Monthly Archives: January 2017

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 17 – Misdirections

Tonel had been to the sight of many botched missions. He hated going to them. Things were always messy and it kindled a special kind of rage in his heart to see how incompetent his underlings were. For the case before him though he’d trekked out to a remote mountain inn to act as the Chief Inspector he’d once been.

Since Tonel’s promotion to the ranks of  Elder of the Shadowfolk, he was no longer required to personally inspect the aftermath of the assignments he gave but with everything that had gone wrong with the simple scheme against Gallagrin’s senior princess, he wasn’t willing to trust anyone else to evaluate the outcome of the job correctly.

“The fire was recent sir,” Kongrave, Tonel’s principal assistant said.

Tonel gritted his teeth.

“Yes, that’s obvious.” He kicked a pile of still glowing wood that had fallen outside the inn, probably as part of the collapse that consumed the roof.

The walls of the Sunblossom Inn weren’t exactly standing anymore. There was enough left of them to do an impression of a set of building walls but few of them rose above shoulder height any longer. From what Tonel could see from the outside, the structure had been completely gutted and from the remaining heat it was clear that the flames had abated only recently, likely due to the rain storm that had swept over the mountain in the pre-dawn hours.

The stench of smoke had been spread far and wide by the mountain winds, but the still glowing embers made it clear that the devastation had been centered on the building and those within it.

“Have you found bodies yet?” Tonel spat the words out, trying to resist the urge to strangle Kongrave and the rest of the incompetents that he’d brought.

“Yes, or the remains of them,” Kongrave said. “With the fire there was a lot of damage done.”

“So you haven’t been able to identify who they were?” Tonel asked.

“Not yet sir, we’re being careful about disturbing them, or the site in general,” Kongrave said.

Tonel’s fists clutched hard enough to fade his knuckles to a pale powder blue. He couldn’t fault his minions for being careful. He had ordered them to take extreme care. Doing so at the expense of time was a luxury they didn’t have.

“Have you secured the site?” Tonel asked.

“We have Elder,” Kongrave said. “No on who was inside survived the fire.”

“And the outside perimeter?” Tonel asked.

“Swept clean. There are no living creatures within a bowshot of the inn,” Kongrave said.

That seemed wrong to Tonel but he dismissed it as irrelevant. The lack of witnesses made for the perfect scene, and it was time for at least one thing to go in their favor.

“Then I will inspect the bodies,” Tonel said and strode forward towards the remains of the Sunblossom Inn.

“The building’s structural stability has not been fully evaluated yet though Elder,” Kongrave said.

“Then evaluate it!” Tonel said, halting his steps. It wouldn’t do for him to be injured in any further collapse of the inn. That was what subordinates were for. “We have to make sure the scene is arranged properly with the right evidence displayed to make the reports our existence seem too far fetched to be believable.”

“There is a complication there Elder,” Kongrave said.

Tonel emitted a wheezing growl. Of course there was a complication. The Blessed Realms hated him, personally, and existed for no other reason than to act as his own private hell.

“What. Has. Gone. Wrong. Now.” Tonel wanted to incinerate Kongrave with his gaze but the assistant refused to play along and catch on fire.

“Koblani and Pergrez were caught in the building when it burned,” Kongrave said. “We believe we’ve found their corpses.”

“Those two fools,” Tonel said. “They couldn’t carry out a simple mission to kill one young girl? We’re well rid of them.”

“Our problems are deeper than the loss of two of our assassins,” Kongrave said. “They burned with the building, and their corpses are a part of the wreckage.”

“They didn’t retreat to the shadows? They died in the sunlight world?” Tonel asked.

It was an unthinkable breech of tactical doctrine. Even in situations where the trip to the dark worlds was definitely suicidal, every one of the Shadowfolk were expected to take their final leap there rather than dying where they could be discovered by one of the sunlight races.

“It seems so, Elder,” Kongrave said.

“How whole are they? Are their ashes mixed in with the others?” Tonel asked. It had never occurred to him that the mission could go this disastrously bad. Even Miaza and Shippo hadn’t bumbled things that to that extent. They’d had the sense to flee to the deep realms the moment they were discovered. One might never speak again and the other might be lost in the shadows but, like all good Shadowfolk, neither had left permanent evidence behind of their existence.

“They’re mostly intact, it’s how we were able to identify them so easily,” Kongrave said.

Kongrave and his team had been at work on the Inn for a half hour. Easy tasks should have taken thirty seconds or less, not thirty minutes.

“Move,” Tonel said as he broke into a run, casting aside the shadows that were concealing him.

They’d wasted thirty minutes on reviewing the scene. They had no more than another thirty before one of the sunlight people became aware of what occurred over the course of the night at the Inn. In that time, Tonel had to make certain that Princess Iana was one of the bodies present, arrange things to indicate that the assassins had been human and, somehow, remove any traces of two dead Shadowfolk who were currently returning to room temperature after being cooked in a giant burning oven for hours.

It wasn’t possible.

Tonel knew that. He’d “tidied” up botched murder scenes before. There was no chance that they could rid the Sunblossom Inn of all traces of the Shadowfolk’s presence in that little time.

For a lot of assassinations, perfect removal wouldn’t have been needed. People were remarkably eager to contaminate places where they discovered dead people. Also, even for noble murder victims, the survivors wouldn’t necessarily go to that much effort to determine who was responsible as long as they had a likely candidate to pin the blame on.

The greatest gift to those who wanted to get away with murder was the willingness of people to accept convenient fictions as facts.

The problem Tonel faced was that he wasn’t dealing with a normal murder scene. Or fooling a normal investigation.

The queen wasn’t going to casually overlook any details that would point to the true culprits. Not when she already had the name “Shadowfolks” on her lips.

Tonel remembered Sathe, the Butcher King. The monarch who’d waged a personal vendetta against the Shadowfolk, to the point where he drove them closer to extinction than the Sleeping Gods had. His daughter sat on the throne, which meant his blood still ruled Gallagrin. The Shadowfolk would never forget that, and that was the perfect resource for retaining, in Tonel’s eyes. For all of the terrible things Sathe had done, Tonel had learned a lot from the Butcher King. Hate was the most seductive tool in a ruler’s arsenal, followed closely by ruthlessness.

“Fetch me the two slowest of your assistants,” Tonel said.

Wasting resources was disagreeable, but sometimes necessary. The scheme to sow chaos and strife in Gallagrin had been Tonel’s but it’s failure was in no sense attributable to him. At least in Tonel’s eyes. With the loss of Koblani and Pergrez, the Shadowfolk were down four, or possibly six of their trained operatives, if Wynni and Gendaw ere lost too. Wasting two more lives wasn’t going to bring the others back, but it might ensure that future losses were prevented. Most especially the future loss of Tonel’s place as one of the Elders.

“Hulnin and I are the two slowest inspectors, sir,” Kongrave said, calling one of the other inspectors over.

“Good. That will make this simple,” Tonel said.

And then he stabbed them both.

There was a glimmer of shocked betrayal that passed over Kongrave’s features as the life faded from his eyes, followed by a weary resignation, as though he had always known this would be his fate.

The fool should have done something about it, if he knew he was destined for this, Tonel thought, remorse entirely absent from his emotional landscape. The other inspector, Hulnin, had the grace to simply die instantly, a feat which insured that Tonel didn’t think about him at all.

“Elder?” Pilial, one of the other inspectors asked, apparently unable to form a more coherent question.

“This is price for poor performance. It’s what poor performance does. Not just to them, but to our entire race,” Tonel said, his words ringing with contempt for the fallen. “They weren’t performing. They just weren’t performing. So they had to go. But now we can move on.”

“What are we supposed to do, Elder?” Pilial asked.

“Burn them,” Tonel said. “Burn them to ash.”

“Why?” Pilial asked and Tonel wondered about the value of burning five Shadowfolk rather than just four.

“Because we can’t clear all trace of the first two who fell here, so we’re going to use these two to help obfuscate what occurred.”

“I don’t understand Elder,” Pilial said. “We were just cleaning up Wynni and Pergrez’s corpses. Should we stop doing that?”

“Yes,” Tonel’s rage hissed out of him. The plan was so simple. Why could these people see what he was asking and just make it happen. “Burn all of the bodies together in quickfire and the collect the ashes.”

“Understood, Elder,” Pilial said and scampered off to perform his task.

The Queen was going to come to the inn, or she would send her best staff. They would see what happened and want answers. Tonel had to make sure that they found the answers he needed them too and overlooked the clues towards what really happened as inexplicable oddities.

Burning the four Shadowfolk bodies would provide enough ash to spread a thin dusting of their remains all around the inn’s remaining structure, outer yard and the surrounding forest. Since that was not at all the pattern a dead body left, any traces of the Shadowfolk that were found in the building would be taken as more of the odd residue that covered the site.

Tonel wished he could do more to disguise their presence, but under the time constraints predicted by his tacticians, some sacrifices had to be made.

Simply throwing the trail away from the Shadowfolk wasn’t going to be enough though. The only thing that would get the queen to stop looking for them was if she had someone better to question. Someone she already had reason to suspect and someone who had the means and motive to attack the throne in such a roundabout fashion.

Gallagrin’s nobles were nothing if not accommodating in that regards.

Over a year after the last failed coup attempt, and the invasion of Gallagrin by forces from the Green Council, the nobles of Gallagin were still a contentious lot. Few spoke of rebelling anymore, and on the surface there appeared to be a growing peace between the disparate houses, but old tensions and hatreds ran deep.

Just because the world seemed to be improving didn’t mean it lacked the old animosities that Tonel could profit from exploiting.

It came down to little more than a handful of silver coins. That was all Tonel needed to cast the blame onto the right noble house to receive it. No grand notes spelling out their name, no deathbed confessions from the murders. Those made for great theater but were ultimately too dramatic for someone like the queen to be taken in by the lie.

A handful of silver though? Tonel needed no more than to wet a blade in still warm blood from the princess’s corpse and burn both the blade and the bag which contained the silver enough so they appeared to have been in the fire when it occurred. The queen would have to ask herself why a payment from one of her nobles was found near the remains of her adopted daughter, and from there all of the pieces for another civil war would fall into place on their own.

There would be more work to do, but once the war fever was stoked in the queen’s heart, the Shadowfolk would be forgotten and Gallagrin could get on with the business of destroying itself like it was supposed to.

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 16 – Visitors Expected and Unexpected

Oline help Daggrel carry the incapacitated Shadowfolk into the main room of the Sunblossom. Neither was conscious, which was a blessing from the look of the injuries they’d received. It also made it easier to handle them without losing her composure.

