Monthly Archives: December 2016

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 8 – Run Away With Me

Yuehne wasn’t sleepy in the slightest but she climbed into the giant hostel’s oversized bed and pushed back the mountain of sheets and blankets that lay on it.

It had been hours since most of the people she’d traveled to the giant’s aerie with had departed to investigate a warren in the depths of the earth. The Faenirel wanted to see what sort of death trap the elven leader of the Queen’s Guard was proposing for their new home and somehow the group had garnered enough collective wisdom to determine that bringing the Princess they were trying to protect along wouldn’t be a wise move.

Yuehne didn’t see how leaving Iana with her assassin was a wiser move, until Pelay, the other Queen’s Guard offered to stay behind and ensure that Iana was properly protected. The presence of a full Pact Knight terminated all of the plans that Yuehne could bring to mind. The presence of that particular Pact Knight was even worse though. Even with significantly greater resources at her disposal, Yuehne wasn’t sure there would be any viable options for finishing her mission. Pelay seemed more than half enchanted even when outside her pact armor, and Yuehne wasn’t at all sure where, or if, the Queen’s Guard’s senses ended.

Pelay never even watched Yuehne directly, but every time Yuehne edged towards Iana, Pelay was there, an inch closer, not so much blocking Yuehne from trying anything but taking up the right space to make it clear that any move against the Princess would necessitate going through her Guardian. It was done with the sort of unconscious grace that suggested a form of freakish omniscience.

Or, Yuehne tried to reassure herself, it might have just been her nerves speaking.

She’d tried to kill the Princess. She should have succeeded or died. Or both. Instead she found herself in a weird twilight state where victory hadn’t been achieved and yet neither had she failed. Not yet. Except in not-failing, she’d fallen under the power of her target who was trying to do…something with her?

“Are you sleeping?” Iana asked.

Terror shocked Yuehne’s limbs. She flew to the far side of the bed. Her heart lodged in her throat and she was only spared the need to suppress a scream because she couldn’t make any noise at all.

“I guess not,” Iana said.

The door to Yuehne’s room hadn’t opened. Iana hadn’t entered it. She’d simply appeared, like a vengeful wraith at the side of Yuehne’s bed.

“What are you doing here?” Yuehne asked, fighting to keep her voice calm and even and failing on both counts.

“They’re tracking you aren’t they?” Iana asked. She stood beside the bed, unmoving. Her voice was neither accusatory, nor frightened, nor pleading.

“They who?” Yuehne asked.

“Your backers in the Shadowfolk,” Iana said.

“I’m not working with them,” Yuehne said. “I don’t know where they came from.”

“And you won’t tell me who you are working for,” Iana said. “Great. Then they’re Drone Drivers. Not what I was hoping for, but not so surprising I guess.”

“What are you talking about?” Yuehne asked, irritation flaring as she was left with the feeling that despite there being on two people in the room, she wasn’t part of the conversation that was occurring.

“The Shadowfolk,” Iana said. “They’re supporting the people who gave you the order to kill me.”

“That’s impossible,” Yuehne said.

“Do you think your sponsors would turn away the gift of observation and intel a race who can turn invisible would be able to provide?” Iana asked.

“No,” Yuehne said after a moment’s consideration, “But what do you mean by Drone Drivers?”

“It’s a type of enemy we trained to fight,” Iana said. “There are creatures in the Council’s lands which can plant suggestions in the minds of those they encounter. Usually they rely on a mix of chemicals delivered via powerful pheromones, but whatever the method, their principal tactic is the same; get other creatures to enact their plans for them, so that they’re shielded from discovery and reprisal.”

“That’s not what the Shadowfolk we saw did. The attacked directly and without hesitation,” Yuehne said, more and more convinced that she had fallen into a strange ‘other realm’ where everything was nonsensical.

