Tag Archives: Frind

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“I like this place!” Schwartz announced, leaning over the carved stone bannister to grin down at them.

“Oh, you do,” Basra said tonelessly, not lifting her eyes from the Governor’s folder, which she had been studying almost non-stop since receiving it. “Great. That’s a load off my mind. I was very concerned.”

The residence granted them by the Governor was spacious, but compactly fitted in its genteel neighborhood due to is efficient layout; it came furnished, and its size and style of décor suggested a middling level of wealth. Lower nobility or a fairly prosperous merchant might own such a home. It was altogether very typical of Viridill—and thus Avenist—sensibilities, being built of simple local granite with white marble accents in the interior, its trappings of fine quality but not ostentatious in style, and running toward the faux militaristic. The walls were adorned sparingly with banners heralding no House, nation or military unit that actually existed, plus a few mounted weapons of fanciful design clearly not meant for actual battle; the corners of the main hall were guarded by stands bearing suits of Avenic-style bronze armor inlaid with silver and ivory.

Schwartz, looking a little crestfallen at Basra’s chilly reception, ducked back behind the balustrade, then continued down the stairs to rejoin the group on the ground floor.

“Well, it is a nice place,” he said somewhat defensively. “There’s plenty of room for everyone, and even a serviceable library!”

“What makes a library serviceable?” Jenell asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Well, I mean, it’s…stocked? Just from a cursory look I gather the books were collected more for showing off than reading. It’s all classics and very fine editions of unremarkable literature. Not to sound conceited or anything, but I rather doubt I’ll learn much from browsing there!”

“You’re not here to browse books,” Basra said curtly, turning a page. “And with regard to how much room there is for everyone, Branwen, exactly how many people did you recruit for this operation?”

“Just the two, Bas,” Branwen replied with an amused little smile.

“And I’m ready to be of service in any way I can, ma’am!” the newest member of their party said stiffly. Variations on that theme had been the primary thrust of her commentary thus far—she seemed to be growing nervous at Basra’s persistent disinterest.

Ildrin Falaridjad was a woman of remarkably middling appearance; her nondescript brown hair, light brown eyes and pale brown complexion supported the mixed ancestry hinted at by her Stalweiss name and Tiraan surname. She wore the simple white robe of the Sisterhood’s civilian clergy, without even a weapon, though she seemed to be trying to mimic a military bearing. Unsuccessfully, if Basra and Covrin’s unfriendly regard were any indication.

“Any way you can?” Basra asked, finally lifting her eyes to give the priestess a very level stare.

“Absolutely, your Grace!” Ildrin said firmly, nodding.

“Good,” Basra said, returning her attention to the papers. “I’m placing you in charge of KP.”

“Um.” Ildrin glanced at the others; Schwartz and Branwen looked as nonplussed as she, while Covrin made a show of smothering a smile. “I’m sorry, what does that mean?”

“I note that the Governor did not see fit to provide us any domestic staff along with this residence,” Basra said, still reading. “That’s your job. Keep our facilities in order, see to provisions.”

“B-b-but that’s…cooking and cleaning,” Ildrin sputtered. “That’s housekeeping work!”

Branwen sighed. “Basra…”

“I know who you are, Sister Ildrin,” Basra said, looking up at her again, her face ominously expressionless. “You have a certain reputation in certain circles. I know exactly where this one dug you up,” she paused to jerk a thumb at Branwen, who made a wry face. “I have a pretty good idea what to expect from you, and only the fact that I have an actual use for a warm body to deal with domestic tasks prevents me from chasing you right out of here. Prove that you have further use and won’t cause trouble, and I’ll find more interesting work for you. Otherwise, you can leave and resume whatever you were doing before Bishop Snowe disrupted your orderly little life. It is very much all the same to me.”

A bell rang from the foyer beyond the main hall, and Branwen rose smoothly from her seat against the wall. “I think I had better answer that,” she said, giving Basra a pointed look as she passed on the way to the door. Her fellow Bishop made no acknowledgment, turning another page and resuming her study.

“I won’t disappoint you, your Grace,” Ildrin said with grim certainty, having taken advantage of the momentary distraction to compose her features.

“Not twice, you won’t,” Basra murmured.

The sound of voices echoed from the foyer, muffled by the inefficient acoustics and the heavy velvet drapes decorating the doorway, but the sound just served to highlight the chilly silence that fell across the group in the hall. Jenell stood calmly at parade rest, while Basra appeared fully engrossed in her study of the Governor’s reports. Ildrin, however, was a portrait of unhappiness, and Schwartz kept glancing around, looking increasingly awkward.

“So!” he said after a tense few moments. “I, uh, I wonder who that is at the door.”

“Mr. Schwartz,” said Basra, again not lifting her gaze from the reports, “I am a career politician; my life’s work involves listening to a lot of bloviating, lies, obfuscation and self-congratulatory noise. That, I suspect, is the only reason your last comment is not the single most pointless use of human breath I have ever heard.”

Jenell bit her lips, repressing a smile with more sincerity this time, but the look she gave the crestfallen witch was oddly sympathetic. Sitting upright in his slightly unkempt hair, Meesie puffed herself up and squeaked indignantly at Basra. Predictably and fortunately, this garnered no reaction.

Before the situation could become any more awkward, the voices from without grew louder, and Branwen and the new arrival entered the hall.

“…no disrespect, of course, your Grace, but this has been the most frustrating morning. I appreciate the message you left for me at the Rail station, but no one at the Temple of Avei had any idea what I was talking about, and the personnel at the Imperial government office were most unhelpful until I finally got in touch with ohhh no!” Coming to a stop in the doorway, the new arrival dropped the expensive carpet bag in her left hand to point melodramatically at Basra. “Absolutely not! I’ve had quite enough of this one’s antics for one lifetime, thank you! Good day.”

She was a tall, strikingly pretty young woman with waves of luxuriant black hair tumbling down her back, which she immediately showed them by turning on her heel. Branwen caught her arm before she could take another step—if, indeed, she had actually intended to, considering her bag was still on the floor.

“Now, Ms. Talaari, please wait a moment,” the Izarite urged placatingly.

“Hello, Ami,” Basra said, raising an eyebrow sardonically. “I was told you’d be coming. Is there a problem?”

“Oh, you were told, is that it?” Ami Talaari replied, half-turning again to give her a haughty stare. Her position was well-chosen, giving the group a view of her impressive profile as well as allowing her a dramatically sidelong glare at them. “How marvelous. I’m sure you’d just love another opportunity to try to have me scalped by Huntsmen of Shaath, since it didn’t take the last time.”

“Scalped?” Schwartz exclaimed. Meesie cheeped in mirrored alarm.

“Um…” Ildrin frowned. “Huntsmen don’t do that.”

“Young woman, what in the world are you talking about?” Basra asked, closing the folder and lowering it to her side.

“Oh, that’s rich,” Ami spat, tossing her head. “You offered me a task in good faith, and instead of the simple Legion training exercise you promised, I found myself waylaid by the Thieves’ Guild and informed I had come within a hair’s breadth of infuriating a party of heavily armed Huntsmen—men belligerent enough to attack a unit of the Silver Legions!”

“Wait, Huntsmen attacked Legionnaires?” Ildrin demanded. “When was this? I would have heard about that!”

“You would have,” Basra said dryly, “because no such thing took place. Ms. Talaari did indeed help me with a training exercise for a small special forces unit, and performed rather well. Better than they did, anyway. It’s also true she subsequently ran afoul of interfaith politics that I failed to anticipate—I did not actually expect the Thieves’ Guild to interfere in that. I made arrangements for you to be amply compensated for the trouble, Ami,” she added, narrowing her eyes. “I was told the Guild did not mishandle you unduly. Was that in error?”

“Oh, they were very polite,” Ami said scathingly. “As a bard, I quite admired their skill at making it clear I was one wrong move from a slit throat without actually saying anything overtly threatening. Such wordplay! It would all have been deeply educational, had I not been terrified for my life!”

“Grandstanding and bluster,” Basra sad dryly. “Ironically, you’re only at significant risk of having your throat slit by the Thieves’ Guild if you are in it.”

“Which is all well and good now,” Ami continued, glaring down her nose at the Bishop. “And they didn’t lay a finger on me, it’s true. I was rather more perturbed to learn you deliberately set me up to profane a Shaathist religious rite and antagonize a cell of Huntsmen!”

“I say,” Schwartz muttered, blinking rapidly.

“Who told you that?” Basra demanded.

Ami seemed taken aback by her suddenly sharp tone. “I… That is, the Eserites were actually quite informative while they…”

“So you’re telling me,” Basra said scornfully, “you believed a story spun for you by the armed thugs holding you prisoner?”

“Well—I— Why would they lie?”

“How is that even a question?” Basra shot back, her tone disparaging. “Ami, I truly am sorry you were caught up in that fiasco—as I said, I did my best to make sure you were compensated for your hardships. The truth is, both the Huntsmen and the Thieves’ Guild were butting in where they had no business being; the Legionnaires being trained scarcely avoided conflict with both. Honestly, I thought better of you than this based on your performance. Both cults had to begin spinning stories to make themselves look innocent of wrongdoing. By the time everyone got through filling the air with contradictions, the story was so muddled we were never able to prosecute anyone for their actions, nor even lodge a complaint with the Church that would have been taken seriously. Frankly, I missed my best chance to have investigators dig into the mess while it was fresh enough to do so because I was busy making sure my Legionnaires and you were unharmed and properly cared for. Please tell me you received the remuneration I requisitioned for you?”

“Well, yes… And that was appreciated, but…”

“But?” Basra planted her fists on her hips, bending the Governor’s folder. “You are actually holding out for more?”

“Now, see here,” Ami protested more weakly.

“You performed your duties competently, but it wasn’t as if the dramatic chops the task required were that substantial. Honestly, Talaari, I am not certain why Bishop Snowe contacted you for this task, and I am increasingly unconvinced that your help will be needed.”

“Basra, really,” Branwen said reprovingly. “That is enough. Don’t badger the girl, she’s already had a hard enough time, it seems. Ami, dear, could I talk with you for a moment?” Smiling up at the taller woman, she gently tugged her toward the side door into the dining room. “In here, if you please. I believe we can clear all this up.”

“I’m not so certain I want to clear anything up,” Ami complained, even as she was led unresistingly away. “Quite apart from the trouble I’ve already had, it doesn’t sound like…”

Branwen shut the heavy oak door behind them, cutting off sound.

Basra heaved an irritated sigh. “Well, how marvelously helpful Branwen has turned out to be.”

“Shall I ask those two to absent themselves from the mission, ma’am?” Jenell asked.

“No,” Basra said curtly, rapidly sweeping her glance across those still in the hall. “The common theme I’m detecting among the personnel available here is that each may be specifically useful in this task, if you can all control some of your more annoying habits—Snowe included. I’ve been considering strategy while perusing the Governor’s reports. So far, there’s nothing in them I didn’t already learn at the Abbey. Right now, the problem is that we are stuck waiting on others: on Hargrave to report back with his findings, and worse, on the shaman responsible for these problems to carry out more attacks, and hopefully make a mistake. This is not an acceptable state of affairs. I intend to go on the offensive.”

“I say,” Schwartz said worriedly. “That does sound rather…well, unsafe.”

“This is war, Schwartz,” Basra retorted. “It’s not meant to be safe. But this particular conflict is spread widely through a civilian-occupied area, and quite apart from the risk to life, limb and property posed by these attacks, it’s going to be necessary for us to manage the perceptions of the local populace while hunting down the perpetrator. In particular, we have to find a way to be magically aggressive in the fae realm without antagonizing Viridill’s resident witches, who can either be tremendously helpful in this, or make our tasks far more difficult. Schwartz, we need to have a long discussion about the possibilities there; I require a full briefing on certain aspects of fae magic.”

