Tag Archives: Vynlian

Bonus #59: Accursed, part 5

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“I’m just so proud of you, little Szaiviss!” the Elder Goddess gushed in a voice of pure sweetness. She made a languid gesture with one graceful arm, and the terrified shadow priestess drifted up from the ground, still too poleaxed by the overwhelming divine presence to struggle, or even protest. Scyllith smiled fondly, twirling one finger and causing Szaiviss to rotate slowly in midair. “And to think, I had all but written you off. Yet here you are! Digging up ancient secrets, consorting with surface elves… What a vicious betrayal you must have been working up to! I’m so proud, little one.”

The light swelled, and with a flash of pure white, Szaiviss was gone.

Kuriwa was fortunately too paralyzed by the pressure upon her mind to be humiliated by the little squeak that emerged from her throat.

“Oh, are you worried for your new companion?” the goddess asked solicitously, turning her full attention upon Kuriwa. “Aren’t you a thoughtful friend! But you needn’t worry yourself, child. I am hardly going to waste such a delightful source of chaos just when she’s finally started to demonstrate a little backbone! Why, given a few more decades and a lucky break or two, young Szaiviss may just work herself up to doing some real damage to my priestesses. I certainly don’t want to miss that.”

She couldn’t respond, could not do anything. The sensation was like being squished under a rockfall. Her thoughts were jagged, sideways things, struggling to function at all under the overwhelming pressure of Scyllith’s sheer personality.

Desperately, in the ragged back of her mind, instinct and habit began to claw together a semblance of control. She was a shaman, a wielder of the fae arts; her mind was her own, and feelings served her. She did not serve them.

And just like that, before she could make any real progress, the pressure lifted.

“Oh! I am sorry.” Scyllith folded her delicate hands before her slender waist, her doll-like face suddenly poised in an expression of sympathetic concern. “Please excuse me, young lady. I am accustomed to keeping order around here largely by pure force of character, and it has been so long since I had the privilege of entertaining a guest. I do hope you were not too discomfited? For an elder shaman of your station, it must be a most unfamiliar experience, to be so aggressively humbled. Well, so long as you are not visiting daddy’s house, of course.”

Her thin lips curled upward in a knowing smile.

Slowly, Kuriwa straightened, correcting her posture and still gathering her thoughts. The jibe was not altogether a surprise, given what this creature was goddess of, and yet it seemed oddly petty. There was a stark incongruity in hearing the architect of all the horrors she had seen during her journey through drow territory making lazy jabs about daddy issues.

“Do let me make it up to you,” Scyllith said earnestly, still smiling. “You have come on a most dire errand, I see! I shall be glad to help you solve your problem, Kuriwa.”

She didn’t bother wondering about the source of the goddess’s knowledge. According to some theories, gods were constructs of pure data; it was a prevailing hypothesis among the high elves intelligentsia that magic itself was the same.

“I do not want your help,” Kuriwa said evenly. The goddess was just standing there. Well, actually, floating; she seemed to prefer trailing her bare feet a few inches above the ground. The lack of overt aggression did not mean Kuriwa was any less cornered, or this situation one whit less hopeless.

“My dear child, of course you don’t,” Scyllith said in a fondly chiding tone. “I see you were rather unsettled by the things you saw while trespassing on my lawn, poor thing. It’s only sense that you’d prefer to have me out of your affairs! Because oh, yes, I am quite capable of peeling your psyche like a banana in the course of one conversation and without using so much as a glimmer of magic. But…may I be honest with you, Kuriwa dear?” She winked playfully. “Been there, done that. Nothing you could suffer here and now would be particularly entertaining, compared to what is going on for miles in all directions. Besides, my young friend, you are overlooking a couple of important facts. You may not want my help, but you assuredly need it. It would take you years, decades, to dig any useful stratagem out of Araneid’s ramshackle old research lab, here—much more time than your poor beleaguered family has left. And somewhat more immediately, I am here. Wouldn’t you rather I be helping you than…shall we say…” Her smile broadened, and it was amazing how much sheer menace she could project solely by making her expression more warm and kind. “…any of the other things I might do to pass the time?”

It was almost poetic that Kuriwa found herself literally backed against the wall, right beside the ancient data panel. She could neither fight nor flee a creature like this. Couldn’t even bargain; what could she possibly offer? Outwitting a nearly omniscient being was an absurd prospect. Her entire bloodline was counting on her, and now it seemed the only thing she could manage to do was face her surely horrific demise with as much dignity as she could muster.

“Besides,” Scyllith said pleasantly after a pause, “it’s not as if I am offering to aid you out of the goodness of my heart. I might suggest such a thing, were I more hard up for laughs, but I would be most disappointed if you believed it.”

“Why, then?” Kuriwa asked tersely. Playing along seemed like the least futile course of action available to her, albeit by a thin margin.

“Well, there is the fact that you are looking to undo one of Elilial’s pet projects,” Scyllith mused, turning and beginning to drift away around the perimeter of the open space, alongside the blinking lights and panels both steel and mithril of ancient machinery. So she carried on floating in a wide pattern while speaking, very much like any of the mortals Kuriwa had met who liked to pace while they talked. “What she’s done—and oh, yes, I can easily see the structure of that curse—is quite beyond dear little Lil’s innate capacity. I would be up for ruining her day just on general principles, but this? She would have to have used Order equipment to achieve such a thing. My equipment, from one of my citadels, on my world.” A light laugh dispelled the tension that had begun to gather in her voice; Scyllith had a very pretty laugh. “Insult upon injury, isn’t it? Oh, yes, for that presumption I would be pleased to tweak her nose.”

She turned to begin floating back the other way, catching Kuriwa’s eye and bestowing on her a coy smile before shifting her gaze to study the old equipment in passing. “Not that that alone would impel me to exert myself, of course. We had a saying, where I came from: if you’re good at something, never do it for free.”

“I can’t imagine what I might have that you might want,” Kuriwa said warily.

“Oh, not a thing, poppet,” Scyllith assured her. “But there is something you can help me get. A sacrifice you will make to attain that which you need.”

“Sacrifice?” Amazingly, this was starting to look even worse.

“I see what she’s done—it is actually rather ingenious.” The goddess turned again and drifted straight toward Kuriwa, starry eyes now fixed upon the elf, and Kuriwa had to force herself to stand straight and not press herself against the wall at her back. “It’s not a simple curse! Even you could dispel any such thing, given enough time and effort. No, she has actually tweaked the nature of reality itself. It’s tricky, but doable, given access to the right sort of facilities. Such as, for example, the installations in my personal dimension which were instrumental in establishing it and causing my specific field of magic to permeate the space. Making any major changes to the rules of magic would probably be out of her reach, and would set the Pantheon after her if she achieved it. But a subtle, specific, insignificant little tweak? That she can apparently achieve, and get away with.”

“A subtle thing like cursing my bloodline.”

“Kuriwa, dearest, weren’t you listening? You aren’t cursed. This is simply…the way things are, now. It is a rule of magic that you, and your genetic descendants, suffer these very exotic effects! It’s now your nature. Only a line of highly magical creatures like elves could be subjected to such tampering… Ah, yes!” Having stopped right in front of Kuriwa, Scyllith bent forward as if to examine her more closely. “Yes, I see what she did. The little minx definitely got into my equipment. This is a clumsy variant on the very methods I devised to help my pets adapt to my transcension field.”

“You mean, the way demons evolved to make use of infernal magic, instead of being destroyed by it?”

“You latter-day creatures do enjoy applying such quaint labels to concepts,” Scyllith said fondly. “But yes, sure; what’s important is that you understand what I meant. Sylphs fly, hethelaxi go berserk, and Kuriwa’s descendants gradually slip into the nether realm between dimensions. Those are just the rules…now. She tweaked the fundamental structure of magic; to counter it, we must tweak it back. This is something you could never achieve on your own, and something the Pantheon gods would refuse to aid you with, even the very few of them who might be capable. You need me, dearest. And there is an added benefit to this! I should hardly have to tell you that it is incredibly dangerous for Elilial to have figured out this technique. This is surely a small test run, for her. If it works, she has a fantastic new weapon, and on her of all subjects, I have to concur with your Pantheon: Elilial does not need fantastic new weapons. It is actually rather important that we re-work her little trick so that it raps her knuckles instead of emboldening her.”

Kuriwa drew in a deep, slow breath. “I see the sense of what you say. But you were talking about a sacrifice, before the abrupt change of subject.”

“Patience, darling, patience!” Scyllith finally drew back a bit, giggling. “I had to explain to you what is involved: you are asking me to re-write reality and the rules of magic to suit you.”

“I haven’t asked you to do anything,” she said quickly.