“We saw them turn invisible and strike slowly enough that Keeper Qui-Kel was able to stop them,” Iana said. “What we didn’t see, but can imply, is that they were there for a reason related to someone in the room. That reason is unlikely to be the Faenirel based on both the ease with which Keeper Qui-kel stopped them and the fact that the Faen were in that location for years.”

“But the Shadowfolk attacked the Faenirel first?” Yuehne said.

“But they attacked the wrong Faenirel,” Iana said. “They chose the two people in the room who were the most obviously experienced and who were bearing weapons. They considered Daloth and Che-chara to be the biggest threats.”

“If they weren’t there for the Faen then why would they attack at all?” Yuehne asked.

“Because Keeper Qui-kel acknowledged their presence,” Iana said. “She wasn’t going to let them leave, so they had to fight.”

“But they teleported away,” Yuehne said.

“Did they?” Iana asked. “I talked with Che-chara about that. In Faen’s battles with the Shadowfolk, she never saw evidence of the Shadowfolk using mass teleportation either for moving troops into battle, or when retreating. So it must be limited, probably greatly so.”

“Fine, but what does this have to do with me?” Yuehne asked.

“The Shadowfolk followed us to that meeting,” Iana said. “Of everyone there, you are the most likely to have been in contact with them. Even if you didn’t know it.”

“The same’s true for you isn’t it?” Yuehne asked. “Who would watch a perfectly normal citizen of the realm when they could watch one of the new princesses?”

“You’re easier to get to than I’ve been,” Iana said.

“I got to you,” Yuehne said.

“You weren’t a threat though were you?” Iana asked.

Yuehne scowled. She hadn’t failed yet. Better that the princess think she was safe though. That opened the path to a lot of possibilities.

“You weren’t a threat, because you weren’t given the right tools to be a threat,” Iana said. “That was necessary though for you to get past the protections that are in place on the royal castle.”

“You keep saying that but I almost had you,” Yuehne said.

“I gave you the chance to attack me,” Iana said. “I let you try again and again. It’s not your fault that you didn’t succeed. From your style, I would guess you’ve had a few rigorous weeks of training. I was being taught how to fight before I could walk, and I’ve been fighting since I could understand language. I was pleased with our skirmishes not because I won, but because I didn’t kill you. I am not a good person, or a safe one.”

“Then maybe you shouldn’t ever be Queen,” Yuehne said. “We’ve had too many bad rulers already.”

“I agree,” Iana said. “As I am now, I should absolutely not be made Queen. I don’t understand your realm, and my training and reflexes are all wrong. I can’t be the ruler that Alari is.”

“Well at least that would be good,” Yuehne said.

“You don’t know the things she’s done, do you?” Iana asked. “You don’t know what this realm would look like without her?”

“I know that without her whole wicked family, there’d be a lot more left of Gallagrin,” Yuehne said. “We lost so many people during her coup that entire towns were obliterated. There are fields that are nothing more than mass graves now. We’re like Authzang, with places where nothing will ever grow again!”

“And so, what, you want someone else to take her throne? Someone you feel is wiser?” Iana asked.

“I didn’t say that,” Yuehne said, inwardly cursing that she’d opened up even that much. The Princess was too perceptive by far, and the Queen and her wife even more so from the horror stories Yuehne had heard.

“Maybe you think a Council would work better?” Iana asked. “I could understand that. It seems bizarre to put all of the power of a realm into one person’s hands, but I’ve seen up close how even with checks and balances, a single bad leader can turn a government of the multitudes astray.”

“Who says we need a queen or a council?” Yuehne asked.

“You’d prefer to live like the beasts of the forest?” Iana asked. “Anarchy for all? I’ve seen that too. It works out well. For the strong. Or for those who will cower properly before the strong. It also well for those who would overthrow anarchy and replace it with the order of their choosing since the weak have been taught to kneel already. Cut the head off the leader and those being led will gladly trade one yoke for another. Until they don’t and there’s more blood to be spilled.”

“Fine,” Yuehne said. “What do you want from me?”

“Very little,” Iana said. “Mostly just that you’ll stay alive.”

