“My family’s hunting lodge,” Ravana said, gesturing at the scene before them.
They stood upon a snow-covered hill in the western reaches of Tiraan Province, near the Viridill border, with a dense stand of leafless oaks behind them and in front, the long descent to the lodge itself in the middle distance. It rose proudly from a lower hill of its own, positioned right on the border between the ancient forest (one of the few in the province not burned or leveled in the Enchanter Wars) and the broad plain stretching toward the low hills that would become Calderaan Province beyond the northeastern horizon. Half a mile from the gates of the lodge stood a sleepy little village, looking quite picturesque buried under a heavy snowfall and with the smoke of a dozen fires streaming upward from its chimneys.
“Lodge?” Dimbi repeated incredulously. “Don’t you mean summer palace?”
It could be fairly called palatial in its proportions. The main building was designed in the shape of a traditional Stalweiss longhouse, though the resemblance did not extend beyond shape. Its roof was expensive Sheng-style gabled slate, the tall windows stained glass, and even its towering support pillars were hand-carved into the shapes of upright animals, every one a work of art which had taken an entire ancient oak trunk. From the central longhouse spread rambling wings of faux-rustic timbers supported by fluted marble columns, the more recent featuring huge banks of plate windows made feasible even in the depths of winter by modern arcane heating.
She wasn’t about to mention that the nearby village existed entirely to staff and support the lodge. Ingvar, at least, had probably already figured that out.
“The House of Madouri has reigned over this province continually for a thousand years by cultivating certain defining strengths of character,” Ravana said proudly. “I will acknowledge that restraint and modesty are not among them. Honestly, I’m just glad to have found a useful purpose for this property, as I confess I don’t hunt. Nor, I suspect, did most of my ancestors who stayed here. Please forgive the distance; those staying in the lodge currently have been subject to a great many upsets of late, and I have observed they seem somewhat uncomfortable with grand displays of magic. I try to approach them in the most humble and unobtrusive manner feasible. My Court Wizard has been very accommodating in—Veilwin, really.”
The rest of them turned from their study of the lodge to follow Ravana’s gaze, now fixed on the wizard herself. Veilwin was now gulping deeply from a silver flask, and did not stop while meeting Ravana’s stare with raised eyebrows.
“You know, you’re just going to have to down a sobriety potion to teleport us back,” the Duchess said, exasperated. “It’s unlikely to be more than an hour from now.”
“An hour?” Veilwin replied, finally lowering the flask and grimacing bitterly. “An hour of complete, uninterrupted sobriety? Girl, do you have any idea what that feels like?”
“Yes, in fact,” Ravana retorted. “Speaking as a wine lover of, if I may flatter myself, some local repute, sobriety is my default and preferred condition.”
“And you’re easily the worst person I’ve ever met. Coincidence?” Veilwin brought the flask back to her lips and resumed an uninterrupted sequence of long gulps, while holding an arch stare at Ravana and, with snaps of her fingers, conjuring an armchair and a small bonfire. The sorceress flopped down in her seat and stretched her feet out toward the arcane blue flames as the surrounding snow hissed away to steam.
Ravana shook her head and turned her back on the elf. “Anyway. I presumed that veteran outdoorspeople such as yourselves would not mind a short winter hike, but if you are in any way uncomfortable I will not hesitate to send Veilwin back for coats.”
“That’s not necessary at all,” Ingvar said smoothly. “Your judgment was correct, my Lady, we are quite comfortable. Shall we?”
“Let’s,” she agreed, setting off down the hill. Ravana noted he did not question her comfort, but the man was doubtless intelligent enough to infer the presence of a heating charm. The enchantment woven into her own dress was more sophisticated than anything on the market (a Falconer prototype; Geoffrey came up with the most marvelous things when he got bored of tinkering with carriages). Even her breath did not mist upon the frigid air.
“What is she drinking?” Dimbi muttered as they strode through the knee-deep snow toward the distant lodge. “I could smell that flask from two yards away, it was like a burning alchemy lab.”
“I don’t know,” Ravana admitted. “Though I have observed its contents to be quite combustible. Between an elvish constitution and the resistance built up over a lifetime of drinking, I suspect what it takes to get Veilwin tipsy would kill an orc.”