“Well, I mean, that is,” he stammered, “it really depends on what exactly you intend…”

“We’ll go over it. The other relevant concern is that the specific skills of an Izarite priestess and a bard will be exceedingly useful in the days to come. In addition to pacifying the natives, we need to be reaching out into the community and fishing up answers. I don’t mind admitting that wrangling bumpkins is not part of my skill set.”

“I can definitely help with that,” Ami announced, reemerging abruptly from the dining room with her chin held high. Between her bearing, her obviously detailed personal grooming, and her expensive taste in dresses, she managed to look positively regal, despite her recent outbursts. “People talk to a bard even if they’ve no intention of talking to anyone, including themselves.”

“I…wait, what?” Ildrin said, frowning.

“She means,” Branwen said from behind Ami, “we will both be glad to help.”

“So you’ve decided to stay on, have you?” Basra dryly asked the bard.

“Yes, well.” Ami shrugged with exaggerated nonchalance, inspecting her nails. “Bishop Snowe explained what has been happening here, and the importance of the task. A true bard does not flee from hazard.”

“Wow,” Schwartz muttered, “that was fast.”

“Uh, really?” Ildrin inquired. “I think we’ve read some very different stories about bards.”

“In any case,” Ami added more loudly, “this being a worthwhile duty and not a silly training exercise, if it does prove to be dangerous, at least that will serve as an appropriate and worthy use of my talents.”

“Great,” Basra said with a long-suffering look. “Then Schwartz can lead the way to this alleged library; we all need to have a discussion. I’ve the bones of a strategy in mind, but I need a deeper understanding of the assets I’m working with before we can move.”

“I have my things in the foyer,” Ami said haughtily. “I’ll need those taken to my quarters.”

“Oh, will you,” Ildrin said, folding her arms and staring disapprovingly. “Is there a reason you can’t pick up after yourself?”

“Yes, Sister, there is,” Basra said, giving her a chilly little smile. “We happen to have someone on staff whose job that is. Hop to it, KP.”


By early afternoon, Ingvar had mostly gotten over his disgruntlement at Darling’s continued physical performance. Admitting how childish and irrational it was in the first place helped, as did assuring himself that recognizing Darling’s abilities imposed upon him no obligation to like the man. And indeed, it enabled him to be properly amused at the sight of the city-dwelling Eserite hiking through the mountains in his loud suit. No matter how uncomplaining and unwinded he was by the exertion, that remained funny.

Ingvar mostly kept his peace on their trek, aware that the Shadow Hunters—or Rangers, or whatever it pleased them to call themselves—were leading them on a wide arc into the mountains rather than a straight route across the valley ahead, the purpose for which he could not see. He wasn’t about to speak up and ask, though. Raichlin would surely have said something up front if he had intended to, and if he were up to something shifty…well, there was no sense in revealing and Ingvar had spotted it. That didn’t seem likely, though; they surely wouldn’t expect a Huntsman to be so easily misdirected in a mountain forest. Whether Joe and Darling had noticed anything he couldn’t say, though he strongly suspected not.

“Ah,” Raichlin said suddenly as they rounded a rocky outcropping and a view of the valley below opened up. “Stop here a moment, gentlemen—this is worth seeing.”

“It’s quite a vista,” Darling agreed, stepping up next to him. “You don’t see this kind of thing in—oh! Wolves!”

Ingvar and Joe pushed forward to join him, while Frind and Liesl backed away, smiling. The three men crowded together at a narrow point between pine trunks, gazing avidly down into the valley.

It wasn’t hugely far below, just distant enough that their presence would not be evident to the creatures there, but close enough that they could see the wolves clearly. They were typical Stalweiss mountain wolves, though perhaps a little larger (it was difficult to gauge the distance exactly) and with maybe a bit more brown in their coats than those Ingvar had heard and read of. Then again, he’d not seen the wolves of the Stalrange in person before. These could be utterly typical, for all he knew.

Typical or not, they truly were magnificent beasts. There were six of them, lolling about in the mountain heather; they rolled and nipped playfully at one another, seeming completely at ease, while the two smallest—doubtless the youngest—chased each other in circles around the rest of the pack.

“Beautiful creatures,” Joe whispered in a tone of awe, and Ingvar once again felt a surge of fondness for the boy. For a young man raised outside the faith, Joe had a good head on his shoulders. He was already more sensible than Tholi in a number of ways.

“Aren’t wolves nocturnal?” Darling asked after a few minutes of watching the creatures gamboling in the heather.

“Largely,” Ingvar murmured. “Their behavior varies somewhat; dusk is their favorite time to hunt. It is peculiar to see them so active this close to midday…”

“Kind of exposed out there, ain’t they?” Joe added. “Not that I’m any kind of expert. Biggest things we’ve got out where I’m from is coyotes. But I always figured wolves liked forests more than open spaces.”

“They are supremely versatile hunters,” said Raichlin. “Wolves prosper in an amazing variety of environments. Still, you’re correct; this isn’t exactly typical behavior for the species. We are the second party to head out from the lodge today; those who got an earlier start were out encouraging the pack to gather here.”

“Really?” Darling asked. “You herded them here on purpose?”

“You don’t herd wolves,” Raichlin said in amusement. “You can drive them, but not usually for very long. The central difference between herd animals and pack animals is whether they run from or at you. In any case, no—we don’t do anything so brutish to these, nor allow anyone else to tamper with them. This pack is special. We have a long-standing relationship with them; they know the Rangers who operate in these valleys, and we have an understanding of sorts. To an extent, they accommodate us, and vice versa. For the inconvenience of being out today for our purposes, they’ll be provided with an easy meal.”

“You brought the wolves? This is what you wanted us to see?” Ingvar demanded, refusing to let his sudden unease show on his face. Wolves were not merely sacred in Shaath’s faith—they were considered nigh-mystical creatures, mysterious, unapproachable, untameable. That these Ranger could establish such a rapport with a wild pack was a claim he had trouble crediting.

And yet…there they were, relaxed and happy, showing no signs of having been driven from their preferred habitat, despite this being the wrong time of day for them to be out.

“You don’t really bring wolves,” Raichlin murmured, watching the animals as closely as the others were, now. “But friends sometimes choose to indulge one another. Yes—these play a central role in the rite we brought you up here to observe. But this isn’t the place, gentlemen. Come along, further up and farther in! It’s not much farther now.”

They only tore their gazes away from the wolf pack with reluctance, but Raichlin had already headed off into the trees, Frind and Liesl trailing him. It was follow or be left.

He was true to his word, anyway. They hiked on for less than another half hour before the trail arrived at a ledge overlooking the valley, with a natural cave mouth behind it. A few feet in, heavy hides had been tacked over the entrance, indicating that this place saw regular use. Their arrival was clearly awaited; another woman in Ranger gear sat on an improvised stool consisting of an uprooted stump, stirring a pot of something. Ingvar noted with disapproval that she wasn’t using a proper fire, but an arcane camp stove. Well, on the other hand, it produced no smoke or scent, which might be an issue if they were trying not to alarm the wolves below.

“There you are,” she said softly, smiling up at them.

“What’s that supposed to mean, there we are?” Raichlin demanded in mock offense. “I know you haven’t been waiting that long, Tabitha.”

“On the contrary,” she said, winking. “I expected to be up here longer. You three and Brother Ingvar would have no trouble in the mountains, of course, but you were bringing a couple of city boys…”

“Beggin’ your pardon, miss,” said Joe, tipping his hat, “but I’m a small town boy, personally. Makes a difference.”

“I stand corrected,” she said gravely. “Liesl, the mugs are inside the waystation, there, if you would.”

“Oh, yes, I see,” Liesl said, nodding. “You can’t fetch them because your legs are broken. I’m so sorry, Tabs.”

“Yours could end up that way if you sass me, youngling!”

“Ladies,” Raichlin said reprovingly. “We’re here on spiritual business. Flirt on your own time.”

Liesl stuck her tongue out at him, but turned and flounced into the cave, shoving the hanging bear pelt aside.

Frind snorted a soft laugh. “C’mon over here, boys, your journey is at an end.”

“This is a lovely spot,” Darling said, following him toward the protruding edge of the flat outcropping. “Is this natural, or did you carve it out?”

“A little of both,” said Frind, seating himself on a rounded, flattish rock set into the ground and pointing at a few others nearby. There were eight of them, arranged in a semicircle and clearly having been placed there deliberately. “The ledge and the cave were just here, but we’ve made some improvements for our purposes. Now, pick a rock and pop a squat, elven style.” He demonstrated by crossing his legs under him. “About face, Joe, you’ll wanna be looking out at the valley.”

“Oh, sorry ’bout that,” Joe said quickly turning himself around somewhat awkwardly without getting up. Ingvar had already seated himself, and Darling was in the process of folding his legs under him. Oddly enough, he seemed slightly uncomfortable with the position—the first time in this trip Ingvar had seen him so.

“Not at all, don’t worry about a thing,” Frind said easily.

“There are no mistakes here,” Raichlin added, joining himself and taking a seat on the other side of the group from his fellow Ranger. “It would be very hard to mess this up—any personal touches you add to the rite will only serve to make it more meaningful to you. We don’t go in for a lot of needless ceremony.”

“This rite,” Ingvar said carefully, settling his palms on his knees. “What, exactly, does this entail?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll guide you through it,” Raichlin assured him. “In a moment Liesl will be back with—and there she is. No, don’t worry about them, gentlemen; we’ll arrange everything. For now, keep your eyes on the wolves.”

“What am I looking for?” Darling asked curiously, though he obeyed, leaning forward slightly to peer down at the great hunters below. The wolves seemed less playful and more sleepy now, a couple of the younger ones still bouncing about but the others mostly curled up together in the heather.

“Just the wolves,” Raichlin said. “This is the beginning. We’ll have something for you to drink momentarily—just sip at it, it’ll help calm the mind and invigorate the spirit after that hike. But keep your attention on the wolves themselves. Don’t worry about any particular aspect, just focus on whatever seems most interesting to you. Consider them, wonder about what you don’t know, ponder what you do. Imagine the sensation of that fur under your hands, the sound of their howling. If you’ve never heard or felt the like, don’t stress yourself. Let your mind supply whatever images it finds most relateable.”

As he droned on, Liesl appeared silently, bearing cups of the steaming brew Tabitha had apparently spent the morning preparing. Its scent was mild, a savory herbal aroma with earthy undertones, but matched what had wafted from the pot. Ingvar accepted a mug, lifting it to his nose to sniff at it before taking a tiny sip. The taste wasn’t exactly pleasing, but…not bad.

But then, taste wasn’t the point. This wasn’t exactly like any rite of Shaath that he knew, but parts formed a pattern that was familiar. The warm drink, Raichlin’s softly droning voice serving to keep them on the subject. For a fleeting moment, suspicion and unease flared up again, but he quickly let them go. He was here. This was what he had come for. The trail was before him; he walked it willingly.

It was not hard at all to follow directions; the peculiar tea was indeed calming, seeming to help his mind focus. He studied the great predators lolling in the heather below, taking in every detail his eyes could discern at that distance. The pattern of their pelts, the way they moved, they way they interacted with each other…

As he watched, taking occasional sips and listening to Raichlin drone on, it seemed that more details came to him, flashes of insight and perceptions that should have been beyond him. The warmth of the canines’ breath, the sounds they made to one another. Thick, coarse fur beneath his fingers, rubbing against his skin. The wild scent of them. Golden eyes, clear and piercing in the daylight. Golden eyes, glowing in the dark.

