“You can make an elemental of anything, really,” Schwartz explained with the reedy enthusiasm of an intellectual holding forth on his topic of special interest. “For starters, they come in the basic elements I’m sure you’ve heard of: fire, water, air, earth. But you almost have to add some structure to them, otherwise… Well, they don’t do much except, um…burn, be wet, sit there… I mean, elementals in their pure state are really the most extraordinarily laid-back creatures—all they want to do is just be one with the elements! Meesie, here, is a fire elemental, as you may have guessed.”
He held up one hand, and the little red weasel-rat darted down his arm as if on command to sit upright on his palm, twitching her whiskers at the audience. The surrounding elves leaned forward obligingly, which was a purely social gesture, considering they could probably see individual strands of the creature’s fur.
“So…that was a formless spirit,” Basra said skeptically, “and it looks like that because…you decided it should?”
“I think she’s cute,” Covrin remarked. Basra pointedly did not acknowledge that asinine comment.
“Thank you!” Schwartz beamed. “Yes, she is cute, isn’t she? A good companion as well as a useful familiar. But yes, your Grace, an elemental’s form is the creation of its summoner. Like those we saw earlier! Most impressive—two forms, bear and dog, and that most intriguing shade of blue flame, with the orange bits as flourish! Points for style!”
He grinned broadly at Adimel, the elvish shaman who had led the group sent to intercept them; the shaman smiled back, more reservedly but apparently sincerely, and nodded in acknowledgement.
“But yes, anyway,” Schwartz continued, “beyond form, there’s…well, you can alter the substance of an elemental. It’s not just will and mathematics like arcane magic—in truth, it’s more like magical chemistry, or alchemy. Turning one substance into another substance is a matter of making it interact with other substances until you get the one you wanted as a result. It can be quite complex! Why, my friend Aislen made this sort of dual-substance earth elemental, all white marble, but with silver joints for flexibility! Remarkable work, she still has it back at the temple. Very good for heavy lifting. Oh, and the things you can do with air elementals! Air is tricky to work with, but for purely practical reasons; in terms of its magical resonances it operates actually quite predictably and simply, and that means you can make an elemental spirit of virtually any gaseous substance you can imagine! Well, I mean, virtually. Hah, back in my apprentice days, I recall the lads and I got this idea from sniffing whiskey fumes—you see, we’d just been reading about a vodka elemental that got summoned in the Imperial Palace once…”
Basra did not lunge across the fire and throttle him. People were watching.
“And shadow elementals?” she said patiently.
Equidistant between them around the fire pit, Elder Linsheh gave her a look accompanied by a conspirational little smile of amusement.
Basra forced herself to mirror it perfectly. Ha ha, look at the time-wasting nincompoop boy, what a funny joke they were sharing. Trying to throttle the elf was an even worse idea. Also, it wouldn’t work.
“Shadow, yes, right. Shadow.” It took an almost visible effort for Schwartz to gather his focus. “Yes, well… I was speaking of how you can indulge your creativity in shaping elementals. Why, if you know your physics and chemistry and have a good handle on the principles of sympathetic magic, the sky’s the limit! But, yes, back on point… There are certain standards, some basic forms that everyone can do because they are well-known, documented, and widely used. Ranging from your very basic dust devils that students create for exercises to some extremely complex entities. The shadow elemental is one of those. It’s… Hmm, how to put it… I suppose you could consider it the elemental counterpart to a Vanislaad demon.”
“A Vanislaad?” Basra exclaimed, increasingly sure that this dithering fool hadn’t the faintest idea what he was talking about.
“Perhaps, Mr. Schwartz, you wouldn’t mind if I interjected?” Elder Linsheh said mildly.
“Oh!” Schwartz blinked at the Elder. “Oh, I mean, of course, ma’am, my apologies… I mean, that is, obviously this is your home and I’m sure you know far more than I about—well, I should expect almost everything!”
“Thank you,” the Elder said with a smile before turning back to Basra. “I wouldn’t consider constructs of that nature comparable to a child of Vanislaas in capability, but there are parallels in purpose. Shadow elementals have a number of useful traits that were not displayed during your encounter. They can assume any form, though their ability to mimic people persuasively is limited—they are not actually highly intelligent. In addition to the shape-changing, they can also be invisible, and not merely conventionally so; they have a gift for evading magical wards and senses, as well. However, as you discovered, they are very weak in combat. Those false shadowbolts, like the infernal originals, cause pain and numbness, but unlike the real thing can do no serious damage, and they are its only weapon.”
“It had claws,” Basra pointed out.
“Yes,” Linsheh agreed, nodding. “But those were protrusions of the same kind of energy.”
Basra frowned. “You describe this as…basically a scouting servitor. Useful for espionage, not combat.”