“Why? Why do you care? I tried to kill you! Even if you are merciful and forgiving, why would you care if the Shadowfolk killed me?”

“Do I need a special reason?” Iana asked.

“Yes. Yes you do,” Yuehne said. “People aren’t like this. They don’t shelter people who try to hurt them. They’re not kind and willing to listen to people who hate them.”

“Maybe they should be,” Iana said. “Maybe I know that I should be. Maybe this is all an act to convince myself that the things I did are in the past and that I’m a different person now.”

“No. There’s more than that,” Yuehne said. “You say those words, but you don’t look guilty. You don’t sound sorry for whatever happened. You have some other reason, you’re pulling some other trick, and you don’t want me to notice it.”

“That’s probably true too,” Iana said. “I’ve spent the last year learning what it means to rule people rather than command them. Do you know what the difference is?”

“Rulers get to keep their hands clean?” Yuehne said.

“No. Rulers have the dirtiest hands of all,” Iana said. “The difference between commanding and ruling is that Commanders have objectives and issue orders to achieve those objectives and that’s all they need to care about. Rulers on the other had have a broader mandate. They need to issue their edicts with consideration for all of the impacts those edicts will have. A commander is responsible for the success or failure of the mission. A Ruler is responsible for everything that happens as a result of the choices they make.”

“So if I kill someone else, that will be your responsibility?” Yuehne asked.

“Yes, and yours,” Iana said. “In sparing you, I chose to act as the arbiter of your fate. I’m responsible for what I did and anything that I chose not to do. None of that would absolve you of the guilt of choosing to do something like that though.”

“So I’m guilty and you’re guilty and we’re both not worthy of the roles we’re supposed to play,” Yuehne said. “Is that why you’re here?”

“Yes,” Iana said. “How would you like to have a chance to become more worthy?”

“How?” Yuehne asked.

“Run away with me,” Iana said.

“You’re insane.”

“It’s been suggested,” Iana said.

“You’re going to kill me, aren’t you? You just don’t want to do it here.”

“No. Like I said, I need you to live. If I let you die, that will mess up a whole lot of plans, and probably wind up getting me killed too.”

“You think I’m going to protect you?”

“I think you’re going to try to kill me,” Iana said. “I think as long as that’s a possibility, the people backing you are going to be cautious about overextending themselves. If you’re out of the picture though, they’re going to send a much better equipped assassin to deal with me. Probably several much better equipped assassins. If I’m lucky they’d be looking to capture me, but there’s a lot of princesses and princes at court now. One less might fit exactly with the message they want to send.”

“Why run away though?” Yuehne asked.

“Because they’re tracking you,” Iana said.

“But if we run, that means the Shadow folk will find us without the rest of your retinue around to protect us?” Yuehne said.

“Yes,” Iana said, an emotion like glee finally entering her voice. “That’s exactly what I’m counting on.”

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 7 – The Fixer-Upper

Grun loved flying. Landing was a somewhat different story. On a nice field, or on a prepared runway it wasn’t bad at all. As part of a noble’s service, those were the most common places one visited because noble’s pretty much only visited other nobles.

Unless the noble in question was the Queen of Gallagrin.

“I can’t help but notice we seem to be heading towards that mountain,” Keeper Qui-kel said.

The Faenirel leader had been a fine companion for the trip, much more inquisitive than Grun would have guessed from her initial reluctance to board the carriage.

“That’s our destination,” Grun said, nudging the Wind Steed team to slow and gain altitude at the same time. It wasn’t a maneuver which came naturally to them, but Grun had landed the team in stranger spots and they trusted his judgement.

“It seems rather vertical,” Qui-kell said. “Where are we supposed to land.”

“On the mountain,” Grun said. “There’s an entrance that will open for us when we’re a little closer.”

“We are rather close already aren’t we?” Qui-kel asked.

Grun urged the Wind Steeds upwards until the carriage was at a forty five degree angle.

