapons placing hands on them.

Of course, the young shaman’s spell collapsed, and Shiraki had to reach out with his mind to prevent the suddenly uncontained energies she had been working from damaging either her or the soil. The melon withered, of course, but there was nothing to be done about that. Clearly not the student’s fault.

Before the watermelon had even started to turn brown, before any of the suddenly tense elves could call out a warning, there came a short, soft puff of displaced air, and then she was standing among them.

Tellwyrn turned in nearly a full circle, studying the assembled wood elves through those pretentious golden spectacles of hers, and then her gaze fell on Shiraki. She straightened up, holding out her arms as if for a hug, and grinned in evident delight.

“Chucky!”

Shiraki sighed heavily, gently allowing the last of the shamanic energies he had seized to dissipate harmlessly into the ground. His apprentice took two steps back, scowling at the mage; several of the other elves had similarly unfriendly expressions, though a few of the younger ones studied her with a degree of interest he did not like.

“In all the time that has passed, Arachne,” he intoned, “and all that has passed in that time, I begin to think it is a cruel cosmic joke at my expense that neither of us has managed to be killed yet.”

“Such sweet things you always say,” she retorted, her grin actually broadening. “I did save your life that one time, you know.”

“Yes, I know,” he replied calmly. “I am quite clearly indebted to you for it. Considering that, it would take quite a long and intense pattern of deeply annoying behavior to leave me so unimpressed whenever we meet. And yet, you managed.”

Tellwyrn laughed. “Well, fair enough. I think the real issue is that I saved you from being saved by Sheyann. Face it, you’d be a lot more annoyed at owing her one.”

At that, he had to smile. “All that aside, Arachne, you’re hardly known for your habit of making casual social calls. What brings you to our grove?”

“Straight to business, then, is it?” She shook her head, the mirth leaking rapidly from her expression. “All right, the truth is, I need the help of a shaman. A powerful and learned a shaman as the grove can spare me for a bit.”

“Oh?” he said, intrigued despite himself. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard—or heard of—you asking such a thing before. What disaster has brought this on?”

Tellwyrn sighed and folded her arms. “To make a very long story short, I’ve got a sick dryad on my hands, and damn if I know a thing to do with her.”

“What have you done to Juniper?” Elder Sheyann demanded, striding toward them and dispersing the onlookers with a sharp gesture.

“Juniper is fine,” Tellwyrn replied, turning to face the new arrival. “Somewhat distraught at the moment, but unharmed. What I did,” she added with a rueful grimace, “was severely overestimate her capabilities and her knowledge of them. I let her attempt something she was clearly not ready for. The dryad who’s been harmed is named Aspen.”

Shiraki and Sheyann exchanged a sharp look, before returning their attention to the sorceress.

“It sounds,” Sheyann said firmly, “as if we had better hear the long version.”

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Bonus #13: Along Came a Spider, part 1

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3006 years ago

Shiraki crept through the forest as quietly as he could—quietly enough that none of the mortal kind would have noted his passing, but that was not what concerned him. A fellow elf could have heard his approach, and he didn’t attempt to increase his stealth to obviate that risk. If he met other elves here, they would surely be equally cautious, and it was better that he find them before something else did.

He was not particularly worried. The demons were cunning, some of them, but there were no known types that could match an elf for stealth, at least not out in nature. Between his natural lightness and agility and his burgeoning shamanic skills, he would know of any demons in the area long before they knew of him. There had been no sign of any since he had been separated from the human alliance at the battle to the south.

The forest lay along the base of the Dragon Peaks, climbing the mountains until they became too steep and rocky to support trees, and fading away into the prairie to the west. He didn’t know if any help could be expected from the plains tribes; some had come to join the alliance, but those who hadn’t would probably insist on keeping to themselves. They had very likely retreated into the Golden Sea, anyhow.

There had been no known demon activity this far north; they were concentrated in Viridill, the Tyr Valley and the plains of the West, where humans lived. Elilial had shown herself willing to make use of whatever tools were available to her, but she concentrated her efforts as always on humankind. Groves too close to the battlefields had been burned, elves killed or displaced, but for the most part, those who chose not to participate had managed to flee.

Shiraki had little patience for such isolationism; they all had to live in the world. His mother had called him childish and hotheaded, and other less kind words, but he had chosen to actively resist the demons. Now, as he made his way northwest through the forest toward the meeting point, he kept his senses fully alert. The forest was filled with the songs of birds and insects, the chattering of squirrels; there was no hint of the enemy here. Even creeping invisibly, demonkind alarmed animals badly enough to create evidence of their passing. Still, he was wary of meeting humans who had sworn themselves to Elilial’s cause, and also on the lookout for fleeing refugees or potential allies he could bring to the meeting.

There were few other souls out on the road; he sensed several at a significant distance, and didn’t deem it worthwhile to divert to meet them. When he crossed the Old Road and beheld one of his own kind a dozen yards ahead, however, he paused.

Her slender build and upward-pointed ears caught his attention, and he stopped to study her closely. The woman wore a robe that barely qualified as such; it looked like it had been stitched together from old flour sacks. The stitching was fairly well-done and it fit her, but it was dirty and ragged to the point of falling apart. Most interestingly, she was trudging along the Old Road toward the north, away from elven territory, yet swiveling her head rapidly to stare at any source of noise as she went. In the few minutes that he silently watched, she gave wary attention to several songbirds, and jumped violently when a squirrel began chattering directly over her head.

Shiraki managed not to laugh, despite the inherent humor of the picture. Between the ragged attire—and, he now saw, the lack of shoes—and jumpy behavior, it seemed most likely this was a refugee. She doubtless did not need any further grief.

He turned, pacing slowly up the road toward her. He did not attempt to disguise his footfalls, though they were naturally light even for an elf’s. The woman’s attention was fixed on the squirrel, almost as if she’d never seen one before, and he got within six yards before she heard him and spun around.

She was rather pretty, even squinting suspiciously at him. Shiraki would not have admitted it, but while he had joined the effort against the demons out of a genuine desire to help, he entertained some daydreams of what might come of such adventures. For example, he was old enough to take a mate and interested in finding someone suitable. Coming across a woman of his own kind apparently in distress in the woods raised possibilities which he tried earnestly to ignore.

“Well met,” he said politely. “Are you in need of help?”

“Help?” she said carefully, as though unsure of the concept. “Help… I do not think so, no. I am also not in need of being robbed, thank you.”

