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“Well, this ain’t the least bit awkward,” Joe muttered, folding his arms and lounging against the wall of the courtyard. Despite the relaxed pose, he betrayed tension in the set of his shoulders and the way his eyes darted about.

Fort Naveen, like all the fortifications along the southern border, was an Imperial installation, but was administered and staffed partly by the Silver Legions. With the high state of alert due to the recent crisis and the large numbers of troops moved into the region, there were a lot of Legionnaires present, many obviously on duty guarding the walls and various doorways.

A good number of those were staring flatly at Ingvar, whose expression had grown increasingly sardonic the longer it had gone on.

“What is everybody’s problem?” Aspen asked. She sounded genuinely curious, not upset, though with her moods it could be difficult to tell. “Why don’t they like Ingvar? I like Ingvar. He’s nice, even when he’s being a jerk.”

“Thank you,” Ingvar said dryly, though a smile did steal onto his features.

“Politics,” Ami said with a long-suffering sigh. “Religious politics, which is even worse. Everyone is so convinced they alone are holy, and anyone who dares disagree with them must be an absolute monster.”

“Good to see you rallying to the defense of our Huntsman friend,” Jenell said with a catlike little smirk. “I seem to recall you being upset at Bishop Syrinx for nearly getting you scalped by Shaathists.”

“No Shaathist would do such a thing,” Ingvar exclaimed.

“Jenell,” Ami said, arching an eyebrow, “it is hardly polite to point out my hypocrisy in front of everyone.”

“Terribly sorry. I’ll assume I have the same coming later.”

“I’m mentally amending my calendar as we speak.”

Ingvar fixed his gaze on the bard, eyes narrowing thoughtfully. “Do I know you?”

“I’m afraid not,” Ami said sweetly.

“I never understand what’s going on when people get off on these tangents,” Aspen muttered. “It’s so much easier when it was just the four of us.”

“Mm hm,” Joe mused. “That was a pretty serene few hours.”

“Why do these soldiers all dislike you?” the dryad asked Ingvar. “They don’t even know you!”

“Well, the bard is correct,” he explained. “Religion, and politics. The Huntsmen of Shaath and the Sisters of Avei have very fundamental disagreements, which has led to a lot of arguing, ill-feeling and even occasional violence. We naturally react to one another with suspicion. For me to be in one of their fortresses is…pushing their tolerance.”

“This isn’t actually one of their fortresses, as I understand it,” Schwartz said, frowning. Meesie was sitting in his palm, leaning against his thumb, which was absently scratching behind her ear.

Ingvar shrugged. “I don’t begrudge them the suspicion; this is more or less how a Sister would be treated in a lodge.”

“A Sister would be very unlikely to be in a lodge,” Jenell said pointedly.

“And I would be very unlikely to be here,” Ingvar agreed with the ghost of a smile. “Life is strange.”

“I say, I didn’t realize things were that amicable,” Schwartz said, glancing between Ingvar and Aspen. His fascination with the dryad appeared to be innocent and intellectual; at any rate, he was mostly interested in talking to her and hardly seemed to register that she was an attractive woman wearing nothing but an ill-fitting duster. He’d backed off, however, once she informed him the attention was annoying. “I mean, not that I’d be in a position to know, exactly, but you know how it is. The Avenists and the Shaathists, that’s one of the great rivalries among the cults! It’s sort of infamous.”

“Almost like Avenists and Elilinists,” Ami said, grinning.

“Or Avenists and Eserites,” added Joe.

“Or Avenists and Izarites,” Jenell said thoughtfully.

“The person of a guest is sacrosanct,” Ingvar said firmly. “That point is enshrined in Shaathist tradition, but it predates the religion. The principle exists in some form in virtually every culture. A Sister or Legionnaire or anyone who sought shelter in a lodge would be given food, warmth, quarters, whatever they needed that it was able to provide. It would likely be tense; Huntsmen are not trained for diplomacy as a rule, and I doubt she would be made to feel particularly welcome. But none would disgrace the lodge by mistreating a guest. This is fair, and about typical,” he added, glancing around at several of the nearby Legionnaires, a few of whom were within earshot. “I was treated much the same when I visited the Temple of Avei in Tiraas. I cannot fault the courtesy, nor condemn the suspicion.”

“You visited the Temple of Avei?” Ami exclaimed. “Whatever brought that on?”

He sighed. “It’s a long story.”

“I’m a bard. I love long stories.”

“I don’t,” Aspen muttered. “This is real interesting, but I’m gonna go talk to one of these.” She turned and stepped toward the nearest Legionnaire, who stiffened visibly.

“Aspen,” Ingvar said firmly, “be nice to them. We are guests here.”

“I’m not gonna eat anybody,” the dryad said irritably, at which several Legionnaires turned to stare at her and a passing squad of Imperial soldiers faltered, a few reaching toward their weapons.

“Everything’s under control, boys,” Joe said, tipping his hat to them. “Best keep movin’.”

“Well, I’m glad to see everybody getting along!” Bishop Darling called cheerfully, striding toward them across the courtyard from the fortress’s central keep.

“How’d it go?” Joe asked quickly, straightening up.

“Classified, mostly,” Darling replied, coming to a stop amid the group, and glanced over at Aspen, who was now speaking quietly to the nervous-looking Legionnaire she’d picked, while several others hovered tensely nearby. “Do we…have a problem?”

“I don’t believe so,” Ingvar replied. “She understands respect for other sentients, at least intellectually, and talking to people is going to be essential in deepening that understanding. Regardless, I’m watching her.”

“Absolutely incredible,” Schwartz breathed. Meesie scampered up his arm onto his shoulder, cheeping in agreement.

“The meeting?” Ingvar prompted Darling, who tore his gaze from the dryad.

“Yes, right. Like I said, most of it isn’t for discussion outside that room, but generally speaking I think the crisis has passed. There are far too many lingering unknowns and points of interest for it to be dropped; the Sisterhood and the Empire are going to continue picking at this for a good while, at minimum. Very likely the Church and a few other cults will get involved; I understand the College has already been contributing,” he added, smiling at Schwartz.

“We do what we can!” the witch said cheerfully. “Um, what happened to the other two Bishops, if I may ask?”

“Ah, yes, that was the first thing I meant to tell you,” said Darling. “The Azure Corps is lending portal mages to get people where they need to go, while they’re all here. Branwen’s already back in Tiraas by now; Basra will be departing for the Abbey to brief Abbess Darnassy as soon as her group is assembled. I understand that means you guys.”

“Crap,” Jenell muttered. “She does not like waiting. Which way?”

“Central mess hall, though the doors and down the corridor,” he replied. “The Corps has an impromptu departure station set up.”

“Well, I guess we’re off, then!” Schwartz said, already moving after Jenell, who had saluted once before striding off. “Thanks, your Grace! Lovely to meet all of you! Tell Miss Aspen I said good-bye!”

“I will,” Ingvar assured him, though Schwartz had already turned and was nearly out of earshot, then muttered with a glance at the dryad, “not that I expect her to care.”

“Isn’t that you, too, ma’am?” Joe asked Ami.

“Yes, yes, I suppose it is,” she said languidly, finally setting off after the other two at a leisurely pace. “I can’t have people thinking they can order me about, though, that would never do. You know how it is.”

“Uh…sure,” he said uncertainly to her retreating back. “Nice meetin’ you.”

The three remaining glanced over at Aspen again. The Legionnaire she had captured was listening, still wary but seeming somewhat less tense now. It appeared to be a rather one-sided conversation, though, just distant enough that the dryad’s low voice was indistinct.

“Which brings up the next question,” said Darling. “What do we do about her?”

“She goes with me, obviously,” Ingvar said, watching Aspen with a faint smile. After a moment, he blinked and straightened, turning back to them. “Excuse me, I didn’t mean that to be as brusque as it came out. But after thinking it over, it does seem obvious. She’s already stated she wants to stay with me, and… Well, she needs to grow accustomed to other people, learn how to treat them. Somebody she trusts had better stick around for that.”

“While I’m sure bringin’ her back to the lodge would make you a celebrity,” Joe said carefully, “I really can’t see takin’ her into Tiraas as a good idea.”

“Never mind good idea,” Darling agreed, “that’s extremely illegal. Don’t mistake the tolerance she’s getting here on a frontier during a crisis for a change in policy. Dryads aren’t allowed into Imperial-held cities.”

“Now I think on it,” Joe mused, “I’m not sure how the Empire could stop ‘er without rilin’ up big mama.”

“The Empire hasn’t lasted a thousand years by shooting every problem it faces,” Darling said dryly. “The Azure Corps is responsible for dryad incursions, or in their absence, any Imperial personnel with teleportation ability. If a dryad wanders too close to a city and won’t be dissuaded, they’re simply picked up and moved somewhere else. Usually as close to the Deep Wild as it’s safe to teleport.”

“Bet they don’t like that,” Joe murmured.

“No, they do not,” Darling agreed. “But they mostly don’t seem to have the attention span to make an issue of it. I’ve never heard of a dryad having to be removed repeatedly. Generally, I guess they just prefer to go off and do something less annoying.”

“I’m certain all of that’s true,” Ingvar said quietly, still gazing in the direction of Aspen, though his mind was clearly far away. “It still works, however, since I am not going back to Tiraas.” He blinked again, then turned to Darling. “In fact, thank you for reminding me. I was going to ask if you would carry a letter to Brother Andros for me.”

“Gladly,” Darling said immediately. “So, you’ve had time to think on your next move, then?”

“It’s not as if we’ve had a lot to do but think while you and Bishop Syrinx were conversing with various sinister powers,” he said wryly. “That, and talk with the others.”

“I’ve gotta say,” Joe added with a grin, “you’re fallin’ behind, your Grace. The other Bishop managed to put together a bigger an’ stranger posse even than you.”

“Now, I contest that,” Darling said solemnly, holding up a hand. “Aspen is plenty strange enough to beat any competition.”

“I can hear you, by the way,” the dryad called over her shoulder.

“Considering the source, my dear,” Darling called back, bowing to her, “it was purely a compliment.”

She gave him an amused little smile before turning back to her new friend, who was beginning to look actually interested in the conversation.

“But I have my own path to seek,” Ingvar said, still gazing at Aspen. “I am not yet sure what to do with what I have learned from this journey…not all of it, anyway. I do know that I cannot step back into my life as it was. My faith… Everything I thought I understood is wrong. Or if not wrong, incomplete…” He shook his head. “I don’t know what to do about it.”

“You seem pretty calm, for a fella who just had the rug yanked out from under him like that,” Joe observed.

“Because I have a plan,” Ingvar agreed, nodding. “If I were as lost as I had been after that night on the mountain… But no, not anymore. I don’t know how to help Shaath, or how to fix the Huntsmen, or if I even can do either of those things. The steps right in front of me, though, are clear. I need to learn more. My quest now is for understanding of the areas my education has failed to cover. And in that, I already have places to start.”

“Where’ll you go next?” Darling asked quietly.

“I haven’t completely decided,” Ingvar said, finally turning back to face him. “Since Aspen will be accompanying me, it makes sense I should speak with her about the options before picking a destination. But I do know where to seek the wisdom I need: the elves, and the Rangers.”

“I think it might be wise to let Veilgrad settle down a mite before bringin’ Aspen into the vicinity,” Joe suggested. “Not that she won’t be a hit with the Rangers, I reckon, but the Imperials around the city’re already on high alert, an’ after this rhubarb out here, droppin’ a dryad on their doorstep might get a response you won’t like.”

“Hm.” Ingvar frowned in thought. “You make a solid point, Joe. Perhaps that’s for the best, anyway. There are few better places to avoid the Empire’s notice than an elven grove… And in all likelihood, the Elders there are the best possible choices to help Aspen, as well as me.”

“There’s also the fact that Aspen will automatically get a warm welcome at the grove,” Darling added, “which might help you get one. Elves as a general rule aren’t hugely fond of visitors in their forests.”

“Yes,” Ingvar agreed, “there is that.” He paused, glancing back and forth between them, then smiled. “Strange how quickly I’ve come to appreciate your perspectives. It has only been a few days, but I shall miss you both.”

“Likewise,” Joe replied, smiling. “I hope this ain’t a permanent goodbye.”

“Considering where I’ll be and doing that,” Darling added, “I’m not sure how I’ll be in a position to help you with your quest going forward, Ingvar. But if that should ever become a possibility, all you’ve gotta do is ask.”

“I appreciate it, Antonio,” the Huntsman replied, smiling and inclining his head. “And the same goes. To both of you.”

“And hey, if nothing else, you’re heading off with more pleasing company than either of us,” Darling said, grinning broadly. “Dangerous as hell company, but still.”

“Mm.” Ingvar glanced at Aspen again. “I don’t really think of her that way.”

“You’re joking,” said Joe. “I think of her that way a little, an’ I’m mostly terrified of ‘er.”

