Tag Archives: Liesl

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There was time, but it wasn’t real. There were sleepy days and vibrant nights, changes in seasons with patterns they had to follow. He and his brothers grew bigger and stronger; other changes befell their parents as seasons faded past. But that was just what was. It was always now, and there was no counting of days, minutes…even years. That was how it was and how it had always been, and made it somewhat puzzling (when he very rarely paused to think on it) how liberating it seemed.

But maybe liberation was simply the natural state of things. They were free, and life was good. What else was there to think about?

Their youth in the forest was spent in idyllic play, being roughhoused and chased by mother and father in games that they only understood later were teaching them to hunt, to fight, to avoid danger and, above all, survive. It was a good forest; so long as they learned their lessons well and weren’t stupid, survival was never out of reach. It was never taken for given, but the struggle toward it was always enough to keep them fit and alert, never so much that it ground them down.

He had two brothers, and was the middle of the three. They had no names, but they didn’t need them. They knew who they were.

The oldest by a hair grew to be tall and lean of build, with a light coat that glistened golden when the sun struck it just right; he was the jokester, always playing around, even when the others were tired of it. His antics earned him no end of warning growls and more than a few bites for his temerity. As he grew, though, he middle one came to understand that his older brother was every bit as serious as any of the family, only in his own way. Just like their parents, his games hid lessons, and he insisted upon them because he wanted them to learn, because he wanted them to thrive.

They were harsh lessons, sometimes. The golden brother once let him be chased nearly to exhaustion by an infuriated bear whose cubs he had inadvertently wandered near, waiting until it was nearly too late to leap in as a distraction, howling for the rest of the family and allowing him to escape. He had tried to bite his elder brother in earnest after that, once he regained his energy and equilibrium, but that one time, the golden brother had bitten him right back, growling a warning. That was the day he began to understand why his brother’s games could be so rough, why he would allow them to be hurt sometimes. He had antagonized that bear through his own inattention; inattention was death. Better that he learn that sharp lesson with his brother keeping pace through the trees nearby, making sure it never went too far, than when he was alone, when it truly mattered and there would be no one to save him.

He began paying attention to the golden brother’s jokes after that, to the way he insisted on play-fighting long after they were tired of it. The practice and exercise honed them. Though the oldest brother was oldest only by insignificant minutes, he had a wisdom to him, an understanding with which he was gifted. Rather than simply living his own way, as the best wolf he could, he did his best to teach his brothers what he understood. Even if that meant hounding them until they were thoroughly sick of him. Even if it meant letting them come to grief while he watched from a safe distance, so they did not come to more grief than they could survive when he was not there to protect them.

The youngest brother was as dark as the eldest was bright, and never grew to be as large as either of them. He was quiet, too, always serious. Not to the point that he would not play and gambol with the family when it was appropriate, but in many ways he was the opposite of the golden brother. Often he would be utterly still, just watching, even when there seemed to be nothing to watch. It was as if he was always on the hunt, investigating every smell, sight and sound he encountered—but calmly, quietly, without the eager inquisitiveness of a pup.

He seemed determined to understand everything about the world, about the way it all fit together, and apparently his endless quest met with success. As he grew alongside them, there was a precision to his movements that neither his brothers nor their parents ever achieved. Every step, every lunge, everything he did was calculated flawlessly. By the time they were grown, even though he was the smallest, he always seemed to win at wrestling unless the others ganged up on him, and sometimes, even then. He knew how to move his body in precise ways they never grasped.

For all that, there were things that seemed oddly puzzling to him. Other things he grasped quickly; he seemed to understand the purpose of their older brother’s games and jokes long before the middle brother, perhaps from the very beginning. And yet, more normal, casual interactions were baffling to him as a puppy. By the time they grew to maturity, he had mostly figured such things out, but when they were pups it seemed, sometimes, that he didn’t understand what was meant when the family communicated with him. Sometimes, he didn’t even seem to recognize who they were. It was a strange counterpoint to the eerie precision with which he approached every aspect of his life. Then again, perhaps it was his difficulty understanding that spurred him to always seek comprehension.

They were different, and had their disagreements, but they were brothers. They were family. They loved unconditionally, trusted completely, and none of it was ever in question. It just was.

And it was good.

The days passed, they learned and grew. They hunted and played, and were together. One day became another; one season faded into the next. It went on, and the wolves were alive. They changed, but slowly; their parents very gradually grew less powerful, even as they came into their prime. But still they lived on, together.

One day into the next, and the next…


Ingvar had awakened from enough vivid dreams, especially lately, to know the sensation.

His eyes opened and his senses returned, and for the first few seconds he didn’t know what was what. He was a man, lying on his back on hard stone, looking up at the clear night sky. He was also a wolf, drifting off to sleep in the chilly dawn after a vigorous night’s hunt with his brothers.

He blinked his eyes, then again, and the sensations began to separate, one vivid set of memories dissipating. It took a few more seconds for him to truly remember himself.

Then, he tried to sit bolt upright, and succeeded only in spasming weakly.

“Easy,” Raichlin’s voice said soothingly. The Ranger stepped around in front of him, reaching out slowly to take him by the shoulders. Ingvar recognized the maneuver—keep in view, make no sudden moves, as if he were dealing with an excitable animal—but was still too confused to take offense. He simply allowed the man to help him carefully to a sitting position. “There we go. It’s disorienting, I know, but don’t worry—it passes quickly. We have something brewing that’ll help, and then some food.”

“No brewing,” Joe’s voice said off to Ingvar’s left. “No more brews.” He looked over to find the Kid, his hat and duster lying neatly beside him, sitting upright with his arms around his knees, staring out over the dark valley with a fixed expression. Not upset…not anything, really. His face was simply blank, immobile.

Ingvar could relate.

He took a few deep breaths, re-familiarizing himself with the sensation of his lungs, and acquainted himself with his surroundings.