Shiraki couldn’t help laughing, though he tried to stifle it when her lips narrowed further. “My apologies,” he said. “I certainly don’t intend to rob you. I simply thought you looked a little…ah…”

“Poorly dressed and lost?” she said dryly. She straightened from her defensive crouch, however, and her expression opened a little bit.

“Thank you, I was looking for a more polite way to say it,” he replied with a rueful smile. “Are you hungry? I have enough waybread to share.”

“No, thank you. I ate a…thing. An animal. Um, big, shaggy, four hooves…” She put both hands to her temples, forefingers extended, pantomiming horns.

“A…a bison?” he said, fascinated. How on earth had she grown up without learning what a bison was?

“If so, then yes,” the woman said, lowering her hands.

“You ate the whole thing?”

“Most. Some parts, they are not good for chewing. Others I am not sure what to do with.”

He nodded. “Well, that’s for the best; you should be fine for months with that much energy in your aura, unless you do a lot of magic. This is relatively stable country, but things are bad elsewhere; there is no telling how scarce food may be in the near future. Do you do magic?”

“Why do you ask?” she demanded, expression suddenly suspicious again.

“Mere curiosity,” he said, then placed a hand on his chest and bowed. “I am Shiraki.”

She mouthed his name ostentatiously, eyes losing focus, as though afraid she would immediately forget it.

“And,” he prompted gently after a moment, “you are…?”

Her gaze sharpened, snapping back to his face.

“I am what?”

“What is your name?” he asked, grinning. This was possibly the most surreal conversation he’d ever had, but he sensed no threat from her.

“Name,” she mused, her eyes drifting. “My name? Hm…”

“You’ve forgotten?” he asked, his grin broadening.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “…you can call me Arachne.”

“Well met,” he said again. “Are you traveling anywhere in particular, if I may ask?”

“You may ask,” she said, then turned and pointed up the road. “That way, I guess. I am not lost.”

“No?”

“No,” she said emphatically. “I do not know where I am, but I also do not know where I am going, and I have no schedule. So… Maybe very lost. I do not feel lost.”

He couldn’t keep the bemused smile off his face; it was all he could do to withhold the barrage of questions he wanted to ask. Arachne was the most puzzling individual he had ever met. She spoke elvish like someone who had learned it in a dwarven university: stiltedly formal, with a truly inexplicable accent and occasional lapses in grammar.

“Well,” he said, “this is the Old Road, skirting the narrow area between the Golden Sea and the Dragon Peaks.” He pointed at the mountains to the west, visible through the trees. “Further north it comes out onto the plains, then the desert, and if you follow it all the way you’ll eventually come to the Dwarnskold mountain range. The subterranean dwarven kingdoms are beneath that.”

“Eugh,” she said, making a face. “I do not want to go beneath anything. I was in Tar’naris…briefly. It was more than enough. You mention a sea? I have not seen one of those yet.”

“Well… The Golden Sea is just a name. It’s actually a prairie.”

She snorted. “Then why call it a sea? That is confusing.”

“I agree,” Shiraki said. “Unfortunately, if you don’t wish to go underground, this road doesn’t lead anywhere useful. The Dwarnskolds are all but impassable, and there’s nothing beyond them anyway but the ocean.”

“Hm. Where are you going?” she demanded.

He hesitated. She was an odd duck, to be sure, but nothing about her suggested she was in league with the enemy. They had spies, but only among the humans. No elf would aid the forces of Hell.

“I’m meeting up with some allies in the mountains not far from here,” he said after a moment. “The force of humans I was attempting to help were overrun by demons. I spirited a few away, but it was all I could do. I need to get news and orders and figure out how to proceed. Everything is in chaos at the moment.”

“Demons?” she said sharply.

Shiraki nodded slowly. “Yes, demons. Are you not aware of the war in the south?”

“I am aware there is a war,” she said carefully. “No one has explained it to me and I did not hang around and ask. Other people’s wars are not my trouble. A war with demons?”

“Elilial has launched a major incursion,” he said, frowning. “The humans have suffered serious losses, entire kingdoms overrun. Those remaining have help from the elves, and even the orcs. This has been going on for three years. Where have you been?”

“Not here,” she murmured, then nodded as if deciding something. “Very good, if it is demons, that is a different thing. I can help you to fight! Let us go see your friends.”

“I suppose I can bring you to the meeting,” he said slowly. “We are certainly in no position to turn down allies. It’s not far from here, just into the foothills. Less than a day.”

“Good,” she said decisively. “You lead, then.”

“Are you…sure you want to?” he asked. “With all respect, you don’t look to be in fighting shape. There is certainly no disgrace in finding a safe place to hide, if you are not a soldier.”

“Not only soldiers can fight,” she said cryptically. “This talking is not you leading the way, Chucky.”

“Shiraki,” he enunciated, frowning.

“Yes, I said that. Which way?”

He sighed, but nodded to her and stepped off into the bushes. “Northwest, this way. The walk is mostly uphill. Be certain, though; once we reconnect with the group, we’ll be out in the wilderness, and likely proceeding straight from there to another battle. You may not have another chance to back away.”

“I am doing nothing important anyhow,” she said, following him. “It is worthwhile to help, it seems to me. I do not like demons.”

He laughed again, in spite of himself. “Nobody likes demons.”

“Really?” Arachne chuckled. “You have met everybody?”

Shiraki glanced back at her. “After today, I think I may have.”


They made excellent time, reaching the rendezvous point in a sheltered hollow at the foot of a low peak not long after sunset. Shiraki hadn’t been certain what to expect upon arriving; who made it to the meeting would depend a great deal upon how things went in other parts of the front. He was pleased to see almost half a dozen humans and elves, but less pleased to find them under the de facto leadership of his least favorite Elder.

“And you brought her here?” Elder Sheyann said disapprovingly, her hair ruffling slightly in the faint magical wind that kept their conversation private. Such tricks were a necessity when one wished to speak behind the backs of about elves who were close enough to be seen. After everyone had exchanged greetings and preliminary news, she and Vaisza had pulled Shiraki aside to discuss his new companion, who was down below, talking with Mervingen the wizard in her off-kilter elvish while Lord Kraanz looked on, bemused.

“She was willing to help,” Shiraki said, trying not to sound defensive. “Can we afford to turn down allies? Besides, the alternative was to leave her wandering in the forest. Elder…I’m not entirely certain she’s right in the head. I don’t think it would have been right to just leave her behind.”

