“It sounds like your fact-finding trip was more exciting and less informative than I would have hoped,” the Abbess said, steepling her fingers and gazing sharply up at Basra.
“Well put,” Basra replied. “It wasn’t wasted time, however. The elves knew little of immediate, direct value, but they did have very useful insights to offer, and our visit with the witch gained not only his perspective on the matter, but the possibility of gaining support from Viridill’s fae-wielding community. In this matter that may ultimately prove a game-changer. Most of all, our encounter with the shadow elemental was very instructive.”
“The way you describe it,” Narnasia said, her expression not wavering, “you made short work of the creature, and it made little lasting impression.”
“Yes,” Basra agreed, “but again, it was the insight of the elves that made the experience worthwhile. We learned that the shadow elemental is a rare and expensive creation, and not intended for combat. Indeed, it didn’t acquit itself well at all when pressed. Our unseen opponent is taunting us with his ability to squander resources, just to make a point.”
“His or her,” Narnasia said flatly. “And don’t make the mistake of thinking everyone competent thinks the way you do, Captain Syrinx. There seems to me a simpler explanation: the creature did not intend to fight. As you described the events, you were stopped by the elves, who revealed that something was following you, and then it attacked. Correct?”
She glanced at Covrin and Schwartz; the Legionnaire looked to Basra, but Schwartz replied immediately.
“I say, now you mention it, that is the way it played out.”
The Abbess nodded. “Self-destruction is a time-honored tactic for spies who are found out and cornered. This would mean you achieved an actual victory by depriving this mysterious witch of such a valuable agent.”
“That fact alone makes me suspicious,” Basra said coldly. “It is too early in the campaign to indulge in wishful thinking.”
“My experience with immortals,” Narnasia replied, “which the elves seemed to imply this person must be, is that they do not live long by being incautious. My experience with people who amass power is the same. And those who lurk in the shadows, tentatively poking their enemies for signs of weakness, do not squander resources. It frankly beggars belief to imagine that any foe capable of conjuring as valuable a servitor as a shadow elemental apparently is would deliberately waste it, for such a simple reason as making a point. A being of such power and resourcefulness would not be approaching their attacks so tentatively. So relax a little bit, captain, and enjoy your victory.”
“I hardly think this is time to get complacent,” Basra insisted, glancing over at the other two. She continued somewhat grudgingly. “We do need to get some rest before proceeding, though, you’re correct in that much.”
“What is your plan?” Narnasia inquired.
“At the moment, our only option pursuant to established strategies is to wait,” Basra said distastefully. “For Hargrave to produce information, and for our antagonist to move again. I do not intend to waste time in idleness—since we can’t act directly, we should take the opportunity to re-position ourselves. I mean to embark for the capital…” She glanced at Schwartz again. “…tomorrow. That, surely, should give everyone time to rest up.”
“Tiraas?” he asked, perking up slightly.
“The provincial capital,” Basra said, exasperated. “Vrin Shai is in a central location from which we can reach most points in Viridill fairly quickly, either by Rail or conventional roads. It also has the largest concentration of the Legions and the Sisterhood’s resources, not to mention the Imperial government offices. It’s the best place to wait, and should afford me the opportunity to find or create new avenues of investigation. And,” she added, nodding to Narnasia, “while the Abbey is a very secure location, it may be best, since we are being specifically targeted, to take ourselves away from the novices. Vrin Shai is nearly as defensible as Tiraas itself.”
“I note that line of thinking was starkly absent when you placed these two at the Izarite temple,” the Abbess said.
“As I explained,” Basra replied testily, “the followers of Izara are on no one’s target list, and history is full of accounts of all manner of armies and villains going well out of their way to avoid harming them. The Abbey is another matter; the person behind this clearly has a quarrel with Avei’s interests, specifically.”
“Full might be exaggerating it,” Narnasia acknowledged, “but I’ve heard of a few such events. Fair enough, I suppose.”
