Tag Archives: Hamelin Hargrave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How many?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The carriage bumped along the old road, the clatter of its wheels not quite obscuring a rhythmic knocking in the hum of its motive enchantments, a sign that the wheel and axle charms were in need of a fresh application of enchanting dust. It was a sturdy and serviceable vehicle, but neither new nor flashy—its charms basically sound, if aging, but the body often-repaired and showing it in patched upholstery and replacement panels that didn’t quite match the originals.

Still, this was rural Viridill, and it was an enchanted carriage. Most of the travelers in these parts relied on horses. Their passage drew curious looks whenever they encountered people along the road.

The carriage bounced hard, causing its less graceful passenger to nearly slip out of his seat; he grabbed the sidewall with a muted squeak. A tiny streak of fiery read zipped out of his coat pocket and dived into the collar of his shirt.

“Having trouble up there, Covrin?” Basra asked dryly, having braced herself in far more adeptly.

“Sorry, your Grace,” Jenell replied from the driver’s seat up ahead. “I’m dodging what I can, but this road wasn’t made with these speeds in mind. I can slow it to a horse-and-cart pace…?”

“No, keep up,” Basra said. “We want to make the best time possible. Perhaps I should write to the High Commander about the roads out here. The Empire would happily pave everything if the Abbess weren’t so hellbent on preserving the local culture. Whatever that means,” she added in a mutter, turning to stare at the passing wheat fields.

“Well,” said her other traveling companion ruefully, gingerly settling himself back into the bench opposite her, “I guess I can officially give up on that idea of catching a nap en route.”

“Sorry to have you up so early,” Basra said, giving him a very calm look. For some reason, this seemed to make him slightly nervous.

“Oh, no no, don’t worry about a thing,” Schwartz said hastily. “This is all terribly exciting, I’m having the best time! I just, ah, didn’t realize I would be having the best time yesterday, or I’d have planned ahead and not spent half the night in the library.” As if to emphasize the point, he smothered a yawn.

A tiny, triangular head poked out of his collar. Basra had only attained fleeting glimpses of his absurd pet, enough to determine that it was a rodent, it was red, it glowed faintly, and it didn’t like her.

“You’ll hear no complaints from me,” Schwartz added after a moment, clearly uncomfortable with the silence. “After I delayed us starting out, and all…”

“That was hardly your fault,” Basra said mildly.

“Yes, well, still.” He rubbed the back of his neck with one hand, grimacing. “One hates to be an imposition, you know how it is. I, ah, hadn’t realized there would be a dress code for this outing! Usually my robes get me into anything that’s not invitation only…”

He trailed off, looking questioningly at her, and Basra smiled slighly.

“You’re not from around here, are you, Mr. Schwartz?”

“Oh, me? Oh, no, no, I’m from Mathenon. Well, I mean, I was born there—I’m originally of Stalweiss stock…though you could probably tell that at a glance, haha! My grandparents left the old country after Horsebutt’s campaign—”

“The person we’re going to meet,” she interrupted, “is a sort of de facto cultural leader. He holds no office, but his grandmother was a major force in organizing and settling the witches who came to Viridill from all over the Empire after Archpope Sipasian’s proclamation against the fae arts. He’s respected and listened to—and, I repeat, is the latest in a line of people who have little reason to trust authority. That is why I insisted on civilian attire for this trip. We’re engaging in a spot of theater. For the duration of this visit, we don’t want to be seen as official representatives of anything, at least not until we’re close enough to have a conversation. That’s why no clerical robes.”

“I see,” the Salyrite said, half-turning to give a pointed and questioning look at Jenell’s back.

“On the other hand,” Basra said with faint amusement, “traveling with an armored Legionnaire in Viridill generally makes everything easier. I’ll explain myself if I have to, but it’s easier and quicker to avoid having to bother. She’ll wait with the carriage and generally discourage people from impeding us with annoying questions.”

“I see,” he mused, absently scratching the top of his rodent’s head with a finger. “How very… I must say, it’s all more complicated than I’d expected! Fairies I can deal with, but it wouldn’t occur to me to manage people like that.”

