Only the twisted trees stood to attest to the horrors that had once plagued this spot. Down below the old walls where they couldn’t be seen, the night birds and crickets made it seem a perfectly ordinary, peaceful night in the country. So, naturally, since Ami was sitting on the battlements where she had a good view all around, she stared fixedly at the disturbingly contorted forest of Athan’Khar.
She sat on a chunk of toppled masonry in the shadow of a half-ruined guard tower, gazing absently across the river and plucking out a tune on her guitar. It was a slow melody, produced one single coppery note at a time rather than making use of the guitar’s ability to harmonize, wistful and somehow lonesome. All in all, it seemed the perfect backdrop to the scenery itself, and Ami appeared quite absorbed in it. She carried on playing and staring while Jenell climbed the nearby staircase and approached, the Legionnaire’s arrival anything but quiet, thanks to her armor.
Jenell came to a stop alongside the bard, glancing out in the direction of her gaze with a slight frown.
“Time for a shift change?” Ami asked without halting her playing.
“Not yet,” said Jenell, “though I don’t mind taking over early if you’re tired of sitting up here alone. At least there’s a view; I’m going stir-crazy down there.”
“Ah,” she replied with a sly little smile, fingers still plucking. “So you’ve come to steal my view and fob your boredom off on me.”
“Well, a girl has to look out for herself.”
Ami chuckled softly, finally bringing the tune to an end.
“You weren’t worried about attracting attention that way?” Jenell asked, glancing at the guitar.
“I thought the point of this was to attract attention. Anyway, it was just a little touch. A perhaps futile effort to add some charm to this forsaken heap.” She wrinkled her nose disdainfully. “I’m not opposed to a little adventure, mind you, but somehow I envisioned something not quite so dangerous and yet boring.”
“That describes most of what war is, so the officers tell me.”
“You don’t strike me as one to listen overmuch to officers,” Ami said, again giving her that knowing smile.
Jenell mirrored it almost exactly. “I was raised by one. I’m very good at parroting what they want to hear.”
The bard giggled softly, pressing her fingertips coyly to her mouth. “Well, I just hope what dear Bishop Syrinx wants to hear doesn’t end up being the death of us. She certainly is brave, coming here just to taunt a fae arch-summoner.”
This time, Jenell didn’t return the amused expression, turning instead to stare out across the river at the darkened woods beyond. “She’s not brave,” she said softly after a long moment. “Not at all.”
“Oh?” Ami arched an eyebrow, the tilt of her head and subtle shift of her posture somehow indicating casual disinterest. “I fancy I’ve some notion of her Grace’s faults, but I never took her for a coward.”
“Courage begins with fear,” Jenell whispered. “Bravery is acting in spite of fear. Someone unable to be afraid isn’t brave.”
“That was almost poetic,” Ami mused.
“Something my father said once. I’d all but forgotten it, but my DS in basic liked to harp on similar themes.”
“Ugh, I could tell you stories about trainers and harping,” the bard said lightly, strumming her fingers once across the strings in an aimless, uplifting chord. “Mostly by people better dressed than the bulk of the company here. Though if anything, the exceptions are even sadder. Who does Bishop Snowe think she’s going to impress in this howling wilderness with her beauty regimen?”
“Whoever we find, I suppose,” Jenell said with a mean little smile. “I have it on good authority that her particular method of…problem-solving…would require some…privacy.”
Ami grinned nastily right back. “Even I’ve heard that one. A reputation so epic would be a shame to waste, don’t you think? I almost hope our mysterious foe comes with something serviceable between its legs, if only so her time isn’t completely wasted.”
“You’re an evil little bitch, aren’t you?” Jenell asked with a broad grin.
“And how long have you been waiting to call someone a bitch without being stomped on by an officer?”
“Oh, you simply cannot imagine.”
The bard’s answering laugh was throaty and sly. “I can imagine a lot, dear. I could even before they trained me for it.”
Jenell shifted her head to stare once again out into the dark, the smile slipping slowly from her features. In the silence that followed, Ami strummed another arpeggio in a major key, subtly lightening the mood without speaking.