Like Daggrel, Oline hadn’t fully believed in the idea of invisible assassins targeting their little inn. They were too distant, too small, and too unimportant for something exciting like that to happen. Unlike Daggrel though, Oline fully believed the girl Iana was in some form of peril. Even accounting for Iana’s foreign nature, Oline was too familiar with what serious worry about physical danger looked like.

Like Iana, Oline had fled to the safeness of a remote mountain inn, though it hadn’t been assassins that pursued her. Her own family had driven her out after she rejected the brute of a husband they selected for her. She’d spent a years after arriving at the Sunblossom watching the shadows around the inn just like Iana had.

Unlike Iana though, Oline’s demons hadn’t caught up with her and in time she’d let herself believe that they probably wouldn’t.

Carrying the smaller of the two Shadowfolk into the inn brought some of those old fears boiling back to the surface, but it was the appearance of the Shadowfolk that threw Oline off the most.

Their blue skin was similar enough to some of the giants that infrequently passed through that Oline wasn’t surprised by it, but the intricate network of scars across the woman’s face, hands and neck were unsettling. In Oline’s mind it spoke to years of constant torture and abuse, but there was a deliberate artistry to the scars that suggested the scars were intentionally born instead of casually inflicted.

Worse than the scars though was the lack of eyes. The empty sockets didn’t show signs of damage from the fight, so Oline didn’t think she was looking at recent wounds. The more she gazed at them more she wondered if they were even wounds at all. It looked like it was the natural state for Shadowfolk to not have sensory organs where most humanoids kept their eyes, but their absence was still disturbing.

“I can’t believe these things are real,” Daggrel said.

“We’re just lucky that girl is for real too,” Oline said. “I thought she was just being hopeful that she could handle these things.”

“I was,” Iana said, carrying in the larger of the two Shadowfolk with Venita’s help.

Oline saw that they’d splinted the man’s leg and wrapped the wound to his shoulder in bandages. Given the Shadowfolk’s intentions and capabilities, Oline was surprised at the care Iana was taking with them. The ropes that bound the assassins were strong ones and the knots well tied, but even that didn’t leave Oline with the feeling that they were harmless.

“You seemed pretty capable from what I could see,” Daggrel said, and Oline could hear both the admiration and the wounded pride in her friends words.

“That wasn’t all me,” Iana said. “They were both caught in the traps we’d laid out, and the spirits around here helped too.”

“They’ll want some extra offerings for that,” Londela said. “Interacting with the physical world is tiring even for the strongest of them.”

“I’ll be happy to throw them a grand feast,” Iana said. “Or at least as grand as Gertrude can manage with the supplies she has on hand.”

“Does that mean it’s safe now?” Gertrude asked, entering the main room from the kitchen.

Oline looked at the bound Shadowfolk. Even if they were feigning unconsciousness there wasn’t much they could do and if they tried, she’d be happy to stab them before they could get loose.

“Safety is never quite what it seems.”

Oline whirled to find a third and fourth Shadowfolk in the room. The woman had a knife blade held lightly against Iana’s throat while the other was pointing a strange wrist mounted crossbow type device at the rest of the room.

“You bypassed the wards, I’m impressed,” Iana said, holding very still.

“Yes, and before you do anything extreme about that, you’re going to listen to me,” Wynni said.

“And you’re going to listen to me,” Yuehne appeared holding a serving knife against Wynni’s throat just as Wynni held one against Iana’s.

Where the other human girl came from, Oline had no idea. To be fair, Oline’s attention was riveted on the man pointing the unusual weapon at her, so the rest of the world had narrowed away a bit but Yuehne had still moved with significant care.

Or she’d been hiding there from the beginning, waiting to strike. Who she was waiting to strike was unclear but she had a definitely acquired a target before speaking.

“Well this is a nice feeling,” Iana said, visibly relaxing despite the two assassins with knives at her back.

“Was what she said true?” Yuehne asked. “Were you the supporters who cleared the path for me to get to her?”

“That would be complicated to speak about,” Wynni said.

“I know you’re pressed for time,” Iana said, “But Yuehne’s had a pretty bad few days and has been in a stabbing mood since I met her, so maybe just give her a straight answer there for all our sakes?”

Yuehne pressed her knife in closer to Wynni’s neck.

“Yes, yes, I know she has a good point, if you’re going to pipe up save it for useful advice!” Wynni seemed to be speaking to a Shadowfolk who hadn’t yet appeared. Oline imagined them surrounded by dozens of the terrifying creatures but held off her panic with the observation that if more Shadowfolk were in the room then Yuehne would have someone holding a knife at her throat too.

“Who are you talking to?” Yuehne asked.

“An annoying progenitor,” Wynni said. “And in answer to your question, yes, we did support your attempt on the princess’s life, no, it was not me personally, yes, I know who did, and no, you won’t be able to reach them.”

“You used us! You’re a worse threat to Gallagrin than she is! Why shouldn’t I end you here and now and improve  all our lives?” Yuehne asked.

“Because unless I’m mistaken, they’re here to save us,” Iana said.

Oline blinked. It was an odd claim to make while being held at the edge of a knife. And had the Shadowfolk said something about a princess?

“You are not mistaken,” Wynnni said and moved her knife gently away from Iana’s throat. “And since you’re aware of that, I’m trusting you won’t find the need to do to us what you did to them?”

“The day’s just beginning,” Iana said. “So let’s not rule out our options too soon.”

“You believe her?” Yuehne asked. “Of course you do! You’ve dragged me along on this, we’re, what, your private assassin army?”

“Oh you don’t want me to have one of those,” Iana said. “Even I would trust me with that.”

“What in the Sleeping God’s Sulfurous Farts is going on here?” Gertrude demanded. She’d found a torch from somewhere and was holding it at her side like she was ready to start swinging until things started making sense.

“Our apologies innkeeper,” Wynni said. “There is a very dangerous contingent of my people who are, at the moment, overly focused on ending the princess’s life.”

“And who’s the princess?” Gertrude asked.

“I am,” Iana said. “Queen Alari adopted me last year.”

“Princess?” Oline asked, stunned at the thought that she’d been serving royalty for days and treating her like a normal girl.

“Yes?” Iana said, and Oline felt a thousand scattered observations click into place. Iana was young but she had a degree of self-possession and self-awareness that Oline hadn’t managed to master despite having decades more experience.

“What’s going to happen to us?” Oline asked.

“No, I’m not going to tell them that!” Wynni said.

“Tell us what?” Venita asked.

“My progenitor wanted me to tell you that we’re all going to die. He thought it would be funny for being true,” Wynni said. “What he would be leaving out is the part where we appear to die and then get away to plan our strategy somewhere else.”

“I’d trust this progenitor more if I could see him too. Tell him to come out of the shadows, would you?” Daggrel asked.

“He can’t do that,” Gendaw, the other Shadowfolk assassin said. “He’s only speaking to Wynni at the moment.”

“So she’s hearing voices?” Daggrel asked.

“I know how that sounds, but this one’s real enough,” Gendaw said. “He can tell her things she can’t know on her own.”

“I have to confess, I don’t really care why you decided not to kill me, I’m more interested in what you think comes next,” Iana said. “I’m also mildly curious how you got in here.”

“That’s thanks to Silian,” Wynni said. “Turns out he’s occasionally good for something.”

“Who’s Silian?” Yuehne asked, her knife still at Wynni’s neck.

“He’s the annoying progenitor I’ve been talking to,” Wynni said. “He saved my species when the gods tried to purge us from the world.”

“How did he do that?” Daggrel asked.

“He hid from them,” Gendaw said. “It’s what we do.”

“But if he was alone…” Oline started to ask.

“Yes! Thank you! That was my point exactly!” Wynni said.

“I think the important thing is that if he could hide from the gods, and hide well enough to get you in here undetected, he should be able to help us hide too shouldn’t he?” Iana asked.

“That’s the plan,” Wynni said.

“Why?” Iana asked. “I understand why the Shadowfolk have been trying to interfere in Gallagrin’s politics. Killing me is even a sensible path to victory, or it was until the two Shadowfolk in the Faen’s lair got caught. Why would your progenitor want to help me though?”

“To save my species,” Wynni said.

“How does saving her save your species?” Yuehne asked. “Is she some prophesied Chosen One?”

“I better not be,” Iana said.

“No, it’s much simpler than that,” Wynni said. “The Queen is sure to know we still exist now. You traveled with one of her Guardians right?”

“Two of them,” Iana said.

“Our leaders are invested in their revenge,” Wynni said. “It’s one of our central tenets.”

She paused for a moment, listening.

“Ok, it’s one of our central mistakes,” Wynni said, correcting her earlier statement, “Apparently vengeance was neither part of our initial design nor a trait Silian encouraged and he’s very disappointed to see how that particular weed has flourished in the heart of his noble and just people. There are you happy now?”

“So you’re afraid of what Queen Alari will do if your plan succeeds?” Iana asked.

“Me? I’m afraid of what your Queen will do now that two fools reminded her that we still exist,” Wynni said. “Silian is more concerned with what the Queen’s wife will do.”

“Dae?” Iana asked and Oline watched her expression change slowly. “Oh yeah, uh, the Shadowfolk could be a threat to the Queen. You’re probably right to be concerned about Dae. And I’ve probably been taking too many risks. I’m sorry.”

Iana offered her apology to Yuehne, which Oline had a hard time understating until the other girl spoke.

“They know who my family is too,” Yuehne said, her voice growing small and worried. “Is something going to happen to them?”

“From the Shadowfolk? No, they are still considered useful pawns,” Wynni said.

“I wasn’t worried about them,” Yuehne said. “What will the Queen do?”

“Talk with them,” Iana said. “Queen Alari is…she’s a better person than you can imagine.”

“What about her wife Dae?” Yuehne asked.

“Queen Alari will talk with them,” Iana repeated.

“It sounds like we need to get you back to them right away,” Venita said. “Otherwise this whole mess is going to get a lot worse isn’t it?”

“We can’t let you go back,” Wynni said. “Not yet, and not while the Shadowfolk think your still alive.”

“If we fake her death, won’t the Queen find out and slaughter all of your people?” Yuehne asked.

“Silian says no, but her wife might,” Wynni said. “That’s why we’re going to leave something behind that only a sorcerer would be able to detect.”

“Like what?” Iana asked.

“The ashes of your body,” Wynni said.

