Lipa’roon wasn’t sure she liked her new home. The all concealing shadows of the deep caves weren’t living up to their name.
“It’s a strange instinct for the young to flee from their parents once they settle in a new place, isn’t it?” Pelay, the junior Queen’s Guardian, asked.
“I can’t say I’ve observed it in any other species,” Jyl, the senior Queen’s Guardian, said. “Given that it’s a behavior that reached the point of instinct though, it can’t be that strange however it looks to us. If it was, the Faen wouldn’t have survived adopting it.”
The two hadn’t managed to find Lipa’roon’s exact hiding spot but the fact that they’d located the tiny cavern she’d secured was disconcerting. Lipa was the cleverest kit of her pack. She should have been the last one discovered but from what she could hear she was probably going to be the first.
“I’m kind of glad we’re not on their bad side,” Pelay said. “I knew she’s here but her heart beat and breathing are so faint it’s like they’re an echo from a week ago.”
“My elvish pride is reassured by that,” Jyl said.
“How so?” Pelay asked.
“I grew up hearing so much babble about how our senses are sharper than anyone else’s, especially humans,” Jyl said. “I’m supposed to be horribly embarrassed if someone else is able hear something that escapes by my ears.”
“You don’t sound upset about it though?”
“I’ve made some questionable choices, and not gotten away from all of them scott free,” Jyl said. “I think I hear a little better than the average human, and not quite as a good as most dwarves, but you know what? My life is still just fine.”
She paused in her inspection of the room and turned her back to Lipa. It was a perfect ambush position, except Lipa wasn’t hunting elves. Without moving or breathing, she catalogued her escape options. There were two that relied on pure speed. Those were a bad bet against Pact Knights. There were three others that relied on a surprise attack and capitalizing on the confusion that followed. Those were a worse bet against Pact Knights, so Lipa stayed where she was and suppressed a growl of frustration.
“I’m hoping I can avoid those sort of choices,” Pelay said. “I don’t know how well I’d deal with losing the awareness of what’s around me.”
“It’s not quite like that,” Jyl said. “Awareness of more of a mental state than a physical one. If anything I’m probably more aware now than I used to be.”
“Because of the hearing damage?” Pelay asked. “Your other senses increased to compensate for what you lost?”
“No, I don’t think it works that way,” Jyl said. “I don’t see better now, or taste better. It’s more a matter that in our line of work we wind up practicing attentiveness more than people who lead safer more sensible lives.”
“So you make better use of the senses that you have left?” Pelay asked.
“Sort of. What I’ve noticed is that being aware is often more a matter of being able to ignore things than perceive them,” Jyl moved away but she left behind a small handful of dust that spread out in the area immediately in front of Lipa.
“But how can you notice something if you can’t perceive it?” Pelay asked.
“There’s a few options,” Jyl said. “First, ignoring things is a skill. You have to be able to edit out the unimportant stuff so that you can focus on the critical bits. Like if you’re chasing someone through a crowd, you need to be able to filter out the mass of people around you and keep a clear view on the person you’re pursuing. If you try to take in everything you’ll be overwhelmed and lose track of the quarry you’re focused on.
“But aren’t you easier to ambush in that state?” Pelay asked.
“It depends,” Jyl said. “If you’re hyper-focused on your target, then yes, you won’t see anyone else lining up for an attack. In practice though, as I’ve learned to ignore things, I’ve found that I can spend less effort keeping track of the person I’m following and my mind is able to call any other notable details to my attention. Like I’ll see a flash of a blue robe from the person I’m following, so that I’ll know I’m on the right track, but I’ll also notice the glint of sunlight off steel in a place where steel shouldn’t be. That’s how you catch arrows by the way. You need to be aware of them before they’re fired, unless you’re already transformed and you’re ramped up on speed enough to swat them out of air before they reach you.”
“I have a hard time doing that,” Pelay said. “I mean I can’t really turn things off, I have to work to focus through them.”
“Go with that then,” Jyl said. “We each manage processing the world differently. It’s why we group up in teams. If we were all the same, then Lipa’roon would be able to hide from us with no problem.”
“Instead of already being caught you mean?” Pelay asked.
“Yeah, do you think we should let her in on it?”
“We do need to get going shortly,” Pelay said.
Lipa knew they were bluffing. The shadows here were ten shades too pale for proper hiding, but neither one of them had so much as blinked when they passed her. The senior Guardian had left a handful of dust but she’d dropped plenty of those around the room in other spots already.
“She’s going to try to get out of here you know?” Jyl said.
“If the two of us can’t catch the one of her, then we might have to stay back and let someone else tackle the mission from the Queen.” Pelay said.
“That is not a thrilling idea,” Jyl said. “Undine’s going to be laughing at us for weeks as it is.”
“I’m pretty sure he couldn’t have done better,” Pelay said.
“I’m pretty sure he won’t even bother trying to suggest that. He won’t have to.”
“Fortunately, Lipa’s not going to get away.”
There was a burning need in Lipa’s fangs to prove the two Guardians wrong. It baked away the resolve she had and gnawed her patience to the bone. All she had to do was stay still.