“My older brother is a Vesker,” Jenell said suddenly. “My father was furious when he announced he was going to be a bard. Well…he acted furious, because he’s such a man he could never let on in front of his family that he was crushed. We’re a military family, from a long line of soldiers, and seeing the sudden end of that tradition…”
“I suppose he was delighted that you decided to join the Legions,” Ami said mildly.
“I didn’t so much decide as…” Jenell trailed off, then shook her head. “Colin is all but disowned, but he and I still write to each other. He told me a lot about his training… There are whole layers to what makes a bard I never imagined.”
“Well,” Ami began.
“So I know,” Jenell cut her off, “that you’re just playing a role. I’m not so well schooled in literature, but I’ve been the spoiled princess long enough to know her when I meet her, and to know that nobody is such a vain little shit all the way to her core. I’ve no idea why you’re really here or what you’re after, but… For what it’s worth, I appreciate it. It may just be a little vicious gossip here and there to you, but being re-oriented in my old life, just for a few moments, has been like a breath of fresh sanity.”
“Did you like your old life enough you’d want to return to it?” Ami asked quietly.
Jenell heaved a soft sigh. “I suppose someday I’m going to have to think about questions like that, aren’t I? If I live long enough. It hasn’t really come up, though. There’s just the next step in front of me, until…”
Her sentence meandered off into silence, and both of them gazed absently off into the darkness for a few moments.
“Well,” Jenell said in a suddenly brisk tone, “now it really is time for a shift change. You’d best grab some sleep while you can; her Grace is adamant about having half of us awake and alert at all times.”
“I suppose it’s worth a try,” Ami said grudgingly, rising with a disdainful little sniff. “Though how anyone expects me to sleep on rocks I simply cannot imagine. Ah, well…we endure what we must, I supposed.”
She paused for a moment to pack up her guitar and sling its case over her shoulder before turning to head down the stairs. Passing Jenell, the bard stopped suddenly to squeeze her shoulder.
“Facade or no,” she said quietly, “the spoiled princess is no one’s victim. Ever. All the way to her core.”
She gave her one more quick squeeze and then sauntered off, descending into the courtyard without waiting for any reply.
Jenell watched her go for a bare moment before turning back to stare out at the darkness of Athan’Khar.
The camp in the old courtyard was quiet, if not entirely still. Aside from having one person on the walls at Basra’s insistence, two others remained awake at all times, which at the moment were Schwartz and Ildrin, Ami having retired to her sleeping roll. The priestess and the witch both sat near the small campfire, apparently not interacting with each other. Jenell cast the odd glance down at the group in between spells of staring across the river. Her eyes frequently found their way to the still form of Basra, who lay atop her bedroll with her hands behind her head, apparently in perfect relaxation.
For the most part she paced back and forth, working off nervous tension under the guise of patrolling. There wasn’t a lot of space in which to pace, a relatively minority of the wall being accessible. The towers on both ends of this particular segment were partially collapsed, leaving nowhere to go beyond the one stretch of battlements.
Jenell paused finally, turning her back to the camp to stare into the darkness, and letting one hand stray toward the belt pouch in which she had concealed several books under a bag-of-holding spell. It was quiet enough… No, there wasn’t enough light, Basra was right there and she knew very well what a light sleeper she was, and her neck would be justifiably on the line if she let them get ambushed because she was distracted while on guard duty. There had been few opportunities to continue her research of late. That only made sense, given what they had been doing, but part of her just couldn’t shake the suspicion that Basra knew what she was up to, or at least that she was up to something, and had been keeping her on her toes.
She certainly saw to it that Jenell rarely got enough sleep.
The sound of approaching footsteps made her whirl, scowling in anger mostly at herself for being so lost in thought that someone had gotten this close unseen, but it was only Schwartz, carrying two steaming tin cups. He paused, gazing at her with eyebrows raised, but did not seem unduly alarmed by her expression. Meesie, in her customary perch atop his head, straightened up and chittered reprovingly.
“Sorry,” said Jenell, relaxing. “You startled me.”