“If she is unstable enough to be a threat to herself in the forest,” Sheyann said with an edge to her tone, “what makes you think bringing her into a war is in any way a kindness?”

“I’m not certain she is,” he said, straining for patience. “All I know for certain is that she wants to fight the demons.”

“You know nothing for certain, Shiraki,” Sheyann said in exasperation. “She told you she wants to attend this meeting and join our cause. This unknown and frankly weird individual who turns up in the middle of a war? A war against a foe who is the embodiment of cunning? Surely I don’t need to explain to you what a spy is, young man.”

“I’m not wrong, then?” Vaisza interjected in her lightly accented elvish. “That elf is rather…peculiar?” The Huntress tilted her head, directing her gaze at Shiraki.

“You don’t know the half of it,” he said fervently, glad of the opportunity to wiggle out from under Sheyann’s interrogation. “I don’t know where she learned to speak, but I have never heard an accent like that. And the whole walk up here, she made me identify every tree, bush, bird and insect we saw. She didn’t know what any of them were. A wood elf! It’s as if she fell from the moon or something.”

“Hm,” Vaisza murmured, frowning at Arachne, who seemed to be having a conversation with Kraanz now, with Mervingen serving as translator. It was hardly a surprise that she knew no human tongues, considering that she barely seemed to know elvish. “I hardly think she is a spy, then, Elder.”

“Oh?” Sheyann raised an eyebrow.

“The central role of a spy is to avoid notice,” the Silver Huntress explained. “A spy would craft a role that we would recognize, and do everything possible to resemble something we understand well, so as not to court our attention. This… Being an odd, out of place figure whose very presence raises questions, this is not good espionage. Elilial is too crafty to make such a blunder, and doesn’t employ agents who make such blunders. No, I suspect she is exactly what she claims to be.”

“And what does she claim to be?” Sheyann asked pointedly, turning back to Shiraki.

He shrugged. “She doesn’t seem to want to talk about her past. Believe me, I asked. The woman is barefoot and dressed like a knapsack; it’s not hard to imagine she’s running from something of which she doesn’t care to be reminded.”

“Hm,” Sheyann murmured. “And she was on the road north, from Viridill?”

“Yes. She mentioned Tar’naris, too; she had been in the south, but didn’t know what the war was about, so she can’t have been there long. She also didn’t know where the road led. Honestly, Elder, she doesn’t seem to know anything. It’s like talking with a child in a woman’s body. A rather sharp-tongued child,” he added ruefully.

Sheyann shifted, letting the wind vanish, and he half-turned to follow her gaze. Arachne was coming toward them.

“Hello!” she said, waving. “You have decided I am not a secret monster now?”

Sheyann smiled slightly. “Not conclusively.”

Arachne grinned. “Heh. I like you. I have been told the news by these humans, why there is war. Very strange thing for Elilial to do, is it not? But obviously, no, she cannot be let to do this. I very much see the purpose of stopping her. But why are we here in the mountains, when the demons are way far south?”

Elder Sheyann glanced at Vaisza before replying. “At the core of the matter is that an armed invasion is very uncharacteristic of Elilial; she is the goddess of cunning.”

“Yes.” Arachne nodded. “I know who she is.”

“The war, we believe, is a false front,” Sheyann continued, folding her hands. “War breeds chaos; it makes the perfect cover for any number of nefarious activities. We, and others who have organized together for this purpose, are trying to ascertain her true motive, and thwart it.”

“Ah!” Arachne grinned. “Very clever! I like it! I think I am perhaps less helpful than I thought if this is the case, though,” she added more thoughtfully. “I am good at fighting, and good at scheming, but to scheme well one must know the situation and the territory, yes? I do not know very much about how things are, here.”

“We’re glad of any help anyone is willing to offer,” Shiraki assured her. Sheyann gave him a long look.

“This group is only planning to stay here another day,” Vaisza added. “We cannot afford to waste time; others have yet to report in, but we must lay plans and continue moving. Tomorrow we will hold our meeting and decide our next steps, and must proceed without anyone who has not arrived by then. The goddess grant that they are only delayed,” she added more quietly.

“Goddess?” Arachne perked up visibly. “Which?”

Vaisza blinked. “Which…goddess? I am a Silver Huntress. I serve Avei.”

“Oh,” Arachne said, disappointed. “I do not need that one… Ah well. I will look around, if we are going to wait until tomorrow.” She turned and meandered off toward the front of their little valley, where they had a view over the darkened forest and the plains beyond.

“Did she just say what I thought I heard?” Vaisza demanded.

“Yes,” Elder Sheyann said with a sigh, “and no, I have no more idea than you what it meant. What a fine catch you’ve brought us, Shiraki.”

He sighed and walked away from her. It was a risky degree of rudeness to show an Elder, but his patience was wearing out. Really, of all the people to be stuck in the mountains with… He dearly hoped Elder Onnaue was all right.

“So you have decided to trust her, though?” Vaisza asked behind him.

“I have decided not to chase her away,” Sheyann replied. “It makes sense to be up-front with her about things she will inevitably learn anyway.”

“Good evening, Lord Kraanz,” he said politely in Tanglic to the burly human as they passed each other.

Kraanz paused, glancing over his shoulder at Arachne, who had wandered toward the edge of the valley where it descended in a sharp incline toward a mountain trail below. “Interesting find, there, lad,” he said, straightening the bearskin draped over his shoulders. “A word of advice: if you go picking up every pretty pair of legs you come across, sooner rather than later you’ll find yourself holding an armful of crazy.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Shiraki said gravely, concealing his amusement. Arachne had recently given him some practice at that. “I wonder, since you have raised the subject… You’ve spent time in Tar’naris, is that not correct?”

“Aye, it is,” the man replied with a grin that showed several missing teeth. “Twice as a raider and once as a slave. There was some overlap, there.”

Shiraki nodded. “I’m trying to figure out where our guest hails from—she has a most peculiar manner of speech. Tell me, does it resemble the drow accent, to your ear?”

“Fraid I’m of little help to you, lad,” Kraanz said with a shrug. “I can’t make much sense of your tongue. Didn’t sound overly familiar when she talked, but I’d not swear I’d recognize the jabbering of the drow who used to prod me with a whip, either.”

“I see,” Shiraki murmured. Well, it had just been a thought. What were the odds she could have come from Tar’naris, of all places? Peculiar enough that she had been there at all; the drow had little use for their surface cousins even as slaves.