The goddess ignored that. “To do this, I will need my own skill, a great deal of the additional power I derive from having control of dear Araneid’s domain…” She casually ran caressing fingertips across the edge of the data panel beside Kuriwa. “And, most immediately, your active cooperation. As deeply rooted as you are in Naiya’s transcension field, your guidance will be necessary in arranging things as we want them to be arranged.”

Kuriwa narrowed her eyes. “So… You’re offering me a measure of control over this.”

“Oh, it’s not an offer, my pet,” Scyllith said, blinking languidly. The effect made her dark, luminous eyes seem to flicker like meteors. “It’s just how things have to be. If I wanted to make your life miserable, as Elilial did, then yes, I could just do it. That would be unpredictable, however. I rather doubt Elilial chose the specific form your family’s suffering has taken; it isn’t likely that she even could. Readjusting the effect to achieve specific results all down your bloodline—which, you being an elf, is as much a mental and magical connection as a genetic one—can’t be done without your input. So unless we are in accord as to what we are doing, it won’t get done.”

“And,” she said slowly, “you need me to agree to give up something in the process. You can’t just take it from me.”

“Child, you cannot begin to imagine all the things I could take from you at a whim,” Scyllith promised her in a light, pleasant tone. “In this case, yes: I want something I’ll need you to willingly surrender. And in the end, the fact that you are giving it of your free will makes it all the sweeter. You will hate yourself for this, poppet. Really, that is the dusting of sugar on top that makes the whole cake worth baking.”

“Enough,” Kuriwa snapped. “Spit it out! What do you want?”

“I have a use,” the goddess drawled, “for a powerful high elf of a noble arcane bloodline and a practiced fae legacy. Oh, yes indeed, the wonderful things I could achieve with such a pet on a leash… We will have to work this craft upon all in your family, Kuriwa dear. I demand, in payment, that you give one of them up to me.”

Almost unbidden, power roared through her, forming two handfuls of flame. “Never.”

“Oh, don’t be cliché,” Scyllith said in a bored tone, and just like that, Kuriwa’s magic was snuffed out. She had never experienced such a swift and absolute severing of a spell actively called forth; even the constant presence in the back of her mind of her spirit guides was silenced. The goddess turned again and began drifting off around the room. “If there is one thing I cannot abide, it is tedium. I demand a terrible cost, you make a big show of outrage, the audience yawns. Honestly, child—”

“I’ve had enough of this,” Kuriwa spat. “Do what you want. I will not give you this satisfaction.”

“Oh, you silly little elf,” Scyllith said, giving her a pitying look. “I’ve already won, here. There’s no outcome at this point that doesn’t give me satisfaction. If you refuse my deal, well and good! Your entire family will die, slowly and in unimaginable terror, and you will get to live whatever time you have left in the knowledge that you condemned them to it when you had the option to spare them. Elilial will continue to use her shiny new toy, and I think we both know it’s a safe bet she will inflict it on your surface-dwelling allies for a long time before it ever occurs to her to start harassing me, down here in my hidey-hole. It’s very likely the Pantheon will strike back to take it from her before she ever dreams of trying to so much as inconvenience me. And who knows! I may end up being the one who unmakes her plans, anyway. It’s likely beyond the reach of even your gods, and they have appealed to me for help before. Imagine what a price I could demand for my services from them. Oh, yes, the Pantheon can reap for me a far greater harvest of suffering than you could even imagine. By all means, toddle off back to the surface, explain to all your children why you condemned them to agony and death. I won’t stop you! The passages straight upward lead into what you children now call the Crawl; it’s not exactly an easy clamber, but you’re a big girl.” Drifting to a stop several yards away, she turned back to Kuriwa, spreading her arms and smiling beatifically. “Go on, then. Defy and deprive me. You only postpone me getting what I want, and ensure I get all the more of it in the end. But you won’t be around to watch it happen, nor will be anyone sharing a drop of your blood. So if that’s enough of a victory to satisfy you, child, I guess you know what you should do!”

Rarely had she felt so out of control, even of herself. A shaman was nothing if not master of her own emotions, but the sheer helplessness of Kuriwa’s position coupled with the sick horror of what this ancient monstrosity demanded was enough to set her trembling in impotent fury. She managed to refrain from calling up magic again, as that would surely just provoke the creature before her, against which all her own power was as nothing. Her fists had clenched of their own accord, though, hard enough to make her arms quiver.

“If you’re having trouble coming to a decision,” Scyllith said in a kindly tone, “I find it often helpful to consider the perspectives of others. Consider those who will be affected, and ask yourself: wouldn’t any of them willingly sacrifice themselves for the safety of the entire family? Of course, not to tell you your own business,” she added with another mischievous wink, “but personally? I’d nominate any who wouldn’t take that dive to be put on the chopping block.”

If nothing else, there was a valid idea in that, a compromise Kuriwa might be able to live with.

“If I offer myself—”

“No deal,” Scyllith interrupted, and wagged a chiding finger at her, grinning. “Come, now. Surely you didn’t think I would make it that easy? You are not on the bargaining table, child, only your blood.”

“Monster.” The accusation spilled from her lips unbidden, like the fury that had seized her body.

“You say that as if you think it’ll hurt my feelings,” Scyllith replied patronizingly. “People are of two kinds: Victims, and victors. Words like ‘monster’ and ‘evil’ are used by the first group because childish insults are easier than the hard work of elevating themselves into the second.”

Kuriwa closed her eyes, thoughts swirling. Breathing slowly, she reached inward for calm. She needed to be able to think. Needed her emotions to settle enough that she was once again in control of herself. There had to be some way she could steer this—

“No, there isn’t,” Scyllith informed her. “You are an open book, little girl. Really, if you grow tired of using your tongue, you can just think at me. I understand it just as well.”

That explained a few things.

“If you are going to demand—”

“That won’t work, either,” Scyllith said with clear amusement. “I demand nothing; I offer options. You have a choice to make, Kuriwa, and you don’t get to slither out of responsibility for the consequences of either option.”

“You call me responsible for your cruelty?”

“Merely for being in a position where you have to endure it, poppet. What did you think would happen, when you intruded on my realm? What secrets did you expect to find down here that could help you overpower Elilial herself, if not with my help? Please. You may be adept at fooling yourself, little one, but you have no prayer of deceiving me. At no point did you not realize there would be a steep price for the help you need. Now pay it, or don’t. Either way, live with the consequences.”

Either way… Kuriwa made the determination that whatever happened today, at some point, by some means, Scyllith and Elilial would be made to pay for this.

“You and every soul in my domain,” Scyllith said with an audible grin. “Really, I am not taunting you. Try it, please do. My greatest joys in life are laid at my feet by those foolish enough to try to defy me.”

Finally, Kuriwa opened her eyes.

Finally, Kuriwa opened her eyes, then blinked, disoriented.

She stood in some kind of upright coffin made of mithril, crystal, and machines. It was against another wall, in a different part of Araneid’s ancient lair.

“Welcome back!” The luminous, floating shape of the goddess of beauty and cruelty drifted into her field of view from around a corner, wearing a benign smile. “I imagine you are rather confused, my pet.”

“What did you do to me?”

“Now, if I have calibrated all this correctly—which I know I have—you recall our explanatory conversation prior to the procedure. What Elilial did, what we had to do to unmake it.” Her smile widened. “What you paid.”

Bracing herself on the edges of the sarcophagus, Kuriwa pushed forward out of its embrace. She felt…not weak, but somehow strained. And disheveled, she noticed; her tunic was askew, and a few locks of black hair had worked free of their braid to hang in her eyes.

“Allow me to anticipate and answer your questions,” Scyllith nattered, hovering aimlessly about the room once more. “Strictly speaking, I did nothing. The memories you have of what we discussed, and what brought you here, are technically fabricated. Oh, they are accurate to the timeline that was! But it is not, anymore. In this world, you offended Elilial just as she was working out a clever use of the technology left in my own former home, and she made you a vicious test case. In this world, it immediately backfired on her. You and your bloodline have been altered…and yet, not. She made it so that you had always been a certain way, and you and I made it so that it was a different way, ensuring that she will come to regret her alterations bitterly. I used a variant of the mechanism by which living things survive adaptation to the infernal.”

“You made us demons?” Kuriwa shouted, lunging forward.

Scyllith flicked a finger and she slammed bodily back into the coffin.

