Tag Archives: Raichlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it was good.

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

One day into the next, and the next…


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

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

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

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

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

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

Ingvar could relate.

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ingvar started to rise. “You—”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe nodded slowly, staring into the flames.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What makes the difference?” Joe asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Branwen sighed. “Basra…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I say,” Schwartz muttered, blinking rapidly.

“Who told you that?” Basra demanded.

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

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

“Well—I— Why would they lie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust, hunger, joy, freedom.

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

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“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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9 – 29

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“And this is where we part ways,” said Grip, turning to grin at Squad One. “See you girls in a little bit.” The enforcer slipped silently into a side alley, her footsteps inaudible within seconds.

“Why that one again?” Merry wondered aloud.

“Good choice for this operation,” said Principia, starting forward again. “C’mon, forward march. Grip is a good intimidator; since we’re about to interrupt a bunch of citizens meeting at a privately owned warehouse, that may be a useful skill. If they aren’t as dumb as the ones in the carriage, they won’t attack us or do anything hostile, in which case the presence of scary Thieves’ Guild personnel will be important in getting them to turn themselves in. We can’t arrest people for talking about how much they hate dragons.”

“I really don’t have a good feeling about this,” said Casey. “Any part of it. Even if it all goes well, and disregarding that we’re basically hoping to get people to attack us, I don’t like using the Guild to lean on people like that.”

“And that is why Grip is leading the Eserite side of this,” Principia replied. “I don’t know who else the Guild sent, but she’s good at toeing the line. She won’t let any of them inflict any harm that’s not immediately necessary. Which will mean none; this won’t be more than a dozen people if our intel is correct, and if they do attack trained Legionnaires, so much the worse for them.”

“If our intel is correct,” Merry repeated dryly. “I like how you just say that, as if it’s a given.”

“Nothing’s a given,” Principia murmured. “Life is a sequence of bullshit surprises.”

“When we met this Grip before,” Ephanie commented, “you didn’t seem to know her that well, Sarge.”

“True,” Prin agreed. “Hence, I’ve been taking pains to get the gossip while I was out gathering resources for us. I know what I’m doing, ladies.”

“If I knew what you were doing half the time I think I’d feel a lot better,” Merry muttered.

It was barely past sunrise, and would have been dim even had Tiraas not been shrouded in heavy fog that morning. Fairy lamps were eerie floating witch-lights in the gloom, their supporting poles invisible; everything else was washed-out and obscured by the mist. It was quieter than usual for the hour, creating an impression that even sound was quashed by the oppressive fog, though in truth it was just a matter of people avoiding going out in it. Everyone who could get away with staying indoors this morning seemed to have jumped at the chance.

In short, it was a good morning for clandestine meetings, and for sneaking up on them.

Squad One was passing through a poorer district, tenements rising on all sides; up ahead, less than a block distant but not yet visible through the gloom, was the warehouse district in which the anti-dragon rendezvous was to take place. Grip and the other Thieves’ Guild enforcers would be assembling on roofs around the warehouse in question, preparing for the Legionnaires to make their entrance through the front.

Suddenly, Principia slammed to a halt, peering about in alarm.

“What is it?” Farah demanded. “Sarge? You okay?”

“Sorry about that,” a voice said cheerfully, and a human man in an offensively colorful suit stepped around a corner directly in front of them. He was carrying, of all things, a lute, heedless of the effect the damp air would have on its strings, and wore an absurd floppy hat trailing a long ostrich plume. Beneath his maroon coat and pants he wore a pink shirt, with a loosely-tied cravat of powder blue. “Okay, well, to be totally honest, not that sorry. I do so enjoy a spot of dramatic effect!”

“Who are you?” Ephanie demanded.

“Avelea, stand down,” Principia said curtly. “All of you.”

“Now, now, Prin, don’t agitate them,” the man admonished. “I assure you, I mean you no harm. In fact, I’ve come to help!”

“That,” she said, “may be the most horrible news I’ve ever heard.”

“Who is this guy?” Merry asked her in a low tone while he burst out laughing.

“Ah, haha, me?” The fellow grinned hugely, waggling his eyebrows beneath his absurd hat. “Just a simple bard—no one to be concerned with. Prin’s just being overcautious. Not that I blame her! Anyway, though, time’s a-wasting, and as much as I love pausing to indulge in a bit of banter, you have an appointment to keep.”

“Yeah,” said Casey, “and you’re kind of standing right in the way of it.”