Howls echoing from the hills, as the pack called to one another. Panting and the quick pumping of legs as they raced through the darkened forest, the eagerness of the hunt, the scent of prey guiding them.

Trust in the brothers and sisters running alongside, the pack a single organism. The night, the hunt, hot breath, warm blood.

Trust, hunger, joy, freedom.

When the mug slipped from his fingers, he didn’t even notice.

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“How many fucking skeletons have they got?” Ruda demanded, taking aim with her borrowed staff. She didn’t fire, however, nor did Timms, the Colonel, or anyone else nearby. They were mostly holding staves for personal comfort; the trickle of undead out of the trapdoor was nothing like the previous flood, and so far only two of the search teams had made it out. They rest would be coming from that opening, and thus pouring on an indiscriminate storm of lightning was not an option. Six soldiers knelt behind improvised cover in a semicircle around the opening, blasting undead as they emerged. Carefully.

“The catacomb system is enormous, and has been used as a burial site since long before the Imperial era,” Timms said, her usual calm somewhat diminished by tension. “There are two thousand years’ worth of bodies down there, at least. The answer to your question, Princess, is ‘as many as they could possibly need.’ The good news is that they seem to have used up all the fresher dead during their various uprisings over the last few months. These are all…just bones. Pretty rickety, from what we’ve seen so far. Really only dangerous in aggregation.”

“That’s excellent news!” Fross chimed, swooping back and forth above them. “This doesn’t bear the signs of an actual plague of undeath, just a mass raising. Like mundane plagues, that needs a biological medium to survive and spread. It’s the fresher, wetter zombies that tend to turn people. Skeletons aren’t contagious.”

“Thank the gods for small blessings,” Adjavegh grunted. “No reports so far of people turning, even those who’ve been attacked.”

“Team six is nearing the exit,” the battlemage at the runic array reported from behind him. “They’re meeting heavy resistance.”

The Colonel glanced rapidly around. “Timms, how wide are those tunnels?”

“I recommend against sending anyone else down unless they request it, sir,” she said crisply. “They’re very cramped. Our men and the Huntsmen know what they’re doing. As we were just mentioning, these undead don’t stand up to staff fire.”

“Zeppelin coming in, sir!” called a soldier from the edge of the courtyard. “From the southwest.”

“Hmp,” Adjavegh grunted. “Razsha sent back to Tiraas for scryers… Well, they’re going to be under-utilized here. I need warm bodies holding weapons, not spooks.”

“Sir,” Timms said, frowning, “Major Razsha never sent her request. By the time she’d drafted a report of her needs, the students brought us word of the catacomb situation. There are no Army shipments or personnel transfers scheduled.”

“Well, whoever they are, I intend to put them to work the second they land,” he said shortly. “Soldiers are soldiers, and we need ’em.”

Another soldier dashed up and saluted. “Citizens still trickling in, sir,” he said. “We’re settling them into the compartments farthest from the catacomb access, as ordered. A good half have gone across to the cathedral to hole up with the priest—”

“What?” Timms barked before the Colonel could respond. “No! Who told you to do that?!”

The soldier glanced wide-eyed from her to Adjavegh and back. “I—that—sir, we weren’t given authorization to forcibly move civilians! They can hear the staff fire; a lot of them don’t want to be anywhere near—”

“Colonel!” Timms said, turning to him. “The old cathedral’s sub-levels open directly onto the catacombs! They’ve been closed off since the Church began moving its people out, but there are hundreds of bodies down in those vaults. If this was a mass raising throughout the city…”

“Ohhh, crap,” Juniper whispered.

Ruda drew her sword. “We’ll—”

“Go,” Colonel Adjavegh snapped. “Get those people out of there and back here, and bring whatever priests are still on duty. You have my permission to use whatever force is reasonable.”

She whirled and was dashing out into the courtyard the second he finished. Shaeine and Juniper came hard on her heels, Fross zipping ahead of them; Teal skidded out into the courtyard, shifted, and then Vadrieny was soaring across the square toward the old cathedral. They ducked around several frightened civilians being herded into disused loading bays and a much smaller number of Imperial soldiers supervising them, none of whom attempted to impede them.

The cathedral of Veilgrad was dwarfed by its counterpart in Tiraas, but was far older, and still an impressive building. Tall, with a sloping, gabled roof and an ankh-topped spire ascending from its highest point, it was a landmark visible even above the walls of the city. Now, despite the crisis at hand, the square outside it was eerily empty. Bells still rang out and smoke rose from several directions, but no one seemed to be nearby.

Ahead of them, Vadrieny landed atop the narrow ledge situated over the front doors of the church, waiting for them. Fross joined her a second later; the land-bound students were the last to arrive, but Ruda carried on through the doors without pausing.

“Who’s in charge here?” she bellowed, striding into the sanctuary. People were huddled in the pews and against the walls, some clutching meager belongings; several children were crying, but softly. Aside from that, the refugees were mostly quiet, at least until the students arrived. Juniper and Shaeine were undisguised, and their sudden appearance brought gasps and muted outcries from nearby.

Near the dais at the far end of the sanctuary, a balding, middle-aged man with the beginnings of paunch stretching his black Universal Church robe, rose from where he had been kneeling beside a weeping woman and came toward them.

“I’m Father Rusveldt,” he said, frowning at the trio, then blinking at Fross, who darted in to hover above them. Vadrieny, wisely, had remained outside. “If you need shelter, the church is open—”

“The church is now closed,” Ruda interrupted. “We need to get these people out of here and across the square to the old guild hall. The Army is taking people in and providing protection.”

“Young woman,” the priest began.

“Listen, father, I prefer to treat clergy with respect but none of us have time for this shit right now,” Ruda said. “What’s happening in this city is a mass raising of undead. Wherever people are buried, bodies are rising and attacking. Unless somebody had the foresight to remove all the bodies buried under this church, everybody needs to get out now.”

“Every body in the—” Rusveldt broke off and swallowed heavily. Continuing, he had to raise his voice over the cries of alarm that began to sound from those nearby. “It’s… The vaults are sealed, and have been for weeks.”

“This seal,” said Shaeine. “Is it divine? Does it have a magical component which will turn back undead?”

“I—by sealed, I meant closed off,” the priest hemmed. “The doors are bolted; they’re quite sturdy, I assure you.”

“That’s it, we’re leaving,” Ruda announced, raising her voice. “Everybody out! Across the square to the trading hall. The Army will—”

“There’s access to the catacombs under the old hall, too!” a nearby man shouted belligerently. “That’s no better!”

“It’s a damn sight better,” Ruda shot back, still projecting well enough to be heard throughout the sanctuary. “Yes, there are undead coming through the hold, but there are also soldiers. Most of the Army that’s in Veilgrad is there, keeping that contained. All you’ve got between you and a mob of ravening skeletons here is apparently a fucking lock. Why is this even a dilemma?”

The man blinked at her, glanced at the wide-eyed woman beside him, then gulped. “Um. We’ll follow you.”

Screams rang out at the sudden appearance of Vadrieny in the doorway. She withdrew immediately, leaving only Teal, but people nevertheless scrambled back away from her. The bard ignored this, making a beeline for Ruda.

“We’ve got a situation outside,” she said in a low voice. “I don’t think you can bring people across the square right now. You’d better come have a look.”

“Oh, what the fuck now,” Ruda groaned. “You! Father Priestman! Where’s the access to the vaults in this building?”

“I—the doors just behind the dais, there,” he said, blinking. “You’re surely not planning to go down there?”

“Fuck no I’m not. Shaeine, stay here and keep an eye on those doors; if anything comes out of ’em, shield them off.”

“Done,” the drow said, gliding past her toward the dais.

“Let’s go have a look-see at the fresh bullshit,” Ruda growled, following Teal back to the front doors of the church.

The square was as deserted as before, with the exception of one figure creeping slowly out of one of the streets feeding into it. A gray-furred, seven foot tall figure wearing the shredded remains of what had been a cheap suit stretched across its barrel chest. The werewolf hunched, claws dangling, and stepped carefully forward toward the fountain in the center, sniffing the air.

“Well, of course,” Ruda said fatalistically. “Why the fuck not?”

“Uh oh,” said Fross. “The soldiers have seen him.”

“Oh, hell,” the pirate spat, and darted out into the open, clutching her rapier. She was across the square in seconds, Juniper and Teal right behind her. “Stop, hold your fire! That’s a person, it’s not his fault!”

“Kid, we know what a werewolf is,” the nearest soldier retorted, his eyes on the creature in question. “And we don’t have restraint gear or casters on hand. If it goes for somebody—aw, hell.”

The werwolf drew back its lips, snarling at Ruda, who was now out in the open and within its line of sight. It crouched, ears flattening back and preparing to spring.

“It’s okay, I gotcha,” Juniper said grimly, striding forward. “I’ll try not to let him—”

Before she could finish the sentence, the monster sprang. Its leap was an incredible thing to behold; it shot forward easily twenty yards, and would have made the jump to them from the opposite side of the square had another form not slammed into it in midair.

Both went down in a whirling tumble of fur and skin, landing against the base of the fountain, where the new attacker sprang backward.

The werewolf bounded nimbly to its feet, opening its mouth to unleash a chilling howl.

Scorn bared her fangs and roared right back at it.

The monster rushed her; she met it head-on, and they tumbled to the side in a furious melee of blows. The demon finally got a grip on the wolf’s upper arm and whirled in a circle, hurling it off balance and finally throwing it bodily away; the werewolf slammed into the fountain, collapsing half of it and tumbling into the water.

“Scorn!” Ruda shouted. “Be careful, that’s a person!”

“Yes, yes,” the demon said impatiently. “Not kill, hello!”

She lunged forward, landing upon the werewolf even as it surged out of the water. A moment later they were rolling across the square toward the far avenue, roaring and howling and leaving trails of shed fur and blood in their wake.

“I hate this fucking city,” one of the soldiers announced.

“What is she even doing here?” Juniper asked.

“Dunno,” Ruda grunted. “I’m worrying about shit in the order of how hard it’s trying to kill me. Damn, though. She’s pickin’ up the language pretty quick. Hm… Mithril neutralizes magic. I wonder if I could break the curse with my sword?”

“Silver also breaks the werewolf curse,” Fross said pointedly, “and you know how that ends up. It’d be a shame to kill that poor fellow after you’ve just told two other people not to.”

“You can’t just go stabbing people, Ruda,” Juniper added. “It makes them die.”

“Right. Fross, can you help out here?”

“I think that would just make Scorn angry. I think I can keep ’em away from any people, though!”

“Okay.” Ruda turned and stalked back toward the church. “Now I get to herd a gaggle of terrified bumpkins across a square, carefully avoiding the werewolf-demon brawl going down on the other end of it.” She glanced over at the brawl in question as the wolf picked Scorn up bodily and used her to smash a parked haycart. The demon bounded right back out, brandishing an axle with one wheel still attached. “I wonder if Scorn would agree to trade jobs…”


 

Painfully twisting her torso, Trissiny managed to get one hand onto her belt. She paused, catching her breath—this had been the result of several minutes of effort—and considering her options. She had access to three belt pouches on that side, if she could use her fingertips to twist the belt around. In those pouches… Her belt knife was on the other side. She did have the folding multi-tool knife Shaeine had given her in this one. None of those tools would break a chain, though.

On the subject of gifts, Kuriwa’s ocarina was also on this side, in the same pouch as the small book Raichlin had given her. This would be an excellent time to call for the shaman’s help… But even if she could extract the ocarina, she could never play it with her arms pinned to her sides this way.

