3006 years ago
Shiraki crept through the forest as quietly as he could—quietly enough that none of the mortal kind would have noted his passing, but that was not what concerned him. A fellow elf could have heard his approach, and he didn’t attempt to increase his stealth to obviate that risk. If he met other elves here, they would surely be equally cautious, and it was better that he find them before something else did.
He was not particularly worried. The demons were cunning, some of them, but there were no known types that could match an elf for stealth, at least not out in nature. Between his natural lightness and agility and his burgeoning shamanic skills, he would know of any demons in the area long before they knew of him. There had been no sign of any since he had been separated from the human alliance at the battle to the south.
The forest lay along the base of the Dragon Peaks, climbing the mountains until they became too steep and rocky to support trees, and fading away into the prairie to the west. He didn’t know if any help could be expected from the plains tribes; some had come to join the alliance, but those who hadn’t would probably insist on keeping to themselves. They had very likely retreated into the Golden Sea, anyhow.
There had been no known demon activity this far north; they were concentrated in Viridill, the Tyr Valley and the plains of the West, where humans lived. Elilial had shown herself willing to make use of whatever tools were available to her, but she concentrated her efforts as always on humankind. Groves too close to the battlefields had been burned, elves killed or displaced, but for the most part, those who chose not to participate had managed to flee.
Shiraki had little patience for such isolationism; they all had to live in the world. His mother had called him childish and hotheaded, and other less kind words, but he had chosen to actively resist the demons. Now, as he made his way northwest through the forest toward the meeting point, he kept his senses fully alert. The forest was filled with the songs of birds and insects, the chattering of squirrels; there was no hint of the enemy here. Even creeping invisibly, demonkind alarmed animals badly enough to create evidence of their passing. Still, he was wary of meeting humans who had sworn themselves to Elilial’s cause, and also on the lookout for fleeing refugees or potential allies he could bring to the meeting.
There were few other souls out on the road; he sensed several at a significant distance, and didn’t deem it worthwhile to divert to meet them. When he crossed the Old Road and beheld one of his own kind a dozen yards ahead, however, he paused.
Her slender build and upward-pointed ears caught his attention, and he stopped to study her closely. The woman wore a robe that barely qualified as such; it looked like it had been stitched together from old flour sacks. The stitching was fairly well-done and it fit her, but it was dirty and ragged to the point of falling apart. Most interestingly, she was trudging along the Old Road toward the north, away from elven territory, yet swiveling her head rapidly to stare at any source of noise as she went. In the few minutes that he silently watched, she gave wary attention to several songbirds, and jumped violently when a squirrel began chattering directly over her head.
Shiraki managed not to laugh, despite the inherent humor of the picture. Between the ragged attire—and, he now saw, the lack of shoes—and jumpy behavior, it seemed most likely this was a refugee. She doubtless did not need any further grief.
He turned, pacing slowly up the road toward her. He did not attempt to disguise his footfalls, though they were naturally light even for an elf’s. The woman’s attention was fixed on the squirrel, almost as if she’d never seen one before, and he got within six yards before she heard him and spun around.
She was rather pretty, even squinting suspiciously at him. Shiraki would not have admitted it, but while he had joined the effort against the demons out of a genuine desire to help, he entertained some daydreams of what might come of such adventures. For example, he was old enough to take a mate and interested in finding someone suitable. Coming across a woman of his own kind apparently in distress in the woods raised possibilities which he tried earnestly to ignore.
“Well met,” he said politely. “Are you in need of help?”
“Help?” she said carefully, as though unsure of the concept. “Help… I do not think so, no. I am also not in need of being robbed, thank you.”
Shiraki couldn’t help laughing, though he tried to stifle it when her lips narrowed further. “My apologies,” he said. “I certainly don’t intend to rob you. I simply thought you looked a little…ah…”
“Poorly dressed and lost?” she said dryly. She straightened from her defensive crouch, however, and her expression opened a little bit.
“Thank you, I was looking for a more polite way to say it,” he replied with a rueful smile. “Are you hungry? I have enough waybread to share.”
“No, thank you. I ate a…thing. An animal. Um, big, shaggy, four hooves…” She put both hands to her temples, forefingers extended, pantomiming horns.
“A…a bison?” he said, fascinated. How on earth had she grown up without learning what a bison was?
“If so, then yes,” the woman said, lowering her hands.
“You ate the whole thing?”
“Most. Some parts, they are not good for chewing. Others I am not sure what to do with.”
He nodded. “Well, that’s for the best; you should be fine for months with that much energy in your aura, unless you do a lot of magic. This is relatively stable country, but things are bad elsewhere; there is no telling how scarce food may be in the near future. Do you do magic?”