“She’s…interesting,” Dantu said, grinning.
“Veilwin is a powerful and exceedingly skilled mage; I am quite satisfied with the performance of her duties. She is also, in addition to the alcoholism, congenitally incapable of withholding her opinions. I don’t think she’s ever held a single job for more than a month before.”
“I just meant,” the old man chuckled, “I’ve managed to meet a handful of nobles in my long years, none half so important as a Duchess, and I can’t see a one of ‘em letting one of their employees talk to them like that.”
“Not long ago,” Ravana murmured, gazing ahead as they plowed through the snow, “as I was listening to Professor Tellwyrn rightly excoriate my entire character, I experienced an epiphany: no one had ever spoken to me that way before. And further, no one ever spoke to my father in such a manner, either, and I now believe that is directly why he ended up the way he did. My father was neither evil nor unintelligent, he simply failed to comprehend that his own desires were not synonymous with the highest good of the universe. It is a failing to which nobles are regrettably prone due to the circumstances of our upbringing, and in fact, those circumstances are an unavoidable necessity. A chain of command only functions of those at its top are respected and obeyed. This is…a dilemma.”
“So,” Ingvar said softly, “you seek to surround yourself with those who will speak truth to power.”
“I was considering leaving university,” Ravana admitted, “but this understanding changed my mind. At Last Rock, I am surrounded by royalty, paladins, demigods… All manner of people who are in no way impressed by me. And those are just my classmates; the faculty are on another level entirely. It is an extremely healthy environment for people such as myself. Additionally, it buys me two and a half more years to collect advisors who will not hesitate to challenge me at need. Hopefully I can find some with more nuance than Veilwin, but she is…a start.”
“I respect that a great deal,” said Ingvar. “To know one’s own faults and seek to overcome them is both the least and the most that can be asked of anyone.”
They reached the base of the hill, which was less than half the distance to the lodge, but changed their trajectory. No longer descending toward the grounds, they now in fact began to push upward through the snow toward the rise upon which it was built.
“In any case,” Ravana said briskly, “our correspondence was relatively brief before Veilwin took it upon herself to fetch you, Brother Ingvar. How much do you know about the conditions from which the Harpies fled?”
“Less than I should,” he admitted, frowning. “We have stayed largely on the move; most carriers of news have been less persistent than your agents in finding us, Lady Madouri. Hunters have continually sought us out to join since Shaath’s call first went out, both Huntsmen and Rangers, and some have brought news from the Stalrange. It is somewhat sketchy regarding events in and around Shaathvar, however.”
“You are probably getting more applicants from Lower Stalwar, where the Rangers have more enclaves,” Ravana said. “Yes, I shouldn’t wonder; the situation around Veilgrad is quite different. People there have ample recent experience at rolling with large metaphysical punches, and Duchess Dufresne is a pragmatist after my own heart. Loudly dissident Shaathists have been inexplicably vanishing all winter, and not long ago, someone shadow-jumped a group of their runaway wives and daughters to the Abbey in Viridill.”
“I would be grateful to know anything you have learned of their circumstances,” Ingvar said in a carefully neutral tone.
“They are somewhat dire,” Ravana warned, now frowning herself. “Shaathvar has been an ongoing disaster from the day of the Battle of Ninkabi until I intervened last month. With the dreams that won’t stop coming every night, the core Shaathist regime there has been tearing itself apart, and one of the biggest sources of conflict is the simultaneous unraveling of more families than otherwise as women have been trying to either flee with their children, or in some cases, attacking their husbands.”
Dimbi grimaced. “Yikes. I support anyone wanting to live free, but that sounds…”
“Can’t rightly expect a person to remain calm and logical after they get divine confirmation they’ve been lied to like that for their whole lives,” said Dantu. “I don’t blame the women one bit.”