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 15 – Instincts

Daggrel felt like he was waiting on royalty as he brought a serving tray of food to the “Command Bower”. The girl who was suddenly in charge of their lives didn’t look royal of course. She was a foreigner from parts unknown and unimportant. Somehow though she’d managed to talk Gertrude into turning the whole inn upside down.

“Thank you Daggrel,” Iana said when he entered the big family room. She didn’t look up at him. Her eyes were glued to the weird script / drawing thing she was tracing over and over on the desk before her.

The other girl, Yuehne, was sitting on a bed that had been pushed to the center of the room and lay within a circle of salt that Daggrel knew he was going to have to clean up when everything was said and done. Providing of course that the Sunblossom didn’t burn to the ground before then.

Daggrel didn’t really think the inn would burn, but after hearing Gertrude lamenting the possibility for days he found himself imagining it every time some new bit of odd behavior caught his attention.

“Where do you want me to leave the tray?” Daggrel asked, looking for a clear horizontal surface in the room and finding them to be in short supply.

“I’ll take it,” Venita said, being careful to step around the circle of salt without disturbing it.

“So are you making any headway?” Daggrel asked as he handed the heavy tray to the dwarven woman.

“Everything’s prepared,” Iana said. “Now it’s their move.”

“She’s really serious about this whole assassin thing is she?” Daggrel found it hard to believe that a little nowhere place like the Sunblossom could wind up at the center of anything like an assassination plot by mystical “Shadowfolk”. To his mind, the simpler explanation was that the Iana girl was the offspring of some foreign noble who’d been sent to Gallagrin for an “exotic adventure” and Venita was tasked with supplying a few days of mystery and intrigue while keeping the girl away from anywhere that she could cause her family an embarrassment.

“Just slightly more serious than they are about me,” Iana said, still focused on her drawing.

To her credit, the image she was tracing and retracing had a polished quality to it that was well beyond anything Daggrel could manage himself. He couldn’t decide it Iana was writing in flowery foreign text or drawing an abstract image but in either case the artistry wasn’t bad.

“Fighting assassins is hungry work I guess,” Daggrel said, venturing as close to a complaint as he dared with customers who were paying in premium gold for the luxury of more or less owning the Sunblossom for a few days.

“The food’s mostly for bribes,” Iana said.

“Who have you got to bribe here?” Daggrel asked.

“The local spirits,” Londela, the courier, said.

How the dwarf and the two girls convinced someone as sensible as the Sunblossom’s most regular bringer of news to buy into their fantasy play was beyond Daggrel. The promise of gold probably worked as well on Londela as it did on anyone else but she had a timetable to meet so they must have been offering her a pretty remarkable sum.

“You’re lucky that they like you already,” Londela said. “I guess you must be treating them right.”

“I don’t know much about any spirits here,” Daggrel said. “The place has never seemed haunted to me.”

“Not ghosts, spirits,” Londela said. “For the love of stone, did no one ever teach you anything about the world?”

“The world comes to us here,” Daggrel said. “We don’t need to know much about it beyond that.”

“You should listen to her,” Iana said. “There’s parts of the world coming that you’ll only survive if you understand.”

“These assassins of yours you mean?” Daggrel asked. “I thought you said they’d be here by now.”

“I did, and they are,” Iana said, continuing to trace the image, and moving faster with each stroke.”

“They’re here but we can’t see them because they’re invisible right?” Daggrel waved his hands around as though trying to find an invisible person standing beside him.

“Not in the room,” Iana said, strain appearing in her voice. “Not yet.”

“Where are they?” Yuehne asked. Daggrel saw her palm a serving knife from the tray he’d brought.

“One’s moving towards the front of the inn,” Iana said. “Venita, could you go warn Gertrude?”

“I can do that,” Daggrel said.

“No, you should get to the safe room like we discussed,” Iana said.

“Is that really necessary?” Daggrel asked. “I’ve got the stables to do and the first floor to mop too.”

“Yes, go now,” Iana said. “There’s a second one moving in. They’re circling around to trap us here.”

“What about me?” Yuehne asked.

“The tracking charm is still blocked,” Iana said. “I’ll lead them away from here and they won’t have any reason to think of you at all.”

“I thought you were going to break the charm?” Yuehne said.

“I tried, but I’m not a crafter,” Iana said. “I just know some basic things, and it looks like that’s not enough to break a charm as strong as the one they put on you. They’re better at magic than I am. So you have to stay here but you’ll be safe as long as you do. They’ll think you’re dead already. However this turns out, Venita can go to the Queen and bring back a proper magic worker to free you.”

“Not if she’s dead,” Yuehne said.

“If we all die, and they come for you, do you really think you have the right to complain?” Iana asked.

Iana wasn’t looking at Yuehne, so she didn’t see Yuehne’s grip on the serving knife go white with tension. There wasn’t a lot of space between the two girls Daggrel noticed. Certainly a short enough gap that someone who was distracted by tracing an image wouldn’t be able to block a fatal blow. He wavered on taking a step forward for moment before the tension went out of Yuehne’s limbs.

“You’ve got still a lot to learn about Gallagrin girl,” Venita said. “We complain about everything. It’s what makes us happy.”

“You’re all going to be a lot less happy if you don’t move now,” Iana said. “The first Shadowfolk is through the outer wards and isn’t being subtle anymore.”

“It doesn’t feel right leaving you to face this alone,” Venita said.

“If you stay, I’ll probably die trying to protect you,” Iana said. “Go. That will keep me safe.”

“You’re sure she can’t come with us?” Venita asked, nodding towards Yuehne.

“I’m sure.”

And with that they were departing the big family room to go and hide in the pantry that led off from the kitchen.

It felt silly to Daggrel. Like they were playing a game of hide-and-seek and he was too old for games. If it wasn’t silly though, it was even worse. Running to hide in a closet when a young girl was in danger went against everything Daggrel told himself he was. He still found he was willing to do it though.

It’s one thing to imagine yourself facing down a deadly assassin, to imagine that you would lay your life down for a stranger because it was the right and noble thing to do. In all the stories he’d grown up on, Daggrel had been treated to heroes who could make that choice as easily as they chose their socks in the morning. Taking the safer path felt like cowardice but that didn’t change that it was also the easier path, and the easy path has a seductive power that is often denied but rarely avoided.

The non-combatants made it the kitchen before a whinny from outside knocked Daggrel out of his compliant march towards safety.

“Something’s spooked the Wind Steeds,” he said, pausing just before entering the pantry.

“Probably the assassin,” Getrude said. “Now get in here.”

“The assassin’s aren’t real,” he said. “And if they are we can’t leave the horses out there to get slaughtered.”

Daggrel had never cared for beasts as exotic as Wind Steeds before, but he’d formed a bond with them just over the few days they’d been at the inn. People were always a mix of good and bad, but creatures were better than that. Even the dangerous ones were still worthy of respect, and if you knew how to treat them, manageable enough.

Daggrel thought of the time he’s hiked into the path of a wolf pack. Common wisdom would suggest that they should have torn him to shreds. Maybe if the winter had been severe that would have happened, but when he found them, the wolves were lounging around resting off a fresh meal. Instead of an attack, he’d had a pleasant little encounter, giving the wolves some of the sweet snacks he’d brought for the trip and getting to watch the wolf pups tussle over them for a while.

Daggrel didn’t think it was wolves that had spooked the Wind Steeds, it wasn’t the season for them to venture close to civilized areas looking for food, but if some other animal had come by and was hassling the ever-skittish horses, Daggrel’s intervention might mean the difference between them remaining calm or flying into a self destructive frenzy.

So he left the pantry, and the kitchen, and safety behind. Not for anything that felt like an especially noble reason but just to make sure some creatures he cared about were ok.  He certainly wasn’t planning to fight any assassins.

Which of course meant that he ran into one immediately.

He didn’t see the assassin. Invisibility, it turned out, was really a trick they’d mastered. He wouldn’t have known they were nearby except that as he went running out the open front door of the inn he collided with the assassin who was trying to enter the building.

They went down together in a tangle of grasping limbs, with Daggrel getting lucky enough to pin one of the assassin’s arms underneath them both. As it was the arm the assassin was holding their primary blade in, that stroke of luck saved Daggrel’s life.

For about two seconds.

For all of his size and strength, Daggrel had little to no training in combat. Size and strength count for a lot in a fight, but so does knowing how to react, keeping your head about you, and being well practiced in the proper techniques. In each of those areas Daggrel was completely outclassed by his opponent.

The assassin was free from the pin before Daggrel even noticed he’d had control over his foe’s weapon arm.

With a kick to Daggrel’s solar plexus the assassin pushed free and spun, drawing their blade in a long arc that would have the power and weight to separate Daggrel’s head from his shoulders.

Daggrel had a fraction of an instant to see the blow coming and understand what it meant. He tried to raise his arms to defend himself but it was a worthless gesture. They were trapped under him, or too far out of position.

Death didn’t claim him though.

Metal screamed against metal and shattered in a cloud of metal dust. A blazing dagger had blocked the blow meant to end Daggrel’s life.

Iana didn’t waste time with words. A kick sent the assassin flying out into the yard beyond the doorway and the Green Council girl followed with a growl that no human thing should ever make by Daggrel’s reckoning.

Watching the fight that followed was horrifying.

The assassin alternated between attempting to flee and striking with new weapons produced from various sheaths and holsters.

Iana didn’t allow her quarry to escape though. Each attack was met with a disarming strike and each attempt to flee was countered with a takedown or a crippling blow.

Though the assassin was the inhuman looking one of the two, Daggrel couldn’t help but see Iana as some species of vicious cat that was intent on torturing the mouse before it into submission.

Just as the battle seemed finished, with the assassin laying on the ground as little more than a groaning wreck, Iana dodged away.

An instant latter Daggrel heard the sound of snapping bone as a second assassin joined the first at Iana’s feet. From the second assassin’s stillness and the dagger that impaled them into the ground, Daggrel couldn’t be sure if they were alive or dead.

“I told you to stay inside,” Iana said, turning towards Daggrel.

“What are those things?” Daggrel asked.

“These are the assassins I’ve been speaking of all week,” Iana said. “Find some rope. I want to secure them before we try to move either one.”

“They’re not dead?” Daggrel asked.

“No, I need them alive for what comes next.” Iana said. There was a flat coldness in her that Daggrel couldn’t imagine ever seeing in the eyes of a child.

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 14 – Going Off Script

Koblani didn’t like plan they were following. It would be fair to say she hated it. And her Overseer. And life in general. Not that the latter problem was likely to persist for long, since thanks to her superiors, she and all of her teammate were both going to be very dead, very soon.