“Oh, but that’s not the one I meant,” the bard said merrily. “Now, I normally don’t give out spoilers, but everything is about timing. What’s happening her doesn’t quite reflect the synchronicity evident in other parts of—well, that’s neither here nor there, quite literally.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Merry exclaimed.

“Lang,” Principia said sharply, “respect!”

“Now, now, she has a fair point,” he said, waggling a finger at the elf. “Here is is, ladies. If you continue on with your mission, well… Things will proceed as they have been. You’ll be one step closer to your goal—but only one step. How would you like it if I could get you to the very end of that ladder? Right now, today, this morning?”

“We’re listening,” Principia said warily.

“Good,” the bard said, grinning broadly. “It may interest you to know that dear Saduko is not…trusted. That fact makes her very useful to her various employers; letting her overhear things is an easy way to get information into the hands of her other contacts. For example, the meeting you are now going to interrupt is a diversion. The real event is on the other side of the city. If you proceed to the south gate, you will find the way…suspiciously clear. Follow the path marked by a lack of the soldiers who should be defending the gate, and you’ll come to the organizers of this little movement. Who knows, you may be able to apprehend them! Probably not, but just disrupting their meeting should be enough to move yourselves out of the quagmire of other people’s agendas in which you are currently stuck.”

“Who are you?” Farah asked, frowning. “Have I seen you somewhere before?”

“You probably have, Farah my dear,” he said with a kind smile. “Not in person, but there are pictures. Anyway! That’s all I’ve got for you, ladies. It’s already more than I’m in the habit of giving most people, but what can I say? A great doom is coming, and it doesn’t suit my interests to have everybody bogged down in pointless intrigue. The rest is up to you.”

“Why are you doing this?” Principia asked tersely.

The bard grinned, and winked. “Oh, Prin. Dear, clever little Prin. Why do I do anything? Because when we’re all looking back on this, it’ll make a hell of a story.”

And then he was gone. There was no pop of disturbed air, no swelling of shadows, no arcane flash. Where the man had stood, suddenly, there was nothing but fog.

“What the hell?” Merry demanded. “Sarge? Who was that? What’s going on?”

Principia drew a deep breath. “Shit. Fuck. Veth’na alaue. It’s never good when they start talking to you directly… Oh, hell, I’m more than half tempted to just ignore that whole thing and go on as we were…”

“Sergeant Locke,” Merry said shrilly, “either you are going to start making sense or—”

“His aura,” Principia interrupted, “was…enormous. The size of the city, almost. It was like standing next to the sun.”

“You can see auras?” Ephanie asked warily.

“I’m an elf,” Principia said acidly. “I am an aura. We’re as much magical as biological. Yes, I can tell when I’m next to one of that size. And it wasn’t there until a second before he appeared. Now it’s just…gone. There’s really only one kind of being that can do that.”

Farah emitted a small squeak; everyone turned to look at her. She swallowed heavily.

“I—I just remembered where I’ve seen him. That guy. In…illustrations, like he said. He—he looked like…” She swallowed again. “Like how Vesk is depicted.”

There was a long moment of silence. The fog swirled gently around them.

“Why us?” Merry asked plaintively. “Why is it always us?”

“Avelea,” Principia said, turning to Ephanie, “what do the regulations concerning divine intervention say?”

Ephanie blinked her eyes twice as if to clear her vision before answering slowly. “If…as long as the deity in question is not opposed to Avei’s aims, and nor is the request they make, a Pantheon god’s orders supersede anyone else’s, excepting potentially that of the High Commander or a Hand of Avei, depending on the circumstances.”

Principia drew in a breath and let it out in a huff. “Szaravid, you know your lore. Does Vesk have a reputation for leading people into trouble?”

“Only people who deserve it,” Farah said weakly. “When he gives advice to heroes in the stories, it’s always good advice. That’s…rare, though. Even in myth. Really, really rare. He hardly ever appears to anyone who’s not a bard.”

“Apropos of nothing,” said Casey, “the last Vesker we met was involved in trying to dupe us…”

“She was as much a dupe as we were,” said Principia. “All right. Well, he wasn’t making a request, per se, but I think I can defend this to an officer if challenged.”

“Are we really going to…” Merry trailed off at Principia’s nod. “Bugger. Never mind the officers; we’d be running off on the Guild. They’re not forgiving types, are they?”