“It’s been chaos,” Ravana continued. “Nearly coming down to guerrilla fighting in the streets of Shaathvar and the surrounding forests, as women and sympathetic Huntsmen have been trying to escape, most willing to shed blood in the process, and traditionalists have taken it upon themselves to forcibly retrieve them. The governor declared a curfew and martial law, which didn’t help; the Empire had to send troops to hold the city, and that barely helped. The jails are crammed beyond capacity and the courts overwhelmed trying to figure out who drew steel on whom, and whether any of them were justified. And as if all of that were not chaotic enough, the Sisterhood sent a detachment of priestesses with a Silver Legion escort to counsel and support any Stalweiss women who desired freedom from their circumstances. The loyalist Huntsmen still in nominal control took that about as well as you would expect. And that, too, began to spiral, as various Huntsmen have arranged for themselves to be reminded why it is not wise to assault servants of the goddess of war.”
“I would have thought High Commander Rouvad had better sense than to poke the bear in such a manner,” Ingvar muttered, his eyes narrowed.
“I suspect that after the Syrinx debacle this summer, Rouvad is anxious to be seen standing on Avenist principle regardless of the political repercussions. Then, too, the Archpope has been deliberately dragging his heels on confirming a new Avenist Bishop, and it is known that the Huntsmen are his greatest pillar of support within the Pantheon cults. The Sisterhood may be growing tired of waiting to be listened to, and looking to make a point that they can insist upon it.”
“You said your intervention calmed things?” Dantu inquired.
She nodded. “It started as mass chaos but quickly coalesced into factional conflict, as such things do. The Shaathist traditionalists remained in control of the bureaucracy of the province, but once the Avenists got involved, they secured a defensible structure and began teaching runaways both the art of self-defense and the relevant laws around it. By then the group of local women who rose to find and shelter other runaways had begun to organize, and took to calling themselves the Harpies. Which was also a provocation, as no one has seen a living harpy outside of Inner Anvedra in a thousand years; it is obviously a reference to the harpy eagle on Avei’s sigil. By last month, a bitter stalemate had ensued, as the Harpies more or less rescued everyone they were apparently able to, and then had to turtle down and defend themselves from outraged husbands and fathers trying to drag them back home. When I offered to remove them en masse from the province, even the local government was grateful. They were themselves glad of a safe route out of the situation, the Sisterhood and the Silver Throne supported me, and with the Harpies gone from Shaathvar, it has finally begun to settle. Of course, I am inundated with complaints from various lodges about my unwarranted interference, but my lawyers are handling all of it so far.” She shrugged, allowing herself a cold little smile. “And what they cannot, the House guards stationed at the lodge will. I have made it clear that any rogue Huntsman trying to sneak into these grounds is asking for whatever he gets.”
All three Shadow Hunters glanced sidelong at her, but none responded directly to that.
“Did you have them teleported here by your mage?” Ingvar asked after a momentary pause.
Ravana shook her head. “These are women from a very traditional Shaathist background and their young children, who have already lost the most central underpinnings of their understanding of the world. They’re not sanguine about arcane magic and I have found it best not to rattle them any more than I absolutely must. Plus, teleporting this many individuals would have required me to hire most of the Wizards’ Guild, who themselves came from the great Salyrite schism a century ago. I made inquiries of the Archmage, who was leery of getting into internal Shaathist affairs. In the end, the Harpies’ escape served as the inaugural mission of my new private zeppelin. It was a little cramped, but more of them than otherwise seemed to enjoy the flight.”
Ingvar nodded, glancing at her again, and she could practically hear the unexpressed thought in his eyes: why was she willing to stick herself into the center of a bitter religious feud in which both sides were willing to shed blood and neither offered her any apparent gain? He kept quiet, though, and Ravana indulged in another knowing smile. It wasn’t yet time for that conversation.
The other two likewise held their peace, looking to Ingvar for guidance, and Ravana took note of the political acumen on display. He had clearly picked this group with care, even though it didn’t include his dryad friend or any of the others closest to him, or those most intimidating in a confrontation; his Shadow Hunters had only survived this long because they were too physically dangerous for any Shaathist lodge to attack in force. Obviously Ingvar had opted for a gentler approach here. Dimbi was a young woman, a good choice to help put the Harpies at ease and demonstrate that women were equals in his new Shaathism; Dantu was an old man, and doubtless a source of wisdom, while also not being an even remotely intimidating figure. And tellingly, both were socially adroit enough to follow Ingvar’s lead without overt instruction. It was a small thing, but it showed greater sophistication than she was accustomed to expecting of Shaathists.