Also, she didn’t know how to play it, anyway.

The chains tightened again as they were tugged from the other side of the tree.

“Arjen, stop it,” she ordered. “You’ll just hurt yourself.”

He snorted unhappily, clomping back around to her and gently nuzzling her forehead.

Trissiny leaned into his soft nose, feeling the hot breath on her face, and sighed. “I’m sorry. I probably shouldn’t have sent you away… Maybe if you’d been here to help me fight I wouldn’t be in this mess.”

He snorted again, which was almost deafening at that range, and bumped her head reproachfully.

“Can you go check on Frind, please? Maybe you can wake him up?”

The horse lifted his head, whickered softly, and turned to step toward the fallen Shadow Hunter. He carefully nosed at Frind, failing to elicit a response, then whinnied back at Trissiny.

“I guess that was too much to ask,” she muttered, clinging desperately to what remained of her calm. “Goddess, please…”

Help is coming, Trissiny.

Avei didn’t speak to her often, at least not directly, but it had been often enough that she knew the voice. Trissiny barely choked back a sob of sheer relief, slumping forward against the chains. Her magic was still dampened by the disruptor, but at least she wasn’t cut off from the goddess. In hindsight, she supposed that had been a silly thing to be afraid of. No enchanted gimmick was a match for the will of Avei.

More hoofbeats sounded. These were clearly approaching from a distance; Trissiny raised her head again and schooled her features, determined to meet whatever approached with such poise as she could muster in her position.

The horse that trotted into the cemetery was a lean, almost delicate creature clearly bred for racing, which was far from its most notable characteristic. It was coal black, at least except for its legs, which faded into transparency, the hooves all but invisible. Its mane and tail were made of black mist, streaming off it and leaving ephemeral trails in its wake. Most striking of all were its eyes, which glowed a sullen orange, as though lit from within by fire.

Altogether it would have been a very alarming sight, except that Gabriel was riding it.

“Gabe!” she shouted before she could catch herself. He had paused to frown at the riderless Arjen, who neighed a greeting; at her shout, he zeroed in on her, and in the next moment was cantering to a stop beside her.

“I didn’t know you could ride,” Trissiny said, grinning in spite of herself.

“Well, I never tried before,” he said reasonably. “To be fair, I doubt I could ride anything other than Whisper, here, unless whoah what whoah!”

The shadow horse sidestepped away as its rider tumbled gracelessly to the ground.

“Mount and dismount from the left, Gabriel,” Ariel instructed.

“Duly noted,” he grumbled, straightening and brushing off his coat. “All right, let’s have a look at this… Are these chains magical?”

“I don’t know if they’re magical,” Trissiny replied, “but they were put there by magic. Grabbed me like tentacles.”

“Ew.” He grimaced and knelt next to her, drawing Ariel. “Hum…oh, yeah, these are at least half magic. I bet they’d fall apart completely if cut. Ariel, can you…”

“Give me a moment to examine the spells. This is infernal work—I am designed for arcane, which is the worst possible choice to counter it.”

“Right.”

“So you got your mount,” Trissiny said while he held Ariel’s hilt against the chains at her shoulder.

“Yeah,” Gabriel said, grinning somewhat awkwardly and looking up at Whisper, who nickered and nudged him with her nose. “Just as I made it out of the graveyard, actually. It was a risk, moving out—that asshole in the white suit said you and Toby were being held hostage. But I’ve got a few tricks of my own for avoiding attention. See how those Wreath bastards like a taste of their own medicine. I left two warlocks guarding an empty spot.”

“They didn’t notice you were leaving?” she asked incredulously.

“That’s the whole point,” he said with a grin. “I can’t do invisible, but I can make people not notice me.”

“I see.” Trissiny lowered her gaze from his, clearing her throat. It was altogether awkward, being chained to a tree while he knelt next to her. “So, um… You named her Whisper?”

“Oh, I didn’t—that’s her name. Wrynhild told me.”

“Who?”

“Oh, right. Uh, the valkyries I sent into the catacombs are still there, or so I assume, but Wrynhild just arrived. She’s shadowing me. They’ve got other things to do besides keep me company, but considering the volume of undead rising here, more are on their way.”

“There’s nothing I can do about this,” Ariel stated abruptly. “Maybe if you were a far more adept mage, Gabriel, but I would need a lot more power and expertise to unravel these.”

“Shit,” he said feelingly. Trissiny very nearly echoed him.

“In this case, I suggest a brute force approach. Have either of you regained your divine magic?”

There was a pause while they both narrowed their eyes in concentration, then exchanged a dispirited look.

“I see. Gabriel, does your wand still transform into its other form?”

“That’s an idea,” he said, stepping back and reaching into his coat.

“My sword is right there,” she said, nodding at the blade thrust point-down into the soil before her.

Gabriel grimaced. “You’ll forgive me if I’m not eager to lay my hands on that thing. Hah!” He had pulled out his wand as he spoke, and it extended smoothly into a scythe.

“Splendid. That weapon weaves together multiple types of magic; I highly doubt those chains will stand up to it.”

“Right,” he said, drawing back the scythe. “Here we go!”

Trissiny cringed and ducked her head. “Please be careful!”

“You don’t say,” he retorted, and brought the scythe down against the chains on the opposite side of the tree. The blade bit deep into the wood, slicing through chains as if they weren’t there. Instantly, they dissolved entirely into ashes and Trissiny slumped forward, barely catching herself from taking a faceplant into the soil.

“Oh, thank the goddess,” she gasped, straightening. “And thank you.”

“I’d say you got those in the right order,” Gabriel said with a grin, giving her a hand up.

“Mogul said he was leaving a warlock to watch me,” she said, picking up her sword and peering around suspiciously.

“A warlock who probably does not want to engage two paladins, one of whom has working magic.”

“Still, won’t hurt to be careful,” said Gabriel. “I had to leave my Shadow Hunters behind with the Wreath; I owe them an apology. Hope they’re okay. Where’s your guy?”

“Frind,” she said urgently, grabbing her shield and dashing toward the fallen hunter. In seconds, she and Gabriel were both kneeling next to him.

He appeared to be simply unconscious; his breathing and pulse were even, and there was no visible damage to him.

“He appears to have been struck by a category two shadow bolt,” Ariel announced. “That should leave no lingering effects even for a person of average health, but this man is bolstered by a small amount of fae craft. He will likely be conscious within half an hour at most. If weapons such as that are going to be coming into use, it might serve you both to start carrying healing potions.”

“I think that’s a good idea,” Trissiny said. “What about Frind, though? Surely we can’t just leave him here…”

Gabriel scratched his head. “I…don’t have any ideas, Triss. I still can’t feel the light, and my enchanting is basically useless for healing.”

“Right now it seems tactically more important to rescue Mr. Caine and return to Veilgrad. The hunter will likely remain unharmed, and if not, losses must be accepted in an engagement like this.”

“Ariel,” Gabriel said flatly, “I appreciate your magical help, but Trissiny is the tactical expert here, and I really don’t care to hear your thoughts on ethics.”

“Whatever you say.”

“Much as it galls me,” Trissiny growled, “she’s not wrong. We have to get Toby and get back to Veilgrad. I…actually don’t think Frind’s in any danger, or likely the others, either. The Wreath was very careful not to actually hurt any of us. They’re still trying to court Vadrieny’s favor.”

He snorted. “I wonder how they plan to explain this horseshit.”

“I don’t doubt they’ve got a story ready and waiting,” she said grimly. “But we can’t worry about that right now. Come on, we’d better get moving.”

With a final, remorseful glance at Frind, she bounded into Arjen’s saddle and watched Gabriel approach Whisper. The shadow horse had no saddle or tack; she wondered how he controlled her without reins. A skilled rider could direct a horse with just their knees, but Gabriel…

“From the left,” she reminded him.

“Right!”

Finally, he was mounted and trotting toward the gate beside her.

“Gabe,” she said suddenly.

“Mm?”

“The place I left you was about equidistant between Toby’s spot and here. If you had to choose one of us to rescue… Why’d you pick me?”

Gabriel didn’t look at her, keeping his face on the trail ahead with a grim stare. “It’s… Tactics. The trick I played on the Wreath won’t hold with me out of their range. By the time I got to either of you, they’d be reacting. Whoever I wasn’t there to help would have to hold out until the both of us could reach him…or her.” He shrugged, a short, jerky motion. “You can both take care of yourselves. Since I was gonna find my last friend probably in dire straits… I wanted to be coming in with somebody who I know will go for the kill.”

Trissiny nodded. “That…was good thinking.”

“I do manage it from time to time,” he said with a faint smile.

She urged Arjen into a gallop, and he followed a moment later. They pounded down the mountain trail, making straight for a warlock who was about to have a very bad day.

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9 – 30

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True to Raichlin’s word, the Shadow Hunters had no trouble keeping up with Arjen, at least for most of the trip. He wasn’t built for speed as horses went, but still considerably outstripped the average human running pace, and sustained a full gallop far longer than even an average horse could have—especially considering how many passengers he carried. Still, the paths through the foothills outlying the city were roundabout, and their journey included only two pauses, to allow Gabriel and Toby to dismount and approach an active graveyard, and by the time they reached their apparent destination, whatever magic the Hunters used to augment their physical abilities was clearly stretched thin. Frind got her to the gates of another cemetery, but there had to stagger to a halt and doubled over, gasping.

She dismounted as soon as Arjen stopped, stepping over to her guide. The others had accompanied the other paladins, leaving them the only two left; after her danger sense had gone particularly berserk at each of the other sites, and to a lesser degree throughout the journey, Trissiny was more than ready to get to work with her sword. She paused, however, to place a hand on Frind’s shoulder and lay a simple blessing upon him.

“I’m sorry, that’s the best I can do,” she said as the hunter’s breathing evened and he straightened up. “It should help, but I’m not trained as a proper healer.”

“It does help,” he said with a grateful smile. “Considerably. I’m about magicked out for the time being, but you still have my bow.”

“Good,” she said, releasing him and drawing her sword. “Hang back, then. Don’t hesitate to jump in if you see an opportunity, or a need, but let me take point here.”

“Gladly.”

It was an open question whether the locals walled off their graveyards out of cultural custom or because events like this had some precedent, but every site they had visited thus far had been built along the same plan. Trees and the roofs of some of the grander mausoleums were visible over the walls, but from without the cemetery looked a lot like the grounds of Dufresne Manor: concealed behind a high granite wall, with a wrought iron gate.

The gate was wide open, though, and Trissiny stepped through it with her shield upraised, Frind right behind her.

This place had been utterly devastated.

It was laid out on a rambling plan, a little more than an acre square, with a single winding path traversing the grounds and the odd pine tree and standing tomb rising from the otherwise flat plain of grass and headstones. The cemetery would doubtless have been a peaceful sight, normally, but now every visible grave had been disturbed, the earth around them puckered up like pimples where bodies had clawed their way free. Mausoleum doors had been smashed open from the inside; some had proved too sturdy for simple zombies to escape, and were emitting very disturbing noises. The undead were everywhere, but by this point, only a relative few were still moving. The rest were scattered about, mostly in pieces, and many badly charred. Long swaths of the grass had been scorched black, one of the trees was knocked over and another still smoldered.

The swooping, serpentine forms of katzil demons spiraled through the air above the cemetery, at least half a dozen of them. Mouths and eyes glowing with green fire, they dived and blasted undead before retreating out of range. To judge by the destruction they had wrought, it seemed to be an effective tactic. The last few zombies were apparently being mopped up even as Trissiny and Frind arrived.