“I’m sorry,” he replied, coming the rest of the way up the steps. “I guess sneaking up on a soldier on guard isn’t the brightest idea. I just thought you might like some tea. Or…is that against, um, regulations?”
She had to smile at his hesitant expression. “Technically? Yes. But considering the outfit I’m working for, I suspect the Legion’s regulations are really more like guidelines. I would love some tea, thank you.”
He smiled, reminding her of a praised puppy, and stepped forward, handing her a cup. Jenell took a sip—a small one, as it was still quite hot. Not great tea, barely good tea, even, but somehow it was extremely pleasant.
Meesie chirped, looking oddly smug.
“She helped,” Schwartz said with a wry smile. “The little fire down there is barely enough to keep us from tripping on each other in the dark; it really didn’t want to boil water.”
“That’s probably better than attracting the attention of anything that lives in Athan’Khar,” she replied.
“Yes, so the good Bishop said, and I can’t disagree.”
They were silent for a while, sipping tea and staring out into the dark. Schwartz occasionally stole glances at her from the corner of his eye, which Jenell did not fail to notice, and had to repress the smile it prompted. Meesie turned around three times atop his head before curling into a ball, snuggling down into a blond nest.
“Why are you here, Herschel?” she asked quietly.
He blinked. “Um…pardon? If you’d rather be alone, I can…”
“I mean out here, with us, on this fool’s errand.” Jenell half-turned to glance once more down into the courtyard, where Ildrin was now pacing back and forth a few yards from their sleeping companions, appearing to be having some kind of argument with herself. “The Bishop pointedly didn’t insist that anyone come, and yet…everyone did. And everybody is up to something. I don’t know what Ami’s after, but I know it’s something. I thought Ildrin was just trying to get in good with Basra for the sake of her career, but she’s putting up with far too much abuse for that, or for just thinking this is a thing worth doing. Somebody like Branwen Snowe never goes this far out of her way unless she sees an advantage in it for herself. So… What’s your motive?”
“What’s yours?” he replied quietly.
“I asked you first.”
He shrugged. “You did, but I’ve been wondering for a while. I, uh… Okay, honestly, I’m not the greatest at interpersonal stuff, but from watching you and the Bishop these last few days it’s like… You seem to have a strong loyalty to her, but also to…dislike her. Rather a lot.”
He glanced at her again, then cleared his throat awkwardly. “Well, um, we can just file that under none of my business.”
Jenell heaved a small sigh and took a little sip of tea. “This is why I’m asking. It really is none of your business and not something I care to discuss anyway, but… Part of me wants to. It’s been a very long time since I felt I could unburden myself. I hardly know you, but…”
He smiled fleetingly, giving her another long look, then cleared his throat again. “Well. Um…you’ll probably think it’s silly, but in the beginning…I was just looking to have an adventure. And honest-to-gods go out into the world and do things storybook kind of affair, y’know? You might not think it to look at me,” he added wryly, “but I’m usually a bookish sort.”
“I would never have imagined,” she said, deadpan.
He grinned. “Well, I always have been. My little sister’s forever climbing things and breaking things and scraping her knees. My father was an enchanter, very much a practical type, but his work had him traveling around the continent and he loved every minute of that. My mother was a drill sergeant in the Sixth Silver Legion before retiring to get married, and then became the sheriff of our town.” Schwartz sighed, and shrugged. “I mean, I like my life. I like myself. But I thought, just once, I should go out and see what it’s like. And just maybe gain some insight into what I’ve always been missing and why everybody else always seemed so into it. So when Sister Leraine asked for a fae specialist to travel around Viridill, I jumped.”
“And for that you’re…here?” Jenell shook her head. “Hershel, there’s adventure, and then there’s this.”
“Well, that was then,” he said quietly. “After… I mean, when Bishop Syrinx told us what she planned to do here… Come on, how could I leave then? I just… Well, apart from not wanting to be the designated coward, you guys need your fae expert on this affair. You, uh, girls. Women. Ladies… Damn it.” He groaned and clapped a hand to his face.
Jenell laughed softly. “I will forgive you; I don’t much care about that stuff anyway. Just be glad it was me here and not Ildrin.”