“I keep losing the shadows,” Pergrez said. Pergrez was Koblani’s partner. Together they made a near perfect team. They knew how to watch each other’s approaches, how to cover and distract their target together, and, above all else, how to shape the shadows so that neither one ever had to worry about being seen.

“Step back and reweave them,” Koblani said, gripping the bridge of her nose in frustration. It wasn’t right to be angry with Pergrez. She knew that. It wasn’t his fault that the shadows were so slippery here. They were up against some kind of foreign spellcraft and none of their Shadowfolk elders had the sense to call off the strike on the princess until it was safe to move against her.

Koblani knew what proper procedure should have been. She and Pergrez should have taken up an observational position and waited for an arcanist, a specialized researcher of magics, to be dispatched. The arcanist would have looked at the spells around the target’s location and said either “here’s the openings you need to slip through” or, more likely, “this is too dangerous, hold the attack for a more opportune time”.

The Shadowfolk survived because they exercised caution. Because they knew not to tangle with things they didn’t understand when they didn’t have to do so. Trying to kill a princess in her lair, and it was growing impossible not to think of the mountain inn as anything except a lair, was not something they had to do.

The problem was the elders were panicked. They’d spent years working on their plans and due to a series of mistakes, the Shadowfolk had become much too exposed. Ordinarily that would be the signal to retreat, but a retreat would mean failure and failure would mean a loss of prestige and power.

When the people in power have to always be right and can’t admit to ever being wrong, when they bend the narrative to always blame others and never look at their own failings, that’s when everyone without power loses. Koblani hated knowing that, hated being sure that she was being used, but at the same time, she didn’t see there were any other choices left to her.

She was just one person. If the rest of the Shadowfolk were too blind to see what was happening then they would never forgive her is she turned renegade. That left her the choice of performing her duty and dying a beloved hero, or fleeing and dying a hated traitor.

“I think I’ve got the cloak woven again,” Pergrez said. “I don’t understand how this is happening though.”

“I don’t think we’re going to get to understand,” Koblani said.

“We shouldn’t be doing this should we?” Pergrez asked. “I mean, we should be coming at this from a different angle.”

“We’ve tried five different approaches already,” Koblani said. “We’ve got till dawn to make the kill. Think we can work out another path in?”

Each time they ventured close to the Sunblosson Inn, things started to go wrong for them. Each attempt started with their invisibility spells being picked away at. The close they got to the Inn, the harder the shadows were to hold on to. Koblani hadn’t pushed them forward far enough to risk being completely exposed, but time was not their friend.

Not after they’d made the mistake of reporting that the Inn’s defenses were growing stronger every day. That was what had ignited the order to move ahead immediately. If the defensive ring pushed them back too far they couldn’t maintain their observation of the princess’s hideaway.

“I wish I knew how the princess threw off the locating charm on the human assassin,” Pergrez said.

“Probably killed her,” Koblani said.

“I thought it was written to alert us to that? You said it would transfer to the princess herself in that case.” Pergrez said.

“They’re blinding us to what’s inside the Inn, we have to assume they could have silenced the charm too,” Koblani said.

“You think it’s more than the princess at work here?” Pergrez asked.

“It has to be,” Koblani said. “She’s just a child still.”

“Our operatives reported that the princess and the assassin left from the sky giant’s aerie without the Queen’s Guards?” Pergrez asked.

“They left without guards we could see,” Koblani said. “The operatives weren’t able to gain entrance to the aerie until after the two de[arted though, so we have to assume they had help.”

“Had? Or still have?” Pergrez asked. “We haven’t seen any sign of a Pact Warrior around but if one gets the drop on us we’re dead.”

“All the more reason to keep the shadows tight,” Koblani said. Her concentration was as solid as mush though and she felt her outer layer of invisibility slide away.

“Come on Ko, this is just another mission right?” Pergrez said. “We’ve run tougher courses than this.”

They hadn’t. They’d performed difficult missions, but this one had every hair on Koblani’s neck standing up and screaming that it was a trap. The layering of the defenses and the direction they were pointed suggested that any approach towards the inn would both weaken them and reduce their ability to flee from the dangers that awaited them.

“We have,” Koblani lied. “Like that time in the Mirror Halls. We had to scramble there but we got it done.”

A plan formed in her mind as she spoke. They were walking into their doom, but it didn’t have to be a doom for both of them. Between the two, she was too angry not to fight, but Pergrez was possibly just gullible enough that she could save his foolish, kindly life if she played things right. The thought of accomplishing something with her death didn’t raise her spirits much but it seemed a lot better than the alternative.

“Yeah, but the elders failed us for the Hall run,” Pergrez said.

“They failed us because we took too many risks, and broke from their script, but we got the job done,” Koblani said.

The failure had come with a stern warning and a three month period of retraining. Koblani had been apocalyptic with rage at the time but in retrospect ached with longing for those days of sanity and caution.

“We did, but Sleeping Gods was that a mess!” Pergrez said, remembering the incident as clearly as Koblani did apparently.

“I think we’re in the same situation here,” she said. “We’ve got to get this done but they know we’re coming.”

“You’re thinking something though,” Pergrez said. “You’ve got a plan. I can see it in your eyes.”

“You can’t see me at all,” Koblani said, tugging close the shadows that concealed her.

“We’ve worked together since we were five,” Pergrez said. “I can see you even when I can’t see you. Like right now, the edges of your lips are dipping about a half inch down while your nose tightens up and your neck gets all stiff with the argument you want to make.”

“None of that’s true,” Koblani said, pulling the corners of her mouth up as she forced her nose and neck to relax.

“Anyway, you have an idea, what is it?” Pergrez asked.

“We need to do a two pronged attacked,” Koblani said.

“Sounds great,” Pergrez said. “Where do we get the other team?”

“Right here,” Koblani said. “I’m team one and you’re team two.”

“And our backup will be?” Pergrez said.

“That’s the plan. We execute without backup,” Koblani said.

Shadowfolk kill teams never operated alone. The myth of the solo assassin was something they encouraged only because it was supremely poor planning. A solo assassin seemed glorious and daring. In reality though it was a desperate move and one which was much less likely to succeed than sending in a team where more angles and contingencies could be covered.

The primary role of the supporting member of the team wasn’t aggression at all, but rather concealment and situational awareness. As the lead assassin focused on setting up the kill, the support watched for anyone who was in a position to interfere or who could react in a timely fashion. They were also responsible for weaving a secondary cloak of invisibility over the lead assassin to make sure that once the deed was done, the team could escape safely and without pursuit.

Even for simple observation missions, the presence of a lead and a support was required, again to ensure that while the primary objective was being surveilled the team was not being observed themselves.

Tactical doctrine said any time any member of the team was compromised, the entire team dealt with the issue and aborted the mission if stealth was no longer an option. Dividing up and trying to execute an objective solo was not only forbidden, it was punishable by a temporary forfeiture of rank and mission priority privileges.

“Why? Why risk that?” Pergrez asked.

“Stealth was compromised before we started this mission,” Koblani said. “The elders knew that. They were aware that our target was baiting us out and they chose send in a team anyways.”

“We don’t know that,” Pergrez said, but his voice was unsteady.

“We do,” Koblani said. “We got read the initial reports and they know how we operate. They know we’ll cheat to get things accomplished. That has to be why they sent us. This is a mission that requires success and we’re the only ones who’ll do what it takes to achieve that.”

“We cheat to keep each other alive,” Pergrez said. “Not to put ourselves at this kind of risk. I mean solo work? How is that even us working together?”

“We’ll be working together because I’ll know you’ll be there to sink the blade into the opening that I make,” Koblani said. “Or rescue me if I get captured.”

“Wait, you think you’re going in first?”

“Yes. I’m better at cloaking, so I’m taking the direct route in,” Koblani said.

“I’m better at blade magic,” Pergrez said. “Whoever goes in first is going to have to fight. It should be me.”

“No. If you go in first, you’ll be discovered sooner and have to fight through more of the defenses they have in place,” Koblani said. “If I go in, I can sneak inside the Inn. I might have to fight some people in there, but you’ll be much close to being in position. You’ll be able to act in time, where I wouldn’t be able to get to you.”

“I’m not that fast,” Pergrez said. “If you don’t make it to the Inn, I won’t be able to help at all, and if you do, it’ll still take me time to get there.”

This was the truth that Koblani was relying on, she wanted Pergrez to be too late so that he would be able to bail out instead and not suffer her fate. That was why she felt no compunction about obscuring it with a lie.

“You’re faster than I am, and I won’t be moving quickly as I penetrate their defenses. You’ll have plenty of time to reach me.”

“And if I don’t?” Pergrez said. “If they have some defense we don’t know of yet and you wind up gutted while I’m on the far side of the Inn?”

It was a valid concern. Koblani was nigh unto certain that the princess had several defenses they weren’t aware of yet, and that she would definitely be detected before she reached the insides of the Inn. The key was to be detected before Pergrez was close enough to commit to her rescue.

“If we’re going to assume the worst, then we have to assume that they’ll take us both out as we move in, and that having someone working as support along isn’t going to matter,” Koblani said. “That’s a losing bet though so we have to go for the winning play. It’s our only option. If worst comes to worst and they do have defenses we can’t break past, we’ll abort.”

“And if they catch you?” Pergrez asked.

“Then you’ll abort,” Koblani said.

“I am not leaving this mission without you,” Pergrez said.

“If I’m alive I’ll appreciate that, if I’m dead I promise I will haunt you and drag you to the worst dark world I can find.”

“Can’t haunt me if I’m dead too,” Pergrez said.

“If you’re dead too then there won’t be anywhere you can escape me,” Koblani said. “Seriously, though, we have to succeed, but revealing the princess’s defenses could be enough of a success. If one of us falls, then that takes priority of everything else. No one will blame us if we return alone but bring back information on a protective measure that we’ve never seen before.”

“I hate this plan,” Pergrez said.

“Do you have a better one?” Koblani asked.

“Yeah, let me go in first,” Pergrez said.

“Do think that’s really going to increase our chance of success?” Koblani asked.

There was a long silence before Pergrez spoke again.

“No. It won’t.”

“Then we’re committed,” Koblani said.

“Till death do us part,” Pergrez said.

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 13 – Quiet Voices

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.

Londela scowled.

“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.”