“”We’ll be getting a lot closer in a minute.”

Landing in a sky giant’s aerie was the sort of thing respectable drivers never had to deal with. No noble in their right mind wanted to bother a Sky Giant, must less visit one personally.

Unless the noble in question was the Queen of Gallagrin.

Below them the mountain side blurred into a flashing array of greens from the pine trees and slate gray from the jagged rocks that made up the mountain’s face. Grun gave the team a looser rein, allowing them to pick up a bit of speed. Beside the mountain, the wind played treacherous games and having the momentum to beat it into the shape you needed was worth the risk that a faster approach entailed.

“Why are there no straps to hold onto?” Qui-kel asked.

“Aerial fights require quick reactions, and, apart from those, a sky carriage’s route is supposed to be smooth and trouble free,” Grun said.

“This is smooth and trouble free?” Qui-kel asked, her claws sinking into the finely polished wood of the driver’s bench.

“Mostly,” Grun said, gritting his teeth and playing the reins carefully as an unavoidable squall of turbulence shook the carriage.

By the time they reached the next patch of clear air they’d dropped close enough to the mountain that Grun could see the individual pinecones on the fir trees below them. That was a few hundred feet closer than regulations suggested for an approach, but under the circumstances Grun knew it was best to let the team ride the breeze they were on rather than try to regain altitude. He couldn’t quite see the pattern of the landing flags, but working out where to go on the fly was just part of the fun.

Their landing platform appearred seconds later, the mountain cracking open to reveal a narrow passage into the inner sanctum of the Sky Giants. For safety, official sky carriage regulations suggested reducing speed to a canter and signaling the landing crew of your approach.

Grun urged the team to the fastest gallop they could manage and smiled as the carriage lurched forward. Giants, of any ethnicity, shared a culture where physical prowess and daring were cherished highly. Also, the sky giant aerie had kept its gate’s closed which suggested that there were things flying about which even creatures as powerful as the giants found troublesome to deal with and, from his experience with the beasts of the air, Grun wanted to be tucked away somewhere safe as quickly as possible..

Qui-kel didn’t scream, or even whimper. That was a somewhat promising sign, but a glance over at the Keeper told Grun that he was going to want to find something very important to do the moment they landed. Staying near the Keepers claws being a bad idea if she didn’t have to keep them sunk safely into the bench.

As landing’s went, their arrival at Taughuam, the Giant’s, aerie was close enough to perfect that Grun could used it to teach a class. The team’s hooves touched so lightly on the arrival platform that the carriage rolled to a halt without a single vertical bounce.

“Very nicely done,” boomed a giant’s voice. “But we were pointing you to platform nine, not seven.”

Grun winced.

“Sorry, we were following a clear breeze,” Grun said.

“It’s ok,” Ethgred, the giant responsible for coordinating the landings, said. “We know your folks don’t get much practice with difficult approaches.”

Grun scowled, his professional pride stinging. It was such a nice landing, and both platforms were open, so really what harm was done? He knew better than to voice his complaints though. Landing coordinators had absolute dominion over their platforms and Ethgred would be well within his rights to hold up all the landings until Grun maneuvered to the correct location.

“Eth!” Jyl shouted as she jumped from the carriage’s interior.

“Laughing?” Ethgred said, taking a step back as a delighted smile dawned on his face.

Jyl leaped up and caught the sky giant in a hug around his throat. That her arms couldn’t actually complete the circle was only slightly less silly than the fact that even hanging from his neck, her legs ended before they reached the middle of the sky giant’s belly.

The scene was worthy of a giggle, except when Grun noticed that the Queen’s Guard had made the leap to the giant’s neck without transforming at all.

“Laughing?” Grun asked, looking at Qui-kel who was as perplexed as he was.

After a moment, Jyl swung around to sit on Ethgred’s shoulder and the two of them took stock of the people exiting the first carriage.

“It’s just a nickname,” Jyl said.

“No, it’s a warning,” Ethgred said.

