Daloth Kinshield believed himself to be the most stalwart of the Faenirel. He’d done more than survive battles in the deepest darks of the Fire Chasms, he’d sought them out time and again. With tooth and claw, he’d beaten back demons of the lost ages that surface dwellers didn’t even have names for. His fur had been singed, scraped and ripped more times that he could count but he’d never flinched from the prospect of another battle.
Of course he’d never run face first into several hundred tons of Earth elemental at close range either.
It was a perfectly natural reaction to hiss in surprise and leap back thirty feet when the wall you were walking past came to life unexpectedly. The trembling in his arms and legs may have lacked the dignity a Faenirel was expected to exhibit, but the elders could bite their tails if they thought they could do any better.
Walls didn’t move, or at least they weren’t supposed to. Not on their own, and if they were moving it was usually a sign that something very bad was in the process of happening. Like an earthquake. Or a cave-in. Or an earthquake that was causing a cave-in.
None of those options involved the wall revealing wide rows of teeth though.
Nor people stepping out of the wall.
“Invaders!” Daloth cried. He may have been terrified beyond reason but that didn’t mean he was going to fail in the defense of his home.
“You know I really should have seen this coming,” a short woman in armor said.
Behind her, Daloth saw a dwarven woman bury her face in her palm.
“We’re not invaders!” the other, taller woman in armor said.
“Well, technically, we are,” the shorter woman said. “But we’re probably not hostile.”
She step forward and the armor flowed off of her in a shimmering sparkle of light. From her ears, Daloth saw she was an elf, from the crook of her smile, he saw she was trouble.
“Jyl Lafli, Subcommander of the Queen’s Guard of Gallagrin,” the shorter woman introduced herself. “We’re hoping you can tell us why someone stole one of our princesses.”
Daloth heard the rustle of approaching troops. This close to the family’s home there was no shortage of warriors on duty to respond to a call of invasion. Whether all of the warriors the family possessed would be enough to stop the enormous Earth elemental was something Daloth didn’t want to think about.
“We have no princesses here,” he said. “You are trespassing on our domain. You should leave, immediately.”
“There’s an argument that says you’re the ones trespassing since everything in and under Highcrest belongs to the Queen, but I’m willing to grant your claim’s more valid in practice,” Jyl said.
“Then leave,” Daloth said.
“We need our princess back first,” Jyl said.
“We don’t have any princesses here!” Daloth said, hearing his backup arrive.
“Unfortunately it seems that we do,” Che-chara, his sometimes paramour and sometimes rival said.
Daloth turned to see the seven Faenirel warriors who’d run to support him were escorting a young Faen who was in turn escorting two human girls.
“What, exactly, is going on here?” Daloth asked, fighting the urge to copy the dwarf and bury his face in his hand.
“That’s a great question,” Jyl said. “Here’s a better one, Iana are you ok?”
“How in the Green did you get her before us?” Iana asked.
“They came inside…” Daloth’s words died away. The Earth elemental was gone. No marks on the stone. No rumbling from its departure. It was just gone. Like it never existed.
Reflexively sheathing and unsheathing one’s claws was frowned on in Faenirel society. It was considered a highly aggressive display. In that moment though Daloth didn’t care. He was feeling highly aggressive and if someone presented themselves as needing a good scratch, or better yet and full on eye gouge, he would be more than happy to oblige.
“I’m going to take that as ‘yes, Jyl, giving you a heart attack was wonderful fun, but I’m fine and ready to come home where you can lock me in chains and throw away the key’.”
“Are we allowed to lock up a princess?” Pelay asked.
“We are if we don’t tell Dae or Queen Alari about it,” Jyl said, a flicker of malicious delight dancing in her eyes.
Daloth knew about the Gallagrin Queen. Or he’d heard of her at least. Feeling like he’d stepping the middle of a bizarre family quarrel, he cleared his throat.