“Hey,” Arachne said suddenly from up ahead. “Are we expecting sneaky enemies? Because I think that bird is a person.”

“Where?” Sheyann demanded, striding past Shiraki and Kraanz toward the edge of the valley.

“There,” Arachne replied, pointing out into the darkness. “Little black bird.”

“What’s she saying?” Kraanz demanded.

“She sees a suspicious bird,” Shiraki explained, his eyes on the two women.

“She sees a bird? In the dark?”

“Look at its aura,” Arachne was saying. “Way, much too huge for a little bird. But also concealed, so you do not notice unless you are looking.”

“You’re right,” Sheyann noted. “I see it now, too. It would be suspicious enough, anyway. Crows do not fly at night.”

Crows? Shiraki felt mingled hope and trepidation well up.

“It is called a crows?”

“Crow.” The Elder half-turned to give Arachne an unreadable look. “In the singular, a crow. How did you happen to notice its aura? You’re right, it’s barely perceptible; one would have to be looking closely.”

“Because you know it is a crow,” she replied quietly, still staring at the bird. Shiraki could see it now, too, coming straight toward them. “You see something you understand, and you do not look closer. Me, I must look at everything. Someday I will understand what everything is and be as blind as everyone else. Or dead.” She shrugged. “It is all one, I suppose.”

The crow cawed hoarsely as it approached, swinging down into the valley, where it settled to the ground a few feet from them. Suddenly it was not a bird standing there, but an elf woman in battered leather armor, with black hair tied back in a taut braid.

“Kuriwa,” Sheyann said, permitting open relief into her tone. “Well met. What news?”

“Little, I’m afraid, and not overly bright,” replied the shaman. “I am pleased to see you safe, Sheyann. And Shiraki.” She nodded to each of the humans in turn before settling an inquisitive look upon Arachne.

“Hello!” the new arrival said brightly.

“This,” Sheyann said in a careful tone, “is a new associate Shiraki found. Kuriwa, meet Arachne.”

“Indeed.” Kuriwa narrowed her eyes. “The pleasure is mine…Arachne.”

“I guess so?” she replied, tilting her head. “You have a suspicious look. Does everyone think I am going to poison them?”

“Forgive me,” Kuriwa said smoothly. “Matters being as they are, I have grown mistrustful of surprises. As I said, my friends, the news is not good. The Circle seems to have been discovered by Elilial’s forces. Her Black Wraiths have moved against several of those we have placed within the human lands she has overtaken.”

“That is grim news indeed,” Sheyann said, frowning.

“What is she saying?” Kraanz demanded. Shiraki stepped over next to him and began translating in a low tone while Kuriwa continued.

“Talivar, Lady Keress and Noslin I have confirmed slain. I was able to reach Misareth in time to extract her from Caladel, but I was not so fortunate upon trying to rescue Anzar.” She sighed. “He…will live, I believe, but the Wraiths used a poison on him of infernal make. Unless this war drags out longer than we can permit it to, his part in it is over.”

“Bloody hell,” Kraanz cursed. Vaisza was already whispering prayers for the dead.

“We clearly must change our strategy, then,” said Sheyann.

“Yes,” Kuriwa agreed, nodding. “I have come to propose a new one. The Wraiths are now hunting us; I suggest we retreat, and let them think they are driving us away.”

Shiraki paused in his translating to ask, “What earthly good could that do?”

“These Wraiths,” said Arachne. “They…hide? Like your Circle?”

Kuriwa gave her another piercing look. “They are Elilial’s cult among the humans. Yes, they must hide themselves.”

“Ah,” she said, nodding. “A good plan, then, Chucky. We play the easy targets, they come out to chase us, yes?”

“That is my hope,” Kuriwa said.

“It’s pronounced Shiraki,” Sheyann murmured.

“Shee-rah-kee,” Arachne said carefully. “Thought I was saying that. Sorry, Chucky.”

He sighed heavily and went back to translating for Kraanz. Mervingen tried to bury a chuckle under a cough.

“Retreat to where, then?” Vaisza asked.

“Initially, here,” said Kuriwa. “This rendezvous point is far from the front and easily secured. When more have gathered, I wish to send an expedition to Svenheim, since we are close to the road leading there.”

“That’s all but asking us to leave the field entirely,” Vaisza said sharply.

“For the time being, yes,” Kuriwa agreed. “But it is an action toward specific purpose—two of them. Recruiting the dwarves to the cause will be a major victory; Elilial’s numbers are already flagging, but so are the human armies. Another mortal force will turn the tide. Additionally, being such a valid tactic, it is a believable reason for the Circle to pull back, and also a solid provocation for the Wraiths to pursue us.”

“Clever,” Arachne mused.

“Yes,” said Sheyann, watching Kuriwa closely. “I could see this plan working, perhaps.”

“It is not all quite so simple as that, of course,” Kuriwa said. “Rather than leaving you to cool your heels in the mountains for weeks, I mean to gather the others here myself. That…will be difficult.”

“You are surely not considering bringing them through the place between places,” Sheyann said sharply.

“Desperate times,” Kuriwa said with a shrug. “Desperate measures.”

“I would think carefully about just how desperate we are!”

“I have,” the shaman said, meeting her stare. “Am I known to take risks unless they are needful?”

The Elder sighed. “What do you need from us, then?”

“Merely to hold this position, and prepare it. There will soon be more people here—they will be tired and likely quite stressed. Can you gather some food, prepare medicines and places to rest?”

“We can do this,” Sheyann nodded, glancing around at the others. “It will be much better than simply counting the hours.”

“Game is not plentiful here,” Vaisza offered, “but I can begin hunting.”

“None for me, if that helps,” said Arachne. “I ate a bison not long ago.”

The Huntress whipped her head around to stare at her. “What do you mean, you ate a bison?!”

“I don’t know.” She cocked her head, turning to Shiraki. “That is what Chucky said it was.”

He sighed, as did Sheyann; Kuriwa just stared at her blankly. It wasn’t exactly a secret, but elves did not prefer to discuss their metabolism with humans, whose process for taking in and storing energy was entirely biological. As a consequence, they had to eat virtually all the time, or risk starvation. The elvish way of turning large quantities of food into energy for long periods of time was, of course, far more efficient, but pointing out to humans the ways in which they were inferior seldom led to productive discussions.

“If you are agreed to this,” Kuriwa said, “I will proceed to the others. Time is of the essence.”

“Travel safely,” said Sheyann, bowing. Kuriwa nodded in return, then ascended on a flutter of dark wings.

