At least they didn’t have to spend time looking around on this trip. Billie and Weaver disembarked from the caravan to find McGraw leaning idly against the wall of the station, chatting with the young woman in the Army uniform who stood watch. At their arrival, he straightened up, tipped his hat to her and ambled over to join them. The soldier watched him go with a faint smile before resuming her ostentatiously bored perusal of the sleepy town outside.
“Omnu’s balls, I swear I’ve got the knees of a man twice my age thanks to these fucking things,” Weaver growled, stretching and casting a dirty look back at the parked caravan. “I am not getting back in that damned contraption until this whole damn business is over with. Hell with it, I might just walk back to Tiraas afterward.”
“I fully support this plan,” Billie said solemnly.
“Top o’ the mornin’,” McGraw said, coming to a stop alongside them. “I don’t mean to alarm anyone, but you seem to have forgotten somebody.”
“Aye,” said Billie with a grin, “Joe’s of the opinion he can straighten out our bad reputation in the town. Whole idea sounded barmy t’me, but the Bishop seemed to think it had merit.”
“Idea?” McGraw asked, raising an eyebrow.
“He and the kid are tracking down a friend of Joe’s from Sarasio,” Weaver said disinterestedly. “An Imperial Surveyor. For once I agree with the pocket bomber here; bunch of wasted time. If Desolation was worth a damn, the Empire would’ve been active out here already, and bureaucracies do not move fast enough to be any use to us. But Darling thinks he can get some help to the place, maybe whip us up some support.”
“Well, the effort ain’t likely to hurt, I suppose,” McGraw mused, lifting his hat to scratch his head. “Long as it’s Darling handling the bureaucracy and not Joe. Not that the boy ain’t smart in his way, but if he doesn’t get over some o’ that naivete of his, somebody’s gonna stab him in the back. Again.”
“Tryin’ ta get results out o’ the Imperial Department of Red Tape should speed that process along,” Billie said cheerfully.
“This does complicate things a mite, though,” the old wizard continued. “I’m also close to tracking down an old friend who I reckon can help us out, but doing it’ll mean headin’ out into the Badlands. I’d thought we might be able to just move on from that to hittin’ Risk, but now it looks like we’ll have to backtrack again and pick up the Kid. I don’t like the thought to takin’ on Big K without his wands. He say when he expected to be back?”
“He’s gonna come tomorrow at the latest,” Billie reported. “Leavin’ Darling to finish up motivatin’ the Empire.”
“One day to get government action initiated,” McGraw said dryly. “Truly, that boy is the very soul of optimism.”
“Mm. You still wanna head out, then?” Weaver asked.
McGraw sighed heavily. “Yeah…we’d better. I’ve been sendin’ up smoke signals, so to speak. Little disruptions in the… Well, it’s technical; if you’re really curious I can go over it while we’re walkin’, since we won’t lack for time. The long and the short of it is if I fail to put in an appearance, my little attention-getters may be taken as a hostile move.”
“Then by all means, let’s not piss off anybody else around here who we’re not sent specifically to rough up. That means you,” Weaver added, pointing at Billie, “touch nothing, say nothing, and do nothing.”
“Honestly, the way you carry on,” she huffed. “Where I’m from, blowin’ up a bar is a constructive criticism on the drink menu.”
“Off we go, then!” McGraw said cheerfully, ambling off toward the far side of the station, which had a view of the desolate Badlands beyond the town.
“Now, refresh my memory,” Weaver said as they stepped out into the morning sunlight, “that girl you were talking to. Isn’t she the one who was on duty yesterday?”
“Yup, that’s her,” McGraw replied. “They don’t exactly keep a well-staffed garrison in this backwater.”
“Because it occurs to me,” Weaver mused, “that she didn’t so much as poke her nose out when the saloon exploded and then a mob very nearly started in on us. Maybe there’s a reason certain individuals get posted to the ass end of nowhere.”
“Now, as to that, allow me to direct your attention back over your shoulder for a moment,” McGraw said cheerfully. “You’ll notice a distinctive edifice rising from Terminus Station. The scrolltower office is part of the same complex as the Rail depot.”
“The word ‘complex’ is maybe givin’ this town a little too much credit,” Billie snickered, “but go on.”