The Huntsman smiled. “Well, not that I don’t see your point… But I’ve talked with her more than either of you, and something about her is…childlike.”

“In seriousness, though,” said Darling, “if you’re not looking to pursue that kind of relationship, watch your step. Right now you’re her only anchor to the wide world of humanity. You’re the guy who rescued her from imprisonment, and you’ve positioned yourself as the father figure setting the boundaries she needs to understand how to cope with society. The attachment taking shape there could end up working in a lot of ways, but you’d better not take any of them lightly.”

“What will be, will be,” Ingvar said, barely above a whisper. “And if nothing else… I want to help her simply for the sake of helping her, of course. But there is also the fact that, based on what we learned in the Data Vault, the best way to help Shaath and the other gods may be to help Naiya regain her own agency.”

“And,” Joe said slowly, “based on what else we learned down there, the best way to do that might start with the dryads.”

“Exactly,” Ingvar said quietly.

Aspen looked over at him again, and smiled.


The afternoon was already declining, shadows of the surrounding Viridill mountains casting the Abbey into dimness, when Basra and Jenell finally emerged from the central structure into the secluded side courtyard in which their borrowed carriage was parked. It had already been packed by a pair of novices who had since retreated, and stood idle, piled with the luggage and effects of both women.

“Ah, hello!” Schwartz said, bounding upright from where he’d been sitting beneath the mimosa tree nearby. The walled space was only paved in the area in front of the Abbey’s side door, the rest of the area left as a small garden with a fountain, a few flowering shrubs, and the lone pink-blossomed tree. “Good evening! All settled, then, ready to go?”

“Why, Mr. Schwartz,” Basra said in a mild tone, stopping at the foot of the steps down from the Abbey to regard him with her head tilted to one side. “Were you waiting for us?”

“Oh, well,” he said awkwardly, dry-washing his hands. “It’s just, you know. I realize this sort of thing must be all in a day’s work for you, your Grace, but it’s been a pretty big deal for me! All the excitement, being part of history… Not as if I can just brush it all off without at least saying goodbye, can I?”

“Mm hm,” Basra said quietly, one corner of her mouth twisting upward in a faint, partial smile. A few steps behind her, Jenell watched her with a suddenly wary expression. “And, of course, it’s not just me you wanted to see off.”

“Ah.” Schwartz swallowed heavily, a faint blush rising on his cheeks. “Well. You know… I mean, not that… Certainly, your Grace, it’s been great working with you, don’t think—”

“Well, it’s a fair point,” Basra said briskly, striding toward him with a suddenly warm smile. “You’ve been absolutely invaluable to me on this trip, Schwartz. Not that you’re the sort of man I would generally pick to participate in a field exercise, but even so, I haven’t a single criticism about your performance. I have already sent a letter of commendation to Sister Leraine, along with my thanks to her for suggesting you for this. The whole thing would have fallen apart without your help, and that is the simple fact. I don’t intend to let it pass unnoticed.”

He seemed momentarily lost for words; Meesie cheeped once in excitement and ran in a full circle on the top of his head, further disheveling his sandy hair. “Why… Why, Bishop Syrinx, I’m positively… I mean, I only did the best I could. What else can you do, after all, right?”

The Bishop smiled at him, holding out a hand; when he reached to accept it, she shifted swiftly, grasping his wrist in a warrior’s handshake and leaving him fumbling for a moment to understand and then reciprocate the gesture. With her other hand, Basra pointed behind her at Jenell, then snapped her fingers and pointed at the ground nearby. The Legionnaire dutifully stepped forward, her expression still nervous.

“What’s next for you, if you don’t mind me asking?” Basra inquired.

“Back to my research, I suppose,” Schwartz said with a faint grin. He glanced nervously over at Jenell, then down at his arm, which Basra still held clasped. “I mean…it’s the oddest thing, you know? It was all I ever wanted or enjoyed, studying and developing new spells, but after all this… Going to be a little hard to get back into the swing of it, eh?”

“Oh, I know the feeling.”

“And, ah, yourself?” he added tactfully, with a faint tug of his arm. She didn’t let go. “Off back to Tiraas, I hear?”

“Yes, it would appear I’ve been recalled by the High Commander,” Basra said, a catlike smile stretching across her features. “General Panissar wants to have some kind of ceremony thanking me for dealing with the headhunter; it’s going to take some real skulduggery on my part to nip that in the bud. Such accolades usually just end up being a hindrance in my work. Still, the Empire doesn’t officially acknowledge headhunters exist, so I should be able to shut it down.”

“Ah, well,” he said sincerely, “if that’s how you feel, I suppose. But you surely do deserve the attention! That was incredible, the way you handled that situation.”

“Why, thank you,” she replied, her smile stretching half an inch wider. It was beginning to look almost unnatural; Schwartz’s own expression was becoming more uncertain under her unblinking stare. “You know, I usually take great care not to burn bridges, but what the hell. It’s been quite a run, as you said, and I’m in a good mood. And it’s not as if we’re likely to see one another again.”

“I, uh…” He glanced down at his hand again and tugged it more firmly, to no avail. Jenell was beginning to look downright panicked; Meesie had fallen silent and was standing on her toes atop his head, back arched and fur puffed like a scared cat. “I don’t think I quite understand…”

“I am pretty incredible, Schwartz. I’m cunning, well-connected, and more than a match for most opponents in a fight.” Her smile was unwavering, eyes wide, but pupils narrowed almost to pinpricks.

“Um. I…”

Basra lashed out with her other hand, seizing Jenell by her regulation bun and hauling her forward. The Bishop twisted her head around, still keeping a grip on Schwartz’s arm, and kissed Jenell full on the mouth, hard.

Jenell’s eyes were wide and panicked; after only a second, she squeezed them shut, unresisting. A second later and she forced herself to relax against the taller woman’s grip.

Schwartz gaped at them, ashen-faced, from barely two feet away, Meesie absolutely rigid in his hair.

Basra abruptly released Jenell and, with a contemptuous jerk of her hair, shoved her away.

“Which you should keep firmly in mind,” she said pleasantly to Schwartz as though nothing had interrupted their discussion, “the next time you get the urge to put your grubby little fingers on someone else’s things.” Basra held his aghast gaze for two seconds of silence, smiling, before continuing. “If you forget, just keep in mind that you won’t be the one paying for it.”

“You—” He broke off, choking, and swallowed; Meesie actually burst into flames, which didn’t so much as singe his hair. “You can’t—”

“Covrin,” Basra said calmly, keeping her eyes locked on Schwartz’s, her fingers digging into his wrist. “How’d you like a change of assignment? If you are at all tired of working with me…under me…just say the word. You may pick any unit in the Silver Legions and I’ll pull every string I can reach to make it happen. Well? What do you say?”

Jenell’s face was white and her posture rigid, eyes fixed on the ground. “No, ma’am.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that? Do speak up.”

“No, ma’am.”

“Say it, Jenell,” Basra snarled with such abrupt ferocity that both of them flinched back from her.

Jenell drew in a deep breath, squared her shoulders. “I am happy with my current assignment, your Grace. I’d prefer to remain in your service.” She stared straight ahead, refusing to look at either of them.

“Well, there you go,” Basra said lightly, again smiling. “Get in the carriage.”

Jenell stepped past them without another word, swiftly climbing into the driver’s seat.

“Thank you for all your excellent work, Mr. Schwartz,” Basra said with a kind smile. “Best of luck in your future endeavors.”

She strolled off at a leisurely pace, lifting herself into the passenger seat and sprawling idly with one arm draped over the side of the carriage, a picture of relaxation.

Squealing with rage, Meesie bounded down to Schwartz’s shoulder and then launched herself after Basra in a flaming, flying tackle. Schwartz deftly caught her in midair, where the little fire-mouse struggled against his fist, squeaking furiously and putting off sparks which clearly did him no harm. Aside from that one motion of his arm, Schwartz stood as if petrified, staring emptily at the two women in the carriage.

It hummed to life, and a moment later pulled forward through the gate, heading off down the road to the town and the Rail station below. Neither of them looked back.

Long moments stretched past, the last crimson sunlight fading and the garden courtyard falling into true dusk. Fairy lamps set in sconces around the walls came to life, changing the color of the light. All the while, Schwartz stood poleaxed in place, gazing out the open gate. Meesie finally stopped thrashing and sparking, her fire dissipating until she glowed with only her usual soft, red glimmer. Eventually, she did manage to wriggle free of his frozen grip, whereupon she climbed back up his arm to his shoulder and pressed her front paws to his cheek, cheeping worriedly.

At last, Schwartz shook himself off. Quite suddenly, his blank expression fell into a resolute frown. He reached up, patted Meesie reassuringly, straightened his robe, and took a step toward the gate.

“Going somewhere, Mr. Schwartz?”

He paused, turning back to the Abbey’s door. Abbess Darnassy had just emerged, limping along on her cane, and began the process of navigating the short stairs one careful step at a time, her piercing gaze never leaving him.

“I…” He swallowed and squared his shoulders. “I’m sorry, I have to be going. Thank you for your hospitality, Abbess.”

“Just a moment, if you please.”

“I really need to go. Goodbye.” He turned and made two more steps.

“Young man, get back here this instant.”

Schwartz was halfway back to her before he seemed to realize what he was doing; his face fell into a scowl partway, but after a brief hesitation in his step, he kept going, arriving before the Abbess just as she reached the ground.

“Well, good,” she said with a smile. “You respect your elders, anyway.”

“Reflex,” he admitted. “You sounded alarmingly like my mother just then.”

“As a matter of fact, I met Sergeant Schwartz once. A solid woman, and a good officer. Though it’s Sheriff Schwartz now, if I’m not mistaken.”

“Yes,” he said absently, turning his head to stare again at the gate. “And if you can say it five times fast, she’ll buy you a drink…”

“It’s Herschel, isn’t it?” At the Abbess’s suddenly more gentle tone, he turned back to her, eyebrows rising. “Herschel… That young woman is a Legionnaire in Avei’s service. I’ve watched her carefully while the Bishop has been here, and while there is definitely some manner of duress at play, it is equally clear that she tolerates her situation for specific reasons of her own. Not good reasons, I strongly suspect, but she is no one’s damsel in distress. If you go trying to treat her as such, you will be disappointed, to say the least.”

He scowled at the old woman, Meesie squeaking an indignant counterpoint. “There’s a big difference between rescuing someone and helping them…ma’am.”

“Good.” Narnasia nodded in clear approval. “Good boy. In that case, before you begin whatever it is you are planning to attempt, you will do three things.”

“I will?” he replied, nonplussed.

“First,” she continued relentlessly, “you will visit elven groves until you find one where an Elder is willing to speak with you, and have them explain in detail what the word anth’auwa means. You have the word in mind?”

“Sure, I suppose,” he said, frowning. “What’s this—”

“Repeat it back to me.”

Schwartz’s mouth tightened momentarily in gathering aggravation, but he obeyed. “Anth’auwa, correct? That was it?”

“Good. Make sure you remember it. Second, you will be certain you have a good number of combat spells in your personal repertory and are well-practiced at using them. Specifically, you’ll study spells useful in combating divine magic users, which I understand is the inherent weak point in your chosen magical focus.”

“Um…”

“Third,” she said, staring severely up at him, “you will make a friend or other contact in the Thieves’ Guild, and have them coach you as much as they are willing to in politics. Which is, after all, the execution of war by subtler means. Be acquainted with the mindset and the methods of slimy people who live by manipulation. No one can better teach you that than an Eserite.”

“How in the bloody world would you suggest I make friends with a thief?” he exclaimed.

“Well, since you asked so sweetly,” the Abbess said, raising an eyebrow of disapproval, “the quickest way is to offer them something they want. I’ve no doubt your cult has access to various spells or reagents that are useful for nefarious purposes and which the Guild would love to traffic in. All you have to do is find a relatively personable member who’s interested in making some unscrupulous coin—which is most of them—and you’re in.”

“I don’t believe I’m hearing this,” he said, staring at her. “You’re suggesting I steal from my own cult, now?” Meesie squeaked in incredulous agreement.

“I hardly think that would be necessary,” Narnasia said wryly. “Far simpler to approach Bishop Throale and tell him you’re looking to cultivate contacts in the Thieves’ Guild. Throale will probably give you trinkets to trade out of the College’s own budget. Eserites are useful to know for a variety of reasons, and they’re standoffish with the other cults. You’ll get much further in life by providing people something they want than by fighting everybody. Consider that your first lesson in politics.”

“Huh,” he said, still frowning, but now in thought.

“Remember,” Narnasia said sharply. “What are the three things you are to do?”

Schwartz focused his gaze on her again, his scowl deepening, but he replied dutifully. “Learn what anth’auwa means from the elves, study anti-divine combat magic, approach the Thieves’ Guild to learn about…cloak and dagger stuff. Satisfied?”