“Not much for socializing, is she?” Kraanz commented.

Elder Sheyann sighed again. “It seems we have some work to do, my friends. For now, though, I suggest we rest. All this will be better approached in the daylight.”


Almost immediately after breakfast he was already regretting the entire situation. Somehow, with demons on the rampage, the Black Wraiths stalking their allies and a mission to the mysterious dwarven kingdoms looming ahead, Shiraki found himself gathering firewood. Well, it wasn’t quite as dull as it could have been, considering the “help” he had been assigned.

“And…this one will become a tree?”

“It is a tree,” he said patiently. “That’s a sapling, a juvenile tree. Leave it alone; there’s not enough there to burn properly, and it’s better to let it mature into a full-sized pine.”

“How long will that take?” Arachne asked.

“Several years.”

“Hmph. We need wood now.”

“Nature is not always accommodating,” he said gravely. Her ignorance of absolutely everything had long since ceased to be charming and was, by this point, no longer even funny. She really was becoming an aggravation.

“How long until this one turns into a tree?”

“That is a rose bush,” he said wearily. “That’s about as big as they get. It’s not the right season, but the flowers are—don’t put your hand in there! It has thorns!”

“This is annoying,” she said, retreating from the rose bush and glaring at it suspiciously. “We are just to gather wood that has fallen off branches? This will take forever.”

“This is just for our campfire,” Shiraki said, picking up another stick and tucking it under his arm with the others. “When we get to gathering stores of wood for when the others arrive, we’ll need tools to fell one of these trees. One should be plenty for our needs.”

“Shiraki,” she said quietly.

“You got it right,” he said in surprise, turning to her. She was staring grimly past him, however. He followed her gaze and immediately dropped his meager armful of firewood.

The woman who had appeared silently among the trees might have passed for a slender human as far as most of her features went. Even the hooves were not a complete deal-breaker; there were a number of fairly common curses that had that effect. Her hair, though, was a sleek sheet of orange fire, hanging down her back and trailing along the ground behind, where it somehow did not set the underbrush alight. Her eyes, too, were infinite pits of flame.

He drew his tomahawk and belt knife, stepping in front of his companion. “Arachne, get back. Go find Elder Sheyann.”

“That’s very noble of you…Shiraki, was it?” The woman’s voice was like a choir, like a dozen women speaking in harmonious unison. “But there is no need to be so hostile. Why don’t we have a calm, quiet discussion?”

“Arachne, go,” he said urgently. “We’ve nothing to gain by dallying with demon filth.”

She moved faster than even an elf could track. One moment he was standing in front of Arachne; the next, the woman’s fingers were around his neck. They were far too long and had far too many joints, encircling his throat and beginning to squeeze off his air supply. He struck at her arm with both weapons, to absolutely no effect.

“You are a rude little knife-ear,” she said calmly. “And for your edification, it’s archdemon.”

“Excuse me,” Arachne said tersely, “he cannot breathe. Let go of his neck, please.”

The archdemon turned her head, examining the elf. “I thought you were told to fetch the Elder? Go do that. I believe it is she with whom I wish to—”

A sudden wind howled through the forest, bringing with it the incongruous scents of flowers, fresh water and moist earth. The demon’s fiery hair was sent streaming out behind her and she grimaced, relaxing her grip somewhat. Shiraki gasped for breath.

“The Elder is here,” Sheyann snapped, striding toward them. “Unhand the boy and say your piece, demon, then go. I’ve no patience for your kind.”

“Just so,” the demon said, grinning unpleasantly. She had extremely large fangs. “But I think I will hold onto him for a few moments more, yes? Otherwise, what motivation have you to be polite with me? I am Invazradi, third daughter of the Queen of Hell, and I have been following this elf-pup for days. Now that we are all here, I believe we should discuss this little…Circle of yours.”

“Done asking politely,” Arachne announced, pointing a finger at the archdemon.

The entire world rang like a bell.

Shiraki found himself lying on his back in the carpet of fallen pine needles, blinking and gasping for breath while waiting for his vision to clear. He was free of the demon’s grasp, however. Raising his head, he beheld Arachne, still with her arm held out, and Sheyann staring at her with an expression of shock that would have been quite gratifying under less dire circumstances.

The pine tree into which Invazradi had been slammed finished toppling with a crash, while the archdemon got back to her hooves, glaring murder at Arachne.

“That,” she snarled. “Was. A mistake.”

“Why?” the elf asked innocently. “I did not miss.”

Invazradi struck with that impossible speed again, but rebounded off a sphere of blue light that sprang into being around Arachne with her impact. She staggered backward, and Arachne made a sharp gesture with her fist.

A glowing cobalt orb materialized above and slammed downward, smashing the archdemon into the forest floor.

“I am trying to be nice to people,” Arachne said in a conversational tone, making complex motions with her fingers. Threads of blue light snaked out from her hands to twine about Invazradi’s hooves as she tried to get up again. In the next moment, the shrieking demon found herself suspended upside down in midair, her glowing hair trailing among the fallen needles. “I am alone in a new place and it is hard to make friends. But you, big girl, I think you can take it, yes?”

Shiraki scrambled back to his feet, scuttling around behind Sheyann before he realized he’d done so. The Elder, for her part, planted herself between him and the sorceress and archdemon, arms spreading slightly as if to make a barrier with her own body.

Sorceress. He could identify, now that he had time to think, the distinctive prickle of arcane magic being used. She was clearly far more powerful than Mervingen, or any mage he’d encountered. How?

“My mother will have your hide in strips to make bootlaces!” Invazradi howled as more blue threads bound her arms to her sides.

“Your mother does not wear boots,” Arachne said reasonably. “You did not get those stompers from papa. Now, you go back to her, and give my compliments, yes? And also a message. I will not like to have to spank anymore of her badly behaving brats, please.”

“No,” said a new voice, and Kuriwa stepped out from behind a tree. In her hand was a spear with a golden haft, its head a single carved piece of crystal. The entire thing put off a subtle light that drove away every shadow in their vicinity without seeming to glare upon the eyes. “Now that she has finally shown her face, she need not carry a message. She will be one.”

“No,” Invazradi whispered, sounding truly unnerved now. Her glowing eyes were locked on the spear.

“You… Kuriwa, you conniving snake,” Sheyann hissed. “Was this what you were after this whole time?”

“One thing,” the shaman said mildly, striding forward. “Thank you, Arachne. Hold her steady, please.”