“Of what?” Grun said.

“We used to work with the Lady Lafli, but after a few quests it became apparent that it simply wasn’t fair to unleash her on the things that troubled us without giving the poor beasts some sort of warning. So we renamed her.”

“How is ‘Laughing’ a warning?” Grun asked.

“It’s Laughing Death actually,” Jyl said. “Which is just embarrassing. I wasn’t that good.”

“That good at what?” Qui-kel asked.

“I solved some problems for them,” Jyl said.

“What sort of problems?” Grun asked.

“The sort we feared to fight on our own,” Ethgred said.

“Wait. You tangled with things that sky giants are afraid of?” Grun asked.

“I’m much smarter than that now,” Jyl said. “Now I have underlings to do that sort of thing for me!”

“Uh, thank you?” Pelay said, disembarking from the carriage with care.

The moment she was clear, she began taking in the aerie. Her movements reminded Grun of the Wind Steeds when they found a new cloud formation. Quick little breaths to pull in snatches of air and discern what scents it held.

“We’re clear here,” she said after a moment of study.

“Clear of what?” Ethgred asked.

“Shadowfolk,” Jyl said. “Ran into an indeterminate number of them back in Highcrest.”

“What are Shadowfolk doing in Highcrest? I thought the Butcher King slaughtered them all?” Ethgred asked.

“He missed a few it seems,” Jyl said.

“More than a few,” Qui-kel said. “We had two try to attack us when we caught them.”

“My condolences,” Ethgred said.

“You ran away from two of them? How dangerous are these things?” Grun asked.

“Two of them aren’t a problem,” Jyl said. “Or not an insurmountable problem. The issue is that where you find two of them, there’s usually a few hundred lurking.”

“They’re a very careful race and very committed to mayhem once they’re provoked,” Qui-kel said.

“Who set them off?” Grun asked.

“Me, apparently,” Iana said.

“You’re from the Green Council aren’t you? I didn’t think they had Shadowfolk over there?” Grun asked, noticing Iana’s accident.

“I left the Council lands,” Iana said, a scowl hardening her lips.

“Eth, allow me to introduce Princess Iana,” Jyl said.

“A pleasure Your Highness,” Ethgred said with more deference than Grun had ever heard in a giant’s voice. “So is she who you need to hide here?”

“Not exactly,” Jyl said. “We’ve got a family of Faenirel who need a place to stay while we deal with the Shadowfolk threat.”

“The Aerie is not open to outsiders,” Ethgred said. “Only the cloud market is and there’s not much housing available there..”

“We have no wish to burden your honor,” Keeper Qui-kel said.

“They don’t need to stay in the Aerie, or the cloud market,” Jyl said. “There’s the Spectre’s Web.”

Ethgred threw a disbelieving glance at the small woman on his shoulder.

“You want to send them to the Web?” he asked. “The Web?”

“What is this Spectre’s Web?” Qui-kel asked.

“A nightmare,” Ethgred said.

“A refuge.” Jyl said.

“A refuge for nightmares? How interesting. Tell me more,” Qui-kel said.

“When I was here the last time, one of the places I went was to an old dwarven town that’s located deep underneath the mountain,” Jyl said. “Except it wasn’t a town the dwarvens built for themselves. They made it for a arcane researcher.”

“So it is full of magical traps but no actual spectres?” Qui-kel asked.

“Just the reverse in fact,” Jyl said. “Professor Nilia and her research staff are still there, despite being dead for around five hundred years now. The mystic protections and security measures have faded away though.”

“The ancient dead are not things my people disturb,” Qui-kel said.

“Professor Nilia isn’t your usual sort of spectre,” Jyl said. “She and the other original researchers are bound within the circle of their old lab.”

“We still would not walk halls they have claimed as theirs,” Qui-kel said. “Bindings can fail all too easily.”