“I will worry about that,” Principia said grimly. “He said going to the south gate would skip us ahead in this. After the unending and ridiculous bullshit this whole thing has been, ladies, I find I quite like the sound of that. About face and march.”


 

Dawn, as always, came late to Veilgrad. The city was awake and alive well before sunrise appeared above the towering mountains that walled off the eastern horizon, its streets lit by a mixture of fairy lamps and firelight that reflected its blend of modern and classic Shaathist sensibilities.

The courtyard of the old trading guild hall which the Army had taken over was mostly in shadow, the lights being positioned primarily to illuminate the bays surrounding it. There were properly enclosed offices, but for the most part the sprawling structure was an open-air market, its roofless central area surrounded by roofed but unwalled spaces, with the actual building along the side opposite its broad gates. Those opened onto one of Veilgrad’s central squares, providing a lovely view of the fountain in the center and the cathedral beyond.

“Yes, it’s less secure than the barracks,” Major Razsha was saying in response to Gabriel’s question, “but security isn’t our primary concern, here. The gate guards are adequate to keep the public out. For purposes of this operation, the main attractions of the old trading hall are its central location in the city and its direct access to the catacombs.”

“I see,” Gabriel said, panning his stare around at the bay in which the Army had set up. Others had been used as staging areas for the search teams being dispatched, but all of those had gone underground an hour ago, thankfully taking the Huntsmen with them. The Shaathists, though eager to be helpful, were also eager to be boastful and several had made a point of trying to antagonize Trissiny. Now, the students and Razsha’s strike team, along with Adjavegh and the mages coordinating with the search teams, were clustered in the roofed bay closest to the catacombs access. Waiting.

Gabriel heaved a sigh and resumed pacing back and forth, Razsha watching him with open amusement. “This is insufferable.”

“This is an actual military operation,” Trissiny said calmly. She had been standing by a pillar next to the courtyard for nearly an hour, radiating patience. “You guys haven’t actually been along on any of those until now; they involve a lot of tedium. There is a reason armies run according to regulations, you know. Patience and enduring long waits are necessary skills in the army. More soldiers are killed by carelessness, disease, and accidents than battle. By far.”

“It’s not like you’ve ever been in an actual war,” Gabriel said, giving her an annoyed glance as he passed.

“Any contest of wills and powers is war,” Trissiny said quietly. He sighed and altered his trajectory to pace on the other side of the bay. Colonel Adjavegh glanced between him and Trissiny expressionlessly before returning his attention to the battlemage overseeing the large rack of runic charms being used to keep in contact with the search teams.

“Hey, Fross?” Trissiny said, still in a soft voice. The pixie had been making a slow circuit of the rafters, and now fluttered over.

“What’s up?”

“How are talking swords made?”

Razsha, standing at the other side of the opening into the courtyard with the rest of her strike team, glanced over but did not move. The other students began drifting closer.

“Ah,” said Fross. “Can I assume you’ve been pondering this since yesterday?”

“I probably should have brought it up at the manor last night,” Trissiny murmured, glancing at Gabriel, who seemed lost in thought. “But, well… The downtime here…”

“Yeah, I getcha.” Fross emitted a descending series of chimes like a sigh. “Well, of course, modern golems operate on logic controllers—their intelligences are assembled, step by step. Which is why they have very simple minds: an actual intelligence is too complex to just build. Honestly, Crystal is probably the most advanced golem intelligence in the world, and I have no idea how Professor Tellwyrn made her. And even she’s got glitches and giveaways that betray her nature. And then…there’s the older method, that was used to make things like Ariel.”

“Go on,” Trissiny urged when the pixie paused for thought.

“Well, Ariel’s much more realistic, y’know? She conversese just like a real person. It takes some long-term exposure to figure out the ways in which she’s incomplete. Her personality is totally static—she can’t adapt or change her behavior at all. Also, she doesn’t really have any compassion or the ability to relate emotionally to other beings. That’s standard for things made in that method. There are some friendlier ones, but that’s very hard to do. It’s because… A magical intelligence made that way is an imperfect copy of a soul.”

“A soul?” Teal asked, leaning forward. The rest of the group had wandered over by now, their attention on the pixie.

Fross bobbed up and down in affirmation. “Yeah. To do that… Well, the procedure is seriously banned, so I was only able to look up the broad strokes. Gabe and I researched this when Ariel first started talking to us, you see. Um… Basically, you have to release a soul from its mortal body and capture a sort of image of it in the instant between its release and it departing this plane. You can’t do it while it’s on another plane, or part of a living person.”