“Why do you ask?” she demanded, expression suddenly suspicious again.
“Mere curiosity,” he said, then placed a hand on his chest and bowed. “I am Shiraki.”
She mouthed his name ostentatiously, eyes losing focus, as though afraid she would immediately forget it.
“And,” he prompted gently after a moment, “you are…?”
Her gaze sharpened, snapping back to his face.
“I am what?”
“What is your name?” he asked, grinning. This was possibly the most surreal conversation he’d ever had, but he sensed no threat from her.
“Name,” she mused, her eyes drifting. “My name? Hm…”
“You’ve forgotten?” he asked, his grin broadening.
She narrowed her eyes at him. “…you can call me Arachne.”
“Well met,” he said again. “Are you traveling anywhere in particular, if I may ask?”
“You may ask,” she said, then turned and pointed up the road. “That way, I guess. I am not lost.”
“No,” she said emphatically. “I do not know where I am, but I also do not know where I am going, and I have no schedule. So… Maybe very lost. I do not feel lost.”
He couldn’t keep the bemused smile off his face; it was all he could do to withhold the barrage of questions he wanted to ask. Arachne was the most puzzling individual he had ever met. She spoke elvish like someone who had learned it in a dwarven university: stiltedly formal, with a truly inexplicable accent and occasional lapses in grammar.
“Well,” he said, “this is the Old Road, skirting the narrow area between the Golden Sea and the Dragon Peaks.” He pointed at the mountains to the west, visible through the trees. “Further north it comes out onto the plains, then the desert, and if you follow it all the way you’ll eventually come to the Dwarnskold mountain range. The subterranean dwarven kingdoms are beneath that.”
“Eugh,” she said, making a face. “I do not want to go beneath anything. I was in Tar’naris…briefly. It was more than enough. You mention a sea? I have not seen one of those yet.”
“Well… The Golden Sea is just a name. It’s actually a prairie.”
She snorted. “Then why call it a sea? That is confusing.”
“I agree,” Shiraki said. “Unfortunately, if you don’t wish to go underground, this road doesn’t lead anywhere useful. The Dwarnskolds are all but impassable, and there’s nothing beyond them anyway but the ocean.”
“Hm. Where are you going?” she demanded.
He hesitated. She was an odd duck, to be sure, but nothing about her suggested she was in league with the enemy. They had spies, but only among the humans. No elf would aid the forces of Hell.
“I’m meeting up with some allies in the mountains not far from here,” he said after a moment. “The force of humans I was attempting to help were overrun by demons. I spirited a few away, but it was all I could do. I need to get news and orders and figure out how to proceed. Everything is in chaos at the moment.”
“Demons?” she said sharply.
Shiraki nodded slowly. “Yes, demons. Are you not aware of the war in the south?”
“I am aware there is a war,” she said carefully. “No one has explained it to me and I did not hang around and ask. Other people’s wars are not my trouble. A war with demons?”
“Elilial has launched a major incursion,” he said, frowning. “The humans have suffered serious losses, entire kingdoms overrun. Those remaining have help from the elves, and even the orcs. This has been going on for three years. Where have you been?”
“Not here,” she murmured, then nodded as if deciding something. “Very good, if it is demons, that is a different thing. I can help you to fight! Let us go see your friends.”
“I suppose I can bring you to the meeting,” he said slowly. “We are certainly in no position to turn down allies. It’s not far from here, just into the foothills. Less than a day.”
“Good,” she said decisively. “You lead, then.”
“Are you…sure you want to?” he asked. “With all respect, you don’t look to be in fighting shape. There is certainly no disgrace in finding a safe place to hide, if you are not a soldier.”
“Not only soldiers can fight,” she said cryptically. “This talking is not you leading the way, Chucky.”
“Shiraki,” he enunciated, frowning.
“Yes, I said that. Which way?”
He sighed, but nodded to her and stepped off into the bushes. “Northwest, this way. The walk is mostly uphill. Be certain, though; once we reconnect with the group, we’ll be out in the wilderness, and likely proceeding straight from there to another battle. You may not have another chance to back away.”
“I am doing nothing important anyhow,” she said, following him. “It is worthwhile to help, it seems to me. I do not like demons.”
He laughed again, in spite of himself. “Nobody likes demons.”
“Really?” Arachne chuckled. “You have met everybody?”
Shiraki glanced back at her. “After today, I think I may have.”