They were still on the ledge, the cave behind them. Rather than the arcane camp stove, though, there was now a proper fire. Freshly baked biscuits sat cooling on a rock next to it; three plump grouses were spitted over the flames, just beginning to turn golden brown. Liesl appeared with a steaming cup of something thick and sweet-smelling, which she handed to him. There was another mug of it on the ground beside Joe, untouched.

Their third companion was on Ingvar’s right, just now being helped upright by Tabitha. Darling looked more unsettled than Ingvar had ever seen him, than he had ever expected to see him. Eyes wide and limbs moving weakly and without coordination, he had to lean physically on the Ranger as she eased him up. The expression on his face was…hollow. Shocked.

Strange how, after all this time, the sight of Darling finally rocked fully off his equilibrium didn’t give Ingvar any satisfaction. If anything, it only added to his own unease. Even though his games were annoying, his older brother never—

No.

Ingvar shook himself bodily, trying to chase away the vestiges of the dream. They didn’t go, however. He felt clearer already, the confusion of is first awakening receding, but those visions lingered, firmly and unsettlingly fixed in his memory.

Also, he finally observed, there was another person at their campsite.

Mary sat in front of them, at the very edge of the flat outcropping, watching them calmly.

“It’s sipping chocolate,” Raichlin said, and it took Ingvar a moment to realize he was referring to the drink. The Ranger knelt, picked up the mug beside Joe, and held it out to him. “Nothing mystical or alchemical this time, I promise. Just hot, thick, and sweet. It’s a bit of a luxury, but we’ve found that a dose of chocolate is pretty much the best possible thing for regaining your mental footing after a vision quest. It’s also damnably hard to carry on a hike into the wilderness; melts something awful. That stuff can be transported in powdered form, though. Go on, have a sip.”

Ingvar obeyed. He didn’t have much of a sweet tooth, but he had to admit it really did hit the spot. Joe finally accepted his cup again and took a tentative sip. Darling gulped down half of his in one go.

She let them make some progress on their revitalizing drinks before starting.

“You see, now, what I meant. There are some things that simply cannot be told; they have to be understood before they will be listened to. All your life, Brother Ingvar, especially after you committed yourself to the path of the Huntsman, you have held up the wolf pack as the ideal of behavior. The pack’s hierarchy is the basis of everything they do, of the entire Shaathist philosophy. The strong and the weak; the male and the female. The order of all activity, designed after their most sacred animal.”

She paused, shaking her head slowly. “Except…wolves don’t do that.”

Joe cleared his throat. “That… Was any of that real?”

“Anything you can experience is real, Joseph,” she said calmly.

“Well, I must still be out of it,” he growled. “I actually asked that question an’ didn’t see that answer comin’.”

Even Ingvar had to crack the faintest smile at that. Darling was just staring, wide-eyed, into his mug.

“Over twelve centuries ago,” Mary said, shifting slightly and fixing her serene gaze upon Ingvar, “Angthinor the Wise came to the city in the mountains that would come to be called Shaathvar, bringing a new faith. He sought to make a path of the way of the Huntsman. Where they had always been solitary spirits, he formed a cult. A true religion, which Shaath had never had before. And the center of his new faith was the wolf.

“To show the people the ways of the pack, he brought a pack to the city. You know the story, Ingvar?”

“Of course,” he said, somewhat surprised to find his own voice working. He paused, clearing his throat, and continued. “Angthinor journeyed into the mountains to find a pack who would answer his call, to teach their ways to humanity. He ran with them for a full turn of the seasons, until the wild wolves agreed to come back with him. There he set aside a sacred space within Shaathvar’s walls were they could live, free, yet available to the people.”

“That sacred patch of parkland has been extensively renovated,” said Mary. Ingvar was struck by how sad she looked. “At the time…it was basically a zoo. And Angthinor’s means of gathering those wolves was simply to trap them. He brought them from various places around the Stalrange, put them in a barred enclosure for people to gawk at.”

Ingvar started to rise. “You—”

“Sit.” Her voice was calm and soft, but he found himself obeying before realizing he intended to. Mary sighed quietly before going on. “You see, Ingvar? This shows the falsehood behind the truth on which you have built your life. It is no sign of weakness that you resist it—you have to. That is simply the way minds are constructed. Had I simply told you…it would have meant nothing. But you know, now. You have seen it, lived it.

“A wolf pack usually consists of a breeding pair and their offspring. The pack is a family. They relate to one another just the way families do: through love, and trust. All this about dominance and submission, about the strong and the weak, the smaller female obeying the larger male… It comes from Angthinor’s wolves, from a dozen random wolves gathered from a dozen places and stuck together inside an alien city. Members of any social species, wolves, humans, or otherwise, if abducted and enclosed with a bunch of strangers under hostile conditions, will tend to organize themselves that way. At least at first.”

“He…so…” Ingvar felt himself floundering, and hated it. “It was a long time ago. Even if he made a mistake…”

“Ingvar,” she said, and he hated the gentleness in her tone. “Angthinor was a Huntsman of Shaath. A true Huntsman, of the old path; he walked with Shaath and knew the wilds. He truly had run with wolves, and knew their ways. I watched these events unfold from a distance; I confess I badly underestimated the seriousness and the importance of what was happening. You must understand how peculiar it all was, at that time. No, Ingvar. Angthinor knew exactly what he was doing. I cannot speak for his motivations or his inner thoughts, but he acted very deliberately.

“Many things can be said of the Shaathist way; many bad, and some very good. But it is no way of the wild. It’s built upon an idea forced on wild creatures by the cleverness of one man. The Huntsman of today, in their way, are some of the most domesticated people in the world.”

Ingvar stood in a single motion. Mary gaze up at him solemnly, which he ignored. Turning his back on her, on Joe and Darling and the Rangers, he strode away from the firelight, into the dark mountain forest.