“For the moment,” Basra continued in a suddenly calmer tone, “while everyone is assembled here, I would like to put Private Covrin forward for a commendation for her performance against the elemental. For an untested private to maintain that kind of discipline against an opponent magically projecting fear, and without the support of a full line of Legionnaires, impressed me. I tapped Covrin for her political acumen specifically; I’ve been concerned that I may have been depriving her of valuable combat experience. That was a better display than I would expect from most soldiers of her rank, however.”
Jenell’s head had jerked toward the Bishop, eyes widening at the mention of her name. She kept silent, though, stiffening back to attention when the Abbess’s eyes fell upon her.
“Mm,” Narnasia said noncommittally. “If you’re so concerned about her career trajectory, Captain, you can always have her reassigned to an active cohort and select someone less green as your personal aide. Which, I believe, is a more standard practice.”
“Be that as it may, it’s a different discussion,” Basra said curtly. “I bring it up because your endorsement would be beneficial to the process.”
“Oh, indeed,” Narnasia replied, staring at her. “I’m sure if you really want to push this through, you could probably get the girl a medal strictly on the basis of your own political connections.”
“That’s correct, I can,” Basra shot back. “But giving handouts and doing favors is for opponents, rivals and useful contacts. To soldiers I give nothing they haven’t earned. Covrin deserves to be acknowledged for her own merits, not for my patronage.”
“I’m glad to hear that, anyway,” Narnasia agreed. “Very well, I’ll consider this.”
Basra tightened her mouth momentarily before continuing. “Regardless, I’ll be sending a similar endorsement to the Collegium for Mr. Schwartz’s help in the same event. Fortunately, as Bishop, I do not need your help to accomplish that.”
“Oh, now,” Schwartz said awkwardly while the Abbess stared at the Bishop. “It wasn’t as great a thing as you make it sound. I mean, it’s not as if I’d seen a shadow elemental before yesterday, but I certainly have read about them! I knew the thing wasn’t actually all that dangerous. I was a lot more impressed with the way you and Covrin charged right at it!”
“Covrin and I are soldiers,” Basra said more calmly, glancing at him. “That is what is expected of us. You, Mr. Schwartz, are an academic, and I’ve known people with more combat experience than you who fled like rabbits from lesser threats than that. You kept a cool head under pressure and acted intelligently, and helpfully in battle. That’s more impressive than you may realize.”
A soft rap sounded on the office door.
“Enter,” Narnasia called, her eyes still fixed on Basra’s face.
The door opened a crack and a white-robed novice slipped in. She paused, glancing around, then sketched a quick bow to the Bishop before hurrying around the desk to the Abbess’s side, where she bent to whisper in the old woman’s ear.
“Ah,” Narnasia said, patting the girl’s hand, an oddly satisfied expression falling across her features. “What excellent timing. It seems your guest has arrived, Captain Syrinx.”
Basra raised her eyebrows. “Excuse me, my guest? I was not expecting anyone.”
The office door was pushed open wider, admitting a diminutive but well-rounded woman with deep red hair, wearing the white robes and black tabard of a Universal Church Bishop.
“Basra!” Branwen Snowe cried in evident delight. “How wonderful to see you again! It’s been far too long.”
Basra drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly through her nose in what sounded suspiciously like a hiss.
“It’s right this way,” Raichlin said, smiling at them over his shoulder as he led the way through the lodge’s stone hallways. “I have an office, but I hate it. The library’s the most comfortable room in the whole place, and my favorite for other reasons.”
“Sounds good!” Darling said cheerfully. Ingvar and Joe, characteristically, held their peace.
Ingvar was mostly preoccupied studying his surroundings, and especially the other Shadow Hunters they met in passing, with great care. For the most part, the lodge could have been a Shaathist one in terms of general layout and aesthetic, though the Huntsmen preferred to build with wood rather than stone. The great hall had the same general design and décor, with hunting trophies proudly displayed, though it had no altar or wolf statue.
It was the people he found most interesting. In a lodge dedicated to Shaath, one could tell a lot about a person by their manner of dress. The women showed through hairstyles, collars and other adornments whether they were claimed, unwed, too young to be either, or widowed. Among men, the Huntsmen carried specific weapons that distinguished shamans, beastmasters, clerics, and others, and of course the younger boys who had not yet achieved any rank.