“Usually, that’s true, but in this case the bindings failing would be a good thing,” Jyl said. “There’s a team of living researchers who are working with them to make that happen. They’ve been at it for a few years now and had only limited success so far.”

“Why would you want to free the dead?” Qui-kel asked.

“Because they’ve asked us to,” Jyl said. “They’re trapped there, prisoners of their own cleverness. They need our help to move on.”

“But once they’re freed what’s to stop them from slaughtering any living thing they can get their hands on?” Qui-kel.

“They’re not hungry ghosts, just bored ones,” Jyl said.

“That’s not all that’s in the Spectre’s Web though,” Ethgred said. “Tell them about the spiders.”

“Oh, yeah, there are spiders there too,” Jyl said.

“What sort of spider?” Qui-kel asked.

“The kind that grow about twice as big as me and can speak,” Jyl said. “Interestingly though, they’re aquatic. So as long as you don’t need to use their part of the lake, I don’t know if you’ll even run into them.”

“And there’s the Hungry Lights,” Ethdred said.

“Ah, true. Those you will run into,” Jyl said.

“Hungry light?” Qui-kel asked.

“They’re bits of pure magic that are so bound together that they resemble floating, glowing crystals. They’re leftovers from Professor Nilia’s original research.”

“And what do these Hungry Lights do?” Qui-kel asked.

“Eat things,” Jyl said.

“Things like people?” Qui-kel asked.

“Yes, but they’re very easy to avoid,” Jyl said. “They glow, obviously, and they move slowly. They also eat slowly, so if one starts bothering you, you can push it away before it gets in much more than nibble.”

“And when we need to sleep? Will we be posting guards just to take a nap?” Qui-kel asked.

“There are plenty of rooms in the town with doors that close. That’s more than enough to keep the Hungry Lights at bay,” Jyl said.

“So allow me to see if I understand this correctly,” Qui-kel said. “In order to protect us from a humanoid threat whose principal menace is the ability to pass partially unnoticed, your plan is to place us in an ancient, subterranean lair filled with bored ghosts and the researchers who are experimenting on them, spiders that live underwater and probably won’t bother us unless we approach their lake and floating people eaters made out of pure magic which we will need to bar our domiciles against?”

“More or less, yes,” Jyl said.

“And what will we be eating in this lovely town?” Qui-kel asked.

“Mostly fish from the lake I think,” Jyl said.

“Where the spiders live?” Qui-kel said.


“And what we will do for light to see by?” Qui-kel asked.

“I believe the researchers that are there just shove the Hungry Lights around,” Jyl said.

“The ones that want to eat us?”


“This sounds lovely,” Qui-kel said. “Let’s go have a look, shall we?”

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 6 – Unspoken Words

Qui-kel wasn’t too old. She told herself that with each step she climbed, and with each annoying twinge from her knees. She’d been a holy terror when she was young, and the only thing becoming Keeper had changed was that she had to place more emphasis on the ‘holy’ than on the ‘terror’ part of her natural tendencies.

It was a difficult balance to hold sometimes though and rising into the surface world was definitely one of those occasions.

“Are you okay?” Iana asked.

Qui-kel hadn’t been paying enough attention to notice that the human girl had been walking behind her. Allowing someone, anyone, to sneak up on her was the sort of deadly mistake that Qui-kel was never allowed to make. To her credit though she didn’t take the human girl’s head off her shoulders. It was proof that with age came wisdom, or at least skill at self restraint.

“My people are at war again, and we are fleeing from a very nice home,” Qui-kel said. “Before we can rest comfortably again, there will be blood and death. Theirs and probably some of it ours.”

“Why?” Iana asked. “Why does it have to be a fight to the death with these Shadowfolk?”

“It’s their nature,” Qui-kel said. “They’re remnants. Experiments tossed aside by the gods when they were crafting the Mindful Races.”

“We had creatures like that in the Green Council,” Iana said. “Hateful things that existed only to inflict misery. Or that’s how I was taught to think of them.”

“Then you know the sort of foe we face,” Qui-kel said.