“That was harsher than it needed to be,” Darling said after a painfully long silence. He lifted his eyes to meet Mary’s, and seemed finally to have collected himself. He was calm, anyway, his gaze sharper than usual. “Which, I suppose, means it was exactly the effect you were going for.”

“A man like Ingvar is not to be coddled,” she said simply. “It is a deeply painful thing he has just absorbed. When he’s had time to come to grips, he will appreciate having been treated as a man. As if he could handle it.”

“Um…” Joe peered into the darkness in the direction Ingvar had gone, then back at the three Rangers sitting around the campfire behind them. “Should somebody maybe go after him? I mean, it’s the woods, at night…”

“He’s a Huntsman of Shaath,” Darling said quietly, shifting around to turn his back on Mary and scoot closer to the flames. “The woods are his home. Exactly where he needs to be right now, I should think.”

Joe sighed, and finished of his chocolate, setting the empty mug down beside him. He glanced once more at Mary, finding nothing there but a small black crow perched on the very edge of the precipice, gazing out into the night. With a soft sigh, he got up and stepped over to rejoin the others by the fire.

“These’ll be ready before too much longer,” Tabitha noted, reaching out to pointlessly adjust the spit on which one of the grouses was cooking. “Could you keep an eye, turn ’em if they start getting too brown on one side? We need to check on something inside the waystation, now that you guys are back up.”

She rose, as did the other two Rangers, and they filed through the skins into the cave mouth without another word.

“Admirably discreet people,” Darling noted. “Right to the point of giving us no hint what to expect from this…experience.”

“Would you have done it, if they had?” Joe asked quietly.

“Yes,” he said immediately. “In a heartbeat. I didn’t drag myself up into the mountains expecting not to face challenges or learn things. I just don’t like having shit like that sprung on me.”

Joe nodded slowly, staring into the flames.

The smell was tantalizing, and served to remind them how long it had been since they’d eaten, but neither made a move toward the birds.

Joe finally drew in a deep breath and let it out. “Okay, I… There’s probably never going to be a better time to bring this up. Is…Ingvar…a man, or a woman?”

“He’s a man,” Darling said immediately, still watching the fire dance. “He had the misfortune to be born physically female. These things happen, I understand.”

“Huh,” Joe mused. “So…how does that work, exactly?”

Darling shrugged. “People get born wrong all the time. Missing limbs, harelipped, blind… And in subtler ways. I’ve worked very closely with a woman who I’m pretty sure is mentally incapable of love or empathy. That’s a dangerous one; my cult has rules about people like that. Eserion’s service didn’t prepare me for this, though. So don’t let me act like I’m some kind of expert here; anything I know is because I set out to research it, and that because I put my foot right in my mouth the first time I met Ingvar.”

“Well,” Joe said, “you did the research, at least.”

“Heh.” Darling shook his head. “You’ve already done better than I did, with regard to the way you treat him.”

“Treating people with basic respect is so easy, I can’t for the life a’ me figure why so many people seem to have such trouble with it. Having done this reading,” said the Kid more hesitantly, “would you mind…”

“Sharing?” Darling glanced at him, then nodded, smiling ruefully. “Well, as I said, there’s no Eserite doctrine about this. We just let people alone, to do and be whatever seems best to them.”

“I can see the wisdom in that,” Joe agreed, nodding.

“In other cults, though, there’s specific lore on it,” Darling continued. “The Shaathists, as we’ve recently been reminded, have a doctrinal divide over the matter; whether Ingvar would be treated as a man or woman pretty much depends on what lodge he’s in. The Avenists are split over it, too. There are priestesses of Avei who were born male, but the Silver Legions won’t take anyone not born a woman.”

“What makes the difference?” Joe asked.

Darling shook his head. “It’s a matter the Avenists don’t much care to discuss with outsiders; that was as far as I got in a Nemitite library. Actually, I could probably have garnered more answers from an actual priestess of Avei, but their opinion wasn’t my focus. I learned more of use from the writings of the Izarites and Vidians.”

“I guess I can see how both of those would have opinions on this,” Joe said, nodding slowly.

“I dunno how much you know of Izarite doctrine; they have pretty firm ideas about masculinity and femininity. That’s a big part of why Avenists are always mad at them. Izara’s faith is a very forgiving one, though; they’ll accept people by whatever identity they choose to express. It’s even more interesting in the cult of Vidius. They actually have a whole doctrine about this; people like Ingvar are considered twin spirits, and revered as being touched by the god of duality. To the point that some have tried to fake the condition to advance in the cult.”

“Tried to?” Joe asked, raising his eyebrows. “How, exactly, would you catch someone at that?”

Darling grinned into the fire. “A deity is the ultimate fact-checker. Below a certain point you can get away with a lot, but if you start rising in a cult’s ranks, sooner or later the god is going to notice you.” He paused, frowning. “I actually wonder what that says about Avei and… Well, that’s a whole other matter and I shouldn’t even have brought it up.” He shook himself slightly. “This day’s work has really rocked me off my keel.”

“I can relate,” Joe said fervently, turning to stare at the grouse as they dripped sizzling fat into the flames. “I… Well. Much as I’m lookin’ forward to those bein’ done…”

“Yes?” Darling prompted after he trailed off, turning to regard him with a raised eyebrow.

Joe grimaced. “I’ve got this powerful hankering for rare venison, and right now I find that very disturbing.”

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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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Darling’s irritating refusal to show weakness continued all the way up the winding trail that lead east, into the mountains beyond the city. To be sure, the trail they chose wound back and forth up the slope so as not to present an excessive challenge, but it was still a mountain climb; there was a significant vertical component to their trek. Joe’s indefatigable calm did not surprise him, for all that wandfighting didn’t seem like a particularly strenuous skill, at least physically. The Kid was a frontier dweller and had made his mark against many opponents; in any lodge of Shaath’s followers, he would be accounted a man regardless of his age. Darling, though, was a city slicker of the worst kind, and his failure to get even winded felt vaguely insulting to Ingvar.