Here, everyone was both more homogenous, and less. They occasionally passed people in the halls, and had met a good number of curious onlookers in the great hall; in general, the Shadow Hunters were less reserved and less solemn than the Huntsmen. Also, a number of them were accompanied by animal companions, either dogs (Shaathists did not favor domesticated canines), large cats (which made Ingvar nervous, as Shaathist doctrine considered them un-trainable), and birds. There might have been something signified by the specifics of their clothes that he didn’t know enough to interpret, or they might have been just individual expressions of style. Though the Shadow Hunters had the same general preference for comfortable, practical garments he was accustomed to seeing, they also liked them more worked and decorated than the coarse fabrics and untrimmed hides Huntsmen favored. In fact, now that he considered it, they dressed a lot like wood elves.
And as far as he could tell, the women dressed more or less the same as the men. Ingvar was not about to offer any comment on this; explaining proper gender roles to people outside the faith was almost always pointless, and often provocative.
“Here we are,” Raichlin said, pushing open a set of double doors and gesturing them through. Each of the three nodded to him in passing, then paused inside, studying the chamber.
To judge by its dimensions and the positions of windows along its circular outer wall, the library appeared to occupy a couple of floors of the entire tower. There were no walls across its interior, though there were multiple thick stone columns helping to support the structure, and waist-high bookshelves radiating out from an open sitting area in the center, offering an unobstructed view across the whole space. There were two other clusters of chairs and reading tables around large fireplaces against the outer walls, currently unlit. Balconies ringed the perimeter, two and three stories up, providing access to more shelf space, all fully stocked with books.
They liked their reading a lot more than the Huntsmen, it seemed.
Raichlin led them to seats in the central area; there were three other Shadow Hunters browsing the library, two softly talking over a book on the first balcony and a lone woman leaning against a window and reading up on the third. All glanced up at the party’s arrival, one man waving at Raichlin, before going back to their own pursuits.
“This is downright amazing,” Joe said honestly as he sank into a padded chair. “I thought only Nemitites collected books this ardently.”
“I’ve often thought the greatest weakness of the Pantheon system is the way it encourages people to over-specialize,” Raichlin observed. “A god for each sphere of human activity, and people devoted to each god. It doesn’t seem a recipe for a balanced life, does it? More than one thing can be important, even sacred. I mean no offense, of course.”
“None taken,” Darling said glibly. “I’ve had the same thought myself.”
“Some things are simply more important than others,” Ingvar said quietly. “People signify their beliefs, and their priorities, through their choice of allegiance.”
“True enough,” Raichlin agreed. “And I can’t claim to be without my own prejudices. We don’t prohibit members from worshiping Pantheon gods, but the whole focus of our order’s life makes it all seem rather…extraneous. Here, we respect the wild, we insist upon our freedom…” He nodded to Darling, grinning. “We value knowledge, study the arts of combat, healing, magic… If some god showed up here insisting we had to do only one of those things, I think they’d be kicked out.”
“All due respect,” Joe said dryly, “but I’ve got a feeling that’s an untested theory.”
Raichlin laughed, but quietly, mindful of the library. “True, true. But I’m monopolizing the conversation, when you’ve come all this way to seek us out. Liesl said you’d been sent here by the Crow, of all people. So!” He folded his hands in his lap, leaning forward and studying Darling’s face. “What can our little lodge of hunters do for you, your Grace?”
“Pardon if I gave you the wrong impression by babbling on,” Darling said easily. “It happens, I’m a babbler. I’m only here to help out, however. This is Brother Ingvar’s quest.”
“Oh? Forgive me.” Raichlin turned to Ingvar, his expression open and expectant.
Ingvar drew in a breath to steady himself. Once again, discussing this with another outsider…
“For the last few weeks, I’ve been troubled by persistent dreams that my lodge’s shaman deemed prophetic. I wasn’t sure…until the most recent, after proceeding as usual, hinted I should seek out the Crow for help.” He paused, glancing at Darling, whose expression remained neutral. “I didn’t honestly think she would be accessible, but…she actually turned out to be interested.”