They made excellent time, reaching the rendezvous point in a sheltered hollow at the foot of a low peak not long after sunset. Shiraki hadn’t been certain what to expect upon arriving; who made it to the meeting would depend a great deal upon how things went in other parts of the front. He was pleased to see almost half a dozen humans and elves, but less pleased to find them under the de facto leadership of his least favorite Elder.
“And you brought her here?” Elder Sheyann said disapprovingly, her hair ruffling slightly in the faint magical wind that kept their conversation private. Such tricks were a necessity when one wished to speak behind the backs of about elves who were close enough to be seen. After everyone had exchanged greetings and preliminary news, she and Vaisza had pulled Shiraki aside to discuss his new companion, who was down below, talking with Mervingen the wizard in her off-kilter elvish while Lord Kraanz looked on, bemused.
“She was willing to help,” Shiraki said, trying not to sound defensive. “Can we afford to turn down allies? Besides, the alternative was to leave her wandering in the forest. Elder…I’m not entirely certain she’s right in the head. I don’t think it would have been right to just leave her behind.”
“If she is unstable enough to be a threat to herself in the forest,” Sheyann said with an edge to her tone, “what makes you think bringing her into a war is in any way a kindness?”
“I’m not certain she is,” he said, straining for patience. “All I know for certain is that she wants to fight the demons.”
“You know nothing for certain, Shiraki,” Sheyann said in exasperation. “She told you she wants to attend this meeting and join our cause. This unknown and frankly weird individual who turns up in the middle of a war? A war against a foe who is the embodiment of cunning? Surely I don’t need to explain to you what a spy is, young man.”
“I’m not wrong, then?” Vaisza interjected in her lightly accented elvish. “That elf is rather…peculiar?” The Huntress tilted her head, directing her gaze at Shiraki.
“You don’t know the half of it,” he said fervently, glad of the opportunity to wiggle out from under Sheyann’s interrogation. “I don’t know where she learned to speak, but I have never heard an accent like that. And the whole walk up here, she made me identify every tree, bush, bird and insect we saw. She didn’t know what any of them were. A wood elf! It’s as if she fell from the moon or something.”
“Hm,” Vaisza murmured, frowning at Arachne, who seemed to be having a conversation with Kraanz now, with Mervingen serving as translator. It was hardly a surprise that she knew no human tongues, considering that she barely seemed to know elvish. “I hardly think she is a spy, then, Elder.”
“Oh?” Sheyann raised an eyebrow.
“The central role of a spy is to avoid notice,” the Silver Huntress explained. “A spy would craft a role that we would recognize, and do everything possible to resemble something we understand well, so as not to court our attention. This… Being an odd, out of place figure whose very presence raises questions, this is not good espionage. Elilial is too crafty to make such a blunder, and doesn’t employ agents who make such blunders. No, I suspect she is exactly what she claims to be.”
“And what does she claim to be?” Sheyann asked pointedly, turning back to Shiraki.
He shrugged. “She doesn’t seem to want to talk about her past. Believe me, I asked. The woman is barefoot and dressed like a knapsack; it’s not hard to imagine she’s running from something of which she doesn’t care to be reminded.”
“Hm,” Sheyann murmured. “And she was on the road north, from Viridill?”
“Yes. She mentioned Tar’naris, too; she had been in the south, but didn’t know what the war was about, so she can’t have been there long. She also didn’t know where the road led. Honestly, Elder, she doesn’t seem to know anything. It’s like talking with a child in a woman’s body. A rather sharp-tongued child,” he added ruefully.
Sheyann shifted, letting the wind vanish, and he half-turned to follow her gaze. Arachne was coming toward them.
“Hello!” she said, waving. “You have decided I am not a secret monster now?”
Sheyann smiled slightly. “Not conclusively.”
Arachne grinned. “Heh. I like you. I have been told the news by these humans, why there is war. Very strange thing for Elilial to do, is it not? But obviously, no, she cannot be let to do this. I very much see the purpose of stopping her. But why are we here in the mountains, when the demons are way far south?”
Elder Sheyann glanced at Vaisza before replying. “At the core of the matter is that an armed invasion is very uncharacteristic of Elilial; she is the goddess of cunning.”
“Yes.” Arachne nodded. “I know who she is.”
“The war, we believe, is a false front,” Sheyann continued, folding her hands. “War breeds chaos; it makes the perfect cover for any number of nefarious activities. We, and others who have organized together for this purpose, are trying to ascertain her true motive, and thwart it.”
“Ah!” Arachne grinned. “Very clever! I like it! I think I am perhaps less helpful than I thought if this is the case, though,” she added more thoughtfully. “I am good at fighting, and good at scheming, but to scheme well one must know the situation and the territory, yes? I do not know very much about how things are, here.”