Not for the first time, he considered setting off cross-country, straightening out the curves in the trail, so to speak. That was a good way to lose the track, though. Not that he couldn’t find a lodge in the forest purely on the strength of his own skills, but getting lost would add who knew how much time to the journey. Plus, he would eventually have to explain to the Crow why he’d ditched the companions she had selected for him. Ingvar had not totally ruled that out, but wasn’t to the point of deciding on it yet.

“Y’know,” Darling said breezily, stopping in the middle of the trail and craning his neck back to peer up at the pine boughs above, “in a way, I think I might be getting more out of this than you two country boys.”

Ingvar decided first not to hit him, and second not to dignify that with any response at all.

“Oh, I’m sure this’ll be rich,” Joe muttered.

“It’s just that… Well, I personally see a certain kind of beauty in the rhythms of a city,” Darling intoned, resuming his walk as Ingvar brushed past him. “In my city, anyway, though I suspect they each have a life and a glory of their own. But I can well believe that’s a kind of beauty you have to be particularly attuned to in order to appreciate it. This, though!” He spread his arms dramatically, as if offering to embrace the forest. It was a quiet, clear morning, the air filled with the songs of birds and insects, as well as the sharp scent of pine needles. Sunlight filtered through the branches over the trail in golden streams here and there, leaving most of the forest to either side in cool shade. The whole day could have been painted, as if it were someone’s perfect idea of an idyllic scene of nature. “I don’t care who you are, this is gorgeous.”

“It does have a kind of majesty to it,” Joe agreed. “Only forest I knew back home was the elven grove. Needless to say, I didn’t go in there much, but I vividly recall those few visits. The place was… It had this feelin’ to it, like it had been made for people. Not humans, necessarily, but people. Elves live in balance with nature, but while that means their land ain’t exactly parks, there’s a certain tameness to it. Like you can tell it’s under somebody’s control. This here’s… I dunno. Ancient, primal. Wild.”

“This is actually a very young forest,” said Ingvar from the front of the group. “Not much more than a hundred years old, if that.”

“Really?” Darling sounded legitimately interested, for whatever that was worth. “What gives it away?”

Ingvar paused, gesturing into the woods on their left. “To a limited extent, you can tell by the size and spacing of the trees. Note the lack of variation; almost all of them are about that big. There are no enormous elders, and relatively few saplings. Most of these trees grew up at the same time, and cast thick enough shade that younger ones haven’t space or sunlight to grow between them. That’s not a reliable proof, however; forests tend to reach a kind of equilibrium on their own that looks similar. More to the point, the spacing between them is very close to even. See how it almost forms corridors, going off into the distance?” He paused to let them both peer into the woods, noting the frowns when they saw what he meant. “In a way, Joe, this is the opposite of your elven forest. These trees were planted, on purpose, and then left to grow up wild.”

He turned and continued up the path, the others falling into step behind them. “To be truthful, though, I know the history of this land. There are a lot of centennial forests in the Empire. The Tirasian Dynasty has very careful laws about conservation. They needed them, there was so much clear-cutting and strip mining during the relative anarchy after the Enchanter Wars. The slopes around Veilgrad were one of the areas that were re-planted late in Sarsamon’s reign. A lot of the pine woods in this province were planted for logging, but the trees around the city itself are protected. They’re helping to hold the mountainsides in place and blocking snow, preventing avalanches.”

“Huh,” Joe mused.

“They also provide homes for game,” Ingvar added. “Meat and fur are economically significant around here, too.”

“Are you this well-versed on the state of the wilds everywhere?” Darling inquired.

Ingvar shrugged. “I could probably tell you the basics for most provinces. You can deduce a lot just from the climate, geography and nearby population. But no. Any Huntsman, even one who has never been here, knows how the wilds of the Stalrange live.”

“I see,” Darling murmured.

“For instance,” Ingvar went on. “There. Hear that?” He pointed upward. “There it is again—that bird, with the high-pitched, whooping voice.”

“Mm hm,” said Joe. “What’s that?”

“It’s a scarlet heron,” the Huntsman explained. “They’re not true herons, actually, they just happen to resemble them. It’s a coastal, tropical bird; it wouldn’t survive a week in a pine forest in this climate, at this altitude. However, the call is pretty widely known, as it’s uniquely easy for humans to imitate.”

Behind him, Joe and Darling’s steps both faltered as they paused. Ingvar glanced back over his shoulder. Joe had tucked his thumb into his belt, placing his hand near a wand; Darling ducked both hands slightly into his sleeves, curling his fingers back until they nearly reached the cuffs. Just for a moment, but it was enough of a tell for Ingvar to deduce the presence of throwing knives up his sleeves. A weak sort of weapon, in his estimation, and entirely characteristic of the thief.

“So,” Darling said lightly, “our approach has been noticed. Well, Mr. Grusser did say this path led right to the Shadow Hunters’ lodge. I guess that’s a good sign! They seem not to have hostile intentions.”

“How did you come to that conclusion?” Ingvar demanded.

“Well, anybody watching us can clearly see we’re in the presence of a Huntsman of Shaath, traditional attire and all,” he said, grinning. “So they’d have to assume you would recognize that bird call. Whoever else that message was meant for, it was basically an announcement to you that our approach has been noted. Seems like they’d be a lot more circumspect if they wanted to communicate privately. Or don’t you think these Shadow Hunters can imitate local birds, too?”

“Could be,” Joe allowed. “Could also be lettin’ us know we’re bein’ watched is a warning.”