“I’m rather impressed that you found her,” Raichlin noted when he paused for thought. “I’ve not had the pleasure myself, but she’s not known to be amenable to people taking up her time.”
“Actually, it seems she got wind that I was looking and found me. And… Well, the short version is she decided to help.” Ingvar frowned. “To be quite honest, I was never totally sure until that point that these were anything more than dreams. I had the sense that they were, but…how can one really know? But, anyway, the Crow’s advice was to seek out the Shadow Hunters of Veilgrad. So…” He shrugged. “Here I am.”
“Interesting,” Raichlin mused. “These dreams. What can you tell me about them?”
Ingvar had to pause to draw in another deep breath. It felt almost traitorous, revealing what could be Shaath’s state of weakness to these apostates. “I saw the god. Shaath. In different ways every time, but always imprisoned. Bound, and suffering.”
A frown settled on Raichlin’s features, and he nodded slowly. “That’s very curious. Hm…”
“You know what it means?” Ingvar demanded, unable to fully suppress his eagerness.
“I doubt it’s going to be as simple as that,” Raichlin cautioned. “First of all, dreams, whether prophetic or not, are rarely literal. They come from a part of the mind which runs entirely on metaphor. And really, doesn’t that make sense in this context? The binding of a god is not something easily done, nor something that could be done without people taking notice. But…” He nodded. “Granting that it may not be a truly literal message, yes. I have an idea what that could address. Tell me, Ingvar, what do you know about our order, here?”
For a moment Ingvar bristled at the apparent delay, but forced himself back under control. It probably wasn’t a hostile action; in truth, he’d had the same from more than one shaman, and elder Huntsman. They rarely seemed to want to answer questions directly, preferring to lead the questioner to the answer in steps. Mary had said as much outright.
“Very little,” he replied. “The Huntsmen are a diverse group; each lodge has variations in its own doctrine. I’m hardly aware of the particulars of all of them; I certainly have not studied the offshoots, those that diverged enough to qualify as a different faith entirely.”
“Ah, but there you proceed upon a false assumption,” Raichlin said, smiling. “We did not diverge from Shaathism. The appelation Shadow Hunter is a Shaathist invention, and meant as a disparagement, but we’ve never bothered to resist it.”
“Good policy,” Darling commented. “Insults tend to lose their power if you embrace them.”
“Just so,” Raichlin agreed, “and we’d rather the Huntsmen did such as that instead of attacking us, which…while not a likelihood in this day and age, has been one in times past, and might one day be again. But no, we didn’t come from the Huntsmen.”
“They…came from you?” Joe said, frowning. Ingvar tensed in his seat.
“Mm,” Raichlin mused. “We certainly predate the organized faith, but no, I wouldn’t say they came from us. The modern lodges definitely borrowed a lot of ideas from the Rangers, but they owe just as much of their lineage to other sources. We’re…a distant uncle, perhaps, not a father.” He grinned, which only served to heighten Ingvar’s distaste.
“Rangers?” Joe inquired.
“Yes indeed, that’s the original term,” Raichlin said, nodding. “It’s the one we still prefer to use within our own ranks. Shadow Hunters is so much more dramatic, though!”
“Now, stop me if I’m wrong,” Joe said, “but the ‘ranger’ is one of the basic adventurer archetypes, ain’t it? One that’s more or less fallen by the wayside…”
“You are very far from wrong!” Raichlin smiled at him, leaning back in his chair. “You’ve heard of the Heroes’ Guild?”
“Yes, you would’ve… The Guildhall was in Mathenon, same as Sarasio. Not close to it, but that general region. Well, after the Guild was felled, its various orders…split, you might say. A lot of them were overtaken by the cults. Warriors had a natural affinity for Avenism, for instance. The modern Wizards’ Guild is the result of a schism from not long after that, when a few very stubborn practitioners did not want to be swept up under Salyrene’s umbrella. And, of course, the Rogues either joined the Thieves’ Guild or were wiped out by it over time. But the Rangers, well… We’d always stood somewhat apart. The nature of living close to the wild means one’s not as inclined to loiter around Guildhalls, waiting for quests to be posted on the bulletin board.”