“Yes,” she said, nodding. “When you have done all that… Then, and only then, will you attempt to take on Basra Syrinx.”

Schwart’s eyes widened. He took a half step backward from her. “I… I don’t…”

“Please, don’t waste my time with disingenuous demurrals,” she said irritably. “You’re even easier to read than most young people, which is a big part of the problem before you. Syrinx is a creature of politics. The moment you start making moves at her, she will know it. At that point you had better be prepared to contend with her, because you will have no more time to learn how. Understand?”

She held his gaze in silence for a long few moments. Finally, he swallowed heavily.

“Why… I mean, Bishop Syrinx clearly has some…favor, in Tiraas. With the Church, and the High Commander. Why would you…tell me this?”

Narnasia sighed heavily, beginning the process of turning around to clamber back up the stairs and into her Abbey. “Avei is a goddess of multiple aspects, Herschel. In war, it may sometimes seem advisable or even necessary to keep a particularly dangerous weapon on hand. The Sisterhood has its High Commander to oversee its pursuit of war, and I will not gainsay her decisions. But there are other values in Avei’s service. Greater ones, I think. Remember what I told you, young man. Be careful.”

“Do you…” He hesitated. “Um, can I help you back in?”

“Go on, be off with you,” she said without turning around, waving a hand irritably. “Leave an old woman to her own battles. Goddess knows I’ve few enough left.”

He stood, though, watching until she was back inside the Abbey, before turning to go. Meesie climbed back up onto his head, nestling herself quietly in his hair, her thoughtful silence echoing his own.

It was quite dark outside, the path downhill difficult to see. The winding road was well-lit, but there was a more direct staircase toward the town, currently vanishing down into darkness. Red still stained the sky, but the sunset was on the opposite side of the mountains, leaving the stretch between the Abbey and the lights of the village far below lost in shadow. Schwartz sighed at the sight, then held out a hand.

Wind swirled gently about his palm, spiraling faster until it burst into a melon-sized flame. The loose fireball continued to whirl, shrinking and compacting itself down until it coalesced fully into a single spark of brilliant golden light. The marble-sized sun was better than a torch, providing a wide area of illumination.

“I say, that is a neat trick!”

Schwartz jumped and yelped, whirling to find Ami Talaari perched on a low retaining wall just outside the gate. She had been in complete shadow, and now blinked at the brilliance of his palm-light. Meesie sat upright on his head, shrilly scolding the bard.

“I couldn’t help overhearing that,” Ami said lightly, hopping down and slinging her guitar case over one shoulder.

“Couldn’t you,” Schwartz said, scowling.

“Well, naturally not,” she replied with a smile, “being that I was shamelessly eavesdropping. That’s rather the point, don’t you think?”

He sighed. “Ami, I’m really not in a great mood, so forgive me if I’m blunt. What do you want?”

“Do you remember,” she said, ambling up beside him, “when I first arrived at the house in Vrin Shai? When I was so irate to find Basra Syrinx there, due to past dealings between us, and she explained in such perfect detail why that had all been a misunderstanding, and absolutely no fault of hers?”

“I suppose so,” he said, frowning suspiciously.

Ami smiled. “It was a pack of utter, shameless lies. In point of fact, I’m not one to just blithely accept what I’m told—no bard worthy of the name is. I’d done my own research on those events long before coming to Viridill, and I know exactly what happened. That woman left me hung out to dry, at the very real risk of my life—and I wasn’t the only person she’d done that to, that night. In fact, I was just incidental. Collateral damage in her ploy to destroy a squad of her own soldiers whom she found…inconvenient. Oh, I know what she did. I know what she is. And I knew, when Bishop Snowe invited me here, that she was present.”

Schwartz stared at her in confusion. “But…then why did you stay? Why did you come?”

“Because a bard’s response to dangerous circumstances is very much unlike an average, sensible person’s.” Her expression slowly sobered, until she looked more intent, more serious, than he had ever seen her. “Some people, Schwartz, can be reasoned with. Some can even be redeemed. But there are some who are so completely defective, on such a fundamental level, that they can only be destroyed. I encountered one just as I was being elevated to the station of a fully accredited bard of Vesk. I wouldn’t be much of a bard if I had just walked away and left that alone, now would I?” She shook her head. “But the way to destroy a monster like that is not to go charging at her with an ax. It starts slowly, carefully, with observing her as closely as possible, to see her habits, her strengths, her weaknesses. And then…then begins the hard part.”

Ami tilted her head, one corner of her mouth turning up in a thin smile. “Think you’re up for it?”

Schwartz stared at her in silence for a moment, then nodded slowly. “Well. I guess I’d better be. Because I’m in.”

“Smashing!” Grinning delightedly, Ami smoothly tucked her arm into his and turned them toward the stairs down the mountainside. “Now, I’m afraid we’re a tad late to catch a Rail caravan out of this backwater tonight, but perhaps it’s just as well. We can find an inn in town, get rooms and some dinner. I do believe we have quite a lot to talk about.”

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10 – 16

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“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?”

“Of course!”

“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.”

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10 – 2

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The Abbess’s office was rigidly orderly and scrupulously clean, yet there was an indefinable air of comfortable shabbiness about it. Her possessions—books, wall-hung maps, furniture, old weapons, Avenic sigils—were all old and well-used, bearing the marks of long life. The room itself was no larger than it needed to be, small enough to be cozy with Narnasia herself present and two guests on the other side of her desk.

They remained politely quiet as the arthritic old Abbess eased herself into her chair with a soft sigh, then folded her arms on the desk and regarded them shrewdly.

“Sister Leraine,” she said, “how serious were you about making this project of yours an interfaith initiative? If you truly just came here to sell enchantments, now is the time to tell me.”

“I was quite serious,” Leraine said with a small smile, seemingly unperturbed by the Abbess’s direct tone. “Doing business is certainly part of my mandate here, but I meant what I said about the ethical ramifications of this project. The Sisters of Avei are the only possible market for enchantments such as this, which is why we’ve brought you a demonstration in such an early phase.”

“That was an early phase?” Basra demanded, her eyebrows rising.

“Those charms were deceptively simple, in fact,” said Leraine. “The thing does little more than hover and whirl, really. The more difficult work is all part of general advancement in arcane golem craft—getting the device to recognize and respond to sentient interaction. Obviously, combat is one area in which such enchantments can be vigorously tested. But as I was saying, it’s a risky line of study to pursue, as you both pointed out. We are always looking to refine our practice of magic, but must also be mindful of safety. Whether the Sisterhood sees this device as too dangerous to acquire would be a major indication of whether we should refine it further.”

“Mm,” Narnasia murmured, staring piercingly at her. “I must give this some thought and prayer before rendering an opinion. I must say that my initial reaction is largely negative. That device of yours makes me uneasy.”

“I cannot disagree,” Leraine said frankly.

“As you are here, though,” the Abbess continued, “if you are willing to help us with another matter, I would like to consult your cult’s expertise.”

“Oh?” The Salyrite tilted her head. “I’ll be glad to help if I can.”

“None of this is secret,” said Narnasia, glancing over at Basra. “Secrecy isn’t really possible and wouldn’t serve anyone, anyway. Nonetheless, I would prefer that neither of you spread the story too widely just yet. I’d rather manage the situation as well as possible from the outset.”

“Naturally,” said Leraine, her tone openly curious now. Basra simply nodded.

Narnasia sighed softly before continuing. “For the last two weeks, throughout Viridill Province, there have been a series of incidents with elementals.”

Leraine narrowed her eyes. “Elementals? Really? Summoned by whom?”

“That is the troublesome part,” Narnasia replied. “No culprit has been identified, but the incidents have occurred in every part of the region.”

“What makes this a situation?” Basra asked. “There have always been elemental sightings in Viridill.”

“Specifically,” said Narnasia, “in the southernmost regions, along the Athan’Khar border. Sightings, not attacks, and they never make it past the Imperial and Silver Legion defenses there.”

“Attacks?” Leraine said sharply.

“Thus far,” said Narnasia, “there have been no serious injuries, merely some scuffles and property damage. People have the sense to stay away from an elemental, or any kind of fairy, when it appears.”

“Back up,” Basra said rather curtly, ignoring or not noticing the Abbess’s disapproving look. “Again, why is it strange that elementals should be appearing? I thought they were by definition a natural phenomenon.”

Narnasia looked at Sister Leraine, raising an eyebrow.

“They normally don’t inhabit this plane,” Leraine replied, shifting in her seat to face Basra more directly. “Some of the stronger, older elemental spirits have been here long enough to be essentially native, but they come from the elemental planes, Naiya’s realm.”

“I thought Naiya’s realm was the Deep Wild…”

“That,” said Leraine, nodding, “and a few other, similar places. The elemental planes can be summoned from, but not accessed directly; why remains an open question. We don’t know the exact nature of Naiya’s relationship to those planes, or what goes on in them. It’s not even certain that they are naturally occurring dimensions, or how many there are. I consider it notable that the only two Elder Goddesses to survive the Pantheon’s rise had dimensional fallbacks to rely upon, though Scyllith subsequently lost her hold on Hell. But yes, an elemental would only be on the mortal plane if someone called it here. You said the damage has been minor,” she said, turning back to the Abbess. “These are smaller spirits, then?”

“Small and easily banished,” Narnasia replied. “However, that is not the disturbing part. Basra, in the cupboard to your left are several rolled maps. One of those on top is bound with a braided red leather thong. Would you please bring that over here and lay it out on the desk?”

Basra nodded to her, and stood to open the cupboard in question. She swiftly extracted the indicated map and rolled it out flat with an expert touch, while Narnasia placed inkwells, pens and books on its edges to hold it flat.

“I have begun marking the incidents here, after the third day of them occurring,” she said, pointing to several notations on the map of Viridill Province. “They’ve not happened every day since, but regularly enough. Note that they are concentrated neither in population centers or in isolated areas, as one might expect. Disruptions here, here and there along roads, and all along the river. Then, most disturbingly, these two back-to-back events. A wind elemental harassed several farmhands here, near the eastern border, not far from a Silver Legion outpost. Legionnaires and priestesses were dispatched from there to contain it. Then, while they were away dealing with that, a fire elemental ignited a blaze in the outpost itself. Small and easily contained, but that is not the point.”

“Disrupting supply and communications chains,” Basra said, her eyes narrowing. “Diverting troops before attacking fortifications. These are military tactics.”

“You’re right,” Leraine said, visibly alarmed. “That is deeply disturbing. Elementals do not think along those lines; if they are doing anything so sophisticated, someone is directing them. But…who would try to attack Viridill? And with such minor forces?”

“That’s what I intend to learn,” Narnasia said, settling back in her chair with a faint wince. “The situation here with regard to elemental magic is complicated by Viridill’s history. This land has been the center of Avei’s faith since its founding; temples, shrines and hallowed ground are everywhere. Large swaths of the country are simply inaccessible to all but the most powerful fairies. On other areas, however, we have more than the usual number of practicing witches in the population, enough that various small fae crafts have become part of the local rural culture. Only Salyrene’s cult,” she said, nodding respectfully to the Sister, “did more to shelter victims of the witch hunts decades ago.”

“And that because the Sisterhood was only interested in protecting female victims,” Basra added, folding her arms. Narnasia gave her a sharp look, but did not rise to the bait.

“What does the governor say about this?” Leraine asked quickly.

“Governor Tamshinaar chooses to defer to the Sisterhood on this matter,” Narnasia replied, again ignoring Basra’s faint smirk. “As it stands, this amounts to a series of nuisances, which is why I prefer to address it myself if possible. If the situation grows more serious, I may be forced to contact the High Commander and the Universal Church.”

“No reason to trouble the Empire with this,” Basra said gravely.

It was no secret that the Imperial Governor of Viridill Province was a figurehead. The Imperial Army in the region was entirely concentrated along the Athan’Khar border in the south, and answerable directly to Tiraas, not the local government. Viridill was administered by the Sisterhood of Avei, patrolled by the Silver Legions, and funded by the tithes of Avenists the world over. The land was not precisely holy, but its association with Avei and her faith was ancient. Few kingdoms throughout history had attempted to take it by force, and only one Tiraan Emperor. The example made of him had dissuaded any subsequent attempts. The province’s inclusion in the Empire was a historically complicated matter, but the Silver Throne mostly left Viridill to tend to its own affairs.

“This is the reason I raise the topic with the two of you,” Narnasia said, giving Basra a final warning look. “If we are to deal with the problem before having to involve higher authorities, I need, first of all, magical expertise pertaining to fairies and the fae arts. I’m afraid the Sisterhood is lacking this.”

Leraine was nodding before she finished speaking. “I will be glad to lend a hand, Abbess. Neither of the attendants I brought for the demonstration are witches, but there are several Salyrites in the province whom I trust, and who practice fairy arts. I can consult with them. I assume, at this juncture, that you would rather I not involve our central cult?”