“I’ll remind you that a bare few minutes after we were rounded up into custody,” McGraw continued, “a very official message came in for the Sheriff, apparently ordering him to let us all go. And I’ll add, as a point of general information, that while soldiers are trained to respond immediately to a crisis, Imperial Intelligence operatives are trained to observe and take action carefully, subtly, and only as needed. They are also the only people who don’t face prosecution for impersonating soldiers.”
“Exactly how did your conversation with that one go?” Weaver asked, frowning now.
“Oh, you know how it is,” McGraw said with a shrug. “Small talk. The weather, the economy, what’s trendy in Tiraas these days. Ain’t much point in pokin’ the bear, as a rule; if the Imps are keepin’ an eye on us… Well, so far they seem inclined to leave us at liberty, don’t they?”
“Well, well, well,” Billie drawled. “So it seems this little job the esteemed Mr. Darling has roped us into is even more fraught than he let on. ‘Scuze me while I shit me pants in shock.”
“If you need to go behind a bush,” Weaver sneered, “try to find one with a rattlesnake.”
“Y’know, Damian, the more I get t’know you, the more sense it makes the only creature that seems ta give a damn about you is an extra-dimensional death specter.”
McGraw raised his eyebrows, shifting his head to give Billie a warning look. She met it with a grin and a wink. Weaver just walked on in silence, his face suddenly an icy mask.
“I reckon this is enough distance,” the wizard said after a long few moments, glancing back. Desolation was receding behind them, still well in view but not close enough for any individuals to be more than ant-sized from this range. “A big part of the thrust of my information-gathering over the last couple days has been about the movements of elves in the region. That had to be phrased carefully; you may have heard that elves are not popular round these parts.”
“It was mentioned, yes,” said Weaver.
“Upside of that is people are more’n willing to gripe about any sighting of a pointy ear, provided I pitch my own interest as similar hostility,” McGraw continued. “It was a sure bet there’d been some; elves likely wouldn’t come near the town, knowing they aren’t liked, but there are always tribes passing by this close to the frontier, and nomadic people as a rule are allergic to bein’ told where they can and can’t go. I was bankin’ that between our old friend Khadizroth and the presence of the skull, some would be sniffin’ around here specifically.”
“And?” Billie prompted.
“News was good. Strong hints that one of the parties takin’ an interest in the area is an old friend of mine; she’s distinctive enough to create rumors. So I’ve been… Well, it’s a little hard to explain if you’re not a practitioner. Poking at the aether, I guess you could say. In such a manner that any practicing shaman close to Desolation would know I was stickin’ out feelers.”
“Feelers?” Weaver said dryly.
McGraw grinned. “More like a wet finger in the ear. Not harmful, but not fun. I wanted to make sure it wouldn’t be missed.”
“Yup,” the bard said, rolling his eyes. “I can see how someone might take that as hostile.”
“Just lettin’ you know what we may be walkin’ into,” McGraw said with a shrug. “I left a trail that’ll lead back to me, an’ to where we’re goin’. Expect to be met there. Hopefully it’ll be my old comrade, who in all likelihood will help us out, if she ain’t workin’ on Mr. K an’ his friends already.”
“Or it could just be pissed off random elves,” Weaver said, scowling.
“Could be,” McGraw allowed. “Worst case scenario is a fight, but that’s a relatively remote scenario. If it ain’t my friend, it’ll be an irate shaman wantin’ to know what the hell I think I’m up to. As a rule, if you give elves an explanation and it’s a good one, they’ll leave you alone. But that’s a rule, and individuals are exceptions. We’ll see.”
“Well, look at that,” Billie said brightly. “Turns out blowin’ up the saloon wasn’t the most reckless thing this group’s done!”
Weaver sighed dramatically. “I hate you. So much.”
“Which of us are you talkin’ to?”
In their eerie, barren way, the Badlands were profoundly beautiful. In aggregation the terrain looked flat, stretching endlessly away till the mountains rose up to the north and east, and into the infinite distance everywhere else, but viewed up close there was complex depth in that flatness. It was a huge plain of stone, what had undoubtedly been a rock shelf at some point, but had been carved by ages of rain, wind and periodic flooding into the most fanciful shapes. The stone was wrought in rounded forms, twisted and flowing. Though the outcroppings rose to a nearly uniform height, there wasn’t enough space to navigate on the top of the formations, forcing travelers to walk through the rain-carved gulleys between them.