“We’re glad of any help anyone is willing to offer,” Shiraki assured her. Sheyann gave him a long look.
“This group is only planning to stay here another day,” Vaisza added. “We cannot afford to waste time; others have yet to report in, but we must lay plans and continue moving. Tomorrow we will hold our meeting and decide our next steps, and must proceed without anyone who has not arrived by then. The goddess grant that they are only delayed,” she added more quietly.
“Goddess?” Arachne perked up visibly. “Which?”
Vaisza blinked. “Which…goddess? I am a Silver Huntress. I serve Avei.”
“Oh,” Arachne said, disappointed. “I do not need that one… Ah well. I will look around, if we are going to wait until tomorrow.” She turned and meandered off toward the front of their little valley, where they had a view over the darkened forest and the plains beyond.
“Did she just say what I thought I heard?” Vaisza demanded.
“Yes,” Elder Sheyann said with a sigh, “and no, I have no more idea than you what it meant. What a fine catch you’ve brought us, Shiraki.”
He sighed and walked away from her. It was a risky degree of rudeness to show an Elder, but his patience was wearing out. Really, of all the people to be stuck in the mountains with… He dearly hoped Elder Onnaue was all right.
“So you have decided to trust her, though?” Vaisza asked behind him.
“I have decided not to chase her away,” Sheyann replied. “It makes sense to be up-front with her about things she will inevitably learn anyway.”
“Good evening, Lord Kraanz,” he said politely in Tanglic to the burly human as they passed each other.
Kraanz paused, glancing over his shoulder at Arachne, who had wandered toward the edge of the valley where it descended in a sharp incline toward a mountain trail below. “Interesting find, there, lad,” he said, straightening the bearskin draped over his shoulders. “A word of advice: if you go picking up every pretty pair of legs you come across, sooner rather than later you’ll find yourself holding an armful of crazy.”
“I’ll keep it in mind,” Shiraki said gravely, concealing his amusement. Arachne had recently given him some practice at that. “I wonder, since you have raised the subject… You’ve spent time in Tar’naris, is that not correct?”
“Aye, it is,” the man replied with a grin that showed several missing teeth. “Twice as a raider and once as a slave. There was some overlap, there.”
Shiraki nodded. “I’m trying to figure out where our guest hails from—she has a most peculiar manner of speech. Tell me, does it resemble the drow accent, to your ear?”
“Fraid I’m of little help to you, lad,” Kraanz said with a shrug. “I can’t make much sense of your tongue. Didn’t sound overly familiar when she talked, but I’d not swear I’d recognize the jabbering of the drow who used to prod me with a whip, either.”
“I see,” Shiraki murmured. Well, it had just been a thought. What were the odds she could have come from Tar’naris, of all places? Peculiar enough that she had been there at all; the drow had little use for their surface cousins even as slaves.
“Hey,” Arachne said suddenly from up ahead. “Are we expecting sneaky enemies? Because I think that bird is a person.”
“Where?” Sheyann demanded, striding past Shiraki and Kraanz toward the edge of the valley.
“There,” Arachne replied, pointing out into the darkness. “Little black bird.”
“What’s she saying?” Kraanz demanded.
“She sees a suspicious bird,” Shiraki explained, his eyes on the two women.
“She sees a bird? In the dark?”
“Look at its aura,” Arachne was saying. “Way, much too huge for a little bird. But also concealed, so you do not notice unless you are looking.”
“You’re right,” Sheyann noted. “I see it now, too. It would be suspicious enough, anyway. Crows do not fly at night.”
Crows? Shiraki felt mingled hope and trepidation well up.
“It is called a crows?”
“Crow.” The Elder half-turned to give Arachne an unreadable look. “In the singular, a crow. How did you happen to notice its aura? You’re right, it’s barely perceptible; one would have to be looking closely.”
“Because you know it is a crow,” she replied quietly, still staring at the bird. Shiraki could see it now, too, coming straight toward them. “You see something you understand, and you do not look closer. Me, I must look at everything. Someday I will understand what everything is and be as blind as everyone else. Or dead.” She shrugged. “It is all one, I suppose.”
The crow cawed hoarsely as it approached, swinging down into the valley, where it settled to the ground a few feet from them. Suddenly it was not a bird standing there, but an elf woman in battered leather armor, with black hair tied back in a taut braid.
“Kuriwa,” Sheyann said, permitting open relief into her tone. “Well met. What news?”
