Che-chara was out of her seat before Keeper Qui-kel finished her warning. It wasn’t fast enough to avoid the attack from the Shadowfolk but as usual she didn’t have to.
“And I guess that answers the question of whether they’re still hostile.”
Qui-kel was an elder among the Faenirel. By rights that should have meant that her reflexes were slowing with age. If that was true though, then the reflexes she had when she was younger would have put the gods themselves to shame.
In one paw, she held the wrist of the Shadowfolk who tried to attack Daloth. In the other hand paw, she held the throat of the Shadowfolk who tried to attack Che-chara.
“We should…” the elf woman Jyl started to say.
The Shadowfolk tried to twist out of Qui-kel’s grasp. To resume their attack. They lost blood, and maybe a throat. And then they were gone.
“…not kill them.” Jyl finished with a sigh.
“You can’t talk to them,” Qui-kel said. “And apparently you have to kill them faster that I could.”
“Or keep them in bright light, right?” Jyl said.
“What would that do?” Daloth asked.
“Block their ability to teleport. It only works shadow to shadow,” Jyl said. “Or at least that’s the rumor I heard.”
“Might be true,” Qui-kel said. “Never caught one in a fully lit area though.”
“Can they even go into a place like that?” Pelay asked.
“Maybe not, but that’s what traps are for,” Jyl said. “Something you’d think they’d consider before launching unprovoked attacks.”
Che-chara noticed both Jyl and Pelay were in their armored forms,and both had moved from their seats to flank either side of the girl named Iana. She wasn’t sure when that had happened, which was almost as scary as Qui-kel’s inexplicable reflexes.
“Lots of options for dealing with traps,” Qui-kel said. “Quick as they are, ‘kill the people who set the trap’ is probably a viable option for them most of the time. Which is why we’re leaving.”
“They’ve lost blood,” Daloth said. ”They won’t forgive that easily. We had to kill how many of them the last time before they gave up. And apparently even that wasn’t enough to keep them away forever.”
“We’ll be more convincing this time,” Qui-kel said as she rose from her chair.
“You said ‘all of us’, if you mean to include Pelay, Brenn, Iana and myself in that, we request to impose on your most gracious hospitality, so long as we place no burden on your family’s honor, until this crisis is resolved,” Jyl said.
Che-chara turned to look slowly at the surface dweller. Those were very particular words she’d spoken. Words that only another Faenirel should have known.
The room went eerily quiet for a moment as Keeper Qui-kel regarded the elven woman.
“Who’s cub are you?” she asked, in a low, quiet voice.
“I have no place among the Faen,” Jyl said. “I claim no benefit of family or kin, but I have been received by the Kuindai family of the Fallen Archives.”
“You are a friend of the Lore Keepers?” Qui-kel asked. “Why don’t you claim their friendship? Did you dishonor their hospitality?”
“We parted in joy,” Jyl said. “But I was not with them long enough to to put in a claim of friendship or family.”
“Why did you leave after so little time?” Qui-kel asked.
“I was an Adventurer once,” Jyl said. “I needed an answer from their tomes and they needed a cavern complex cleared of lava beasts.”
“You fought lava beasts? How strong is that armor you wear?” Che-chara asked.
“Oh, I didn’t have a Pact Spirit then,” Jyl said. “That’s what I needed their tomes for.”
Che-chara knew that Adventurers from the surface had the reputation for lacking in basic self-preservation instincts but fighting lava beasts without armor seemed reckless beyond what even a fool like Daloth would attempt.
“With so little contact, I am surprised you learned to request hospitality properly,” Qui-kel said.
“I…extended my stay with the Kuindai,” Jyl said. It wasn’t possible to blush through armor but the elf sounded like she might give it a try.
Qui-kel rolled her eyes and sighed.
“Olo-ven,” she said, as though the name could be assigned the blame for any number of vexing incidents.
“Was a very accommodating host,” Jyl said.
“Yes, she is” Qui-kel said. “I recall. Well, in any case, yes, I invite you and yours to enjoy my family’s hospitality until this crisis is past, or you place a burden on our honor.”
“Yuehne too,” Iana said. “You didn’t mention her but she has to come with us.”
“That will be…” Qui-kel started to say, but Jyl cut her off.
“Wait, before that’s agreed to, she is the assassin who was sent to kill you, isn’t she?” Jyl asked.
Che-chara turned to look at the other human girl. She had been exceptionally quiet through the whole proceeding. At least verbally. Her body language screamed about the whirlwind of thoughts that roared with her, but from her build and the natural readiness in her posture, Che-chara believed the girl could be a trained killer.
“That’s not important,” Iana said.
“We cannot offer hospitality to anyone who intends malice to those already under our hospitality,” Qui-kel said.
“She’s not going to hurt me, or anyone else,” Iana said.
“You can’t actually know that,” Jyl said. “Whatever she’s told you is filtered through the lens of a defeated assassin. She could be willing to say anything to get you to leave another opening for her to strike through.”
“I told her I was going to kill her,” Yuehne said.
“She’s an honest assassin at least,” Brenn, the dwarven woman said.
“It’s not going to be a problem,” Iana said.
Behind Iana, Jyl gave a cringing shrug and a look of understanding passed between her and Keeper Qui-kel. Che-chara was only rarely tasked with looking after the family’s young and she considered it a miracle from the gods that she hadn’t bitten one or more of their heads off. Yet.
“Perhaps the assassin’s target could offer her bond against the assassin’s behavior?” Che-chara suggested. It was a ridiculous idea, but ridiculous seemed to be the order of business for the day.
“Absolutely,” Iana said.
“Absolutely not,” Jyl said. “I will offer a bond for Yuehne’s behavior, since of the two of us, I am the one who knows what that means.”
