Chanolsa was over at Nelosa’s house because everyone was over at Nelosa’s house. Even for a society as hierarchical and mission focused as the Shadowfolk’s was, it was still a rare occurrence to see troops deployed to someone’s dwelling and even rarer still to see one of the Elder’s leading them.
“So the humans just popped right up in your kitchen?” Chanolsa asked. “That can’t be real can it?”
“Real as my twinkly left butt cheek,” Nelosa said. “One minute I’m making dinner and the next I got an infestation of all kinds of people popping through a big hole in space right where I was standing a minute before.”
“All kinds of people?” Chanolsa asked, catching what she thought was the critical detail.
Belief in Nelosa’s story was mixed among the crowd of her neighbors, at least as far as Chanolsa could gauged it. Some didn’t want to believe their homes could be compromised like that. Others were all too eager to believe, and all to eager to take drastic, unreasonable action as a result.
Chanolsa didn’t place herself in either of those groups. She worked for the Water Corp, which was responsible for both finding sources of water for the Shadowfolk communities and outposts in the disparate worlds they were spread to as well as investigating any large sources of water they came across.
There was no such thing as free water. Not in the Shadow Worlds. Water was an inherently magical substance, and wherever it appeared in a liquid form, it would draw in creatures to fight for it.
Chanolsa looked at the Shadowfolk dwellings in much the same manner. People drew in trouble. The more people, the harder they were to sustain, the more trouble. That in turn suggested that Nelosa’s story could be true. There was a wide gap though between “could be” and “was definitely” true.
“Yes, it wasn’t just humans. There was a dwarf or two, I think, and some kind of scale covered woman.”
Nelosa seemed to know that her neighbors were weighing the possibility that she was in league with the intruders. That would be a capital offense if it could be proven, and the burden of proof was not particularly high in Shadowfolk courts.
The only things that kept people more or less on Nelosa’s side was that Elder Tonel had been part of the raid and had not denounced her and, more importantly in some people’s eyes, Nelosa was making no attempt to calm the calls for action.
Chanolsa noticed that Nelosa wasn’t encouraging any actions either though. She made no offers to join in the proposed hunts, and offered no details beyond those she was asked for.
That delicate balance between holding back and holding out suggested that Nelosa, like Chanolsa, wanted nothing more than for the whole crisis to simple pass her by. They were not active duty fighters or support, they were not part of the Elder’s staff, the affairs outside their day to day lives didn’t concern them.
Chanolsa wished she could believe that. It would make life so much simpler if the only problems you had to deal with were the ones relevant to the work you did.
Another portal opened in Nelosa’s kitchen, confirming that life was never played fair. It never limited the trouble you could be forced to face.
No one in the room was better than a third class fighter, so it was fortunate that the portal disgorged another Shadowfolk, an assassin from the looks of her duty markings, and a high ranking one at that.
The assassin’s appearance didn’t launch the room into a flurry of combat, instead the chaos that erupted was filled with questions and demands.
“Who are you?”
“How did you get in here!”
“Are you with the humans?”
“Explain what’s going on here!”
It was impossible for anyone to answer the crowd back, so the assassin didn’t try. Instead she turned her head to the side as though she was listening to someone and then simply said, “Be Quiet.”
Chanolsa hadn’t been talking so the command rolled over her with little-to-no effect. In the silence that descended though, she saw neighbors who had been cut off mid-word and were struggling to get the last syllables out.
Chanolsa wanted to ask “who are you to tell us what to do”, but she found her voice as absent as the ones of those around her.
“We’re faced with a crisis, and I am faced with a burden,” Wynni said. In her hand a knife gleamed with reflected moonlight. Except no moonlight was shining into Nelosa’s house.
“The crisis is simple enough,” Wynni continued. The injunction to be quiet had not trapped anyone in Nelosa’s house, but Chanolsa found that sheer curiosity prevented her from leaving.
“Our Elders have set us on a path to extinction. I know some of you won’t believe that but it is true independent of your beliefs or feelings about it.”
“What proof do you have of that?” Chanolsa asked, the prescription to remain quiet fading as Wynni spoke.
“I was on the observation team covering the Gallagrin princess,” Wynni said. “I got to watch Elder Tonel’s plans fall apart from the frontlines.”
“So because you failed, we’re all going to die?” another one of Nelosa’s guests asked.
“No, with one exception, the forward forces made no tactical errors, the problems we face were endemic to Tonel’s plan from its conception,” Wynni said.
“Who are you to judge an Elder’s plans?” a neighbor asked.
“No one,” Wynni said. “I could see the small scale pieces falling apart, I could see how doomed we were from how every engagement was turning against us. Stupid mistakes being followed by ineffective responses which were being driven by what had to be extreme greed and delusions. But I’m not an Elder. I can’t ask you to listen to me. That’s not what we do. That’s not who we are.”
