Tag Archives: Branwen Snowe

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Home.

Not that it hadn’t been an enlightening and immensely beneficial trip, but he was a creature of the city; walking the streets of Tiraas again was like regaining a part of himself that he had stopped noticing was absent. Even now, strolling placidly through the fairly upper-class Steppe neighborhood in his robes of office, Darling felt more at ease than he could remember in a long time. He’d found the time for a quick jaunt around some of his old haunts as Sweet, but apart from that he’d been largely buried under a backlog of work. Now, on his way to the Cathedral yet again, he’d chosen to go by foot, and to take a long detour that let him see more of the city than was strictly necessary.

It was worth it. Worth it on its own merits, and proved even more so as he discovered when he found himself outside a discreet old brownstone building with a familiar sub-level entrance and a tasteful sign out front. Familiar, though he’d only seen it once.

Darling paused, contemplating this. Well, he’d allotted himself plenty of time to amble, anyway, and it wasn’t as if this place would have been visible to him without very specific reason. A quick glance up and down the street revealed that he was completely alone, itself an odd and suggestive thing considering this hour of the morning.

With a shrug and a smile, he paused only to run a hand over his carefully combed hair, then descended the steps and opened the door to the Elysium.

The bar was just as he remembered: expensive, quiet, and mostly empty. In fact, it was considerably more empty this time, being that he was apparently the only patron. The only other individual present was a swarthy, shaggy-haired man standing behind the bar, idly wiping out a glass with a white rag.

“Top of the mornin’, Antonio!” Eserion called cheerfully, waving to him. “C’mon in, have a seat. Punaji Sunrise, right?”

“Now, now, that’s just to intimidate the party-going set,” Darling said easily, permitting none of the torrent of curiosity he felt near his face or voice. He strolled forward and slid onto a stool near the bartender, but positioned so that he could still see the door. “Generally I prefer a brandy, but c’mon. It’s not even noon. And I’ve got to go wrangle priests today.”

Eserion chuckled obligingly. “Fine, fine, I guess you’ll be wanting to keep your wits intact for that. Hot tea it is, then.”

Despite the lack of any stove or heating element, he produced a steaming pot and deftly poured a cup, which smelled bewitchingly of jasmine and vanilla.

“Oh, my,” Darling mused, lifting the porcelain cup and inhaling deeply. “That’s the good stuff. Smells like the boudoir of the most expensive lady I ever carried on with.”

“They serve this blend down at Marcio’s Bistro,” the god replied lightly, again polishing an already-clean glass. “Have you tried the food there?”

“I have, in fact, at their grand reopening. It tends toward the spicy, doesn’t it? Not necessarily to my taste. But then, that was at the dinner hour, and they were serving wine. I might just pop in every now and again for tea if this is what they have on offer.”

“Give the food a chance,” Eserion said with a mild smile. “It’s more zesty than spicy; not a combination of flavors one gets to sample much in Tiraas these days.”

“Indeed,” Darling said lightly. “I have it on good authority the cuisine there is a pretty good approximation of something no one has seen in eight thousand years or so.”

“Better authority than you may know. How was your trip?”

“Fantastic, thanks. Also…puzzling. I guess it just wouldn’t be fair if I got answers without picking up a dozen more questions along the way.”

“Well.” Eserion winked. “There’s really only one good thing you can do with a question, isn’t there?”

Darling lifted the teacup and took a careful sip, watching him. The god simply gazed back, wearing a disarming smile.

“Why thieves?” he asked at last. “Of all the things you could be patron of. What made you pick…this?”

Eserion’s smile widened momentarily, then he coughed and winked, setting down the glass and rag to fold his arms and lean back against the shelves behind him.

“The truth? The real truth? I’d advise you not to repeat this, Antonio, but… None of this was supposed to happen. The plan was to wreck ascension, not use it. We weren’t trying to turn into gods, all we wanted to do was bring them down. As usual with complex plans, it all went right straight to shit and we had to improvise. And those of us who ended up with godhood? Well, not one of us was prepared for it. A good few weren’t even part of the resistance. Naphthene owned a boat some of us had used; Sorash was a mercenary thug who happened to be nearby. Shaath… Ah, that poor bastard. All he wanted to do was field work, studying the wildlife. We just kept running across him when trying to keep away from civilization and catalog the fauna. He was gettin’ really sick of us by the end, and had the worst possible luck to be on hand when it all went down.” He paused, narrowing his eyes. “Actually…no, I spoke incorrectly. A few of us were prepared. Those who ended up with the greater power, the multiple aspects… We mostly just accidentally latched onto whatever concept spoke most to our hearts. Those four, though. They were ready. They had planned.”

“You think…” Darling frowned, toying with his teacup. “Did they deliberately take ascension, despite your plans?”

“I can’t see it,” Eserion said immediately, shaking his head. “Vidius…maybe. He’s enough of an old fox to think of that, but… Even so, it’s a stretch. But I never met anybody who wanted power less than Omnu or Themynra. And Avei…” He chuckled. “Poor Avei. She was always going on about what she’d do when we could all quit. When the gods were brought down, she was gonna go build a modest little house far from any cities and raise horses. No, they were just planners. Some people, Antonio, are simply heroic by nature. Adventurers born. They were ready for everything, including a rushed, accidental ascension. And thus, they ended up in charge.” He shook his head again. “Better them than me.

“But speaking of me, that’s what you asked about.” He tilted his chin up, smirking faintly. “Might not guess it to look at me now, but standards of beauty being what they were, I was just the prettiest princess of them all, back in the day.”

Darling blinked. “Uh.”

The god cracked a grin at him. “That was the point. I belonged to Szyrein, one of the Elders. In fact, I was one of her favorites. Bred for fifty generations to be beautiful, trained from birth to be…pleasing.”

Despite all his years of practice, Darling could feel the sudden, utter sickness he felt creeping onto his expression. Eserion’s face didn’t change, though, apart from the slightly faraway look that stole into his eyes.

“Your own wits and skills are all you have; they’re all that can’t be taken from you. People with too much power have—have—to be brought down. And at the intersection of those two truths is the fact that no matter how powerful, now supremely above you someone is, you can always find a way to stick to to ’em if you’re clever, and careful. That was who I was, so that’s what I became. Thieves, though?” He grinned. “That was sort of an accident. I guess if you grow up owned by somebody, you end up not giving a shit about property rights.”

“What did happen?” Darling asked.

Eserion’s expression sobered. “Watch yourself around Lil, Sweet. She’s every bit the schemer your research has shown, and more besides. But, like all really good deceivers, she doesn’t lie any more than she can help. You got a warning that you’d be wise to heed: there are things you just aren’t allowed to know. Not without consequences.”

“Am I wrong,” Darling asked casually, holding up his teacup to inhale the fragrance, “or do I get the idea you don’t agree with that policy?”

“Hey, now, I’m not the one making decisions in this outfit. You know how I feel about the people in charge, anyway. Not that I’ve any personal grudge with the Trinity, but… Nobody can be trusted with power. Not any of us; not even me. Power changes people. No matter how careful you are, or how noble your intentions, it twists and destroys you slowly from the inside.”

“Almost makes you wish there was a way to prevent anybody from having it,” Darling mused.

“Yeah, well.” Eserion smirked again. “That would involve somebody with absolute power administering it, which…brings you right back to the beginning. Nah, the best solution I’ve found is to have people whose whole purpose is fighting the power when it rises. It’s a constant struggle, but in the end, isn’t that better?”

“Is it?”

“People always have to struggle,” the god said more seriously, “that’s our greatest virtue. Even our crimes and failures give us things to fight against—and every fight can be a source of strength, and wisdom.”

“It certainly keeps you feeling alive,” Darling mused. “And sometimes, the opposite.”

“Sounds like you’re already getting nostalgic for your vacation,” Eserion said sympathetically. “Herding the cats wearing you down?”

“Oh, you know how it is.” He shrugged and took another sip of tea. “Justinian puts up such a front of being in control I honestly can’t guess how much control he really has. He doesn’t seem fazed by Tellwyrn’s utter destruction of his ploy against her; apparently it was just a test, he claims, to see whether that approach would work, and he’s very satisfied with the results.”

“That kind of inner control can be a weakness or a serious asset,” the god commented.

“Mm. It makes me worry about Tricks; too. I’m starting to see cracks, there, and that’s not like him.” He gave the god a piercing look. “I don’t suppose there’s anything you want to tell me…?”

“Sure, just as soon as you take up his offer to trade jobs again,” Eserion said cheerfully. “Honestly, though, Sweet, I think you’re doing more good where you are.”

“I was just wondering, though,” Darling said mildly, gazing up at the ceiling and pushing his teacup back and forth between his hands. “This thing about transcension fields…”

“Bleh, just say magic, for fuck’s sake. I never understood that gobbledygook and I don’t intend to start. Better for the universe if nobody ever figures out how to do that again.”

“Magic, then. This knowledge the gods have of what people know… The Avatar specifically said that’s processed by the…magic field. And suppose, hypothetically, there were a thing between dimensions, a thing that specifically blocks and disrupts magic. If someone learned something there…”

Eserion’s smile widened fractionally, but he shook his head. “You’re doing so well, Sweet. Don’t spoil it by asking me to cheat for you.”

“You? Cheat?” Darling put on his broadest, most innocent smile. “Perish the thought.”

Mentally, though, he re-categorized that theory from a tentative possibility to an avenue worthy of earnest pursuit.

To judge by the god’s smile, he wasn’t fooling anyone.

Yet.


Branwen’s office in the Grand Cathedral was spacious and elegantly appointed, with a large seating area between the door and her desk. Potted plants stood atop shelves, and in one corner a little decorative fountain splashed musically, its water kept moving and perpetually clean thanks to rare and pricey charms. The fireplace also roared with a comfy blaze—comfy and illusionary, which could add heat to the room or not, at a command. The enchantments in the room had cost more than even the gilded furniture, which was saying something. It was a pleasing space, though, where she could feel relaxed and at home, even away from home.

She was just finishing applying her seal to the last in a stack of correspondence when the door was opened from the outside without the courtesy of a knock.

“Ah, answering fan mail?” Basra asked pleasantly, stepping in and pushing the door gently shut behind her. “How wonderful! It’s a relief to see you’re still getting any. Imagine, a sitting Bishop publicly repudiated by her own goddess! You are a theological marvel, Branwen.”

“Actually,” Branwen said, “I’m told sales of my book have skyrocketed. Apparently nothing sells like notoriety. Not that it isn’t always a pleasure, Bas, but I’ve never known you to make idle social calls before. What can I do for you?”

“I’ve been doing some research,” Basra said, pacing slowly into the room, “into the career of one Ildrin Falaridjad. The downside of my stellar success in the crisis at the border has been a sad lack of damages for which she can be blamed; the list of charges resulting from her stupidity is depressingly short and minor. Of course, I already knew she was a staunch supporter of the Archpope and the Universal Church, to the point it was becoming an annoyance to her fellow Sisters. Interestingly, though, she’s never done anything like that stunt she pulled at Varansis. No insubordination, no outbursts of violence, no rampant glory-hogging or inexplicably having access to other cults’ rare magical devices. Nobody, even, who seemed to find her as congenitally thick-headed as I did. And I had a thought.” She continued forward at a leisurely pace, fixing a predatory stare on Branwen, who simply watched her approach in perfect calm. “Does is perhaps seem suspicious to you that someone would suddenly act contrary to their usual behavior in the presence of a known projective empath?”

“I think it’s telling,” Branwen said mildly, “that you’re talking about a woman acting out of character, and your own constant bullying and abuse of her doesn’t even enter into your calculations.”

“So I did some further digging,” Basra continued, ignoring her. “She has refused to reveal where she got that shatterstone, but Antonio was good enough to get me the rough black market price for one. They are obtainable outside your cult, but it costs more than Falaridjad would make in five years. Someone got it for her, someone with connections in Izara’s faith. And then, there is the matter of how she came to be part of the expedition. You dug her up, specifically, along with a bard who had an established dislike of me due to thinking I’d set her up for the Shaathists.”

“Of course,” Branwen said with a faint smile, “she thought so because you did that. Which also isn’t a consideration to you, I suppose.”

“And,” Basra continued, stepping right up to Branwen and looming over her, “it seems to me that someone as politically adept as yourself would not be oblivious to the fact that having a known Church loyalist involved in that mission could create questions. Concerns about my presence, and intentions. Abbess Darnassy had, in fact, mentioned at the beginning how very convenient it was that a problem arose which so precisely suited my talents to solve. All it would take was the persistent suggestion that Justinian had arranged the whole thing to get me back to Tiraas, and Commander Rouvad would land on me like the fist of Avei herself. And that was before said Justinian loyalist was inexplicably provoked into actively sabotaging the mission.”

Branwen smiled, sighed softly, and shook her head ruefully. “Oh…all right. I suppose I ought to have known better. I’ve made my way chiefly by being a source of happiness to those around me, which is a whole different kind of politics; I’m just not cut out for your flavor of cloak and dagger.”

“Indeed.” Her face cold now, Basra leaned forward, right into her space, planting one hand on the back of Branwen’s chair and the other on the desk to physically bar her into her seat. “I’m only going to tell you this once, Snowe. Do not attempt, nor even dream about attempting any such shit with me again. Ever. You are nothing even approaching a match for me in that arena, and I am not a person you want for an enemy.”

“Oh, Basra, don’t be silly,” Branwen said in a fondly chiding tone, still smiling. “You’re not a person at all.”

For a long moment they locked eyes, the Izarite smiling, the Avenist expressionless. Only the fountain and the fire could be heard in the room.

Finally, Basra tilted her head slowly to one side. “I beg your pardon?” she asked in a tone of mild curiosity.

“You’re a…thing,” Branwen continued, still with that pleasant little smile. “A walking defect. A would-be miscarriage conceived without a soul and quite accidentally brought to term. Oh, I realize you think you’re a wolf among sheep, but that’s only because you lack the mental architecture to understand the strength people gain by forming connections with each other. Something you simply cannot do.”

Moving deliberately, she stood up, pushing herself right back into Basra’s space; the other Bishop backed away at the last second, straightening up and still staring quizzically at the shorter woman.

“Understand, Basra, that you aren’t as invisible as you like to think. Oh, most people don’t realize what a horror you are; most people have no concept that things like you exist. But there are some—Commander Rouvad, his Holiness, Antonio—who do know, and tolerate you because they find you useful. Then, too, there are cultures which understand things that humanity has yet to puzzle out. If you ever find yourself in a dwarven university, you might find it illuminating to read up on what they call ‘social pathology.’”

Branwen took a step forward. Basra, her face an expressionless mask, backed away again.

“Here’s the thing, Bas. You simply do not comprehend how emotion works, because yours are such paltry things. Every feeling you have is shallow and wild, and all of them are variations on either rage…” She smiled, slowly, catlike and sly. “…or desire.”

There was no visible effect in the room, but the change that overcame Basra was instant and striking. Her eyes widened, pupils dilating hugely; she shivered bodily, gave a soft, trembling gasp, and abruptly surged forward. In an instant she had wrapped her arms around Branwen, roughly grasping her head and tilting it up to press a fierce, hungry kiss to her lips.