“On that, we agree,” Ingvar snorted.
Raichlin nodded at him, grinning. “Having a structure of our own, we survived the Guild’s demise just fine, and we continue today. We do this by not being excessively hidebound. The world’s changed a lot over the centuries, and the graveyards of history are occupied by societies that tried to resist the tide. So, no, our lineage predates Shaathism, and has point in common, but isn’t fully shared with it.”
“Shaath has been a member of the Pantheon since the Elder War,” Ingvar snapped. “You surely are not going to claim your Rangers have existed longer than that?”
“No indeed,” Raichlin replied. “We’ve only a relatively few thousand years of history under our belts; Shaath has definitely been around longer than we have. I said we predate Shaathism, not Shaath. You’ve probably never been told this, Brother Ingvar, but for most of recorded history, until not very long before the rise of the Tiraan Empire, a Huntsman of Shaath was…basically a wandering holy man. They lived alone in the wilds, protecting them from those who would despoil them, offering healing and rescue to travelers in need. There couldn’t have been more than a few dozen in existence at a time.”
“What?” Ingvar exclaimed, heedless of the library’s quiet.
“There was no cult,” Raichlin continued, gazing calmly at him. “No traditions or organization. To feel the call of the wild was an inherently sacred calling; those who answered it learned from nature itself, and Shaath directly. The Rangers always revered true Huntsmen of Shaath until they organized and began recruiting. And while the cult, when it formed, definitely took a lot of its structure from the Rangers, it’s very likely that the first Rangers themselves were attempting to imitate the Huntsmen, without ever attaining Shaath’s blessing. So… You could say we are the chicken and the egg. It’s hard to say which came first, and may really be pointless to ask.”
“You say ‘true Huntsmen,’” Ingvar said tightly, “as if to imply that those of us alive now are not.”
“You’re right, forgive me,” Raichlin acknowledged. “That was thoughtless phrasing on my part. Original Huntsmen makes more sense; they were definitely a whole different animal before Angthinor came along.”
“Who?” Darling inquired.
“Angthinor the Wise was a great leader among the Huntsmen of Shaath,” Ingvar said tersely.
“The Huntsmen today don’t give him nearly enough credit,” Raichlin added. “Angthinor created the organization as it exists now. He was a man of very particular ideas; the modern Huntsmen reflect his preconceptions at least as much as they do the arts of the wild.”
“Be careful, Shadow Hunter,” Ingvar growled.
“You be careful,” Darling said firmly. “We’re the guests, here, and remember you came here to ask for his help.”
“This is a difficult thing to discuss,” Raichlin said seriously. “Believe me, I take no offense; I don’t expect it to be easy to hear. But I won’t insult you by softening the truth, Ingvar. What you choose to believe is up to you; it should always be kept in mind that everyone’s perspective is tainted by their limited point of view, and I am no exception. That’s exactly why a point of view unfamiliar to your own can be valuable. It opens up whole new ways of seeing the world.”
“What you propose is absurd,” Ingvar snapped. “Gods don’t just change.”
“That’s theology, and over my head,” Raichlin said. “Regardless of what gods do or don’t do, people definitely change. Cults are no exception. Ingvar, have you ever heard of the Silver Huntresses?”
“Should I have?”
“It doesn’t really surprise me that you haven’t,” Raichlin said with a grin. “They’re another group who share a parallel lineage with your order and mine—related, but not descended, mostly. They were very much like the Huntsmen of Shaath in function and style, except universally female, and sworn to Avei.”
“What?” Ingvar exclaimed.
“And,” Raichlin continued more ruminatively, “they’re gone. The last lived about five hundred years ago. Times changed; the Sisterhood of Avei changed. The Silver Legions are about the same age as the Huntsmen; they’ve existed twelve or thirteen centuries in their present form. Before that, there was a League of Avei, composed of both men and women sworn to that goddess, though they were a lot more like mercenary bands than a modern army. Most of Avei’s important work was carried out by her Hands, and the Silver Huntresses, which were a slightly less awesome and more numerous version of the same basic things. They were survivalists, yes—Rangers in a sense—but also fighters; some used swords instead of bows, or magic instead of either.”