“But…it charged right at us. Quite aggressively.”
Elder Linsheh glanced at Adimel, who looked grave, before turning back to Basra and nodding again. “So I understand. And that, Bishop Syrinx, adds a troubling new dimension to this matter.”
“The creation of a shadow elemental is not a simple task,” said Adimel. “It requires reagents and resources in considerable quantities and of great rarity to perform the crafting. The power needed is also well beyond what the average witch would willingly devote to the creation of a servant. The relatively few human witches who possess such things treasure them greatly, and would not risk one in an open confrontation such as we saw today.”
“Human witches?” she said, raising an eyebrow.
“I would like to say that elves to not work such craft,” he said with a distasteful grimace, “but in truth, all I could tell you in certainty is that no one in our grove does. I would think it unlikely that any wood elf would do so. The means necessary to create a shadow elemental… Well. Your Mr. Schwartz could probably elaborate, later, if you are truly curious.”
Schwartz wrinkled his nose. “Yeah, that was troubling me as well. I really can’t picture the average elf doing such a thing.”
“The average wood elf,” Linsheh clarified. “Our nomadic cousins on the plains are more pragmatic in many respects…but that poses its own counterpoints. They rarely find the resources, nor the time spent in one place, necessary for such a working.”
“Also, there are no plains elves here,” Covrin pointed out.
“Indeed,” Adimel said gravely. “They have avoided Imperial territory most assiduously since word of the Cobalt Dawn’s disaster spread. It has been years since I have seen any this far south.”
“Not humans and not elves,” Basra said, drumming her fingers on her thigh. “What does that leave?”
“We have only ruled out the possibility of these cultures, in any organized fashion, doing such a thing,” Linsheh said.. “Individuals are just that. I believe, based on the evidence, that our culprit is a lone individual, and apparently one separated from her or his people. Moreover, it is someone dangerous, and extremely powerful.”
“Well, that sort of goes without saying, doesn’t it?” Schwartz remarked.
“Not just powerful magically,” said Basra, glancing at him. “What we faced today wasn’t an attack—it was a message. The person behind that elemental was making it plain that they can squander rare, valuable servants on tasks not suited to them just to make a point.”
“And,” Covrin said quietly, “that they know who we are and what we’re doing, almost as soon as we started doing it. The story hasn’t even had time to spread.”
“Unless that Mr. Hargrave was behind it,” Schwartz mused.
“I find that hard to credit,” said Elder Linsheh. “Hamelin Hargrave is known to us—he is without apparent malice, and too invested in the society of Viridill to disrupt it in this manner.”
“The drow,” Covrin said suddenly. “The entrance to Tar’naris is in Viridill.”
Linsheh shook her head. “For many thousands of years, the Narisians made convenient specters to blame whenever something mysterious befell this land. No more, though. Now, they are more closely tied to the Empire than we. And Queen Arkasia has no sense of humor toward those who disrupt her dealings.”
“Besides,” Adimel added, “they don’t practice the fae arts.”
“Don’t,” Covrin said pointedly, “or can’t?”
“Don’t,” he replied, nodding to her with a smile. “Narisians field Themynrite priestesses and the very occasional mage. They abhor warlocks as Scyllithene monsters, and disdain the way of the shaman for its association with us. It is just like the human witches, or the other elves. This could be a Narisian drow, for all we know. Or anyone else. But Tar’naris is no more behind this than our grove, or a plains tribe, or the loose collective of witches in Viridill.”
“And now we are exactly where we were to begin with,” Basra said, staring into the fire. “Speculating.”
A silence fell, each of them occupied with their own thoughts.
Until the conversation had turned to business, it had been a quite pleasant lunch. The hospitality of the grove could not be criticized; they’d been fed well with fresh fruit and game in an outdoor meeting space between three massive trees festooned with rope bridges and snug little treehouses. Ostensibly the entire circle of this grove’s Elders had come to meet with them, but only Elder Linsheh had actually participated in the discussion. That was standard; elves preferred to keep themselves aloof, designating specific individuals to interface with visitors on behalf of the tribe. Basra had never had occasion to visit a grove before, but she had been well briefed on their habits. What was known of their habits, anyway.
“Well,” said Schwartz at last, “it seems to me we’ve made a little progress. We know whoever is behind the elemental attacks is aware of and targeting us, and has tremendous assets they can afford to throw away!” He seemed to wilt, shrinking inward and wrapping his arms around himself; Meesie clambered up onto his shoulder, patting his cheek and squeaking in concern. “So…not encouraging progress. But it’s not nothing.”
“Hargrave,” said Basra, “mentioned that his own attempts to track this lead toward Athan’Khar.”