A moment later she was flung bodily backward by the shield of golden light which flashed into place around the Izarite.

“And once roused,” Branwen continued as if never interrupted, “you have no more control over your passions than does a child. Which is why I didn’t show you rage, and won’t allow you to experience it. At least until I’m done talking to you.”

Turning back to her desk, she pulled open the top drawer and retrieved a small compact; flipping the lid up to reveal a mirror, she took up the small brush contained within and set about repairing the damage done to the rouge on her lips.

Standing six feet away now, Basra absently scrubbed the back of her hand across her mouth, again staring at Branwen without expression.

“Matters are very different for most people,” the Izarite said, tucking the brush back into its slot and beginning to carefully fix her hair with her fingers, still gazing at the tiny mirror. “Emotion is so intertwined with thought as to be inextricable. There are so many kinds of emotions, and so many subtle shades… It’s a whole world you couldn’t begin to comprehend. And for someone like me, who can reach out and touch those vastly complex feelings…” Satisfied, she clicked the compact shut and turned to smile warmly at Basra. “Well, I won’t ask you to believe any claims I make. I shouldn’t need to, after all; you’ve gone and figured out for yourself how wildly out of character Ildrin acted when I needed her to. Instead, Basra, I want you to ponder a hypothetical.”

Branwen set the compact down on her desk and folded her arms beneath her breasts, her smile growing faintly, and becoming lopsided. “What do you suppose would happen if everyone who doesn’t understand you suddenly did… And everyone who tolerates you suddenly didn’t?”

She let that hang for a moment. Basra stared at her in continued silence, her face apparently frozen.

“So,” Branwen said more briskly, “I think you’re right; I’ll be staying away from trying to manipulate events henceforth. It really isn’t my strong suit, is it? Far more sensible to stick to what I can do, and do well.”

Abruptly, her smile faded and her voice hardened. “You are a rabid dog, Basra Syrinx. His Holiness believes he has you on a leash. Despite my misgivings, I have decided to trust his judgment, for now. But if you slip that leash again, like you did with Principia Locke and her squad—oh, yes, I know all about that—it will be the last time. Your entire world will unmake itself. Overnight. And nowhere will you find a hint that I was even involved. So…”

She strode forward, right at the other woman; this time, Basra gave no ground, simply watching her come. Branwen stalked almost close enough that they were touching again, staring up into Basra’s flat gaze, her own blue eyes suddenly ice-hard.

“Heel, girl.”

They stood that way in total silence for long seconds, and then Branwen suddenly smiled, turned away, and stepped toward the door.

Behind her, Basra twitched violently, another rapid change washing over her. Suddenly, her face twisted into an animalistic snarl and she took a half step forward, falling into a fighting crouch, hands outstretched.

“And before you attempt any of the things you’re contemplating,” Branwen added without turning around, “I suggest you consider how much this conversation surprised you, and ask yourself what else you have no idea I’m capable of.”

She opened the door, glanced over her shoulder with a flirtatious little smile, and glided out into the hall, leaving it open behind her.

Basra stood in place, breathing heavily for a few seconds, then whirled and stalked over to Branwen’s desk. There, she snatched up the little mirrored compact and hurled it savagely into the fire.


He was barely aware of where he was walking, having only a sense of veering indiscriminately back and forth; it was a shameful state of affairs for an elf, but nothing in this land would harm him. His inner battle consumed his attention. After all this time, he knew when he’d been beaten. He knew that, despite his intermittent attempts to alter his course, to vanish deeper into the twisted wilds of Athan’Khar, he was steadily making his way west. The spirits were driving west. Despite all his efforts to delay, soon enough he would reach N’Jendo.

And then it would begin, the thing he had tried so, so hard to avoid.

He took some small comfort in knowing that he wouldn’t last long. Eldei alai’shi never lasted long. The Empire had powers that well overmatched him. And there was some small hope, this time; after he had confronted the Avenists at the other border and been turned back, the humans would be ready. Headhunters usually caught them unawares, doing most of their damage before strike teams and battlemages could respond. This time, they’d be prepared.

How many people would he have to watch himself slaughter before they brought him down?

He didn’t even have to avoid thinking about it. These days, it was all he could do to think at all. The voices never let up anymore. He had denied them too long. They were too hungry.

Shadows passed over him.

He only belatedly became aware that he was passing over a rounded hilltop; around its foot were the remnants of an orcish town. The roofless remains of houses and shops now sprouted enormous growths like cancerous cacti thirty feet tall, bristling with person-sized, multi-pronged thorns, and with slowly undulating fronds extending upward toward the sky. The hill itself crunched beneath his ragged moccasins, its surface long ago melted to black glass by some imaginable heat source. Probably something the Tiraan did during the Bane…or maybe caused by one of Athan’Khar’s new residents. There were beings here capable of it.

The shapes cruising over him had excellent timing. He was just cresting the broke-glass hill when they plummeted down from the sky, banking and spreading their wings at the last minute to avoid slamming into the ground as they settled down. They still landed hard enough to shake the earth, which was unavoidable, given their sheer bulk.

Slowly, he turned in a full circle, studying the dragons and not sure what to think. His memories of his old life told him what a very, very odd situation this was. The spirits were mildly inquisitive, but mostly unconcerned. Dragons were no threat to them and of no interest. They really only cared about what they wanted to kill.

Four dragons, though. One of each primary color. Who had ever heard of such a thing?

“Good day,” said the gold in a resonant voice that boomed across the sky. “We must speak.”

“We must…go,” he said nervously, scratching at himself. There were no bugs, bugs did not like him anymore, but he often felt as if things crawled under his skin. “We have… The distance. Yes, have to go. I don’t want to, I’m really so very tired. But…we… Need. At the border, beyond the river, there was, there was, blocked, no use! Found the wisdom but… Other side, yes. There. More of. Um.”

A booming chuckle came from the blue dragon to his left. “This is our guy, then.”

“Peace, Zanzayed,” the gold said in a tone of weary patience.

The green cleared his throat softly—relatively speaking. “Well, it sounds as if you are having some difficulty expressing yourself.” He took one step forward, lowering his head to look at the elf more closely. “I believe I can help with that, temporarily. My name is Varsinostro. Will you indulge me for a moment?”

“Not to harm,” he said noncommittally, scratching his arm. “It’s, it isn’t you. No caring, why bother?”

“I’ll take that, and the lack of an attack, as agreement,” the dragon said with a truly horrifying smile. He reached forward with one enormous clawed hand, which the elf simply watched curiously as it descended on him. He was long past caring about his well-being, and anyway, what he cared about had long ago ceased to be a factor. The spirits were supremely uninterested in the dragons.

That huge hand settled on top of his head in an unbelievably gentle pat, just barely touching his matted hair. The claws curled down on all sides to touch the ground about him.

Suddenly, it was as if a door had been slammed.

The voices…he could still hear them, but distantly and fuzzily, as if underwater. Their constant, howling presence was ended. Suddenly, he was alone in his own head, for the first time in memory.

He staggered, stumbled, sat down hard with a crunch in the broken glass, staring.

“There we go,” the green said with clear satisfaction, withdrawing his hand. “This is purely experimental, understand. To my knowledge, no one has attempted this before. But I am encouraged by this initial success; I believe we can likely refine the method further.”

“You…you made them silent,” he said, tears forming in his eyes. “Thank you. Thank you.”

“I repeat, it will not hold long,” the green warned.

“And,” added the red one from behind him, “they are likely to be irate when they return.”

He doubted that. It really wasn’t the kind of thing the spirits even noticed; they were rarely interested in his perspective. He said nothing about it, though, having just remembered something important.

“Raash,” he whispered. “My name is Raash.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Raash,” said the gold one, bowing, which was a very odd sight. “I am Ampophrenon.”

“Please,” Raash said earnestly. “Please, quickly, before they come back. You have to kill me.”

Zanzayed snorted; Ampophrenon and Varsinostro exchanged an unreadable glance.

“Let’s call that Plan B,” said the red, stepping forward and snaking his head around to look down on Raash where he could see him. “First, we are extremely curious about recent events which unfolded at the Viridill border. That was you, correct? I’m assuming there are not two eldei alai’shi active in Athan’Khar at the moment.”

“No,” Raash said slowly, shaking his head. “Not anymore.”

“Anymore?” the blue repeated curiously.

“There was…” He closed his eyes, sighing; in the absence of the spirits’ constant, howling noise, the memory was suddenly more painful than he was expecting. “My brother. He came first, to take the pact. I came to stop him. We have been…struggling, here, for months. I’d thought to destroy myself once he was finally killed, but the spirits would not have it. They…” He paused, swallowed. “I was so close to finding a way, I’d just got them distracted and calm enough I thought I could eat poison. And then something happened at the old border to draw attention. Beings of Athan’Khar went across the river into Viridill, and found a huge Tiraan army massing. It drove the spirits wild. I couldn’t restrain them.”

“It’s very curious,” the red dragon rumbled, “that they were turned back after being reasoned with by one woman.”

Raash barked an incredulous laugh in spite of himself. “Reasoned? Oh, no, nothing like that happened. The Bishop…I remember her. Yes, she was very smart. She avoided most of the early mistakes I made in trying to deal with the spirits. She didn’t reason, she manipulated. She didn’t try to talk to me at all; her discussion was with the spirits, I was just there as an interpreter. I think she must have some experience dealing with the dangerously insane.”

“Hm,” Ampophrenon said thoughtfully. “That answers a few questions. Satisfied, Razzavinax?”

“Not remotely,” the red replied.

Varsinostro cleared his throat. “Anyway. As I said, Raash, I believe we can work to refine this technique, perhaps keep the spirits stifled more permanently. Possibly, though understand that I am in no way promising such a thing yet, purge them entirely. Is this line of study something you would be interested in pursuing?”

Raash could only gaze up at him, tears now coursing down his dirt-stained face. “I…I’d given up thinking… All I’d hoped for was death.”

“I will not deceive you,” the dragon said sternly. “It may yet come to that. But if you are willing to make the effort, as am I.”

“As are we all,” Ampophrenon said firmly.

Suddenly too overcome to form words, he could only nod.

“Smashing,” Zanzayed said cheerfully, leaning closer. “That being the case, our new pals back in Tiraas are rather curious about these events. And they may have instigated this little sit-down, but we have our own reasons for wanting to know more. In exchange for our help, Raash, we have questions.”

“Many,” added Razzavinax. “Many questions.”

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10 – 49

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“Movement!” the Legionnaire with her eye pressed to the telescope suddenly announced.

Everyone in the command tent was instantly alert and facing her, which wasn’t much of a change as they had all been tense and pretending with varying degrees of effort to be engaged in other things. The exception, of course, was Aspen, who at first had seemed not to understand the problem, but revealed upon having it explained that she actually just didn’t care. She and Ingvar had been engrossed in a quiet conversation in a rear corner of the pavilion. Whatever they were talking about had occasionally drawn startled looks from Yrril, despite her Narisian reserve.

“Well?” General Vaumann said tersely.

“They’re getting up,” the Legionnaire reported. “Standing and… No signs of agitation. Still seem to be talking… Everything’s still quiet.”

Joe let out an audible sigh, and several of those assembled slouched in quieter imitation. Ami, who had given up strumming her guitar after her attempts to “lighten the mood” had drawn annoyed looks and finally a shouted reprimand from Colonel Nintaumbi, wrapped her arms around it and looked sullen.

“Wait,” the watcher said, and the crowd tensed again.

“Make up your mind,” Ami muttered.

“They’re… Separating. Bishop Syrinx is leaving, coming back this way.”

“And the elf?” Nintaumbi exclaimed.

“He’s turning… Appears to be departing as well. Yes—confirmed! The headhunter is retreating back into the forest.”

An audible exhalation from multiple throats passed around the tent. Schwartz muttered something unintelligible, sagging against at tent pole hard enough to shake it and earn an irritated look from a nearby Legionnaire.

“Continuing…target is lost to sight in the treeline, now. Bishop Syrinx is proceeding back this way on foot.” Basra’s horse, left unattended, had wandered off earlier, which the scout had also reported.

“Sir?” an Imperial Army soldier wearing a captain’s bars said to Nintaumbi. “Shall I stand down the alert?”

“Absolutely not,” the Colonel said firmly. “We wait at minimum to hear what Syrinx has to say about her conversation. Agreed?”

He glanced up at Vaumann, who nodded. Yrril just stood in apparent calm, watching down the field. The exact acuity of her eyes was something she hadn’t seen fit to elaborate upon; a surface elf would be able to see almost as well as the human with the telescope, and while drow theoretically had similar capabilities, they were significantly disadvantaged by the sunlight.

“Well,” Nintaumbi added more softly, “I guess the only casualty here has been Bishop Darling. He had to have crossed paths with that creature… There’s only one way that could end up.”

“With all respect, Colonel,” Joe said, “I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions about Darling.”

“I’m not certain what combat capabilities he may have,” Ingvar agreed, “but if anyone living could talk his way out of fighting a headhunter…”

“Um…” Everyone turned to stare at the scout, who was still watching through her spyglass. “Now that you mention it…”


“Why, fancy meeting you here!”

At being hailed, Basra halted her march back toward the armies, turning to stare at Darling, who was strolling casually toward her from the coastline to the southeast.

“Antonio,” she said at a more normal volume as he drew close enough to hear it. “It seems this should surprise me, but somehow, it just doesn’t. I think I’ve lost the ability to be taken aback by anything you do.”

“Now, you mustn’t say things like that, Bas,” he said brightly, coming up to stand alongside her. “That’s the next best thing to a challenge!”

She shook her head. “How did your conversation go?”

“I realize you asked first and there’s a certain etiquette attached to that,” he replied, “but really. Your conversation was obviously a lot more important, and I’m betting a lot more interesting. So…?” He gazed at her expectantly.

Basra grunted and turned to resume her stride toward the front lines, her fellow Bishop falling into step beside her. “About like I expected, though it took longer than I thought.”

“You expected a successful negotiation with a headhunter?”

“I expected to be able to pull his strings, but… That man was more obviously insane than even the stereotype suggests. I don’t know if you’ve dug up anything on headhunters in your infamous research into Elilial, but you’ve talked with that creep Mary enough to probably know they aren’t quite like the rumors tell us. That fellow was clearly far gone. He can’t have been fresh from Athan’Khar, unless he was wildly unstable even before going in. I wonder what he’s been doing up till now; I didn’t get much out of him about that.”

“And yet, you got him to turn around and leave.” Darling shook his head in wonder. “That has to be the century’s foremost feat of diplomacy.”

Basra grinned. “Well, I think so, but most diplomats seem to object to my characterization of diplomacy as piles and piles of lies and manipulations. Most people don’t much like having their illusions exposed. Anyway, he’s gone for now. I don’t know how much time this has bought, but he probably won’t attack in the direction of Viridill again. So that’s my conversation, and if you want the fine details, you’ll have to wait. I’ve no doubt you plan to invite yourself along for the full debriefing I’ll need to give the commanders, anyway, and I don’t enjoy repeating myself.” She glanced shrewdly at him. “Which brings us to you. Since you were coming from the shoreline, hell and gone from the road you went in on, I assume one of your shifty friends found and warned you before you stumbled across the creature?”