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 12 – Trouble Comes Calling

Gertrude didn’t like being an Innkeeper. It was a job that called for long hours, few thanks and dealing with people who were cranky and sore from a long day’s travel. Oh to be sure, there were the good ones now and then. People who would leave generous tips for the service they received, or who were polite and friendly despite the long haul up to the peak where the Sunblossom Inne sat. Those sorts of people were a joy and a blessing. They made the work lighter and more fulfilling and were always a welcome change of pace from the general grumbling rabble that trekked through the mountain pass..

Then there were those on the opposite end of the spectrum. The ones who you knew were bringing trouble with them from the moment they stepped through the door. After decades of running the Sunblossom, Gertrude had developed a fine sense for distinguishing between the ornery guests and the ones who were actually dangerous. For the latter sort, she had a nice spiky mace and a broad shield ready at hand, artifacts of her misspent and foolish youth.

“My apologies Keeper,” a dwarven woman said as she strode through the door, escorting two human girls in with her.

The dwarf looked to be an ok sort but no one who started a conversation by apologizing ever had anything good to follow it up with. Gertrude was tempted to throw them out just for that. It had started to rain though, one of the chill high mountain drizzles that would send travelers hunkering down into the tents rather than risking pressing forward and being caught in a worse downpour. The prospect of few additional customers weighed in the dwarf’s favor as did the fact that travel had been slow with the winter lingering into spring by a few extra weeks. Gertrude wasn’t overly greedy but any business needs funds to stay alive so the prospect of some extra coin swayed Gertrude’s wallet if not her heart.

“What’s wrong,” Gertrude asked, imagining the next words would have something to do with a lack of funds.

“I need to rent six stalls in your stable,” Venita, the dwarven woman, said. “I’ve got four Wind Steeds and a cargo wagon that’s going to take up two berths, and I need them taken care of before this storm lets loose.”

Gertrude blinked. Wind Steeds were not the sort of beasts her stables played host to. Ever. She wasn’t some high mountain noble lady, or a great hub of commerce. Anyone with Wind Steeds at their disposal didn’t need to stop at an inn like hers.

“That’ll take up most of my stable space,” Gertrude said. “There’ll be a fee.”

“Didn’t expect you’d be running a charity up here,” Venita said. “Got any stable hands on duty?”

“How many rooms are you going to take with them?” Gertrude asked. Most travelers had a single mule for hauling their goods. Hauling teams would come through from time to time but even there they didn’t tend to worry about stabling their beasts. Easier to time them by the forest’s edge and set a guard or two over them for the night. It’s what the guards were there for after all and haul team horses were remarkably unconcerned creatures as horses went. Unless a wolf pack was ranging nearby, a good haul team would sit there happily grazing away. Heck even if some wolves were dropping by for a visit there was hardly any trouble. Gallagrin’s small game animals were abundant enough that wolves made for decent neighbors, and didn’t tend to bother humans or horses, both of which were more trouble for a wolf than any rabbit every could be.

“You got a big family room?” Venita asked. “Preferably someplace I can stash these two where they won’t be off killing each other?”

Something about how Venita said that left Gertrude wondering how literal the dwarf was being. The two girls looked peaceful enough, though one of them had a foreign cast to her features that troubled Gertrude. The more she looked at the three of them the more strangeness she saw. The picture of the three of them together just didn’t add up quite right. None of them looked comfortable enough to be family with each other, and three strangers traveling together had to have a story behind it.

A story that Gertrude wanted no part of. She’d ridden away as a girl to find and be a part of grand stories and come back with her (now long dead) husband to found the Sunblossom after she learned how unpleasant being on the wrong side of a story could be.

“How long are you staying?” she asked. Most travelers only stayed for one night, which in Gertrude’s mind was probably going to be one night too many.

“That’s an excellent question,” Venita said. “How about we say a week and we’ll see if takes longer than that.”

Her Inn was going to burn. Right to the ground. Gertrude was certain of this. It wasn’t magic. Magic wasn’t as reliable as the bone deep certainty with which she could sense the trouble that lay ahead of her. If this group of three seemingly harmless people stayed at the Sunblossom for longer than the next five minutes, a calamity was certain to occur.

The words “we’re full up” were struggling to force themselves out of Gertrude’s lips when Venita pronounced the magic counterspell to ward them off.

“We’ll pay the premium rate for your trouble of course.”

Gertrude tried to spit out a rejection of the offer. What good was a premium rate going to be when the Inn was nothing more than a burnt pile of ash?

“Payment’s due up front.” It was her last defense against the doom that had arrived on her doorstep.

“Do you prefer Crown coins or Telli gold pieces?” Venita asked.

Crown coins? The dwarf was offering crown coins for the rooms? Gertrude wasn’t even sure she’d be able to bring herself to spend them, but that was perfectly fine. Maybe she wouldn’t need an Inn after all.

“Let me get your Steeds stabled,” she said. “They going to need any special care?”

“Yeah, but I can manage that. The big babies are get nippy if they don’t get their proper treats,” Venita said.

“Let’s get that done before I show you the room,” Gertrude said.

“So we’re just going to stay here? With her?” one of the human girls, Yuehne, asked.

“It’s a defensible position,” the other, foreign looking one, Iana, said.

“What’s all this about?” Gertrude asked, disliking any conversation the included the term ‘defensible position’. She’d listened to innumerable soldiers telling drunken war stories. None of them had been narratives that were thrilling to be a part of at the time she was sure.

“Just silly girl talk,” Venita said, casting the kind of death glare at the two girls which told Gertrude that whatever the girls were referring to was from silly.

“No, I see what Yuehne’s saying,” Iana said. “She’s right, our host has the right know what we’re making her a part of. My apologies, I’m used to thinking of support staff as being invisible. It didn’t occur to me that they might target you too.”

Not one word of that reassured Gertrude and the last bit raised every red flag she had. In fact, the back corner of her mind seemed to have taken up frantic stitching to make more red flags for the occasion.

“Might what?” she asked.

Venita sighed and deflated a bit.

“There are some people who might be chasing after us,” she said.

“And you brought them here?” Gertrude asked, not hiding even a degree of her anger.

“Yes,” Iana said. “They shouldn’t be directly interested in disturbing you. We’re their primary target, but if they succeed in eliminating us then they may turn on you as well to remove any potential witnesses.”

“What are you talking about?” Gertrude asked, as much to buy time to process the information as because her mind was vigorously denying what her ears had just heard.

“Assassins,” Iana said. “There’s a group of them trying to kill us, and they may not stop there.”

“Who are you people?” Gertrude asked.

“The more you know the more reason they’ll have to kill you,” Venita said.

“I am Iana Raprimdel, and if strife comes to your house, I believe it will seek me before it troubles you.”

“Not hardly it won’t. Get out of here!” Gertrude said.

“That’s not going to be safe either, is it?” Yuenhe asked.

“I said get out of here!” Gertrude yelled. No amount of gold was worth dealing with trained killers.

“Are you sure you want that?” Venita asked.

“Out!” Gertrude yelled.

“That’s fine, we can do that,” Venita said. “I’m just curious though, when the people following us come here and need to figure out where we went, what are you going to tell them?”

“I’m not going to tell them anything!” Gertrude said.

“And how do you think they’re going to like that?” Venita said.

“Don’t care how much they like it, I’ve got no part of any of this!” Gertrude said.

“You won’t be able to convince them of that,” Iana said. “They’re going to believe that you know something valuable. Or that it’s at least worth torturing you to extract everything you know so they can decide for themselves if it’s valuable or not.”

“Then I’ll tell them right where I saw you go. This isn’t my problem.”

“And what do you think it’s going to take to make them believe you’re telling the truth?” Venita asked.

Gertrude staggered backwards.

“I’ll….I’ll…,” she couldn’t find the words to fit her thoughts, largely because her thoughts were flitting in a thousand different directions at once.

“Let us stay,” Iana said. “We’ll protect you.”

“What if you can’t?” Yuehne asked.

“This is a remote Inn,” Iana said. “I’m sure our host isn’t helpless, she must have to deal with dangerous people often enough.”

“Not like the Shadowfolk though,” Yuehne said.

“True, but she’s not unfamiliar with risk,” Iana said.

“Risk sure, but I know a bad risk when I see one,” Gertrude said. “It’s why I’m still around after all these years, and you are a bad risk.”

“We are,” Iana said. “But we’re also the best option you have at the moment.”

“Best option I have is to pretend I never saw you,” Gertrude said.

“They’ll know we were here,” Yuehne said. “We think they can track where I go.”

“And when they get here, and we’re gone, and you say that you never saw us, what they’re going to hear is ‘I will protect their destination with my life’, and then they’ll try to put that claim to the test,” Venita said.

“I’m not running away from my home,” Gertrude said.

“You don’t have to,” Iana said. “If they’re not here in a week, then we’ll need to move on and start hunting them instead.”

“Why can’t you just do that now?” Gertrude asked.

“If I’m going to hunt those out for my blood then there are rituals I must perform,” Iana said. “Things I learned in the Green Council.”

“Can’t you perform them someplace else?” Gertrude asked.

“Not safely,” Iana said.

“Well what about my safety?” Gertrude asked.

“I was speaking of your safety. The preparation rituals will make it much harder for the Shadowfolk to launch their assault here. If I fortify some other area they will turn to your inn as a base of operations.”

“I won’t let them stay here any more than I will you,” Gertrude said.

“They won’t need your authorization to setup a camp if you’re dead,” Iana said.

“This isn’t fair,” Gertrude said.

“I know, it’s wonderful isn’t it?” Venita said.

“Wonderful?” Gertrude asked, her face screwing up into a wrinkled mass of rejection of the idea.

“You’ve got an occasion you can rise to here,” Venita said. “Come on, you can’t really be surprised misfortune showed up at your door can you? Trouble and turmoil is all the Sleeping Gods left us. Instead of moaning on though, you’ve got a chance to do something about it. You’re even getting a chance to prepare for it. Do you know how rare and precious that is?”

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 11 – Steel

Gendaw didn’t believe in complicating things. He was who he was, and the world was what it was. He could no more change that he was one of the Shadowfolk than the Blessed Realms could become bastions of kindness and sunshine and fluffy bunnies for everyone.

It wasn’t like being one of the Shadowfolk was so bad either. His brothers and sisters (all of the Shadowfolk were his siblings) weren’t always easy to get along with, but they shared the same blood as he did and when worse came to worse, they were always there for each other.

Sometimes that was simple; making a space at mealtime for a family member who was down on their luck, or helping a young hunter corner their first kill. Other times it was harder and more painful. Gendaw wasn’t a fan of assassinations but ultimately there were two sorts of people in the world, those you lifted up and those you put down. Being Shadowfolk meant it was easy to identify who belonged in which category.