“By release,” Toby said, “you mean…”

“You know what she means,” Trissiny said flatly. “You have to kill someone. Right?”

“Right,” Fross chimed, her glow dimming slightly. “And…that’s not the worst part. This process… Well, it’s incredibly hard to time that exactly right, and even if you do it perfectly, there’s a random element. To duplicate a soul’s function like that… Um. Every successful talking sword probably represents multiple attempts.”

They digested that in silence, staring at the black sword hanging from Gabriel’s belt. He glanced up at them and stopped his pacing, frowning.

“What? Do I have something on my face?”

“Contact, team nine,” the battlemage suddenly said crisply in response to a rhythmic flickering of one of the runes on the control apparatus. A moment later, others began flickering. “Contact, team six…team seven… Teams four, eight and—sir, all teams are reporting enemy contact!”

Adjavegh narrowed his eyes at the display. “This is not a coincidence. How close together are the teams?”

“Triangulating,” she said, fingers flickering across the runes lining the rim of the control rack. “…minimum distance between any two teams is two hundred yards. Team four reporting overwhelming numbers. Team six reporting a severe threat…”

“Damn it,” Adjavegh hissed. Razsha stepped over to stand at his shoulder. “They were ready for us. Lieutenant, signal a retreat. Get them back here!”

“Yes, sir!” the mage said, rhythmically tapping the control rune that made its counterparts in the search team’s hands flicker a coded message.

“That’ll draw whatever’s attacked them back here,” Razsha pointed out.

“We have firepower concentrated here,” Adjavegh replied, glancing at her team and the students, who had now pressed forward to stare at the suddenly flashing runes on the control board. “If it chases them that far, we will deal with it. If any of the teams signal distress, we’ll send forces down to assist, though it may be hard to navigate to them. Lieutenant, status?”

“All teams except two and six have acknowledged—team two has just—wait. All teams acknowledge and confirm retreat order. They’re on the way back, sir.” She paused momentarily, eyes flicking back and forth at the flashing lights. “None are signaling for reinforcements. Team six just downgraded their threat assessment. Team four repeating overwhelming numbers, but not asking for help.”

“Massed skeletons,” Razsha said. “Like two of the cults we took out up here. What kinds of threats are they facing, Lieutenant?”

“Unknown, ma’am, the codes are not that precise. No teams have used the prearranged signal for chaos effects. Team four just downgraded their threat assessment, persistent but falling off—teams three and eight have signaled no further pursuit.”

“Damn it,” Adjavegh repeated. “Either they knew we were coming, or they’ve got an enormous force blocking off the catacombs below a certain level.”

“Given the complexity of the tunnel system, sir, likely the former,” said Timms.

“Agreed. Shift our remaining personnel to cover the entrance, and put the healers on alert for—”

He broke off as a bell began to toll over the city. A moment later it was followed by another from a different direction, and then a third.

“Oh, hell,” Razsha whispered.

“Major!” the Colonel barked. “Get your team out there, see what that is and put a stop to it.”

“Sir!” She saluted even as the other three members of her team sprinted to her side. With a crackled and a blue arcane flash, they vanished.

“What’s happening?” Juniper demanded.

“Those are alarm bells,” said Trissiny, even as a fourth one began chiming. “Some disaster is unfolding in the city, at multiple points. Right as our search teams came under coordinated attack in the catacombs.”

“Should we move out?” Toby asked. “If we can help…”

“Not yet,” Adjavegh snapped. “You! Demon and pixie, get aloft, see if you can spot what’s happening. Report back here, though, don’t rush off to interfere!”

Fross immediately zipped out from under the roof and fluttered skyward, followed a moment later by Teal dashing into the courtyard. She burst alight with hellfire as soon as she was in the open, and then shot straight up.

“The Colonel’s right, we need intel before moving,” Trissiny said tersely. “This could be a ploy to divide our forces.”

Before anyone could respond, shouts and the crack of lightning bolts sounded from the office complex just beyond their improvised headquarters. Everyone was moving in seconds.

Trissiny and Gabriel were first into the office where lay the trapdoor access to the catacombs, watched over by four soldiers. All four were firing their staves non-stop into the morass of bones pouring out of the opening, to little effect. Skeletons surged out like spiders, clawing and clambering over each other in their haste to escape the tunnels. The bones were mostly old, many coming apart from the simple effort of pushing up through their own numbers; many more were blasted to charred fragments by lightning bolts. And still, they kept coming, their sheer numbers pushing into the room through the onslaught. In only seconds, piles of bone fragments began to form around the trapdoor, drifting higher and doing nothing to inhibit the skeletons continuing to crawl over them.

