Kai’artha had expected adventuring on the surface world to be exciting. She’d expected it to involve danger and intrigue. What she hadn’t expected was to be stabbed before she had a chance to see what the sky looked like.
Her thoughts weren’t on the heavens though as the grass thin metal of the Shadowfolk blade whisked past her cheek. Pure survival gripped her mind and she spun with the speed and grace that only one of the Faeneril possessed.
Her agility was against matched the skill and experience of a career assassin however and Kai knew that was a bad contest to gamble on. Especially since she was already injured.
She evaded another blow by hurling herself into a backwards roll over a desk. The assassin had the advantage in position and distance though and managed to spear her right calf before she put the temporary safety of the desk between them.
Agony pumped into her from the deep cut. She couldn’t risk standing on it, but she had to keep moving.
“Come on!” Lipa said. “They’re going to leave us behind if you don’t get a move on!”
Kai’artha doubted that. The Queen’s Guard had sought Lipa’roon out for a reason. They needed to move quickly but an extra minute of packing wasn’t going to be wasted. Not if they were going on an adventure.
“There’s no need to pack battlemail! We’re not going to be anywhere near the dangerous areas,” Lipa said.
Kai considered that. The Pact Knights had made it clear that they were going to take every precaution with the Faen kits. Any time a warrior went outside the clan’s holdings, they were expected to go armed and armored for a fight, but in this case Kai wasn’t sure they counted as warriors.
Traveling with the Queen’s Guard meant that they would encounter one of two different sorts of foe. The first kind would be the common villains. Highwaymen, robbers, and other miscreants. For a Faen traveling on her own, any of these could be deadly. For Faen traveling in small groups, the presence of arms and armor could be the deciding factor in an enemy choosing to seek other prey. In that sense, traveling with Pact Knights was like traveling with armor that was as thick as a castle and arms that were more powerful than a bolt of lightning.
Common bandits who dared assault them would be nothing more than a source of amusement.
The other sort of enemy encompassed anything so far outside the ordinary that it could give a Pact Knight a noticeable fight. In a battle against another faction of Pact Knights, or monsters from the unseen hollows of the world, Kai knew that she and Lipa and anyone who wasn’t part of the Queen’s Guard would be little more than a liability. No shirt of battlemail would turn aside the blows from a rampaging Lava Demon, or blunt the spears of a Lightning Elemental after all.
“Ok, you have a point,” she said, returning the battlemail to its chest. Why carry something that heavy if you weren’t going to need it she asked herself.
The trip to the observing base was faster than the trip to their new home had been. They didn’t so much fly with the wind and race past it and forge their own path through the sky.
Even so, by the time they arrived, there were tents set up and several scrying bowls receiving their last enchantments.
“Ok, they should have the observation gnats in range of the inn within the next fifteen minutes,” Jyl said. “I want you both to look over the maps we have of this location and start working out where their observation teams would be hiding. When you think you’ve got an idea of where to start checking, work with Glyra, she’s the seer I’m assigning to you.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Glyra said and gave the two Faen kits a small bow.
Glyra was a human woman who wore the traditional gauze eye wrap of a seer.
“You can see?” Kai asked, noticing that Glyra had the eye wrap pushed up onto her forehead.
“Yeah, scrying trances are easier when you’re not being bombarded by stimuli from your locale surroundings. That’s why we wear these.” Glyra said pointing at the eye wrap. “But otherwise we can see just fine.”
“What about the seer’s who are blind though?” Lipa asked.
“Well, not all blind people can master scrying magic. The ones that have the knack for it though need to be careful like the rest of us. Exerting too much effort on scrying magic can send your vision to really strange places.”
“For now let’s focus on scrying the areas around the inn,” Jyl said, and laid out a series of documents on the table in front of them.
The design of the maps was strange to Kai’s eyes. Everything was so flat. They were showing the space on a mountain but it was drawn as though the mountain had been smashed into the thickness of the paper the map depicting it was drawn on.
Proper maps had multi-dimensional notations, as any subsurface dweller could tell you. Without that you couldn’t be certain of what sight lines there were, or what might lie below you.
“This is terrifying,” Lipa said.
“What’s wrong?” Glyra asked.
“I think I understand what I’m seeing here. The space above this whole area is open isn’t it?” Lipa asked.
“There is some tree cover, but the inn is centered in a fairly large clearing,” Glyra said.
“They could be anywhere then,” Lipa said. “There are observation points almost everywhere around the inn.”
Kai saw what she was saying. There was so much space, minus the tree cover that had a clear view of the inn. She followed Lipa’s mental leap with one of her own though.
“It’s not that bad,” she said. “Remember that’s all air above what’s shown here. No one can hide anywhere above the tree line.”
“What if they’re flying and invisible though?” Lipa asked.
“Flying isn’t going to help them,” Glyra said. “There’s a rainstorm that’s blown over the mountain and brought heavy cloud cover with it. If they’re anywhere beyond a hundred yards or so from the inne they’re going to have a very hard time seeing anything that happens there.”
“What if they use scrying like we’re doing?” Lipa asked.
“Leave that to me,” Glyra said. “There’s a resonance that far sensing spells give off. As seers, we try to minimize that as much as possible normally because it clouds the images and sounds we receive, but in a situation like this it’s exceptionally important.”