“I don’t think I do,” Iana said. “I slaughtered a lot of monsters in the Lost Glades, but I never once tried to speak with them.”

“You can’t speak with animals,” Qui-kel said. “That’s what sets the Mindful Races apart from the creatures below them.”

“Animals and monsters don’t have language, but they are closer to us that people here seem to think,” Iana said.

“No matter how similar the Shadowfolk are, they can’t help but be killers too,” Qui-kel said. “We tried to reason with them. To bargain and live in peace. They don’t value those things though. They only understand the edge of a claw.”

Iana was going to reply but one of the sky carriage drivers stepped forward before she could.

“We’re ready for you now,” he said, indicating the carriage which the Wind Steeds had pulled up to meet them.

Inside, Jyl, Che-Chara, Daloth and a handful of others were already being seated.

“Looks cozy,” Qui-kel said.

“We have the most comfortable carriages in all of Gallagrin,” the driver said.

“I’ll ride outside.” Qui-kel said. Being exposed to the open sky made her whiskers twitch, but Qui-kel was certain that maintaining her dignity as Keeper was going to be immeasurably harder if people were around to see her struggles with traveling by air.

“It’s much safer in the carriage,” the driver said.

“That’s why I’ll right outside,” Qui-kel said.

The driver looked at Iana, who in turn looked at Jyl, who shrugged in acceptance.

“The packages and gear will be loaded atop the carriages,” the driver said, “But there’s room at the reins if you’d like to sit there?”

“That would be acceptable,” Qui-kel said.

Climbing up onto the driver’s bench of the carriage roused a few complaints from Qui-kel’s tired bones but she shushed them and settled in, making sure she had a good hand hold on the side of the bench in case a gust of wind tried to pitch her off.

Despite the speed of their liftoff though, no gusts troubled her.

“The air feels so still?” she said, glancing over at the driver.

“It’s part of the enchantment on the carriage,” he said. “We fly high enough and fast enough that no one would be able to hang on, or breath, without the carriage being surrounded in a bubble of stable air.”

“And what happens if the bubble pops?” Qui-kel asked.

“There’s a reserve screen that will deploy,” the driver said.

“And if it fails as well?” Qui-kel asked.

“Then we’re probably under attack and it will be up to us to manage accordingly,” the driver said.

“I confess I do not see how one could fight at all without ground beneath their feet and, ideally, walls and a ceiling to limit the avenues of attack.”

“I’m not sure I can see how someone could fight if they were all hemmed in,” the driver said. “In my world, you need room to dodge and places to escape to.”

“Our worlds are similar then. I am Keeper Qui-kel.”

“My name is Grun,” the driver said. “I hear there might be some people following you?”

“Creatures more than people, but I do not believe they can follow us here,” Qui-kell said.

“That’s one of the joys of sky carriages, there’s no limits in the sky,” Grun said.

“And no places,” Qui-kel said. “This isn’t somewhere that we can stay.”

“Not forever,” Grun said. “But you might be surprised how long you can be up here if you try.”

“You enjoy being in the sky?” Qui-kel asked, careful not to look down. The notion of voluntarily traveling through the air when it wasn’t a crisis situation was foreign to her. It was always possible to manage a long fall, but possible was very different from easy or certain.

“I do,” Grun said. “I’ve always felt like the sky is where I was meant to be.”

“But it’s so dangerous up here,” Qui-kel said.

“It’s dangerous everywhere,” Grun said. “Up here though I can see the dangers coming from far away.

“But can’t they see you too?” Qui-kell asked.

“They can, but the intelligent ones at least can also see that I fly for the queen,” Grun said.

“And if that doesn’t stop them from attacking you?” Qui-kel asked.

“Then we’re definitely under attack and it will be up to us to manage accordingly,” Grun said.

“That prospect doesn’t seem to worry you,” Qui-kel said.