“I am,” he said, lowering his hand and staring down into the river below. Even in the darkness, she could see his cheeks color slightly.
There was another silence.
“Look,” he said awkwardly, half-turning toward her and setting his cup down on the battlements. “I, uh…I’m not very good at… And I don’t want you to think… I mean, it’s not like I really know you all that well and I get the sense you have your own stuff to deal with, and anyway I suppose I’m not the sort—I mean, what you prefer—not that I’m making assumptions—”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she muttered, thunking down her own cup and reaching out to grip the back of his neck. She drew herself close, lifting her head, and kissed him solidly on the mouth.
Schwartz stiffened, then shifted as if uncertain what to do with his hands, before settling them gently on her waist, where she couldn’t feel them through the armor. He didn’t seem very practiced at this. And yet…she felt no urge to let it stop.
They stood that way for what seemed a long time. Meesie squeaked, burying her little head in her paws and quivering.
Schwartz blinked rapidly a few times when they finally pulled apart, wearing a goofy half-smile that was somehow the most endearing thing she’d ever seen. Jenell bit her lower lip to suppress a similar expression, just looking up at his eyes.
Suddenly they widened, and his expression changed alarmingly. “Oh…crap.”
“Oh crap?” she said, her eyebrows shooting upward. “So help me, Herschel Schwartz, if you’re about to tell me you’ve just remembered you have a fiancee back home—”
“Jenell,” he said in a low but urgent tone, staring past her shoulder, “look.”
She turned, and froze, reflexively grasping her sword.
The flickering lights massing on the far bank of the river came from what looked like person-sized candle flames drifting slowly across the water, as well as from wispier, slightly more humanoid shapes in shades of luminous blue and green. The light they put off was enough to illuminate the familiar forms of water elementals rising from the river itself, and other creatures seemingly formed of wood and living plant matter. All these were slowly moving toward them across the river, while behind on the bank, lumbering shapes of stone and sand paced back and forth, unable or unwilling to enter the water.
“Herschel,” she said tersely, “are those…”
He narrowed his eyes in concentration, staring at the oncoming beings. “They’re…elementals. Lots of them, but ordinary ones, as far as I can tell. Not the denizens of Athan’Khar. Those are made of strange magic, and they’re rarely this quiet. I think our friend is coming to visit.”
“Keep an eye on this,” she said, stepping backward. “I’m going to go get the Bishop.”
Even as she spoke, an eerie glow rose up amid the trees beyond, a pale green light that seemed to have a shape of its own, creeping forward toward the water like mist. Jenell hesitated a moment longer, staring at this, then turned to descend the stairs as rapidly as she safely could.
She almost faltered a step on finding Basra upright and staring up at her, but continued on her way without pausing. In a moment she had reached the ground, and broke into a run for the last few steps to the campsite.
“Your Grace,” she said quietly, “there are elementals crossing the river toward us—lots of them, multiple kinds. Schwartz thinks they’re not Athan’Khar beasts, but agents of our opponent.”
“Finally,” Basra said with grim satisfaction, then brushed past Jenell without another word, heading for the stairs. Ildrin moved forward to join them, Ami and Branwen also rising to their feet. Clearly, no one had been able to rest.
They made the top of the wall rather crowded; it took a furious glare from Basra to make them all back off from her, several having instinctively tried to crowd around. They finally arranged themselves along the battlements, nervously watching the elementals approach. So far, the creatures were just moving toward them in no particular hurry. None of their behavior seemed aggressive, but there were a lot of them.
And that greenish, glowing mist kept coming. It drifted forward across the surface of the water now, rising upward in a single tower which rose to the height of their wall; as it neared them, its uppermost part swelled and shifted, twisting about languidly like a very slow cyclone.
Less then six feet from the wall, it stopped. All around it, the elementals halted their progress, too, a few on the narrow shore below the fortress wall, but most still drifting on the surface of the river. Only the water elementals seemed to manage this without effort, the rest having to slowly paddle against the current to stay in place.
A soft wind grew around them, shifting in time with the slow whirling of the shape atop the pillar of mist. The small cyclone began to glow more brightly, as if its swirling density obscured a more powerful light source within.