Gabriel shouted something, the words lost amid the screams, blasts, and the dry clatter of bone upon bone; he pointed at the hole with his wand, which swelled in his hand into a wicked-looking scythe. Immediately, every skeleton in the throng collapsed into disconnected fragments. Seconds later, the soldiers ceased their fire, staring at the hole. Pieces of bone poured downward with a relentless clatter, the drifts of now-lifeless bones moving under no force but gravity.

“Valkyries,” Gabriel said into the sudden quiet. “Like I said, that kind of undead is simple. I’ve got nine here; they all went down the tunnels to help the search teams. That means we’re on our own if that happens again,” he added, turning back to face the others.

“Good man,” said Colonel Adjavegh from the door behind them. He was carrying a stave, currently leveled at the hole, but had not fired. “Timms! Get this mess cleared out; this is our people’s exit from those tunnels. We will not sacrifice this position.”

“Getting us to do so was the obvious purpose of that attack,” said Trissiny.

Fross zipped into the room, already chattering as she arrived. “Sir! Colonel! Everybody! We’ve got fires at four places in the city, a lot more people seem to be panicking in multiple areas for reasons I couldn’t see from that altitude, I really suggest getting Vadrieny down out of the air ‘cos I think she’s scaring people even more, and there’s five Shadow Hunters at the gate to the courtyard being stopped by your soldiers asking for Trissiny.”

“Come on!” Trissiny barked, turning and pushing back through the others out of the office. The group moved with her, streaming toward the courtyard, even as Adjavegh ordered Fross to find Vadrieny and get her back down.

They skidded to a halt outside as, with a sharp pop, a spinning wheel materialized out of midair, dropping half a foot to stand in the middle of the opening to the courtyard. It rocked for a second before settling.

Everyone stared at the perfectly mundane, apparently harmless object.

“Okay, I know I say this a lot,” said Ruda, gesturing at the wheel, “but really, now. What the fuck?”

“I don’t sense anything dangerous from that,” Trissiny said, frowning. A silver bubbled formed around the spinning wheel. “Oh. Good idea, Shaeine.”

“Thank you,” the drow replied as everyone stepped carefully around the shielded appliance.

“Let them through!” Trissiny barked at the soldiers in the front, striding toward the front gates. “Raichlin! What’s happening!”

“General Avelea,” the bearded hunter said in obvious relief. “Trouble is what’s happening. We’ve got undead cropping up all over the city. Almost every cemetery and tomb—it’s bad.”

“Shit,” said Gabriel. “All right, where is it worst? I just sent my valkyries into the catacombs…”

“That probably is where it’s worst, but that’s not why I came,” Raichlin said urgently. “We have more trouble than that. There are a lot of tombs and graveyards in the foothills around the city; those started acting up first, well before the cemeteries in the city proper. They’re also spewing skeletons and zombies, but none of them are getting close to the walls.”

“What?” Toby exclaimed. “Why not?”

“Because,” the hunter said grimly, “they are being beaten back by demons. There are warlocks in gray robes at multiple sites, spawning waves of katzils and khankredahgs. They are doing a very good job of keeping the undead in check, but there are other problems. Objects, people and skeletons have started teleporting around apparently at random.”

“Omnu’s breath,” Gabriel said in horror. “If the warlocks are opening multiple dimensional rifts in proximity to a known chaos effect…”

“And this,” Trissiny snarled, “is why you don’t let the Black Wreath help!”

“That has to be dealt with,” Adjavegh barked, striding toward them just as Vadrieny dropped to the pavement nearby, followed a moment later by Fross. “We can’t establish any kind of secure perimeter with that going on. There’s no way to get the civilians into safe areas if nothing’s going to stay put! Fross, find Razsha’s team and brief her—I want her back here immediately. Securing this space is now priority one.”

“Yessir!” the pixie chimed, shooting back aloft.

“You—Raichlin, yes? Can you deal with the warlocks?”

“My people are trying to keep the werewolves from getting into the city,” he said. “What you see here is all I’ve got left. The weres are agitated, too—and transformed even though it’s not night, which is making it worse. If one of them randomly teleports into the walls…”

“This is a catastrophe,” Timms whispered.