“No, you silly creature. Remember, you had to be awake and compliant for this procedure; would you have consented to become a demon? I said a variant of that mechanism, not the thing itself. There is no hint of infernal taint anywhere in your bloodline. Given how seeped you all are in Naiya’s transcension field, there was no realistic way I could have made that stick. No, this is an older and purer form of the same bio-magical principles from which I designed the properties of the infernal field itself. In short: we have turned corruption into aggression. The psychological influence is minor, and should be evident only in aggregate. I doubt you will be able to discern any difference in personality in the case of any individual, but as a group? Your clan is going to develop something of a prickly reputation among elves. They may find it rather difficult to be in a room together. Not demons; I guess you could saw we made you what you call tauhanwe.” She stopped her aimless floating, turning to Kuriwa with a wide smile. “I dearly wish I could see Elilial’s face, truly I do. Oh, that would be so sweet. She’s created an entire clan of hunter-killers which will stalk her minions across the centuries. Every time she sends demons or warlocks to the material plane, the line of Kuriwa whom she tried to curse will lunge out of the shadows from every direction and claw them to shreds. It’s just so…delicious.”

It actually was, Kuriwa had to admit. That did not lessen the sinking pit that had opened in her heart. As the disorientation of the procedure faded, she had recalled what this salvation had cost her.

“Who?” she whispered.

Scyllith slowly tilted her head to one side, making an inquisitive face.

“Don’t toy with me, you—”

The goddess laughed aloud at her. “Don’t toy with you? Me? Oh, child, you should hear yourself.”

“Damn you, who did you take?”

Grinning, Scyllith raised one graceful finger, and tapped the side of her nose. “It’s a secret.”

Kuriwa could only stare at her.

Abruptly the glowing figure blinked across the space between them, and then Scyllith was right on top of her, clutching the sides of the metal coffin and leering at her face from inches away.

“Do you understand the value of closure, little shaman?” Scyllith crooned. “Of course you do. Ultimately, when things come to an end, a person can make peace with them. In this case? You could go back to whichever of your descendants had just lost a son, or mother, or cousin… You could explain what happened to them all, and hear their reactions. Accept their forgiveness, or bear their grudges. You alone, and your family as a whole, would grieve, and come to grips. And now? You can’t.”

She leaned forward, her doll-like features splitting in a wide grin that made a mockery of her previously gracious demeanor.

“You will never know whose soul you sold for this, Kuriwa. You’ll spend your eternal life among your family, looking around at their faces, knowing that one is missing—missing from your very memories, plucked right out of history when we re-wrote the world to save them all. You will live, forever, with the knowledge of what you did, and that wound will never close. Oh, to a simpleminded or selfish person, this would be the greatest compassion, the thing that let them forget. But you? You, the mother, the shaman, the leader and teacher? You will walk through the endless ages, and for every moment of your existence, a part of you will be constantly screaming in agony.”

Scyllith’s starlit eyes drifted shut, and a shudder wracked her entire frame, her expression momentarily lost in open-mouthed bliss.

“I have my price, shaman. I received the soul I demanded. And you, my darling, have given me so much more than your weight in suffering. You’ve barely begun to feel that pain; you will be paying me from now until the second you perish… And we both know you don’t have it in you to lie down and give up.” Her eyes opened, and she smiled again. Warm, kind, gentle. “Our bargain is concluded, and I am paid well indeed. Do visit me again, poppet. You’re fun.”

Her sudden absence lowered the light in the room. It was all but silent in that cave far below the surface, even the hum of the ancient machinery all around her barely audible to her senses.

For a long time, she could do nothing but stand there, alone.

Her father’s house had always felt lonely and too quiet, ever since her mother had died. Part of Kuriwa felt guilty for leaving him to wander its halls alone, but she could not make a life in Qestraceel. Now, tonight of all nights, even as close to him as she sat in the little aquatic solarium, the dark and quiet house felt lonelier than it ever had.

“Am…” She paused, swallowed heavily. The silence had stretched out for long minutes after he heard her account of the Underworld. “Am I… That is, I’ve been trying every idea I had. Anything that might be a hint to what she changed. Are you sure I am the only elf ever born with black hair? Every one of my descendants has it, and I cannot think that is coincidence…”

“We have been over this many times, Av—Kuriwa,” he replied with a soft sigh, catching on her name but correcting himself more smoothly than he ever had, that she could recall. “It is a harmless mutation. Anomalous hair and eye colors have occurred in the past, a consequence of the arcane saturation in our society. Most of our people undergo genetic procedures to correct it, but your mother insisted you be allowed to grow to adulthood before making that decision for yourself. And then…you decided. And I gather the woodkin feel differently about changing what nature has decreed.”

Mutely, she nodded, staring at the floor.

With amazing tenderness, given the way their relationship had gone in the last few centuries, he reached out to brush her dark hair back behind her ear. “Maybe it is something she changed, my daughter. If she truly did re-write reality itself… There is just too much unknown. I have never heard of any spellcraft or technology that could do such a thing.”

“You don’t recall me coming here, to ask for help with Elilial’s curse?”

“I do,” he said, shaking his head, “but not as you describe it. You were here only weeks ago, and spoke of a lifelong pattern of aggression among your bloodline, that you had only finally come to think had an external cause after your descendants numbered enough that the pattern was clear. There was nothing about Elilial. If you truly remember what you describe, daughter… A curse that causes the mind to sink into void space is unthinkably cruel. Nothing that afflicts you now is anything nearly so terrible.”

She heard the unspoken offer in his voice: forgiveness. The assurance that she had done well.

“No,” Kuriwa whispered aloud, squeezing her eyes shut. “I can’t—” Her voice broke, and she choked on a sob. “Oh, father, I made the wrong choice.”

He was suddenly on the seat alongside her, wrapping both arms around her and pulling her close. She sank into her father’s embrace for what felt like the first time since she was a little girl, just letting him rock her.

At least he believed her, outlandish story and all. She and her father disagreed on virtually everything that mattered in life, but when it came down to it, he respected her enough to trust her account of events more than his own understanding of what the world should be like. This was a cruel way to learn it, but it was something she was deeply grateful to know.

“You made the choice you could, Kuriwa,” he murmured into her hair. “There was no good choice. Life is…that way, sometimes. Things are taken from us, and nothing given back. Suffering has no inherent meaning, except that which we give it. Take time to grieve, daughter, but don’t forget to look forward.” He squeezed her harder, pressing a kiss to her temple. “You are the only child I have, Kuriwa, and it shames me how little I have supported you. These are our bloodline…our legacy. You and your family will have every support I can give you from this moment on, I swear it.”

She leaned against him, letting the tears spill without fighting them. They stayed that way for a long time.

“Meaning,” Kuriwa whispered at last. “I don’t know what meaning to give this.”

“The wound is fresh. You will find a way forward, child, I know that much. You’ve never lacked an ability to find your path, even when everyone insisted there was not one ahead of you.”

“I have to…to…” She blinked moisture away from her lashes, staring sightlessly past his shoulder at the fish and kelp outside. “I must give something back, for what I’ve taken away.”

“Don’t forget that you did this for them.”

“I can’t forget any of it. I am…a matriarch, now. I’ll watch over them. Over all of them, even if they don’t care for my presence. I have to…to do something. I have to do something forever. It’s the only semblance of peace I will ever have.”

“I love you,” he said simply. It was sweet, and sharp, like the first taste of tangy fruit to an unprepared tongue. A jolt of joy that was nearly pain. Kuriwa closed her eyes again, relaxing into him.

Her world might have been rearranged by the living force of cruelty, but within it, she still lived. There was still love. And now, she and her family…most of her family…would live on.

“And someday,” she whispered in a breath barely loud enough even for herself to hear, “she will pay.”

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Bonus #56: Accursed, part 2

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She inhaled slowly to steady herself, drawing in the scents of sweetened coffee, the faint fragrance of coral and shimmerkelp transmitted into the room by the enchantments on its glass walls. Anlin and her father kept their eyes on her, expressions intent but not pushing.

“At first it appears to be a mundane illness. Dizziness, fainting spells. It escalates into sleep disruption; sufferers will be insomniac for days at a time, and then practically narcoleptic for a similar period. It struck the children first, the youngest. That was the stage when the shaman began to be worried, and Iridi called for me to come. We…can find nothing. No trace of physical disease, and no sign of a magical cause. Soon after that, the first of their parents began to show symptoms; they progress much more slowly in adults. They were still fully lucid while it took the children completely.”

“Took?” Vynlian’s voice was suddenly hollow. Despite everything, despite the very irony, the horror in his eyes warmed Kuriwa’s heart slightly. These children might be woodkin, and the living evidence of her rejection of his very culture, but even so, even having known of their existence for only minutes, he feared for their fates as any grandfather would.