“Do not come any closer, please,” Arachne replied. “And put that thing somewhere else. Our point is made; she goes home, now.”

“No,” Kuriwa said icily, “she does not.”

With a soft whoosh of wings, yet another figure descended through the trees, landing lightly beside them. “All right, everyone, that’s just about enough of that,” she said cheerfully. Shiraki heard a soft whimper, only belatedly realizing it came from himself. The new woman had the same polyphonic voice and hellfire-filled eyes as Invazradi. She had birdlike talons for feet, though, and her hair was an ordinary if glossy black. Wings spread from behind her shoulders, feathered like a bird’s in shades of deep purple and midnight blue, though small claws were visible at their joints.

“Azradeh!” Invazradi squealed. “Help!”

“You shut up,” the second archdemon said disdainfully. “You’re an embarrassment. Now, if you would be so kind as to release my sister?” she added directly to Arachne.

“You take your sister and you go very much away, this is clear?” the sorceress said severely. “We are having a nice little camping in the woods. Only with friends. She is rude.”

“Yes, sorry about that,” Azradeh said with a wry grin. She, too, had vicious fangs. “For what it’s worth, had this gone at all the way she planned you would all be dead without having to listen to her.”

“I hate you so much,” Invazradi snarled.

“Yes, yes,” Azradeh said soothingly, patting her leg. “The bindings, please?”

Arachne considered the two of them thoughtfully for a moment, then flicked her fingers. The blue threads instantly vanished and Invazradi plummeted to the ground with a strangely musical squawk.

“Now, let us all get along, yes?” Arachne said mildly. “The crow lady over there, I think she is here to murder somebody. I have a feeling it is not her first time, no?”

“Quite,” Azradeh said, nodding gravely. “And then, of course, there’s you.”

“Yes,” Arachne replied, holding her gaze. “There is me.”

“So, nobody gets what they wanted, but everybody gets to live another day. An acceptable compromise. Come, sister, we should find a private place for me to chew you out before I hand you over to Mother. Honestly, how you contrive yourself into these debacles is beyond my imagining.”

Invazradi glared at her, then panned her hateful stare around at the elves, finally settling on Shiraki.

“I will see you again,” she promised, then took two steps backward and vanished abruptly, leaving behind a puff of sulfur-scented smoke.

Azradeh tilted her head in a way that showed she was rolling her eyes, despite her lack of visible pupils, then disappeared in the same manner.

There was a moment of silence.

“That was a good plan,” Arachne said finally. “You are lucky I am so disagreeable, Kuriwa. I do not think you and your spear could have matched for two of them.”

“Quite,” the shaman said curtly. “I suppose I should thank you for that. Though had the second not intervened, you would simply have botched the only chance we are ever likely to see to remove an archdemon from the playing field!”

Arachne tilted her head inquisitively, glanced at Sheyann and then back at Kuriwa. “Have you met Elilial?”

“I’ve not had the pleasure,” the shaman said dryly.

“I have,” Arachne said firmly, “and I am happier being not her new hobby. The archdemons, they are her children, this is true? You kill the goddess’s child, she comes after you with everything she can bring. I would maybe be willing to make Avei this angry with me, but Elilial? That is not a clean death. She will make you watch as everything you love is slowly torn to shreds before allowing you to die. If she is in a hurry.”

“And while she was doing that,” Kuriwa said in exasperation, “she would be distracted, focused away from her main goal and open to attack! I am willing to bring that upon myself if it means the opportunity to remove the dark goddess from the mortal plane permanently.”

“You, I note, were not the only person here,” Sheyann said sharply. “You would not hold the entirety of the blame in her eyes. How very strategic for you to make that choice on behalf of the rest of us, Kuriwa.”

“Yes. Well, anyway,” said Arachne, bending to pick up one of Shiraki’s fallen sticks. “You two have things to discuss, so I will leave you to do that. Obviously the plans must change again. Do we still need firewood? I would hate to have gone stomping in the woods for nothing. My feet have become very disgusting.”


Later, the two elders watched from a higher peak, ostensibly keeping a lookout for more demons, while the party below packed away the meager camp, preparing to set off for a new, hopefully more secure location. Their chosen vantage was angled such that the wind made them inaudible even to the elven ears below.

“If you are sure,” Sheyann said quietly. “It still seems awfully risky to me.”

“I am willing to risk my own safety at need,” Kuriwa replied. She was seated cross-legged on a boulder, hands folded in her lap. “I promise you, I am more careful with the lives of others. The groundwork was laid beforehand; Elilial’s wrath would have fallen entirely upon me. Well. It was not a total loss. Those two have learned a little humility and may be less aggressive… And I did go to the trouble of retrieving the spear. Perhaps I will give it to a Hand of Avei. It can still do some good against the demons.”

“Hm,” the other woman said noncommittally. For a few minutes, they gazed down in silence. Eventually, though, she spoke again. “I hardly know what to make of that…sorceress. She seems by turns childlike, insane, and…terrifying. Does anything she’s said ring familiar to you? I can’t help feeling I would know more if I could place that accent…”

“She troubles me,” Kuriwa whispered.

Sheyann looked over at her, narrowing her eyes. “You sound as if you mean that quite sincerely. She is a mystery, yes, a potentially alarming one. What is it you know that I don’t, Kuriwa?”

The elder shaman shook her head slowly. “Little that is conclusive. Just enough to raise many unsettling questions. I know what the word arachne means. Or what it once did.”

Sheyann raised an eyebrow.

Still staring down at the group below, Kuriwa continued softly. “In the aftermath of the Elder War, there was a celestial game of round-the-bush. The Pantheon banished Elilial to Hell, first of all. Within two centuries, she organized a coup and in turn removed Scyllith, banishing her to the mortal plane, and specifically the depths of the Underworld. Meanwhile, Themynra, foreseeing these events, had insinuated herself into the realms of the drow, converting all those near the surface to her worship and creating a barrier between Scyllith and our lands, leaving Scyllith with nothing to do but suborn the remaining drow.”

She turned her head to gaze directly at Sheyann. “Two Elder gods survive to this day… But there were three not slain by the Pantheon, and one whose fate is not known. Before Scyllith and Themynra divided them up between themselves, the drow worshiped a goddess of many arms and many eyes. What became of her, I can only guess. Nor do I know the fate of the last spider priestesses.”

Sheyann had fallen totally still. Kuriwa sighed softly, turning again to look down at the valley.

“Show her kindness, Sheyann.”