“I’ll defer to your judgment on that point, of course,” Narnasia said diplomatically. “Any help you care to offer is appreciated. The other issue is more mundane, but more complicated. I cannot believe, considering their history, that any of Viridill’s witches are responsible for something this absurd, but nonetheless, they must be investigated. Circumspectly.”

“The purges were over a generation ago,” Basra pointed out. “Many of those living in the province now are the children or grandchildren of the original refugees. Who knows what they think of anything? Growing up under a religion’s influence can cause people to bitterly hate the cult in question, in the wrong circumstances.”

“Indeed,” said Narnasia, momentarily tightening her mouth. “Finding the attacker will require a very specific set of skills. It calls for someone clever and relentless, with experience in interfaith cooperation and the political skills to do all this without antagonizing the general populace or Viridill’s resident magic users. Captain Syrinx, you are uniquely qualified to take the lead in this investigation.”

Basra’s face remained even, almost impassive. “Of course, I am glad to serve in any way I can.”

“Of course,” Narnasia said, equally expressionlessly. “I will have a page deliver what documents I have on the matter to your quarters.”

“There is no need to trouble your staff, Abbess,” Basra said smoothly. “My aide can do any fetching and carrying. It’ll be good for her to have work; I’m afraid she is being wasted out here.”

“I’ve several times had that thought myself,” Narnasia noted. “As soon as we have a witch on hand to assist you, you can begin.”

“In that case,” said Leraine, rising from her seat and bowing, “I will proceed immediately to the temple and summon help. The, ah, individual I have in mind is a man. I trust that won’t be a problem?”

“Whyever would it?” Narnasia asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Despite what you may have heard,” said Basra wryly, “no sensible Avenist objects to men who are well-behaved.”

“Of course,” Leraine said with a small smile. “Thank you for your trust in this, Abbess Darnassy. After all the Silver Legions have done to defend our temples, and others, it’s an honor to be able to help in return.”

“And I thank you for your willingness to do so, sister,” Narnasia replied. “I shall look forward to working with you further.”

Basra rose as well, and held the door open for Leraine. The Salyrite paused in it to bow again to the two Avenists, then strode out in search of her two aides. Basra glanced back at the Abbess once, then made to follow.

“A moment, Captain Syrinx. Shut the door, if you would.”

Raising her eyebrows, she did so, turning back to Narnasia.

“It is impossible not to notice,” the Abbess said, staring penetratingly at the Bishop, “that this situation is practically tailored to someone of your very specific skill set. As you are here for the specific purpose of proving your reliability…”

“I have had cause to wonder how you expected me to prove that, collecting dust in this abbey,” Basra replied calmly, folding her arms.

“Really? You have trouble seeing why dealing with novices and paperwork demonstrates an even keel? I hadn’t thought you so short-sighted, Basra. In any case, such a perfect opportunity for you to redeem yourself falling out of the blue like this is…curious.”

“I could take that for an accusation, Abbess,” Basra said flatly.

Narnasia slowly shook her head, her eyes remaining locked on her guest’s. “I don’t suspect you of engineering this, don’t worry about that. I can’t begin to imagine how you even could, and I do credit you with enough intelligence not to do something so overtly treasonous. However, this is almost certainly the work of some outside agent, of which you know quite a few. Tell me frankly, Basra: do you think anyone could be carrying out these attacks in order to expedite your return to Tiraas?”

Basra frowned, her eyes shifting to the side in thought. After a moment, she shook her head. “I can’t see it. I’ve my share of friends and allies, yes. Several might be motivated to arrange for my return. A few could be reckless enough to do something as ham-fisted as interfering with Avenist operations. I can imagine no points of overlap between those two groups, however. I can promise you this,” she added, a scowl falling over her face. “If anyone has set all this up for that or any reason pertaining to me, this will be the last time they even consider butting into the Sisterhood’s business.”

“Very well,” Narnasia said, nodding. “I’ll assemble some reports for Private Covrin to bring you. Thank you, Captain.”

“Ma’am,” Basra said respectfully, giving the Abbess a half-bow, before turning and leaving the office.

Out in the hall, she stalked back toward her own chambers, not noticing the three novices who turned and fled at the sight of her expression. Basra’s eyes narrowed to slits, focused on a point miles away, in Tiraas.

“Antonio.”


 

Full dark had fallen over the prairie by the time they left the tent. Professor Tellwyrn had let them stay until Bishop Snowe was wrapping up her speech before hustling the two of them out into the night, waving Juniper and Fross back when they started to follow. She led them around the corner of the huge big top, ignoring curious looks from those outside, the two puzzled paladins trailing after her.

“Where are we going?” Gabriel demanded. “What’s the big idea?”

“Kids,” the Professor said with a sigh. “When I teleport you around, you complain. When I let you walk, you complain, and also it takes forever. Sometimes I think I just can’t win with you lot.”

“You’re the one who decided to go into teaching,” he muttered.

“I think the revival’s organizers are using that for administration,” Trissiny said, noting the smaller tent toward which Tellwyrn was leading them. It had been set up amid the tallgrass off to the side of the big one, positioned so that it wasn’t visible from the town. Nobody except the revival’s staff had any reason to come around here, and indeed, no one was in evidence now.

“They were,” Tellwyrn said brusquely. “I’m borrowing it. C’mon, in you go.”

She held open the flap, gesturing them through.

“Hey, guys,” Toby said, waving as they arrived. The other person present hopped up from his seat on a trunk, doffing his hat politely.

“There you are,” Gabriel said to Toby. “Hi, Joe! What’re you two doing hiding out here?”

“I am eagerly awaiting the answer to that question,” Joe said, giving Tellwyrn an inquisitive look as she let the flap fall closed behind her.

“All right, all right, settle down,” Tellwyrn said as if she were addressing an unruly classroom instead of four people. “Now, I’ve had the story from Mr. Jenkins, here, of why you lot scrolled him to come from Tiraas. Despite your assignment in Veilgrad being over, you seem to be pursuing the matter.”

“Joe!” Gabriel protested.

Joe blinked twice. “I, uh… Was I not s’posed to tell her?”

“I’m pretty sure hiding it from her wouldn’t be a great idea,” Trissiny said, giving Gabriel a look.

“And also wouldn’t work,” Toby added with a grin.

“Now, I’m the last person to discourage a sense of responsibility in my students,” Tellwyrn said more loudly, folding her arms. “I’m glad you care about the city and its fate as more than an academic exercise. However, I think the lot of you—and yes, that includes you, Joseph—could stand to be reminded of your proper perspective. Yes, you are paladins and have a duty. However, that duty is principally here, to your education. Your patrons—goddammit, Trissiny, I’m not going to quibble semantics so wipe that look off your face—have sent you here for the purpose of opening your minds and getting you some real-world experience in relative safety before sending you off to a lifetime of battles. Your job is to focus on that. And you,” she added severely, pointing at Joe, “I will thank not to encourage them.”

He swallowed, anxiously turning his hat over and over in his hands. “I will keep that firmly in mind, ma—erm, Professor.”

“Do you at least understand why we would be seriously concerned about this?” Trissiny said sharply.

“Sure,” Tellwyrn said. “However, again, you lack perspective. First of all, the fact that Archpope Justinian is manipulating events to his own advantage isn’t, in and of itself, necessarily significant.”

“Are you kidding?” Gabriel burst out, barely beating Trissiny to the punch. “He might just as well have bombed Veilgrad with that—”

“Did he unleash the power of the skull?” Tellwyrn interrupted, glaring at him. “Or did he simply make use of an event already transpiring to further his goals? Do you have any way to know?” She paused, slowly dragging her gaze across them, before continuing. “Understand that the Archpope is, above all else, a politician. His job is to keep balance between the various member cults of the Universal Church. He is, ultimately, a power broker. Manipulation is a central part of his job. This is not to say that he isn’t necessarily into something he shouldn’t be, but the fact that he’s being clearly a weasel is not necessarily cause for concern. If a sitting Archpope had gone bad, the gods would surely be the first to know. And you lot would be their likely first line of defense. If you weren’t told by them to stick your noses in, that’s your first indication that you should think about leaving it well enough alone.

“Furthermore and perhaps more significantly,” she added, her expression growing darker, “there is the fact that you were directed to follow up this lead by the Black Wreath. Honestly, kids, when you find yourself doing what they tell you to do, you have screwed up at some point.”

“Now, hang on,” Joe protested. “It ain’t like I’m in the Black Wreath.”

“I’ve never suspected that for a moment, Joseph,” she said more calmly to him. “That’s not the point. The Wreath are even more manipulative than the Archpope, by a wide margin. Much of their best work is done without dirtying their own hands. Can you not see the advantage to the Wreath in setting paladins of the Trinity against the Church itself?”

She paused to let that sink in before continuing. “And now, we have a Universal Church bishop putting on a big show in town, and you three, of all people, are being awfully standoffish about it. Caine doesn’t even bother to show up, and Arquin and Avelea, neither of you the poster children for forethought and restraint, are suspicious enough of her to keep a safe distance.”

“What’s that mean, of all people?” Gabriel asked, sounding affronted. “I don’t have much of a history with the Church, if you’ll recall. Not a good one, anyway.”

“On the other hand,” said Trissiny with a suspiciously straight face, “Bishop Snowe is remarkably pretty, and remarkably buxom.”

Gabriel stared at her in shock, then whirled to glare at Toby, who had burst out laughing. Joe glanced rapidly between them, looking uncertain.

“I’ll consider my point made,” Tellwyrn said with a hint of satisfaction. “For your information, I have my own reasons to be suspicious of both Justinian and Snowe. I most certainly will not discourage you from gathering information and thinking about all of this. Always, always think. You three keep in mind your situation and your responsibilities, however. If your gods decide you need to cut short your schooling and go tend to something else… Well, we’ll address that when it happens. Since it hasn’t, you keep your minds where they belong and don’t go butting into religious politics that don’t concern you directly. Clear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Gabriel said resignedly; Trissiny and Toby nodded.

“That’s all, basically,” Tellwyrn said more calmly. “Just think fully before committing yourselves to any action. Don’t insert yourselves into situations you don’t understand. Keep your minds on the present, and you’ll do fine.”

“That’s excellent advice for all occasions!” Branwen Snowe said brightly, pushing in through the tent flap.

Joe shot back to his feet, Toby doing the same. Trissiny and Gabriel turned to stare at her in surprise.

“This is a private conversation,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “Or was until very recently.”

“Of course,” the Bishop replied, smiling serenely at her. “I’ll try not to intrude too much. I just couldn’t leave town without making sure you had taken no offense at my sermon.”

“Bet you could’ve,” Tellwyrn said dryly.

“I understand,” Snowe continued, still in perfect calm and with a pleasant smile, “how some of my remarks might have been construed as directed at you. I just want to assure you, Professor, that I hold you in the highest—”

“Young woman,” Tellwyrn interrupted, “you seem to have mistaken yourself for someone whose opinion matters. It’s a not-uncommon side effect of sudden fame. I am not offended by anything you said any more than I concern myself in general with it. Good night.”

“Well, what a relief that is,” Snowe replied, cool as ever, though Joe and the paladins were all looking increasingly wary and edging away from the two of them. “It would be a shame to sour you on the subject of—”

“Snowe, when I want to talk to the hand up your ass I’ll go to Tiraas and see him in person. Now go away.”

“Of course,” the Bishop said wryly, then turned to the others and inclined her head deeply. “Well, however briefly, it has been a great pleasure to meet all of you. Yourself included, Mr. Jenkins; your adventures are already the stuff of legend! Toby, Trissiny, Gabriel, I dearly hope you will visit me next time you are in—”

Once again she broke off mid-sentence, this time because Tellwyrn was suddenly holding a saber against her neck.

“Professor!” Toby exclaimed, aghast.

“Archpope Justinian,” Tellwyrn said to Snowe in deadly calm. “Imperial law enforcement. Your legions of adoring fans. Izara. These are just some of the people who will not do jack shit to me if I take your head off your shoulders right now in front of three paladins. Annoying me is one thing, girl. You will not interfere with my students.”

“That is going too far, even for you,” Trissiny snapped, her hand falling to the hilt of her own sword.

Bishop Snowe neither moved nor altered her expression except to raise an eyebrow. “But hardly out of character, now is it?”

“I was going to let you cling to the bit of privacy,” Tellwyrn said coldly, “but no, you had to get clever. Kids, I’m sure you are all aware that Izarite clergy are known for their ability to sense the desires and emotional needs of others. This one has an additional gift: the ability to reach out through that sense, to influence those desires, and subtly nudge people’s feelings and perceptions in a direction of her choosing. It’s actually not uncommon in natural empaths who go into Izara’s service, but the Izarite cult itself are very leery of the idea. They don’t encourage such behavior; it’s all but taboo. Regardless, I suggest you be very mindful of your feelings in the presence of Branwen Snowe.”