Which boded well for her own plans.
“I cannot tell you how much I appreciate that you have done this, Lady Madouri,” Ingvar said softly as they ascended the last steps of the hill upon which the lodge stood, its gables now towering over them. “The effort must have been considerable, and the results…are priceless.”
“No one else was doing it,” she said noncommittally. “A person in my position can do a great deal of good. I could also exhaust myself and my resources trying to put out every fire in the world, an error I am not about to commit. To an extent, one must pick and choose from many worthy causes. This one…resonated with me. I know what it’s like to live under the thumb of a man whose brittle ego and need to keep me there informed his entire view of the world. I brought you here, Brother Ingvar, because I believe you are the best possible person to help these women find their footing in this strange new world. And I daresay you will find a warm welcome here: the dreams of Shaath that continue to come have, according to some of them, mentioned you by name.”
“Now, that I did not know,” he murmured as they climbed the broad stone steps to the front door of the lodge.
“Regardless, we can only do what we can,” Ravana said, grasping the latch and turning it. She pulled the door wide, letting a rush of warm air out, and gestured within. “What will be, will be. After you.”
“It’s simple economics,” Svanwen explained as another fairy lamp clicked on in the tunnel ahead, and one behind the party winked out. “Lights with motion-sensing charms are a lot more expensive up front, yes, but they save me both the cost of a lot of recharging dust that needn’t be burned while nobody’s around and the man-hours it would take to have somebody come through switching them on and off. It’s one more thing my people can ignore and get on with their work. This project is likely to take decades, years at the very least. Over time, it’ll save a fortune. A good businesswoman takes the long view.”
“How’s all the flashing on and off on your eyes?” Captain Fedhaar asked Natchua. “I know drow see well in the dark, but I’ve heard you lot have some trouble in bright light.”
She had long since perfected the magic to maintain her vision without the need of dark glasses, but was not inclined to delve into that for his benefit.
“Don’t you worry,” Natchua said with a wink. “I can see better than any of you under any light level.”
Fedhaar grunted and turned his gaze back forward. “Elves are bullshit.”
Svanwen shot him a look as if fearing a racial conflict was about to erupt, then switched it to Natchua when the drow chuckled.
“Well,” Natchua said, shrugging, “he isn’t wrong.”
The dwarf shook her head. “Anyway. How’s the trail looking?”
“We’re still following,” reported Fedhaar’s tracker, a Western human called Lieutenant Bindo, who was walking at the head of the group with his attention on the ground. “The beast’s healthy, which is both good and bad; means it’s not leaking any infernal radiation. Harder to follow, that way, but much safer for everyone. Lucky there’s so much stone dust in these tunnels. Nothing that belongs on this plane has feet like this.”
“My people know what they’re about,” Fedhaar said coolly.
“I never meant to imply otherwise,” Ms. Svanwen assured him. “If I forget myself and prompt everybody to keep alert for any infernal craft nearby, it’s not meant as a personal slight. Just my veteran tendency to micro-manage.”
“It’s good advice, no matter whose ego is at stake,” said Natchua. “The second rule of infernomancy is to triple-check everything, and then triple-check it again.”
There was a momentary pause.
“All right, fuck it, I’ll bite,” Fedhaar finally said with a sigh. “What’s the first rule of infernomancy?”
She grinned at him. “Don’t.”
The captain couldn’t help grinning back. “Good rule.”
“So,” Svanwen said pensively, “the big question is how there’s a rozzk’shnid in the tunnels. They’re not the sort of creature that tends to wander through hellgates, even underground. We’re thinking there are two possibilities, the first of which is that some deep drow have burrowed into the catacombs somewhere down below the areas we’ve explored. That’s a worst case scenario, obviously. Scyllithenes with access to Veilgrad would officially be a crisis.”