“Little, I’m afraid, and not overly bright,” replied the shaman. “I am pleased to see you safe, Sheyann. And Shiraki.” She nodded to each of the humans in turn before settling an inquisitive look upon Arachne.
“Hello!” the new arrival said brightly.
“This,” Sheyann said in a careful tone, “is a new associate Shiraki found. Kuriwa, meet Arachne.”
“Indeed.” Kuriwa narrowed her eyes. “The pleasure is mine…Arachne.”
“I guess so?” she replied, tilting her head. “You have a suspicious look. Does everyone think I am going to poison them?”
“Forgive me,” Kuriwa said smoothly. “Matters being as they are, I have grown mistrustful of surprises. As I said, my friends, the news is not good. The Circle seems to have been discovered by Elilial’s forces. Her Black Wraiths have moved against several of those we have placed within the human lands she has overtaken.”
“That is grim news indeed,” Sheyann said, frowning.
“What is she saying?” Kraanz demanded. Shiraki stepped over next to him and began translating in a low tone while Kuriwa continued.
“Talivar, Lady Keress and Noslin I have confirmed slain. I was able to reach Misareth in time to extract her from Caladel, but I was not so fortunate upon trying to rescue Anzar.” She sighed. “He…will live, I believe, but the Wraiths used a poison on him of infernal make. Unless this war drags out longer than we can permit it to, his part in it is over.”
“Bloody hell,” Kraanz cursed. Vaisza was already whispering prayers for the dead.
“We clearly must change our strategy, then,” said Sheyann.
“Yes,” Kuriwa agreed, nodding. “I have come to propose a new one. The Wraiths are now hunting us; I suggest we retreat, and let them think they are driving us away.”
Shiraki paused in his translating to ask, “What earthly good could that do?”
“These Wraiths,” said Arachne. “They…hide? Like your Circle?”
Kuriwa gave her another piercing look. “They are Elilial’s cult among the humans. Yes, they must hide themselves.”
“Ah,” she said, nodding. “A good plan, then, Chucky. We play the easy targets, they come out to chase us, yes?”
“That is my hope,” Kuriwa said.
“It’s pronounced Shiraki,” Sheyann murmured.
“Shee-rah-kee,” Arachne said carefully. “Thought I was saying that. Sorry, Chucky.”
He sighed heavily and went back to translating for Kraanz. Mervingen tried to bury a chuckle under a cough.
“Retreat to where, then?” Vaisza asked.
“Initially, here,” said Kuriwa. “This rendezvous point is far from the front and easily secured. When more have gathered, I wish to send an expedition to Svenheim, since we are close to the road leading there.”
“That’s all but asking us to leave the field entirely,” Vaisza said sharply.
“For the time being, yes,” Kuriwa agreed. “But it is an action toward specific purpose—two of them. Recruiting the dwarves to the cause will be a major victory; Elilial’s numbers are already flagging, but so are the human armies. Another mortal force will turn the tide. Additionally, being such a valid tactic, it is a believable reason for the Circle to pull back, and also a solid provocation for the Wraiths to pursue us.”
“Clever,” Arachne mused.
“Yes,” said Sheyann, watching Kuriwa closely. “I could see this plan working, perhaps.”
“It is not all quite so simple as that, of course,” Kuriwa said. “Rather than leaving you to cool your heels in the mountains for weeks, I mean to gather the others here myself. That…will be difficult.”
“You are surely not considering bringing them through the place between places,” Sheyann said sharply.
“Desperate times,” Kuriwa said with a shrug. “Desperate measures.”
“I would think carefully about just how desperate we are!”
“I have,” the shaman said, meeting her stare. “Am I known to take risks unless they are needful?”
The Elder sighed. “What do you need from us, then?”
“Merely to hold this position, and prepare it. There will soon be more people here—they will be tired and likely quite stressed. Can you gather some food, prepare medicines and places to rest?”
“We can do this,” Sheyann nodded, glancing around at the others. “It will be much better than simply counting the hours.”
“Game is not plentiful here,” Vaisza offered, “but I can begin hunting.”
“None for me, if that helps,” said Arachne. “I ate a bison not long ago.”
The Huntress whipped her head around to stare at her. “What do you mean, you ate a bison?!”
“I don’t know.” She cocked her head, turning to Shiraki. “That is what Chucky said it was.”
He sighed, as did Sheyann; Kuriwa just stared at her blankly. It wasn’t exactly a secret, but elves did not prefer to discuss their metabolism with humans, whose process for taking in and storing energy was entirely biological. As a consequence, they had to eat virtually all the time, or risk starvation. The elvish way of turning large quantities of food into energy for long periods of time was, of course, far more efficient, but pointing out to humans the ways in which they were inferior seldom led to productive discussions.