“They live,” Kuriwa assured him, managing a weak smile as some of the tension left his shoulders and Anlin reached over to touch his wrist. “When it worsened, the grove shaman and I decided to intervene and place them in suspension. Well, what you would consider suspension; to our sensibilities it is a sleeping curse, and an act of true desperation. It was better than letting them suffer. They gradually lost the ability to sense and interact with their surroundings; it became nearly impossible to keep them fed. They suffered…nightmares. Constant, waking visions of terror. Only when some of the adults reached this stage did we begin to realize that the victim’s consciousness is being affected dimensionally. Over time they cease to perceive the mortal plane. Their senses are bringing them data from a different one.”

“Hell?” Anlin asked tersely.

Kuriwa shook her head. “The space between.”

Vynlian closed his eyes. “Veth’na alaue.”

“Father!” Anlin exclaimed.

Kuriwa had not been aware he even knew any grove dialect, though it made a certain kind of sense that he had picked up a few curses, given the way their conversations usually went.

“It moves slowly upward along generational lines,” she continued. “There is no discernible transmission vector in real space. It affects only my own direct descendants; no one who has worked with or been near any victims has manifested symptoms. One brave young shaman did everything she could to expose herself to infection in order to test this. She got bronchitis and ringworm, but no hint of the curse.”

“What is ringworm?” Vynlian demanded.

“A common skin parasite, affecting only humans. For an elf to contract it… Well, that she did satisfies me that she could not contract the curse.”

He nodded, and gestured her with one hand to continue.

“In addition to only striking my descendants, it strikes them all. Even those who have had no contact with others since the second war. I’ve traveled to every grove where my roots extend and warned them. In each community, no matter how isolated, it was appearing. I was able to warn the Elders to put the children in suspension before their suffering grew extreme. It is three generations up, now. A few of my grandchildren are showing the earliest symptoms.”

Her father drew in a slow breath. “All right. The groves cannot possibly have sufficient medical facilities to handle this. Everyone in the bloodline must be brought to Qestraceel. Anlin and I will make the necessary permits happen.”

Kuriwa was already shaking her head. “It’s too risky to move the youngest victims, father, and given the dimensional element of the curse, you must realize we can’t risk teleporting them, philosophical agreements aside.”

He sighed, but grudgingly nodded. “That is true.”

“And you are letting cultural bias seep through, father,” Anlin added. “Fae magic has always been better suited for healing than arcane. The woodkin possess all the medical knowledge we do, and have never been shy about asking for our help when they needed it. And yet, it’s been historically far more common that we have had to turn to the groves in the case of difficult illnesses.”

Vynlian pursed his lips together. “Fine. But with neither biological nor magical cause to be found, it is clear that we must investigate the possibility of prevention. Your own children at least, Av—Kuriwa, should come here for observation. If we can catch this thing as it comes upon them…”

“I suggested that very step,” she admitted. “My granddaughter Lanaera would like to come; she has not shown symptoms yet and has always been curious about Qestraceel. All my own offspring refused, however.”

“What stories did you raise them on, exactly?” he snapped.

She hadn’t been planning to bring it up, but needled by that remark, Kuriwa shot back, “They can’t all legally enter the city, anyway. Or has the prohibition on dragons been lifted in my absence?”

Vynlian stared at her, his face settling into a politician’s blank mask. Then, slowly, he leaned forward, placing his head in his hands and nearly knocking his cooling coffee to the floor with an errant elbow.

“Honestly, Kuriwa,” Anlin said, shaking her head. “You know I’m on your side, but there comes a point when even I have to suspect you’re just acting out.”

“In my earliest years on the surface, I was definitely doing exactly that,” Kuriwa acknowledged. “I cannot even say my decisions were mostly good ones during the first two centuries. But even choices which I now recognize as mistakes have led to the existence of living people, my own children. Scions of our bloodline. Their lives are now in danger.”

“Yes.” Vynlian straightened, his expression resolute again. “Yes, and at a time like this, castigating you for past mistakes is foolish. We have none of us always made perfect decisions. Such as now, for instance, I am jumping to solutions when I should have waited for you to finish your description of the curse, daughter.”

She leaned over, reaching to take his hand. “You act out of care, father. It gladdens me to see. Even flawed as we are as a family, I’ve never once doubted that you loved me.”

He squeezed her hand back, returning her smile.

“Before you leave, sister, we will definitely have to devote some time just to moments like that,” said Anlin with a wan smile. “But right now, it’s also a distraction. What else can you tell us about this curse?”

“Right.” Kuriwa drew back her hand. “Obviously, I’ve done everything I can think of. Yes, father, I have been reluctant to come back here, I admit that, but it’s not as if the surface world lacks options. Qestraceel is a latter resort, but not the last one. We’ve tested every known type of healing against this curse. The wood elves are unmatched in the fae arts, and I also brought in divine healers. Human, dwarf, gnome, tauhanwe…”

Vynlian frowned. “Tauhanwe? That can’t mean what it sounds like it means.”

“You have your renunciates,” she explained, “we have ours. Some not suited to grove life come to Questraceel and apply for citizenship; others run off to live with humans, or do things even more foolish. There are elves among most Pantheon cults, and I begged the aid of any I could find. Even the Salyrites had nothing to offer. I have stopped short of calling upon a warlock…so far.”

“That might be a fruitful avenue to pursue,” Anlin murmured, “if this does stem from Elilial.”

“I do know one,” Kuriwa admitted. “As mentally stable as any ever are, who holds a khaladesh demon in thrall which is clever enough to possibly be useful. I consider that a desperate act not to be bothered with unless the knowledge of the high elves fails as well. If even that yields nothing… I do have a promising solution to pursue, but it is sheer madness.” She hesitated, averting her eyes from their sudden frown. “To protect my family, I will embrace madness if I must. But not as anything but a last resort.”

“What else have you tried?” Vynlian asked quietly.

“The drow,” she said, and they both grimaced.

“What drow?” Vynlian demanded. “Please tell me you haven’t delved into Scyllith’s reaches, daughter.”

“Not yet,” she said grimly. “Some few of the Themynrite cities are…approachable, with enough effort. I sought the Nathloi first, and that yielded my first true breakthrough, though I was not able to speak with the drow. Emi herself intercepted me at Kiyosan and said I carried a curse of a temporal nature, and was not welcome in Sifan until it was removed.”

Anlin’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Temporal?”

“Emi or her sisters could help, surely, if anyone could,” Vynlian suggested.

“Yes,” Kuriwa agreed, not without bitterness, “but she declined to either do that or convey a request to her sisters. I didn’t press her.”

“Wise, daughter,” he said, nodding. “A kitsune who tells you to leave has not begun to be difficult. There is no situation so dire it cannot be worse by antagonizing them.”

She had to physically hold her teeth shut for a few seconds to stifle several comments about him lecturing on the patently obvious. Fortunately, Anlin rescued her.

“But what does that even mean? A temporal curse? That is outside my field, of course, but I can’t even imagine how you could use time travel as an attack vector without drawing Vemnesthis into it.”

“It’s not just you, sister,” Kuriwa assured her. “No one knows how that would work; I’ve checked. Consider the important fact that Elilial’s greatest tactical advantage is that she can hide her moves from the other gods. Obviously that has limits when it comes to time travel. Anything thus changed would draw the notice of the Scions. But there may be a way to transmit something very subtle and specific—like a curse—along timelines that she can hide with her gift of stealth. If it causes physical effects in the real world below a certain threshold, the Scions might not notice. Or bother to act.”

“That could account for the strange path the curse takes,” Vynlian said slowly, his own eyes narrowed in thought in an expression that emphasized the resemblance between Anlin’s face and his. “Clearly targeted at you, but beginning with your most distant descendants and proceeding backward, as it were. Avenues of investigation into temporal mechanics are limited, obviously, but several of your mother’s colleagues have studied it as a sort of hobby. I specifically recall Magister Ethliron having such an interest. I will see what is known and whether we can use it.”

“Well, with regard to that,” Anlin suggested, “aren’t the Scions themselves the best possible experts to consult on this?”

“The Scions do not answer questions, nor explain their actions,” Vynlian said severely. “They do not help. You know this well, daughter.”

“We are dealing with an apparently time-traveling curse, father, which has been hidden from them by Elilial’s shadow. If their attention were called to it, they may act with no further prompting.”

“This should go without saying,” Ariel interjected, “but since nothing ever does in this family, I will say it. If any of you does anything to provoke a Scion of Vemnesthis to visit Qestraceel, you will all three be banished and your bloodline stricken from the records.”

“You are right, daughter, but so is the sword,” Vynlian agreed. “The Scions may have exactly the solution, but there is simply no viable way to approach them. It is the kitsune all over again.”