“Stay frosty, corporal,” Adjavegh snapped. “Someone has to shut down those warlocks. How many sites are active, Raichlin?”

“At least half a dozen.”

“Then we’ll have to divide forces to deal with them all…” The Colonel drew in a deep breath and let it out through his teeth, his eyes narrowed in concentration.

“We need to send the paladins,” said Ruda. Everyone turned to stare at her. “Think about it—they’re chaos-resistant, not to mention the best choice to stop warlocks, and Trissiny’s horse is big enough to carry all three, so they can move fast. Drop Toby and Gabe at two sites and proceed to the next. Raichlin’s people can guide them; split three ways you can shut ’em down faster.”

“We can keep up with a horse,” Raichlin agreed, nodding. “Even a divine one. For a while, at least.”

“The Wreath will listen to me,” said Vadrieny, “and I can reach them faster…”

“Yeah, but they’re trying to get to you,” said Ruda. “After this bullshit, I think giving the Wreath anything they want is a bad idea. You’ll be needed here in case we have another undead outbreak. You, Juniper and Fross have offensive power, Shaeine can provide shields and healing, and my sword’ll be necessary if a chaos effect happens here.”

“Good,” Adjavegh said crisply. “I like it. Get it done. Timms, signal the barracks to enact protocol… Oh, damn it, which is the one that orders civilians to gather here and in the cathedral?”

“On it, sir,” Timms said, whirling and dashing back toward the battlemage still manning the runic signal array.

“It’s a plan, then,” said Trissiny, vaulting into Arjen’s saddle and holding out a hand to Toby. “No time to waste.”

The sun finally peeked over the mountains, beaming down upon a city in the grip of chaos.


 

Joe almost didn’t want to stop running, so exuberant was the experience of dashing along under the influence of Raea’s blessing. He covered over a dozen yards in each bound, and his feet placed themselves precisely on secure footholds on the rocky upper plane of the Badlands. Was this what it was like to be an elf all the time? If anything, the precise data his senses constantly fed him was a little disorienting, leaping along at these speeds, but he quickly moved past that and into the sheer joy of the exercise. It must have been even better for the others; even McGraw and Billie were keeping up without effort, the gnome with many a shrieking laugh of pure delight.

Dawn had just come when he finally skidded to a stop on a flat stretch of stony ground, kicking up a spray of dust; the others alit beside him, Billie pinwheeling her arms frantically and nearly pitching forward into the cracked ground.

The enormous panther arrived a second later; the other elves had all peeled away as they ran, now doubtless taking up positions around the town.

“Be still a moment,” Raea said, again in her bipedal form. “I need to cancel that blessing on you, and it’s best if you aren’t moving around. Otherwise you may find yourself quite fatigued by the experience. Give me a moment to concentrate.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Joe said, already regretting the loss of the effect—but she was right, there was no way they’d be able to fight like that. He had already discovered that only his feet were enhanced, along with the instincts to control them properly. Actually using his wands while bouncing about like a jackrabbit would have been prohibitively challenging even for him.

While Raea closed her eyes and whispered to herself, he studied Risk. The town was tiny, a bare dozen dusty little stone and adobe buildings clustered around a well. He detected not a twitch of movement.

“Is this the right place?” Weaver asked, scratching beneath his hat.

“Yes,” Raea said curtly, opening her eyes. “You may move again. And yes, they are present—in that largest building, there, just off the central square. My scouts have been in place since sunrise, watching. The dwarves have all been sent away.” She turned her head to face McGraw. “All to the same mining tunnel, unlike their previous pattern. It appears Khadizroth knows we are coming, and wanted them out of harm’s way.”

“Mm,” the old wizard grunted, leaning on his staff with both hands as he studied the town. “I trust you’ve got your folk takin’ care of that as we speak?”

“Of course.”

“Here, now,” Joe said worriedly. “Not to sound soft-hearted, but those dwarves are just doin’ a job. In fact, they were willin’ to leave their homes and risk their lives for the purpose of takin’ Belosiphon’s skull out of commission. Them, at least, we oughtta handle respectfully.”

“Who’s we?” Weaver snorted.

“That is being taken into consideration, Joseph,” Raea said with a little smile. “Dwarves are slow, absurdly strong and incredibly durable, at least from an elf’s perspective. Incapacitating them harmlessly is, if anything, easier than killing them. Meanwhile, we should lay plans while my people are engaged dealing with the miners.”