“It’s called ‘diplomacy,’” she said dryly. “A whole lot of time-wasting little intrigues played around obstreperous people, all in the hope of a minor victory here and there. It’s not for everyone.”

“You don’t say,” he murmured, leaning back in his seat and gazing out at the passing fields.

Schwartz was a young man, not much older than Covrin, and looked uncomfortable in his borrowed shirt and trousers. Not that they fit him badly; perhaps she shouldn’t have told him they belonged to a Silver Legionnaire. Some men could be prickly about anything “womanly.” He didn’t seem the type, though. Skinny, with raggedly-cut sandy hair, a big nose and spectacles with dented frames, he could have been a bard’s conception of the stereotypical intellectual given flesh.

“Coming up on the town,” Covrin reported. Basra leaned to the side, sticking her head out to look ahead; Schwartz shuffled over to the opposite side of the carriage to do the same, having to twist himself awkwardly out of his rear-facing seat.

Adrhan was the northernmost outpost of organized civilization in Viridill, such as it was. Situated on an island formed where the River Althra split into two streams and then re-formed half a mile later, it was of a size that suggested a village in the process of growing into a proper town, but Adrhan was ancient and not growing into anything. It hadn’t altered appreciably in decades, except for the addition of a scrolltower a few years back. Stone houses and shops were built closely together on a hill rising up to the center of the island, surmounted by a temple of Avei, and surrounded by crenelated walls and guard towers. There had been no battle of any kind here since the Enchanter Wars, of course, but everything in Viridill was built to be defensible. The land owed its protection to the goddess of war, and followed her example.

“Left at the crossroad just before the bridge,” Basra ordered.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“We’re not going into the town?” Schwartz inquired, turning back around.

“Our target lives outside the walls,” she replied. “He is a practicing hedge witch, after all. I should think you’d have some notion what that’s like.”

“Well, you never can tell with people,” he said ruminatively. “I mean, it sounds like he has a similar origin, even! Refugee grandparents, practitioner of the craft, and so on. But I went into Salyrene’s faith and honestly I like it much better in cities. We’re all individuals!”

“Mm hm,” she said noncommittally.

“Shame about not seeing Adrhan itself, though,” he added contemplatively. “It’s got one of only two temples of Izara in the province, right?”

Basra raised an eyebrow. “Is there any particular reason you know that?”

“Oh, uh…I, ah, that is…”

“I’m afraid we don’t really have time for that kind of…indulgence…on this trip.”

She allowed him to blush and stammer until he babbled himself out for the remainder of the drive.

Their destination wasn’t far from Adrhan, well within sight of its walls. It was only a few more minutes of driving along the road circling the island till the witch’s house hove into view, not far from the bridge across the river itself. At the end of a narrow private drive, the old stone structure looked as if it was being reclaimed by nature, but that was no indication of decay. It had been designed thus, which had doubtless been part of its appeal to the witch of two generations ago, not to mention her descendants. Half-sunk into a small hill, and with one of its corners built onto the trunk of an enormous tree, it was well-shaded and seemed to retreat from the sight of the road, as if crouching into the earth itself to avoid notice.

Chickens scattered from the yard in front of the house at their rattling approach; a cat, perched on the low stone wall surrounding a garden, watched them with its ears laid back, but did not flee. Covrin brought the carriage to a stop most of the way up the drive, sufficiently distant from the door that the vehicle wouldn’t be threateningly close, and their approach would give the house’s occupants a chance to study them through the windows. The girl’s background was not of the type generally sought out by the Silver Legions, but her socialite’s instincts occasionally proved useful to Basra.

She dismounted from the carriage without a word, Schwartz trailing after her. He paused at the door for a moment, turning back and whispering; when she glanced back, Basra noted the fiery little shape of his rat-thing perched upon the back seat.

“Large parts of that vehicle are flammable,” she said pointedly.