“So. At last we meet.”
The voice seemed to come from the air all around them rather than from the shape before them, but the light within the funnel pulsed in sync with its words.
“Welcome to Viridill,” Basra said calmly, folding her hands before her. “I’m glad you finally decided to address us in a civil manner.”
“I accept your reproach, Bishop,” the voice replied. It was distinctly unearthly, with a whispering quality that made its gender indistinguishable, but was as powerful as a shout. “Circumstance…restrains me. I had hoped some would seek out a parley. I had hoped it would be you.”
“And whom have I the pleasure of addressing?” she inquired.
The cyclone whirled faster for a moment, emitting a rapid pulsing of light that was not accompanied by words before replying. “You know me.”
“I assume that you are behind the recent arrival and activity of elementals in Viridill,” she said evenly. “I would like to know who you are.”
“You seek my name? My race? I wonder to what use you would put such information.”
“All of that is incidental,” said the Bishop. “What concerns us is your motives, and your intentions. Your behavior has been rather hostile up till now.”
“You think me hostile?”
“I shall be glad to speak to you at whatever length the conversation requires,” she said in perfect calm. “If you choose to indulge me by revealing your identity, perhaps I might know enough of the culture from which you come to address you in the courtesies to which you are accustomed. As it is, however, since you decline such a display of trust, I ask in turn that you refrain from wasting my time with riddles and wordplay.”
“Basra,” Branwen warned quietly. Basra held up a peremptory hand a mere few inches from her fellow Bishop’s face. Branwen edged backward from it, grimacing wryly.
Again, the cyclone whirled and pulsed; when it spoke, there was distinct amusement in its tone. “I perceive that I have insulted you. My apologies.”
“My feelings are not easy to bruise,” Basra replied. “It is actions that concern me. Your behavior toward Viridill has been quite hostile. I wonder if you realize how close you are to inviting the wrath of Avei.”
“You threaten me?”
“Let’s…not threaten him,” Schwartz said nervously.
“I warn you,” Basra corrected, shooting the witch a warning glare. “And I don’t imagine you are unaware of the repercussions of your actions thus far. I have come here in good faith, to exchange information and to negotiate if you are willing. I would know who you are if possible, but at the very least I must understand what you seek in order to determine how we might reach an accord.”
“Very good, then,” said the presence, expanding slightly. “We must discuss the future, and the past.”
“You have my attention,” the Bishop said with a very small smile.
“That’s really him?” Ildrin asked, staring at the misty tornado and furiously dry-washing her hands, which were hidden by the wide sleeves of her robe. “This is the person who’s been attacking us?”
“Falaridjad, hush,” Basra said curtly.
“I do not come to attack,” said the voice. “Amends shall be made for any harm done and insult given. I seek no quarrel with Avei or her faithful.”
“That’s good to hear,” said Basra, nodding deeply. “Would you explain what it is you intend?”
“What are you?” Ildrin demanded.
“I apologize for my subordinate,” Basra said smoothly, keeping her gaze fixed on the misty presence. “She is undisciplined and generally annoying, and will now remove herself to the courtyard below preparatory to being sent back to the Sisterhood and permanently barred from working with or near me ever again.”
“I’ve a better idea,” Ildrin said grimly, parting her hands. Something caught between them burst alight with a golden radiance that blinded everyone on the wall top.
“No!” Branwen shouted in horror. “Ildrin, don’t!”
Heedless, the priestess lunged forward, colliding with the battlements, and hurled forward the object she held. It blazed like a miniature sun, all the way till it reached the glowing cyclone atop the pillar of mist. As close as the figure was, it was no difficult throw.
Whatever the object had been erupted with a noise like shattering crystal, flaring so brightly that for a brief instant the whole seen was illuminated as if by high noon. Several of those gathered let out cries of surprise and dismay, which were quickly lost in the howl that tore itself out of the air all around them.
The pillar of mist twisted and writhed as if in pain, veins of golden light shooting down its length. All around, elementals burst into light as well, many letting out eerie cries of their own as they dissolved in a series of flashes. The light spread through the green mist, burning it away in patches; as the onlookers stared in horror, a golden haze tore through the entire expanse of mist, dissolving first the pillar and then working its way across the wide spread that hung over the water.