“I had further luck with other drow,” Kuriwa said quietly, and they both turned to her again with expectant faces. “I suspect the Irivoi know something, but their eagerness to involve themselves and aggressive insinuations about what I could do for them in return were deeply alarming.”

“No Themynrites should have been so eager to deal with an outsider,” Vynlian agreed. “You were right to sense danger, daughter.”

“Any other drow in this hemisphere would be all but impossible to approach,” said Anlin. “All but the Narisians refuse outside contact as if everyone carries a plague, and Narisians are worthless rodents even among drow. Slavers and scavengers.”

“On the contrary, sister,” Kuriwa demurred, “I made the last progress I have managed in Tar’naris. The Narisians were remarkably polite once they understood that attacking me was futile and costly. Better yet, they were the first who had some knowledge of similar curses. Princess Arkasia took an interest in me and arranged for me to access the royal archives. Since she was blatantly using my presence in her political maneuvers against her rivals rather than betraying Themynra’s charge as were the Irivoi, I took advantage. Their accounts did not match mine precisely, but they have seen conditions that compare to this curse. Such insidious workings have been wielded against them by the Scyllithene drow.” She paused, drawing another steadying breath. “And so… I know where I can look for final answers.”

“Madness,” Vynlian whispered.

She nodded to him. “Madness. If I must delve the Underworld and seek answers from the shadow priestesses to save my family… If I must, I will. But I desperately seek any better option.”

He lowered his head to stare at the mosaic floor, frowning in thought. Anlin chewed her lower lip, also staring sightlessly out at the anemones.

“Then we know what we must do,” Vynlian suddenly said, raising his chin and using his head-of-the-family voice, “even if we do not yet know how. You have had a long journey, daughter, and a terrible period before it. Take one night simply to rest in your ancestral home. It is an earned respite, and you must sustain yourself for what is to come. Your sister and I will consult the family archives and see if anything therein might help. At the onset of working hours tomorrow, we must make a full report on all these matters to the Magistry.”

Kuriwa had already set aside her coffee cup; now, in spite of herself, she could not help grasping the arms of her chair in nervousness. “Father… Every magister I trust is in this room. You know how they feel about renunciates. These are the people who just today conveniently misplaced the arrival ticket Anlin filed for my visit!”

“He’s right, sister,” Anlin said gently. “The Magistry of Qestraceel is the greatest concentration of arcane mastery in existence. If the luminous science holds any answers, our colleagues will know how to find them. But there’s also the fact that we have to report this. Father and I are not of the higher circles, but we are still magisters, and the news that we may find ourselves soon incapacitated by a mysterious curse is something of which the Archmagister herself must be forewarned.”

Kuriwa closed her eyes. “I… I am so sorry. Father, you warned us, and—”

“And you ran off,” he interrupted with an edge to his voice, “involved yourself in the Hellwar, and drew the personal antagonism of Elilial. Twice. And…you did it to protect and preserve life. Because you believed it necessary. I remember well our argument, daughter, and even then… Though I disagreed with your assessment of the cost/benefit ratio, I could not say you were reckless. You did what you thought was right, knowing you could suffer. That is how your mother and I raised you, and it is more important than…than any of the innumerable things about which we disagree.” He managed a watery smile at her before shaking his head in disgust. “And I will admit to you, in the privacy of our home, that in the years since I have grown to doubt my conviction that you were wrong. I am as cautious as any high elf of my rank, but I have not seen caution or conservatism in the Magistry’s refusal to acknowledge the world above us so much as blind, craven cowardice.”

Anlin raised her eyebrows and let out a whistle. “That’s news to me, too.”

“We can exchange further words about how responsible you are for all this,” Vynlian said to Kuriwa, giving his other daughter a passing glance, “but they will wait till our family is not in danger. Agreed?”

Emotion threatened to choke her for a moment, but she mastered it. Kuriwa was an elder shaman, not the disconnected girl who had run away from this place, no matter how the vivid memories of this house and this city always seemed to bring her back to that younger self. “Thank you, father.”

“Tonight, rest,” he said decisively, rising from his chair. “And tomorrow, action.”

Tar’naris was an eerie counterpart to Qestraceel; the parallels went well beyond it being a hidden city below the surface. Its society was also obsessed with family, though drow Houses and high elven bloodlines were barely comparable social systems. The Narisians in particular were formal and had a surprisingly intricate etiquette, at least toward people they were not trying to murder or enslave, and sometimes even then. Even the attitudes of its ruling class… But then, Kuriwa had observed similar mindsets among human warlords who ruled stretches of barely a few acres from thatch-roofed longhouses. Power was power, no matter how slight its degree, and did predictable things to the mind.

They were a peculiar, twisted shadow of the high elves, she had thought upon her previous visit. Tar’naris reflected Qestraceel more than any of the tribes of the groves. It was an observation she kept firmly to herself in both cities.

Of course, wood and high elves still had a lot more in common with each other than with drow, Kuriwa reminded herself as she hurled a blast of wind peppered with razor-sharp leaves into the formation of soldiers currently trying to charge her. She watched impassively as they were decimated, those augmented leaves ripping through lizard-hide and carapace armor as easily as they did flesh. Narisians produced excellent metalwork, but the control the Houses exerted over the mines meant that only nobles wore metal armor. Such as these were lucky to have steel weapons.

Behind her she had left a profusion of drow in the colors of all three feuding Houses through whose territory she trespassed asleep in the streets of Tar’naris, with pulsating mushroom sprouting from various surfaces and putting off the mist that incapacitated them. It would likely take their priestesses long enough to clean that up that they would lose some soldiers to scavengers before they could all be awakened, but after having had to make it plain she was not to be trifled with on her first visit here, Kuriwa was already out of patience. Even her campaign to passively neutralize the attackers on this trip had not stopped them from sending another wave out of every alley, until she finally gave up and ripped this one to literal shreds.

Which, it turned out, was what she should have done in the first place. Over two dozen drow were felled by her onslaught of wind and razorleaves, and suddenly there was a lone priestess standing ankle-deep in blood and corpses, protected only by a silver sphere of light. Her face betrayed no fear at her predicament, though it did reveal open anger as the reinforcements coming up behind her turned and fled in disarray.

The priestess of Themynra turned back to face Kuriwa, making ritualistic gestures with both hands, but the shaman was already concentrating. Gathering a sufficient charge of static in this environment required her to draw deep upon her various pacts, but even as a wall of silver light manifested in the street and rushed toward her, she released her summoned spell.

For probably the first time in its history, a bolt of lightning split the air in Tar’naris, lashing down from the roof of the cavern to strike the lone priestess. Her shield collapsed and so did she, to lie smoking in the street with the shredded remains of her comrades. The shieldwall about to strike Kuriwa dissolved into glitter and mist a few feet from her.

This marked the first moment since she had entered the city’s central district that there was a measure of quiet around her. Kuriwa could hear them moving, but now they were all moving away. Well, that was what she got for trying to wield a light touch with these…people. In fairness to the drow, Underworld life demanded severe pragmatism, and Themynra was, after all, the goddess of judgment. Narisians had excuse for fighting only when it advantaged them, and even some for eschewing mercy except when they saw political purpose in it.

Still, it was not only prejudice that made high and wood elves alike dismiss drow as scuttling vermin.

She made a further point of removing the obstructions from her path; a sharp gesture and an even more powerful blast of wind cleared the street ahead of bodies, spraying an entire stretch of the buildings to both sides with blood that she scoured so thoroughly from the pavement that her moccasins barely squelched in passing.

They didn’t bother her again all the way to the palace.

There, of course, there were more drow, and of much sterner stuff. An entire phalanx awaited her in front of the gates, half their number hooded priestesses already glowing with silver light and the armored women actually wearing steel helmets and breastplates over chitin mail tunics. Interestingly, the gates behind them were open.

Kuriwa approached without slowing. When she passed the last row of structures into the cleared area around the palace walls, the soldiers raised shields and knelt in unison. These were actually trained to fight in formation, then, unlike the howling rabble she’d carved through on her way here. Even so, they troubled her less than the clerics, who raised their hands and called up a single wall of silver light across the street in front of them.

She kept coming, ignoring a shouted demand that she halt. For the moment, though, Kuriwa did not call up a spell. After all, she could hear what was coming from the other side.

So could they, and though they parted with reluctance, they did part, the formation shuffling away to both sides to open a path. Even the priestesses leaned to the sides, gesturing, and a single break appeared in the center of their wall.

As the lone figure emerged from the palace gates, one priestess lowered her hood and stepped in front of her, speaking in words in the drow dialect which, at that distance, Kuriwa had no difficulty hearing.

