Londela knew something was wrong the moment she laid eyes on the Sunblossom Inn. It was a bright and shining day. The mountain air was crisp and thin, full of memories of the winter that still lingered on the world’s summits. The Inn was clean and quiet, a fairly typical state of affairs given the sparse traffic over the mountain in the early spring. Even the various birds and insects that called the high plains home could be heard singing their workaday songs.
But something was still wrong.
Londela shifted the pack on her shoulders and checked the haft of the spear she used as a walking stick. Rich folks loved to play with swords but Londela found that a nice long stick with a pointy bit on the end was ideal for fending off all sorts of aggressive beasts, be they animal, vegetable or mineral.
That left out spirits unfortunately, unless you had the coin to pay for an enchanted spear. If you had that sort of money though, then you probably weren’t working a job where you needed to worry about carrying one.
In Londela’s case she had an alternate strategy for dealing with spirits; she listened to them.
Gallagrin’s magic was focused on transformation, but the fundamentals of the pact bonds that Gallagrin’s elites drew on were built from simply listening to what the spirits had to say.
Not everyone had the knack for hearing spirits. Most people could learn to do so with a little practice but it was like listening to the screeching of a marsh full of insects at high summer – you knew what was out there, you could figure out what they wanted, and if they would just shut up you might be able to get a wink of sleep in.
Londela spent enough of her time on the road alone that the company of the spirits was generally a welcome thing. It meant paying more attention to where she went so that she wouldn’t tread on the spaces they claimed, or making the right offerings when she had no choice but to intrude. In return though, there were always people with her. Strange people, people who cared about things she couldn’t imagine being important, but people nonetheless.
Many of them had questioned her about forming a pact bond. Even little spirits could manage that if you worked out their proper names. Londela wasn’t interested in gaining magical power though. Pact bonded people lived the sort of lives that were shorter and more “interesting” than normal people from what Londela had seen and she didn’t need that variety of headache at all.
Her aversion to trouble nudged her back and away from the Sunblossom Inn. Nothing was wrong with it, but after a moment she was able to identify what wasn’t right either.
The spirits were focused.
Normally a bird spirit has the attention span of your average bird. The ones around the Sunblossom though weren’t flitting about. They were calling out, but in regular intervals, like sentries guarding a perimeter.
This wasn’t natural and it wasn’t Gallagrin magic either.
Londela wavered, hesitating between one footstep and the next.
She should go. She should run. There would be a waxing half moon in the sky once darkness fell. Plenty of light to see by. With enough speed, she could be over to the other side of the mountain before daybreak. She could rest at the next Inn along the trail.
But then she wouldn’t know what was happening at the Sunblossom.
Which could be an excellent thing to miss out on.
Unless someone was in trouble.
A vision of passing by on her return trip and finding the Inn a burned piled of rubble rose in her mind. All she would have would be questions, and a lingering sense of guilt.
She turned her steps toward the Sunblossom. As foolish as it was, she knew she’d feel terrible if she didn’t at least check out what was going on.
If it was bad, she could run then.
Sometimes bad things were big enough that no matter how fast you ran, they’d still catch you.
And sometimes by the time you noticed them, you were already in their clutches.
Londela couldn’t help but feel like that was the case already as she walked forward through the perimeter of guardian spirits.
“Looks like you’re right about us getting visitors today,” Gertrude said. The Innkeeper was waiting at the door and speaking to someone inside the building.
It wasn’t odd to find Gertrude outside the Inn. She ran the place with just a small handful of staff and had to keep on eye on a lot of different things from what Londela had observed on previous visits. Seeing Gertrude looking tense though was another matter.
Londela was on good terms with the Innkeeper. A smile between the two wasn’t out of the question even on rainy, miserable days. Gertrude only had a scowl to share though when she saw who Londela was.
“Everything all right?” Londela asked. Straight to the point worked best Gertrude.
“Nope. We’re all going to die,” Gertrude said.
Londela didn’t think she was being metaphorical but there didn’t seem to be any immediate danger either.
“Somebody come down with a plague?” Londela asked.
“Just about,” Gertrude said. “A plague of assassins, assuming I believe them.”
“A plague of what?” Londela asked.
“She should come inside for now,” a girl said.
Londela looked at the doorway Gertrude stood near and raised her eyebrows in an unspoken question. Gertrude shrugged in response and nodded her in.
No immediate threat within then, but probably something that Londela wouldn’t be happy with. The talons of a fate far larger than herself felt like they were closing in, so Londela stepped inside. If she’d found a mess of trouble, she wanted to know what it was so she could deal with it before it dealt with her.
“Did you say that you knew I was coming?” Londela asked as she stepped into the Inn and found a dwarven woman and two human girls waiting for her.
“We did,” Iana said. “We have an early warning system setup, not for you, but for the assassins who should be arriving here within a day or so.”
“I know I saw the spirits,” Londela said. “Why are assassins after you?”
“They want to start a war within Gallagrin,” Iana said. “Did you say you could see the spirits though?”