“Right,” he said more seriously. “On to the next battle. Before we reach the others, there are a few things I think you should know.”


The trip back to campus was a slow one, being long, uphill, and taken on foot (with the obvious exception of Fross). Trissiny and Gabriel had dismissed their mounts, considering it awkward to ride when nobody else could; Whisper wasn’t built for multiple riders, and Arjen couldn’t carry everybody. For the most part, it was also a quiet walk. The sounds of continued jubilation from the town below had mostly faded into the distance by the time they’d exhausted their efforts to theorize as to Embras Mogul’s true motives.

Their general feeling about the encounter was not celebratory.

“Uh…” Gabriel craned his neck back to glance up at the position of the sun as they passed through the archway onto the campus proper. “Crap, can’t see Clarke Tower from here.”

“It’s a relief,” Ruda commented, “to learn that you don’t automatically know the spots from which our dorm is visible, Arquin.”

He rolled his eyes. “It’s the biggest clock on campus. I’m fairly sure we’re gonna miss lunch if we wanna get to class on time.”

“Always on top of priorities,” Toby said with a smile.

“Hey, proper nutrition is important,” Juniper said seriously. “That’s true even when we haven’t just climbed a mountain.”

“Yes, this has been altogether inconvenient,” Shaeine said solemnly. “In the future, we should ask any deranged warlocks we encounter to schedule their assaults no earlier than four o’clock.”

“Huh,” Fross mused. “I wonder if that would work.”

“Well, I’ll certainly do my best to accommodate you,” Embras Mogul said cheerfully, stepping out from behind a tree just ahead. “All you have to to is ask!”

Weariness and malaise vanished in an instant; weapons came out, various auras sprang to life, and Vadrieny burst forth from Teal.

“You have made your last mistake!” Trissiny roared, golden wings blazing.

“Children!”

Everyone hesitated, though no one powered down or disarmed, and only half of them took their eyes off the warlock to glance up at the gatepost beside the arch, atop which Professor Ekoi suddenly sat, her tail twitching in disapproval.

“For once, would you think before attacking? The wards over this campus would repel incursions by far greater foes than this. Mr. Mogul is an invited guest. I expect initiates of this University to evince sufficient decorum to treat him as such.”

“Have you lost your mind?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“What a curious question,” Ekoi mused. “If I had, clearly I would not know it. And if I had not, I would take offense at the implication. What possible motivation could you have for saying such a thing, Mr. Arquin?”

“I’m thoughtless and fed up with your crap, that’s what!” he shouted.

“For heaven’s sake, boy, hush. I realize class is not formally in session, but this is still an institution of learning. I have arranged, at great effort, a demonstration for you. Compose yourselves and learn, please.”

“Well, pardon me for contradicting your point, General,” Mogul said cheerfully, recapturing everyone’s attention, “but I expect to make a great many more mistakes. Perhaps if you pay attention to the good Professor, here, you’ll someday find yourself in a position to take advantage of one!”

“That does it.” Trissiny took a step forward, sword upraised.

“Avelea.” Ekoi’s tone was calm. “Do not make me come down there.”

“Would it matter if I pointed out that Arquin can see up your robe?” Ruda asked.

“What?” Gabriel said shrilly. “I wouldn’t—Ruda, for once can you not be such a creep?”

“They’re rather cute, aren’t they?” Mogul said to Ekoi. “With the banter, and everything. I didn’t realize adventuring groups actually did that! The chapbooks don’t seem historically authoritative, at a casual glance.”

“Because they do it doesn’t make it sound policy,” Ekoi remarked.

“Well, I for one always respect a spot of good drama. Well? Don’t be shy, let me have it.” He spread his arms wide, grinning and seemingly unconcerned with the array of destructive power poised to descend on him. “How was it? The yokels seemed to eat it up, but I dunno… Not one of my best performances, I don’t think. It felt a little overworked. Wouldn’t you say?”

“We’re not doing this,” Toby said flatly. “We are not going to indulge you in conversation. Just do whatever it is Professor Ekoi is tolerating your presence for, please.”

“Unless you want to learn whether she’s actually capable of stopping all of us from tearing you apart,” Vadrieny snarled.

“It’s so odd,” the Professor mused, “being among people who think that is in question. This is why I should make time to leave Sifan more often; too long away from the wild world and one forgets. Vestrel, that language is not acceptable. There are children here, for heaven’s sake.”

Gabriel clutched Ariel and his staff in a white-knuckled grip, suddenly looking rattled.

“Indeed, tempers appear to be fraying even as we speak,” Mogul said, tipping his hat to them. “So, dear students, the question is, as always: What have we learned today?”

“Fuck it, let’s kill him,” Ruda suggested.

“Wait,” said Shaeine softly.

“You arranged that whole thing,” Fross accused. “The demon trace thing, all of it. From the beginning. Why? What do you get from that?”

“Turning us against the Archpope, for starters,” Toby said tersely.

“Ah, ah, ah.” Mogul wagged a chiding finger at them. “Nothing so crude. Turning you against someone is…well, it’s such a limited gambit. That’s the kind of thing you do to bit players who don’t really matter in the long run. It’s usually all too simple. No, consider the fact that the most esteemed Ekoi-sensei finds my presence and activities here tolerable. Aside from clear evidence that I’m not here to harm you, that shows what, specifically, I’m out to help you do. Which is…?”

He smiled expectantly at them.

“Learn,” Shaeine whispered.

“Bingo!” Mogul pointed at her. “The fact that you and I are nominally enemies is a condition of circumstance, not essential nature. You don’t seem to grasp, yet, how ephemeral all your affiliations and bonds truly are. Unlike the various cults that trained you before now, I’m not out to tell you who you should trust, what you should believe.” He folded his arms and adopted a cocky pose, smirking from beneath the brim of his hat. “What I want is the same thing your teacher, here, wants. The same thing Professor Tellwyrn wants. I want you to think. I want you to look beyond the surface, to question what you are told, to take nothing for granted. I told you before: the Black Wreath is on the side of truth. But I also told you that the truth would be devalued if I just dropped it on you. You’ll have to learn to seek it out for yourselves.”

“This guy is so full of it,” Gabriel muttered, unconsciously raising Ariel. Blue sigils along her blade flared to life.

“That I most certainly am,” Mogul agreed. “For the love of all that’s unholy, don’t take anything I tell you at face value—surely you’ve got that much figured out already. This time you made a lot of assumptions and a lot of rash actions. You thought like adventurers.” He shook his head. “As I’m sure a few people have mentioned to you, adventuring is a thing of the past. To succeed in this world, you need to be insightful, careful, and mindful of the subtle connections between things. This time,” he added, looking directly at Trissiny and grinning, “I made you a hero in the eyes of the public. I prevented a certain schemer in the Universal Church from getting hooks into you. You fought me the whole way, and yet you ended up doing exactly as I wished at every step. Now, just imagine what would have happened if I had actually meant you harm!”

“Did you seriously come up here just to gloat?” Juniper exclaimed.

“Of course not.” Mogul tipped his hat to her. “Merely to demonstrate. I don’t mind acknowledging that I’m not smarter than you, kids—at least, not collectively. You lost this one because you were playing the wrong game. Learn to play the right one. And now!” Turning toward Ekoi’s pillar, he bowed deeply, sweeping off his hat to reveal a shiny bald head. “Professor, it has been both a high honor and an unmitigated pleasure to work with you.”

“That’s a lie,” she said, smiling benignly, “but since it should have been, I shall accept the compliment.”

“With that, I really must be off—I can only imagine the stress poor Professor Tellwyrn is under right now, allowing me to stand here without smiting me into a puddle.” He placed his hat back on his head, straightened it carefully with both hands, then winked at them. “See you ’round, kids.”

Shadows gathered, and then he was gone.

Professor Ekoi hopped nimbly down, landing on the grass as lightly as a cat. “What you just heard was wisdom, students. It was not necessarily truth. The difference is important. Think on these things—think deeply, and carefully. But later, yes? For now, off to class with you.”

She turned and strolled casually away, the white tip of her tail bobbing behind her. The entire class stared at her retreating back, too dumbfounded to speak.

With the exception of Trissiny, who was staring at the spot from which Embras Mogul had vanished, her sword dangling limply from her fingers.


Though the remaining members of Basra’s party had clustered around trying to command her attention immediately upon her return, she had brushed them off to join the commanders in a private conference in Fort Naveen. Schwartz and Ami had both been loudly disappointed when it was made clear that they were not invited to attend. Only Branwen had managed to include herself, and that apparently on the pure basis of rank, not because she had anything in particular to contribute. Darling’s companions, though they had been similarly glad to see him alive and well, had been more restrained. Or perhaps, less interested in being cooped up with stuffy military leaders.

In any case, it wasn’t as if dallying was an option; after a relatively short exchange, a messenger from the fort had arrived with word that a very important figure had just been teleported in.

“I am absolutely astonished,” said General Toman Panissar in the fort’s secure conference room, “that you managed to persuade that deranged thing to back down, Bishop Syrinx.”

“I’m somewhat astonished that your response to that deranged thing’s presence was to come here,” Darling said, lounging back in the chair he had commandeered by the fireplace. “Wouldn’t the Empire find itself in a bit of a pickle if the supreme commander of the Army were suddenly killed by a headhunter?”

“His Majesty is the supreme commander of the Army,” Panissar said, giving him an irritated look, “and that is why I didn’t come until the Azure Corps brought word that the headhunter had retreated.”

“The point remains,” Yrril said calmly, “it was an incredible feat of negotiation, Bishop. I must add my commendation.”

“Thank you, but ‘negotiation’ implies more rationality on the part of the participants,” Basra said with a faint smile. “I was manipulating, twisting the facts and lying through my teeth, and he was, not to put too fine a point on it, batshit crazy. As I said before going, that was a situation that called for a politician.”

“It was still incredibly brave to go out there,” Branwen said earnestly. “I mean, I think I can consider myself a politician as well, and I feel no shame that I didn’t volunteer.”

“I am, among other things, a soldier,” Basra said with a shrug. “It had to be done. That’s what soldiers do.”

“I could only dream of filling my ranks with men and women who would willingly face such a thing,” Panissar replied. “But the important question remains: how much time have you bought us?”

“That I can’t say exactly,” Basra said, her expression falling into a frown. “I managed to convince him that messing with the Sisterhood wasn’t in his best interests. That much I was confident I could do before I went out there; whatever that elf thinks of anything, the actual danger comes from the spirits inside him, and Athan’Khar and Viridill respected each other for a long time, even when they fought. It was the attack on Athan’Khar that made Viridill turn on the Empire, after all. As to what he’ll do next, or when, or where…” She shrugged fatalistically. “This is a temporary reprieve, make no mistake.”

“Then we’ve gained nothing,” Colonel Nintaumbi said, scowling.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Panissar disagreed. “Time to prepare makes all the difference—it’s exactly the thing we’ve never had before, with any other headhunter’s appearance. Bishop Syrinx saved a lot of good soliers today; that thing would have torn right through those armies. Now, I’ve had time to alert Lord Schraede and notify Imperial Intelligence.”

“Schraede?” Yrril asked, tilting her head.

“Commander of the Strike Corps,” Darling explained.

“Indeed,” Panissar said, nodding. “The entire Corps has been pulled from their duties and set on high alert. Considering the headhunter’s known ability to shadow-jump, we must assume his next move could occur anywhere. Strike teams are moving into position across the Empire, each accompanied by portal mages of the Azure Corps to stay in communication. As soon as he shows his face again, the entire Strike Corps will land on him. Not even a headhunter can contend with that. And besides,” he added more thoughtfully, “while it’s a long shot, his Majesty had the idea to seek aid from…our allies. If they are willing and prove able, we may be able to head this off before the creature can attack.”

“Allies?” Vaumann asked, raising an eyebrow.

“The Emperor prefers that that matter remain classified for now,” Panissar said briskly. “Continuing with that line of thought, this business of stirring up elementals shows far more planning ability than any past headhunter has displayed, not to mention skills beyond them.”

Basra and Darling exchanged a glance.

“Well,” Darling said, straightening up, “it turns out that wasn’t the headhunter’s doing.”

“Oh?” Nintaumbi said sharply.

“I did manage to have a short conversation with Khadizroth the Green while I was very briefly in the woods,” the Bishop continued. “He and Mary the Crow are still down there—after rescuing me from blundering across that crazy critter, they stayed behind to see what they could do about it. But yes, back on point, it turns out we were both right, Bas. Khadizroth was down there to help, and he was behind the elemental attacks.”

“What?” Nintaumbi exclaimed.

Basra nodded, though. “Yes…I can see it. In fact, that explains the one glaring flaw in my theory that was troubling me. The elemental summoner showed a knowledge of the history and social nature of Viridill and the Sisterhood; it was odd in the extreme that he might think they would step aside and let him invade Tiraas.”

“Exactly,” Darling agreed. “Between that and his ploy to get Mary’s attention through Ingvar… He wasn’t attacking Viridill, he was trying to rally the province’s defenders.”

“Why?” Panissar demanded, narrowing his eyes. “If he had forewarning of this creature’s intentions, he could have just come to us.”

“There’s a lot about Khadizroth I don’t know, or understand,” Darling admitted. “Today was my first actual encounter with him; what I’ve heard previously has been secondhand at best. We do know, however, that he’s not involved with the Conclave, despite their claim to represent every dragon in Imperial territory, and I’ve had reason to believe before now that he has worked with the Universal Church in some capacity. That’s odd behavior from any dragon but a gold. I highly doubt he trusts or likes the Empire. The Crow doesn’t, either, but neither of them go for the kind of indiscriminate slaughter a headhunter causes. They moved to save lives, even those of their declared enemy. But yes, Toman, you’re correct.” He nodded grimly. “These are powerful beings with their own agendas, who should never be trusted or taken for granted. I think we’ll be a long time yet unraveling the threads beneath all this.”

“If we even can,” Basra said fatalistically. “Unless we can capture either Mary the Crow or Khadizroth the Green, we’re unlikely to learn anything more. Whatever other truths are out there…they’re buried in Athan’Khar, now.”

“Then I think that sums up the situation,” Panissar said. “The crisis has passed, for now, but this is not over.”

“If you look far enough beneath the surface,” said Darling, “there are always strings connecting events to other events. I can’t find it in me to believe all this just happened.”

“Headhunters,” General Vaumann pointed out, “are essentially chaos and randomness personified. If anything, the lack of connection to a greater pattern has been the most difficult part of this whole mess. I don’t think it’s necessary to conclude there’s some broader purpose at play, here.”

“We may be able to learn something more, either from the dragon or the Crow, or possibly even the headhunter,” Panissar replied, “but on the whole, I am inclined to agree with Bishop Darling. Lord Vex is of the same mind.”

“You can add me to that list,” Basra stated. “There’s just too much going on for us to assume this is over. Even once the headhunter is destroyed… I think we had all better keep these events firmly in mind, and be watchful going forward.”

For a moment, her gaze met and held Darling’s, and then they both turned back to the group, expressions betraying nothing.

Positioned in the room’s most comfortable chair in the far corner, Branwen let the continuing discussion wash over her, studying each of her fellow Bishops in turn, and wearing the faintest little smile.