“Oh, Meesie’s no danger,” he assured her with a grin. “She’s very well controlled. It’s just that one shouldn’t bring an elemental being into another fae practitioner’s home uninvited. Aside from the rudeness… There can be bad reactions between spirits. It’s like introducing strange cats, with a lot more potential for destruction.”

“That’s…reassuring,” she said, shaking her head, but turned her back on the carriage and headed for the door. Jenell swiveled around in her seat to peer suspiciously down at the little fire-rat.

The door to the house opened when they were still a few yards distant, revealing a tall, broad-shouldered man in his early middle years, his reddish hair beginning to recede and showing hints of gray in his bushy beard.

“Good morning!” he called to them. “You’ve got good timing! The muffins are just about cool, and I’ve got tea ready. C’mon in!”

He turned and vanished into the house, leaving the door open.

“Oh…well,” Schwarts murmured. “How hospitable!” Basra paused, frowning, then continued on her way, up the short flight of stone steps and into the house.

A door set into one wall must open onto the part of the house submerged under the hill; the area into which they stepped occupied the bulk of what was visible from outside, which formed one long, tall room. A kitchen area was nearest them, with a pitted but sturdy old table separating it from a living space with chairs and a sofa facing a huge hearth. Wooden steps rose to a platform holding a bed, dresser and desk.

Their host was in the process of laying out a platter of fragrant strawberry muffins on the table. He smiled and waved at them. “Pull the door shut behind, would you? The chickens like to wander inside.”

“Are we…expected?” Basra inquired as Schwartz did so.

“The spirits told me I’d have visitors this morning,” the man said. “And that they’d be important folk, whom I’d want to speak to. So, welcome to my humble abode! I’m Hargrave, glad to make your acquaintance. What can I do for you?”

“Thank you,” she replied. “My name is Basra Syrinx. This is Schwartz.”

At that, Hargrave straightened up from pouring tea, looking at her more sharply. “Oh, my. The Bishop? That is unexpected. Now I wish I’d brought out mother’s good china.”

“Don’t trouble yourself on my account,” she said dryly. “I’m glad you were somewhat forewarned, then. We’re here on sensitive business. Are you aware at all of the elemental attacks recently?”

The witch stilled, gazing at her with a faint frown, then finally finished pouring a third cup of tea. “Why don’t you come have a seat?” he prompted, settling himself into one of the three places set. “I think this conversation calls for being off our feet.”

“Thanks!” Schwartz said cheerfully, sliding into one of the proffered chairs. “I’m a fellow practitioner, by the way. First rank fae specialist, with the College of Salyrene!”

“Interfaith initiative, then?” Hargrave mused. “Well. I am glad to hear this matter is being taken seriously. Yes, I’m quite aware of the problems you speak of, Bishop Syrinx. I’ve had my spirit friends keeping an eye on the situation; fortunately I had some forewarning in the form of dreams. Such accidental divinations are anything but precise, but they can let me know when something’s brewing.”

“What is brewing?” Basra demanded.

“The actual nature of the thing I can’t tell you,” Hargrave said seriously, pushing the platter of muffins toward them. Basra ignored it, but Schwartz helped himself to one and began munching happily. “At least, not beyond what you’ve already said. Elementals are stirred up and being hostile—if you’re traveling with a Salyrite specialist, I assume you already know this isn’t normal behavior for them. Only reason for elementals to act this way is if they’re being goaded to. You have any idea who’s behind it?”

“That’s what we came here to ask about,” she said. “So far, no suspects. It is clearly someone highly adept in fairy magic, however. The Sisterhood doesn’t have much direct interaction with the witches of Viridill these days, but you’re known to be a community leader.”

“That might be giving me a little too much credit,” he said with a self-deprecating smile. “The visions I had warned of outside interference, your Grace. If you have in mind to start questioning the local witches… Well, nothing I have to offer would stand up in court, but what information I do have suggests we’re dealing with someone not local to the district.”

“Oh?” she prompted, staring sharply.