“A war in Gallagrin? Who are you?” Londela asked. She’d seen the effects of the last civil war, and traveled to the north during the rebuilding from the invasion of the year prior.
“That’s less important than how you can see the guardian spirits,” Iana said.
“Everyone can see them,” Londela said. “Everyone in Gallagrin at least. Most people just forget how.”
“I’ve never seen them,” Gertrude said.
“Ok, everyone can learn to see them. A lot of folks never bother to though,” Londela said.
“Is it difficult to learn?” Iana asked.
“Depends on the person,” Londela said. “If you want to bother the spirits, or make them work for you, they’ll sense that and try to avoid you. For that kind of person it’s really hard to hear what the spirits are saying because they’re only interested in hearing about what they want to hear about.”
“What’s the alternative to that?” Iana asked.
“Listening to what the spirits want to talk about,” Londela said. “Most people find it sort of boring to listen to the spirit of a Morninglight bird chitter about how amazing it was that the sun came up in the East this morning.”
“It doesn’t seem like you’d be able to learn much from them if that’s all they talk about,” Iana said.
“You were in the military, weren’t you?” Londela asked.
“Since I was born,” Iana said. “I resigned my commission last year though.”
“Commission?” Londela asked. “But you’re just a child? Aren’t you?”
“The Green Council has…or had, a different manner of handling their young,” Iana said.
“What did they do to you?” Londela asked, sickened at the notion that the Green Council made little kids fight their battles for them.
“Taught me a lot of things I probably shouldn’t know,” Iana said.
“Which makes you better than us?” Yuehne asked.
“No, I am definitely not better than you,” Iana said. “You only tried to kill one person.”
“What did you…?” Londela started to ask but Venita cut her off.
“That doesn’t matter,” she said. “What’s important here is whether the Shadowfolk will be able to see or hear the spirit’s that are supposed to keep us safe from them?”
“Shadowfolk?” Londela asked.
“Those are the assassins that we’re preparing for,” Iana said. “They can turn invisible and travel through shadows.”
“That’s…how do you fight that?” Londela asked.
“You take away their advantages,” Iana said. “The spirits are one part of that.”
“And if they can see the spirits?” Londela asked.
“Then we’ll have one fewer defense when they come to attack us,” Iana said.
“Except we won’t know that we can’t depend on that defense until it’s too late,” Yuehne said.
“You could always ask them,” Londela said.
“I thought they talked about pointless stuff?” Venita said.
“It’s not pointless,” she said. “Where the sun rises is the primary point in a Morninglight’s world.”
“I’m not seeing how that’s helpful to us,” Venita said.
“That’s because you just want to use the spirits, like they’re some kind of tool, or weapon that you can point at your enemy,” Londela said.
“Is that how they feel about the duty I’ve asked them to perform?” Iana said.
Her eyes had taken on a hardness to rival the toughest of Gallagrin’s many stones.
“I don’t know,” Londela said. “They were acting pretty strange, but they weren’t complaining about it.”
“Can you ask them?” Iana asked, her body rigid with a tension that Londela couldn’t understand.
“Sure,” she said. “Why though? I mean don’t you need them?”
“No. Not like that. Never like that.”
The young girl may have been a commissioned soldier and specially trained in all sorts of exotic skills by the Green Council but Londela couldn’t help but see the fracture lines that ran through her. Everyone was broken in some way or another, but sometimes damage was limited and other times it ran straight through to their heart. Unless Londela missed her guess, Iana had been shattered by an expert.
“I’ll ask then. What will you do if they do feel like they’ve been weaponized?” Londela asked.
“Free them,” Iana said. “No one fights who doesn’t chose to. Not for me. Not ever.”
“I don’t remember getting much a choice in the matter,” Gertrude said.
“I don’t recall saying you were going to be allowed anywhere near the battle,” Iana said. “We have safe rooms setup. Their whole point is to keep you and the other’s here from harm.”
“No one fights in my Inn without me saying something about it,” Gertrude said.
“If we have to give up the spirits, this won’t be the sort of fight that I can cover all of you for,” Iana said.
“I don’t need your cover,” Gertrude said. “What I need is an Inn that isn’t burnt to the ground, but I know I’m not going to get that, so I’ll take the next best thing.”
“Money?” Londela asked.
“I was thinking revenge, but you’re right, money’s better,” Gertrude said. “Think you could trade those Wind Steeds in for a new Inn?”
The last was directed to Venita who tried to speak but Iana cut her off.
“Survive this, and I promise on my name that you will have a new Inn, no matter the cost,” Iana said.
“A girl like you can say that?” Londela asked. “How much did they pay you in the Green Council.”
“She can say it,” Yuehne said. “She’s…”
“Well supported,” Iana said.
“Which explains why you’re here, being hunted by invisible assassins?” Londela asked.
“It explains why I’m here, hunting invisible assassins,” Iana said. “They don’t know that yet, and by the time they learn, it’ll be far too late for them to escape.”