“That sounds plenty useful,” Joe observed. “Why’re they gone, now?”
Raichlin shrugged. “An Avenist historian would have more insight into that. It’s a hobby of mine, but I’ve certainly not tried to ferret out the motivations of the goddess of war. But the short version is that the Sisterhood changed because war changed. And war changed because agriculture changed.”
“Agriculture?” Darling repeated, visibly fascinated. “As in farming?”
“Humans, by any reasonable definition, are an invasive species,” Raichlin said with a rueful grin. “We move into an area and spread until our numbers are as great as can possibly be supported. Well, improvements in farming made for a bigger food supply a few centuries ago, followed by explosive population growth. More people meant the birth of professional armies as we know them. For most of the Age of Adventures, armies were luxuries only kingdoms could afford, and weren’t necessarily a match for the highest-level adventurers. Now, suddenly, any nation and quite a few lesser entities could field a well-trained, well-equipped group of men and women fighting in unison, which was generally more than a match for the average adventurer team. War changed; Avei rode the tide skillfully. Hands of Avei became soldiers as much as solo warriors, trained to lead armies; the League was reorganized into the Silver Legions, who became the best professional army. And the Silver Huntresses, being basically adventurers, fell out of favor.”
“But you didn’t,” Joe said, frowning. “The Huntsmen didn’t.”
“Because Rangers and Huntsmen are a fundamentally conservative force,” Raichlin agreed. “We protect the wild areas and our own traditions. Avei’s forces have always been more proactive, seeking to impose the goddess’s will. They interact with the world quite aggressively, and would be at a stark disadvantage if they failed to adapt to it—so they didn’t fail. The full transition from Huntresses to Legionnaires is considered by historians to be one of the most important signs of the end of the Age of Adventures. Hang on a moment…”
He rose and quickly crossed to the wall, where he selected a small volume in green leather and brought it back to them. Raichlin handed the book to Ingvar before sitting back down.
“Annals of the Silver Huntresses,” Ingvar read from the cover, frowning.
“You keep that,” Raichlin said. “If you were called to this quest, Brother Ingvar, I think any insight you can gain into the history of those who walk in the wild will help you.” He paused, sighing. “You’re not the first person recently who I felt needed an acquaintance with that bit of history. The Hand of Avei was here a few weeks back; I gave her a copy, too. She had never heard of the Silver Huntresses. How quickly we forget.”
“If this is one of your last copies,” Ingvar said, starting to hand the book back, but Raichlin held up a hand.
“Not at all, not at all. We have a few more, and if more are needed, we’ll print them. Preserving such lore is all part of what we do.”
“Print them?” Joe inquired.
“Ah!” Raichlin grinned broadly. “Yes indeed, we have a printing press, just in the next room, in fact. A quite modern one from Svenheim—it’s made life a great deal easier, not having to copy books by hand. It’s not just the Nemitites who care about preserving knowledge, as I said. We still have to bind them by hand, of course, but even so.”
“Is there another way?” Joe asked.
“When I was in Svenheim acquiring our press, the factory foreman showed me a machine that binds books, yes. It was hugely bulky, however; that’s a rather more involved process than printing them. And we don’t deal with enough volume to make it worthwhile. Maybe someday when the technology improves; the Rangers embrace progress as it’s useful, not because it’s progress. But anyway, we are drifting off target. You gentlemen came here for a reason.”
“I appreciate the insight you’ve offered,” Ingvar said carefully.
“But it’s not really what you came for, is it?” Raichlin mused. He drummed his fingers on the arms of his chair, expression thoughtful, before continuing. “I think, Brother Ingvar, I can give you some much more useful direction. Gentlemen, would you mind being our guests for the remainder of today and this evening?”
“Not in the least,” Darling said immediately, glancing at the others but notably not waiting for their input. “Is something interesting happening tomorrow?”
“It is now,” Raichlin replied with a smile. “It’ll take time, and a rather significant hike, to get there… But if you’re amenable, and would like a deeper perspective on these dreams, there’s something I think you should see.”