“Meh.” Darling shrugged. “Not impossible, but as warnings go, that’s pretty flimsy. No, I think if they wanted to tell us anything, it’d be more direct. It makes more sense to me to take this as a peaceable sign.”

“Or,” Joe suggested, “they don’t care at all about three guys strollin’ through the woods, an’ there’s somethin’ truly dangerous in the forest not far from here.”

“Joe, you’re a regular little basket of sunbeams, you know that?” Darling said sourly. Ingvar held his peace.

The trees thinned as they climbed, affording a better view both ahead and behind them. Rounding one of the trail’s switchbacks, the three discovered they suddenly had an astonishing perspective of Veilgrad from above. The city jutted out from the foot of the mountains, a long finger pointed into the vastness of the prairie beyond. From this altitude, there were even signs of its recent pains; far more buildings were under construction and repair than normally would be, and there was a scar near its northwestern quarter where a whole block had burned.

Incredible as the vista was, they had to turn and examine the scenery ahead and above them in more detail, for they had finally come into view of the lodge of the Shadow Hunters.

Its general design was similar to the traditional Shaathist lodge: a huge longhouse, its peaked roof formed of enormous pine beams and covered in thatch, built upon a high stone foundation with a broad flight of steps rising a full story to its front doors. This one, fittingly enough, was more eclectic in design, somewhat resembling a medieval castle built around the main structure. Battlements were in evidence here and there along its peaks, notably surmounting the round tower attached to one front corner of the lodge. The tower soared twice the height of the lodge’s roof, but was so broadly built it managed to look squat; it had to have as much interior space as the main lodge, and more. There was also another rectangular segment jutting out from the lodge at right angles, smaller but built along similar lines, with a steep thatched roof. This one, however, was unmistakably a chapel, complete with stained glass windows and a steeple rising from its far end. Rather than an ankh as was traditional for Universal Church chapels, this one was surmounted by a stylized horned eagle wrought from iron. It was not the traditional eagle symbol of Avei, though it could well have been a rendition of the same kind of bird.

As they stood in the path, staring up at the lodge, a spine-chilling scream echoed from high above, and a shadow passed over them.

All three men turned to behold a winged shape gliding overhead. It swept out in a wide arc before coming in to land atop the lodge’s round tower, where it was hidden from view by the battlements. Given the speed with which it moved, and their disadvantageous position, they were not afforded a clear look at the bird. Its wingspan, though, had to be broader than any of them was tall.

Ingvar grunted and set off walking again. After a moment, the others followed.

A standing stone of clearly ancient provenance stood at the next bend in the path, marking the point where it turned to lead directly to the lodge. At least eight feet tall, the stone was so old it had been worn round by the elements, yet still bore traces of what must once have been very deep carvings, now outlined by the lichen clinging to them.

Atop it sat a blonde woman in coarse, practical garb similar to traditional Huntsman’s kit, casually working at a piece of wood with a knife.

“Good morning, guests,” she said as they drew abreast of her perch. “What brings you?”

The three paused, and Ingvar’s two companions looked at him, Darling with an encouraging nod. As if he needed encouragement.

“Well met,” Ingvar said, bowing slightly. Given how high up she was, dipping his head too deeply would have seemed ridiculous. “I am Brother Ingvar, a Huntsman of Shaath.”

“Not from around here, you aren’t,” she commented, pointing at him with her carving knife. “Not with that beardless face. I don’t imagine the local Huntsmen went out of their way to make you feel welcome, now did they?”

“You have trouble with the Huntsmen?” Darling asked. His tone and expression were a masterpiece of polite, neighborly interest; they seemed to work on this Shadow Hunter (for such she had to be) better than they did Ingvar, to judge by the way she smiled down at him.

“It waxes and wanes,” she replied. “Lately, the situation is not ideal. The Huntsmen got pushier by the day while the city was suffering from chaos effects, and now there’s absolutely no living with them, since they acquitted themselves so well fighting undead in the catacombs. Grusser threw them a parade. Only a matter of time until they overstep and he has to rein them back in, and they’d better hope it’s him doing it and not the Duchess. Oh, but I’m interrupting your introductions.”

“With me,” Ingvar said somewhat stiffly, “are Joseph Jenkins of Sarasio, and you seem to have already met Bishop Antonio Darling of the Universal—”

“Did you say Joseph Jenkins of Sarasio?” They finally seemed to have the woman’s full interest; she set down her knife and carving and leaned alarmingly over the edge of the stone, staring avidly down at Joe. “No fooling? The Joe Jenkins?”

“The ‘the’ himself, ma’am,” Joe said, tipping his hat. “Somewhat less impressive in the flesh than in song, so I’m told.”

“He’s a modest one,” Darling said cheerfully. “I guarantee no one has told him that.”

“Not true. Weaver manages to squeeze it in at least once a day.”

“Well, you guys must have quite a story,” she said, grinning now. “I’m Liesl, the gabby and insignificant. Since the honor’s all mine, I’ll try to make the pleasure all yours. Really, though, what brings you to our doorstep? This is like the beginning of a bar joke. A Huntsman, a Bishop and the flippin’ Sarasio Kid walk into a lodge…”

Darling laughed obligingly; Ingvar gritted his teeth momentarily, gathering his patience, before answering.

“My companions and I have come in pursuit of a spiritual matter. We were sent to seek the Shadow Hunters for… I…honestly don’t know.”

“Hm,” Liesl mused. “Sent by whom?”

“By Mary the Crow.”

She fell still at that, gazing down at them with a suddenly closed face.

“Well,” she said at last. “Well, well. You just get more interesting with every word you say. Not to mention more alarming… All right, hang on.”

She hopped nimbly to her feet, tucking her knife back into its sheath and her piece of wood into an inner pocket of her leather vest. Before any of them could say a word, Liesl stepped off the edge of the standing stone, plummeting to the ground.