It didn’t make for easy hiking, to say the least. Plain as the Badlands might look up top, the floor of the formation was uneven and rarely flat. For once, Billie was the faster, her small size making her agile and efficient at moving through terrain where Weaver and McGraw, with their long legs, were at a disadvantage.
Still and all, the beauty couldn’t be denied. The twisting rivulets cut through the stone had a pleasing quality all their own, augmented by the multicolored layers they revealed. Countless eons of rock formation were laid bare, the history of the very land exposed by erosion; it was profound as well as aesthetic, to any who cared to contemplate it. The occasional small thorny bushes added further character, though ironically their angular, mostly bare branches looked even less organic than the flowing contours of the stones.
Beautiful it may have been, but not pleasant. It was scorchingly hot, and the rock walls on all sides provided little relief from the sun as it climbed overhead. Initially, there wasn’t a hint of life apart from themselves, but after they had been trekking more than an hour, a lone vulture appeared in the sky above.
It began following them.
“What the hell cold possibly be out here?” Weaver snarled.
“Hard to see from this angle, down among the rocks,” McGraw replied equably, picking his careful way along with the aid of his staff, “but there are a few interesting features in the landscape. Enough that the Badlands have always had a population of sorts. It’s like any other desert; life’s concentrated around the few little enclaves where it can live. Springs, mostly. Risk is one o’ those; we’re headin’ for another.”
“Care to offer a little more detail on our destination?” Billie asked, cheery as ever. They were all fortified against sunburn, heatstroke and excess loss of moisture by aid of charms provided by her and alchemical supplies purchased by McGraw, which made the hike merely arduous instead of potentially deadly. Still, the gnome was faring better than either of them; not even her good mood was diminished by the hostile landscape.
“It’s an old crater,” said McGraw. “No water source, so it’s not inhabited, but it’s served as a meeting place for ages. Elves, dwarves an’ more recently humans have all used it. They mostly all respect it, too. I’m no expert on what dwarves think, but to some o’ the plains tribes the spot’s considered sacred.”
“Great,” Weaver groused. “This is the place you directed attention to with a metaphysical poke in the ear?”
“Like I said,” McGraw replied, his tone mild despite being slightly out of breath, “it was a sure enough way to get their attention.”
“So’s an actual poke in the ear.”
The old wizard didn’t bother to reply to that.
“How can you navigate in this?” Weaver demanded a few minutes later. “There’s no possible way you can remember a path through these alleys.”
“Elves do,” McGraw said. “I cheat, of course. Simple waypoint spell, keeps my noise aimed at where we’re goin’.”
“It’s good to be a wizard,” Billie said philosophically. “Or to travel with one.”
“It’s true,” McGraw agreed.
“It’s especially good when your wizard can just teleport you places,” Weaver noted. “I am taking it on faith, here, that there’s an excellent reason we’re not doing that.”
“Yup,” said McGraw. “Droppin’ in unexpectedly on a bunch of elves ain’t exactly wise.”
“Especially after you’ve poked them in the ear, I’ll bet.”
“The approach gives ’em a chance to gain the upper hand. It’s easier in forests or plains, of course, but elves can stalk pretty much anything through pretty much any terrain. They know who I am an’ where we’re headed; lettin’ ’em spend the hike out there watching and listening to us is a show we mean no harm.”
“Um, excuse me,” said Billie, coming to a stop and turning to frown at him. “If you’ve riled these theoretical elves, is it a good idea to give ’em the upper hand?”
“Well, look at it this way,” said McGraw with a grin. “We’ll either get arrows in the back outta nowhere, or we won’t. If you think about it, that’s the case anywhere and everywhere, at all times.”
“Aye, that’s true enough,” she said with a shrug, and turned to resume hiking, apparently mollified. At the back of their little column, Weaver began cursing monotonously under his breath.
Fortunately their journey didn’t last long beyond that. Their emergence into the crater was quite sudden; they rounded a turn and there it was.