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10 – 44

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The atmosphere in the command tent was tense and growing tenser. Basra’s party had begun to wake an go in search of her, which had only helped partially; Branwen and Jenell had both turned up as they were arriving, and while Branwen, at least, was giddily eager to see Darling again, Jenell simply made another person to stand around in uncomfortable silence while the two Bishops chattered.

She was also the least awkward Legionnaire present. There had been a shift change while Basra and the commanders had gone to the checkpoint, and the Imperial guards had been replaced by soldiers of the Second Legion, all of whom were directing stares at Ingvar. Their expressions ranged from outright baleful to merely puzzled; he studiously ignored them, wearing a wry grimace.

“ATTENTION!”

All six Legionnaires (seven including Covrin, who hadn’t even been doing anything) snapped upright, redirecting their stares ahead into space. So did Joe, who then immediately flushed and sat back down on the stool he’d appropriated by one of the tent poles.

The commanders strode back into the shade of the awning, Vaumann, sweeping a scowl around at her soldiers which promised further discussion on this later, but made no further comment to them, instead nodding again to Darling.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” she said in a far calmer tone.

“What were you guys talking about?” Aspen asked.

“Aspen, that’s not polite,” Ingvar said quietly.

“What?” The dryad turned a scowl on him. “Why not? I want to know!”

“People’s business is theirs,” he replied calmly. “Prying into it shows a lack of respect. If someone wants you to know what they were doing, they’ll tell you.”

“Sides,” Joe added with a grin, “I reckon anybody’d have a few words to exchange if this gaggle of weirdos showed up on their doorstep.”

“I am not a weirdo,” Aspen snapped, stomping her bare foot. “Ingvar, tell him!”

“Tell him what?” Ingvar said dryly.

“Aspen, my dear, you are as normal as any of us,” Darling said gallantly.

“Thank you!” she said, pointing at him.

Basra cleared her throat loudly. “Anyway.”

“Right, yes,” Darling said in a more serious tone. “To business. I mentioned we uncovered something relevant to your engagement here.”

“Which, I’m sure, is quite a story,” Colonel Nintaumbi said flatly.

“A long one, most of which would be of little interest to you.” Darling nodded to his companions. “I’ll try to summarize, but chime in if I forget anything that seems significant. Especially you, Ingvar, you’re the one who saw the relevant part firsthand.”

“And me,” Aspen said haughtily.

“Of course,” Darling said, smiling kindly at her. “Anyhow. We’ve been off on a quest of Ingvar’s—Shaathist business which Joe and I happened to be along to help with. This culminated last night with a vision quest of sorts that involved Ingvar entering a kind of dream world, while we kept watch.”

“Dream world?” the Colonel said skeptically.

“I know of this,” said Yrril, nodding. “Themynra’s followers do not enter it deliberately, but some rites of the faith involve journeying within. Stepping into the dreams of others, or the space connecting them, is considered a risk against which acolytes are cautioned. This is very dangerous,” she added directly to Ingvar. “You entered it deliberately? I assume you had the guidance of a priest of your people.”

“An elvish shaman, actually,” the Huntsman replied. “Mary the Crow.”

Basra’s lips thinned, but any response she might have made was overrun by Colonel Nintaumbi.

“What?” he exploded. “The Crow?”

“She’s been pulling strings from the back of this business,” said Joe. “Uh, Ingvar’s business, not yours. Seemed she was as surprised as the rest of us to learn there was any connection.”

“Fraternizing with the Crow is an extremely serious matter,” Nintaumbi grated. “The woman is a highly dangerous individual and a self-declared enemy of the Tiraan Empire!”

“What?” Darling gasped, his eyes widening. “She is? All this time…? And I…” He turned his back to them, shoulders quivering, and said tremulously. “I just feel so used.”

An identical look passed between Joe, Ingvar and Basra; Branwen rolled her eyes. Nintaumbi and Vaumann stared, nonplussed, at Darling’s back, while Yrril raised an eyebrow.

“Antonio,” Basra warned.

“Yes, yes, fine,” he said, turning back to face them with a grin. “You can’t just let me have my fun?”

“No,” she said curtly. “This position could be under attack literally any moment. No one has time for your customary goofing around.”

“All right, Colonel,” Darling continued, “if you feel the need to report this, go right ahead, but I can assure you that my association with the Crow is long-standing and known to both Archpope Justinian and Quentin Vex. I’ve not spoken personally with his Majesty on the subject, but it’s my assumption that he knows what Vex knows. All of us feel it’s best to have someone who can talk civilly with her, rather than being completely in the dark concerning what she’s up to.”

“I suppose that will have to do, for now,” Nintaumbi said with a deep frown. “So long as you’re aware she is using you.”

“Yes, and she’s aware that I’m using her. Mutuality is the foundation of all stable relationships, don’t you think?”

“Actually,” Branwen began.

“Anyway!” Basra shouted.

“Anyway, Mary is only tangentally related to this,” Darling continued. “In this dream-quest of Ingvar’s, he encountered a green dragon by the name of Khadizroth, who warned him of events happening in Viridill and that there was trickery afoot.”

“Khadizroth,” Vaumann said, narrowing her eyes.

“So,” Nintaumbi said grimly, “it seems we have our summoner.”

“Not necessarily,” Darling demurred.

The Colonel snorted. “We’ve been looking for a highly powerful and presumably immortal fae magician; green dragons have been specifically mentioned as likely culprits. Khadizroth the Green is a known figure who is not on the roster of the Conclave’s membership. When I hear hoofbeats, your Grace, I think of horses, not zebras.”

“Seriously,” Basra exclaimed, “what is a zebra?”

“There’s more to it than that, Colonel,” Darling said, frowning himself now. “The timing is suggestive. Ingvar, would you mind relating exactly what passed between you and Khadizroth? I’m sure you remember it better than I.”

“Of course,” said the Huntsman, nodding. “In the dreamscape, I first found Aspen, and then the dragon. We spoke with Khadizroth at some length; he rendered insight into Aspen’s situation and gave us magical aid for her, and then we discussed my visions and my quest. Which,” he added with a sudden frown, “I don’t think are pertinent here…”

“Go on,” General Vaumann said, nodding.

“In the end,” Ingvar continued, “Khadizroth said that he was beholden to someone he didn’t particularly like assisting, and had sent out visions in order to call for attention and help. He spoke of events in Viridill and Athan’Khar—not by name, but he referred to cursed lands to the south, and that can hardly mean anything else. His last comment was that someone should know that what was happening here was a smokescreen. And then…”

“Yes?” Nintaumbi said impatiently.

“I think,” Ingvar said slowly, “he was attacked.”

“Attacked?” Basra said, scowling.

“He broke off mid-sentence,” Ingvar replied, “and thrashed and cried out in obvious pain. His flailing was so severe that it seemed to damage the dream-scape, and forced my vision to an abrupt end.”

“So,” said Darling, “to summarize, Khadizroth knows something about what’s happening here, and was trying to summon help in a sufficiently roundabout method that it wouldn’t catch the attention of…well, we don’t know who, unfortunately. After a perfectly lovely conversation with Ingvar and Aspen, he tried to deliver that warning, and that was the point at which he came under attack. Obviously, there are any number of possible interpretations of this, and yes, one is that he’s somehow behind these events. But another, and more likely it seems to me, is that he’s down there trying to help, and the actual summoner just acted to put a stop to it.”

A grim silence fell over the tent, all those present staring around at one another with pensive and unhappy expressions.

“I’m not sure whether this has helped us or not,” Nintaumbi said finally.

“It is more information,” said Yrril. “In war, information is a commander’s lifeblood.” Vaumann nodded approvingly at her.

“But if anything, the waters are muddied even further,” the Colonel growled. “Now we have another player, and an obvious suspect for complicity if not outright responsibility in these attacks, and yet we’re still not certain if he’s doing this, or why.”

“One thing is obvious,” said Darling. “Assuming Khadizroth’s account was true, there is another player involved, one who has some kind of hold on him. It could be someone who’s fighting against him, or who sent him down there to help, or anything else.”

“Let’s not forget this dragon has an established relationship with the Archpope,” said Joe.

“What?” Vaumann exclaimed, while Basra and Darling turned identically inscrutable expressions on the Kid.

“It’s come up, when I’ve crossed wands with him,” Joe replied, glancing at Darling. “What kind of relationship I couldn’t tell ya, but it’s something.”

“Crossed wands…” Nintaumbi stared at him. “You’ve fought this dragon?”

“Twice,” said Joe, nodding.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Sarasio Kid,” Darling said grandly.

“So I can’t say I’m exactly his bosom buddy,” Joe continued, “but we’ve managed a couple of fairly civil conversations in and around the shootin’, an’ I’d have to say that of all the things I’d suspect Khadizroth of doin’, lying ain’t one. He’s a little obsessed with honor an’ integrity.”

“Boy, isn’t that the truth,” Aspen grumbled. “We were talking with him for all of five minutes and he managed to make half of it about that.”

“It wasn’t that much,” Ingvar said, patting her on the shoulder, “and he was not wrong.”

“Which puts us right back where we started,” Nintaumbi exclaimed.

“Indeed,” said Vaumann, nodding thoughtfully. “It seems the great tragedy here is that whatever struck him did so before he could reveal what he intended to.”

“When was this?” Basra asked, narrowing her eyes.

“Last night,” said Darling. “We stopped to rest and eat before coming, but even with that we made great time. Mary sent us off with some kind of fairy hoodoo to make the trip only a couple hours—this was from the elven grove on the north of the province. For some reason,” he added, grinning at Nintaumbi, “she wasn’t interested in coming along to chitchat with the Army.”

“What time last night?” Basra pressed.

Darling and Ingvar glanced at each other uncertainly.

“After midnight,” the Huntsman said after a moment. “There were no clocks in the grove, obviously. We could not see the position of the moon through the trees, and I for one was in a trance which tended to distort the passage of time.”

“Hm,” Basra mused. “I wonder what an Izarite shatterstone would do to a green dragon.”

“Very little,” said Branwen. “Those are only meant to be defensive; they react when magical entities invade the temples in which they are placed, transforming their inherent magic into the divine. It’s meant to critically weaken fairies and cause demons to burn. But a dragon is far too powerful a being to be severely affected by such an effect. Besides, the greens are not actually fairy creatures; they only use fae magic, and normally have spells of all four schools on hand besides.”

“Things work differently when used incorrectly, by definition,” Basra replied. “The fact that a shatterstone is meant to be a passive thing suggests it might cause entirely different effects when hurled at an enemy.”

“Sounds like you’ve had an interesting night, as well,” Darling remarked.

“All of this is speculation, and not particularly helpful,” said Vaumann. “Unless we can somehow arrange another conversation with this dragon, whatever he knows is lost to us. You said your people know rituals similar to this dream thing, Yrril?”

“I fear that is a null line of inquiry,” Yrril replied. “The priestesses I have brought with me are highly specialized in shielding and healing magic. By the time I sent to Tar’naris for a suitable specialist, battle is likely to be joined and the point moot. Besides, as I said, deliberately walking through the dream to connect to others is not part of Themynrite practice. Even if a priestess were willing to help, she would be improvising. Are we that desperate, yet?”

“Seems like an elvish shaman would be a better bet anyway,” Nintambi mused, “since they seem to do this on purpose.”

“Same problem applies,” said Basra. “It’d take a week to convince a woodkin shaman to leave their precious grove, and that’s assuming we could get one to listen at all. The elves up north were standoffishly sympathetic to our problem when I talked to them, but they’re still elves, and that would be asking a lot. I don’t suppose you have any idea where your friend Mary is now,” she added dryly.

Darling shrugged. “Generally speaking, you find out where Mary is when she feels like telling you.”

“What of the Viridill witches?” Vaumann suggested. “None came to the front with us, but there are still several in Vrin Shai.”

“I have no idea what any of them would even know about this,” said Basra, then frowned. “Wait, what? None came here? What the blazes do we need them for, if they’re not going to help with the elementals?”

“After Vrin Shai,” Vaumann said very dryly, “we determined they were better used as reserves to mop up individual events behind the lines while the military handled the main confrontation. They seem even less amenable to doing what they are told, when, and how, than the average run of civilians. Unless someone has another idea, then, I suppose that’s that. The information is appreciated, but it seems we’ll have to proceed as we were, without Khadizroth’s input.”

“Oh, all right,” Darling said with a cheerfully long-suffering expression. “I’ll go talk to him.”

Basra sighed. “Antonio…”

“In all seriousness, though,” he said, “he’s very likely in Athan’Khar, or near the border, right? I’ll head down there and have a word.”

“Are you off your nut?” Joe exclaimed.

“Okay, it’s like this,” said Darling, his expression sobering. “I’m a Bishop of the Universal Church, a ranking agent of the Thieves’ Guild and the former Boss thereof. I sit on the Imperial Security Council. I am the keeper of just all kinds of secrets, most of which I couldn’t share with you even if I were so inclined, because they aren’t mine, and there would be severe consequences if I blabbed. So, I’m sorry, but we’ve come to a point where I know things that you don’t and, with apologies, I can’t enlighten you.”

“But?” Vaumann prompted.

“But,” he said, “I have every reason to believe that if I approach, alone, Khadizroth will seek me out and hear me out.”

“That is absolute blithering madness,” Basra said bluntly. “Quite apart from the issue that this is a dragon we’re talking about, and one whose uncertain motives are the whole dilemma here… Antonio, that forest is going to spew forth hostile elementals at any time. If you go near it, you’re digging your own grave.”

“Well,” he said cheerfully, “you just gonna nitpick, or will you be useful and lend me a shovel?”

“Covrin,” she said, staring at him, “go punch Bishop Darling in the gut.”

“I—uh…” Jenell glanced, wide-eyed, between Basra and Darling, and took an uncertain half-step. “Yes…ma’am?”

“Stand at attention, Private Covrin,” General Vaumann said flatly.

“Yes, ma’am,” Jenell repeated, this time with obvious relief.

“Look, it’s like this,” said Darling. “I never go anywhere without a whole deck of aces up my sleeve, and I definitely don’t risk my own precious hide unless I am extremely confident in what I’m doing.”

“What are you doing, exactly?” Branwen asked, frowning worriedly.

“I am absolutely confident,” he said, “that I can approach the border, get Khadizroth to talk to me, and get away from him unmolested. That much I am certain of. What I’m not sure about is what the useful result of that conversation would be, so I definitely don’t suggest you put any of your plans on hold while you wait for me.”

“I assure you, your Grace,” Nintaumbi said woodenly, “no one was about to suspend operations based on…this.”

Darling grinned at him. “Just so. But in the end, what it comes down to is that I don’t answer to you. Unless somebody wants to scroll Boss Tricks in Tiraas and take a gamble that he cares enough to send me orders, you can’t stop me from going.”

“Oh, I think you’ll find there’s a lot we can do to prevent a civilian from wandering blithely into our combat zone,” Basra said, folding her arms.

Vaumann raised an eyebrow, looking in the direction of Basra and Branwen. “Your Graces are acquainted with your fellow Bishop; what do you think?”