It wasn’t a lethal drop by any means, but longer than a person ought to casually jump. She hit the ground in a roll, coming smoothly to her feet right in front of them and pausing only to brush off her leather trousers. Ingvar recognized the move well enough; young Huntsmen like Tholi were always doing similar things, as if to prove to themselves, each other, and the world that they deserved their rank. He felt grateful to have outgrown that phase, himself.

“Walk this way, gentlemen,” the Shadow Hunter said with a knowing little smile. “Your business is over the head of the likes of me, I think. You’d better come inside and talk to Raichlin.”


 

Parvashti opened her eyes, sighed, and hopped down from the rigging. It wasn’t a long drop to the deck; the Sleepless was a nimble little ship, built for speed rather than capacity. She barely had enough of a fall for her feet to make a good, satisfying thump, but it was still enough to alert the Captain that she was finally down. He had doubtless been twiddling his thumbs and listening for it.

“Well?” Captain Nayar demanded, thrusting his bearded head out of his cabin’s porthole. “Storm, or no storm?”

“I’m not sure,” she admitted. “The sea is…making up its mind.”

“Not sure?” he bellowed, vanishing back below. In moments he came bursting out on deck in his towering entirety, glaring. “Not sure? We either sail in two hours, or not, based on my esteemed windshaman’s prognostication. I’ve got cargo rotting in my hold!”

“How fast do you think Narisian platinum rots?” she asked mildly.

“Woman, I don’t pay you for not sure!”

Parvashti strode forward, glaring right back at him, and thrust a ringed forefinger into his substantial paunch. “No, Captain, you pay me not to nail you amidships with a harpoon, so caulk it before I decide I’m overdue a raise! Are you Punaji or a cave elf your own damn self? It’s the sea! It’ll make up its mind when it does, and I’ll know before anyone else. You want certainty of a storm? Stick your great bearded gob into the waves and tell Naphthene what a twat she is. Until then, you’ll have to be content with being a little ahead of everyone else on these docks!”

“Bah!” Nayar roared, throwing up his hands and turning to scowl at the city behind. Anteraas perched on a narrow wedge of flat land between the cliffs that made up the Tiraan Gulf’s coast, flanked by the ancient stone arms of its harbor. Those cliffs rose in both directions, climbing toward the Stalrange in the east and toward Tiraas itself, atop the Tira Falls barely visible to the west. In times past, the capital had been visible only on the clearest of days, but now its glow made it a constant presence on any night that wasn’t too thickly shrouded by fog.

“Oh, keep your beard on,” Parvashti said in a milder tone. “How much money have I made you already? I guarantee no one else knows the portents my familiars can read. We’ll need most of those two hours anyway to wait for the others to get back with the supplies.”

“Fine, fine,” Nayar grunted. “As soon as everyone’s aboard and everything stowed, we set sail.”

“But—”

He held up a hand to forestall her. “Trade is as much a game of strategy against mortal opponents as it is a game of chance against the elements. You know that slimy arseplug Gupta is watching us—he’s figured out that my windshaman knows things no other knows. When we leave the harbor, he’ll follow, while everyone else dithers to see what comes of this.” He gestured out at the gray sea and gray sky, calm but of a worrying color. The chilly southern sea was unpredictable at the best of times; some days, it seemed it went out of its way to obscure its intentions. “If you give us the clear to keep on for Puna Vashtar, so be it; the Sleepless can outrun that tub of his no matter what charms he’s finagled in port. If not, we’ll put in at Tehvaad and leave him to wallow in the storm.”

“Truly, you are a master of your craft, o great and canny one,” she said solemnly.

Nayar snorted to express his opinion of her wit. “Oh, did you get your paper?”

“Paper? What paper?”

“The newspaper. You didn’t subscribe to one?”

“Sub— News— Captain, what have I told you about drinking on the job?”

“That I’d better invite you?” he replied with a grin.

“Damn right! What the fuck newspaper do you think I would subscribe to? When would I do such a thing? What address do I have? Why would I care what the shorecrawlers think is fit to print? Use that shaggy hatstand for its intended purpose!”

“You’re going to make some poor bastard a dreadful wife someday, you ungodly shrew,” he said. “All I know is—in fact, here.” He ducked back below decks for a moment, reemerging almost immediately with a newspaper bound in twine, a small note tied to it. “This was delivered by some boy while you were up there mumbling at the wind. Has your name and all, so I figured… Eh. Maybe one of the crew just thought you’d be interested and sent it along. The headline’s about that crazy school you went to.”

“What?” Parvashti strode forward, snatching it from his hand. “Give me that!”

She ripped away the twine while he muttered imprecations about her manners and stomped to the port rail to glare out at the sea. Parvashti’s eyes darted rapidly back and forth across the page, a frown growing on her features as she read.

“Captain,” she said, “when we next make port… I might want to take a little leave soon.”


 

“There,” Erland grunted, backing out of the tight space between boilers into which he’d had to squeeze to reach the access panel. “You were right, Harald, it was the glass conduits. Somehow, some idiot managed to forget to fix them properly in their housings.” He made a point to speak respectfully to his partners at all times, even when correcting them; having been the idiot in question, he felt free to express his frustration a little more directly.

“And the glass?” Harald said nervously, apparently not making note of Erland’s mistake. “It’s all right, no cracks?”

“All in perfect order,” Erland assured him, holding up his pocket lens and thumbing the charm that made its rim glow. “The shutdown wasn’t due to damage, but Kjerstin’s protective charms working as intended. I double-checked the pistons for signs of strain while I was in there. Everything’s fine, no grinding or overheating.”

“I told you so,” Kjerstin said smugly, beginning to tick off points on her fingers. “Told you the charms were necessary, that they’d work, that you were too sleep-deprived to be putting in those conduits last night—”

“All right, all right,” Erland said soothingly, holding up his hands. “You can make your speech later. For now, we appreciate your charm work. The engine’s still intact, the conduits are now installed properly, and we’re ready to try again.”