“Unlikely,” Natchua opined. “If you had Scyllithenes, you’d be finding the mutilated corpses of your crew, now tracks from what amounts to a loose animal.”
“That’s exactly my assumption,” Svanwen agreed, nodding, “hence coming here with a small team of specialists and not Captain Fedhaar’s entire battalion. Imperial Command and Duchess Dufresne agree, though they did insist on having another unit from the Azure Corps on standby to bring in more soldiers if this goes sideways somehow. But all things considered, it’s most likely the second possibility: some rogue warlock hiding in the deeper tunnels. They made a great hideout for shifty types even when they were still full of bodies. That’s exactly what drew the chaos cult that caused the big disaster in the first place.”
“Mm,” Natchua grunted. “One warlock shouldn’t be too hard to take down, if it comes to it. Question is what they would summon a rozzk’shnid for. The creatures make decent guard dogs in tunnels, and…that’s about it.”
“This hypothetical warlock will explain themselves when we get them,” Fedhaar stated dispassionately. “One way or another.”
Natchua gave him a nod of approval.
“Tunnel opens out up ahead,” Bindo reported. “Tracks are still leading that way.”
“There’s a sequence of larger vaults just ahead,” Svanwen added. “They mark the deepest regions my people have explored and secured. Beyond that, there’ll be no more installed lights, and we don’t even have reliable maps of the tunnels.”
“We’ve got light sources and directional charms,” said Fedhaar. “I’m not worried about getting lost. It’ll just be a little less comfortable, that’s all.”
They emerged into a broader chamber than the arched tunnel along which they had been traveling. Well-lit now with large fairy lamps Svanwen’s crew had set up in each of the rectangular room’s corners, it was lined entirely by deep alcoves in the wall of the right size for a human body to be laid out, all currently empty. The center of the long chamber held three huge stone sarcophagi, their lids pushed aside and lying broken upon the floor.
“It still gets to me, sometimes,” Svanwen whispered as the group stepped carefully through the rubble. “All these honored dead, just… Treated that way. It’s sickening. Did you know Veilgrad was originally a necropolis? The first living residents were Vidian priests who looked after the old Stalweiss chieftains interred here. Burial records extend back before the Hellwars. And all just…swept aside, in service to pointless, destructive madness.”
“The Vidians have been quite clear that they were just bodies, at least,” said Fedhaar. “The souls of the dead were long since in Vidius’s hands and beyond tampering. C’mon, no use dithering here.”
Natchua opened her mouth, but stopped herself from commenting at the last second. While she suspected that was the sort of thing the Vidians would say regardless of its veracity just to keep people from worrying needlessly, it belatedly occurred to her that suggesting it would also cause nothing but needless worry.
Then she frowned, tilting her head. “Wait.”
The others paused, turning to look expectantly at her.
“I hear… Up ahead, there’s something. Sounds like scratching… Claws on stone, maybe.” She brought her eyes back into focus, first on Svanwen and then Fedhaar. “May be our beastie.”
The captain turned his head toward his soldiers and nodded once; in unison, all of them drew wands. “Good to have the elven bullshit on our side, I won’t deny it,” he said. “How far?”
“It echoes weirdly down here,” Natchua murmured. “Hang on…”
She closed her eyes, reaching out through magic. Yes—definitely a demon, at about the outer limits of her perception in this manner.
“There’s a sequence of chambers like this,” Svanwen said while Natchua concentrated. “All in a neat row, the last being the biggest. Beyond it the tunnels are more rough-cut, smaller, and twist about more. The final gate is as far as we’ve explored. It was supposed to be barred, but I’ve not had people down this deep in weeks.”
“Yes, looks like a rozzk’shnid,” Natchua reported, opening her eyes. “I can’t tell anything about the surrounding tunnels, but it’s maybe a hundred yards up ahead. Not moving around much. I don’t detect any active magic nearby.”
“Right,” Fedhaar stated, moving ahead. “We’ll take point, then. Careful and quiet, people. This thing may just be an animal but we don’t know what’s what down here.”
The soldiers saluted, and he waited to get nods of acknowledgment from Svanwen and Natchua before proceeding.