“I won’t lie,” said Branwen, frowning, “this sounds like incredibly dangerous nonsense to me. But…Antonio has always known what he’s doing, ever since I’ve known him.”

“Yes,” Basra said somewhat grudgingly. “I believe I made mention of that in the first place. And he definitely knows the value of his own skin. If he says he can do this, he probably can.”

“Very well, then,” said Vaumann, glancing at Yrril and then Nintaumbi. “Unless someone else has an objection, you have my blessing, your Grace.”

“So long as it’s understood,” Nintaumbi said firmly, “that this will not lessen the firepower currently trained on what is about to be your position, Bishop Darling. For your sake, I dearly hope you do know what you’re doing.”

“Always do, Colonel,” he said cheerfully.

“I’d offer to go with you,” Joe added, scowling, “but me an’ Khadizroth…”

“I appreciate it, Joe.” Darling laid a hand on his shoulder. “You’re right, though; the history there would only make this harder. Heck, Ingvar or Aspen would be more likely to get his attention positively, but in this case my chances are best if I’m alone.”

“Ingvar and Aspen didn’t offer,” the dryad said pointedly.

“Anyway,” the Huntsman added, placing a hand on her upper back, “Aspen will be more valuable here.”

“Excuse me?” Nintaumbi exclaimed.

“That is actually a good point,” Vaumann said thoughtfully. “If Aspen is willing to help, her presence could work to put an end to hostilities. Elementals won’t attack a dryad.”

“Sure, that’s part of why I came,” Aspen said agreeably, shrugging.

“I do trust that you know what you’re doing,” Ingvar added directly to Darling. “And I have no trouble believing you know things you haven’t shared with us. All the same…be extremely careful. You court great danger.”

“Story of my life, believe it or not,” Darling said lightly. “Watch your back, too.”

“Always do.”

“If you intend to do this, your Grace,” Vaumann said pointedly, “it’s a walk of several hours to the border. I can arrange to have a rider carry you to the front lines, but beyond that point, you’ll be on your own.”

“Much appreciated, General!”

“Holy smokes.”

Everyone turned at the outburst to behold Schwartz, hair sleep-rumpled and with a steaming cup of tea in hand, staring at them from a few yards away. “Is that a dryad?!”

“Oh, look,” Aspen said acidly. “A gangly nitwit.”

To the shock of everyone present, Basra burst out laughing.


The sun had climbed barely to the apex of the sky when a very slight swelling of the shadows occurred near the fallen gates of Fort Varansis. It was a spot cast largely in shade anyway, due to the combination of the leaning, broken masonry and a twisted pine tree standing very close by.

Darling strolled out of the little nook a moment later, straightening his suit and peering about as if he hadn’t a care in the world beyond enjoying his stroll. He wandered into the crumbling courtyard of the old fortress, examining the remains of the previous night’s campsite. The fire had long since gone out, but the tracks everywhere were fresh, and abandoned bedrolls still lay there, with cooking utensils and a scattering of personal items nearby. He paced in an idle circle, examining all this, before bending to pick up a book.

“So you’re a warlock, now? I cannot say this surprises me.”

Darling straightened up, turned, and put on a broad grin. “Well, hello there! I don’t know whether to be delighted or disappointed. I had this whole routine worked out—you’d start by sending one of those elemental servants you seem to like so much, and then I’d say—”

“Following recent events,” Khadizroth interrupted, “my patience for these games has somewhat frayed. I am quite aware that you would not venture here without laying some kind of trap for me—as you must be aware that I would not approach you without making ample preparations of my own. I confess I did not expect to see you shadow-jumping, but as I said, on reflection it is oddly appropriate.”

“Oh, now, I can’t claim to be a master of the art,” Darling said brightly, resuming his slow circuit of the abandoned campsite. “Those Black Wreath talismans are always available to a fellow as resourceful as I.”

“Mm.” Khadizorth matched his slow circuit in the opposite direction, keeping the rough circle of sleeping rolls between them. The dragon, of course, wore the humanoid form to which he had been bound, as well as a distinctly skeptical expression. “At last, then, we meet. I must say I pictured this…differently.”

“Life’s like that, isn’t it?”

“Quite so. You are here, I gather, with regard to the business in Viridill?”

“I’ve been traveling with Brother Ingvar, in fact. We only recently learned of this.”

“Have you.” The dragon’s smooth emerald eyes narrowed further. “What is your interest in Ingvar?”

“He’s a friend.”

“Do you really have friends, your Grace? Or only pieces in your game to whom you smile as you move them about?”

“That’s your problem in a nutshell, K,” the thief countered. “You think those things are mutually exclusive. Eserite honor may not be the same kind you’re famous for preaching about—but on the other hand, nobody I call a friend has ever carried off vulnerable adolescents to form their own harem.”

“I see the civil portion of this dialog is at an end,” Khadizroth said bitingly. “Speak your piece, then, thief. I can only assume it contains whatever warning you have prepared that will persuade me not to obliterate you for your several insults and offenses against me.”

“Well, with regard to that,” Darling said, coming to a stop. He had placed himself opposite the entrance; the dragon likewise halted, turning to face him, framed by the open gate beyond. “We do need to talk about Viridill. And Ingvar, and most especially Justinian, and a variety of related topics. All of that’s new business, though, relatively speaking. Since you’ve been so generous with your time and didn’t make me argue with messengers before getting to you, we should have ample time for some old business to have a crack at you first.”

Khadizroth stared at him, frowning slightly for a moment, before his eyes widened infinitesimally in realization. Then he closed them, an expression of resignation falling across his features.

“I may have lied about that shadow-jumping talisman,” Darling confessed, folding his hands behind his back and smiling beatifically.

Slowly, Khadizroth turned around, opening his eyes to gaze at the two blonde, black-clad figures standing between him and the exit.

“Hello, girls,” he said softly.

“Hello, Khadizroth,” said Flora tonelessly.

“It’s time,” said Fauna, “we had a conversation.”

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10 – 42

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Though they still mostly lacked the paving of the Empire’s modern, carriage-friendly infrastructure, the ancient roads of Viridill had been designed to withstand time and the elements without needing major upkeep; most of them had been built when the province of Avei’s faithful had been beset on all sides by enemies, rivals, and marauding nomads, and needed to rapidly convey troops at minimal notice. The road, thus, was still a road and still navigable, but after nearly a century of scant use and no maintenance, it was in bad enough shape to throw up impediments to five people fleeing along it in the dark. Grasses had taken root even in its hard-packed surface, decades of wind and rain had gouged ruts and enormous potholes, and debris from the dense forest surrounding had fallen everywhere. All three priestesses ran with golden glows radiating from them, which helped a lot, but members of the party still tripped and stumbled often.

No one gave up. Even had anyone been so inclined, the sounds of what was coming after them would have spurred them onward. The eerie keening of whatever was running in an apparent group continued, but far worse were the long, aching screams, the far-too-human sounds of absolute pain and despair. And they were all growing steadily closer.

Ami proved to be in remarkably good shape; she was not only keeping up, despite awkwardly clutching her guitar case as she ran, but managing to hum almost continuously. It wasn’t quite full bardsong, but she lent what she could to the group. Schwartz, too, had cast a quick enhancement over them to keep them going once they all assembled on the bank beyond the frozen river. Between them, they had done what they could, and their efforts showed, but the group had been running for more than a quarter of an hour, and only Jenell and Basra were really trained for such exertion—and even Jenell was starting to falter, having to make the dash in armor.

They were all lagging. What was chasing them was still gaining.

Finally, Branwen lost her footing on a half-hidden tuft of grass and stumbled to her knees, barely catching herself against both palms and letting out a soft sob of pain and exhaustion. Around her, the rest of the group faltered as well, turning to look.

Basra kept going a few more steps before stopping and turning around. She stared down at the fallen Izarite for half a moment, then glanced up at the darkness swallowing the road in the direction from which they’d just come, then finally trotted back, reaching down to none too gently grasp Branwen under the shoulder and tug her upright.

“Not much further,” she said curtly, and even she was slightly out of breath. “The treeline is only a hundred yards ahead. Once we’re in the open, the armies will see us and help.”

“They don’t stop,” Ildrin wheezed, sagging forward and panting. “Why don’t they—”

“You shut your noise hole,” Basra snapped.

“They never forget, never forgive,” Ami said, clutching her guitar case as if for comfort; she was pale and utterly lacked her usual haughty poise. “They won’t stop till every drop of Tiraan blood falls. Once they get the scent—”

“That is not helping!” Basra exclaimed. “Come on, all of you, pull it together! We’re nearly out of the woods. Schwartz, is there any more you can do?”

“Very dangerous,” he croaked, panting heavily and with one hand pressed to his chest. “Messes up th’body… Natural capacity…”

“None of that will matter if we’re all—”

And then something burst from the trees beside the road, not ten yards behind them.

In the roughest sense, it was humanoid, pink and fleshy, but unformed as a scarecrow. Spindly arms were totally out of proportion to its body, tipped in fingers so long they resembled tentacles; for a head it had only a misshapen lump without apparent eyes. It had a mouth, though, a huge, gaping maw lined with uneven, flat teeth, dripping streams of viscous drool that glinted in the light of Basra’s aura. And it was easily fifteen feet tall.

The thing opened its mouth still wider and screamed, that same wail of anguish that had been following them since the fortress. This close, it was far louder, and somehow even more horrible. Ildrin and Branwen both staggered backward from it with muted cries.

Basra stalked forward, sword upraised; after a second, Jenell joined her, drawing her weapon and raising her shield.

Before they even reached the front of the group, the monstrosity wailed again and came charging toward them. Its speed was terrifying.

Schwartz spat a few unintelligible syllables and hurled Meesie straight at the thing, right over the heads of the two Legionnaires.

The mousy little elemental exploded in a massive fireball in midair.

What landed on the road between them and the monster of Athan’Khar was the size of a pony and more resembled a lion than a rodent, with a halo of seething flame for a mane. The creature didn’t so much as slow; letting out a deafening roar of challenge, Meesie charged forward, lunging to grasp one of its legs in her powerful jaws.

The elemental’s weight yanked the brute off-balance, and they tumbled sideways into the treeline, the monster emitting another anguished scream, this one sounding distinctly angrier. Meesie whirled to her feet and lunged on top of it, snarling and savaging the thing with fiery claws.

“Keep going,” Schwartz shouted, seeming to have recovered some of his breath. “She can’t hold it long!”

Branwen needed a tug from Ildrin to get moving again, and did so with a slight limp, but in the next moment they were all going, markedly slower than before, but still going. The sounds of battle receded behind them, but not fast enough for anyone’s comfort. In the distance but growing ever closer were the shrill, whining notes of the other kind of monster chasing them; not far behind the first beast came another ululating wail.

With a sharp pop and a flurry of sparks, Meesie appeared out of midair, again mouse-sized, and landed on Schwartz’s shoulder, squeaking in dismay.

“Out of time,” he panted, not glancing back.

“Almost there!” Basra shouted, pointing ahead with her sword. “See?”

Indeed, they were close; in the darkness they head nearly reached the treeline before being certain, but once they topped a small rise, a gap widened before them. The forest gave way to a wide plain, kept clear as a barrier against just the kinds of things now pursuing them; in the distance, two fortresses were visible, brightly lit with modern fairy lamps, and the torches of encamped armies even closer. Even in the dark and at this distance they could tell the forces massed there were significantly greater than when they had entered the woods the previous morning.

Topping the small hill seemed as if it would take the last strength from them, but they picked up speed running down the other side; for a wonder, none of them tripped or lost balance. In just a few moments more, they were emerging from the trees onto the plain, the road leading straight toward the fortress looming in the distance to the west.

The howl came from behind them, terrifyingly close.

And this time, the smaller shrilling of the other things was even closer.

They poured out of the trees only a dozen yards behind the fleeing humans, having seemingly avoided the road. There were easily a dozen of them, pasty white things like cave salamanders with far too many limbs, but they bounded along more like monkeys than spiders. That was all there was to them, seemingly: a central blobby mass and uneven numbers of gangly legs, with no signs of eyes or mouth. Nothing to indicate what produced that high-pitched keening.

Basra turned to face them again, her aura brightening and a shield flashing into place around her. “Schwartz, got anything else?”

“One las’ trick,” he wheezed, but was already moving as he did so, tucking his hands momentarily into his wide sleeves. He waved both of them in wide arcs, spreading his fingers; a hail of what seemed to be gravel flew from his left to strew across the ground, while he released a gout of powder from the right, which hung in the air, forming into a small grayish cloud.

Jenell pushed past him, raising her shield, as Basra stepped up on the other side; Ami and Ildrin huddled behind them, Branwen actually slumping to her knees in defeat.

The moment the first of the creatures crossed beneath Schwartz’s cloud, the night exploded into brightness.

A dozen small bolts of lightning slashed across the space between the cloud and what he had thrown to the ground. The spider-blobs kept charging heedlessly forward, and as soon as they lunged into the trap they were blasted to the earth by searing arcs of electricity. At the speed they were moving, it took only seconds for all of them to lie charred across the road, several still twitching feebly.

“Well done,” Basra panted.

Then the towering monster burst out of the treeline.

It bore long claw marks, oozing green ichor, as well as several burns, but it wasn’t slowed. Opening its mouth wide, it howled even louder than before at them, hurling itself forward in a mad charge.

Before anyone could stop her, Basra went pelting right at it.

The brute lunged forward, slashing at her with one of its gangling hands, fingers throwing off sparks as they scraped across her glowing shield.

The exchanged that followed was too rapid for the exhausted onlookers to make sense of, but in the next second, Basra was staggering backward, her shield collapsed under the sheer force of the blow, while the creature’s severed hand flopped to the road.

The howl it emitted was physically painful in volume. It hesitated barely a moment, brandishing the stump of its arm at them, before charging again.

Suddenly, black shapes swarmed around the group from behind, a whole wall of them planting themselves between the humans and the monster and raising a line of triangular shields. More darted forward, slashing at its legs.

The beast faltered, wailing and swiping ineffectually at the dark figures, which seemed like little more than shadows in the faint moonlight. They moved far too adroitly for it to strike.

Several more dashed into position, carrying long polearms; two of these charged at it from the sides, and deftly impaled the creature’s central body, then planted the butts of their weapons in the ground and held them down. It wailed, tugging back and forth and nearly dislodging its attackers, but even as they faltered, two more appeared, adding their own long shafts to hold it in place.

All the while, the milling shadows below went to worth with slashing weapons which were as indistinct as they in the darkness, ripping into its legs and actually beginning to carve chunks out of them. Wailing in fury and pain, the monster was progressively borne to the ground, the polearm warriors shifting position to keep it contained as it was systematically hacked to shreds.

Once they had its legs effectively removed, the shadows swarmed over it like ants, swiftly disabling its arms and then going to work on its central body. In only seconds more, its cries were silenced; mere moments thereafter, it stopped moving entirely.

The five humans stared at this over the shoulders of the shadow-figures between them and what remained of the monster.

Schwartz summed up everyone’s thoughts

“Uh—whuh?”

One shadow detached itself from the group, stepping toward them and lifting its hands to its head. It removed a helmet, an act which oddly made the dimly-glimpsed shape make sense; it, and all the others, were warriors in armor which had been treated with something to make it pitch black and non-reflective. The same effect had been applied to the blades of their long polearms and the sabers with which they had dispatched the monster.