“Giri, would you please explain what is going on here?” Daloth asked in as slow and non-homicidal of a voice as he could muster. It was neither that slow nor that lacking in homicidal menace.
“Shadowfolk,” Giri said. “They were being stalked by Shadowfolk.”
“I told you we hadn’t seen the last of them,” Che-chara said.
Daloth sighed and abandoned his resistance against blocking out the world with the palm of his hand.
“Shadowfolk?” Jyl asked.
“Yes, they are people, creatures really, who dwell in the Underlands,” Che-chara said. “Very dangerous.”
“I know what they are, I just didn’t think we had any living anywhere near Highcrest,” Jyl said. “The Butcher King wasn’t especially fond of them.”
“They are exceptionally difficult to eradicate,” Daloth said. “A fact I conceded at the time you may recall.”
He directed the last comment to Che-chara to remind her that he’d been in favor of pursuing the last group of Shadowfold they’d encountered and he’d been overruled for a trivial reason like the potentially mortal wound he’d taken in the battle against them. It hadn’t really been that bad. He’d survive it after all and that had only taken three weeks of bed rest.
“That sounds like all the more reason for us to take our princess and get out of your domain,” Jyl said.
“I can’t do that,” Iana said.
“Of course you can’t,” Jyl moaned.”Because nothing is ever allowed to be simple.”
Despite the fact that elf had broken into his home and lacked all manner of proper decorum, Daloth found himself warming to her. They shared a bond of similar frustration if nothing else.
“Perhaps we can put away our claws and blades and move this somewhere that we can talk about it like civilized Faens?” Che-chara suggested.
“That sounds like an excellent plan,” Daloth said. “And perhaps Giri can go and invite Keeper Qui-kel to join us. I’m sure she’ll want to hear that the Shadowfolk have returned.”
Daloth watched Giri’s ears and tail droop at the suggestion. Interrupting Keeper Qui-kel during meditation hours wasn’t fun when you were bringing the best of news and the return of the Shadowfolk was about as far from the best of news as it was possible to get.
To her credit though, Giri departed without an argument, probably mindful of the scolding she was due for bringing a pair of outsiders into their domain without permission.
Che-chara led the warriors and the intruders down a winding path to a small cavern. That it happened to be the room they used as a jail for rule breaking Faen or captured enemies didn’t seem to be lost on the Queen’s Guards or the dwarf but the adults didn’t offer any protest or hesitate to take their assigned seats.
Daloth felt a stab of misgiving cut through him as he evaluated their calm faces. Dwarves were often calm in his experience, but Elves and Humans tended to object when you locked them up. He glanced at Che-chara and from her nod saw that she’d arrived at the same conclusion he had. They weren’t protesting because they didn’t think the Faen could hold them.
Daloth considered the Earth elemental and wondered if they were necessarily wrong in that belief.
“We should wait for Giri and Keeper Qui-kel before we begin any discussion,” Che-chara said, slipping into the chair to the left of the one the Keeper would sit in.
Daloth took chair to the Keeper’s right, judging himself the equal of anyone who was not a Keeper. It was a rude gesture towards the intruders, and one their leader seemed to understand from how she questioned him with a raised eyebrow. He stared back at her, no humor or mirth brightening his face.
“Agreed,” Jyl said and took the chair farthest from the Keeper’s, gesturing for her two companions to sit beside her in the other seats of low precedence.
The princess and the other girl took their seats beside Pelay, occupying an in-between realm which bordered both the Faenirel and the surface dwellers.
Daloth leaned back in his chair and smiled. From his experience with surface dwellers it would only be a matter of time, minutes at the most, before they would start talking and offer the sort of insult that Che-chara would answer with violence. She was sensible and reserved most of the time, but he’d seen her hair trigger temper slip once too often to mistake her for harmless like so many of their guests had.
To amuse himself he tried to decide who in the intruders party would be the one to provoke Che-chara’s rage, by trying to start a discussion ahead of time.