Two other figures were present, both in robes. A bearded man with a filthy, unkempt beard, dressed in filthy, unkempt robes that had once been crimson, lay sprawled nearby upon the front steps of a mausoleum that had been partially crushed by a fallen pine, unconscious or dead. In a small cul-de-sac near the center of the graveyard, at the midpoint of the path, stood another figure in robes of ash gray, its back to the entrance.

“Stop!” Trissiny shouted, charging forward. “Keep your hands where I can see them! One infernal spell and it’ll be your last!”

“So,” said the warlock, in a feminine voice with a distinct Punaji accent. “Here I’ve been busting my ass, risking the well-being of my pets, to clean up this mess and protect the citizens from undead. Now that the hard work is done, along comes the Hand of Avei, shouting threats and demands. The history of the world in a nutshell.”

“Your demon-summoning is destabilizing the entire area!” Trissiny shot back. “There’s an active chaos rift somewhere in Veilgrad, you fool—what you’re doing is causing random teleportation throughout the city.”

“Yes, I know,” the warlock said, turning to face them. Her cowl kept her face in shadow. “Sloppy, unfocused…not at all how I prefer to operate. But orders are orders. And hey, it got you here.”

A golden light sprang up around Trissiny and she fell into a partial crouch, keeping her shield up and facing the warlock. “You did all this just to get my attention?” Behind her, Frind knelt, placing a sturdy granite tombstone between himself and the robed woman, and nocked an arrow.

“Your attention, or one of the other paladins,” the woman said mildly, turning to beckon one of the swooping katzils. It dived to her, nuzzling at her fingertips for a moment, then twined affectionately about her body. “Or Vadrieny’s, maybe. There were plans in place for any response you made. And, of course, to deal with that.” She gestured at the felled cultist. “Aside from the trouble he was causing here, he had something we want.”

“What—”

White light flashed, something slammed into Trissiny from behind, and her divine shield winked out. She staggered forward, nearly losing her balance. Frind straightened up, taking aim at the warlock with his bow, but she was faster; a burst of sickly purple energy caught him right in the upper chest, sending him bowling over backward.

“We’re calling them divine disruptors,” another voice said cheerfully from the gates behind them. “Oh, the Imperial enchanters doing the actual developing had their own name. Just a string of numbers, really—can you imagine that? No passion, no soul. Really, toys like this are better off in our hands. At the very least, out of the hands of idiot chaos worshipers.”

Trissiny pivoted and retreated to one side, keeping both figures in view. The new arrival was a dark-skinned man in a dapper white suit with a wide-brimmed hat; he ambled forward, a peculiar object held lightly in one hand. It appeared to be based upon a standard Imperial battlestaff: a simple length of glossy wood with a clicker mechanism about halfway along its length. Large crystals were mounted at each end, though, one spherical, one a trapezoid, and there was a spiraling triple helix of gold twisting along half its length between the clicker and the sharp-tipped gem.

He came to a stop a few yards distant and tipped his hat with the hand not holding the weapon. “Well, well. Trissiny Avelea. You know, you’re my first paladin! Back in the old days, your predecessors and mine faced off in some truly dramatic contests, or so the lore tells us. But where are my manners? Embras Mogul, high priest of Elilial, most humbly at your service.”

“Charmed,” she snapped. “Surrender peacefully and I’ll see you’re well treated.”

“Ah, yes, or you’ll call down the wrath of Avei on me, is that it?” Mogul grinned. “By all means, do. Let’s see some of that divine light.”

Trissiny braced her feet and retreated another step, her eyes darting to keep both warlocks and the swirling katzils in view. They seemed to have polished off the last undead and now twirled in the air above the woman in gray.

“You mask your confusion quite well; my compliments,” said Mogul. “But allow me to clear up the mystery. The reason you are finding yourself unable to use magic right now is you’ve only got the one kind, and you were just zapped with one of the Army’s experimental anti-divine weapons.” He brandished the modified staff at her, grinning. “Which we just retrieved from this clown over here. I’m sorry to say they’ll never manage to mass-produce these; quite apart from the expense of the materials—this is actual gold, and the crystals are natural and worth a fortune themselves—the spells have to be individually laid by a witch of considerable skill. Also, the thing is damnably heavy. You have any idea what this much gold weighs? But look who I’m talking to, you’re running around in armor all the time.”

“Frind?” Trissiny asked tersely, glancing over at the felled Shadow Hunter.

Mogul lifted his head enough to make his frown visible beneath the brim of his hat. “How hard did you hit him, Rupa?”

“He should be fine,” said the other warlock. “Just stunned. A little singed, perhaps. Nothing a quick healing won’t fix.”

“Ah, good. One hates to leave unnecessary corpses in one’s wake,” Mogul said lightly. “All righty, then! I’m sure you are aware, young lady, that your weapons and skills are not going to help you against multiple katzil demons without divine power to call on, so I believe this is over unless you’re absolutely committed to the idea of getting yourself hurt. Be so good as to surrender.”

“I will see you damned first,” Trissiny grated.

He sighed. “Well, there are just so many responses to that. I’ve a lot of things I’d like to discuss with you, in fact, but unfortunately this town is still coming apart at the seams, and I simply do not have time. Tell you what, we’ll catch up in more detail after Veilgrad is secured. For now, however—”

Trissiny saw Rupa turn and raise her hand, and got her shield into position, but the shadow bolt knocked her physically backward even with its aid. She braced herself and absorbed the second one more easily, but was abruptly yanked off her feet by chains that twined around her boots. More lashed out from behind her, entangling her arms and suddenly yanking her backward. With a yell of protest, Trissiny was hurled backward thirty feet, losing her grip on her sword and shield, and slammed against the trunk of the one undamaged pine.

The few moments she hung there, too stunned to struggle, were all the chains needed to wrap themselves around her and the trunk a few more times, securing her firmly in place.

“Well, that’s that,” said Mogul. “Rupa, kindly put those away? Thank you.”

He paced slowly forward as the woman beckoned the katzils toward her one by one, making each disappear as soon as it reached her. The warlock in white came to a stop a few feet from the bound paladin and tipped his hat.

“Now then! We’ve not personally tested these things out, of course, but based on the Army’s research notes, the effect is quite temporary. As strong a connection as you have to the divine, your powers should return within the hour. Give or take. It’s vague, obviously.”

“Goddess,” Trissiny whispered, writhing against her bonds.

“Oh, she can’t hear you,” Mogul said grimly. “At least, not yet. We’ll be taking our leave, now. Your friend over there ought to be coming ’round before too much longer; whether he wakes or you regain your magic first, one or the other should be able to get you out of those chains. You’re in no long-term danger, then, but this will suffice to keep you busy while we go assist your friends in town.”

“Wait!” Trissiny shouted as he turned. “Wait… You can’t just leave us here! What if the undead return? Or whatever else is roaming these hills?”

“There’s an old saw about omelets and eggs I keep having to repeat to people,” Mogul said, looking over his shoulder at her with a smile. “Want to hear it?”

“Just…leave me something, all right? I’m obviously no threat to you, anyway.” She jerked her head toward where her weapons had fallen. “My sword. Just put it in reach for me. If you’re as serious as you people claim about wanting to help, you’ll give me that much.”

“Mm,” he mused, glancing at the fallen weapon. “Well, why not? I don’t see the harm in that, and you do make a good case.”

Mogul stepped over to the sword, transferring his divine disruptor to his left hand, then knelt and wrapped his fingers around the hilt.


 

It could only barely be called daylight, and nothing resembling a true dawn had occurred, but in the time it took Squad One to cross the city, the dull gray of early morning lightened to a paler gray. The streets were still shrouded in fog, and the fairy lamps had been left alight to compensate. As the morning drew on, more lights blossomed from windows. People were about on the sidewalks, but fewer of them than usual by far, and vehicular traffic remained very low.

It was merely odd for most of the trip; by the time they reached the south gate, it had become downright disturbing.

The eastern and western gates of Tiraas opened onto bridges that arched across the canyon to towns on the opposite shores. The north gate opened onto the city’s main harbor. The south gate, though, was the smallest and the least used. It was the city’s seaward access, but considering that the city was perched on the Tira Falls hundreds of feet above the sea, little use came of that. There was a landing outside the south gate, accessed by broad flights of stairs that switchbacked up the cliffs, soaked by the spray of the falls the entire way, to a small fortified port built on an artificial peninsula that placed its docks beyond the rapids. The entire structure was strictly used for Imperial business, and not often at that. The city’s actual maritime traffic was done through Anteraas, which lay close enough to be seen from the walls of Tiraas on a clear day.

The gates were usually quiet, then, but not this quiet. And they were definitely not supposed to be without visible guards.

Unlike their northern, eastern, and western counterparts, it was quite normal for the huge southern gates to be shut; it was actually rare for them to be opened. General traffic wasn’t permitted on the platform outside. There were, however, smaller doors set to either side of it, opening onto passages through the fortified gatehouse, which were usually guarded.

No soldiers were in evidence at either this morning.

Principia came to a halt in front of one of these. They were double doors, sturdy enough to withstand a battering ram, but with a cast bronze facing that formed an Imperial gryphon. She grasped the latch and pushed. The well-oiled hinges made not a sound as the door swung inward. It wasn’t even locked.

“Sarge,” Ephanie said tensely, “let me just point out that we are alone out here. Our backup will be wondering where we are, but we left them no way to know. The only person who knows we’re here is Vesk.”

“That might be his idea of helping us,” said Farah. “If you actually spend any time talking with Veskers, they’ve got ideas about the role of tropes and archetypes in real life. In the stories, the heroes always seem to face their ultimate test alone…”

“We’re not heroes,” Ephanie said shortly. “We’re soldiers.”

“And this is not our ultimate test, ladies,” Principia added. “Stay calm, remember your training, and be ready. Vesk sent us out here for a reason, and there’s nothing to suggest that his reasons don’t align with Avei’s. The two rarely have much to do with each other, but I’ve never heard of them being in conflict. Have you?”

Farah, to whom she had spoken directly, shook her head.

“Remember, these are civilians we’re dealing with,” Principia went on. “When confronted with a show of force, they’ll most likely scatter. No idea how many there’ll be, but we are not interested in mowing down the lot of them. Based on what Vesk said, this may be a shot at the movement’s leadership. First priority is our safety; if we can identify and capture the leader without jeopardizing that, do so. Other prisoners are secondary objectives—desirable, but we can pass up the chance if it means avoiding unnecessary danger. All right, this is it: keep quiet and stay focused.”

Principia paused before stepping into the tunnel, knelt and twisted a protruding rivet on her boots, looking pointedly at the others as they did so. All four repeated the procedure with their own, then followed her in. Their footsteps, thanks to the enchantments she had laid on the boots, were completely silent.

It was a broad tunnel, highly arched, and intended for vehicle traffic. Fairy lamps lit it brightly; the walk was lined with niches containing statues of gods, Emperors, and rearing gryphons. These corridors were a primary way by which visiting dignitaries entered the city, and were meant to be impressive. The length of it was a testament to the thickness of the walls, and the size of the fortified gatehouse which surrounded the main gates themselves. Other doors branched off to their right, doubtless into the fortress complex.

There were no soldiers on the inside, either.

“How did they do this?” Merry muttered.

“Quiet,” Principia said curtly.

The doors at the other end of the tunnel were left slightly ajar; voices could be heard from outside. The squad halted at a signal from Principia a few feet back from the doors. She crept forward alone, carefully peering out and keeping as much of her body as possible out of view of the crack.

The platform was thronged with people, easily more than two dozen. They were clearly a well-to-do crowd, to judge by the quality of their attire; suits and corseted gowns were the norm. Everyone was clustered together, facing the far edge of the platform, where a lone figure stood on the stone rail separating safe footing from a terrifying drop to the rapids below, framed by a sea of stovepipe hats and more fanciful ladies’ bonnets.