Or wait for them to make a mistake.
It was a small one, just a subtle turn Pelay made, but it left open a path that Lipa knew she was fast enough to exploit.
Her legs coiled without conscious thought directing them and she leapt, flying soundlessly through the air to land first on the wall outside the room and then just around the bend in the corridor that would take her out of view. No light would touch her as she sailed softer than an arrow to her destination.
At least that was how things were supposed to go.
Three inches into her flight, the dust on the ground before her kicked up and exploded in a shower of sparks. The flare of light blinded her eyes and the stench of smoke forced a terrible sneeze from her nose.
Lipa didn’t so much land on the wall as crash into it, and she didn’t make it around the corner in a large part because she wasn’t sure which direction anything around was as she scrambled to regain her senses..
“Ouch, that had to sting,” Pelay said.
“Let’s help her up,” Jyl said, and Lipa felt strong hands lift her to her feet.
She sneezed again.
“Sorry about that,” Jyl said. “Here, take a whiff of this.”
The Guardian placed something under Lipa’s nose that was soothing and cool. There was a minty fragrance to it, but all Lipa could notice was how much easier it was to breath. After holding her breath for minutes the sweet air tasted better than any meal could have.
“What do you want?” Lipa asked after a few moments spent regaining her breath. She was sore from her badly landed jump but nothing was broken and the pain wouldn’t linger. Not the pain in her arms and legs at least. The wound to her pride felt far too deep to ever heal properly.
“We need your help,” Jyl said.
“You’ve been nominated as the best Sneak your Faen clan has to offer,” Pelay said.
Lipa blinked. She was sure she hadn’t heard that correctly.
“What do you mean?” she asked, not quite as angry as she’d been but still far from pleased.
“We brought your clan here to keep you safe from the Shadowfolk,” Jyl said. “But our princess has run afoul of them.”
“Intentionally we believe,” Pelay said.
“We need someone who can hide as well as the Shadowfolk can,” Jyl said.
“And from all of the reports we got, that would be you.” Pelay said.
“What do you need someone who can hide for?” Lipa asked.
“They can hide better than I can,” Jyl said. “And by most standards, I’m pretty damn good at hiding.”
“The Shadowfolk have their magics, but even without that, they’re frighteningly skillful,” Pelay said. “We found evidence that suggests they infiltrated the giant’s airie at the top of the mountain without using any spells at all.”
“That’s where you come in,” Jyl said. “We need someone who knows how to hide and thinks along path that I don’t.”
“But I can’t find the Shadowfolk,” Lipa said. “I couldn’t even hide from you.”
“Are you sure about that?” Jyl asked. “We never found you after all. You revealed yourself.”
“You said you already had me though!”
“And we did, but that was only because we knew generally where you were and that you weren’t inclined to kill us,” Jyl said. “With the Shadowfolk, if they think we’re getting close to them and we don’t know exactly where they are, they’ll vanish. Or try to kill us. Or both.”
“Yeah, but they can’t kill you, you’re Pact Knights,” Lipa said.
“That gives us an edge, but if a fight breaks out it will be very hard to ensure that they don’t wind up dead,” Jyl said.
“Is that a problem? They’re evil aren’t they?” Lipa asked.
“They’re hostile, it’s not quite the same thing,” Jyl said. “Also we need them alive for questioning. A pile of Shadowfolk corpses won’t make us any safer and they won’t be able to tell us anything about where our princess has gone.”
“I thought I heard the Shadowfolk were trying to kill all of us,” Lipa said. “What makes you think Princess Iana isn’t dead? She’s not a Pact Knight right?”
“She’s still alive,” Jyl said. “The Queen can discern that much from some enchantments that were placed on the princess. We just don’t know where she is.”
“The Shadowfolk may not know either, but we can’t be sure of that until we catch one for the Lady Dae,” Pelay said.
“So how are we going to catch one?” Lipa asked.
“We’re going to turn one of their traps back against then,” Jyl said. “But we don’t have a lot of time.”
“Ok, and what will I have to do?”
“Find the best hiding places that you can,” Jyl said.
“That’s not hard.”
“Well, you’ll only have a map and a scrying bowl to work with,” Jyl said.
“Ok, that makes it a bit more difficult. I don’t understand, why though? Why can’t I look for the spots in person?”
“The Shadowfolk have no idea where your family has gone and we’re going to keep it like that,” Jyl said.
“Also, even with Pact spirits we don’t want to engage them if we don’t have to, so we are absolutely not letting them get anywhere near you,” Pelay said.
“Oh.” Lipa felt a little saddened by that. Visions of daring battles against her families deadly enemies had been swimming in her head. They were scary to contemplate but if she could come home with a souvenir like a Shadowfolk skin? She would be renowned forever.
Of course most people who went hunting enemies like the Shadowfolk didn’t come back, so being somewhere safe didn’t seem like an entirely horrible thing either.
“Ok, I’ll do it,” she said. “On one condition.”
“What’s that?” Jyl asked.
“You’ve got to let me bring my friend Kai’artha. She will kill me in my sleep if I have an adventure like this without her!”