“Of…of course,” the Elder said, shaking herself lightly as if rousing from a dream. “I would do so for any soul who needed—”

“No,” Kuriwa said firmly. “You would be kind to any soul in need. Show her kindness. If several of the possibilities I see are true, she may not understand, at first, what it is. We may all be in a great deal of trouble if she does not learn.”

Below, while Shiraki folded tent canvas into bundles, Arachne paused in her own packing to turn and look directly up at the two elders. Before turning her back to them again, she smiled.

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Epilogue – Volume 2

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“Ordinarily, of course, a visit such as this would garner a much greater reaction,” the hunter said apologetically as he stepped across the creek. “As you can see, though, we have a goodly number of guests already, and only so much attention to go around.”

“Oh, that’s perfectly okay,” Juniper assured him, splashing through the water. “I’m not much for ceremony anyhow, I’d rather everyone be comfortable. Wow, you really do have a lot of company, though!”

The grove was fairly teeming with activity, the central area encircled by the stream set up with multiple low tables and cushions; elves were seated, standing and chatting everywhere. Some were eating, others apparently giving full attention to their conversations. A circle off to one side were passing around a fragrant pipe. In addition to the wood elves native to the grove, there were at least equal their number in guests. Even to a viewer not sufficiently familiar with elves to distinguish between the shapes of their ears and shades of their eyes, the sun-bleached buckskins of the visitors revealed them to be a plains tribe.

“What with all that is happening in the world lately,” their guide said with a smile, “the elders have deemed it a good time to reach out to others of our kin with whom we may not have much regular contact.”

“Anishai, don’t bore honored guests with tedious tribal politics,” Elder Sheyann said, gliding swiftly toward them from the circular table in the center of the grove. She wore a welcoming smile, but gave Anishai a very flat look. “Would you go help Elraene, please? She is guiding a group of our visiting cousins through the forest.”

“Of course, Elder,” the hunter said, bowing to her, then nodded to his charges with a smile. “You are in good hands, now. Again, welcome, and safe travels to you.” He backed away for two steps, bowing politely, before turning and bounding off into the trees.

“It’s wonderful to see you again so soon, Juniper,” Sheyann said warmly. “And welcome, Marshal, to our grove.”

“My thanks, madam, sir,” Marshal Avelea said politely, tipping her hat. Sheyann glanced over her shoulder, quirking an eyebrow as Elder Shiraki joined them.

“Welcome indeed, daughter of Naiya,” Shiraki said, smiling at Juniper. “Truly, we are blessed to see thee again in our midst. Will thy classmates attend us again, as well?”

“Oh…no, we’re actually dismissed for the summer,” Juniper said, her expression growing more pensive. “I came alone. This is, uh, sort of a personal visit.”

“Ah, so?” Shiraki said, turning to give the Marshal a politely inquisitive look.

“I’m just her temporary guardian, sir,” Avelea said. “Dryads aren’t generally wanted around population centers. Juniper’s a special case, but even she’s not to be in Tiraan territory without a University or Imperial escort.”

“Quite reasonable,” Sheyann said with a bland smile. “Of course, per the Elven Reservation Act, you are not in Tiraan territory.”

“I understand that fully, ma’am,” said the Marshal. “Obviously you’re plenty busy, and the last thing I want is to intrude on your privacy. I’d be glad to retreat, but I’ll need to wait until she’s ready to return to Sarasio…”

“The Act contains stipulations concerning the transfer of such responsibilities between Imperial and tribal personnel,” Sheyann said in perfect calm, still wearing that gentle smile. “You are, of course, welcome to stay and enjoy our hospitality. If you would prefer to contact your superiors or study the rebuilding progress in the town, though, I believe it will be quite acceptable for you to leave Juniper in our care. It will be no trouble at all to notify you when she wishes to depart. We have been made much more welcome in Sarasio recently; many of our young hunters would be glad of an excuse to visit the town.”

“Well, that’s very accommodating of you,” Marshal Avelea said with imperfectly concealed relief. “If you’re sure it’s not an imposition…”

“Not in the least.”

“My thanks, then, ma’am. I’ll be waiting in town; you can find me at the Imperial office. Juniper, I’ll…see you later, then.” She tipped her hat once more, politely, then turned and strode back the way they had come, moving more quickly than before.

“Please don’t be offended,” Juniper said as Avelea vanished into the forest, an elven guide slipping into place alongside her. “It’s nothing against your hospitality, I’m sure. She’s terrified of me. I haven’t got the full story, but from hints, I think she knows someone who had a run-in with one of my sisters. Knew someone, I guess I should say,” she added more quietly.

“I must confess, Juniper, I am nearly as curious as pleased to see thee so soon,” Shiraki intoned. “Pray tell, what wind hast brought thee—”

“Okay, I’m sorry, I don’t want to be rude, but couldja please cut that out?” she said plaintively, turning to face him. “It’s weird and it makes me feel like you’re making fun of me.”

Sheyann made an insincere effort to smother a chuckle behind her hand.

Shiraki stared at Juniper for a moment, mouth slightly open, then gave his fellow Elder a sidelong glance. “Oh…fine. You may laugh, but it impresses the hell out of the rubes.”

“I’m sorry to say I cannot refute that statement,” Sheyann said gravely, but with mirth still in her eyes. “He makes a good point, though, Juniper. What brings you back to see us?”

“Well…” The dryad looked down at her bare feet. “It’s kind of… I mean, I’m not quite sure how to…”

“Why don’t we retreat to my sleeping space, so we can talk in privacy?” Sheyann suggested.

“Um… Sure? But, y’know, everyone here is elves, and I know you don’t have soundproof walls.”

“But,” Sheyann said gently, “it is a comfortable place, where you can relax and take whatever time you need to find the words for what is troubling you.”

“And, being elves, we are amply practiced at not hearing what is none of our business,” Shiraki said solemnly. “I don’t hear all sorts of things right now. Multi-tribal gatherings like this are always mysteriously followed by a good number of births a year or so later. It’s inexplicable.”

Juniper cracked a grin at that. “Okay…thanks. That sounds good.”


 

To say nothing of not being soundproof, Sheyann’s home didn’t even have walls. A woven roof of vines and leaves kept off the rain; apart from that, it might have resembled a huge bird’s nest in the crook of one of the great trees, if not for the belongings arranged on shelves and pegs affixed to nearby branches. Fallen limbs were arranged to form a bowl-shaped platform, which was heavily padded with straw and feathers, topped with a layer of quilts. She had no furniture, but there was basically no place not to sit.