“If you are agreed to this,” Kuriwa said, “I will proceed to the others. Time is of the essence.”
“Travel safely,” said Sheyann, bowing. Kuriwa nodded in return, then ascended on a flutter of dark wings.
“Not much for socializing, is she?” Kraanz commented.
Elder Sheyann sighed again. “It seems we have some work to do, my friends. For now, though, I suggest we rest. All this will be better approached in the daylight.”
Almost immediately after breakfast he was already regretting the entire situation. Somehow, with demons on the rampage, the Black Wraiths stalking their allies and a mission to the mysterious dwarven kingdoms looming ahead, Shiraki found himself gathering firewood. Well, it wasn’t quite as dull as it could have been, considering the “help” he had been assigned.
“And…this one will become a tree?”
“It is a tree,” he said patiently. “That’s a sapling, a juvenile tree. Leave it alone; there’s not enough there to burn properly, and it’s better to let it mature into a full-sized pine.”
“How long will that take?” Arachne asked.
“Hmph. We need wood now.”
“Nature is not always accommodating,” he said gravely. Her ignorance of absolutely everything had long since ceased to be charming and was, by this point, no longer even funny. She really was becoming an aggravation.
“How long until this one turns into a tree?”
“That is a rose bush,” he said wearily. “That’s about as big as they get. It’s not the right season, but the flowers are—don’t put your hand in there! It has thorns!”
“This is annoying,” she said, retreating from the rose bush and glaring at it suspiciously. “We are just to gather wood that has fallen off branches? This will take forever.”
“This is just for our campfire,” Shiraki said, picking up another stick and tucking it under his arm with the others. “When we get to gathering stores of wood for when the others arrive, we’ll need tools to fell one of these trees. One should be plenty for our needs.”
“Shiraki,” she said quietly.
“You got it right,” he said in surprise, turning to her. She was staring grimly past him, however. He followed her gaze and immediately dropped his meager armful of firewood.
The woman who had appeared silently among the trees might have passed for a slender human as far as most of her features went. Even the hooves were not a complete deal-breaker; there were a number of fairly common curses that had that effect. Her hair, though, was a sleek sheet of orange fire, hanging down her back and trailing along the ground behind, where it somehow did not set the underbrush alight. Her eyes, too, were infinite pits of flame.
He drew his tomahawk and belt knife, stepping in front of his companion. “Arachne, get back. Go find Elder Sheyann.”
“That’s very noble of you…Shiraki, was it?” The woman’s voice was like a choir, like a dozen women speaking in harmonious unison. “But there is no need to be so hostile. Why don’t we have a calm, quiet discussion?”
“Arachne, go,” he said urgently. “We’ve nothing to gain by dallying with demon filth.”
She moved faster than even an elf could track. One moment he was standing in front of Arachne; the next, the woman’s fingers were around his neck. They were far too long and had far too many joints, encircling his throat and beginning to squeeze off his air supply. He struck at her arm with both weapons, to absolutely no effect.
“You are a rude little knife-ear,” she said calmly. “And for your edification, it’s archdemon.”
“Excuse me,” Arachne said tersely, “he cannot breathe. Let go of his neck, please.”
The archdemon turned her head, examining the elf. “I thought you were told to fetch the Elder? Go do that. I believe it is she with whom I wish to—”
A sudden wind howled through the forest, bringing with it the incongruous scents of flowers, fresh water and moist earth. The demon’s fiery hair was sent streaming out behind her and she grimaced, relaxing her grip somewhat. Shiraki gasped for breath.
“The Elder is here,” Sheyann snapped, striding toward them. “Unhand the boy and say your piece, demon, then go. I’ve no patience for your kind.”
“Just so,” the demon said, grinning unpleasantly. She had extremely large fangs. “But I think I will hold onto him for a few moments more, yes? Otherwise, what motivation have you to be polite with me? I am Invazradi, third daughter of the Queen of Hell, and I have been following this elf-pup for days. Now that we are all here, I believe we should discuss this little…Circle of yours.”
“Done asking politely,” Arachne announced, pointing a finger at the archdemon.
The entire world rang like a bell.
Shiraki found himself lying on his back in the carpet of fallen pine needles, blinking and gasping for breath while waiting for his vision to clear. He was free of the demon’s grasp, however. Raising his head, he beheld Arachne, still with her arm held out, and Sheyann staring at her with an expression of shock that would have been quite gratifying under less dire circumstances.
The pine tree into which Invazradi had been slammed finished toppling with a crash, while the archdemon got back to her hooves, glaring murder at Arachne.