Like a fire racing along a fuse, it burned backward, incinerating mist as it went, the sparkling glow passing the death throes of the earth elementals on the shore. Beyond, it snaked off into the trees, marking a twisting path back through the forest, apparently toward the source of the mist.
“What did you do?!” Basrsa snarled, grabbing Ildrin by the collar and shaking her violently. “What have you done?”
“I’ve finished this,” the priestess retorted, seizing the Bishop’s wrists and staring back at her with an expression of savage, nearly mad satisfaction. “While you schemed and talked, I took action. Viridill is safe!”
“No, you fool,” Branwen said wearily. “You just doomed us all.”
“It’s dead!” Ildrin insisted. “You saw it! This is over now!”
“What WAS that?” Basra roared.
“Was that a shatterstone?” Schwartz demanded.
“It was,” Branwen said in a mournful tone.
“What is a shatterstone?” Basra snarled, practically spitting in rage.
“They’re used to defend Izarite temples from magical threats,” Schwartz said, frowning in evident confusion. “They sort of transmute other kinds of magic to the divine… One of my teachers would give her left arm to learn the secret of making them.”
“There’s no secret,” Branwen said, still staring at Ildrin in horror. “It’s one of Izara’s gifts. Ildrin, where did you get that?”
“It doesn’t matter!” Ildrin shouted, prying Basra’s hands loose from her collar and taking a step back from the furious Bishop. “It’s done now, and that thing is no more. We can go home as heroes!”
“Well, no,” said Schwartz, wide-eyed. “Those things don’t have nearly enough power to destroy a being strong enough to do what this one has been doing.”
Ildrin froze, staring at him. “…what?”
“That was a projection of some kind,” said Schwartz, shaking his head. “Why would someone so cagey and standoffish reveal themselves in person? You just mortally insulted him, is all. Assuming that trail followed all the way back to the source, you might even have hurt him somewhat.”
“You attacked a diplomat under a flag of truce, in violation of my orders,” Basra gritted. “And now, thanks to you, there will be no more talking from that creature. Now, it’s war. You’d better hope you die in the first engagements, Falaridjad, because you have my word before Avei that I’m going to make it my personal mission to destroy you as utterly as anyone has ever been as soon as we get back to Viridill.”
“I would very much like to know what you were doing with that shatterstone,” Branwen added with uncharacteristic coldness. “They are not given away outside the faith.”
“We have a more immediate problem,” Schwartz said nervously. “We’d better get going.”
“How rapidly can that creature get its act together and come after us?” Basra demanded, turning to him.
“That’s not what worries me,” he said, reaching up to pat Meesie, who stood on his shoulder, bristling like a scared cat. “Ildrin just launched a human-made magical effect that followed a path probably a good distance into Athan’Khar. If anything in there noticed—”
He broke off as a scream echoed in the distance. It came clearly from deep in the woods to the south, a long, ululating wail of mingled agony, sorrow and rage which carried on for a long span of seconds, longer than a human voice could have sustained such a cry. Worst of all, aside from that, it sounded very much as if it was human.
Immediately, another echoed it from the forest to the west, followed by still a third. Before they had faded, another chorus of voices rose, these eerie and unlike anything that could have come from the throat of a living thing.
To the south, distantly among the trees, pale lights began to flicker.
“Schwartz,” Basra said in sudden, icy calm, “can you freeze the river to the north for us to cross, and how fast?”
“Yes, and it will only take seconds,” he said, “though it won’t last long.”
“Long enough to cross?”
“I—if we hasten, yes.”
“Good. Get to it. Everyone, stay on his heels. We run.”
“Wait,” Ildrin said, wild-eyed. “The camp! I have to—”
Basra struck as fast as a rattlesnake, backhanding her across the face so hard she would have tumbled from the wall had Jenell not grabbed her collar.
“That’s a fine idea,” the Bishop said coldly. “You stay here and pack. Everyone whose lives matter, run.”