Adimel’s expression grew even grimmer. Linsheh sighed, shaking her head.
“This is not characteristic of an eldei alai’shi,” she said. “However… If it happened that one could drum up enough restraint, it is not impossible. One of those could have the means. At issue is that they never last long enough to enact such complex plans, nor have they the evenness of mind for such subtlety. They are mad, and swiftly destroy themselves in their desire to destroy their enemies.”
“Do you know of any currently active, though? Basra demanded.
Again, Linsheh shook her head. “Our grove was visited by two some years ago, bringing us refugees from the plains. Those we took in, but we did not allow the headhunters to linger.”
“Two?” Covrin exclaimed in horror.
“Most unusual,” Linsheh mused. “But as I said, that has been several years. They are undoubtedly dead by now.”
“I say,” Schwartz protested. “I don’t recall hearing about two headhunters being killed!”
“Nor would you,” Adimel said wryly, “nor would we. The Empire officially denies that they exist—as it does with almost everything pertaining to Athan’Khar. Eldei alai’shi are dealt with by strike teams, usually at the cost of several lives, and the matter is then firmly covered by Imperial Intelligence, who are wise enough to muddy the waters with conflicting rumors rather than trying to squash rumors. If you went looking for headhunters, all you would find would be Imperial spies very curious what you were up to.”
“I am glad to see Abbess Darnassy responding to this,” Linsheh said, gazing at Basra, “and taking it seriously enough to have sent you, your Grace, as well as help from the College.” She nodded to Schwartz, who grinned back. “I hope that the Sisterhood will continue to remain in contact. For now, I fear we have little to offer you directly, but I want it clearly understood that the grove stands behind you in this. It affects us directly to have fae casters assaulting Avei’s faithful, to say nothing of the harm to bystanders.”
“We have seen events like this spiral out of hand before,” Adimel added. “Let it be known from the outset that the elves of this tribe condemn any action against the people of Viridill.”
“If, as the situation develops, we can aid you directly, you need only ask,” said Linsheh. “The most direct assistance I can offer is help in pacifying or controlling elemental attacks, but we lack the numbers to patrol Viridill. That task is better suited to the Legions. If you can find a more specific target, however, we shall be glad to help.”
“I’ll make sure to tell the Abbess that your grove is behind us,” Basra said evenly, then stood, the elves following suit. Schwartz and Covrin were the last to rise, she a little stiffly in her armor, he nearly falling over in the process. “For now, I must thank you for your hospitality and be off. You’ve helped me determine my next move.”
“What will you do?” Adimel inquired.
“Well,” Basra said with a cold smile, “it seems that our mysterious elementalist is aware of, and targeting, our little group. That means we know who he’s going after next. All that remains is to place his target, us, in a location of my choosing…and wait.”
“Oh, now, I’m not so sure I like the sound of that,” Schwartz said nervously. “You’re… You want to use us—all of us—as bait?”
“We are the bait and the trap,” Basra replied, then paused and eyed him up and down. “Well. Some more than others.”
“Well, dunno how useful that was,” Joe mused, “but it sure was a more pleasant way to pass the time than I’d expected. Shame he couldn’t tell us any more about what the University gang did…”
“I am amazed that the de factor ruler of this province would make time to sit down to a meal with three vagabonds who just showed up at his door,” Ingvar said.
Joe chuckled. “It makes a difference when one of the vagabonds in question is a Bishop of the Universal Church an’ former cult leader.”
Ingvar glanced skeptically at Darling, who was still in a suit that looked like it was serving the latest of three color-blind owners. The thief glanced back, grinning.
“Then again,” said Darling, “it was lunch. Taking the man out of an actual meeting was out of the question, but people are inclined to be hospitable if you catch them sitting down to eat. Or at least, those who’re inclined to be hospitable anyway. The others may throw crockery at you.”
“You did that on purpose?” Ingvar said disapprovingly. “It’s hardly kind to interrupt a man’s meal.”
Darling shrugged, looking exactly as repentant as Ingvar would have expected, which involved a singularly relaxed smile and an insouciant spring in his step. “I figured the odds were about fifty-fifty he’d take a message and send word to our inn about an appointment tomorrow. Besides, that wasn’t the only piece of timing I’m working on. We’ll want to be into the afternoon when we approach Lady Malivette.”
“The vampire,” Ingvar muttered, still scarcely willing to believe it.
“Why afternoon?” Joe asked, frowning.
“It’s a socially acceptable hour for unexpected visits,” said Darling. “And with dark coming on, it makes it clear we’re not hostile. Visiting a vampire in the morning is a cautious move, shows you don’t want to be near her except when her powers are inhibited.”
“I do not want to be near her except when her powers are inhibited,” Ingvar growled.