“That,” she snarled. “Was. A mistake.”
“Why?” the elf asked innocently. “I did not miss.”
Invazradi struck with that impossible speed again, but rebounded off a sphere of blue light that sprang into being around Arachne with her impact. She staggered backward, and Arachne made a sharp gesture with her fist.
A glowing cobalt orb materialized above and slammed downward, smashing the archdemon into the forest floor.
“I am trying to be nice to people,” Arachne said in a conversational tone, making complex motions with her fingers. Threads of blue light snaked out from her hands to twine about Invazradi’s hooves as she tried to get up again. In the next moment, the shrieking demon found herself suspended upside down in midair, her glowing hair trailing among the fallen needles. “I am alone in a new place and it is hard to make friends. But you, big girl, I think you can take it, yes?”
Shiraki scrambled back to his feet, scuttling around behind Sheyann before he realized he’d done so. The Elder, for her part, planted herself between him and the sorceress and archdemon, arms spreading slightly as if to make a barrier with her own body.
Sorceress. He could identify, now that he had time to think, the distinctive prickle of arcane magic being used. She was clearly far more powerful than Mervingen, or any mage he’d encountered. How?
“My mother will have your hide in strips to make bootlaces!” Invazradi howled as more blue threads bound her arms to her sides.
“Your mother does not wear boots,” Arachne said reasonably. “You did not get those stompers from papa. Now, you go back to her, and give my compliments, yes? And also a message. I will not like to have to spank anymore of her badly behaving brats, please.”
“No,” said a new voice, and Kuriwa stepped out from behind a tree. In her hand was a spear with a golden haft, its head a single carved piece of crystal. The entire thing put off a subtle light that drove away every shadow in their vicinity without seeming to glare upon the eyes. “Now that she has finally shown her face, she need not carry a message. She will be one.”
“No,” Invazradi whispered, sounding truly unnerved now. Her glowing eyes were locked on the spear.
“You… Kuriwa, you conniving snake,” Sheyann hissed. “Was this what you were after this whole time?”
“One thing,” the shaman said mildly, striding forward. “Thank you, Arachne. Hold her steady, please.”
“Do not come any closer, please,” Arachne replied. “And put that thing somewhere else. Our point is made; she goes home, now.”
“No,” Kuriwa said icily, “she does not.”
With a soft whoosh of wings, yet another figure descended through the trees, landing lightly beside them. “All right, everyone, that’s just about enough of that,” she said cheerfully. Shiraki heard a soft whimper, only belatedly realizing it came from himself. The new woman had the same polyphonic voice and hellfire-filled eyes as Invazradi. She had birdlike talons for feet, though, and her hair was an ordinary if glossy black. Wings spread from behind her shoulders, feathered like a bird’s in shades of deep purple and midnight blue, though small claws were visible at their joints.
“Azradeh!” Invazradi squealed. “Help!”
“You shut up,” the second archdemon said disdainfully. “You’re an embarrassment. Now, if you would be so kind as to release my sister?” she added directly to Arachne.
“You take your sister and you go very much away, this is clear?” the sorceress said severely. “We are having a nice little camping in the woods. Only with friends. She is rude.”
“Yes, sorry about that,” Azradeh said with a wry grin. She, too, had vicious fangs. “For what it’s worth, had this gone at all the way she planned you would all be dead without having to listen to her.”
“I hate you so much,” Invazradi snarled.
“Yes, yes,” Azradeh said soothingly, patting her leg. “The bindings, please?”
Arachne considered the two of them thoughtfully for a moment, then flicked her fingers. The blue threads instantly vanished and Invazradi plummeted to the ground with a strangely musical squawk.
“Now, let us all get along, yes?” Arachne said mildly. “The crow lady over there, I think she is here to murder somebody. I have a feeling it is not her first time, no?”
“Quite,” Azradeh said, nodding gravely. “And then, of course, there’s you.”
“Yes,” Arachne replied, holding her gaze. “There is me.”
“So, nobody gets what they wanted, but everybody gets to live another day. An acceptable compromise. Come, sister, we should find a private place for me to chew you out before I hand you over to Mother. Honestly, how you contrive yourself into these debacles is beyond my imagining.”
Invazradi glared at her, then panned her hateful stare around at the elves, finally settling on Shiraki.
“I will see you again,” she promised, then took two steps backward and vanished abruptly, leaving behind a puff of sulfur-scented smoke.
Azradeh tilted her head in a way that showed she was rolling her eyes, despite her lack of visible pupils, then disappeared in the same manner.