The depression wasn’t very deep, not much more than twice the general depth of the shallow ravines; it was most significant for its relative smoothness. Rather than standing formations, it had uneven ridges marching toward its bottom. They were conveniently sized to form seats, making a natural amphitheater of sorts; several had carvings, simple pictograms and a few lines of text in elvish. Aside from that, it was a plain and barren space, baked by the overhead sun without even the meager and intermittent shade of stone formations.
Slowly, the three stepped forward, and down onto the first shelf, peering around.
“Welp,” Weaver said at last, “here we are. Notably still by ourselves.”
“Give it a tick,” suggested Billie. “McGraw went an’ spoiled the surprise, tellin’ us they were watchin’. Now they gotta make us wait ta re-establish dominance.”
“You would think immortals would be above petty social games,” the bard grumbled.
“You sound like you never met one,” Billie said, grinning. “These marks look important, in an ancient artifact kinda way. If yer in such a crashin’ damn hurry, I s’pose I could blast a big hole outta—”
The shade increased, marginally, as the upper lip of the crater was suddenly lined with elves. There were scarcely a dozen; they perched upon the topmost layer of the rocks, which offered very little space even for such lithe individuals. These were plains elves, their buckskins dyed the color of rock dust, and every one was armed. Bows, staves and wands were all represented, all aimed at the three below.
Weaver and Billie both dropped into fighting crouches, reaching for their own weapons.
“Whoah, whoah, whoah!” McGraw exclaimed, holding up both hands and letting his staff fall into the crook of his elbow. “Let’s nobody go an’ do anything hasty! Weaver, hands away from those hot rods—you’d be full of arrows before you could think too hard about usin’ ’em.”
“Why is it every time she threatens to blow something up, I get blamed?” Weaver complained. He slowly raised his hands away from his wand belt, however.
“Well, ye sorta got one o’ those faces,” Billie commented. “Though mostly it’s yer personality.”
They fell silent as another shape appeared on the rocks, this one more visibly ominous. Directly above them an enormous black panther leaned forward from the lip of the narrow outcropping upon which it perched, glaring down at them through pitiless yellow eyes. Its paws, positioned on the very edge of the stone, flexed, unsheathing huge claws.
“Pretty sure that ain’t native,” Billie said.
And suddenly, without appearing to transition, it wasn’t a panther. An elvish woman knelt there on the edge, studying them dispassionately, a tomahawk dangling from her loose grip. She was dressed like her fellows, but stood out from them dramatically. For one thing, she had upward-pointing ears, marking her a wood elf and not kin to the plains hunters now ringing the crater. More noticeably, however, her hair was glossy black.
“Elias,” she said evenly. “I might have known.”
“You might’ve,” he agreed, tipping his hat to her. “In fact, I’d be plumb astonished if you didn’t. Mornin’, Raea! Been far too long, ain’t it?”
“I’m not sure,” she mused. “I only ever seem to see you when something truly aggravating is afoot.”
“Now, c’mon, that ain’t fair,” McGraw protested. “You can’t blame me for all a’ those incidents. Really, any of ’em but the first one.”
“Ah, yes, the curse of the adventurer,” she said gravely. “The more you appear to help in times of trouble, the more associated with trouble you become. The wandering profiteer becomes a celebrity, while the wandering hero becomes a symbol of bad luck.”
“I ‘spect you know a bit about that yourself,” McGraw said, grinning.
“Would you two like some privacy to catch up?” Weaver exclaimed. “Should we come back later?”
Raea shifted her gaze to focus on him. “A little patience would suit, traveler. It is you who trespass here. This ground is sacred to us—many of our forebears are buried here.”
“Bullshit,” he snapped.
The elf leaned back slightly, raising her eyebrows. “I beg your pardon?”
“No one is buried here,” Weaver retorted. “No one has died here, at least not in centuries. McGraw, are these really the best elves you could find? I can handle the inscrutable ineffable crap, but this one thinks she’s funny. That’s gonna get real old, real fast.”
McGraw sighed heavily. “You’ve got a real way with people, Gravestone.”