“Princess, with respect, this is not safe—”

Arkasia nil Anatima yiyir Fanamnisth neither responded nor slowed, but simply lashed out with the coiled whip she carried. Its length unfurled faster than even elven reflexes could match, being launched by elven speed in the first place; she was clearly well-practiced with that weapon. The priestess did not cry out as she staggered back, despite the splatter of blood that suddenly decorated the armor of the nearest soldier. Who also did not react.

“Kuriwa!” the Princess of Tar’naris called with a pleasant smile, casually winding the whip around her arm as she strode forward to meet the shaman. “I devoutly hope your quest has already brought you unqualified success, and you now return to me only because you desire to resume our acquaintance.”

There was just the faintest emphasis in her words, the most fleeting glance over Kuriwa’s form. She had been surprised to find that the Narisians did not go for insinuation; they either said precisely what they meant or wasted time with polite nothings until you got fed up and left. Arkasia had made it explicitly plain the first time they had been alone that Kuriwa would be eagerly welcomed to her bed, should she be so inclined.

Not being Narisian, she had declined politely and without explaining that the woman utterly repulsed her. It was bad enough that the Princess carried an impractical weapon whose chief purpose was to wound her own subjects when they displeased her. Most of the drow—in fact, nearly all, including some of their nobility—were sufficiently hollow with perpetual hunger their larger frames made them seem almost skeletal. This one, though, was as full-figured and glossy-haired as a human noblewoman. Her ornately dyed spidersilk gown would probably have paid to feed her own servants for a year. The average drow she could excuse as desperate; Arkasia’s selfish sadism was unnecessary and deliberate.

“How fascinating it is,” she said aloud, “that three Narisian Houses should suddenly burst into open battle right in my path…but not until there had been ample time to note my coming and arrange themselves. I could almost think you meant me ill, Princess.”

“You need never fear that,” Arkasia said serenely, stepping to one side and gesturing forward at the palace gates. Kuriwa stepped forth as invited and they fell into step together, approaching the formation of priestesses and soldiers. “Those cretins? Please. Rest assured, I would never allow any who actually pose you a threat to have drawn near. Consider them fodder for sport.”

The soldiers were visibly unhappy at Kuriwa’s approach. One of the priestesses edged out of formation and opened her mouth to say something.

The Princess flicked her wrist, causing a few feet of her whip to uncoil. The cleric immediately ducked back into line.

“Your passage was fortuitous indeed,” Arkasia continued as they passed through the outer walls. “Those factions had begun to pose a slight nuisance. Their infighting has become an inconvenience to commerce in the city, and yet it would be politically disadvantageous for my mother should any one of them emerge a clear victor. Having their forces mutually wrecked by an outside actor is a nearly ideal solution! Truly, the goddess has sent you to us as a blessing.”

“I am so glad to have been of service,” Kuriwa said coldly.

“My honored mother shared some vivid opinions with me after your previous visit,” Arkasia said in the same pleasant tone, “on the subject of indulging an elder shaman from the tree folk. We have little enough to share with our own people; some looked askance on the extension of hospitality to a high representative of distant cousins who cannot be troubled to acknowledge us except to show contempt. And, of course, any discourse with those above invites all manner of commentary from the Gray Priestesses. But now, you have done my House a great service! And raised urgent questions about how wise it may be to challenge you. As a result, Kuriwa, I can safely offer you any aid you may require. Even if you desire something more than the pleasure of my company.”

“I have made…little progress,” Kuriwa said, staring ahead at the approaching inner gates of the palace rather than meeting her eyes. “My father’s people, with all their knowledge, could not supply a solution. At best, they had insight and suggestions regarding the details of dragging more information out of Scyllith’s followers. The demon thrall could offer no help, either…except in the same direction. I’m afraid I have come to take you up on the offer you made when I was last here.”

“Then ahead of you is a dark road indeed,” the Princess murmured. “Come, then, let me show you welcome before your journey resumes. It may be your last chance…indefinitely…to relax. I am certain that even so, I can take your mind off your great troubles for a little while.”

She had the temerity to place her hand against Kuriwa’s lower back as they walked. Not the hand holding the whip; that one was now lightly smeared with the blood of one of her own priestesses.

Kuriwa made no response. Securing Arkasia’s cooperation was apparently going to be an unpleasant process indeed, but one she could bear. If it meant saving her entire family, she could bear anything. Would bear anything.

And Arkasia at her worst was nothing compared to what lay ahead.

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Bonus #55: Accursed, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backer Waytfm!

There was nothing there, even to elvish senses, just another expanse of sun-scorched and wind-blasted rock in the Spine. Or the Dwarnskolds, in the tongue of those who lived under it. This wasn’t even a major peak, merely a patch of the smooth, weathered stone chosen specifically because it was insignificant and unobtrusive, though it did happen to have a view, between other surrounding peaks, of the tropical sea to the north and the desert to the south. Typical; even when trying to conceal themselves, they could not resist a touch of pageantry.

Of course, she knew exactly where she was. And even had she needed help to find the spot, she saw the important arrangement of the innocuous outcroppings of stone around her. The fractal pattern concealed among a smattering of geologic debris. Neither magic nor mundane senses would reveal what was hidden; it would expose itself only to one who knew the secret.

She paused, looked around, and sighed. Then she withdrew the roll of hide from within her vest and peeled it open, revealing the power crystals Mervingen had crafted for her. The gate was meant to be opened by careful flows of arcane magic channeled into precise positions. She was not about to pass that current through her own aura, but the enchanted crystals, made to her specifications by the human wizard, would suffice. Quickly she stepped across the ground, setting each down in exactly the right position along the points of the invisible spiral.

The second the seventh was in place, the gate revealed itself.

It was not the collapse of an invisibility spell but something orders of magnitude more complex; the gate complex had simply not existed on that spot until it was properly invoked, though from within it the highguard on duty would have been able to watch her work, likely with some curiosity. Now it stood there, a smooth arch of wrought gold inlaid with incandescent blue in flowing patterns, augmented with more arcs of decorative glass hovering above its length and rising as barriers around the mosaic dais upon which it stood. Within the arch of the gate itself was the subtle discoloration of the portal, just enough to reveal its presence without betraying what was on the other side.

There were, as law prescribed, three highguard in attendance. The two flanking the gate itself held their position, while the officer immediately stepped forward off the dais, leveling his energy blade at her. She stood, arms at her sides, waiting.

“This is clearly irregular,” the highguard captain said in a clipped tone. Up close, as always, she couldn’t help noticing the little triangular protrusions in his helmet which shielded his ears, an affectation the elves among whom she lived would never bother with. “Identify yourself, woodkin, and identify whoever taught you how to do that.”

“My name is Kuriwa,” she replied, lifting her chin. “I know the gate activation sequence by right of citizenship. You will have me listed in your records as Avaran of the line of Tari’silmina’verai.”

“Oh,” he said after a momentary hesitation, annoyance and disdain filling the single syllable. Behind him, though their luminous glass faceplates hid their expressions from her, the two soldiers shifted their heads to look at each other, and she could easily imagine what they looked like behind the masks. The captain deactivated the energy blade and then clipped its hilt back to his belt, and drew his other sword. This one was shorter than many of its kind, little more than an overlarge and ornate dagger. “Liaron, identify her.”

“She speaks accurately,” the resonant voice of the talking sword replied. “This is Avaran, daughter of Magister Vynlian and Counselor Iranel, of the line of Tari’silmina’verai. This Kuriwa business is also on record; she is a known renunciate. So, not a desirable visitor, but she has not been exiled or even censured by the Magistry. Her citizenship is valid and she has the privilege of entering Qestraceel.”

The highguard captain had the ill grace to sigh dramatically, for which she would have reported him to the Magistry had there been the slightest chance of it doing any good. He slid the talking sword back into its sheath and picked up his energy blade again, though at least he had sufficient manners not to activate it.

“Very well, Avaran, you may pass. Welcome home.”

“My name,” she said firmly but quietly, “is Kuriwa.”

“As you wish,” the captain replied in a tone of overt disinterest, gesturing her toward the gate brusquely. She stepped past him, not pressing the issue. There was truly no point. One of the gate guards actually nodded politely to her in passing, a gesture she returned, and then she was stepping into the barely-visible portal.

It was no less familiar for how long it had been. The faint pressure, the sense of transition, and then she was pushing through the ephemeral barrier like passing into the surface of a pool. The searing heat of the Dwarnskolds vanished behind her, replaced by the cool air and glorious expanse of the hidden city of the high elves.

Of course, both the gate guards on the other side immediately turned on her with shields upraised. Not in true fear of a threat; having passed the gate on the other side without raising an alarm counted for a lot. But it was not often and rarely under favorable circumstances that wood elves were permitted to enter Qestraceel, and by her green-dyed robe, simple ponytail and lack of jewelry, she could not have been taken for anything else. Kuriwa stopped immediately inside the gate, already resigned to repeating the whole performance before being allowed to proceed.