“Can…she do that to…a whole crowd?” Gabriel asked, unconsciously stroking Ariel’s hilt.

“Why go against her cult’s wishes?” Trissiny added, frowning.

“What am I, her biographer?” Tellwyrn exclaimed in annoyance. “I know the effect when I see it done right in front of me. And neither that nor any other magical manipulation is going to be imposed upon my students, unless the person doing the imposing has a death wish. Is everyone present explicitly clear on that point?”

“Someday, Arachne,” Snowe said very evenly, “you are going to meet something you cannot simply bully your way through.”

“Oh, most assuredly,” Tellwyrn said with an unpleasant grin. “But you are not that thing, buttercup.”

“You really are one of the more profoundly unhappy people with whom I have ever been in close proximity,” the Bishop said, very slowly taking a step back, away from the sword. Tellwyrn led the blade fall to her side, watching her go. Branwen nodded briefly to the rest of them. “It was a pleasure to meet you all. Blessings upon you.”

She turned, lifted the tent flap, and slipped silently out.

After a moment of contemplating the closed flap, Tellwyrn twirled her saber and made a motion as if sheathing it at her waist; the blade vanished from her hand. “Education is everywhere, kids. Always look for the lesson in any experience. All right, enjoy the rest of the festival. I guess I can count on you three not to get converted, if anyone. Avelea, you may want to rein in November; she was making a scene down at the Silver Mission again a few minutes ago.”

With no more fanfare or farewell, she vanished, only the faintest pop of displaced air marking her departure.

Gabriel sighed, still staring at the tent flap. “Never fails. I meet a really attractive woman who’s just my type and she turns out to be kind of evil.”

“Not to mention too old for you,” Trissiny said dryly.

“So!” He turned to the confused-looking Joe, grinning broadly. “Joe, how come you don’t visit more often?”

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10 – 1

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They were calling it a revival.

Last Rock was not the first frontier town to be the site of one of these festivals over the last month; they had occurred elsewhere, at various points around the Great Plains, and reports from those venues had been enticing enough to raise significant interest. By the time the tents started going up on the outskirts of the town, the anticipation had been palpable, among townsfolk and students alike.

The Universal Church’s hand was subtly but universally evident in the event. Colorful tents and pavilions had been raised on the prairie outside Last Rock, housing displays representing nearly every deity affiliated with the Pantheon—only those who had no worshipers or whose cults were secretive had been omitted. Individual faiths were making good use of the exposure, but the mere fact of these displays revealed the Church’s organizational role; several of them did not court attention as a rule, and some of those who did proselytize had been coaxed to put on more ostentatious shows than they ordinarily would, like the demonstration of swordplay being held in the yard outside the Silver Mission.

The Church itself managed to be the center of attention, both in the use of its chapel in town as the organizational hub of the event and in the enormous tent set up as an impromptu theater on the prairie outside. Pure white and larger than any permanent structure in Last Rock, it towered over everything except the chapel’s steeple and the scrolltower; if not for its golden ankh markings it could very well have been taken for a circus tent.

Matters were certainly jovial enough inside. Folding chairs had been set up as impromptu pews in the pattern usually favored by Universal Church chapels, leaving a central aisle running between the main entrance at one end of the long tent and the raised wooden platform at the other. Now, with the main event about to start, it was full nearly to bursting, with both students and townspeople. Though the first to be seated had grouped themselves distantly, the two had blended together convivially, to the point that a casual glance now couldn’t sort them into factions. That, plus the overall festive mood in the air, was a great relief to those who had been worried about the relationship of the town to the University since the hellgate incident.

Despite the general chatter and noise of people having a good time—a fairly restrained good time, since they were after all at a Church event—the atmosphere inside the tent was anticipatory. Most of the attention was fixed on the platform, where the guest of honor stood talking quietly with the local dignitaries who had been invited to watch her speak from chairs set up behind her. Hardly anybody was paying attention to the Sheriff, the mayor, Father Laws or Hiram Taft, whom they had all seen before. It was Bishop Snowe who commanded the attention of the populace, even before she began to actually speak.

Standing in the back, beside the entrance flap, Gabriel leaned over to Trissiny to be heard over the hubbub. “Did she invite you to sit up there on the dais, too?”

“Mm hm,” she murmured, nodding, her eyes on the Bishop.

“How come you’re not?”

“I remembered some of the warnings my teachers gave me,” Trissiny replied. “I’m a symbol as much as a warrior; I stand for something, and represent Avei. Being up there would be a tacit endorsement of whatever she has to say. That doesn’t seem like a smart thing to do, since I don’t yet know what that is.”

He smiled. “I had the same thought, basically. Glad to hear it wasn’t just me.” Gabriel paused, looking around with a faint frown. “Where’s Toby?”

“Not up there,” Trissiny murmured.

He gave her a sour look. “Thanks, detective. I’m in your debt.”

“Ssh,” Juniper hissed. “I think she’s starting.” Fross dropped down to settle in the dryad’s hair, dimming her light, as Bishop Snowe stepped up to the center of the dais and her guests drifted backward to settle themselves in chairs. A hush fell over the tent, rippling outward from the guest of honor to the very back.

The four of them were the only representatives of their class present. Teal and Shaeine were off exploring the revival on their own; Ruda, when asked if she wanted to attend a religious festival, had said “like a mermaid wants a wheelbarrow” and gone to the bar.

“Welcome,” said the Bishop with a broad smile as soon as the murmur of conversation had died down sufficiently. “Thank you all for coming, and for making me welcome. I’ve traveled widely in the last few weeks, but I have to say… I like this town!”

She paused, smiling warmly at the cheers of approbation which followed this comment.

Branwen Snowe was not at all a tall woman; the raised platform was necessary for her to be visible in the back. She was a calm speaker, keeping her hands demurely folded before her, and her voice, though clearly accustomed to public speaking, was even and not prone to dramatic intonation. Nothing about her seemed as if it should command attention, yet she did. Her presence held the audience by virtue of its very calm.

“I’m developing the opinion,” she continued, “that the frontier people represent the highest potential of humanity. There is civilization here, on the very edge of the Golden Sea, because you have made it so.” The Bishop paused, smiling benignly, to let a few more cheers subside. “I know it seems to you like your lives are just life. Everyone feels that way. I want you to consider, though, what it means to live on the frontier, on the edges of society. To lead lives of risk, where the only things you have are what you made, what you earned, where you don’t have the luxury of centuries of built-up structure to fall back upon in a crisis.

“In my conversations with frontier people, I have repeatedly observed a vibrancy that one rarely sees in Tiraas or the other great cities. An appreciation of life, and a sense of meaning. And you know what? This doesn’t surprise me in the least. This, life on the edge, is what it means to be alive. To be, to struggle, to achieve, to create. To stride forth into an uncaring world and make it acknowledge that you are there! It’s to be in the world in a way that leaves a mark, a glowing mark, upon your soul. I’m starting to believe that everyone should spend time out here on the Great Plains, if for no other reason than to connect with the reality that we, the people of this world, are ultimately responsible for our own lives. You could teach lessons to much of humanity on that subject.”

She had to pause longer this time, her broad smile unwavering, for the hollering and cheering to die down again. Into that pause, Fross spoke just loudly enough to be heard by their small group.

“Have you guys noticed she tends to use ‘human’ to mean ‘person?’”

“Yep,” said Juniper, nodding.

“I mean, those words aren’t interchangeable. Other kinds of beings are intelligent.”

Before that could progress into a whole discussion, Bishop Snowe continued with her speech.

“I am the last person you will ever hear suggest that anyone should forsake the gods,” she said solemnly. “However, I very much fear that many have misunderstood just what we should expect from them—and what they expect from us. Too often, people look to the gods as the answerers of prayer, the dispensers of bounty, sources of wisdom. Too often, those hopes prove forlorn, and yet people still cling to them. It is just too temptingly comforting, the idea that someone up there is in charge, taking responsibility for all the befalls us.

“Yet is that really what they would want? Is there a single cult whose theology suggests that mankind should sit back and passively wait for higher powers to provide for our needs?”

She paused, this time for dramatic effect, and Juniper said softly, “Mankind. Humanist and sexist.”

“Hm,” Trissiny grunted, folding her arms.

“The gods are guides, not providers,” Snowe continued, “and in our failure to understand that, we have left ourselves wide open for all manner of abuse from other mortals, those who have the least reason to lord themselves over us. Everywhere in the world, you will find those misusing the reality of a society’s need to be governed to exploit those who have placed that trust in them. Everywhere this happens, the situation can exist only because the masses of people have grown complacent, because they think it is their lot to be lower than someone. It starts with a simple failure to take responsibility, to appreciate the gift of struggle.

“Even here,” she said more solemnly yet, “even on the wild frontier, we can do better. Even among the most resilient, most adaptive of people, you will find that complacency. And there is always someone lurking on a high mountain to take advantage of it.”

The stillness in the tent was suddenly absolute.

“The plots of the overweening powerful,” Snowe continued in a quieter voice, “exist only as long as we, the people upon whose backs their palaces are built, accept that their power is above ours. As long as we deem it right and proper that only the strong should be trained to become stronger, rather than the whole of humanity lifted up. As long as we look up at those above us as if they simply belong there, without asking ourselves how they got there, then they shall stay there, and we down here.

“Does it seem right to you?”

“Sounds almost Eserite,” Gabriel whispered.

“Sounds almost treasonous,” Trissiny murmured back. “What is she up to?”

They were not the only ones whispering and muttering in the tent, now. Snowe held her peace for a long moment, watching with a calm yet knowing smile as her audience muttered to each other.

The quiet was broken by Chase Masterson, who leaped to his feet in the middle of a row of seats and shouted “PREACH IT!” before being tackled and dragged back down by Tanq and Natchua.

Nervous laughter and a few more shouts followed, and Bishop Snowe grinned down at them, skillfully keeping herself in sync with the crowd; she began speaking again before the interruptions could get out of hand, swiftly recapturing everyone’s focus.

The students at the back were not attending her as closely now, though.

“I think,” Trissiny said aloud, “it’s a very good thing we didn’t sit on the dais with her.”

“Good,” said Professor Tellwyrn from right behind them. “It’s always a pleasure to see you showing some common sense.”


 

The golem was like a nightmarish combination of a familiar wooden practice dummy and some kind of giant spider. Whirling limbs surrounded it, each bending in multiple places, the segments of its central trunk to which they were attached spinning rapidly. Each was tipped in a flickering orb which spat sparks and tiny arcs of electricity, promising pain to anyone they managed to strike. It hovered on a luminous blue ball at its base, lit by glowing segments at each of its many hinges. The construct whirled, struck, retreated, emitting a reedy hum of arcane magic at use that provided a constant counterpoint to the rapid thwacks and flashes of its contact with its enemy.

Basra pressed forward, her sword flicking out with seemingly impossible speed, the tip clipping another glowing joint on one of the golem’s spider-like limbs. The segments beyond that point immediately detached, falling to lie inert on the ground. With the same motion, she brought her blade around to parry two counterattacks from that side, even as wall of golden light in the shape of a standard Silver Legion shield repelled another onslaught from the other. Even stepping within range of the thing was inviting an electric pummeling from multiple directions.

Yet step in she did, though she didn’t stay there. The swordswoman darted back out, moving with unflagging agility despite how long this fight had dragged on. She danced around the golem, using her superior mobility to keep it off-balance. Despite the fact that it could, in theory, travel faster than any human, it apparently didn’t think well in those terms. She had learned quickly that it didn’t follow her repositioning well, and had kept constantly on the move, circling about the thing, stepping in to engage briefly with its numerous flailing limb, always with a shower of sparks as arcane stunners impacted blade and golden light—and occasionally flesh.

It had been a tense spectacle at first, but with every close engagement, Basra disabled more of the golem’s limbs, shrugging off the few painful blows that slipped through her own defenses. And with every attack she made, it had fewer limbs and landed fewer hits. She was sweating with exertion, but not slowing, and her expression remained focused and oddly blank. It was very much a war of attrition, and against all odds, mortal flesh and blood was holding out against metal and magic. The golem was getting slower; Basra grew only more relentless, sensing victory near.

Finally, it happened: having cleaved more than half of its limbs off, she managed to strike the golem’s central body in the glowing blue joint between its uppermost segment and the one below, causing that entire section to tumble off, its limbs inert.

Having taken out a third of the construct’s remaining offensive power, she made startlingly swift work of the remainder. A golden sphere flashed into being around her, and swiftly began to flicker and spark as it was relentlessly pummeled by multiple limbs, demonstrating why she had not done this from the beginning. The shield would last only seconds under that onslaught, but Basra used them well, pressing forward and delivering devastating strikes to the last of her foe’s central weak points.

In a few more seconds, the golem’s final segment was disarmed and toppled over, just as its last counterattack smashed through her divine shield. Basra winced as she was struck twice by electric prods, but did not cry out or fall. The construct’s last sally was over quickly, leaving her standing alone.