Suddenly, Raea grinned, and made a quick gesture with one hand. All around, the assembled elves lowered their weapons and straightened up, visibly relaxing, though their expressions did not appreciably alter.
“I’ve been wondering for some time if our paths would one day cross, Deathspeaker. Well met.”
“Uh huh,” he said skeptically, planting his fists on his hips.
“This is my ol’ friend Raea,” said McGraw. “I’m afraid I’m not personally acquainted with any of these other folk, but I reckon there’s time to rectify that. Raea, you apparently know Weaver. This is Billie Fallowstone.”
“The Tinker,” Raea said, nodding to the gnome. “Your reputation precedes you, as well.”
“She wasn’t kidding about blowing the place up,” said Weaver. “That’s just what she does. You see those little hands going into her pockets, run.”
“Oh, shove it, ye great lumbering canker.”
“You went out of your way to get my attention, Elias,” the elf said, returning her gaze to him. “What are you doing out here?”
“I suspect the same thing you are,” he replied. “How acquainted are you with a town called Risk?”
Raea only raised one eyebrow, but a stir ran through the other elves. The nearest shook his head, turned to her and said something curt in their language. She gave him a sidelong, unmistakeably irritated glance.
“Mr. K and his dwarves, yes,” she said to McGraw. “Risk is perched conveniently near several mineral veins. Elves also harvest the silver and turquoise and have competed with other miners in the past, but there are no tribes in the area currently.”
“No tribes?” Billie said, looking around at them. “What’re you lot, a flock? A herd? A gaggle?”
“A murder?” Weaver mumbled.
“We,” Raea said with a grim smile, “were drawn here by the miners, as I gather you were. They are not just mining. They delve with peculiar arcane arts—most unusual for dwarves. They go out of their way to destroy any sacred objects or traces of elven influence, which is also unusual, and not acceptable. These lands have few sites of major significance to the tribes, but they are riddled with smaller traces. Barrows, burials, altars to various spirits, charms left by young shaman on their first vision quests. Things any respectful traveler leaves alone—even the humans who used to mine this region seldom disturbed them. This…attempt to expunge any trace of us from the land is deeply disturbing. And then, too, there is the nature of this M. K and his personal aides.”
“What do you know about the fellow?” McGraw asked with deceptive mildness.
Raea shifted position, seating herself on the edge of the stone with one leg dangling, the other folded beneath her. “I have already delivered a patch of exposition, Elias. I believe it’s your turn.”
“Now, now,” he said placatingly, “allow a fella some dramatic pacing. C’mon, Raea, you know I wouldn’t pump you for info without offering what I know in kind. Fact, I think we may be able to help each other out here. Do you know what you’re dealing with?”
“The dragon Khadizroth,” she said, a scowl falling over her features, “who of all beings in this world should know better than to deface cultural artifacts. The mystery grows deeper and darker when one considers his…lieutenants. Not all are as unsettling as others, but he has a murderer tauhanwe among them, as well as a child of Vanislaas.”
McGraw and Weaver both straightened up in alarm; Billie frowned deeply.
“An incubus?” Weaver said, “Fuck. That’s just what nobody needs.”
“A succubus, in fact,” said Raea. “What do you know of this, Elias?”
“We know what he’s doing,” said McGraw. “Or at least, what he’s after. Why he would hire dwarves of all folk, much less destroy things sacred to elves, is beyond my imagination. They’re lookin’ for an artifact we have reason to believe is buried out here.”
“You do have some useful knowledge, then,” she said. “Tell me, does this have anything to do with the blinding of the visions? Every shaman I have spoken to in the last two months has managed to see nothing in the spirit realm but portents of the dragons, and of seething chaos.”
“Well, there’s dragon shit goin’ down in Tiraas,” said Billie, “but aye, the rest of it pertains to this business out here.”
“Khadizroth,” said McGraw, “is seeking the skull of Belosiphon the Black. If he finds it, he means to deliver it to Archpope Justinian.”
The elves went stone still; one cursed softly in their language. Raea stared down at McGraw in silence for a long moment.
Abruptly, the huge panther stood up and bounded down to the shelf on which they stood; despite her light landing, the size of the cat made an audible thump upon the stone.
“I think,” said Raea, again an elf, “we should talk in detail.”