Helmet off, the being revealed aquiline features, elongated ears, crimson eyes in a dark gray face and white hair cut in a bob that hung just below her chin.

“Drow?!” Jenell said in astonishment.

“Ah, good,” the drow said tonelessly, glancing at her. “A scholar. Bishop Syrinx, I presume?” she added, bowing to Basra. “I would ask how your negotiations went, but that would appear to be a formality.”

Another wail rose up very close by, and the drow commander’s gaze snapped in the direction of the forest.

A towering beast, seemingly identical to the first, lunged out of the treeline, pausing for a moment on the open ground to orient itself. Seconds later, a third emerged ten yards or so on its left.

The drow advance fighters scattered, forming themselves into a wide arc with pikemen interspersed along their length, preparing another takedown.

Before they could move, however, a barrage of lightning bolts came flashing out of the darkness to the northwest, carving scorched paths across the prairie grass and blasting the nearest monster off its feet. As it wailed in pain, the fire kept up, keeping it physically pinned down under the sheer fury of the attack even as it was systematically burned to a crisp.

Two squads of soldiers in light Imperial Army uniforms advanced toward them at a trot, their front ranks with staves leveled and firing even as they moved. What looked like a continuous stream of energy blasts was coordinated along the line, lightning flashing forward in a well-practiced pattern that kept up constant fire while allowing each trooper to let his weapon rest and avoid overheating. They came at an oblique angle that kept the drow out of their line of fire; circling around to do it had likely accounted for their late arrival.

The third monstrosity screamed in fury and turned to face them, setting off at a lumbering run; at a barked order from an officer, one squad peeled off, switching their fire to it and changing formation so the soldiers behind came into play, adding their staves to the assault. In seconds it had been brought down, thrashing and wailing while they came on. The first creature was barely stirring now, still under the continuous barrage of the first squad.

Of the humans sheltered behind the drow shield wall, all but Basra and Jenell actually sat down in the road, panting with exhaustion, and now, relief. The drow relaxed at a soft command from their leader, the advance warriors streaming back to join them and the shield defenders lowering weapons.

As the Imperial squads moved up even with the group, there came another barked order and the staff fire ceased. Moments later, orbs of elemental water were conjured in midair by battlemages and splashed downward onto the thoroughly dead and severely charred Athan’Khar monsters, followed by careful sprays that doused the small fires smoldering all over the area.

An officer peeled off from the first squad and trotted up to them, saluting as he came to a stop.

“Bishop Syrinx, glad to see you safe. Colonel Nintambi sends his regards; we’re to escort you back to the joint field command post.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” she said, nodding to him and sheathing her sword, before turning to peruse her bedraggled group. “Is Falaridjad still alive—ah, good. Take that woman into custody.”

He glanced uncertainly at the priestess, who was slumped on the ground with her head resting on her knees, shoulders heaving with the effort to draw breath. “Uh…ma’am? I mean, of course, but with all respect you don’t hold an Army rank; I’ll need a little bit more to go on.”

“Whatever follows from here is her fault,” Basra said curtly. “We succeeded in meeting and beginning negotiations with our antagonist, at which time this insubordinate, grandstanding mortal avatar of stupidity assaulted him with a relic she had apparently stolen from an Izarite temple. Our chance to make peace can be considered effectively squandered.”

Ildrin made no reply at all to this, still seemingly struggling for breath.

“I see,” the lieutenant said grimly, snapping his fingers and pointing to two of his soldiers. “You heard the Bishop; this woman is under arrest.”

“Sir!” the chorused, saluting, and stepped forward, each holding a staff in one hand and using the other to hike Ildrin upright by the shoulders. She offered no resistance, hanging limply in their grip.

“Where I am from,” the drow commander observed, “a person would be slain on the spot by her commanding officer for such conduct.”

“We have different ways here,” Basra replied. “I want her to survive to see the outcome of whatever follows, so she can be publicly held to account for every last ounce of the ensuing carnage.”

“Ah.” The commander nodded, smiling faintly. “I can see the virtue in such an approach.” The Tiraan lieutenant gave her an uneasy sidelong glance.

“The Empire and the Silver Legions I expected to find here,” Basra continued, “but your presence is a surprise. Not that I am anything less than grateful, mind.”

“Forgive me. I am Yrril nur Syvreithe d’zin An’sadarr, and have the honor of commanding the Narisian contingent attached to the coalition here.” She saluted in the Narisian style, twirling her saber then touching its tip to her temple before sheathing it. “Queen Arkasia was extremely curious at the sudden massing of troops this close to Tar’naris; upon being appraised of the situation, she dispatched forces to assist. The queen takes our treaty with the utmost seriousness. Tiraas and Tar’naris are sisters; whoso attacks one shall contend with both.”

“I, for one, am extremely delighted to see you here,” Basra said, bowing. “I’m sure my companions will concur when they have their breath back.”

Schwartz waved weakly, nodding in agreement.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Basra added somewhat wryly, “but I devoutly hope the rest of this event proves to be a complete waste of your time.”

“So does every sane soldier,” Yrril replied, her thin Narisian smile of courtesy expanding by a few bare iotas to show a hint of real amusement. “Based on your account, however, I fear we shall not be so blessed.”

“Indeed,” Basra said more grimly. “Lieutenant, and… I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your rank?”

“I would customarily be addressed by given name by anyone not in my chain of command,” the drow replied, “but if it comforts you, we commonly translate the rank as Archcommander.”

“Archcommander, then. Lieutenant. If you’d kindly lead the way to the rest of those in charge, I have people badly in need of rest and medical attention.”

“Forgive me, ma’am,” said the lieutenant, “but it appears you could do with some yourself.”

Basra shook her head. “In time. First, I have a detailed report to present. The coalition’s leaders have to know what happened and what to expect.” She glanced back at the dark forest, narrowing her eyes. “I can’t say how soon, but we are about to be at war.”

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10 – 40

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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.”

“That’s…it’s…there are…”

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.”

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10 – 37

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“It even looks evil,” Ami said nervously, clutching her guitar case and staring across the river.

Fort Varansis was situated on a long island in the River Asraneh, directly in front of them. The river, here, was broad and shallow, diverted into two lesser streams by the sizable island in its center. At this time of year, the current was fairly swift but not too dangerous to wade through; to their right, a sequence of crumbling stone pillars extended from the shore to the island, all that remained of an ancient bridge.

The fort itself did not look particularly ominous, though it was definitely in a sad state. After a century of abandonment, it was as much forest as fortress; though trees would ordinarily not have been permitted to grow near the walls of a fortification, and probably not on the island at all, the woods which extended from within Athan’Khar across the river into Viridill had long since overtaken everything. The fortress itself was more Avenist than Tiraan in style, stark and utilitarian—for the most part it had held up fairly well, the only major damage to its walls being where they had been ruptured by the unchecked growth of trees.

It was the trees that gave the scene its unsettling appearance. This was a pine forest, and its denizens were meant by nature to grow straight and tall—which, north of the river, they did. The trees on the island, however, were twisted into clearly unhealthy shapes, with bulbous trunks and clawed limbs, not to mention peculiar patterns on the bark.

“Is my imagination running away from me,” Ildrin asked tersely, “or do some of them seem to have…faces?”

“If it’s imagination, it’s not just yours,” Jenell muttered.

“None of them have faces,” Basra said in exasperation, rolling her eyes. “Are you about done, Schwartz?”

“With you, yes, ma’am,” he said, stepping back from her and eying her over critically before nodding to himself in satisfaction and moving down the line to Jenell, who was last. With Meesie sitting alert on his shoulder, he repeated the procedure he’d performed on all the others, first producing a pinch of powder from one of his pockets and sprinkling it on her forehead. Unlike some of her companions, Jenell didn’t sneeze, though the effort caused her to squint and wrinkle her nose. Schwartz, meanwhile, raised the gnarled wand he had been carrying, which still had some green and apparently living leaves attached to it, and began making slow, careful passes over her, stepping slowly around her to be sure he didn’t miss a spot. How he could tell was anyone’s guess, but he appeared quite confident in what he was doing.

“And actually,” he said as he worked, “it’s not impossible that some of those trees do have faces. Or bark formations that very deliberately resemble them, anyway. I couldn’t help noticing some of the branches look a lot like arms. With the bony fingers, you know?”

“Aren’t you a ray of sunshine,” Ami muttered.

“But they’re perfectly safe,” Schwartz continued blithely. “These woods are cleared now, but remember that for a big chunk of a century they were under the effect wrought on Athan’Khar by the Enchanter’s Bane. Everything in there went weird, and very hostile. Plants, animals…lots of rather peculiar undead. So, yes, those are biologically normal trees, but they don’t just take on a different shape because the wild magic that shaped them is gone now.”

“Are you sure you can talk while doing that?” Jenell asked pointedly.

“Oh, don’t worry, this isn’t complex at all! Just time-consuming.” Meesie squeaked in confirmation, nodding her tiny head.

“And if he messes it up, the worst that happens is you’ll get wet,” Basra said archly. “I’m certain you’ve been trained for that, Private.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Jenell said stiffly, a faint blush suffusing her cheeks.

“There is something I’ve been curious about, though, just to wrench the subject away from probably-not-evil trees,” Schwartz continued. “It occurred to me when we were passing the defensive lines being set up by the Army and the Second Legion along the border back there. How come the Silver Legions are so…old-fashioned? I mean, I understand religions have traditions and all, but for a cult dedicated to war it appears odd to deliberately fall behind the curve of military tactics and equipment.”

“Look in front of you, Schwartz,” said Basra, staring across the river at the crumbling fortress.

“Actually, please look at what you’re doing,” said Jenell.

“What happened in there changed everything,” Basra continued, ignoring her. “The holocaust of Athan’Khar, the Enchanter Wars which followed. The Legions were instrumental in driving back Heshenaad’s campaign, but it’s also true that Viridill was the first Imperial province to secede following the Bane, and the Silver Legions crushed a numerically superior Imperial force immediately afterward.”

“That was before battlestaves were commonplace,” Schwartz noted.

“And, in fact, the Legions used them, then,” Basra replied, nodding. “Such weapons weren’t issued to the rank and file; they were considered a kind of mobile artillery. But yes…that was then, this is now. Politics is war of a different kind, and in the modern world, the Sisterhood has its base and holy sites within an Empire which remembers the threat an up-to-date Legion can pose.”

“So you deliberately gave up your ability to wage war effectively?” Branwen asked, tilting her head. “I must say that seems odd.”

Basra smiled faintly, gazing across the river. “War is deception.”

“Well, there we are!” Schwartz said more briskly, straightening up and tucking his leaf-wand into one of his billowing sleeves. “All finished and waterproof. Shall we, then?”

“Now, you’re certain the protections on my case are adamant against water?” Ami demanded, clutching her guitar case protectively.

“I assure you,” Schwartz said, smiling, “I took great care with it.”

“Because I don’t mind getting wet, if I must, but if my instrument is damaged, you and I shall have a talk the outcome of which you will not enjoy.”

“I have a little sister,” he replied. “Have I mentioned that?”

Ami raised an eyebrow slowly. “And that is relevant to…what, exactly?”

“That I know very well not to risk damaging a girl’s most prized possession. I promise, Ami, your guitar will be safer for the trip than any of us.”

“Well, I suppose I can accept that,” she said, somewhat mollified.

“If you are quite done?” Basra said acidly, stepping forward into the river without waiting for a reply. Branwen sighed and gave the others a rueful smile as she moved to follow.

One by one, they slipped into the river, following the two Bishops single file, as Basra had ordered. She led the way slowly, taking care with each step. Long ago this river had been deeper on both sides of the island, and had been regularly dug out for defensive purposes. Now, it was broader than deep by far, its basin filled with silt; even the old bridge terminated in mid-stream, ending at the ghost of a shore that no longer existed. Schwartz’s charm work improved their footing as well as keeping them dry and protecting their shoes from being sucked away by mud, but still, fording a river with a muddy bottom and a brisk current was a dicey proposition. They followed carefully in the path that Basra had already confirmed passable, tense and exceedingly cautious.

They crossed without incident, however, and reassembled on the opposite bank, which had to be climbed, being far taller and less approachable than that on the other side. The six of them clustered together, nervously inspecting the nearby fortress and their own oddly dry clothes, with the exception of Basra, who stepped forward to peer across the river at the Athan’Khar side.

It was very much like the smaller forest here on the island, its trees distinctly menacing in aspect, but even bigger. There were no sounds but those of the river and cheerful songbirds, though; shafts of afternoon sunlight made a quite pretty spectacle in the woods on the haunted side. Of course, according to Schwartz’s information, the actually haunting was half a mile distant.

Still. Athan’Khar was feared for very good reason.

“I sense nothing undead, demonic, or otherwise Pantheon-opposed,” she said abruptly, grabbing everyone’s focus. “Snowe? Falaridjad?”

“Nothing,” Ildrin said curtly. “It’s…so empty. That disturbs me. In a place like this, it seems I should feel something.”

“That’s your expectations distracting you,” Branwen said with a kind smile. “Where one expects evil and horror, the absence of anything can be quite alarming. But no, Basra, I sense nothing either. Forgive me if I sound boastful, but my particular skills are rather more suited to this than either of yours. Nothing in the vicinity means us harm, or is even aware of us. In fact, I can’t feel the presence of any intelligence except our own.”

“Mm.” Basra shifted her gaze to Schwartz. “And you?”

“Offhand, the same,” he said, frowning, “but I’d need to set wards and cast a ritual to be certain. My magic doesn’t work the same way as yours. Now that we’re here, anyway, wards are a priority.”

“I thought you said this mysterious summoner was more than a match for you,” Ildrin said pointedly.

“Oh, he or she most certainly is,” Schwartz agreed. “And the whole point of this is to invite a visit from them, anyway, so it’s not as if we’d be trying to ward them off. That’s not what I’m concerned about. That’s Athan’Khar over there. We need forewarning of anything unnatural approaching the fortress. The spirits… They’re all interconnected. Mixed together. If one of them discovers there’s a party of humans camped on the border, more will come. And still more, until they either drive us off or destroy us.”

“Which would be inconvenient,” Basra said dryly. “Very well, you can set that up after we’ve made a quick tour of our temporary home. I don’t want the group to split up at this juncture, and we need to investigate the fortress briefly, at least, before settling in.”

“Ugh.” Ami wrinkled her nose in protest. “In heaven’s name, why?”

“You can’t possibly be that daft,” Ildrin said, staring at her.

“She’s not,” Basra said. “Bards love their little dramas. We’ll be camping in the courtyard, rather than inside the building, which is very likely to be unsafe after all this time. But we will at least look, and diminish the chance of being taken by surprise.” She turned on her heel and strode toward the yawning gates of Fort Varansis, whose doors had long since rotted away to nothing. “After coming all this way and taking all these precautions against fairy summoners and vengeful spirits, it would be awfully embarrassing to get eaten by a bear.”