She was a woman, though dressed in trousers and boots; she wore a corseted bodice over a wide-sleeved blouse, all in dramatic black and red. A mask shaped like a dragon’s skull shielded her face, leaving only her eyes visible, and she wore a peculiar half-cape draped over one shoulder and crafted to look like a dragon’s wing.

No, upon closer examination, it actually was a severed wing. It concealed her right arm, leaving the left side of her body visible. On that side, a long saber of elven design hung from her belt.

“It’s not yet time to reveal everything,” the woman was in the process of declaring. “Our supporters would be in severe danger if their names became known at this juncture. But what more evidence do you need?” She spread her arms wide, her grisly half-cloak fluttering in the breeze. “This is the greatest city in the world, and I have cleared one of its main gates of all guards in order to host this meeting. We have allies at the highest level, my friends—you are not alone in your courage or conviction. What more convincing do you need?”

“The head of a dragon on a plate,” a voice called out, followed by laughter, but its tone was not jeering. In fact, the masked and cloaked figure planted her fists on her hips and laughed right along. She had this crowd well under control.

“One thing at a time, brother,” she chided, her voice carrying easily above the roar of the falls. “Obviously we cannot descend on this Conclave in force. But history tells us that dragons can die. They can, and like all things, they will!”

The leader pumped her fist in the air at this, and was met by a roar of approval from her followers. More fists were brandished skyward.

“And that’s all we need,” said Principia. “Avelea?”

Ephanie stepped up next to her. The sergeant nodded, and each of them kicked the door in front of which they stood.

The double doors burst open and Squad One swarmed out, falling into shield wall formation just beyond the opening.

The crowd whirled with shouts and shrieks of surprise, revealing for the first time that all of them wore skull-styled masks like their leader. Quite a few of them produced wands from sleeves and coat pockets.

“All right, that is enough of that nonsense,” Principia barked. “Disperse, citizens. You in the outfit, you’re under arrest. Place your hands on your head and step down here.”

“Sergeant Locke,” said the woman, folding her arms. “Well. This is…disappointing. You are supposed to be safely across the city chasing a red herring.”

“I’m not going to repeat the order, lady. Down here, now, or we will exercise force!”

A murmur rippled through the crowd, but that was all. No one moved to disperse, and the leader made no hint she intended to comply with Principia’s orders.

“Sarge?” Merry murmured. “I sense a lack of scattering.”

“How did you know where to find us, Locke?” the woman asked.

“Don’t you worry about that,” Principia shot back. “Last chance. I have two more squads in reserve, and allies from the Thieves’ Guild moving into position. You do not want to force a confrontation here.”

A few cries of alarm went up at that, but they were quickly stifled by the woman in the cloak.

“You’re bluffing,” she said, loudly and flatly. “I know Silver Legion tactics and formations, too, and you would not have charged out here, leaving the other exit unsecured, if you had any more personnel to back you up. The Thieves’ Guild are still at the warehouse, aren’t they? Last chance yourself, Locke; who did send you here?”

“Vesk did,” Principia retorted. “You are in way over your head.”

“Still bluffing,” the woman said, shaking her masked head, “and desperately, now. I regret this, Sergeant, deeply. I’m sure you ladies have served well, but you’ve butted into something I can’t allow you to carry tales about, and this after I made careful preparations to keep you out of exactly this kind of danger. Brethren, those of you who have wands, use them.”

“But Dragonsbane,” a man protested, “they’re Silver Legionnaires!”

“And as such,” the leader said sharply, “not equipped to contend with modern energy weapons. I would rather capture one and find out who told them of this meeting, but that isn’t going to be possible. If anyone knew they were here, they wouldn’t have come alone. And their armor means once they go over the falls, they’ll never be found.”

“I signed up with this to battle dragons,” another man said belligerently, “not the Legions!”

“We’re not here to harm our fellow humans,” a woman added, followed by a murmur of agreement.

“And what will happen if they are allowed to reveal your involvement to the authorities?” Dragonsbane asked. “The Conclave has spies everywhere; you know this. The Empire will only arrest you; the wyrms will send agents after your loved ones—”

“That’s bullshit and you have to know it!” Casey barked. “And where did you get that wing from? Look at the size of it—that could not have come from a mature dragon. You’re walking around dressed in a child’s body parts!”

“Actually, that’s a wing from a dire cave bat,” Principia said. “They’ve got one in the telescroll office in Last Rock. Listen, people: none of you are guilty of anything except her. Disperse now, and you will not be pursued, arrested, or otherwise interfered with.”

“I’m afraid it’s too late for that,” said Dragonsbane. “I wish you hadn’t done this, Sergeant, but now it’s us or you.” She raised her left arm dramatically from beneath her cloak. In her hand was a wand.

“Lock shields!” Principia barked.

In the next instant, the masked woman fired.


 

“I like this sword,” Mogul said, straightening up and hefting it. “It’s, what’s the word…unpretentious.” He tossed the blade upward; its pitted surface flashed dully in the sunlight as it twirled once before landing neatly in his hand again. “One of the most powerful magical artifacts in the world, and at a glance you’d never know it for more than a random piece of junk. There’s humility in that, know what I mean? I respect it. That kind of humility is one of the few redeeming virtues of Pantheon worshipers—it’s the trait whose absence marks what seems to be so very wrong with most of you.”

Gravel crunched beneath his shoes as he strode back over to Trissiny. Stopping two yards away from her, he knelt and drove her sword point-down into the ground just out of what would be her reach if her arms were free, then straightened, and smiled. She could only gape at him in shock.

“You are not clever, Trissiny,” Mogul said flatly. “That doesn’t need to be a fatal flaw. Hands of Avei have done some truly amazing things, and all without acquiring a general reputation for cunning. Stick to your strengths and you’ll be fine. Those strengths, just for your edification, do not include tricking people. Your friend Mr. Arquin, now, that one’s going to be trouble. Quite the versatile chap—I think he might be more dangerous without divine magic. Of course, upon learning the straits in which you and Mr. Caine would be left, he agreed to behave himself. Most admirable.”

He turned, walked a few steps away, and paused. “Oh, and incidentally, a couple of my compatriots are going to remain to keep an eye on you. Invisibly, of course; can’t have you giving them a hard time when you get yourself free.”

“Haven’t you done enough?” she asked bitterly.

Mogul let out a soft laugh. “Goodness sakes, young lady, they’re not here to interfere with you at all—quite the opposite. It all goes back to your own argument about the vulnerable position in which I’ve placed you. Upon consideration, I find that my level of personal bastardry doesn’t extend to leaving a teenage girl tied up and helpless in woods infested with zombies and werewolves. They’ll keep any creepy-crawlies from descending on you or your friend till you can stand on your own two legs again. And with that, I must bid you good day.”

He tipped his hat to her again, then vanished in a rush of shadows. Beyond him, Rupa the summoner had already done the same.

Trissiny was left chained to the tree in the ravaged graveyard, staring at her sword.

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“Yoo hoo!” Malivette called from the distance as soon as they emerged from the basement. “We’re in the dining room, ducklings. C’mon in, join us!”

Trissiny and Ruda exchanged an expressive look, but obediently stepped out into the hallway and toward the side entrance of the long dining room as directed. Ruda fell back and moved behind Trissiny in the narrow hall, allowing Shaeine to slip in ahead of her; the drow gave her a nod of thanks in passing.

Upon entering the dining room, however, they all clustered in a knot at the door and stared.

Malivette was lounging against one end of the long, heavy table, grinning delightedly, which had the effect of emphasizing her elongated canines. Professor Rafe sat in one of the chairs, also grinning, with a large book open on the table between him and the next chair over. In that chair, sandwiched between Rafe and Malivette, sat Schkhurrankh, her towering form looking painfully out of place even behind the hefty table. In fact, she looked cowed and uncomfortable, which was jarring; even locked in a cage, the demon had not appeared actually intimidated at any point.

“There you are,” Malivette cooed at them, wiggling her fingers in a girlish little wave. Teal approached the door from the side, smiling in relief, and reached out to brush the back of her hand against Shaeine’s; the drow smiled back at her, permitting more warmth in the expression than she usually displayed in public.

“Well, everyone made it all right, then!” said Juniper, peeking over Ruda’s shoulder. “We were a little worried about you carrying her all the way here. She looks heavy.”

“We carried Gabe to Last Rock from halfway into the Golden Sea,” Teal pointed out. “Frankly, this was easier. She is heavier, but Vadrieny’s strength and flight are magical, so that doesn’t matter much. It was a much shorter flight, and she squirmed less, and didn’t complain at all.”

“Well,” said Rafe with an insane grin. “Not till you got back here, anyway.”

“Is…everything all right?” Trissiny asked carefully.

Teal cleared her throat, jerking her head toward the other end of the long dining room. The rest of the girls crept farther into the room, peering down in the direction she indicated.

“Oh,” said Fross. “Oops.”

At the opposite end of the room stood a heavy sideboard, which was now scattered around in pieces. The floral wallpaper had been ripped completely away from most of that wall, and even the oak paneling beyond was smashed in several places. There was a large dent in the floor, with the jagged end of a broken floorboard poking upward. The entire area was marred by scorch marks.

Teal cleared her throat. “There was a bit of a…”

“Yeah,” said Ruda, “looks like there was.”

“Well, as I said,” Teal continued quickly, “Rhaazke are are matriarchal culture. Now that it’s been established who’s the dominant female in this house, there won’t be any more issues.”

“Which is almost a shame,” Rafe said happily. “That was a hell of a spectacle. Pun not intended, but so perfect now that I think of it that I am retroactively claiming it was.”

“You beat down that?” Ruda exclaimed, turning to Malivette. The vampire was scarcely taller than she, gaunt as a winter tree, and her expensive black dress didn’t appear so much as rumpled.

“Don’t fight with vampires,” Trissiny advised quietly.

“Anyway, do watch your step if you have reason to be down at that end of the dining room,” Malivette said gaily. “I’ll have it all fixed up as quick as I can, but the way things are in Veilgrad right now, getting workmen is going to be a time-consuming prospect. They don’t much love coming up here at the best of times. It’s likely to remain that way for the duration of your visit; my apologies.”

“I brought her here,” Teal said quickly. “I’ll pay for the damages.”

“Oh, pish tosh,” Malivette said, waving her away. “I’ve got scads of money, and nothing to spend it on. I don’t eat, I hardly ever have guests, and I can only buy my girls so many pretty dresses before they start to ask what I’m bribing them for. Honestly, you kids are the most fun I’ve had in years! You’re even more interesting than my class at the University, and they sent me to Hell once!”

Rafe straightened up, swiveling his head around to frown at her. “Wait, they did freakin’ what?”

“It was very exciting!” Malivette said, beaming. “I was down there almost two days and actually got to meet Prince Vanislaas! He sent me back with a very strongly-worded letter for Professor Tellwyrn. Charming fellow.”

Everyone stared at her in dead silence. Schkhurrankh’s eyes darted back and forth; she seemed almost afraid to move.

“Well, the girls are preparing a room for our new guest,” Malivette continued lightly, “and Admestus is working on teaching her some Tanglish. Oh, but what happened to your boy?”

“Toby went back with Gabriel,” said Juniper. “He didn’t want Gabe to have to go home alone. He’s a very thoughtful person.”

“Gabriel, from what I understand, isn’t really alone most of the time,” Malivette noted, some of the good cheer leaking from her expression.