Not the Subcommander, Jyl. She was reclining in her chair, wearing a smile that matched his own. No blades were drawn but neither of them was under the delusion that the situation was anything other than a battle. If blades were drawn, she would be the first one Daloth would go for. It would be a bloody exchange but the last time a surface dweller’s reflexes exceeded Daloth’s was never, so he was confident he’d at least survive it.
Pelay, the other knight, was holding her tongue as well, and was looking to Jyl so often that Daloth was sure she wouldn’t speak before she was spoken to either.
The dwarven woman could probably be provoked into speaking, but that didn’t strike Daloth as a wise move. Angry dwarves were one of the last thing you want to fight in the underlands. Even if you won one battle, the inevitable war that followed tended to be announced by cave-ins that buried entire families in eternal tombs of stone.
Even the damn children were preternaturally silent. The one called Iana sat at attention, her gaze focused on a point in the middle distance, her thoughts entirely unreadable behind the frowning mask that she called a face.
The other one was similarly silent, though her face betrayed some bone deep terror that Daloth couldn’t begin to guess the cause of.
It was ten minutes before Keeper Qui-kel returned with Giri in tow, by which time Daloth’s smile had soured to a frown and Jyl’s had faded to a mildly amused ripple of her lips.
“Hello intruders,” Qui-kel said. “You brought Shadowfolk to our domain.”
“Hello Keeper,” Jyl said. “You stole our princess.”
“Giri says she came willing,” Qui-kel said.
“And why would she do that?” Jyl asked.
“Because they know about the Shadowfolk,” Iana said. “And while the Shadowfolk are bad at killing me, I wasn’t willing to wager they’d hold back that much when it came to killing Yuehne.”
“So, you figured to going down into the deepest hole you could find, following someone you just met was the wisest course of action available?” Jyl asked.
“I knew you were with us,” Iana said. “And, yes, it was the wisest course of action. When else would I have been able to meet the Faenirel?”
“You see how happy they are to make your acquaintance,” Jyl said.
“What I’m most displeased with is a return of the Shadowfolk and our being involved in it,” Qui-kel said.
“You’ve dealt with them before?” Jyl asked.
“We survived them,” Qui-kel said, an assessment which Daloth felt undervalued his contribution to the battles against them tremendously.
“I only know of them,” Jyl said. “I didn’t think any lived near Highcrest anymore.”
“That’s what we thought too,” Qui-kel said. “Kind of hate that we thought wrong.”
“So, basically, mistakes were made,” Jyl said. “In the interest of not making anymore, and in light of your experience in the matter, what do you want to do next, and how can we help?”
“Why would you help us?” Daloth asked.
“The Queen’s protection extends to everyone in Gallagrin,” Jyl said. “Pelay and I are sworn to her and by extension also sworn to those she protects.”
“We’ve never bent a knee to your queen and we never will,” Qui-kel said.
“No reason that you have to,” Jyl said. “You’ve protected us from the less pleasant things that lurk down here. You’re at the very least neighbors we owe a debt to, and that’s assuming you don’t wish to claim your rights as citizens of the realm.”
“Is she serious?” Qui-kel asked.
“I think so,” Pelay said.
“The new queen does seem to be the sort to say that kind of thing,” Brenn, the dwarven woman, said.
“Well good then, you can help us move,” Qui-kel said.
“What!” Daloth hadn’t imagined the Keeper would take a rumor of Shadowfolk sighting that seriously. Yes, they’d lost over twenty Faen the last time they’d warred with the Shadowfolk but that didn’t mean they would fare so poorly again.
“We’re moving. All of us. Our guests included,” Qui-kel said. “If the Shadowfolk are operating anywhere near here then they have our location discovered and mapped already. We need to get outside their sphere of influence, or, failing that, get setup somewhere that we can catch their initial scouting parties.”
“Are they that bad?” Jyl asked.
“Well, from the smell, I’d say there are two of them in the room with us now and no one’s noticed them yet,” Qui-kel said.