“Malivette Dufresne is a thoroughly civilized individual who’s had a hell of a hard life,” Darling said calmly, turning a corner. “She’s lived up there for years, harming no one—even when she had ample reason to, such as when some of the locals tried to mob her house not too long ago. That pretty much tells you what you need to know.”
“What I need to know is how hungry she is!”
“The story being put around,” said Darling quietly, eyes on the street ahead, “was that the vampire who attacked and turned her slaughtered her family at the same time. That would be…uncharacteristic, however. Turning someone is a process, and for whatever reason, they rarely feed too close to it. However… A vampire newly turned almost always awakens in such a mad state of hunger that they’re little more than animals. They will kill and drain anyone, anything, they can get their hands on, until sated.” He let the silence stretch out for a long moment. Ingvar swallowed heavily and glanced over at Joe, who looked pale and shocked. “Make no mistake, lads,” Darling continued finally, “we are going to visit a monster. But she’s a monster who’s managed to be a decent person under pressures we could hardly imagine, which frankly makes her a better person than we can claim to be. And who does not need any more stress from the likes of us. So when we get there, if she has time to chat with us, you be respectful, and be kind.”
“Won’t be a problem,” Joe said quickly. “I’m gettin’ good practice at addressing high-born ladies, I believe.”
“You are unlikely to receive the same reception as at Grusser’s residence,” Ingvar noted with the ghost of a smile. “Miss Feathership clearly has a gnome’s priorities; a vampire will be much less smitten with the legend of the Sarasio Kid.”
“It was one autograph,” Joe muttered, hunching in his coat. “She was so excited… What was I supposed to do?”
“Sometimes,” Darling said solemnly, “you’ve gotta bite the belt and give your traveling companions an anecdote to hold over your head for weeks. Here we are, Volk Street.”
He made another right turn and continued a few more paces before slowing to a stop. Up ahead were the open side gates to the city, a much smaller aperture than the front one through which they had entered. This street was all but deserted; the road here was lined with houses, not businesses, and past the gate led to only one destination. The road continued onward and upward, winding back and forth deep into the forested hills. More than a mile distant, visible above the towering city wall, were the gabled roofs of what had to be Dufresne Manor.
“Not too late to reconsider that carriage,” Darling remarked. “Just sayin’.”
Ingvar sighed and stepped past him. “Let’s just go. I feel more comfortable trusting my own feet.”
“Yours aren’t the only pair of feet at stake here!” Darling protested. Joe passed him, grinning, and the Bishop finally sighed dramatically and trudged along after them.
They had passed a good fifty yards up the street, nearing the gate, when three more men rounded the same corner behind them in silence. All three were bearded, dressed in rugged leathers, and armed with hunting knives, tomahawks and bows. The trio, an older man with gray in his beard flanked by two younger ones, strode forward on silent moccasins, eyes fixed on the diminishing party up ahead.
The Huntsman halted abruptly, whirling to face the alley whose mouth they were passing. Just inside, incongruously in that setting, stood two strikingly lovely young women in extravagant evening gowns, one in green, one blue.
The woman in green smiled and wagged a finger at them. “Uh uh.”
Both the younger Huntsmen glowered; one took a menacing step toward the women.
The elder held out an arm to block him, turning his head to give him a very flat stare. They locked eyes for a long second, then finally, the younger man snorted softly and stepped back. His elder turned back to the women and bowed politely.
“Ladies,” he rumbled, then turned on his heel and walked back the way they had come. The other two paused to stare at the women a moment longer, one eying them up and down approvingly, before following.
“Creeps,” Sapphire muttered. “Still. They were downright heroic during the battle. Do you think we should have warned them? Considering who they’re stalking…”
“We don’t know who they’re stalking,” Jade countered. “With the exception of Sweet. He’s the one Vette was warned about. Any thoughts about the other two?”
Sapphire shrugged, stepping forward to lean out of the alley. Both groups of men were out of sight now, the Huntsmen back around the corner, the travelers beyond the gate. “Some rich kid who thinks he’s a wandfighter, and… I could swear that was a woman dressed as a Huntsman of Shaath. Which, I suppose, would explain what set those three off. I’m looking forward to learning what their story is.”
Jade shook her head. “And that’s the point: we don’t know the story. Come on, we’ll see what Lars and Eleny have to say. And we will definitely wait to hear Vette’s opinion before acting.”
She stepped out into the street, Sapphire falling into step beside her, and they followed after the departing Huntsmen toward the center of the city and Lars Grusser’s home and office.
“I suspect they’re bringing trouble, whoever they are,” Sapphire murmured.
Jade laughed. “Saff, honey, that’s Sweet. He was Boss of the Guild for years. They’re not bringing trouble; trouble’s bringing them.”