“Yeah, well,” Ruda snorted, “his personal company consists of grim reapers and fuckin’ Ariel. I can’t blame him for wanting some better conversation. If that sword had a head I’d say it was broken.”

“Ariel lacks empathy and isn’t able to adapt her personality to social changes,” Fross chimed. “That’s pretty standard for sentient objects; Gabe and I looked it up.”

“Anyhow,” Malivette went on, brightly, straightening up, “we’ll just keep something warm for Toby, and dinner will be ready for the rest of you in two shakes. Sapphire’s working up something marvelous; she hardly ever has people to cook for, you’ve just made her year! This is turning out to be such an exciting visit! I can’t wait to see what happens next!”

Beaming, she patted Schkhurrankh on the head, right between her horns. The demon flinched.


 

It took Trissiny more than an hour to give up on sleeping. The house was quiet; she didn’t want to disturb any of her classmates, or Malivette’s friends, and especially not the demon. Vampires did not sleep, but Rhaazke were an unknown species to her, and of unknown nature and habits. Regardless, she didn’t particularly want to have a conversation with either of them. Malivette made her nervous for reasons not necessarily related to her condition.

Moving as quietly as possible and taking nothing but her sword, rather than clunking around in full armor, Trissiny slipped out of the house. She paused for a moment outside, drawing in a deep breath and just experiencing the night. It was only partially cloudy, and cooler than Last Rock was at this time of year. For all that, though, if she lifted her eyes to gaze above the walls ringing the manor grounds, the view reminded her of home. While the Stalrange were craggy, younger peaks crowned by sharp edges rather than the ancient rounded mountains of Viridill, they had the same effect of blocking out swaths of the night sky all around. Feeling encircled by mighty, ancient sentinels was, for just a moment (if she squinted a bit), like standing on the parade ground of the Abbey at night.

She had entertained thoughts of taking a stroll around the property, but quickly changed her mind. Clearly no one bothered to trim or tend anything on these grounds; the lawn was overgrown and interrupted by small thorny bushes. Trissiny was willing to wade through any number of horrors, but not to collect ticks, fleas and scratched knees just to stretch her legs. With a soft sigh, she stepped down from the porch, heading slowly toward the gates of the manor, thinking a couple of laps up and down the path would help settle her nerves. The unease that lapped at her had diminished outdoors; she knew it wasn’t her senses for evil setting it off, for all that she could still pinpoint Malivette’s exact location in the house (she was in the far southeast corner of the attic). It was just…the situation.

Her plan was changed by the music.

It was a thin, high sound, clearly some kind of flute. It came from somewhere not too far distant, though obviously outside the manor grounds. Moreover, the melody was as familiar to her as the weight of her sword—no, more so, since she’d known it longer. Mother Narny had hummed that tune when calm and happy, usually when tending to the young girls in her charge, those not yet old enough for the barracks. Trissiny associated that tune with the happiest, calmest memories of her childhood, to the point that hearing it here of all places brought her to a physical stop. She had never heard it elsewhere.

Even while considering the various kinds of suspicious this was, she found her feet moving, her face falling into a scowl and her hand finding the hilt of her sword. She did not believe in coincidences of this magnitude; someone wanted her attention. If they meant her harm…well, they could try.

The wrought iron gates were not locked, nor were they as heavy as they looked; unlike the yard, they were well-cared for and didn’t even squeal as she pushed one open just enough to slip through. After a moment’s thought, Trissiny pushed it nearly shut, leaving just enough of a gap to slip a hand in. It would be extremely bad manners to leave Malivette’s estate open to the night, but she was aware that this excursion might result in a need for her to quickly re-enter the grounds.

After another moment’s thought, she braced her feet, focused her will and murmured a short prayer. Gold flared from her aura, along with blazing wings; for just a second, she lit up the night like a sunrise. When the light faded, she wore her silver armor and had her shield slung over her back. For the moment, she left it there, though she drew her sword as she advanced toward the music.

A convenient path branched off from the road just a few yards from the gates, leading into a dense stand of pine trees. As Trissiny paused at its entrance, the music grew slightly in volume, just a hair more than could be explained by her increasing proximity to the musician. She narrowed her eyes and started forward, the faintest limning of gold arising over her form.

It wasn’t a long walk, but a slightly winding one through just enough turns to hide the destination from view of the road. In short order, the path terminated in a small clearing which was obviously of some importance. Standing stones ringed it, defining a cleared space apart from the forest on all sides, and a lower altar of the same ancient granite stood just off-center amid the circle.

On that altar sat an elf.

She was a wood elf to judge by her ears, but was dressed in stereotypical plains elf style, fringed buckskins bleached pale and dyed with subtle vertical patterns that would provide camouflage in the Golden Sea’s tallgrass. The object she held to her mouth was clearly the source of the music, though Trissiny couldn’t quite make out how; it was palm-sized and potato-shaped, dark brown in color. Most strikingly, she had coal-black hair.

She also had impressive timing. The tune came to an end just as Trissiny stepped carefully within the circle of standing stones.

“Where did you hear that song?” the paladin demanded.

“It’s an old ballad,” the elf replied calmly, lowering her peculiar instrument. “Old even by the standards of my people. The story of an elven warrior and his human bride. Obviously, it does not end happily. The spirits told me that tune was the specific thing that would get your attention, so I find myself wondering where you heard it. I actually have not in several decades. Things fall out of favor with the passing of time, the shift of trends.”

“So you wanted my attention,” Trissiny said curtly. “You have it. Speak.”

The elf rose in one fluid motion, nodding deeply to her; standing atop the altar, she towered over the paladin. “My name is Kuriwa. Tell me, Trissiny, have you ever looked at someone and felt an inexplicable but powerful sense of kinship?”

“What?” Trissiny frowned, staring suspiciously up at her. “What are you talking about?”

“I see.” Kuriwa looked disappointed. “The blending of kinds can have middling effects on things like the shape of ears, general build, the acuity of senses… But there are elven traits that one either inherits, or not, always in whole, never in part. You have the aura and metabolism, I can see that much at a glance. I had thought perhaps… Well. Elves are not neatly sorted into generations like humans; we have a more complex relationship with heredity. An extra sense, a way to tell when we are in the presence of genetically close family. No doubt an adaptation against inbreeding. If you possessed it, you would know the feeling.”

“I’ve only met one elf who I was related to,” Trissiny said, scowling, “and all I felt was suspicion and disappointment.” She already had a sense of where this was going.

“Yes,” Kuriwa said with a rueful little smile, “she has that effect, though I think she would be hurt to hear you say it. For your future edification, however, the combination of black hair and the ears of a forest elf exists only in one bloodline. When you see it, you are in the presence of family.”

“The Sisters of Avei are my family,” she stated. This was not a surprising revelation after that build-up, but she was surprised at how little she felt toward this woman. After Principia, she had not really considered her heritage, nor felt inclined to seek it out.

“Yes,” Kuriwa repeated, nodding in agreement. “The bond of family goes far beyond blood, and may in truth have nothing to do with it. You have been denied even the opportunity to know those who are kin to you, however. I offer you the chance to rectify that lack, if you wish to take it.”

“What are you doing here, now?” Trissiny exclaimed. “If you were interested, you’ve had years to track me down. This is not exactly a convenient time for me to deal with this!”

“Convenient times do not exist,” Kuriwa said with an oddly roguish grin, which made her resemble Principia more strikingly. “But yes, you’re right. In truth, you have always been in competent care and once grown, admirably in command of yourself. Had I had cause to worry, I would indeed have sought you out. But no, this was something distantly related to happenstance. I have been in Last Rock a great deal lately, working on something with Arachne. She naturally prefers that her students not be meddled with—which I more than understand—but while at the University, I noticed you. It has made me think that it might be worthwhile for us to talk.”

Trissiny sighed heavily. “With all due respect, Kuriwa, I have not had great luck with relatives so far. What is it you want from me?”

“Nothing,” said the elf. “Not a thing. It is as I said: I came to offer you a connection to your heritage, if you want it. The only request I make is that you do not commit to a definitive answer right now. This is indeed a hefty thing to drop on you out of the sky, as it were.”

“Frankly, this is less hefty than finding out I was a half-blood in the first place. Much of that had to do with who the source of that half turned out to be. She’s not a very impressive example of your race.”

“Half-blood,” Kuriwa mused. “That term, I’ve found, is nearly universal…it seems odd to me, and somewhat annoying. You are clearly not half a person. If anything, you are twice-blooded. Both, not less.”

“Uh…” Trissiny took a half-step back, still watching her askance. “I never really thought about it.”

“You have more immediate things to think about,” the elf agreed, nodding. “I hope, though, that should you meet any more of your elven kin, you will greet them hospitably. Ours is a diverse an often fractious line, infamous among elves for its non-compliance with tradition, but there are no kinslayers among us, nor many who would disappoint your own standards. In fact, your own mother is the one example most likely to offend both elven and Avenist sensibilities.”

“She is not my mother,” Trissiny said firmly.

“Have a care,” Kuriwa replied, and while her tone remained calm, her gaze turned similarly firm. “Bearing and birthing a child may be a common enough thing, in the greater scope of the world, but you don’t get to decide it’s a small thing until you’ve done it. I know Principia’s numerous flaws very well, and I will not deny her what measure of credit she has earned. However disappointing you find her, it is to her that you owe your existence.”

“I can be lectured any time I like if that’s what I want,” Trissiny retorted. “By any number of people. I’m not interested in hearing about or discussing Principia, and if having family among the elves means being chewed out in the woods, I’ll pass. Good night.”

“Wait,” Kuriwa said, and her calm tone actually did prompt Trissiny to hesitate in turning away where a more commanding one might simply have spurred her on. The elf hopped lightly down from the altar; standing on the ground, she was almost exactly as tall as the paladin. “You’re right, of course; I ask your pardon. As a shaman and an elder I have developed a habit of dispensing wisdom to people, sometimes when they don’t want any. Meeting someone who feels like kin to me, it’s easy to forget that I have really no right to tell you what to do. Narnasia raised you well, and has much to be proud of; you’re doing fine without me. Again, my apologies. For now, I would like to give you something.”

She tossed the peculiar little instrument; Trissiny snagged it out of the air more by reflex than plan. It was carved from a single piece of wood, polished smooth and without any adornment. The instrument was a hollow, round-edged oval rather like a flattened egg, with irregularly-spaced holes for fingers and a small protrusion ending in another hole, presumably to blow into.

“Um,” she said intelligently.

“It’s called an ocarina,” Kuriwa explained with a smile.

“A traditional elvish instrument, I suppose?”

“Actually,” the shaman mused, “I believe it comes originally from the Tidestrider islands, though I have seen them in many places. It’s a conveniently portable and durable instrument. That one also has just a touch of magic.”

“Just a touch?” Trissiny repeated, holding it gingerly.

“Just enough to get my attention,” said Kuriwa, nodding. “Something I prepared for you, as it seemed unlikely you would want to sit and have a long talk here in the woods in the dark. Play the tune I was playing on that instrument, and I will come find you. It gives you a way to call me if you decide you wish to learn about your heritage—or if you are in trouble. Remember, whatever you may think about me, Principia or elves in general, I look upon you as kin, and I will not suffer you to be harmed if I can prevent it. If you play and I do not come, it means I am myself in immediate and extreme danger. Nothing else restrains me from my blood.”

“Ah,” Trissiny said, raising an eyebrow, “you do realize I have no idea how to play this thing?”

“It’s actually quite simple,” Kuriwa said with a grin. “That’s another reason they are popular in multiple cultures. You have a friend who is a bard, correct? Teal? I’m sure she wouldn’t mind teaching you how.”