“Then why are you here?” Chanolsa asked. The assassin’s approach to public speaking was certainly a different one, but since Wynni had clearly been corrupted by the humans she associated with Chanolsa could guess what would come next.
Among those who fell from the strictures of Shadowfolk society, there was a recurring vision that the Shadowfolks methods were cruel and self defeating. People who were dragged before a tribunal often tried to argue that what their betrayal had been in the best interest of the Shadowfolk and that they’re weakness in refusing to execute a mission objective was some odd form of strength. If Chanolsa was right, then she would hear yet another appeal to a sense of morality that relied on mythical qualities which no sapient beings they interacted with had ever shown they possessed.
“That’s where my burden comes in,” Wynni said. “I’ve apparently become a Speaker for Silian.”
The room erupted in a chorus of questions and jeers.
“Yeah, I know,” Wynni shouted over them. “Believe me, I am not thrilled by that notion either.”
“If you’re a Speaker then what’s Silian want you to say to us? This should be amazing right?” one of Nelosa’s neighbor’s asked.
“Nothing,” Wynni said. “I’m not going to waste my breath trying to talk through your individual concerns. We’d be here for hours and to be quite honest, we don’t have that long. Elder Tonel is on the verge of pushing us over the brink – literally – right now.”
“If you’ve got nothing to say, then get out of here,” Nelosa’s neighbor said.
“You remember that I’m allowed to stab people who interfere with my mission aren’t you?” Wynni asked. “And see that right there is why I’m not going to talk to you. Silian is.”
Chanolsa blinked. The assassin was not following anything close to the speech that most betrayers gave. To suggest that Silian, long dead Silian, would talk with them directly? That had to involve a trick of the highest order.
“Really?” Chanolsa said, unable to contain her disbelief. “And what do we have to do to hear from our esteemed and revered progenitor? How are you going to make the impossible happen here?”
“I’m not,” Wynni said. “You are. Any of you who don’t believe me, or anyone who does and wants to talk with Silian anyways, all you have to do is invite him in. Before you do that though, I have to warn you, getting him to shut up is nigh impossible. If you give him leave to come into your life, he’s going to be there forever. You can ignore him – which I highly recommend most of the time – but there’ll always be someone with you, a snarky, judgmental – oh yes you are judgmental, easily offended person, who will give you another perspective on things whether you like it or not.”
It was the most ridiculous offer Chanolsa had ever heard. Just say ‘yes’ and you could talk to the closest thing the Shadowfolk had to a god? With no need to swear eternal allegiance or pay a blood price to join the secret cult? That was not how contact with a supreme being was made. There needed to be pomp and circumstance and gold drenched ceremonies in the most spectacular of settings. Gods didn’t form personal relationships with their followers. That’s what the priests were for.
Even in more recent times, when the gods slept and hated the Chanolsa’s race, there was still a small but active clergy among the Shadowfolk, people whose role it was to advise the Elders on the best path for the community based on the gods’ original design for them before the humans and the other races had tainted the love the gods held for their darkest creation.
It was absurd to think that could be replaced with anything, or that the Shadowfolk’s savior would answer their call personally.
“I’m in,” Chanolsa said, anger waiting for the moment when the assassin’s words would be revealed as the lie they were. Then the guards would come, and then the trial would happen, and then Chanolsa could laugh at the idiocy that drove fools to their own destruction.
“Well, the first thing you’re going to want to consider is who, exactly, the fool is here?” Silian said.
Chanolsa spun to her side, but all she saw was the faintest ripples of an extremely well cast invisibility spell. It wasn’t the sort of tell that gave away a flaw in the spell’s design, it was the kind of imperfection you interjected into a veil when you were teaching a child.
“Who are you?” Chanolsa asked, and heard a half people around her ask the same question.
“Let’s be brief here, I’m Silian, you know I’m Silian, I can prove it to you a dozen times over, but it’s all going to boil down to you deciding to accept who I am or crawling inside a series of increasingly convoluted delusion. Save yourself the headache, and save all of us the time ok?”
This was not at all how a god was supposed to talk.
But it was absolutely how Silian had been described in the most ribald tales about him.
“But, I don’t understand, why come back now?” Chanolsa asked.
“I didn’t come back,” Silian said. “I never left you. You are all my children. My ornery, misguided, ignorant children, but if you were perfect, well, you wouldn’t be mine then I guess.”
“What do you want of us though Lord?” Chanolsa asked, her mind turning upside down from the awe of speaking to the one who she owed her people’s entire existence to.
“Nope, no Lord, we’re not going there,” Silian said. “Listen, I am not apart from you. I am one of you. If my words have any extra weight to them, it’s because I can see a bit farther than you and across a little more time. All I have to offer you is words though. I can’t live your life. I can’t even tell you what you have to do. All I can do is tell you what I see, and ask you why you think what you do. All the choices that are before you? Those are all yours to make. That’s what I fought for centuries ago. It was never just about living. It was about being able to choose for yourself how and why you would live.”