The other two dwarves glanced at each other, nervousness plain on their faces.

“We are ready to try again, aren’t we?” Erland said dryly.

“All these false starts,” Harald muttered, rubbing his hands on his trouser legs. “Every time I get more nervous… Sometimes it feels the machine’s trying to warn us we’re up to something that should not be attempted.”

“Oh, bah,” Kjerstin snorted. “If nobody tried new things, the world would never change.”

“I know what my grandfather would say about this gadget,” Harald said, staring at the engine. “All this glass and filament… It looks like some kind of elvish sculpture.”

“Really, have you ever seen an elvish sculpture?” Erland said with amusement. “Make time to get out of the foundry and into a museum before your brain withers in your skull.”

“Your grandfather still wears his beard down to his belt,” Kjerstin said sharply, “and his generation isn’t too old to have to worry about getting it caught in gears. That is not a joke; you know good dwarves have suffered beard-induced decapitations, working with big enough machines. Some people are just too hidebound to embrace innovation!”

“You two want to re-hash this discussion again right now?” Erland said pointedly.

They paused again, staring at their machine.

“Feh, you’re right,” Harald said. “We’re putting it off. All right, Erland, let’s give her another go.”

“You could’ve built it with some extra dials or something,” Kjerstin muttered, folding her arms and betraying her own nervousness with a rapidly tapping foot. “Some dummy switches. Something for me to do.”

“I’ll work a few useless gizmos into the next iteration,” Erland promised, grasping the lever. “Here goes nothing, once again.”

He hauled the lever into the active position, opening the channel to the desktop-sized elemental forge hooked up to one end of the engine and letting raw heat blaze forth into its mouth.

Immediately, with gratifying smoothness, their creation purred to life. The sound it made was almost musical, high-pitched and harmonic, quite unlike any combustion engine they had ever worked with. Light shone forth from multiple points, orange fire from its exhaust ports, arcane blue beams racing through its exposed power conduits, multicolored runes igniting in sequence along the casing.

At the device’s opposite end from its power source, the piston began working. It barely had to accelerate, starting off pumping at nearly its full capacity.

They tensed, waiting for another alarm or sudden shutdown, as had happened the last four attempts. Nothing came, though. Just the light, the pleasant voice of the engine, and the rapid motion of its output piston against the springs and pulleys attached to the gauges Harald was monitoring.

“It’s stable,” Kjerstin breathed. “It’s working!”

“Kinetic output at fifteen jonors,” Harald reported excitedly. “By the Light, Erland, it’s even higher than we projected!”

“That’s a little too high,” Erland said, cautious despite his own enthusiasm. “We didn’t design it to stand up to that kind of power flow…”

“But it’s working!” Kjerstin squealed, bouncing up and down. “From a heat source to kinetic energy with zero waste or byproducts! Erland, we’re rich!”

A shrill whine sounded from the engine before he could respond; runes flared red, and suddenly its shutdown charms activated again, slamming the barrier shut to cut off its power source and force its lever back into lock position. The blue light faded from the conduits, and its soft voice wound down into silence.

“To get rich,” Harald observed, “we’re going to have to make it run longer than thirty seconds…”

“Oh, you big fuddy-duddy,” Kjerstin said, darting over to swat at his shoulder. “We’re just building a proof of concept, here! We have something to show the Falconers now—their grant is provably not wasted money. They’ll invest in improving it, they have to!”

“I never assume humans are going to do the sensible thing,” Harald grumped. “Please, Kjerstin, don’t get worked up this time before we see results.”

“It’s obviously just a matter of control, right? We refine the runes so that they regulate the power input rather than just shutting it off when it gets too much—”

“Oh, just like that? You’re talking about a complete rebuild of the enchanted components! And we’ll have to re-design most of the physical machine to accommodate…”

Erland let their discussion wash over him, listening with half an ear as he stepped over to his cluttered work desk and sank into the battered chair there, feeling weak from a combination of excitement and relief. He couldn’t keep the grin off his face. They were both right: there was a long, long way to go before they had an engine that would actually power anything, but the concept worked. It could be made to work, at least. All their efforts were finally bearing fruit.

His eyes fell on a newspaper, printed in Tanglish, sitting on top of his stacks of paperwork. He hadn’t bought that… Had Kjerstin brought it in to show him?

Erland’s expression fell into a frown as he read the headline. Oh, this was not good. Professor Tellwyrn was going to immolate somebody.

“Hey, Kjerstin,” he called, interrupting their argument. “Didn’t you happen to mention that the Falconer’s daughter was attending my alma mater?”

“What of it?” she said, exasperated. “You bring that up now?”

“You were talking about funding, and politics,” he said, eyes still on the paper. “There’s something unfolding down there that we may want to pay attention to…”


 

“Your pardon, Princess,” Cartwright said diffidently, “but this newspaper was just delivered for you.”

“Newspaper?” Yasmeen said distractedly, picking it up from the silver tray on which the Butler held it out. “I’m not in the habit of reading the…” She trailed off, staring at the headline. “…Cartwright, who delivered this?”

“A young man who is not a member of the Palace staff,” Cartwright replied, her round face as impassive as always. “I took the liberty of ordering that he be followed. Needless to say, the Palace guardsmen are not equipped to pursue someone discreetly beyond the walls of Calderaas, but I suspect his point of origin is within the city.”

“A man penetrates this deeply into the palace,” Yasmeen said sharply, “a man you do not know, and you merely have him followed? What if, instead of a newspaper, he had been delivering a dagger? How did he get in here? He should have been apprehended the moment you knew something was amiss!”