He nodded, his frown returning. “When the disturbances didn’t cease, I tried a more active divination. I couldn’t get far with it… Largely because what I did get directed me south. Past a certain point, magic of any kind doesn’t quite…work. Divinations are particularly vulnerable to interference.”

Basra straightened up; Schwartz blinked and swallowed a bite of muffin. “South? How far south?”

“All the way south,” Hargrave said solemnly.

Along the southern border of Viridill, past an Imperial and Silver Legion line of fortifications, lay Athan’Khar, a twisted land of wandering horrors and terrible memories.

“And it didn’t occur to you to bring this to the attention of the Sisterhood?” Basra said with a hint of asperity.

“Of course it did,” Hargrave said evenly. “And I immediately discarded the notion. I’m a man, your Grace, and a witch, in a district managed by feminist divinists. Going to the authorities with stories about my bad dreams would result in a pat on the head at the absolute best. I’ve been working to put together something more authoritative. So far, if the elementals are just wandering about causing mischief, it seems I’ve a little time yet to work.”

She drew in a breath, then let it out slowly. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple. They’re showing rather sophisticated behavior, if you study the overall pattern of every attack. Attacking travel routes, executing complex maneuvers against soldiers.”

The witch scowled, laying both his hands flat on the table. “That…is much more serious than I feared. I think… I had better start talking with people. Someone must know something about this.”

“I thought you said this was an outsider’s work?” she said, raising an eyebrow.

“That is my belief at this point,” he agreed, “but that doesn’t mean nobody knows anything. It will take me a little while to look in on all my various contacts in the region, but if what you say is true, I had better get started on that. For now,” he continued, drumming his fingers on the table, “I can offer you a little advice. For someone to control elementals to the extent you’re talking about… Well, our mysterious foe is quite powerful. Power in the craft is a function of time spent gaining it; there are no shortcuts in witchcraft. You’re looking for someone old.”

“Well, that should help!” Schwartz said brightly.

“I mean…old,” Hargrave said, his voice heavy with meaning. “And if it’s someone somehow connected with Athan’Khar…”

Basra closed her eyes, drew in a deep breath through her teeth, and sighed heavily.

“What?” Schwartz looked back and forth between them, confused. “What am I missing?”

“Only gnomes and elves go into Athan’Khar anymore,” she said, “and gnomes don’t practice the fae arts. It’s about a two-hour drive to the Green Belt if we carry on north. Or at least, as far as the roads will take us. We’ll have to walk into the groves proper.”

“Oh, I say,” Schwartz protested nervously. “Just…dropping in on the elves? They don’t like visitors.”

“Right now I’m not much interested in what they like,” she said curtly. “We’ll butter them up as much as possible, for whatever good it does. It sounds like they’re the best source of information we have. So that’s where we go.”

“I think you may find help there, in fact,” Hargrave said. “Business such as this would be quite upsetting to elves; even more than privacy, they like peace. And they don’t look kindly on those of their number who mess about in Athan’Khar.”

“Well.” Basra pushed back from the table and her untouched tea. “Thank you, Mr. Hargrave; you’ve been quite helpful. I’m sorry to be so curt, but it sounds as if we’ve a longer day ahead of us than planned.”

“Indeed,” he agreed, rising as well. Schwartz belatedly followed suit. “I’ve my own travel preparations to make. It’ll likely take me a few days to learn anything; can I reach you in Vrin Shai?”

“Actually, I’m staying at the Abbey while in the province,” she said. “And thank you. Anything you can turn up will be much appreciated.”

A minute later, they were walking back down the steps toward the carriage.

“Well, he was helpful!” Schwartz said brightly, clutching a handful of muffins. “And you had me all worried! The way you were talking I thought we’d have to persuade him to even speak to us.”

“That was fast,” Jenell noted as they climbed back into the carriage.

“Indeed,” said Basra, “and the news isn’t good. We head north, private. Actually, take us into the town first to pick up some provisions; this is going to be a much longer trip than originally planned.”

“Where to after that, ma’am?” Jenell asked, carefully backing the carriage down the drive.

“North to the elves.”