This time, though, it was not to be.

“Oh, stop that, get out of the way. Go on, shoo, shoo!”

A smile broke across her face at the figure who ascended the steps to the gate platform three at a time, already waving aside the guards.

“Magister Anlin,” the officer on duty tried, “this person is—”

“This person is expected and I will vouch for her,” Anlin said in exasperation.

“I wasn’t informed—”

“Oh, I don’t doubt it. If you truly have a fetish for records you’ll find that I filed a certificate of travel for her arrival well in advance and I wish you luck in ferreting out whichever smug little slug in the Magistry managed to lose the arrival ticket. Right now, move your ears! Kuriwa!”

The last was in a veritable squeal, and Kuriwa’s grin stretched even wider as she stepped forward to wrap her arms around Anlin. More than simple happiness at seeing her sister again, this was the first time Anlin hadn’t stumbled over naming her correctly.

“Ow,” she protested a moment later, drawing back and frowning down at the thing affixed to Anlin’s belt. Taking in the sight of it, she widened her eyes. “Oh, my goodness, Anlin, where did you steal that?”

“Hah! I only wish I had the gumption to loot the high treasury,” Anlin chuckled, drawing the sword from is sheath. It was a unique piece, as they all were; this one was mostly black, which was unusual, but its glowing arcane runes made its purpose and nature unmistakable. In fact, Kuriwa noted that her sister had dressed to match the accessory; she had the same preference for jewel tones as most high elves, but today was gowned in understated azure and silver, with severe black accents. The jewelry worked into her coiffure was platinum and onyx. The severity of the colors made her look more mature, despite her ebullient grin. “No, this was appropriately issued to me by the Magistry to assist in my duties.”

“Even after you ran off to fight in both Hellwars?”

“Father’s pet theory is that Grandmagister Laierun thinks the responsibility and recognition will settle me down. Ariel, say hello to my sister Kuriwa.”

“I am not intended for social interaction, Anlin,” the sword said testily. “And your sister’s name is Avaran.”

Anlin slammed the black saber back into her sheath. “That is up to her, not you.”


“Silence. Sorry about her,” she added, grimacing.

“No need,” Kuriwa assured her, waving away the sword’s rudeness. “You and I both know what they’re like.”

The highguard officer cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Magister and guest, but the gate platform needs to be kept clear if no one else is arriving.”

“Yes, yes, quite right,” Anlin said with a sigh, tucking an arm through Kuriwa’s and steering her toward the steps. “Oh, it’s just so good to see you again! Welcome home, sister.”

Qestraceel was not, would never be, had never truly been her home. But Kuriwa smiled warmly at Anlin and squeezed her hand as they descended the stairs to the street below. Anlin was one of the precious few who had never been at fault in her ongoing feud with the entire civilization of the high elves.

The vista of Qestraceel spread out before her, as familiar and alien as it ever was. The gate platform was positioned in its own dome complex at one edge of the great central dome, where in a worst-case scenario it could be cut off or even flooded, but the huge arched gateway into the main space offered a splendid view. There was plenty to see in the gate dome itself, of course. Hovering all around it on suspended platforms were guard stations and siege weapons—all, of course, disguised as art installations, quite a few with trailing clusters of flowering vines. More plant life climbed the glass banisters of the gate platform and its access stairs, the pylons holding it up and the subsidiary structures around its base, even the domed walls.

Not proper plants, though, not to her eyes. These leaves bore subtle patterns in gleaming blue; the flowers were delicate, airy, transparent and faintly luminous. Nature had never intended such things. The transparent dome itself had, in addition to its numerous functional enchantments, a charm to make the water outside as crystal clear as the air on the surface would have been, giving Qestraceel a splendid view of the ocean floor around it. Which, of course, was further augmented by magic to make for a stunning vista of coral reefs and kelp stands, none of which should have existed at this depth. But there they were, altered and fortified by magic, because all gods old and new forfend that the high elves should lack for pretty scenery to gawk at. The creatures and plants surrounding the city were at least ensorcelled not to leave this area or be able to reproduce unassisted, so they would not interbreed with or alter the ocean life beyond. Somehow, that didn’t make the whole matter any less repugnant to Kuriwa.

“Already?” Anlin murmured as they alit on the ground below the platform.

Kuriwa caught herself grimacing at the transmogrified ocean plants outside and sighed. “Sorry.”

“No, you aren’t,” her sister said with laughter in her voice, patting her arm. “You know I won’t argue with your sensibilities, sister. But just, strategically, maybe it would be best…”

“Yes, yes. I will try to keep my savage ways in check in front of Father.”

“Ah, good,” Anlin said solemnly. “And he will try not to act stiff and priggish at you. Between the two of you, I expect the peace to last a good five minutes this time. You’ve both grown so much.”

“Ariel, what’s the penalty for assaulting a sitting Magister?” Kuriwa asked innocently.

“Situational,” the sword replied. “In the case of Magister Anlin, probably a pat on the back and ceremonial flower garland from Grandmagister Laierun.”

“I am surrounded by traitors,” Anlin complained. “Well, I hope you’ve not forgotten how to ride, anyway.”

“Never,” Kuriwa assured her, an unfeigned smile blossoming on her face as they reached the gate. Off to the side of the path, a hovering servitor construct held the reins of two deinos with gleaming livery bedecked with Magistry emblems. She noted that even their feathers matched it, a result of careful breeding or possibly genetic intervention, but even that could not spoil the pleasure of being with these proto-birds again.

Anlin bounded neatly into the saddle of one deino, who obviously knew her well. Kuriwa stepped up to the second, so it could lean forward to sniff at her. The deino allowed her to stroke its featherless beak, emitting a friendly little croak which revealed its mouthful of fangs, and actually reached forward to pat her with one clawed hand, the vestigal pinions extending from behind its wrist flaring. Having been accepted, she vaulted up onto its back, sharing a grin with Anlin.

This she had missed. Horses were such a disappointment to one who had grown up riding proto-birds that she had preferred to develop spells to hasten her own travel speed than try to reach an accord with the panicky, lumbering hoofed beasts.

“Are you sure this won’t harm you politically?” Kuriwa asked as they led their mounts onto the vehicle path that skirted the outer edges of Qestraceel’s vast central dome. On one side rose the sloped transparent wall between them and the crushing depths outside; on the other, the spires of the city itself, gleaming with enchanted lights. The high elves they passed did not attempt to disguise the curiosity and, in some cases, contempt with which they stared at Kuriwa in her traditional woodkin garb.

“Oh, please,” Anlin snorted. “You could be stark naked and this wouldn’t even be the most scandalous thing I’ve done since breakfast. I have a running bet with the other Magisters of my circle on how long it’ll take the Grandmagisters to become so annoyed with me they confiscate Ariel.”

“I’m down for one more fortnight,” said the sword. “Obviously I cannot collect a prize for winning a bet. It is simple optimism.”

“I can see why Laierun thought this one might slow you down,” Kuriwa said.

“Everybody underestimates me,” Anlin replied with a fierce grin. “Well, don’t keep an auntie in suspense! How’s the whole clan?”

Kuriwa’s smile melted away in an instant. “We should wait to discuss that until we’re with Father.”

Anlin gave her a sidelong look of concern, but did not press. “All right. I’ll talk, then. I defy you to guess what that platterpate Athilor did to himself this time. You remember Athie, don’t you, the guy who’s obsessed with cracking self-enchantment? Well, the Magistry refuses to let him die no matter how many times this happens, but last year he actually…”

It was not as if Kuriwa particularly cared for the Qestraceel gossip, but she was grateful nonetheless to Anlin for filling the silence. If not for that, the ride to their family estate would have been a truly miserable trip, between her unease over the business that had brought her back here, and the uncomfortable memories that shone at her from every passing vista of the city like its omnipresent decorative lights. Truly, Anlin was the one thing she missed about this place. If not for the separation from her sister, Kuriwa would have no regrets at all about leaving the high elves behind. But the life of the woodkin was not Anlin’s path, and Kuriwa of all people would never have asked someone to submit themselves to a destiny they could not embrace. Least of all someone she loved.

The holdings of the line of Tari’silmina’verai rose through one of the outlying cliffs surrounding the city, far enough that the great central dome of Qestraceel and the crystal spire rising from its tip to the height of the Anara Trench’s upper rim made for a stunning but distant view. Reaching the estate was a long ride passing through a series of connecting domes and outer tunnels. It hardly seemed like any time at all, though, before they were unsaddling their mounts in the family stables.