“Ouvis and Naphthene make a lot more sense to me now,” Darling was saying as they made their way up the twisting dirt passage to the grotto above. “He ignores any attempted worshipers; she’s been known to answer prayers with lightning bolts. I always figured she was just a bitch, playing that unpredictable-as-the-sea bit a little too seriously, but now I wonder if Naphthene doesn’t have the entire rest of the Pantheon beat for simple common sense.”

“Those are the only two who make more sense,” Ingvar mused. He was bringing up the back of the line, and had been deep in thought since they had finally left the Elder Gods’ facility, though he hadn’t hesitated to participate in the discussion. “How many gods have no paladins? How can they? If what we’ve learned… Vesk, for instance. Who ever heard of a bard paladin?”

“Well,” Darling said thoughtfully, “keep in mind we seized upon the word ‘paladin’ to explain what the Avatar was describing… But really, that’s as much a cultural concept as a spiritual or magical one. He said the gods just need someone in whom to focus themselves, right? I mean, the ancient Huntsmen clearly weren’t paladins as we think of them, but they also obviously served Shaath in that regard.”

“I wonder,” Joe mused. “Since you mentioned Vesk. How many bards are there?”

“Practicing Veskers or fully accredited bards?” Darling asked.

“There, see, I reckon that makes the difference. A proper bard is somethin’ more’n just the general run o’ musician, right?”

“I think I see what you’re getting at,” Darling said, his voice growing in excitement. “Actually, you may be more right than you know. Vesk has a reputation for being more friendly and approachable with his initiates than any other god, but only with the actual, fully trained and invested bards. Of whom there are… Well, it’s not like I’ve ever taken a census, but I can’t imagine they number more than several thousand, worldwide.”

“If every bard is a paladin,” Ingvar said, trailing off.

“That seems like it’d jus’ compound the problem, right?” Joe said, glancing back at them. He was again leading the way with his wand lit. “Still. All he’d need to do is hide a handful of ’em in the ranks, an’ if he’s friendly with his bards anyway, an’ the significant ones don’t necessarily look any different than the others…”

“That’s the long and the short of it,” Darling agreed. “Not every god has called paladins, but… That doesn’t mean they haven’t used this…paladin effect, for want of a better term. If anything, it’s probably smarter for some of them not to call attention to their most important followers.”

“Perhaps they learned from Shaath’s case,” Ingvar said with a sigh. “If you do not take care to manage your flock, they can be used against you.”

“Exactly,” said the Bishop, nodding. “I bet a good many of the gods have their paladins invisible under everyone’s noses. Depending on exactly how it works in each case, even the paladins may not know. What I’m curious about now is Vidius. That one went from no apparent paladin to a very public one—suddenly, after eight thousand years. And he picked a half-demon. That deity is up to something…”

“Gods aside,” Joe muttered, “I’m kinda hung up on that bit about gnomes. I’ve suddenly got some hard questions about a certain incident involving a sonic grenade and a saloon. More’n I did in the first place, I mean.”

They emerged rather suddenly into the lovely little grotto under the tree. Joe stepped aside, extinguishing his wands and letting the others emerge. For a few moments, they just stood there in silence, listening to the soft voice of the stream and letting their eyes adjust to the filtered sunlight.

“It suddenly occurs to me,” Ingvar said, “that the air down there was remarkably fresh. It tasted more like a mountain morning than a cave.”

“I guess if you’re the Infinite Order, you don’t have to settle for stale air,” Darling said.

“Infinite Order.” Ingvar shook his head. “I… Quite apart from my quest, from Shaath’s predicament… I don’t know what to do with all this information.”

“Ain’t a whole lot you can do with most of it, seems like,” Joe said, holstering his wand. “And really, how much difference does it make? The world’s still what it was when we got up this morning. We just know a bit more about where it came from, that’s all. I reckon more knowin’ is better than less.”

“Hear, hear,” Darling said firmly.

“Which reminds me,” Joe added, turning to him. “You mentioned something I’m very curious about. What was—”

“Do you plan to stay down here chatting all afternoon?” Mary asked, striding into the chamber from the hidden door behind the tree roots.

“Ah, look who it is,” Darling said cheerfully. “Our standoffish tour guide! I trust you had a good seat from which to watch the action—you certainly weren’t terribly close to it.”

“I’ll be happy to indulge in wordplay with you another time, Antonio,” she said with a slight smile, “when there are not more pressing matters. Ingvar.” The Crow turned to the Huntsman, her expression becoming solemn. “Do you feel you have gained the answers you needed?”

“I feel…” Ingvar paused, rolling his jaw as if chewing on his thoughts. “…I feel I have gained the perspective to ask the right questions.”

Mary smiled more warmly at that. “You do have the seeds of wisdom within you, young man. I had a feeling, from the beginning.”

“Or he’s heard enough of your mystic routine by now to know how to parrot it back,” Darling suggested, grinning at the irritated look Ingvar shot him.

“In that, too, there is some wisdom, as you of all people know,” Mary said pointedly. “Now. First, you three will be needing a meal, I suspect. Or…did you try the nutrition pellets?” The corner of her mouth quirked upward in a mischievous expression. “They really are the most fantastic travel rations; you’d be well served to take a handful home with you. The trick is to swallow as quickly as possible.”

“We declined that distinct pleasure, in fact,” said Joe. “Lunch sounds real good right about now.”

“It would be closer to dinner,” Mary said with a fond smile, “but yes, let us attend to that.”

“Are you sure it’s a good idea to impose on the grove?” Ingvar asked warily. “Elder Linsheh was polite, but I gathered the distinct impression they elves in general are in no mood for visitors.”

“There is no need to trouble them,” said the Crow lightly, “any more than we will simply by being in their forest, since they will insist upon keeping watch. But no, what we must do next will not require their involvement. They will not, I trust, object to our use of the forest outside.”

She paused, tilting her head as if expecting a response from unseen listeners, but none came.

“What we must do next?” Joe asked. “What’s… I mean, wasn’t that it? We got the information we came for, right, about what happened to Shaath, and how?”

“That wasn’t the full extent of the quest,” Darling said, turning to Ingvar, “but I thought it was pretty well established we can’t do anything for him right now. What comes next will take careful planning and, honestly, effort that could last years. We’ll be there to help, Ingvar, but I at least can’t afford to drop everything and devote myself to this…”

“No.” The Huntsman shook his head. “No, this quest is finished. I know what I need to, and you’re correct; proceeding will take time, and much further study. I thank you, shaman, for your aid; you made this possible. There was, however, the matter of a bargain. You wish to collect immediately?” He turned a questioning look upon Mary.

“The trail will grow colder the longer it is ignored,” she said calmly.

“Bargain?” Joe asked. “Wait…did you already tell me about this? I’m sorry, after the wham-bam of revelations an’ visions over the last couple days I don’t feel like my brain’s runnin’ on all charms.”

“The visions were sent to me,” Ingvar said, folding his arms, “but some outside party whom we can be even more sure now was not Shaath. The Crow is very eager to know who this person is, since he quite deliberately pointed me toward her. And I, I must confess, am as well.”

“Seems like it’d be worth knowing,” said Darling. “What’s the plan, then? Isn’t this something you could handle yourself, Mary?”

“Any shaman powerful and subtle enough to do this would be able to evade my tracking,” she said calmly, “possibly unless I had a great deal more to go on than I do, which is moot anyway. However, they clearly reached out to Ingvar. I believe they will entertain an overture from him.”

“An overture?” Joe scratched his head, displacing his hat. “How? I thought you said these hints came from dreams?”

“And through dreams they can be explored,” said the Crow with a knowing little smile. “The ritual is somewhat involved, and you will, as I said, need to eat first. This is not something to undertake without the full strength of mind and body. From here on, however,” she added, “Ingvar must go alone. This mysterious agent will have nothing to say to either of you, and including you would likely discourage him or her from speaking to Ingvar.”

The Huntsman nodded, then turned and bowed deeply to each of them. “I thank you both, as well, for your companionship. Brief as this adventure has been, you’ve made it even more enlightening than it otherwise might have been.”

“Oh, stop with all the goodbye,” Darling said, reaching out to bop him lightly on the head. “We’re not gonna run off now. You may be doing dream rituals, but that just means Joe and I can laze about nearby. Gods only know what this is going to bring down on us all.”

“If you’re in some kinda dream state, all the more reason to have a couple friends watchin’ your back,” Joe added with a grin.

“I flatter myself that I am a reasonably competent watcher,” Mary said wryly.

“Shush,” Darling ordered. “This is guy stuff. You wouldn’t understand.”

At the expression on her face, even Ingvar had to break into laughter. That, at least, spared him the need to reply to them, which he wasn’t confident he could do with any grace. Things between the three were amiable, now, since the wolves…but very much uncertain, for the same reason.

“Let me ask you a question, though,” Darling said in a more serious tone, frowning at Mary. “Did you send a…what was it? A shadow elemental to warn Malivette Dufresne we were coming?”

She raised her eyebrows sharply. “I certainly did not.”

“Yeah, I figured,” he said, nodding. “That doesn’t seem like your style. Then we should all be aware that a certain mysterious someone with significant elemental powers has been not only tracking our moves, but staying a step ahead of us. Shadow elementals… I’ve only heard of that once or twice. They’re rare, aren’t they?”

“Difficult to make,” said Joe. “Takes a heck of a witch to summon somethin’ like that.”

“The ability to approach through dreams,” Ingvar said slowly. “That is a fae power, is it not?”

“There are techniques within all four schools of magic to do such things,” Mary replied. “It is most easy through the fae, though, and most effectively—assuming the proper skill—the divine. But yes, I see the course of your thoughts, Antonio, and I think you’re correct. When you reach out through the dream, Ingvar, you must be aware that your arrival will probably be expected.”

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“The point is this: I don’t believe we are under attack.”

Basra’s pronouncement had the desired effect; the undercurrent of murmuring in the office immediately ceased, and all those present fixed their eyes on her, most frowning. In many places such a statement might have brought on a rush of shouts and denials, but the individuals here were all of a more disciplined nature.

Governor Tamshinaar’s spacious office was very nearly cramped with the full complement of those assembled. Basra occupied the middle of the central floor, with the rest of her party—now including Mr. Hargrave—spread along the wall behind her. The Governor herself sat behind her desk, with her secretary Mr. Dhisrain standing discreetly against the wall behind. Assembled on the upper tier of the office around the desk, and spilling down the steps where space ran out, was nearly the entire upper leadership of Vrin Shai and Viridill itself. Generals Ralavideh and Vaumann, who commanded the Fourth and Second Silver Legions, respectively, stood together to the left of Tamshinaar’s desk, with Legate Raizheh Salindir, the ranking priestess of Avei in the Vrin Shai temple and the province itself. The city’s mayor, a stout and surprisingly young woman named Lorna Mellon, stood on the other side of the dais with Colonel Nintaumbi, who commanded the Imperial forces in Viridill. Nintaumbi was a broad-faced Westerner whose wide frame was all muscle and a testament that he didn’t take his rank as an excuse to sit behind a desk, and incidentally the only man on the dais aside from the Governor’s secretary.

“How would you describe these events, then, your Grace?” General Vaumann asked pointedly, arching a blonde eyebrow.

Basra partially turned to glance behind her. “I spent the early part of the morning with Mr. Hargrave, here, and several of his friends. For those of you who don’t know, Hargrave is a practicing witch and a respected figure in the local community of fae magic users; when I first set out from the Abbey to investigate the elemental incidents, he was the first person I visited, and has spent the last few days meeting up with his fellow witches from around the region. Mr. Hargrave, would you kindly summarize the situation for them as you did for me earlier?”

“Of course, your Grace,” he said politely, stepping forward and pausing to give a deep bow to the assembled dignitaries. “Ah, Ladies, officers…everyone. I’m sorry, I’m more accustomed to my little town…”

“Please don’t be self-conscious, Mr. Hargrave,” Lady Tamsin said with a kind smile. “I appreciate you putting forth so much effort on behalf of our province. Now, what can you tell us about this?”

“Yes, well,” Hargrave said more briskly, “as Bishop Syrinx said, I went to meet with some of my…well, I suppose ‘colleagues’ is a word, though the nature of our association…is immaterial, sorry.” He paused, grimacing, and tugged on his collar. “Most practitioners of the fae arts are rather solitary creatures, aside from being the least popular type of magician among humans. There are probably several hundred scattered throughout Viridill, but I’m personally acquainted with a few dozen, and it was them I sought out to consult about the elemental problem. And actually, I am back here so quickly because many had the same idea. I was spurred into action by Bishop Syrinx, but it seems many of my friends have been receiving…portents.”

“Can you be more specific about that?” General Ralavideh asked sharply.

“It’s…the answer to that question is generally going to be ‘no,’” Hargrave said hesitantly. “I presume you are familiar with the basics, but the main difference between arcane scrying and fae divination is the tradeoff between specificity and…you might call it penetration power. Scrying gives you very precise information, almost perfect pictures if you do it just right, but scrying is quite easy to block or deflect with counterspells. A mage of sufficient skill can even intercept scrying spells and feed them false information, so I’m told, though it’s not really my field…”

“Mr. Hargrave,” Colonel Nintaumbi interrupted, “everyone here is either a military professional or works with them closely. We know the nature and limits of tactical scrying.”

“Ah, yes, I’m sorry.” Hargrave was clearly badly out of his element; the normally self-confident man hunched his shoulders slightly under the rebuke.

“Kindly refrain from badgering the specialist I’ve brought in to help, Colonel,” Basra said coldly.

“Yes, let us keep the side commentary to a minimum until we’ve heard everything, shall we?” the Governor suggested. “Please continue, Mr. Hargrave.”

“Yes, of course,” Hargrave said quickly. “Well, oracular divination is the opposite: nearly impossible to interfere with, but far more…vague. The information one gets that way tends to be rather symbolic. Any serious witch performs divinations at various times for specific reasons, but we also make ourselves receptive to them; the spirits and beings with which we have congress often communicate most readily in that manner. And that is why many of my fellow practitioners were urged into action at the same time I was, despite having different kinds of urgings. We met near the center of the province, not far from here, and compared notes. It seems many of Viridill’s witches have been contacted quite deliberately. It is, as I said, vague, but we believe these visions to have been sent by the being responsible for the elemental attacks.”

“Indeed,” Lady Tamsin replied, leaning forward and frowning intently. “And what does this person have to say?”

“Filtered through the perceptions of a dozen different practitioners,” said Hargrave, “and after comparing notes amongst ourselves, we feel the visitor is trying to court us. Well, them. I was not approached.”

“Court,” General Vaumann said sharply, “as in recruit?”

Hargrave nodded. “The overtures varied somewhat by individual, but the common theme among all was a sense of friendship.”

“You mentioned, Mr. Hargrave, that you were prompted into action by Bishop Syrinx,” said Mayor Mellon. “Does that mean you did not receive such an invitation?”

“Indeed not, your…ah, ma’am,” he said. “For a fairy practitioner of sufficient skill and power—which this person surely is—it’s possible to send out a message tailored to a certain range of emotional perceptions. Fae magic is very good with emotional states. Any time you hear of some ‘chosen one’ being designated without a god doing it specifically, you can bet you’re dealing with fairy magic. We think this mysterious summoner was sending out his message to target those most easily agitated against the establishment here in Viridill.”