There was barely a second’s pause before cheers erupted from the onlookers.

Most had at least enough restraint not to rush forward—they were a mix of Legion cadets and younger girls being trained at the Abbey, even the most junior of whom had had discipline pounded into them from the moment of their arrival. One young woman in Legion armor did stride forward, however, as did a stately older woman wearing blue robes, followed by a two more in similar attire.

“I have to say, your Grace, that was amazing,” Sister Leraine said earnestly, while Basra accepted a towel handed to her by the Legionnaire and wiped sweat from her face and the back of her neck. “We designed that golem to—well, to be frank, I simply never imagined a human being could move that way!”

“Thank you,” Basra said, a touch brusquely but with a small smile. “For the compliment, and the exercise. I can’t recall the last time I was pressed quite that hard in a duel. Consider me surprised, as well; I thought you were surely exaggerating the capabilities of that thing.”

“And I now feel silly for telling you not to engage it on its highest setting,” Leraine replied, watching as her attendants began reattaching the golem’s pieces. Several bore small dents and scratches from Basra’s sword, but it seemed to have suffered no permanent damage. “It sounds like this has been an instructive session for us all! Not to seem pushy, but are you more interested now?”

“Again,” said Basra, handing the towel back to Jenell Covrin, “I’m not the one you should be speaking to about Legion policy.”

“Of course, of course,” the Salyrite cleric said diplomatically. “I fully understand that. Forgive me, this isn’t a formal negotiation; as a craftswoman, I’m asking you, personally, what you think of my work. You made it sound like you enjoyed the experience.”

“I rather did,” Basra admitted, regarding the golem thoughtfully as the two junior clerics finished wrestling its central section back together and began slotting the remaining limbs into place. “Personally, I might be willing to purchase one of these for my own use. If, that is, I were satisfied that such a thing were legal, which I still am not. Followers of Salyrene demonstrating their enchantments to followers of Avei may enjoy clerical protection from Imperial oversight, but me as a citizen owning a golem specifically engineered to fight is another matter.”

“I have to acknowledge that that’s still somewhat up in the air,” said Leraine, nodding. “Bishop Tross is still working with the Universal Church on this point, solidifying the groundwork before actually approaching the Empire. It would be much easier if we were willing to make war golems for the Tiraan government, but there are serious ethical considerations there. We trust our sisters in Avei’s service much farther than any temporal government.”

“Especially one which has used magical weapons to exterminate entire populations,” Abbess Darnassy said sharply, hobbling forward with her walking stick. “You’ll pardon me for speaking bluntly, sister; I’m old and have little time left for dissembling. I cannot make myself think it was wise even to build this object. Autonomous magical weapons would change the face of war, yes, but into something that had none of the very little virtue war has to begin with.”

“I…am rather surprised to hear a ranking cleric of Avei criticize war,” Leraine said very carefully.

“Our purpose in studying war,” said Basra, sliding her sword back into its sheath, “is to prosecute it as swiftly as possible, with the maximum possible consideration for justice and mercy in the process. The more war is improved, the more it is lessened.”

“Provided,” Narnasia added firmly, “said improvements go toward making combat more efficient, and not more destructive. Sending things like this into battle would be efficient once, until the enemy fielded similar weapons, and even then would be calamitous. After that, the escalation would prove a nightmare.”

Leraine nodded again. “Yes, we are mindful of these concerns. Please, don’t hesitate to share any insights you have, ladies. To be honest, it’s not been firmly decided whether this project is going to continue at all, for exactly the reasons you have mentioned. There are those within our faith who feel the very existence of such enchantments is tempting fate. I am very much interested in getting the opinions of experts on the art of war. That aside, however, I only raised the prospect of providing such golems to your cult as training pieces. Any agreement reached would carry the firm stipulation that they are never to be used in actual battle.”

“Hm,” Narnasia grunted, peering at the now-reassembled golem through narrowed eyes.

“In theory…perhaps,” Basra mused. “This one, though, would do us little good. Much as I’m glad you were impressed, Sister Leraine, dueling is…a parlor trick, really. It’s been centuries since single combat with blades decided any significant conflict. War is carried out by armies.”

“And soldiers,” Narnasia added, “are best trained by other soldiers. I’m all for progress when one is progressing toward a specific, worthwhile goal, but progress for the sake of progress has an alarming tendency to go very badly.”

“I see,” Leraine said thoughtfully. “Well. I did come here to have a discussion, after all. Could we perhaps adjourn to someplace more private to speak in more detail?” She tilted her head, glancing inquisitively around the gymnasium. The windows were dark; though the sky beyond them still bore some traces of sunset, the direct light had long since been blocked out by the surrounding peaks of the Viridill range.

“Yes, quite so,” Narnasia agreed. “In point of fact, sister, I was pleased to accept your invitation. If you’ve time, there are matters occurring in Viridill on which I would like to consult your expertise, as well.”

“Oh?” Leraine raised her eyebrows; behind her, Basra frowned. “By all means, I’ll be glad to be of assistance.”

“I’ve had the novices arrange a sitting room,” said the Abbess, turning to make her way toward the door. “This way, if you please.”

Leraine paused to bow politely to Basra, who nodded back, before following. After pausing to watch them go, her expression blank, Basra turned away to make her own way back toward the opposite exit.

“Captain Syrinx.” Narnasia had paused, looking over her shoulder. “Why don’t you join us? Your input might be valuable.”

“Of course, Abbess,” Basra said smoothly, changing course and stepping after the two older women. For the briefest moment when their backs were again turned and before she had caught up, she permitted a flash of triumph to seize her expression.

Behind, Private Covrin stood alone in the gymnasium as novices and cadets trickled past on all sides, heading off toward dinner and their evening chores. The remaining two Salyrites were engaged in carefully folding their golem back into its coffin-sized traveling case.

She dropped the sweat-stained towel on the floor, staring coldly after the departing Bishop.


 

That it was familiar by now did not lessen the dread.

Ingvar reached for weapons that were not there—he had no bow, no hatchet or knife. He only wanted them for comfort’s sake, anyway. It wasn’t as if there was anything here for him to fight.

Still he plodded onward, through the dense, tangled forest that allowed no ray of moonlight to penetrate. The trees and underbrush looked solid enough to stop a bear, yet he found no impediment in his path. Wherever he stepped, there was a way through. Just as it was every time.

He did not want to see this again.

But he couldn’t stop.

This time, something was obviously wrong, even beyond the omnipresent sense of dread that dogged him. Long streamers of spidersilk began to appear, stretching between the trees. The webs were enormous but misshapen, woven oddly, not at all like the careful work of spiders. Ingvar had the sudden, sourceless thought that the webs were holding the forest together.

He very much feared he would find them at their greatest concentration when he reached the thing he did not want to see again.

But then, suddenly, he was there. The awful sight was before him, as it had been every night for weeks.

Huntsmen could only hope for such an important omen as to be visited by Shaath in their dreams, but…not like this. Ingvar found himself standing before the great wolf, a magnificent beast bigger than an ox. And as with every other time, he found his god bound.

It wasn’t, as he had expected, by the spiderwebs this time, though they festooned the whole glade in which he stood. He had seen Shaath in snares, in chains, his legs caught in massive bear traps, sinking in quicksand, and in perils whose specifics he recalled only as a formless sense of horror. It was the most hideous spectacle a man of faith could conceive, seeing his very god trapped and suffering.

This time it was brambles, thorny vines that sprouted from the earth, snaring the great wolf’s limbs and body, tying his muzzle shut and pinning him to the ground. As Ingvar watched in impotent horror, the god thrashed against his bonds, then was swiftly stilled. Blood dripped from dozens of points, staining his fur wherever the thorns pierced him. He twitched again, more weakly, and a faint whine of pain emerged from within is throat.

Ingvar wanted to weep. The god of the wild did not whine.

“What can I do?” he whispered, again reaching for a hatchet that was not there.

“Are you lost, hunter?”

Ingvar whirled; this was new. Never before in this nightmare had someone spoken to him.

A crow sat on a thick strand of spiderweb, regarding him with piercing black eyes. It clicked its beak once and spoke again, in a voice that was not a man’s or a woman’s, that was only barely a voice. “You are only lost if you will not find your way. Follow me, I’ll show you.”


 

He gasped, coming awake drenched in sweat.

Ingvar blinked rapidly, clearing the shadows from his vision. It had to be the middle of the night… And if his previous nights’ adventures were any indication, he wasn’t getting back to sleep any time soon.

This had to stop.

He rose, opening the shield on his oil lamp with shaking fingers to cast some light on his small chamber. Then he hesitated, but only for a moment, before getting himself ready.

He wasn’t going far, not even out of the lodge, and only took the time to bind his chest and dress before stepping out of his room. This late, the lodge was peaceful and calm, not to mention dark; he navigated mostly by memory through the dim halls. He encountered no one on his way down to the basement level, which was unsurprising. There was probably nobody awake except the watchmen at the doors, and the one he was going to see. Ingvar couldn’t have said why he was certain his quarry would be up, but he was. It was as certain as the force that always drove him forward in those accursed dreams.

Hrathvin’s door was open; light and the smell of smoke and incense filtered out around the edges of the bearskin hung over the entrance. Ingvar paused at the door, then squared his shoulders and pushed through.

There was light inside, but not much. It was dim and reddish, coming from the brazier set up in the center of the round chamber. Another doorway, also curtained by a hanging bearskin, was at the opposite end of the room, leading to Hrathvin’s sleeping area.

The old shaman himself sat on the other side of the brazier, staring calmly at him through the haze of smoke that rose from it.

“The dreams again, Ingvar?”

The Huntsman nodded, started to speak, and had to clear his throat before he could. “It was…worse, this time. It’s been getting worse, but gradually. This was something different… Shaman, I can’t make myself believe these are just dreams.”

“Then they probably aren’t,” said Hrathvin calmly. “Through such dreams are we called on spirit hunts, or other quests.”

“It makes no sense, though,” Ingvar protested, beginning to pace back and forth in front of the doorway. “Everything I have done and been through, every step… Shaath has guided me on a long journey to here. For the first time I am useful, I have purpose. I’m advancing Shaath’s agenda, helping the Grandmaster and Brother Andros. And now this? What am I to make of it?” He shrugged desperately. “And even if I throw everything aside to pursue this… How? What can one do with dreams? I see only pain and bondage, nothing that tells me what to do!”

“You said this was different,” said Hrathvin, watching him closely. “Different enough to bring you skittering down here in the middle of the night. Were you by chance told, this time, what to do?”

Ingvar hesitated. “I don’t… There was a crow. It said to follow it… But then I woke up. It’s not as if I can follow a dream after it ends.”

“Crows are interesting omens,” the old shaman said noncommittally. “Sometimes good, often bad. Never dull.”

“I’m at a loss, shaman,” Ingvar said plaintively. “I need guidance.”

“Very well,” said Hrathvin, nodding. “Here is my guidance: You don’t need guidance. You need to get up and quit vacillating. Are you a man or not? You’ve worked harder than most to prove it. Act, Ingvar. If you act wrongly, make amends. No harm you do yourself will be worse than the sins of complacency and indecision.”

Invar stopped cold, staring at him in shock. Shock at himself, not at the shaman’s words.

Well, of course.

“Yes,” Hrathvin said knowingly, “the truth is often pretty simple, once it’s been pointed out to you.”

“This is going to be…difficult,” Ingvar muttered, staring into the brazier, his thoughts already racing ahead.

Hrathvin grunted, then lifted his hand to toss another cloud of herbs onto the flames. “Of course it is. Otherwise there’d be no point in doing it.”

“I thank you for the advice, shaman,” Ingvar said respectfully, bowing to him. “I think I have…a starting point, now.”

The old man chuckled. “Enjoy your wrongness while you’ve the luxury, Huntsman. Someday you’ll be old and respected, and nobody will dare give you a kick in the butt when you need one. That is the beginning of decline.”

It was strange how much calmer Ingvar felt as he left the shaman’s chambers, considering that he still was far from sure what he was supposed to do. He had nothing but the merest inkling of a plan.

But now, at least, he was going to do it. Whatever it was.

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Bonus #2: All Those Who Serve

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Years after her battles were all won or lost, Narnasia had learned that glory and victory were nothing at all, compared to watching her girls play in the sun. They darted in and out of the shadows—and there were always shadows in Viridill, where the high altitude kept their skies clear, but the rounded old peaks to all sides, many topped with massive trees, cast unpredictable patches of shade. The air was filled with the warmth of early summer, the smell of baking grass and leaves, the screams and laughter of a dozen teenage girls. They had been playing some kind of game at some point, some variant of tag perhaps, but by now were just chasing each other around for the sheer joy of it. Girls in sleeveless white novice robes dashed this way and that, shrieking and tackling each other, rolling in the grass, bounding up to take off again.