For as much as he believed in the Shadowfolks’ methods and dogma though, he still had to question the wisdom of pursuing their traditions of vengeance when the world had been ready to forget that they’d ever existed.

“It’s because we will be forgotten that we must pursue our vengeance,” his father had explained. “The world wants to place us in the past. Odd savages. Failures in the divine process. Then nothing more than myths. Lies told by older children to the younger ones.”

“How does vengeance prevent that  from happening?” Gendaw had asked. He’d never been drawn to the scholars’ arts, so he felt out of his depth when the conversation turned to anything philosophical.

“Tragedies live on far past those who suffer them,” his father said, “If we are to be a tragedy, then so long as we not alone in our suffering, we will not be forgotten.”

Gendaw didn’t see how that was a worthwhile end to pursue. Living seemed like a much better idea than being dead, hated and remembered, but he wasn’t a leader and no one was asking for his opinion on the matter.

In theory he should have been able to turn to his mentor to help him navigate the complexities of the Shadowfolk’s operational command structure. That was Wynni’s job – to teach him the ins and outs of fulfilling his chosen role in their society and prevent him from becoming a Wanderer.

In the face of an impending species-wide catastrophe, he suspected she should be making herself more available to him, but when she dove into the shadows, she hadn’t seemed to be of a mind to offer explanations or instructions. She hadn’t seemed to be in any sort of mind at all in fact.

A part of Gendaw was tempted to pursue her. Even if everything else fell apart, Wynni was a survivor. She’d proven that countless times. If there was a safe spot to be found when the sunlight races came looking for them, Gendaw suspected it would lie right behind his mentor.

He didn’t move to chase her though. He wasn’t a brilliant student. He barely paid attention to his instructors on the best days. The one thing he had absorbed though was that you never – not ever – traveled into the Shadow Worlds without observing them first.

The Shadow Worlds were his people’s lands. The gods hadn’t made them with the Shadowfolk in mind, but they hadn’t noticed or objected when the Shadowfolk claimed them either. The problem was that the Shadowfolk weren’t the only ones who traveled the worlds that were sunk in the darkness below the Blessed Realms.

Other creatures moved through the Shadow Worlds. Older creatures. More alien beings. Things that the gods had banished from the realms and things that had never been a part of any of the gods’ creations.

The sunlight races were cruel and terrible. They slaughtered the Shadowfolk for the weakest of reasons, but despite that they were still formed from the same dust as the Gendaw’s people. There were things in the dark worlds that were composed of weaponized malice and things whose very existence was inimical to those born of a world that had ever been touched by sunlight.

Hopping across the Shadows without looking where you were going first had killed more Shadowfolk than all of the purges combined (though the latter did tend to cause Shadowfolk to risk the former).

Gendaw stayed where he was therefor. Poor student or not, he was capable of applying the lessons he’d been taught when the situation obviously warranted caution.

For his caution, he was rewarded.

Wynni returned.

And she was smiling.

In Gendaw’s experience that wasn’t so much a bad sign as confirmation of the apocalypse. Wynni hadn’t been happy when she left. And she’d been right not to be happy. She didn’t smile much under the best of circumstances and their situation was so far from okay that Gendaw could only guess that Wynni had given into the madness that engulfed them and looped around back to ecstatic.

“Gendaw,” she said, her eyes focusing on him from some far off point that they’d been peering into. “We’ve got work to do.”

“Who will we be killing?” he asked. They had to be about to murder a whole lot of people. Nothing else, in Gendaw’s experience, would put such delight into Wynni’s eyes.

“Probably everyone,” Wynni said, her gaze taking on the far distance quality again.

“Oh, but that’s the best part, isn’t it?” she said, clearly not addressing Gendaw anymore. “Win or lose, everyone dies. It’s so terribly beautiful.”

“We have a very different definition of beauty,” Gendaw said, but he might as well have been speaking to the stone columns in the secluded alcove they were in.

Outside of their immediate area, traffic passed in the noble’s air platform. The cargo retrieval area a place that people wanted to be in and out of as fast as possible, especially since any cargo worthy of shipping by sky carriage inevitably came with a time sensitive delivery requirement. That bought Gendaw and Wynni a large degree of anonymity. Even when someone noticed they were there, it was only in the context of making sure Gendaw wasn’t going to haul a crate into the transport lane and obstruct their progress, or worse, ask for their help with something.

Gendaw suspected that disinterest would evaporate the moment the scurrying people started turning into less mobile corpses. Most of the sunlit people around them weren’t trained combatants, but that was what made his people monsters. They would attack whether their targets could fight back or not. It was the part of his chosen role that Gendaw most questioned.

To him, attacking the helpless proved that his people were pathetic and that the gods had been right to cast them out, but if the elders insisted that doing so was how the Shadowfolk had to operate then how could Gendaw say otherwise?

“We’re going to have to start here, but we’ll need to fast,” Wynni said, talking to the gods alone only knew who. “Yes, I am aware it would be easier if we had an army of pixies, but we don’t have one of those now do we?”

“No, we do not,” Gendaw said, a strange urge swirling in his heart.

“How recently have you checked the Tempest Compass for messages from our superiors?” Wynni asked without refocusing her gaze. It took Gendaw a handful of seconds to figure out that she was talking to him again.

“I checked it half an hour ago,” he said. “And we’re not due for another check in for ninety minutes.”

“Good, ninety minutes gives us a great headstart,” Wynni said.

“A great headstart on who?” Gendaw asked.

“Everyone,” Wynni said.

“Would this be the same everyone who’s going to die?” Gendaw asked.

“No, this is everyone everyone,” Wynni said. “We’re going to have everyone out to get us when we do this.”

The urge to speak swirled in Gendaw faster and faster until it the word burst from his lips with a force he couldn’t resist.


That single syllable hit Wynni enough force that her gaze snapped back from the distant shore it was looking towards. With a fresh clarity and presence in her eyes, she tilted her head and regarded Gendaw as though he was the one who’d lost the last trace of his sanity.

From where the train of his thoughts was heading, he wasn’t sure she was entirely wrong about that.

“No what?” she asked.

“We’re not going to continue with the plan, pixie army or no,” Gendaw said. “We’ve gone too far already. It stops here.”

Wynni’s expression, which had descended into confused searching brightened into a new smile. Gendaw shivered. He’d seen predators wearing that exact look when they saw their prey make a fatal mistake.

“And you’re going to be the one to stop this? All of it? The work of our whole race?” Wynni asked. “Can you do that? Can you stop any of it? Can you stop me?”

There was no safe answer to her questions, especially not the last one.

“Probably not,” Gendaw said. “Doesn’t mean I’m not going to try though.”

“You’d fight me?” Wynni asked. “Fight me for something that matters?”

Shadowfolk fought fairly often, not as much as dwarves were famed to, and more than elves were rumored to. Those fights weren’t about things that truly mattered though. The only things that truly mattered in Shadowfolk society were things that affected the continued existence of the society as a whole. Any other fight would be settled when one side tapped out or an arbitrary victory condition like ‘First Blood’ was met. Fights over an issue that mattered weren’t settled though, they were ended, as were the lives of any number people who chose the wrong side.

“This matters,” Gendaw said. “These deaths are wrong. I’ll do more than fight you. I’ll protect them.”

Wynni’s smile broadened into something the shaded into beautiful and she laughed.

“Protect them? These are sunlighters. Why in all the dark realms would you protect them?” Wynni asked.

“I don’t know,” Gendaw said. He wasn’t good with words, if he tried to argue with Wynni he’d lose. She’d twist him up in words and he’d stumble over all the ideas that were crowding in his head. Despite that, talking was still his best option. If he tried to cross blades with Wynni, she would gut him from throat to groin. He’d seen her do it and Gendaw had no illusions concerning their relative levels of skill. “We’re not supposed to be monsters.”

“And what are we supposed to be then?” Wynni asked. Gendaw was grateful she hadn’t filleted him yet, but each word he spoke felt like a step close to that ultimate fate.

“People,” he said. “We’re people, like them.”

“But we’re not like them.”

“It doesn’t matter. They’re not like each other either.”

“But the elders say we’re supposed to be monsters? Are they wrong?”

Wynni’s earlier questions were dangerous for how she would react to Gendaw’s answers. Questioning the elders though? That was dangerous on a far broader level. That was the path of the Wanderers, the Shadowfolk who renounced their lineage and left to travel on their own. Few, if any, of those blasphemers survived their wandering for any length of time. They were anathema to everyone, and plenty of the Shadowfolks’ enemies paid no attention to the distinction between those within and those outside of the machinery of the Shadowfolk society. Speaking against the elders meant losing all place in the world, all ties to family and friends, all means of support. It was death, long and excruciating and alone.

“Yes!” Gendaw felt a surge of conviction galvanize his spine with steel he’d never suspect lay within him. He was no hero, he wasn’t going to accomplish anything by taking the stand that he’d chosen, but he had to take it anyways. He couldn’t rush headlong into annihilation along with everyone he’d ever known and loved.

Going along with elders plan of murder and deceit would destroy his world. His strength might not save the world but spending his power to buy even the smallest chance of survival was a much better use for the remainder of his life than anything else he could imagine doing.

“By the Sleeping Gods, how did this idiot figure it out and I needed you to show up?” Wynni asked, again speaking to thin air.

“Yes, thank you, I am aware I am idiot too,” she said.

“Before you kill me, can I ask who you’re talking to?” Gendaw said.

Wynni looked at him, once again confused.

“Kill you? Oh, no, I wasn’t talking about killing you,” she said. “We’re not going to be killing anyone.”

“But you said, everyone’s going to die?” Gendaw asked.

“Yeah, listen, you know how Silian is a myth? Just made up to comfort little kids?” Wynni asked.

“But he’s not, he was real,” Gendaw said.

“Yes, well, it turns out you’re right,” Wynni said. “The jackass is in fact real, and he’s here, and he has a plan that is only terrible beyond words.”

“And that’s a good thing?”

“With complete annihilation as the alternative?” Wynni asked. “Yeah, I’ll take a terrible plan that might actually work instead of that.”

“So are we working against the elders now?” Gendaw asked.

“Strangely no,” Wynni said. “I mean, we’re probably going to overthrow them, and destroy the foundations of our society, but if they didn’t want us to do that then they should have built a better society for us in the first place.”

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 10 – Losing Darkness

Wynni wasn’t a good person. She knew that. She accepted it. None of her race were good. That was what everyone said, and it made things so much easier. Her choices were so much clearer when she only had to think about herself.