“I want you to teach me about nature,” Juniper burst out, after a full five minutes of sitting in silence.

The two elves raised their eyebrows in unison, looked at each other, then back at the dryad.

“Forgive me,” Shiraki said finally, “but that begs for a little more explanation.”

“It’s just… I mean… I think I’m a bad person,” Juniper said softly, staring down at the quilt between her feet. “And…I mean that in both senses of the term.”

“What…are the two senses of that term?” Sheyann asked.

Juniper sighed heavily. “Someone who habitually does bad things… And just…” She raised her eyes at last. “And I’m just bad at being a person. I never had a reason to realize it until I started spending time among mortals. But there’s a way to do it, and nobody ever taught me how. I’m learning from my friends, and other people I meet, but there are so many things that just don’t come to me. Stuff everyone’s so accustomed to taking as given that they don’t even know how to explain it.”

“May I ask what brought this on?” Sheyann asked quietly.

“I’ve…had to accept some things,” Juniper said, lowering her gaze again. “My whole life I always assumed…basically, that whatever I wanted was right, and that made it perfectly natural. That’s how my sisters all live, and they were the only example I had, y’know?” She sighed. “Apparently, the word for that is ‘spoiled.’ I don’t want to offend you religiously or anything, I know my mother is very important to you… But honestly the more I learn, the more let down I feel. She didn’t teach me anything. Me, or any of my sisters. She never tried. And we’re not automatically right, and thinking we are and that that is what nature is means none of us even understand nature. Or people. I suck at both. So… I’m learning about people at school, but… I thought elves would be the best people to ask about the natural world.” She glanced up shyly. “You work so hard at being in balance with it.”

“Juniper,” Shiraki said after a thoughtful pause, “will you be offended if I speak frankly about Naiya?”

“I… Probably not. If I am, I’ll get over it. I think more frankness is pretty much what I need right now.”

He nodded. “In frankness, then. We revere Naiya, yes. We also are very respectful of cyclones, earthquakes and wildfires. And diseases. The magic she provides is of great importance to us, but… Reverence does not necessarily connote fondness.”

“Naiya,” Sheyann said, “is an old lady who has gone far too long without being meaningfully challenged. She accumulates ‘daughters’ the way other old ladies collect cats, and with about the same degree of attachment. Woe betide any fool who raises a hand to one of her darlings, but if one wanders off and never comes home…” She shrugged. “Well, that’s life. And there are always more where they came from.”

“Wow,” Juniper muttered.

“It’s entirely possible that you are the most self-aware dryad alive at this moment,” Shiraki said with a smile. “At least, I have never heard of one having this particular conversation. Those of your sisters who have come to face painful truths, or anything particularly painful, have tended to create their own doom.”

“Yeah, I know,” she said sadly. “I guess…I’m fairly lucky to have avoided that. Maybe Avei’s intervention stabilized me a bit…”

“Avei?” Sheyann asked, tilting her head. “Does this have to do with the obstruction in your aura? I do not perceive divine magic directly, but I have learned to recognize its presence by the shadow it casts.”

“She…punished me,” Juniper mumbled. “For something I did. I asked her to. It was pretty harsh, but… I felt better in the end. Like, it balanced me, sort of. Does that make sense?”

“That is what justice is,” Shiraki said, nodding.

“Yeah…I guess so. Anyway, she cut me off from Naiya. I’m, well, on my own now.”

Again, the Elders shared a look.

“To cut you off from your mother is beyond the scope of Avei’s abilities,” said Sheyann. “Naiya’s power dwarfs hers, by a wide margin. Even if such a thing were done, it would simply kill you on the spot; the goddess’s power is what animates you. However, it is well within her reach to place a concealment upon you. Not diminishing the magic of your being, but hiding you from your mother’s sight.”

“Such a thing could only work because Naiya is rather inattentive,” Shiraki added. “Forgive me for saying it, but I feel it is best you have the truth. In all probability she thinks you dead. What she has done about this, if anything, I could not even guess.”

Juniper sighed heavily.

“And so,” Sheyann said thoughtfully, “a dryad comes to us, seeking to learn the ways of the druids.”

“What?” Juniper raised her head. “Oh… Um, not really? I mean, sure, I’m interested in understanding the natural world. I mean, with knowledge. I can communicate with basically anything alive, and I can attune to nature, but… It’s very intuitive? Not really rational. And my perspective is… I think the word I want is tainted. Even knowing, cognitively, how wrong I was, I’m still all mixed up about what is and isn’t right. As if whatever thing it occurs to me to do should be the natural thing, even though I know in my mind that’s not always true. Not usually true,” she added morosely.

“Then you’re already ahead of much of the training,” Sheyann said with a smile. “But druidism is what you want to learn, Juniper. The way of nature.”

“I don’t…think…I need more power. I have lots of power, even if I can’t do much with it. I sort of have the feeling that more power would just give me more opportunities to mess up.”

“That is considerable wisdom for someone so young,” Shiraki said, grinning outright. “But no, you are confusing the path of the druid with that of the shaman. A druid must learn some fae magic, it is true, but mostly for the purpose of doing things which your very nature makes instinctive. For the most part, it is a course of study. Of knowledge, and understanding. The science of the wild.”

“Biology, as the dwarves have it,” Sheyann added. “The distinction seems to help them; perhaps it would help you.”

“Biology,” Juniper mused, then nodded slowly. “Okay. That… Yeah. Maybe that. And also, um, ethics. I feel dumb asking questions about what my friends consider basic stuff. I just… I don’t want to hurt any more people unless they deserve it.”

“We can work on that, too,” Sheyann said gravely.

“I only have three months, though. I’m…guessing becoming a druid takes more time than that.”

“We would not dream of impeding your studies,” Shiraki said dryly. “Versatility is a great asset.”

“In any case,” added Sheyann, “any task worth completing would look impossible if you looked at the whole thing from one vantage. A journey can only be taken one step at a time.”

“Unless you can teleport,” Juniper said reasonably.

Sheyann sighed. “Then again, perhaps we should take full advantage of having you out from under Arachne’s thumb for a little while.”

Shiraki glanced fleetingly through the branches at the gathering below, but placed his full attention on the dryad before she felt any reason to follow his eyes. Absorbed in their conversation, Juniper took no note of the soft stir that resonated through the grove as a small party of drow took their place among the elders at the central table.

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