It was a tense passage through a series of cleared out burial chambers, each growing progressively larger, and the ancient carved decorations more elaborate the deeper they went. By the time the group reached the final sepulcher, the scrabbling of the demon was audible to all of them, along with a soft, intermittent metallic clatter. It was loudest as they stepped into what Svanwen whispered was the largest final tomb, a space the size of a church. There were motion-activated fairy lamps down here, too, though they were already on before the group came into view of them.
The last gate opened onto an open space lined with more burial alcoves, these carved into the stone walls to a height of four per wall. Above, the vaulted ceiling lay in shadow, soaring high enough not to be easily reached by the installed fairy lamps. This chamber had no free-standing sarcophagi, but maybe two thirds of the way along its length a stone wall stood in the center of the open space, leaving passages to either side and not reaching the ceiling. Its purpose was apparently decorative, being carved with the solemn likenesses of five ancient Stalweiss kings, each with inscrutable runes engraved above their heads.
The scratching was coming from the other side of this.
At hand signals from Fedhaar, the troops split up, creeping forward with weapons upraised to both sides of the barrier. Natchua joined the captain himself, as did Svanwen, and ignoring his grimace of disapproval, stepped forward to be the first around the corner.
The demon was there, all right. The rozzk’shnid was the size of a large dog, proportioned somewhat like a monkey and plated in natural armor, and eyeless. It was also wearing a heavy iron collar, from which a chain trailed to an iron spike driven into the ground. At their approach, the best stopped its futile worrying at the chain, turning blindly toward them and hissing.
For a second, they just stared.
“It’s like…” Svanwen whispered, “like it’s set out as…”
“As bait,” Natchua finished. “Oh, fuck.”
“Retreat,” Fedhaar ordered, and the soldiers immediately stepped back.
“Now, now, now, let’s nobody go and panic,” a new voice said jovially, and the group trailed to a stop just beyond the stone wall, staring at the entrance to the tomb, where a dark-skinned human in a pristine white suit complete with a wide-brimmed hat had just sauntered out of the tunnel beyond.
The soldiers brought their weapons up as eight figures in hooded gray robes materialized seemingly from nowhere along the walls of the tomb.
“Whoah,” the man in white said soothingly, raising both his hands. “Easy, now! Sorry about all this rigamarole, but I assure you I’ve no beef with most of you. Last thing we want is to kick up a scrap with the Army, after all. And most especially not with the inimitable Ms. Svanwen, here. I confess after having a good look through these chambers I’ve become quite a fan of your work, ma’am. Why, the place is starting to look downright homey!”
“Most of us?” Svanwen demanded, ignoring his flattery.
“Hey,” Natchua said, narrowing her eyes to slits. “I remember you.”
“Oh, do you,” he replied, his smile growing broader and notably brittle. “What an honor it is to be remembered by the great Natchua! My heart is all a-flutter.”
“I’m positive I killed you fucksticks in Ninkabi,” she snorted. “How the hell did you get out of that—”
“You seem to’ve adopted Veilgrad as your home,” Embras Mogul interrupted, grinning more widely still until the expression looked nearly psychotic, especially as he held his head tilted so the brim of his hat concealed his eyes. “There’s an old Shaathist hunting axiom you really should’ve picked up by now, Natchua honey: never wound what you can’t kill.”
“Those robes…” Fedhaar said. “Are these Wreath? What exactly are you assholes playing at? Elilial’s not even at war with the Pantheon anymore. It was kind of a big deal.”
“Oh, indeed, our business is not with anyone aligned with either the Pantheon or the Empire,” Mogul assured him. “My humble apologies for drawing you fine folks into this. It seemed the least disruptive way to get this malicious little darkling off by herself, but rest assured, I’ll make amends for the inconvenience. Now, as for—”
He broke off, staring incredulously, as Natchua burst out laughing.
“Oh, this is too rich,” she chortled, striding forward into the center of the room and rolling up her sleeves. “The Black Wreath has come to exact terrible vengeance! And here I was afraid for a second that something bad was happening. Agatha, Captain, this shouldn’t take long, but you may wanna step back a few paces to enjoy the show. The front row of seats may see some splattering.”