“I see,” the Governor mused. “And yet, many of these who got this message came to discuss it with you.”

“Well, m’lady, we’re all creatures of emotion,” he replied. “But we are not ruled by our feelings. That’s just…being an adult. Due to a certain dark chapter in Imperial history which I’m sure you all know, witches in particular tend to be rather standoffish toward the rest of society; it’s a state of mind which could attract such a questing spell. But we all know which side our bread is buttered on, so to speak. Especially those of us here in Viridill; the witches of this land may be reclusive, but we greatly appreciate the shelter offered by the Sisterhood of Avei, and certainly have no wish to see our neighbors harmed. Presented with the likelihood that someone was trying to undermine Viridill itself, most of my friends were moved to meet and compare notes, see what we can do about this. Not being a receiver of the message myself, I wasn’t included in the dream summons they sent out until I was already on the way to investigate, and then it naturally picked me up. But since Bishop Syrinx spoke to me, I was able to direct everyone back to Vrin Shai. Well, first to the Abbey, but she was already gone from there so we thought…”

“This ‘everyone’ you speak of,” Legate Salindir said quietly. “I know you and your witches were instrumental in pacifying the water elementals last night, for which you have our appreciation. I was told there were fourteen of you present?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, nodding. “And more who didn’t come here. Once we brought each other up to speed, helping the capital was one concern; the others have scattered through the province to gather up more support and direct it wherever more elementals may pop up.”

“How many?”

“Seventeen others when we left them, your, uh…ma’am. There will be more by now, I’m sure.”

“And,” the Legate continued, staring piercingly down at him, “how many practitioners do you think will respond favorably to the aggressor’s overtures?”

Hargrave tightened his mouth unhappily. “There…are always a few, aren’t there? Much as I’d like to think my folk have better sense and better morals, there just aren’t any barrels without a bad apple or two. I shouldn’t think more than a handful, if that. Honestly I don’t know of anyone I’d consider likely to turn against the Sisterhood or Viridill that way, but I hardly know every witch in the province.”

“Nonetheless, your insights are extremely helpful, Mr. Hargrave,” said the Governor.

He grinned, bobbing his head. “Well, ah, thank you, m’lady. I try to be useful.”

“It was the other thing you told me that I thought everyone most urgently needs to hear,” Basra said pointedly.

“Oh! Yes, right, I’m sorry.” Hargrave turned to nod to her, then faced the dais again, his expression growing dour. “A constant in everyone’s visions and dreams has been… Athan’Khar. After talking it over, we’re reasonably sure the messages are coming from there. That’s probably where the summoner is hiding.”

“When I spoke with the elves in the Green Belt,” Basra added, stepping forward again and raising her voice over the murmurs that sprang up, “they hinted at the same. All current evidence is circumstantial, but I consider it a solid working theory at this point that our enemy is hiding in Athan’Khar.”

“That casts another color on this entirely,” General Ralavideh said sharply. “We all know there’s only one kind of powerful spellcaster native to there…”

“In point of fact,” said Basra, “I consulted with Colonel Nintaumbi just before this meeting on that very thing. Colonel, if you would kindly share with us what you told me?”

“Certainly,” he said, nodding and turning to face the others on the dais. “I know what you’re all thinking, but it needn’t necessarily be a headhunter, and in fact I think the circumstances counter-indicate that, even if we accept the hypothesis that our enemy is hiding there. Everything we know of this summoner suggests a fae magic user of immense skill and power, correct? Headhunters, by contrast, are not notably skilled or strong in any one school of magic. In terms of straightforward destructive ability, they aren’t really comparable to an archmage, paladin or sufficiently talented warlock. What makes them dangerous is their ability to counter any kind of magic used against them, and the fact that their magic is not wielded consciously, but by the spirits within them. They have faster reaction times than even an elf, and an arsenal of spells that enables them to mitigate any attack, even one far stronger than their own.”

“That,” said General Vaumann dryly, “and they are homicidally insane.”

“Indeed,” the Colonel agreed, nodding to her. “And that’s another point. All this indicates planning. Headhunters simply don’t do that, at least not in the long term. Whatever the personality traits of the elf who makes the journey to Athan’Khar, when dealing with a headhunter our business is with the spirits within, and those are wildly aggressive. There has never, ever been a case of a headhunter doing something so well-planned and subtle. To the extent that when they do exhibit such controlled behavior, it’s usually the elf’s personality breaking through and attempting to subdue the voices of the spirits, which some have been able to do for fairly long periods at a time.”

“What’s to stop a headhunter from being in total agreement with those spirits about needing to destroy humanity and the Empire?” General Ralavideh asked pointedly. “I assume no elf makes that pilgrimage without knowing what to expect.”

“Not impossible,” Nintaumbi conceded. “Interviews with headhunters have been necessarily brief. It would be without precedent, though. I cannot imagine having a brain full of screaming maniacs is good for anyone’s mental stability.”

“Surely nothing but a headhunter could live in Athan’Khar,” the Mayor protested.

“Actually, that’s not necessarily true, ma’am,” Schwartz piped up, seemingly not noticing the quelling look Basra directed at him. “Anyone powerful enough to do what we’ve seen them do could contend with the forces in there. Especially if they’re not human; the spirits of Athan’Khar are dangerous for anybody, but it’s only humans they always go out of their way to attack.”

“Bear in mind that anything we conclude at this point is speculation,” said Basra. “We are just barely beyond the realm of guesswork; there’s scarcely enough information to begin forming theories. But we have been dealing with this individual long enough for certain patterns to emerge, and from those we can draw some preliminary conclusions.”

“And just what have you concluded, your Grace?” the Governor asked.

“Elder Linsheh made the point that for a witch or shaman to accumulate this much power they would have to be quite old,” said Basra, beginning to pace slowly up and down the floor. “Humans possibly can live that long, especially lifelong practitioners of fae crafts, but as Schwartz points out a human inside Athan’Khar would be too constantly on the defensive from the inhabitants to arrange anything like this. We are, therefore, likely dealing with an elf or a green dragon, if not some kind of miscellaneous fairy. Naiya’s get are not well-categorized.”

“The Conclave of the Winds insist they represent every living dragon on the continent,” Colonel Nintaumbi mused. “There are several names of dragons the Empire presumed active missing from their roster, which we had taken to mean those dragons were dead. A few of them were greens. Then again, there’s no reason the Conclave would be entirely honest with us. Dragons are always cagey about their business.”

“And,” Basra added, “Mary the Crow is active. I myself met her in Tiraas last year.”

“I’m surprised you survived that,” the Governor said over the mild stir caused by this.

“Don’t be,” Basra said with a shrug. “She’s a crafty old bird, more prone to making long plans than violent outbursts, which is why I mention her in this context. It’s somewhat off-track,though. What’s significant right now is my original statement: looking at this pattern of events, I do not believe our antagonist is actually trying to assault us.

“Consider the elemental incidents which have occurred. The early ones disrupted travel and trade, then came a more ominous attack indicating planning ability—misdirecting Silver Legionnaires away from one of their bases in order to attack their stored supplies. In all of these, direct harm to individuals seems to have been avoided; there were some minor burns and bumps, but based on the records I’ve seen, all such could be ascribed to the chaos of the elementals’ presence. Then there were two elemental attacks directed at my party specifically; a shadow elemental which posed very little physical threat, and a large rock elemental which certainly could have but never actually harmed us. My bard responded quickly to distract it,” she added, nodding back at Ami, “but it’s possibly it wouldn’t have done so. Then, last night, the water elementals here in Vrin Shai, which were clearly not dangerous.”

“What are you getting at?” General Ralavideh demanded.

“These were not attacks,” said Basra, “they were messages. This summoner is communicating quite clearly with us. The first events show they understand trade routes and the importance thereof, and that they are capable of executing military tactics. The shadow elemental showed that they can afford to waste valuable agents, so secure are they in their power and resources. Mr. Schwartz commented on the difficulty of diffusing a rock elemental into sand to sneak it into our courtyard, a clear message that they can plant a highly dangerous foe behind our defenses. Plus, by repeatedly dropping elementals on me, specifically, they show they are aware exactly who is on the hunt for them. And as for the water elementals… That demonstrated that the vaunted defenses of Vrin Shai are nothing to them. They can hit us anywhere, and in almost any way. The overall point of all this has been to show that they do not specifically wish to harm Viridill, but they very much can.”

There were no mutters this time, but the various dignitaries assembled on the dais looked around at each other, frowning in thought.

“An interesting theory,” said Mayor Mellon after a moment.

“It does hang together,” General Vaumann acknowledged. “But such a message is, in and of itself, a threat. It’s also missing a vital component: why tell us this?”

“I suspect that’s coming very soon,” said Basra, folding her hands behind her back. “The question has been going around my head ever since this began: who would have such an argument with the Sisters of Avei, and why? The Black Wreath doesn’t and can’t use fairy magic, and the Huntsmen of Shaath lack the manpower, the magical power, and frankly the imagination to do something like this. I realize, now, that I was missing the point. The summoner specifically doesn’t want to attack the Sisterhood, or Viridill. They want to go through Viridill. This is aimed at the Empire, or will be; right now, we are being warned to stay out of it.”

“Doesn’t make sense,” Nintaumbi said sharply. “If someone wanted a clear line of attack at the Empire, why go through Viridill at all? They could avoid the Sisterhood’s defenses entirely by striking to the west into N’Jendo.”

“And that is what a headhunter would do,” Basra agreed, nodding at him. “But if we presume our foe is not insane or obsessed with all humanity, that clarifies their purpose even further. The civilizations of the West are fairly recent additions to the Empire; only Onkawa actually wanted to be part of it, and stayed loyal even through the Enchanter Wars. And that is all the way up on the northern edge of the continent. But if someone had a grudge with the Tiraan specifically, as a society, they would look east. Just beyond Viridill is the Tira Valley and Calderaas, the cradle of Tiraan civilization. To reach that, you have to go through Viridill.

“The fact that they have not defaulted to all-out war as a first measure strengthens the theory,” she continued, starting to pace again. “Even when Athan’Khar was a living country, and the Sisterhood and the orcs skirmished across the border all the time, there was respect there, and a lack of real animosity. Both possessed codes of honor governing battle that enabled them to relate to one another in a way that no one else ever really tried to do with the orcs. Even the Jendi simply regarded them as monsters—but they, at their worst, just tried to fortify their border to keep orcish raiders out. It was Tiraas that razed Kharsor and the entire country, and left it as it is now. Whoever’s in there has a sense of history.”

“If what you’re suggesting is correct,” Governor Tamshinaar said slowly, “soon we can expect a more direct approach from this summoner. Specifically, to propose that Viridill and the Sisterhood stand down while they pass over our lands to attack the Imperial heartland.”

“That is my theory, Lady Tamsin,” Basra agreed, nodding.

“It should go without saying,” the Governor said coolly, “that such a proposal will not even be considered.”

“Absolutely,” the Legate said firmly. “Even without getting High Commander Rouvad’s personal endorsement, I can guarantee that. The Sisters of Avei do not stand by while innocents are attacked over ancient grudges.”

“And,” said Basra, “as soon as that is made clear, we become targets. At that time, we will see the full power of this enemy, which so far they have demonstrated only in a rather…playful manner.”

A chilly silence fell, in which the expressions of those around the Governor’s desk grew even darker.

“How can we defend against something like that?” Lady Tamsin asked, turning to Colonel Nintaumbi.

“My people are already fanning out through the country, m’lady,” Hargrave chimed in. “They’re not military, but they will be in position to respond to any elemental incident, and on the alert to do so.”

“I also suggest involving the Salyrites,” Branwen added, smiling briefly at Schwartz. “They have already expressed a willingness to help, and this threat is clearly relevant to their expertise.”

“Ah, if I may?” Schwartz said rather diffidently, stroking Meesie, who was perched in his other hand. “Getting elementals summoned long-distance is…hard. It’s plenty impressive that this character can do it, but nobody can keep it up indefinitely. If it comes to all-out war, there’ll definitely be more incidents like that, but if they plan to move a large force of elementals, they’ll have to actually, y’know…move it.”

“Which is the entire point of this,” Basra said, nodding. “If they could just materialize an army in the Tira Valley, they would do it. They want to be able to cross over Viridill, which means their way can be impeded. Specifically, by Silver Legions backed by priestesses, the best possible counter to elementals.”

“I’ll move the Second Legion to the border,” said General Vaumann.

“And I,” added Colonel Nintaumbi, “will be sending to Tiraas for reinforcements, and specifically strike teams. Those will be absolutely essential if this comes down to responding quickly to magical threats cropping up all over.”

“The central problem we face,” said Basra, “is that we are stuck on the defensive. Invading Athan’Khar is totally impossible; what’s in there would chew up an army in hours.”

“Do you have any suggestions, Bishop Syrinx?” asked the Governor.

“Yes,” said Basra. “I would like permission to move my team into Varansis.”

At that, the outcry of protests from the dais took the Governor a few moments to calm.

“Excuse me?” Ami asked pointedly. “But what is this Varansis and why are we just now hearing about it?”

“Fort Varansis,” said General Ralavideh with a scowl, “is a fortress positioned at the mouth of the River Asraneh, marking the ancient border between Viridill and Athan’Khar. It is, obviously, abandoned.”

“What?” Ildrin practically shrieked. “That is in the corrupted zone!”

“Actually, it’s not,” said Schwartz. “The corruption of Athan’Khar has been steadily receding ever since the Enchanter Wars. It’s about a half-mile south of the river, these days.”

“However,” Colonel Nintaumbi snapped, “the Imperial and Avenist defenses are set up well on this side of the Asraneh. You are talking about moving into a crumbling ruin that’s been home to nothing in the last hundred years but monsters, ghosts, and more recently wild animals, well beyond the range of anyone’s ability to help or protect you. This is madness, Bishop Syrinx!”

“No, Colonel,” Basra said evenly, “this is a calculated risk. I am as familiar with the scouting reports as you; spirit incursions as far northwest as the river are rare these days, and in any case, my team represents a range of skills that can fend off most attackers. We will not be going into Athan’Khar proper, and thus should not run afoul of its inhabitants. The point is that placing ourselves that close to the enemy’s base of operations is an aggressive move, which, since we know they are watching my group specifically, will get their attention. The summoner likes to make blustery moves to send messages; well, two can play that game.”

“And what precisely do you intend to do once you have this summoner’s attention?” the Governor demanded.

“Whatever seems necessary,” Basra said calmly. “With us, as the Colonel points out, isolated and beyond help, it’s my hope that this person will finally reveal themselves, or at least communicate more directly. How we proceed from there will depend upon what is revealed at that time. Ideally we can exercise diplomacy, or subterfuge, to prevent all this from coming to a head. First Doctrine of War: war is to be avoided if at all possible. Failing that…” She shrugged. “If they show themselves, that can present an opportunity for more direct action, if such is appropriate and possible.”

“You just will not be happy until you get us all killed,” Ami breathed.

Basra half-turned to give her a chilly smile. “It’s not us I intend to get killed. For the record, none of you have to come.”

Jenell, who had been silent throughout the meeting, subtly moved her hand to her belt, where she touched not her sword, but a book-shaped bulge in one pocket.

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