There was a moment of silence.
“That was a good plan,” Arachne said finally. “You are lucky I am so disagreeable, Kuriwa. I do not think you and your spear could have matched for two of them.”
“Quite,” the shaman said curtly. “I suppose I should thank you for that. Though had the second not intervened, you would simply have botched the only chance we are ever likely to see to remove an archdemon from the playing field!”
Arachne tilted her head inquisitively, glanced at Sheyann and then back at Kuriwa. “Have you met Elilial?”
“I’ve not had the pleasure,” the shaman said dryly.
“I have,” Arachne said firmly, “and I am happier being not her new hobby. The archdemons, they are her children, this is true? You kill the goddess’s child, she comes after you with everything she can bring. I would maybe be willing to make Avei this angry with me, but Elilial? That is not a clean death. She will make you watch as everything you love is slowly torn to shreds before allowing you to die. If she is in a hurry.”
“And while she was doing that,” Kuriwa said in exasperation, “she would be distracted, focused away from her main goal and open to attack! I am willing to bring that upon myself if it means the opportunity to remove the dark goddess from the mortal plane permanently.”
“You, I note, were not the only person here,” Sheyann said sharply. “You would not hold the entirety of the blame in her eyes. How very strategic for you to make that choice on behalf of the rest of us, Kuriwa.”
“Yes. Well, anyway,” said Arachne, bending to pick up one of Shiraki’s fallen sticks. “You two have things to discuss, so I will leave you to do that. Obviously the plans must change again. Do we still need firewood? I would hate to have gone stomping in the woods for nothing. My feet have become very disgusting.”
Later, the two elders watched from a higher peak, ostensibly keeping a lookout for more demons, while the party below packed away the meager camp, preparing to set off for a new, hopefully more secure location. Their chosen vantage was angled such that the wind made them inaudible even to the elven ears below.
“If you are sure,” Sheyann said quietly. “It still seems awfully risky to me.”
“I am willing to risk my own safety at need,” Kuriwa replied. She was seated cross-legged on a boulder, hands folded in her lap. “I promise you, I am more careful with the lives of others. The groundwork was laid beforehand; Elilial’s wrath would have fallen entirely upon me. Well. It was not a total loss. Those two have learned a little humility and may be less aggressive… And I did go to the trouble of retrieving the spear. Perhaps I will give it to a Hand of Avei. It can still do some good against the demons.”
“Hm,” the other woman said noncommittally. For a few minutes, they gazed down in silence. Eventually, though, she spoke again. “I hardly know what to make of that…sorceress. She seems by turns childlike, insane, and…terrifying. Does anything she’s said ring familiar to you? I can’t help feeling I would know more if I could place that accent…”
“She troubles me,” Kuriwa whispered.
Sheyann looked over at her, narrowing her eyes. “You sound as if you mean that quite sincerely. She is a mystery, yes, a potentially alarming one. What is it you know that I don’t, Kuriwa?”
The elder shaman shook her head slowly. “Little that is conclusive. Just enough to raise many unsettling questions. I know what the word arachne means. Or what it once did.”
Sheyann raised an eyebrow.
Still staring down at the group below, Kuriwa continued softly. “In the aftermath of the Elder War, there was a celestial game of round-the-bush. The Pantheon banished Elilial to Hell, first of all. Within two centuries, she organized a coup and in turn removed Scyllith, banishing her to the mortal plane, and specifically the depths of the Underworld. Meanwhile, Themynra, foreseeing these events, had insinuated herself into the realms of the drow, converting all those near the surface to her worship and creating a barrier between Scyllith and our lands, leaving Scyllith with nothing to do but suborn the remaining drow.”
She turned her head to gaze directly at Sheyann. “Two Elder gods survive to this day… But there were three not slain by the Pantheon, and one whose fate is not known. Before Scyllith and Themynra divided them up between themselves, the drow worshiped a goddess of many arms and many eyes. What became of her, I can only guess. Nor do I know the fate of the last spider priestesses.”
Sheyann had fallen totally still. Kuriwa sighed softly, turning again to look down at the valley.
“Show her kindness, Sheyann.”
“Of…of course,” the Elder said, shaking herself lightly as if rousing from a dream. “I would do so for any soul who needed—”
“No,” Kuriwa said firmly. “You would be kind to any soul in need. Show her kindness. If several of the possibilities I see are true, she may not understand, at first, what it is. We may all be in a great deal of trouble if she does not learn.”
Below, while Shiraki folded tent canvas into bundles, Arachne paused in her own packing to turn and look directly up at the two elders. Before turning her back to them again, she smiled.