Once she’d believed that she could be different from the monster that the other races mistook her for. Then she’d seen the kind of cruelty the other races were capable of, and the kind of horrors she was willing to perform in response.

She was as much as person as any human, elf, or dwarf. She was crafted with a mindful nature by the same gods that formed the rest of the inhabitants of Gallagrin. Better crafted in fact, and that was her downfall. They’d made her a monster in the strength they’d given her, and the other Mindful Races had made her a monster in how they’d treated her from the day she was born.

Even before the Divine Nightfall, when the gods passed from the world, the Shadowfolk were a race of forgotten children. Wynni didn’t know what the Shadowfolk had been like then, except that even from the very beginning they’d hidden away in dark corners and the tatters of lost shadows.

There were worlds, half built and tossed aside that lay in the darkness below the Blessed Realms. The gods had no further use for these unfinished worlds, so the Shadowfolk claimed them as their birthright. Each was a dangerous, beautiful puzzle that someone could spend their lifetime chipping away at, which made for a decent description of the Shadowfolk themselves.

“The Arrivals log doesn’t show them checking in any time today,” Gendaw said, stepping from the shadows to stand casually at Wynni’s side. There was nothing about being invisible that prevented speech, but people paid much less attention to a random woman speaking quietly to a random man, than they did to that same woman speaking to empty air and the air answering her back.

Wynni frowned.

“We know the the princess and the assassin fled from the giant’s home. Find out if the wagon they were on had any other destinations, even ones further out,” she said.

“Yes, sister,” Gendaw said and vanished.

Tracking the princess was like following a fish through a blind dark cave. You could make guesses where the streams would take her but nothing was ever certain.

“We should pull out of this,” Wynni said, speaking only to herself.

The entire conspiracy had classic touches of the worst failures of the Shadowfolk’s plans from ages past. Setup the various nobles of Gallagrin to look like they were part of conspiracy again the realm’s newly beloved princess. Use guile and misdirection to stoke mistrust and when the queen was ready to move against her own people, kill the princess and frame the best connected noble family in the realm. Iana’s death would guarantee that the backlash would be immense and unmitigated, which was exactly what was needed to bring down a realm.

As plans went, it was terrible. It relied on predicting Gallagrin’s least predictable queen, and had no contingencies worked out for the sort of things an enraged monarch might be capable of, not to mention how the world’s first Sorceress factored into the mix.

True to form though, Wynni’s comrades had managed to make an even bigger mess of the plan that it could possibly have been on its own.

At no point in their scheming had any of the Shadowfolk leaders authorized direct, personal involvement in the mission. The very last thing that they could afford was for the Gallagrin Queen discover the fact that the Shadowfolk continued to exist after her father’s efforts to annihilate them. That fact had been stressed and stressed and made crystal clear to everyone even remotely related to the mission.

And then Miaza and Shippo had blundered into the Faen’s lair and been discovered by the chief Faen in front of the princess and her guardians.

Shippo was never going to speak again, thanks to the damage the Faen had done to his throat. That was lucky for him because, if he ever mouthed a word of what he’d done in her presence, Wynni was certain she would end the idiot’s life on the spot.

Miaza was no less guilty but since she was still missing in the Deep Shadow Worlds, Wynni felt only the customary concern for her return that was reserved for those who fell so far away from the sunlight.

Thanks to Miaza and Shippo’s failure, Wynni and her squire Gendaw were stuck with tracking the princess. And all of the Shadowfolk were back to fighting the Faen. Because the only thing better than earning the wrath of the most powerful person in the realm was fighting a race of hyper-perceptive, hyper-fast predators who believed in avenging the death of their own by inflicting ten times the casualties on their enemies.

Wynni couldn’t fault the Faen for that philosophy. The Shadowfolk neither forgot nor forgave. Not easily. Not ever. They’d tried, but it never worked out. An enemy of yesterday would be a friend today for just as long as it took you to turn your back. Then there would be no tomorrows for you.

“The shipping manifest from the sky giant’s aerie showed that all the cargo on the wagon was bound for a single destination,” Gendaw said as he returned to Wynni’s side.

Gendaw gripped the copy of the manifest page he’d secured as though it would shield him from the calamity their mission had become.

A year. A whole year of work, and all of it wasted because two idiots had moved in too close to the target.

Gendaw flinched back from the rage that burned in Wynni’s eyes, even though he’d done nothing to deserve her wrath.

“Maybe the wagon crashed between here and there?” Gendaw suggested.

It was possible. Traveling the shadows often allowed a faster transit between two points, but at the cost of missing the details of the spaces inbetween. If the cargo wagon had crashed they would have to search the whole route it flew over to locate the princesses’ remains. Worse, they would need to do so before anyone else, otherwise they’d never be able to tell if the crash site was staged or not.

“They didn’t crash,” Wynni said. “Or if they did, it doesn’t matter.”

“It doesn’t matter if our target is already dead?” Gendaw asked.

“If this mission were still salvageable?” Wynni asked. “Then yes it would matter. But it’s not. Whether the princess has managed to splatter herself across a mountainside isn’t going to make any difference in what happens to us.”

“If we could find the remains though, we could still plant the right evidence couldn’t we? Throw the blame on someone else. Or anyone else?” Gendaw asked.

“No! There is no ‘right evidence’ anymore! They know we’re part of this. They’re going to hunt us no matter what happens! That’s what they do!” Wynni wanted to stab someone. Princesses would work but her fellow Shadowfolk seemed to be more productive targets.

She’d come so close to dying so many times during the Butcher King’s reign. With the civil war, the pressure to annihilate her people had evaporated. Gallagrin’s sunlight dwelling killers had been too focused on slaughtering each other to bother pursuing the vastly diminished Shadowfolk bogeymen that haunted their nights.

In the years of the new queen’s reign Wynni had almost allowed herself to believe that her people had been forgotten. When the Deep Walkers, the leaders of the Shadowfolk, had spoken of enacting their revenge, Wynni had seen the peril right away, but tradition demanded blood for blood and there had been so much blood spilled during the Butcher King’s reign. She couldn’t hear the cries of the ghosts of her people like some other Shadowfolk could but there wasn’t a night that passed in which her dreams weren’t sufficient to shock her awake with horrors dredged from the memories she could never run far enough away from.

“What are we supposed to do then?” Gendaw asked.

“We supposed to complete the mission or die,” Wynni said.

It was Gendaw’s turn to frown.

“This is idiotic,” he said. “We’re not talking about dying bravely. We’re talking about going back to the Great Bleeding.”

Wynni couldn’t deny that. The Great Bleeding was her life. From the day when the Butcher King had began an undeclared war on her people, the shadows had run red, and Wynni’s life had been bathed in horror. It had only been foolish cowardice that allowed her to believe that time had passed.

“We never left it,” she said.

“We haven’t lost a single brother or sister in nine years,” Gendaw said. “Even Miaza and Shippo aren’t dead. If we can’t make this plan work, then we have to stop it!”

“It’s too damn late. They know we weren’t destroyed, even if they can’t work out the details of our scheme, they’ll come for us anyways.”

“They can’t reach us in the Shadow Worlds,” Gendaw said.

“They don’t have to! All they have to do is wait us out.”

“Not if we’re clever,” Gendaw said. “Silian the Silent escaped the God’s Purge by hiding in and out of the Shadow Worlds.”

“Silian’s a myth! He’s a fairy tale made up to comfort little children and make idiot adults feel braver than they should.”

“Then how did we survive the purge? How did we live if even the gods turned against us?” Gendaw was more of a religious faithful than Wynni had ever found herself able to be. She felt disgusted at tearing his illusions apart, but that just piled onto the disgust she felt for her situation, her leaders and herself.

“There was no purge! Think about it! Silian was the only one clever enough to dodge between the Shadow Worlds and the Blessed Realms? Only he was able to escape both the gods’ attention and the Stalkers in the Deep Shadows? Then where do we come from? Did he split in half? If only one of us survived then the rest of us wouldn’t exist!”

Wynni felt like her world was tearing apart. Her words were blasphemy but she far past caring. She saw the astonishment in Gendaw’s eyes turning to pain and for one malicious second she was glad. She was supposed to standfast with her people, but they were the ones who’d led her to her doom. Maybe having their illusions torn away was what they deserved. Or maybe they deserved even worse. What Wynni couldn’t see was why she deserved any of the misery that bracketed her life.

“If I was clever enough to outwit the gods why wouldn’t I be clever enough to outwit extinction too?”

No one could sneak up on the Shadowfolk.

They could feel the vibrations in the shadows.

They could hear the whispers of malice in the calmest of hearts.

Wynni had been taught these things and had lived them.

She knew that no one was perfectly observant. She knew that she had blind spots. She knew that she could be surprised.

But no one could get so close that she felt the breath of their whisper caress her ear.

Her reaction was as instantaneous as it was ineffective.

Without thought, and without hesitation she drew her blade and buried it in the chest of the man standing beside her. Her strike was invisible not because of any shadow manipulation but because no natural eye could follow something that moved that quickly.

Except, her target was anything but natural.

Where his chest should have been there was nothing but air.

“Death is also somewhat overrated,” Silian said, whispering into her other ear.

Gendaw’s expression had shifted from anger and worry to a distinctly pale shade of panic.

“What are you doing?” he asked as he stepped away to be outside the striking range of her blade.

“Shutup. Listen for a heart,” Wynni said. The command was useless for her because the thunder in her chest drowned out all other noises.

“For what it’s worth, you’re not wrong, and that’s a hell of a backswing you’ve got there,” Silian said, his voice never rising above a barely audible whisper.

“Did you hear that?” Wynni willed her heart to still but it refused to beat a single stroke less fiercely.

“Hear what?” Gendaw asked.

“I’m sure he has other gifts,” Silian said. “Don’t judge him too harshly.”

The mild amusement in his voice was beyond infuriating and Wynni dove into the shadows, intent on slicing the smug smile he must be wearing off his face.

“You won’t find me here,” Silian said, again from behind her. Always behind her, no matter how she spun and slashed.

“Who are you? What do you want?” She spat her words out in a growl.

“You know who I am,” Silian said. “And as to what I want? I want you Wynni Trimurgus,” Silian said.

“Why?” Wynni asked, her body rigid with rage.

“Why to save my people of course,” Silian said.