They reached the road and set off back the way they had come, toward the short bridge leading to Adrhan’s gates, none of them noticing the inky black shadow that slithered along the road behind them. It darted under the carriage, and there it remained.


 

After the morning he’d had, Ingvar took comfort in the familiar halls of the lodge, the casual greetings of fellow Huntsmen, trainees, attached craftsmen, and their various womenfolk. It was a calm place, and quiet at this hour of the late morning. He headed straight for his own chambers. Later—not much later—he would need to take action again, mindful of Hrathvin’s warning against complacency, but first he needed to think of some useful action to take. Seeking out the Crow had been his one idea, and Principia his one lead in that direction. Now he was forced to wait on Darling…not an enviable position.

He’d have to talk to Brother Andros about this, he realized as he pushed open his door. He was reluctant to trouble him, but it couldn’t be helped. The Bishop might or might not have anything useful to contribute, but he was clearly familiar with the Crow, both personally and from the lore. Besides, Andros was a wise man, and generous with his counsel. Even if he had no pertinent information, it was likely he would have advice.

He shut the door, turned back to his room, and froze. There had been no one here when he opened it; now he faced the very unfamiliar sight of a woman on his bed.

Not just a woman. It was his first time seeing her in this form, but the description was known. In fact, she looked rather like Principia, except for her plains tribe attire and a general stillness of being that the younger elf lacked.

“So,” said Mary the Crow. “Tell me about these visions.”

For a moment he was too startled to speak. Instinct kicked in after that moment, however; no good hunter could afford to freeze like a rabbit. Had Darling been this fast?

No. There was absolutely no way he could have been. That meant she had been following him. Why? For how long? Well, it wasn’t as if he could make her tell him anything. The best approach here was to be open and hope the infamously dangerous immortal arch-shaman before him was inclined to be helpful.

Ingvar cleared his throat, backing up against the door, and decided to follow her lead in eschewing the pleasantries. “It…began as dreams, two weeks ago. One per night. I was shown visions of Shaath… Bound.”

The Crow raised one eyebrow. “Bound?”

“In various ways,” he said, nodding. This was easier to talk about than he had expected. “With…chains, ropes, traps. Stuck in mud, or quicksand, pinned under trees or rockfalls. Always bound, injured, in pain, and I was unable to do anything to help.”

She stared piercingly at him, then slowly leaned back. “You saw that?”

Ingvar took a compulsive step forward. “Do you know what—”

He broke off at a sharp gesture from her. “Continue. Was there anything else?”

“Well… Last night, there was one change. I…saw the god bound in vines, in a scene of a forest filled with enormous spider webs. That time… There was a crow, perched on the web. It spoke in a voice I didn’t recognize, and said I should follow it to learn more.”

Mary was silent for a long moment, her eyes boring into him. Ingvar couldn’t help but feel he was being weighed, if not outright dissected. Still, he didn’t break the silence, bearing up under her scrutiny with the best grace he could manage.

“Spider…webs,” she said at last, enunciating very slowly, as if mulling each word. “What a very interesting tale this is, Huntsman. Very interesting.”

He drew in a deep breath, squared his shoulders. “Have you any idea what it means?”

She tilted her head in a birdlike gesture. “Oh, I know precisely what it means. And in fact, I believe I shall help you.”

Ingvar took an eager step forward before he could restrain himself. “Thank you! What does it mean?”

She shook her head. “You surely didn’t imagine it would be that simple, Huntsman. You have been pointed in the direction of secrets that are well beyond your grasp. They can’t simply be told.”

He felt as if he’d been slapped. After all this, she wasn’t going to reveal what those accursed visions meant? “Why not?” he burst out before catching himself, aware of the petulant tone of his voice.

The Crow unfolded her legs and stood. “Tell me, Ingvar, why do you think the rites of the Huntsmen of Shaath involve such arduous tasks as sitting under waterfalls, spending nights atop trees, building shelters without tools, and the like?”

“What does that—” He broke off at her expression. In fact, her face barely shifted, but something in the nuance of her features held a warning. He swallowed and spoke again in a more measured tone. “Those skills are necessary to the path of the Huntsman.”