“No,” McGraw said softly, still staring at the town through narrowed eyes.

“No?” Raea arched an eyebrow.

“No, that’s…what we would do. Khadizroth knows us; he’s fought us, knows our strengths. He’ll be expecting us to come in careful-like, position ourselves an’ try to take out his allies one by one.”

“Yeah,” Weaver said in exasperation, “because that’s the only sensible thing to do here!”

“Wait,” said Joe, “I think I see what he means. Khadizroth’s strength here isn’t just his power—remember what he was doin’ with the Cobalt Dawn? He’s a planner. An’ we know he goaded us out here deliberately, knowin’ how we’d react. So…how would we not react?”

“Hm.” Weaver frowned deeply, then just as suddenly smiled. “Well. I guess the thing we’d be least likely to do is charge in, wands blazing, with no plan.”

“I think not doing that would be an excellent idea,” Raea said sharply.

“Hey, Fallowstone,” Weaver said, ignoring her. “What’s the biggest, explodiest, most ridiculous thing you’ve got in those pockets?”

“Aw, Damian,” Billie said with a huge grin, already pulling lengths of metal out of her pouches. “Just when I think I’ve got a handle on you, y’have to go an’ say somethin’ that makes me all tingly.”

“Ugh. Why do you always have to make it weird?”


 

“That’s them, all right,” the Jackal said, staring out the window of Khadizroth’s office and fingering the long scar running across his right ear. True to the dragon’s word, it had been successfully reattached, but not without leaving a livid mark. “No sign of Raea’s little rats, it’s just the adventurers. The gnome’s doing something…”

“Are they just gonna stand there all morning?” Shook growled, pacing back and forth.

“You know, my boy, you’ve been getting positively antsy since your demon squeeze was sent off on assignment,” the Jackal said, turning to leer at him. “I’m concerned it’ll affect your performance. Wanna step around the corner and work off some of that steam? I mean, I don’t have nearly as impressive a pair of tits, but—”

“Enough,” Khadizroth said firmly as Shook rounded on the elf, clenching his fists. “This is not the time to be sniping at one another. For the moment, things are going well; our foes received our invitation and responded just as planned. This is a critical moment, my friends. They will either step into the noose, or exhibit more forethought than I anticipated.”

“Oh, I hope it’s the second one,” the Jackal whispered, turning back to the window. “It’s not nearly as satisfying to kill a trapped rabbit.”

“In other circumstances, I’d be inclined to agree,” said Shook. “Give me a straight-up, honest fight over this sneaking around any day. But against these guys…”

“They have considerably more strength than honor,” Vannae agreed quietly.

A blue light flashed from the plains outside the town. All four of them stood, stepping over to the window to stare.

It looked like a star ascending skyward; the blossom of pale blue fire burned brightly enough to be clearly visible, even against the morning sky. It soared upward to nearly two hundred feet, and suddenly erupted. Or, more accurately, shattered, dispersing into dozens of blazing points of light.

“The hell is this?” Shook marveled. “They’re putting on a fireworks display?”

“Probably signaling the tribesmen,” said the Jackal with a grin. “Looks like we can expect company momentarily!”

“Ah,” said Khadizroth in a tone of chagrin. “I might have known it wouldn’t be so easy. Gentlemen, if you would kindly cluster a little closer together?”

“Why?” Shook demanded, turning to frown at him. “What’s up?”

“When in an intractable situation,” said the dragon, “sometimes one’s best bet is to simply…shake up the playing field. Unfortunately, our guests seem to have come to the same conclusion. Closer, please. Now.”

“Wait,” said Vannae. “Are those lights getting…bigger?”

“Now!” Khadizroth said urgently, spreading his arms as if to embrace them. A whirling sphere of air formed in the office, sheathing the men inside a transparent bubble of wind, and not a moment too soon.

More than twenty burning arcane charges slammed into the town at nearly the speed of sound, reducing half of Risk to rubble in seconds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” said Fross. “Oops.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

Her plan was changed by the music.

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

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

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

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

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

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

On that altar sat an elf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um,” she said intelligently.

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

“A traditional elvish instrument, I suppose?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trissiny sighed. “Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The growl came from behind her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tabitha rolled her eyes; Frind grunted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

This had been a strange night indeed, but fruitful.

And now she had a reception waiting.

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

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

“Eh,” Trissiny grunted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trissiny gaped. “I…that…”

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

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

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