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 9 – The Anvil of Fate

Venita considered strangling the sky giant assigned to inspect her sky carriage. It was true that, as a dwarf, she could barely reach his knees much less mount an assault on his neck, but dwarves were renowned for cutting mountains down to size and as she waited for clearance to leave Taughaum, various scenarios for cutting down the walking mountain in front of her played out in Venita’s mind.

“Well, if it’s not extra weight under your girdle, then you’ve pulled a bum load,” the sky giant flight officer said. “Sixty shells worth of haul weight over the manifest.”

“It’s fine,” Venita said. “Shippers always underbid the packaging. Just clear it and let me make it up on flight time.”

“Sure your steeds can handle it?”

It wasn’t a serious question. If there was a real doubt, neither of them would be talking about it. Venita would refuse the shipment and the officer would refuse a clearance for it until the discrepancy was accounted for.

Instead, in the long tradition of sentients everywhere, the officer was hassling her because it alleviated some of the boredom that came with his job. Venita was used to it, but she had never developed a fondness for banter. If she had her druthers, people would just shut up once in awhile. Maybe long enough to rub two thoughts together. That would be wonderful. Like a slice of heaven.

Rather than answering the officer’s question she settled on glaring at him.

Minutes later she was in the air, clearance papers tucked in her pack and her Wind Steeds easily forging ahead despite the extra sixty shells of weight in the wagon.

“Like the extra weight even matters,” Venita said, griping to the Wind Steeds since no one else was around to hear. “You girls could handle ten times that without breaking a sweat couldn’t you?”

“I’m glad that’s the case,” Iana said, emerging from one of the bags that Venita had assumed contained some of the Deep Mushrooms that the Sky Giants traded in.

Venita had her blade’s point resting against Iana’s sternum before the girl had finished standing up.

“If there’s anyone back there with you, they should stand up slowly or I’ll be forced to end you quickly and then deal with them,” Venita said.

“That’s going to be a problem,” Iana said.

“No, it’s not!” Yuehne said, leaping to her feet.

Venita’s next thought was that the world had suddenly flipped upside down and that someone was choking in a rather painful manner.

Also her blade was missing.

That seemed odd.

And she was sitting on a Wind Steed.

Or laying on one.

Bit by bit, she pieced together what had probably happened.

She had the first girl who popped up dead to rights. Then a second girl popped up. Venita was a practical woman but not a hardened killer, or even a well practiced combatant. She had no qualms about the idea of killing people who tried to hijack her, but actually striking a lethal blow on the spur of a moment was more challenging than she’d imagined it would be.

Also the first girl, Iana, was inhumanly fast. The other girl, Yuehne, the one who was choking and coughing out in the back of the wagon seemed to fall into the category of ‘too slow’ to avoid whatever Iana had done to her as well.

With the world beginning to make sense once again, Venita flipped herself back up to her feet. She’d lost her blade. That was bad. She was off the sky wagon and so only weakly affected by its enchantments. That was worse. And the girl who’d taken control everything was starting to look familiar.

Venita didn’t move in high political circles, but she listened to gossip like every other driver she knew.

The girl who was staring at her was clearly from the Green Council. But she’d spoken in a decent enough version of Gallagrin’s native tongue. More importantly though, her clothes were nice. Much too nice for a sky pirate. For one thing, sky pirates didn’t tend to wear enchanted tunics with the royal seal of Gallagrin sewn into the hem.

“I’m being hijacked by a princess,” Venita said.

“No, I’m not here at all,” Iana said. “Neither of us are.”

“Didn’t think I had that much Giant Brandy?” Venita said. “Though to be fair, those are seriously oversized glasses they pour.”

“Yes, that’s definitely what’s happening here,” Iana said. “One too many drinks and maybe a package fell overboard, say sixty shells worth of package to be precise, and right before you landed.”

“So, since I appear to be talking to myself here, why would a package need to fall off before we land. I’ll need to explain something about how precarious it was,” Venita said.

Iana offered her back her blade and helped Yuehne to her feet.

“You punched me in the throat?” Yuehne said.

“No. I hit you with the sword pommel. Less damage to my hand if I missed,” Iana said.

“Why not the blade?” Yuehne asked.

“Don’t want you dead, but you were in too good a position to throw me off the wagon,” Iana said.

“And I’m not now?” Yuehne said.

“Best case I’d break your leg,” Iana said. “Worst case I’d break your leg and our driver would stab you.”

“For hallucinatory sky pirates, you two are an unusual pair,” Venita said.

“We’re not here to steal your wagon or your cargo,” Iana said. “We’re stowaways, not thieves.”

“Not thieves, but killers?” Venita said. “You move like one, and she’s got a look in her eyes that says she envies you.”

“She wants to kill me,” Iana said. “I’m working on that. Unfortunately there is another group of people who want me dead too, and they’re the type who like to be thorough, which is why no one can know that we traveled with you.”

“Seems to me like the next thing you’re going to ask is that I take you to back to Highcrest where you’ll be safe,” Venita said.

“No, we need to get as far away from Highcrest as we can,” Iana said.

“Now I know I’m hallucinating,” Venita said. “Last I heard, the Queen beat a god. I’m thinking you’re going to be safer with her than you would anywhere else.”

“I’m not running to safety,” Iana said. “I’m hunting the people who are behind a year’s worth of assassination attempts.”

“By giving them easy access to you?” Venita asked.

“Yes,” Iana said. “In very specific circumstances, and on a field of my choosing.”

“Still seems like a great plan for getting yourself killed,” Venita said. “At least they won’t be able to follow you to where we’re going though.”

“I’m reasonably sure they can follow us wherever she is,” Iana said, indicating Yuehne.

“And dropping her off first isn’t an option why exactly?” Venita asked.

Iana looked over at Yuehne directly, locking gazes with the girl.

“They’ll kill her.”

“You don’t know that,” Yuehne said.

“I don’t, but it’s what I would do and so far the people supporting you have behaved pretty close to how I’ve expected them to.”

“Why would they kill me?” Yuehne asked. “I’m not that important.”

“Not that smart, I would believe. ‘Not that important’ though is provably false,” Iana said. “Even if they expected you to fail, they trusted you with a difficult mission.”

“That makes me expendable,” Yuehne said. “If they knew I would fail, then I couldn’t possibly be less important to them.”

“You’re forgetting though, every other assassin they sent has escaped,” Iana said. “They expected to get you back.”

“So I’m a bigger failure than they thought,” Yuehne said.

“Are you?” Iana said. “You made it farther and got closer than any of your predecessors did. Up until you, they didn’t have a clear picture of how well I could defend myself without someone like Commander Jyl or Dae around. They may have known you would fail, and would have even planned for your capture, despite their track record of escapes.”

“How do you plan for your assassin to be captured?” Venita asked.

“You send someone who can manage to perform the mission with the minimal amount of information and you worry constantly about how much they know without being aware that they know it.”

“That is some squirrely level of thinking,” Venita said.

“Squirrely?” Iana asked. “No, only people think like that. Squirrels are refreshingly straightforward.”

“Right, you’re a Council girl,” Venita said.

“She’s wrong though,” Yuehne said. “That isn’t what they did with me. I asked to go. I pleaded.”

Iana looked at her, regarding Yuehne silently for a long moment.

“They were going to send someone close to you instead. An older sister?” Iana asked.

Yuehne stepped backward before she could control her reaction. Her face froze in place but it was too late. Her eyes were already wide open in shock.

“You didn’t know the other assassin’s escaped did you?” Iana asked.

“Yes I did,” Yuehne said, frozen expression thawing into one of defiance.

“But that wasn’t the plan this time?” Iana’s gaze was the regard of a wild cat assessing its prey. Defenses were stripped away, weaknesses analyzed and truth laid bare before the final, merciless strike.

Venita smiled. This wasn’t the sort of day she’d been expecting. It wasn’t the sort of day she ever expected. Some part of her knew that her whole life was going to be upturned by the two wild girls in the wagon with her. She should have been afraid of that. Change was miserable. Her stone solid dwarven bones told her that, as did every personal experience, and all the tales of her ancestors.

The thing was though, Venita didn’t back down from confronting misery. Not when it landed on her plain as day like this.

Her smile was less a pleased expression therefor and more a dare thrown into the face of life in general.

“You want to go another round?” that smile asked, “Let see which of us breaks first then.”

Other races spoke of the “Loom of Fate” when they talked about the invisible forces that shaped their lives. Dwarves didn’t. Dwarves called it the “Anvil of Fate”, and meant, very specifically, the cold iron of their souls that they beat their fates on, forging their lives into the shape of their choosing.

Yuehne had gone silent in response to Iana’s question, but Venita saw that silence was it’s own answer. She felt unexpectedly sorry for the young assassin and equally unexpectedly frightened by Gallagrin’s young Princess.

The Queen was, from all of the reports Venita laid stock in, a frightful presence. The bit about being called “Bloody Handed” wasn’t an insult. It was a warning, even if the Queen tried to downplay the moniker’s significance. In choosing a collection of Princesses and Princes from the Green Council, she’d struck a blow against the the factionalization that had grown up before, during and after the civil war against the Butcher King.

What Venita hadn’t considered was that Queen Alari had selected her heirs because they were as terrifying as she was, in their own somewhat unfathomable manners.

“So, I have one problem with speaking to my hallucinations,” Venita said.

“That your best option is to pitch the both of us off the wagon before we get anywhere close to landing?” Iana asked.

Venita shook her head. The young princess had a vicious mind, but something had tempered her too, giving room between thought and action when the situation warranted it. That was more than Venita could manage most days, and this did not look to be one of Iana’s better, more relaxing days.

“No, no one’s going over the side of the wagon,” she said. “From your display a minute ago, I think we all know who’d be the last one with the Wind Steeds. No, my problem is that, if these assassins are as thorough as you say, then even if I’m hallucinating all of this and I say nothing about it to anyone, I’ll probably be receiving a visit from them. Probably in the dead of night, when they can make sure the ‘dead’ part sticks with a minimum of fuss.”

“How would they…” Yuehne started to asked but Iana cut her off.

“The extra weight. Damn. They’ll know, or at least suspect, which wagon we escaped on by the shipping manifest oversight.”

“That’s not such bad news though,” Venita said. “It just means that like it or not, my two daughters and I are taking a little vacation.”

“Daughters?” Iana asked glancing at Yuehne, a human, herself, also a human, and Venita, a dwarf.

“Adopted,” Venita said. “Didn’t say I wanted to be part of this, wasn’t asked, but don’t got much of a choice, so if we’re going to travel together, I’m at least going to get to boss you around. Isn’t that right girls?”

Her smile was, again, not one of joy and sweetness.