“Because it can give away your position?” Kai asked.
“That and more,” Glyra said. “Hearing another seer’s scrying spells can tell you a lot about them, including their actual position and degree of magical proficiency. If you’re really good, you can even corrupt or edit the information their spell is returning to them.”
“The observation gnats have made it to the inn,” Jyl said to everyone in the tent, which included three other groups like Lipa, Kai and Glyra. “We know they’re somewhere around the inn, waiting for us. Find them without letting them find us.”
“Try here,” Lipa said, pointing to a spot on the map that seemed worthless to Kai.
Glyra slipped the eye wraps down to cover her vision and sank into a light trance. The bowl of clear water in front of her went cloud and then glowed with light, revealing the details collected from the eyes of the observation gnats.
The little bugs flew along, passing by the burned remains of the mountaintop inn and heading towards an empty edge of the field the inn sat in.
“Turn around there,” Lipa said, and the view shifted to look back at the inn.
The change in perspective also revealed a sharp drop off that was hidden by the rise of the field. Viewed from the angle Lipa had chosen it looked like the perfect spot for an observation post. Close enough to see and hear exactly what was going on, far enough that there was no danger of being accidentally exposed and with enough cover that, if a fight did begin, the people observing would be well protected for at least a few seconds. Long enough for a Shadowfolk assassin to teleport away to safety.
“It’s a good spot,” Glyra said.
“Good but not definitely where they’re hiding,” Kai said.
“You can’t see through their invisibility can you?” Lipa asked.
“No, that would require a form of counter magic I’m not versed in,” Glyra said.
“Maybe we don’t need counter magic,” Lipa said.
“What do you mean?” Glyra asked.
“You have more than one observation gnat in that area right?”
“Yes, this image is coming from three of them,” Glyra said.
“Take one and fly it through the space just over the ridge. It should see something different if it bumps into an invisible person or passes through an invisibility field,” Lipa said.
That was a wonderful idea. And an effective one. And it was precisely the wrong thing to do.
The observation gnat didn’t combust, or explode, it just fitzed away, the magic that held it together imploding on contact with the Shadowfolks’ invisibility spell.
Unfortunately for all concerned, the invisibility spell itself also fizzled, just slightly, in response to the gnats magic. It wasn’t much of a spark, but it was enough to give the spirits in the region something to play with.
The Shadowfolk observers didn’t know that the spirits had been taught to unravel invisibility spells, or that they’d been able to practice on other ones earlier that day. They didn’t know that the spirits were bored without the usual bustle of workers and travelers and had nothing better to do than gorge of stray spells they found in their domain.
Kai was shocked to see the two Shadowfolk standing exactly where Lipa had suggested looking for them, but the shock was replaced with concern when the two disappeared an instant later.
“What happened?” Jyl shouted.
“One of the observation gnats hit their invisibility spell,” Glyra said. “It’s my fault.”
“An observation gnat couldn’t reveal them like that,” Pelay said. “There’s another force at work here.”
“We need to get in there then,” Jyl said and was off.
Pelay followed her, the two taking to the sky on their own in a mad dash to find anything at the site of the inn’s destruction that would lead them to the missing princess.
“I’m sorry,” Lipa said.
“This one’s not on you,” Glyra said. “The gnats are mine to control. Guardian Pelay was right though. The gnats shouldn’t have reacted like that.”
“I just lost mine!” one of the other seers said.
“Your what?” Glyra asked.
“My gnats are gone,” he said.
“Mine too,” another seer said.
“That’s not possible,” Glyra said. “Unless…”
Kai saw her turn back to her bowl and set the water churning for a second. Glyra whipped her head up as she pulled the eye wrap from her head.
“They’re here!” she said. “The Shadowfolk. Or they will be soon.”
“How is that possible?” one of the seer’s asked.
“They followed the echoes back from the gnats,” Glyra said before blocking to her left with an unused tent pole that was leaning against a wall near her.
The sword stroke seemed to follow a long moment after the block, but Kai knew her perception of time was off by a few ticks.
Adrenaline was surging through her.
And then so was a knife.
The Shadowfolk assassin tried to take both Kai and Lipa down in a single hit from each of his weapon but there was a crackle of fading magic that preceded his attacks that gave each of the Faen kits enough warning to move away from the blow aimed in their direction. Not far enough away to avoid injury entirely but a cut on the arm was a lot better than a stab through the heart in Kai’s view.
The fight was a blue of motion and, a moment later, she was behind a desk with a badly wounded leg.
The assassin came up over the desk, intent on finishing of Kai, but he miscalculated.
The first blow Lipa took was worse than Kai’s. It was a shoulder wound but one that was bad enough to render the arm in question useless. Lipa had two things left though. The first was her other arm and the second was a Fight or Flight response that was pegged into the “Murder” end of the dial at seeing Kai’s blood spilled.
A lot of people confuse the Faen for a cat species. They have plenty of cat-like characteristics, but where they differ is in how they kill. Cats use their fangs. They tear out the throat of their prey, or cripple them and pull them apart. They’re savage as befits their status as animals.
Faen are different. They’re efficient.
Kai wouldn’t have guessed that Lipa was capable of punching directly through somone’s body with her claws, but a splatter of Shadowfolk blood and a fatal gurgle from the assassin proved her wrong.