It was getting very close to time for afternoon drill. She really ought to put a stop to this, call them to order… But they were just so happy. So alive. Indulgent it might be, but she was indulging herself as much as them.

Narnasia leaned with both hands on her cane, braced against the ancient stonework in front of her, soaking it all up. The sun did her bones a world of good, soothing the ache that tended to accumulate in her joints, but the happiness of the novices was just as therapeutic to the spirit as the sun was to the flesh.

“Okay, all right!” shouted a gangly blonde, waving her arms. “Everybody back to barracks to wash up, or we’re gonna be late.”

They were a far from homogenous group, in temperament as much as description. Several immediately came to a stop—or picked themselves up off the grass—and began moving toward the novice barracks. Mostly, Narnasia noted, the orphans who had been raised in the Abbey and some of the boarders who’d been there longest. From others came groans, shouted imprecations (mild enough that she didn’t feel the need to intervene) and one loud, wet raspberry.

“Yes, I know, your life is so hard,” said Trissiny, the older girl calling them to order, with an easy smile. “You can complain all about it all the way there and back. Just get it out of your systems before Sister Zanouri is—”

She broke off, pivoting on one foot to hook the younger girl who tried to leap on her back by the arms. Half a second later, Trissiny had Mafi, a short thirteen-year-old with an olive Tiraan complexion, in a headlock.

“No fair!” Mafi shouted, struggling impotently.

“You can have it one of two ways,” Trissiny said, holding her without apparent effort. “Either ambush people from behind, or talk about fairness. Can’t do both, squirt.”

“Thug! Tyrant!”

“Yup, and I sleep with one eye open.” She finally released the younger girl, giving her a playful swat on the rear to shoo her in the direction the others were drifting off. “All right, barracks! Nobody wants to be late for drill; you all remember what happened last time.”

More groans and razzes rang out, but the girls were all moving now. They were a mixed lot, these dozen. A core of five them had always lived in the Abbey; they had grown up together and shared the surname Avelea, which made them sisters in every way that mattered. Others rotated in and out of the ranks with each year, few staying more than a handful of months, though some returned on a seasonal basis. They were a mix, some the well-trained daughters of particularly devout Avenists who viewed a stint in the barracks a vital part of their upbringing, and some just the opposite, troublesome girls sent here to benefit from the Sisterhood’s famous discipline—often as a last resort.

Narnasia’s smile widened as she watched Trissiny chivvying them along. She was the oldest of the Abbey-raised in this lot, just a year off from being able to enlist in the Silver Legions. Not all Aveleas did, but there had never been a question about Trissiny. The faith was her life, its discipline as natural to her as breathing. She was a skilled fighter and in the last year, since the previously eldest sister in her barrack had grown and left, had slipped into the role of leader with effortless success. That girl would be an officer by the time she was twenty.

She leaned one-handed on her cane, lifting her other arm to beckon. Trissiny glanced at her, then made a final round of shooing gestures and paused to make sure her squadmates were moving in the right direction before turning and trotting over to Narnasia.

“Mother Narny,” she said with a respectful bow and a bright smile.

“How’re your squad faring, Trissy?” she asked, then chided herself inwardly at the brief grimace that flickered across the girl’s face. At the mature age of fifteen, she had decided the childhood nickname no longer suited her and insisted on its retirement. She was too polite to make an issue of it, which was largely why Narnasia accommodated her—when she remembered. She was too old to quickly discard the habits of a decade and a half.

“We’re having a really good few weeks,” Trissiny replied, her normal good cheer quickly returning. “It still takes a while to get Mafi and a couple of the others moving, especially in the mornings, but they’re good girls once they decide to be.”

“Good. I think you’ve earned a little extra responsibility.”

Trissiny straightened slightly, her expression growing serious. “We’d be honored. What’d you have in mind?” One could always tell the Abbey-raised girls from the boarders by whether they regarded extra responsibility as a privilege or a punishment.

“Just a little thing for now. Since the weather’s holding, I believe we’ll move dinner to the lawn this evening. What do you think?”

“That sounds grand!”

“Good. Your barrack is in charge of setting up tables. Everything needs to be ready by five.”

“Consider it done!” Trissiny swelled with pride and snapped off a salute—a little too exuberant for regulations, but she wasn’t an inducted Legionnaire, and Narnasia wasn’t foolish enough to punish a child’s eagerness to please. “We won’t let you down.”

“I know you won’t, Trissyyynnny.” She caught herself, barely, and the girl’s mouth twitched in amusement. “Best get after your squad. You don’t want to disappoint Sister Zanouri.”

“No, I don’t,” she said seriously, stepping back. “I prefer my nose un-bitten-off.”

“You mind that attitude, child!” Narnasia leveled a finger at her, barely managing to keep her face straight. “That’s a full Sister you’re speaking of, one who could be out serving with the Legions but stays here to see to your education.”

“You’re right, I’m sorry,” Trissiny replied, making an effort at an abashed expression. “She’s only done that once.”

“Brat!”

“Yes, ma’am!” Grinning now, Trissiny bowed again before turning to flee after the rest of her squad. Watching her go, Narnasia let the smile spill back over her features.

Having favorites was an absolutely terrible practice, both in raising children and in training soldiers. She had to be content with the self-discipline not to let it show in her actions, however. When the Goddess sent her a true golden child, well, she was too human to be truly objective. Ah, it was going to be a hard thing when her Trissy left, and the time was coming all too fast. But that was the way it was. Girls grew up, and women had to create their own lives.

She turned and walked back into the shade of the Abbey, slowly so that her arthritic legs supported her without the need for her cane. It was simple pride that made her do it, the same reason she refused to call on the healing light to soothe her aches except when she was alone in her chambers, but Narnasia Darnassy had served her Goddess with distinction, ran a well-ordered Abbey and had raised a fine crop of girls. She was entitled to a little pride.


 

Important as discipline was, a good commander didn’t forget morale. Besides, however they had been raised, teenagers were not soldiers, and a treat now and then was a healthy part of their upbringing. The picnic had proved quite a success; the conversation over dinner was louder and happier than that which usually rang out in the mess hall, but didn’t cross the line into raucousness. Some of the girls present might have pushed it toward that if left to their devices, but they were surrounded by better influences that kept them in check. Avenist discipline could bend when the situation allowed, but it did not break.

The Abbey’s current population—at least those not tending to guard posts or other duties during the dinner hour—fit at four long rows of tables. The folding tables set up on the lawn were more narrow than those in the mess hall, forcing their occupants into a greater than usual intimacy, but no one complained; personal space was always at a premium in the Abbey. There were the girls in training, several barracks of youngsters boarding at the Abbey, and about twice their number in cadets, adult women undergoing their basic training as Legionnaires. The Legion currently stationed in Viridill, the Third, was most encamped around the area, but two squads of full Legionnaires were present, positioned in the Abbey to look after their trainees. The cadets treated them with appropriate respect; the Abbey girls kept shooting them awed and envious glances. Between the various guests and trainees, the mix of priestesses and retired soldiers who ran the Abbey itself were a small minority.

There were no men present, though some few were attached to the Abbey in various capacities. It was a delicate line to walk; Narnasia had no patience for sexism of any kind and didn’t tolerate it in her Abbey, but she also had to manage the practical considerations of a campus full of teenage and twenty-something women. With an even blend of men and women, there was rarely a problem. When it was just women, men were of course a non-issue. A large group of women and a handful of men, however, resulted in all manner of competitive nonsense that undermined everything she was trying to teach these girls. It was tricky to ensure that male Avenists were shown adequate respect while still keeping them isolated for the sake of the students. It didn’t help that Avei’s faith tended to attract misandrists, though Narnasia took great pains not to employ any of those.

Still, tonight she put aside such headaches, eating slowly and letting the babble of conversation wash over her. As much of her attention went to looking around as to her dinner. Barrack Four had outdone themselves; they had taken the time to pull out the sturdy benches from the dining hall rather than inflict the Abbey’s stock of notoriously unreliable folding stools on the diners. The tables were impressively even, despite the inevitable small dips and fluctuations in the lawn’s terrain. Lanterns were hung carefully from the branches of ancient trees that twisted overhead, above head height but low enough they weren’t going to set the foliage afire. That was an impressively thoughtful touch; it saved space on the narrow tables, which of course was at a premium to begin with. Narnasia wondered whose idea that had been. Likely Trissiny, though she was wary of giving her golden child too much credit. That was a slippery trap.

Already the lamps were necessary, despite the early hour. To the southwest, through a gap in the surrounding mountains, they could see a rolling expanse of foothills still glowing in the late daylight, but the peaks sheltering the Abbey itself had already cast their deep shadows across the grounds.

Some commanding officers arranged their mess with themselves and their command staff at a head table. Narnasia much preferred to be amid her troops, to be part of them. Her seat was at an outer corner of one table, from which she could see the whole group. The ate, talked, laughed, and enjoyed themselves. Not all were so outgoing, but she saw no overtly unhappy faces.

Arrogance was a character flaw, one she tried vigorously to expunge, but looking over the women who answered to her, Narnasia again allowed herself to enjoy a rush of pride. However long she had left on this world, she would leave it confident she had done well by her duty. Who could ask more out of life?

Her musings, and everyone else’s talk, were interrupted by a sudden blaze of golden light.

Burning against the darkening sky, the eagle sigil of Avei hung suspended a dozen feet from the ground at the end of the long table arrangement. Stunned silence fell, but held for mere seconds before there came a scramble of benches being pushed back. Not everyone present knew what the sign meant; there couldn’t have been more than a few who had seen this in person. Even the Abbess hadn’t. But those educated by the Sisterhood recognized it, and surged to their feet to stand at attention. The Legionnaires and priestesses were first upright, saluting, followed by a smattering of the Abbey girls who had grown up with Avenist traditions, several of them looking shocked almost to the point of terror. The other students and trainees straggled to their feet, clearly uncertain what was happening, but following the example of their peers and superiors.

Narnasia was one of the last to rise, and not due to any sloth on her part. Rare and precious as this event was, her joints simply did not suffer leaping about; even once upright, she had to lean upon her cane, which didn’t adhere to regulations for standing at attention, but the Goddess would surely forgive her.

In a short span of moments, every woman present was upright, the enlisted saluting and all facing the glowing golden eagle, their expressions a blend of awe, reverence, fear and exultation.

The sigil pulsed once, trailing a curtain of light to the ground below it, which coalesced into a figure nine feet tall. There were several soft cries, quickly silenced, as the last of the younger groups finally realized what was happening.

Avei, in human form, was a strikingly beautiful woman, in a way that was impossible not to notice even when one knew how little value she and her cult placed on looks. She wore Legionnaire armor in the etched silver that had distinguished her paladins in the days when she still had them. A crested helmet concealed her black hair and partially obscured her face, but those blue eyes swept piercingly over the assemblage, causing more than one person to quail. She carried no shield, but had a traditional leaf-bladed short sword buckled at her waist, and a lance in her right hand, its butt resting on the earth.

There was near silence. The presence of divine magic in truly awesome quantity caused a faint but constant hum at the edge of hearing; it was a soothing, pleasant sound that filled the listeners with energy and calm. Even Narnasia’s aches ebbed away in the goddess’s presence. She knew that when they chose, the gods could project such a force of sheer personality that anyone gazing upon them could be driven to their knees, incoherent with awe. It was a good sign that Avei did not choose to unleash so much of her essence here, boding well for her intentions.

“The world is changing.” Her voice was deep, powerful, and echoed among them as though emerging from every part of the air. “Humanity regularly does what has once deemed impossible, or at least rare. Justice remains constant, but the nature of war has changed swiftly, and even we who should know best have struggled to adapt. As humankind have elevated themselves, the gods have grown more distant. We have watched you to see what came of all this progress.”

She paused, and slowly panned her gaze around the entire assembly. “We are concerned.”

Avei let this hang ominously for a moment before continuing. “The changes wracking the world are without precedent. The quiet of the gods in the last few years, the dwindling of our cults and the absence of paladins, has not been because we have left you to your fate, but because the times demand that we act carefully. As the world changes, the faithful must change with it, and even the Pantheon must adapt to properly care for our people. We have watched, in these latter days, and judged. We have considered deeply, planned accordingly, and made decisions. Now, the time has come for new action.

“In Tiraas, a Hand of Omnu has been called.”

The faintest stir rustled across the women present. One did not shift about and mutter to one’s neighbors in the presence of a goddess, but the implications of this announcement were too enormous, and too easily seen, to be ignored; quite a few reacted physically before they could restrain themselves. Narnasia especially saw immediately where this was going. Her heart tightened in her chest; her grip tightened on the head of her cane, hard enough that it would have seriously hurt her arthritic hands if not for the constant glow of divine light.