Servitors ordinarily did such work, of course, or in the case of richer bloodlines, grooms. Anlin and Kuriwa both cherished any opportunity to work with the deinos, however. And this time, Kuriwa did not begrudge a few more minutes between herself and actually returning to the house proper.

What seemed like all too soon, however, they were there. Kuriwa felt a strange urge to formally ring the gong and announce herself to the name crystal. This place, crushingly familiar as it was, did not feel like home. Anlin, of course, simply opened the door and strode in.

Following her, Kuriwa hesitated on the threshold. Her father was waiting just inside.

They locked eyes and stood as if frozen. Magister Vynlian had not changed in the least from her memories. He was dressed as he always did in the informal comfort of home, in a silken robe without layers or pattern and no formal scarf, with his hair allowed to flow loose down his back instead of styled in a proper coif, held back only by a jeweled forehead band and gathered into a tail by a simple silver clip her mother had made using only her hands, no magic. He didn’t even bother to wear enchanted rings within his own house. Since his wife’s passing, though he had never acknowledge it aloud, Vynlian had stopped exerting himself to ward against any possibility of accident or disaster as such an important man among the high elves customarily would.

“Father,” she said at last.

And then he smiled, in simple happiness at seeing her. Something deep inside herself felt cracked, like a frozen river thawing in the spring. “Avaran. Welcome home, daughter. It has been too long.”

Just like that, so much of the joy went out of the moment. “My name is Kuriwa,” she said firmly. “As you know.”

“Ah. Yes, forgive me.” Vynlian’s own smile vanished. “I am told that you are in a position to understand, now, how jarring it never ceases to be when one’s own child throws aside everything of value you taught her.”

“Oh, you are told that,” she said stiffly. “And you bothered to hear it? I’m glad the continuation of our bloodline is of at least a little interest to you.”

“The continuation of our line among forest-dwelling primitives—”

“AHHHHH!” Anlin yelled, waving her arms about over her head. “She is not! Even! In! The house! Ariel, if one of them doesn’t start behaving like an adult, remind me to stab them both!”

“How many times a day must I remind you that I will not be made an accessory to criminal acts?”

“Is this how you address your colleagues in the Magistry, daughter?” Vynlian asked with grim disapproval.

“Yes,” Anlin said firmly, “and notably, they give me much less crap than you.”

“Father,” Kuriwa interjected. “I don’t want to argue.”

Both he and Anlin turned to her in pure surprise.

“I…wish you could respect my choices and my identity,” she said, struggling to keep a rein on her emotions and expression. “But… I have never loved or respected you less because of the decisions I’ve made. And I hate being at odds with you. Despite everything, we are family.”

Vynlian lowered his eyes, and swallowed. “Daughter, I… Well. Maybe if I were a better person, it would be easier for me to respect your choices. It is fact that I…have not tried as hard as I could. Truly, I am so glad to see you home. I have never ceased to miss you.”

Kuriwa stepped across the threshold into her childhood home, and with a speed that surprised her, cross the three steps into her father’s arms.

Some time later he released her, and they smiled at each other in wordless forgiveness. Anlin stood off to the side, beaming.

“Well,” Kuriwa said, suddenly self-conscious. “I would like to visit the shrine.”

“Of course,” her father said, touching her lightly on the cheek. “Of course. I’ve prepared a meal in the dining room. Your sister and I will be there waiting.”

“Thank you, father.”

A few minutes kneeling at her mother’s shrine helped her to stabilize her emotions. Sacred spaces consecrated to the dead were the only spots in high elf society characterized by notable fae magics. There had been a time in her youth, when she had begun to feel the call of the fae but not given real thought to what lay outside the safety of Qestraceel, that she had considered joining the ranks of the valkryn. The path of a death-priest did not suit her, though; it was life that called to her soul.

Only a tiny spark of power animated the memorial shrine, and of course the thought never crossed Kuriwa’s mind of taking it for any use of her own. Still, it was the first pleasant reminder since she had come back here. And it carried, of course, the reminder of her mother.

A few moments of meditation at the shrine calmed her enough that she no longer felt unsteadied by walking through these memory-laden halls, nor disgusted by the grandiose opulence that surrounded her here. Truly, this house was downright humble by the standards of the Magisters. Her father was a man of (relatively) simple tastes, and while Anlin could not be called simple in any respect, her eccentricities did not lead her toward indulgence in material comforts.

In the dining room, she paused and had to smile again, looking at the spread laid out on the table. Dragonfruit, acai, kiwi, fried lungshark, silver noodles and even imbued luff blossoms floating above a traditional glimmersauce. Vynlian had spared no expense to have all the favorite dishes of her childhood waiting for her.

For the space of one evening meal, it was like it had been before. She kept herself in check, and for a wonder, so did her father, to Anlin’s constant beaming satisfaction. They passed a simple, pleasant meal together as a family, and even the meticulousness with which they avoided topics sure to cause tension did not make it awkward.

Kuriwa, though she kept silent, could not have been more grateful. She desperately needed this, to face what would come next.

And it came within the hour, as they retired to the family solarium, surrounded by luminous glass walls, with colorful seaweed and anemones cultivated outside. Lively fish of species that naturally were not so vivid, nor could survive at this depth, darted through the fronds, and Kuriwa found herself for once not even desiring to make an issue of it. Even the sugared coffee Vynlian served for dessert had been purified of caffeine, as she preferred.

After all that, it managed not to be confrontational when her father turned to her and said, “I know you must have a specific need to have come back here, daughter.”

She drew in a long breath and let it out in a calming exercise he would recognize, having taught it to her as a child. Anlin held her steaming cup in both hands, now watching them in silence with Ariel laid across her lap.

“I have need of your help, father,” Kuriwa said at last, meeting his gaze.

It was he who turned away, staring out at the anemones. “I had dared to hope you might have come to see your family and home for reason beyond the need of our resources.”

“I am here as family,” she replied, controlling her reflexive surge of temper, “not as a beggar. It was you who taught me that the bloodline are to be protected and aided without condition or reservation, with every power and asset that can be wielded.”

Vynlian’s gaze snapped back to hers, and there was suddenly alarm in his eyes. “Your children. What has happened?”

Kuriwa swallowed heavily. “It…is not just my children, father. In the groves, we have different practices when it comes to birthing new generations.”

“Yes,” he said bitterly, “I am aware that the Naiyist tree-dwellers make a point of being fecund as human—”

“Father,” Anlin snapped, “how necessary do you think that attitude is?”

He scowled at her, but then when she glared right back, deliberately brought his expression under control before nodding at Kuriwa. “Your sister is right. Please forgive me, daughter.”

She nodded back, not trusting her voice to hold out if they went one step further down that path. “It is the nature of elves to live in balance with their environment, father. Existing in a living grove is very different from life within the walls of Qestraceel. No, we do not spread as quickly as humans. I don’t think you truly appreciate how rabbit-like humanity can be…but that’s beside the point. I have more than children, but grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren.”

Vynlian closed his eyes, grimacing with such a rapid sequence of emotions that even her experience as a shaman and as his daughter did not enable her to track them. “Avaran, you are barely a thousand years old.”

“Kuriwa,” Anlin said pointedly.

“Please!” Kuriwa interjected before he could round on her sister. “This is difficult enough without fighting!”

“Yes.” Vynlian slumped back in his chair, setting his half-empty coffee cup on its arm and rubbing at his forehead. “Yes, you said your family is in need. If they are blood, they are blood. Tell me the trouble and I’ll come to grips with how many descendants I apparently have on my own time.”

“Thank you, father,” she said carefully. “It began with the Hellwars.”

“Ah ah!” Anlin said sharply, pointing at Vynlian before his furiously opened mouth could produce a noise. “You can say you told us so on your own time, as well!”

He subsided again, visibly biting back some retort, and gestured Kuriwa to proceed.

“Even after everything that has happened,” she said quietly, now staring out at the water herself, “I believe we were right to intervene. The world above would have fallen without every power which dared risk itself to oppose Elilial’s invasions. And the Magistry were purely deluding themselves if they believed Qestraceel could have remained isolated and secure if demons overran the surface. But… But you were also right, father, about the risks.”

Vynlian lowered his head, eyes closed. There was no satisfaction on his face at her admission.

“We caught Elilial’s attention, Anlin and I,” Kuriwa whispered. “She threatened revenge, of course, but I took it for drama and bluster. She is rather prone to both.”

“I remember,” Anlin said, her face pale now.

“In the years since the second war, though…” Kuriwa broke off and had to take a moment. “We… Father, all who descended from me have begun to be touched by the curse. It… Oh, father, it began with the children.”

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