“With respect, your Highness,” Cartwright said calmly, folding her hands behind her back, “the content of the paper, and the manner of its delivery, is suggestive. This means of conveying information is a favored tactic of both the Thieves’ Guild and Imperial Intelligence; there are innumerable possible motives either might have to draw your Highness’s attention to Last Rock. Apprehending an agent of either organization would avail us little, and risk creating considerable backlash. When our agents report back, we will know more about who he was, and can act further at that time.”

“I see,” Yasmeen said more calmly, returning her eyes to the paper and reading below the headline. “Quite right, then. That was quick thinking, Cartwright.”

“Your Highness,” the Butler replied, bowing.

“…where is my mother at the moment?”

“Her Majesty is currently entertaining Lord Taluvir in the west drawing room, Princess. His Lordship appeared quite wroth; the matter is likely to tax her considerable stores of diplomatic skill, I fear.”

“Hmmmm. This is definitely not worth interrupting her for, then. Unless…”

“There has been no message from Last Rock from or concerning Prince Sekandar, your Highness,” Cartwight said serenely. “Given the esteem in which House Aldarasi is held by Professor Tellwyrn, he can be assumed to be well so long as we are not notified otherwise.”

“Very well,” Yasmeen said with a sigh, folding the newspaper. “When she has the liberty, please inform the Sultana that I wish to speak with her at her earliest convenience.”

“I have already made the arrangements, your Highness,” Cartwright replied, “and ordered your Highness’s writing desk to be prepared with your favorite jasmine tea and baklava. Your Highness was scheduled to be interviewed by that unmannerly individual from the Wizards’ Guild; he has been informed that the meeting must be delayed.”

Any other servant would be reprimanded for such presumption, but there was no point in going to the considerable expense of employing a Butler if one did not let them buttle.

“Thank you very much, Cartwright.”

“It is, as always, my pleasure, Princess.”


 

Agent Fawkes moved as casually as was humanly possible, conveying the impression to any onlookers that he had every right to be here, on these enclosed manor grounds. Not that there were any onlookers—he had cased the premises quite thoroughly before entering—but one did not last long in his profession if one suffered lapses of professionalism. He laid the newspaper down on the steps to the manor’s kitchen door, which his intel stated was more heavily used by the house’s occupants than the front, and turned to make his way back to the side gate.

He found himself staring directly into a wide pair of eerie crimson eyes. She had appeared in complete and utter silence.

“Hi there!” Malivette Dufresne said brightly, smiling. “Whatcha doin’?”

For the barest moment, he froze. Fawkes was trained to confront the unexpected, to confront death, to contend with attractive women and terrifying monsters. The combination of all of the above was enough to rock his equilibrium, though. Just a little bit.

“Good morning, ma’am,” he said respectfully, stepping back from the vampire and bowing. “Just delivering your paper.”

“That’s interesting,” the undead Duchess said, her smile widening to show off her fangs in what he was certain was not an accidental gesture. “Because people making deliveries tend to leave them at the gate, since it’s not, y’know, open. Also, I don’t subscribe to any newspapers. But since we’re getting all friendly, my pet peeves are poofy-sleeved dresses, sausage too heavily spiced, women who wear too much makeup, and people who come to my home and lie to me.”

Fawkes allowed himself the luxury of a small gulp. Such a show of vulnerability could actually be advantageous; establishing himself firmly as a lesser creature meant she was less likely to do something violent. That was, if his intel on Dufresne was correct; if she were the wrong kind of monster, it could have the opposite effect. Now, face to face with her in all her unnatural glory, he had to wonder. For one thing, it was broad daylight and she wasn’t so much as steaming in the sun…

Malivette was considered an ally of the Throne and a citizen in good standing, and this was a mission of relatively low priority. Under the circumstances, Intelligence’s policy for such a confrontation was clear.

“My apologies, your Grace,” he said, bowing again. “I work for the Imperial government; I was told to deliver this newspaper to your home. That is the entirety of what I know of the matter.”

“Ahh,” she said knowingly. “I see. Well, then. Be a good boy and let’s have it.”

She held out her hand expectantly. Fawkes glanced at it, decided against making any further comment, and turned to retrieve the paper he had just set down. He placed it in her hand with yet another respectful bow.

“Now then,” Malivette said briskly, “let’s see what we have here. Oh, my. Professor Tellwyrn still retains her absolute genius for annoying powerful people, I see…”

Fawkes cleared his throat very softly, stepping backward away from her. “Well. Enjoy your paper, your Grace. If there’s nothing further, I’ll be going.”

The vampire made no response, crimson eyes tracking back and forth as she read the lead article. Fawkes stepped back twice more before turning his back on her. He did not rush, nor pick up his pace in the slightest, as he made his way back across the grounds. Professionalism.

Still, it was with considerable relief that he finally slipped out the side gate into the overgrown path beyond. He didn’t quite indulge himself in a sigh, knowing roughly the range of that creature’s hearing, but allowed himself to un-tense slightly as he re-latched the gate behind him, then turned to head back into the forest.

He was instantly seized by the throat and slammed back into the gate.

“One other thing,” Malivette said in total calm, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for her to suddenly be standing there on this side of the wall. She wasn’t even looking at him, still reading the newspaper held in one hand; the fingers of her other one were as icy and rigid as marble against his neck. Fawkes had better sense than to struggle against them, merely rising up on tiptoe so he could continue to breathe. “Be a love and report to Lord Vex that if he wants to give me a message, he can do so like a civilized person. If I continue to find his playthings creeping about my back steps, I can’t guarantee he’ll get them back in one piece. Clear?”

“Explicitly,” Fawkes replied, unable to fully compensate for the strain on his vocal cords. “I shall relay the message, your Grace.”

“Attaboy!” she said brightly, releasing him.

He was, by that point, only slightly surprised when she exploded into a cloud of shrieking bats and swirled away, back toward the manor. At least she took the paper with her.

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