“Others will follow,” Avei declared. “Many have said that the age of paladins has ended, and they were right—but only because the nature of paladins needed to change. In addition to a period of observation and introspection among the gods, a clean break was needed. Now, a new age begins, one that will be led again by Hands of the Pantheon, by all the gods who have summoned paladins to their bidding, and in the years to come, by some who have never done so before. We serve the world according to its needs, just as you serve me. Now, the call goes out.”

She fixed her stare at a point near the middle of the assembly.

“Trissiny Avelea. Stand forward.”

Narnasia felt every muscle in her body tightened into unbidden rigidness. It saved her, barely, from screaming.

No.

Trissiny gaped at the goddess, completely poleaxed. She made an erratic, whole-body twitch before apparently remembering how her limbs worked; even then, the girl stumbled as she stepped out of line. Swallowing visibly, she walked slowly toward the deity, past the lines of silent, staring women. Her body struggled between disciplined posture and an obvious desire to curl up into invisibility. Though she didn’t hurry by any means, in moments she stood within reach of the towering deity’s arms. One knee buckled momentarily, then stiffened. Avenists were not required to kneel to anyone, but few people could stand that close to the goddess of war without feeling a powerful urge to show some kind of obeisance.

Narnasia clutched her cane, actively trying to snap it now. The sturdy hardwood was in no danger from her aged arms, but it served as an outlet.

No, no, no, not her. Not her!

“There is a hard road ahead,” Avei said more quietly but still audible to everyone present. “The call I lay upon you is an honor, but it is also a heavy burden, and will exact a steep price, more painful than you can yet appreciate. In my thousands of years guarding the world, I have summoned many of the bravest and best to my service. Some have refused the call, and not one of them did I condemn. It is a lonely thing and a hard one, to give up your own life for the sake of others. Do not doubt that I ask anything else of you. Do not answer this call out of any desire for glory, or any expectation for your own happiness. Answer it only if you desire to serve. That you will serve is the only thing I can promise. What say you, Trissiny? Will you be my Hand in this world?”

NO! Narnasia screamed silently.

Trissiny gulped. “I—I’m not…ready. I’m not worthy.”

Avei smiled at her, and her expression was both gentle and achingly sad. “No one is ready, child. No one can be. And I would not call upon anyone so arrogant as to believe herself worthy. If you doubt yourself, Trissiny, do not doubt me. I have chosen carefully, I promise you. The only question is whether you are willing.”

Trissiny drew in a deep breath, squared her shoulders and set her face. Slowly, she sank to one knee, bowing her head. “I will serve however you think I best can.”

“So be it.”

The three words rang across the Abbey grounds, echoing in the luminous background noise of the goddess’s aura. Above and between the two figures, light flashed and coalesced into two shapes, a sword and a shield. Both were clearly ancient, and battered from long use. They floated slowly downward to hover at chest height.

Narnasia glared at them. She had seen those weapons before.

“Rise, then, and take the tools of your calling.”

Trissiny rose slowly; almost hesitantly, she reached out, first threading her left forearm through the shield’s grips. Then, finally, she grasped the sword by its handle.

The change was instant and without fanfare. One moment the girl stood diminutive before her goddess, a slim and somewhat gangly figure in a short robe. In the next she stood tall, sword and shield in hand, clad in the silver armor that so many present had only seen in paintings.

“We have a long road to travel together,” said Avei solemnly. “You will face countless battles and many hardships, but you will never do so alone. This new world will learn to respect you, Trissiny Avelea. Hand of Avei.”

Trissiny’s own aura flared into existence, and eagle wings of golden light stretched from her back, blazing with the intensity of the sun. The light swelled until no one could stand to look, then faded just as suddenly, leaving her standing alone in the dusk, only a faint gleam of divine favor limning her sword and shield. In the dimness that followed, Avei was gone, even more abruptly than she had arrived.

The newly minted Hand of Avei stared into space where the goddess had stood. Despite her armor, despite everything, she looked bemused and lost.

Then, quite suddenly, she was mobbed by a rush of women from each of the tables. The air was filled with cheers, praises, and shouted questions, mixing into an unintelligible jumble and overridden only by the shrieks of Barrack Four, who were the first away from their seats and managed to cluster around their squad leader before everyone else dogpiled her.

“ENOUGH!”

Old and thin her voice might be, but Narnasia Darnassy had commanded troops in her day, and could still seize and hold the attention of a battalion at need. Silence fell as she stepped forward—slowly, as her joints demanded, but not so slowly as her pride asked. She limped and relied on her cane, making her way between the tables as quickly as her legs would permit, unwilling to leave Trissiny alone for a second longer than necessary.

“Mother Narny,” the girl said desperately as she drew close, “I don’t… I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”

Narnasia struggled as she had rarely struggled with anything to smile, but for Trissiny’s sake, she did it. “When you need to do something, child, you will be told. That is one of the advantages you have, now. For now, you only have to be.”

Trissiny carefully sheathed her new sword at the scabbard hanging from her belt and slung the shield over her back, then stepped forward, arms outstretched.

Narnasia met her half way, gathering the girl into an embrace. She squeezed as hard as her thin arms could, ignoring the way the armor pinched and dug at her.

“I am just so proud of you,” she whispered fiercely into Trissiny’s hair. With her expression momentarily hidden, she allowed it to relax, permitted the tiniest sliver of the agony she felt to show through. She wanted to weep.

She did not, of course.

Discipline.


 

In the darkness of the pre-dawn hours, she limped doggedly through the winding paths between tombstones and mausoleums behind the Abbey. The moon had already vanished behind the mountains and there were no torches, but the faint starlight of the mountains was enough. Despite the darkness, despite the betrayal of her aging body, she had walked this path many times. She hardly needed to see.

The tomb occupied pride of place, facing a little cul-de-sac which itself encircled a bronze statue of the woman interred here. Narnasia only glanced up at this; it was only dimly visible in the darkness, anyway. She limped past it, making a beeline for the tomb itself. In her haste, she actually stumbled the last few steps, dropping her cane and throwing up both hands to catch herself against the broad stone door. There she stood, leaning against it, finally, finally letting the tears come.

It was far too dark to make out the words, but she could feel their indentation under her hands. She knew that name better than her own.

Here lay Jasmine Darnassy, the last Hand of Avei. Dead these twenty years, and as everyone had believed, truly the last. The Age of Adventures, the era of paladins, was over. There would be no more brave, brilliant women hurled into the thick of the carnage, set to face struggles that no one could hope to survive for long even with the full aid of a goddess. Narnasia had allowed herself to believe, and take comfort in the hope, that no more mothers would ever have to lay their girls to rest this way.

Now it was all starting again. And the first lamb laid on the altar was another beautiful, amazing young woman she regarded as her daughter.

There was a saying among their cult, fully endorsed by history: No Hand of Avei ever died in bed.

“Why?” she rasped, letting her head hang and the sobs come. “Haven’t I given you enough? What more do you want from me? I have never asked anything of you. Is it too much that I be left with someone to love?”

She drew back a fist and slammed it into the stone. That, needless to say, was agonizing, spikes of white-hot pain roaring up her entire arm, her hand throbbing unbelievably. Narnasia was falling before she realized it.

Strong hands caught her, then gently and with the utmost care pulled her upright, held her steady. It was light, now… And the pain that had so undone her seconds ago had already receded.

She heaved a deep sigh, closing her eyes, then turned. When she lifted her head and opened them, Avei was regarding her with an expression of weary sorrow. She was human-sized, now, scarcely taller than Narnasia would be if she could still fully straighten her spine. She didn’t glow, per se, but it was lighter around her, bright enough to see clearly.

“You’ve given everything,” Avei said quietly. “You have done all I ever asked, and done more than I would have required. Willingly, even eagerly. I have had soldiers as valuable as you, Narnasia, but none more so.”

For a devout, lifelong Avenist to hear such praise directly from her goddess—in fact, to be personally visited by Avei at all—was all the dream she would once have wished for. Now, all she could feel was bitterness.

“If I’ve earned any favor from you,” she whispered, “don’t take my Trissy. She deserves so much better.”

The goddess actually hung her head for a moment. “…she does. As do you. As has every brave woman who has followed me into an early grave, and all those left to mourn them.”

“Then it’s just business as usual,” Narnasia said, the bitterness of it clawing at her from the inside. “A world full of paladins again. More meat for the grinder.”

“I know your pain,” Avei said quietly. “You may not believe it, but I do. Jasmine was my daughter, too. I shared your pride in her, your love for her, and the agony that I couldn’t protect her in the end. Everything you’ve suffered, Narnasia, I have suffered. And not only the once, but for every Hand I have lost. Every single soldier who has fallen in my name. Every Legionnaire, every loyal trooper of the hundreds of nations that have lived in the last eight thousand years. They serve, they suffer, and they die, and they never do so alone. I’m there at the end to mourn each one. Every. One.” Narnasia couldn’t look away; there were tears sparkling in Avei’s eyes. “And each time, I call forth more, knowing it will only end in more loss and bereavement… Because that is the meaning of duty. We fight because someone has to, even knowing the fate of all those who serve. Every time I think I can’t possibly bear to go through this once more, I remember every soldier who has fallen in my name, and I have to go on. They didn’t quit. How can I?”

“I’m sorry,” Narnasia whispered. “I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I… I shouldn’t have dared to speak to you like that.”

“You hurt, sister. And you have every right to.” The goddess shook her head, gently leading the Abbess over to a stone bench and helping her to sit. “The day I no longer care about your pain is the day you should find a new faith.”

Narnasia leaned back against the bench, closing her eyes. “…how do we go on?”

“How do old soldiers do anything?” Avei sat down next to her and slumped forward, planting her elbows on her knees. “We’ve forgotten how to do anything else.”

The Abbess nodded. There was silence for a while.

“I only wish I could take the burden from her,” she whispered at last. “I wish I could have suffered instead of my Jasmine, too. Let them have the glory and me the pain. But… I know very well why you called them and never me. Jasmine, Trissiny… They’re special. I couldn’t have done justice to that duty. Jas did her title proud.”

“She did,” Avei said, nodding.

“Trissiny will, too.”

“I have no doubt of it.”

She heaved a sigh. “Forgive an old woman’s hysterics. How, then, can I help her? Whatever time I have left, I’ll do anything I can. I wasn’t there to support Jas; I’m not leaving my Trissy to face this alone.”

“She’ll never be alone.” Avei straightened, gazing up at the bronze statue of Jasmine Darnassy. “As I said before, the world is changing. Paladins have to change, too. I won’t make you any promises, but I have…plans. I have hope. I’m holding to a chance that we won’t lose this one so easily.”

“I’ve never told her,” Narnasia whispered. “About her blood. I’ve gone back and forth on it… To this day I don’t know whether it was right or wrong. I just wanted her to have as normal a life as she could, but… I suppose that’s not a consideration anymore.”

“You have some time, still, to make a decision,” said the goddess. “Three years.”

“Three?” She had expected to have Trissiny to herself for one more year at most. Girls raised in Avenist temples could join the Legions at sixteen.

“Three,” Avei said firmly. “At eighteen, she will be old enough for the next stage of her education. She will go then to the University at Last Rock.”

Even in the goddess’s radiant presence, Narnasia’s body ached at the speed with which she sat bolt upright. “Tellwyrn?!”

“Arachne,” Avei said, her expression grim. “Believe me, I know her faults; they are numerous and deep. I also know her virtues, however, and I think my cult has become too eager to discount those. Trissiny already owes everything to her kindness.”

“But…why Tellwyrn?”

“You have raised up a fine soldier, Narnasia. But do you know how many fine soldiers I have?”

“…all of them?”

“Exactly.” Avei nodded. “Trissiny is destined to be more, and Arachne can teach her that. She lives in a gray, meaningless world of nihilistic complexities with no moral compass whatsoever. Somewhere between that and the stark, black and white ethics you have instilled in Trissiny is the balance she will need to do her duty in the world that is taking shape around us.”

“What could I have done differently?” In spite of herself, Narnasia bristled. “I raised her in the faith. I’ve taught her your principles.”

“This may be a very painful thing for you to learn,” Avei said wearily, “but even the gods are not perfect. I am not content with sacrificing my most prized warriors like chess pieces. I want Trissiny to have a chance. Don’t you?”

Narnasia could make no reply to that.

“To do this, she will need more resources than my Hands have had in the past. It’s a new world, and a new type of paladin will be needed to uphold justice in it.” She turned her head to stare directly into Narnasia’s eyes. “We may yet lose her. But it will not be because we failed to arm her with everything she needs.”

The Abbess drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “…three more years, then. There’s so much left to teach her… Suddenly it doesn’t seem like enough time.”

“You’ll have my help. Together we will send her off prepared.”

“All right…” Steeling herself, she nodded firmly. “All right. I’ll do as you ask.” Narnasia rolled her shoulders, feeling the old aches, but also the old determination of her younger self. She would not send her Trissy off with anything less than everything she had to offer.

“How may I serve?”

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