“I’m pretty sure Teal doesn’t know how to play it, either. I’ve never even seen one of these.”

“Whether she does or not, I guarantee she can figure it out in moments, and teach you in only minutes more. The ocarina is a simple instrument for anyone, and as easy to play as a tree is to fall from for an actual musician.”

“I see,” Trissiny said carefully, the frown not leaving her face. “Well, then. Thank you, I suppose.”

“You are suspicious.” Kuriwa smiled at her. “Good. The world is full of enemies, and you have more than most—and the most dangerous among them are those who come bearing gifts and a fair countenance. Keep in mind, though, that the world is also full of friends, and teachers. You’ll find there’s more overlap than you expect between those categories.”

Trissiny sighed. “Okay.”

“And now I see I have strained your patience.”

“It’s just, this…inscrutable elvish wisdom. I’ve known enough elves by now that I’m surprised to find one actually matching the stereotype.”

At that, Kuriwa laughed aloud. “All right, all right, fair enough. I should be moving along anyway; your next teacher is on the way here as we speak.”

“Excuse me, my what?” Trissiny straightened up, hefting her sword. Having the ocarina in her other hand rather than her shield made the movement feel oddly incongruous.

“Keep your wits about you and your guard up,” Kuriwa advised. “I rather suspect you’ll do that anyway, but it bears repeating. Those you are about to meet can be trusted, and you can learn several very important things from them—both for yourself in the long term, and with regard to your mission here. Trust, but trust carefully.”

“What?” Trissiny exclaimed. “Who? What are you talking about?”

“You’ll find out by the time I could explain it, and things will go better if I’m not here. If you want to speak to me again, young one, you have the means. Go well.” With a final, warm smile, Kuriwa took two steps backward from her.

And then there wasn’t an elf there, just a crow that fluttered up above the level of the standing stones and then soared smoothly away into the darkened trees, cawing once as it went.

Trissiny stood for a long moment staring after it, then shook herself off as if banishing a dream from her mind. She had little idea what to make of that encounter, but suspected she would be chewing on it for a while. Perhaps tonight was going to turn out even more sleepless than she’d previously suspected.

With a soft sigh, she carefully tucked the ocarina into one of her belt pouches and turned to go back. The armor could be summoned, but not dismissed the same way; she was going to have to clank through the house, which would inevitably culminate in explaining to Ruda what she was doing up and armored at that hour. Odd that they would agree to share a room again when there were enough rooms for everyone, but neither felt fully relaxed around their hostess, and preferred known company in that house. That arrangement hadn’t been made with this specific situation in mind, though.

Abruptly she stopped. The forest was silent. She hadn’t particularly noticed while talking with Kuriwa, and anyway wasn’t attuned enough to nature in general to find meaning in the noises of various animals, but when she had set out there had been a constant hum of crickets, and the occasional calls of night birds. Owls, and others she did not recognize. Now, nothing. No birds, which meant a predator. No insects, which meant something unnatural.

Trissiny fired up her divine aura, reached out with her senses. Detecting evil wouldn’t necessarily work on…

The growl came from behind her.

She turned—quickly, but in a careful, smooth motion. Anything sudden or jerky might provoke an attack.

The werewolf towered over her, dwarfed only by the standing stone beside which it stood, and that not by much. It had to be as tall as Schkhurrankh, and similarly bulky with muscle. The creature’s pelt was a pale, tawny color that likely meant blonde hair when it was human, which was all she could deduce about its other form. Even its sex was hidden; it wore the ragged and torn remains of a shirt and pants, which hid its groin, and female werewolves in that form had no visible breasts. They weren’t even reliably smaller than males.

A dozen yards of space yawned between them. It could be across that in one bound. Exactly how aggressive the creature might be depended on a number of unknowable factors, but they were always more prone to attack than any simple animal. Like wolves, they fought with tooth and fang; like humans, they tended to kill what they had no intention of eating. The malice of whatever arch-fae had first created this curse left them unreasoning and violent in many cases, likely to show savagery in this form that their human selves would bitterly mourn later.

It wasn’t even a full moon. Something was horribly awry in this town; Gabriel’s chaos theory gained more weight with everything she learned.

Trissiny itched to reach for her shield, but there was no telling what reaction that would get. There were just so many variables, and she was not a specialist in werewolves, having known only one before. Depending on the individual, the specific strain of the curse, and the innumerable ways in which these and other factors interacted, a werewolf might be in nearly complete control of itself, or as vicious as a rabid dog. This one wasn’t charging on sight… But then, a sentient being didn’t stand and snarl at people with its hackles raised.

“If anything of the person you truly are can hear me,” she said quietly, “restrain yourself. I will not, and it is beyond my means to incapacitate you without doing grievous harm.”

If anything, the creature’s lips drew farther back; its growl deepened in tone, and it hunched forward, shifting toward her. Its half-human, partially canine form blurred the body language of either, but the pose of a creature preparing to lunge was unmistakeable.

That shaman would have been very useful right now. Trissiny shifted into a fighting stance, raising her sword and beginning to move her free hand carefully toward her shield.

The chime of a bell rang through the silent forest, and the werewolf twitched, turning to its right to stare into the darkened trees, its snarl vanishing. Ears pricked upright, it waited. Across the clearing, Trissiny waited, too. Anything which might lead to this ending without violence was worth a bit of patience on her part.

The bell rang again, and forms melted out of the darkness into the thin moonlight which illuminated the clearing, then came closer, close enough to be shown in more detail by the golden light streaming off her aura. There were five of them, all human, three men and two women. They wore sturdy leather clothes in shades of brown and green; two carried bows, two axes, and the last man held a bell in one hand and small mallet in the other.

As they eased carefully within the circle of stones, he struck the bell a third time.

The werewolf laid its ears back and actually whined, but then turned and shuffled away into the night, in the opposite direction from which they had come.

“She’s heading toward Malivette’s place,” said one of the men with a bow. “Klara, Rolf, follow. The vampire’s scent will turn her aside and there’s no telling which direction she’ll go.”

A woman carrying two tomahawks and the man with the bell both nodded at him and strode off after the departed werewolf, keeping their pace even and their footsteps eerily quiet against the forest floor. In moments they, too, were lost again among the shadows.

The man in the lead, who had spoken, turned to Trissiny, bowing. He had a full beard, originally a ruddy brown but now flecked with gray, and smile lines radiating from the corners of his eyes. “General Avelea, well met. You’re unharmed, I trust?”

“It—she didn’t attack me,” Trissiny said carefully. “Do I know you?”

“Well,” he replied with a grin, “you are the only person on the planet with armor like that, and we were made aware of your presence in Veilgrad. But no, we’ve not met before. I had dearly hoped that we might. There’s a great deal I have wanted to discuss with you.”

“I see,” she said, frowning. “And…you are…?”

“Oh!” He clapped one hand to his forehead, disturbing the cowl of his green cloak. “Bah, I’m sorry. Wolf-herding duty tires the brain. My name’s Raichlin; these are Tabitha and Frind.”

“It’s an honor,” said the remaining woman, bowing. The other man just nodded deeply to her.

“You’re…” Trissiny studied the woman, who carried a longbow and had a tomahawk and heavy hunting knife hanging from her belt. “…not Shaathists, are you. The Shadow Hunters?”

Tabitha rolled her eyes; Frind grunted.

“Not the name we choose,” said Raichlin with a humorless little smile, “but it suits well enough, for now. You are here to see to the troubles plaguing Veilgrad, yes?”

“That’s the plan,” she said warily. “Progress has been…spotty.”

“I can only imagine,” he said, his smile broadening again. “Well, General, I would certainly never have set out to take up your time in the middle of the night. But since you are up and about, may I offer you the hospitality of our lodge? It is only a few minutes’ walk away. We would dearly love to speak with you.”

“Your lodge is within walking distance of the manor?” she said in surprise.

“The manor was not always the home of a vampire,” he said seriously. “The Dufresnes have always been good neighbors, and often good friends. Malivette, for obvious reasons, keeps her distance… But like our other acquaintance whom you just met, she suffers from a cursed condition that grants her a predatory nature, and goes to great lengths not to actually prey upon anyone. Such restraint and honor one cannot help but respect.”

“I see,” she said, frowning. Kuriwa had said to trust these people, that they could teach her something important… But how much could she trust Kuriwa? Even if the elf was actually family, the only confirmed family she had was possibly the least trustworthy individual she had ever met.

Trissiny reached within herself, seeking that core of light that was the goddess’s presence. Avei rarely communicated with her directly unless she sought her out in ritual prayer, but she felt only calm within. No warning, just strength and serenity.

“I’d be honored,” she said, finally lowering her sword.


 

Dawn came late to the mountain-sheltered town, with the Stalrange barring the east. It would be hours until actual sunlight fell upon Veilgrad, and some time in fact before it even glowed over the mountaintops. But there was a gray pallor to the sky, now, that hinted the sun was at least considering making its ascent.

Trissiny yawned, carefully securing the gate behind herself and then trudging back up the path toward the manor. Sword sheathed and shield slung over her back, she had a hand free, holding the book the Hunters had given her; her other hand kept straying of its own accord toward the pocket in which rested Kuriwa’s ocarina.

This had been a strange night indeed, but fruitful.

And now she had a reception waiting.

There wasn’t normally any furniture on the manor’s porch—it seemed to eschew outward signs that people were actually welcome there. Rafe had apparently dragged one of the dining room chairs all the way out, and now sat with it propped up on its back two legs, leaning against the wall beside the door.

“Rough night?” he said sympathetically as she climbed the steps.

“Eh,” Trissiny grunted.

“Do me a favor,” said the Professor, gazing past her at the gate and its view of the mountain road beyond. Veilgrad itself was barely visible in the valley below, partially hidden by the bend of the road and the intervening forest.

“Hm?” Trissiny paused, turning her head to look at him.

“Next time you go haring off on a solo nighttime adventure, take your roommate along.”

She frowned. “I’m able to take care of myself, Professor.”

“Oh, for sure,” he said easily. “Nobody doubts that. But, aside from the fact that there’s hellacious trouble afoot in this region and people do actually care enough about you to be worried out of their fucking minds when you mysteriously vanish in the middle of the night… Zaruda needs the exercise.”

“She…what?” Trissiny stared at him, not sure whether to be more flummoxed by that statement or the oblique rebuke which had preceded it.

“Ever stopped to consider what you’re dealing with out here?” Rafe said in a mild tone. “And how Ruda might respond to it? She’s a fantastic kicker of asses, but you’ve yet to narrow the search to a culprit who can be apprehended. She’s a people person who’s good at motivating groups, but the locals are standoffish and specifically mistrustful of you lot, which denies her the chance to use that skill. She’s clever, good at making plans and unraveling mysteries, but there’s just so damned little to go on, you’re all still in the dark, at least mostly.” He shifted in his chair, making it wobble slightly, to face her directly. “Can you imagine anything that would grind on Zaruda Punaji more painfully than feeling useless?”

Trissiny gaped. “I…that…”

“Not much of a people person, are you, Avelea?”

“Excuse me?”

Rafe shrugged. “Well, you aren’t. Should think about looking into it; people are actually really interesting. I bet if you bothered to pay attention to the ones who don’t need to be rescued or stabbed, you’d enrich your life considerably.”

It took her a few seconds to remember to shut her jaw.

“Well, anyway,” he carried on, leaning his head back against the wall and closing his eyes. “Imma nap out here for a while, but you’re probably better off back in your own bed, if you wanna try to catch some Zs before breakfast. Got at least an hour or so, I reckon. Go on, skedaddle.”

After a moment, she did. Mostly because she couldn’t think of a better idea, or a response.

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