“Do you?” Qui-kel asked.
“I believe I do,” Jyl said. “With my bond, I pledge that Yuehne will not violate the terms of your hospitality and if she does the dishonor from that breech will not fall on you, but will rest entirely with me.”
“That doesn’t sound that bad,” Iana said.
“The punishment for dishonor of that magnitude that is death,” Jyl said.
“Death is one of the punishments,” Qui-kel said. “The rest are no less severe though.”
“I can’t let you do that for me,” Iana said.
“You can’t do it for yourself,” Jyl said. “If you die, there would be no one to suffer for the dishonor of your being killed.”
“In dying she would take the dishonor with her,” Qui-kel said. “But as she is still a cub, and as you are her guardian, it is more fitting that your bond be given.”
“Thank you Keeper Qui-kel,” Jyl said and bowed without taking her eyes off the Keeper.
Whatever else Ol-ven had shared with the elven woman, she’d been careful to teach her proper manners too. Che-chara purred to herself. The elf was still an outsider and a surface dweller but she had respect for the Faen and that was too rarely found outside of the families.
At Che-chara’s side, Daloth relaxed, perhaps sensing her happiness or perhaps because of the general lessening of animosity in the room.
“So where are we going to go?” Daloth asked.
“The only place we can go,” Qui-kel said. “Into the light.”
Hobgoblins of fear sunk their claws into Che-chara’s arms and legs.
“You don’t mean we’re going to leave the Underlands do you?” she asked.
“We must pass beyond the reach and sight of the Shadowfolk,” Qui-kel said. “The Underlands are many things but free of shadows is not one of them.”
“But to go to the surface?” Che-chara asked.
“We’ll have more resources to help you there,” Pelay said.
“And we can drop Brenn off,” Jyl said. “She was only conscripted into this as an impromptu guide.”
“That’s not strictly accurate,” Brenn said. “First I volunteered and second, Keeper Qui-kel said we’re all leaving and I believe she hass a very particular reason for that.”
“You’ve dealt with the Shadowfolk before?” Qui-kel asked.
“Not personally, but my family passes down stories about them too,” Brenn said. “They fight pretty dirty, and they don’t tend to leave their enemies alive for very long.”
“You haven’t done anything to them though,” Jyl said.
“Two of them saw me with you,” Brenn said. “And, to be honest, my family has stories about them because we’ve never exactly gotten along. There’s probably two or three vendetta’s I should be pursuing against them.”
“Two or three?” Iana asked.
“My family collects vendettas like other people collect paintings or sculpture. It’s hard to keep track of them all,” Brenn said.
“Thanehammer clan?” Jyl asked.
“That’s us,” Brenn said.
“Who are the Thanhammers?” Iana asked.
“They’re one of the larger dwarven clans in Gallagrin,” Jyl said. “People often mistake their customs for the typical nature of dwarves, something which doesn’t please the other clans all that much from what I’ve gathered.”
“Or those of us in the clan who…differ in view from the elders,” Brenn said.
“Then we shall all depart, immediately,” Qui-kel said.
“What if there are other Shadowfolk in your domain?” Brenn asked.
“There aren’t,” Pelay said. “I didn’t know what the odor was until the Shadowfolk appeared, but I know when the two we just saw joined us, and I can’t smell any other traces of them.”
“You can smell them?” Daloth asked.
“Yes, can’t you?” Pelay asked.
“Daloth’s nearly nose-blind,” Che-chara said. “I have no such excuse though.”
“I am not noseblind,” Daloth said. “I just don’t focus on such imprecise information as that.”
“You almost died in the fire pits five times,” Che-chara said. “It’s a miracle you can still smell at all.”
“Send word to the family,” Qui-kel said to Che-chara. “I want an invisible departure. Take nothing that isn’t irreplaceable. Tell our people to pause in mid-meal, or with whatever task they are working on undone. Leave traces that we have moved in every direction and none. I want the Shadowfolk to search this domain from top to bottom. Oh and leave a few surprises for them.”
Looting an abandoned Faenirel stronghold was a perilous prospect for many reasons, not the least of which being that an empty Faenirel home was a warren of automated death which came from every direction.
“If they can follow us from the shadows, how are we going to leave the Shadowfolk behind?” Iana asked.
“We need to find the brightest spaces we can, and when they’re not looking, vanish ourselves into shadows they will never think to check,” Qui-kel said. “Then we can begin crafting the right mechanisms to combat them.”
“Is that how you fought them before?” Brenn asked.
“Yes,” Qui-kel said. “We thought that with the security we designed for this domain that we’d be able to use it as a permanent refuge. Instead it will be the our answer to their first strike in renewing aggressions between the two of us.”
“We’ll make it count Keeper,” Che-chara said.
She took charge of organizing the family from there, spurring them all into the unthinkable yet well-practiced action of abandoning their home and living life on the run again.
No one was happy with the disruption, but enough were familiar with the family’s last war against the Shadowfolk to treat the matter with the urgency it deserved.
A while later, as they rose towards the surface, Che-chara thought to question Jyl on the support they could expect.
“Can the surface dwellers really do anything for us?” she asked.
“We’re limited by a lot of the same things that limit you,” Jyl said. “But we do a few tricks which you lack, and the Shadowfolk may not be expecting those.”
“What surprise could throw them off our path though? They’ve scented our blood, they can follow that anywhere can’t they?” Che-chara asked.
“They can follow us on the ground, but I imagine this will give them some trouble,” Jyl said, helping Che-chara up out of the sewer.
They’d arrived at a wide, open field, but in place of grass there were several slabs of poured concrete. On the smoothly constructed field, a dozen sky carriages of varying size awaited them.
They weren’t going to flee from the Shadowfolk, they were going to fly from them!