“Really? Skills?” The Crow actually smiled in open amusement. “Meditating under an icy waterfall for hours teaches you to do…what, exactly?” She let the silence stretch out before continuing. “It’s for much the same reason that Avenist priestesses duel a string of hardened warriors until they collapse from exhaustion, why Omnist monks court heatstroke by exposing themselves to the fiercest sun they can find, why Eserites are obligated to stalk an enemy and either draw blood or break bone, why Izarites meditate on oneness with all the universe for a night and a day… I could go on and on in this vein, and wouldn’t need to stop at the cults of the gods. None of those activities are necessary to pursue their respective faiths’ goals; none of them, in fact, are particularly smart things to do. People die, seeking initiation into the higher secrets of their orders. Nor is this a strictly human proclivity: elvish shamans endure rites you could scarcely imagine, and it boggles the mind what a gnome must suffer to be considered a true adventurer. There is is a price to be paid for knowledge, Ingvar.”

“What price do you demand?” he asked woodenly.

Mary grinned outright at him. “Oh, we have not even begun to discuss that; I am still explaining. This is wisdom, young one, clean out your ears and your mind and absorb it. What you are asking to know will shake the foundations of your understanding of the world. People fare poorly in the face of such revelations. I could quite easily tell you this secret, and within an hour you would have convinced yourself it was nothing, that I was wrong, lying or crazy. Whatever wall your mind had to throw up to protect you from that truth.”

“You give me very little credit, shaman,” he said stiffly.

“On the contrary,” she replied, her tone soft, “I know little of you, but based on the fact that you have received these visions, I expect great things from you. This is just the nature of minds, Ingvar. You will have to suffer a great deal more than you have—yes, even you—before you are willing to let go of the world you understand. That world is an illusion created by your mind to give you comfort in the face of a vast, random, uncaring universe. Your mind as it is now would sooner destroy itself than release that illusion, because it thinks that to do so would be destruction. This is a path, a journey.” She smiled. “A hunt. I will guide you on it.”

Ingvar was far from certain he understood all this talk, but there was something about the shape of it that resonated with him. He took a deep breath, cleared his throat, and bowed to her. “I apologize for my tone, shaman. I appreciate your wisdom. What must I do?”

“I’ll offer you a bargain,” she said, now studying him contemplatively. “I will send you on a quest, Ingvar, in such a way that when you reach the end of it, you will appreciate what you have found and not dismiss it out of hand. It will not be easy, but that’s the point. In fact, I will arrange companions who will share your journey, and the insight you gain at the end. You’d be very hard-pressed to do this alone. In exchange, when this is done, you will do something for me.”

“What…would you like me to do?” he asked warily.

“You will find out who sent you these visions,” she replied, “and why. That you have been chosen means you are likely able to get close to that person, in a way that even I could not.”

For a moment, he could only gape at her. “You…don’t know?”

“If it’s just Shaath seeking help from one of his Huntsmen, that’s fine,” she said, still studying his face. “I’ve no argument with him. No business of any kind with him, for that matter. However, it would be wildly out of character for Shaath to reveal himself in a state of weakness, particularly to someone whose opinion he valued. There are other powers in this world which can send visions, and I would very much like to know which of them has decided to nominate adventurers and send them to me.”

Ingvar held his silence after she stopped speaking, examining her face. It was a fruitless activity; she clearly had better control of her features than anyone he had ever met. Still, this entire business made him increasingly uneasy. It was not a deal to be made lightly, or on the spur of the moment.

“Wisdom and understanding, Ingvar,” she said quietly, “in exchange for mere knowledge. Even with the difficulties you will face in doing this, you are getting the better end of the deal.”

Well. Ultimately, it wasn’t as if he had any choice. There were no other options open to him.

Ingvar straightened up, nodded his head, and extended his had to her. “I accept your terms, shaman. Tell me what I must do.”

Mary reached out, clasped his wrist, and smiled in a way he didn’t like at all.

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