“I’d like to say that the only thing that’s ever worried me is whether I’d be able to make it as a flyer,” Grun said. “The truth though is that there’s always a ton of things to worry about. Being up here helps with that. It takes the edge off of the rest of the worries. Makes them seem a little more distant.”

“I find it is sharpening mine,” Qui-kel said.

“That’s because you don’t feel like you’re in control,” Grun said. “Here, take these.”

He handed her the reins to the wind steeds.

“No! What I am supposed to do with these?” Qui-kel said, trying to hand them back.

“Nothing really,” Grun said. “The steeds know to stay on the currents and if things get rough they can find a smooth path for us to follow.”

“Why have reins at all then?” Qui-kel asked.

“To talk to them,” Grun said.

“Talk?” Qui-kel asked.

“The steeds know how to run. They know how to fly. What they don’t know is where we want them to go. That’s what the reins are for,” Grun said.

“To force them to follow the path you wish to travel?” Qui-kel asked.

“You can’t really force a wind steed to do anything,” Grun said. “They’re a lot bigger and more powerful than we are. Or at least than I am. And they don’t like to be forced. A driver that leans on the reins too much will have a bunch of very grumpy Wind Steeds to deal with at the end of the ride, and that is not fun, let me tell you.”

“But aren’t they yours to command?” Qui-kel asked. “I thought they had to be specially bred to bear a sky carriage into the air?”

“The breeding part is right,” Grun said. “Natural born Wind Steeds don’t take to the load of a sky carriage well. It spooks them too much. Our girls up there though, they’re braver than a Pact Knight biting on the edge of a berserker.”

“So it’s not fear of a whip that bends them to your will then, interesting,” Qui-kel said.

“Fear’s a terrible thing to put into a wind steed,” Grun said. “The last thing you want is to pass by a storm cloud and have one of the steeds lead the rest into a panic.”

“If not fear then what technique do you use?” Qui-kel asked. “I don’t see any suitable bribes to compel their behavior with?”

“Bribes only get you so far,” Grun said. “If you make it all about the treats then the canny beasts learn to demand one for every little thing. No, part of training a good steed is building up a rapport with them. They want to run like this, and the carriage isn’t much a burden at all. A good flight lets the steeds get a workout and enjoy the company of their friends, which includes the driver.”

“And they don’t mind the reins forcing them to go where the rider wants?” Qui-kel asked.

“They’re wind steeds, they don’t have anywhere in particular they want to be, except running in the sky,” Grun said.

“Why don’t they just stay up here then?” Qui-kel asked.

“Sometimes they do, the young ones at least,” Grun said. “We don’t use those on passengers carriages.”

“What happens to the drivers who get stuck with a young one like that?” Qui-kel asked.

“They get to enjoy a long ride,” Grun said. “Not much a driver can do if a steed gets it in their head to hie off to the farthest cloud they can see.”

“That sounds inconvenient,” Qui-kel said.

“It can be,” Grun said. “Kind of funny too though. The poor beasts will run until they’re out of magic and then descend to the ground and start looking around for home. Like their stable was loping along after them. That’s when a driver can really make a bond with them though.”

“How so?” Qui-kel asked.

“Well the youngling that races off for adventure inevitably finds itself alone, and hungry, and lost, but there’s still someone they can turn to who can make things right,” Grun said.

“The driver can lead them back,” Qui-kel said, seeing how the scene must usually play out.

“And feed them,” Grun said. “The silly things don’t think about their stomach until it’s empty.”

“It seems like the carriage bred Wind Steed are fortunate creatures,” Qui-kel said.

“They’re not the only ones,” Grun said. “It’s a real privilege for the drivers and trainers too. We learn as much from them as they learn from us.”

“What do simple animals have to teach you?” Qui-kel asked.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever tried to put it into words before,” Grun said. “They look at life differently than we do, and if you’re around them long enough they’ll tell you about it.”

“I don’t think I understand,” Qui-kel said.

“It’s like, for a Wind Steed, the world is more immediate than it is for us,” Grun said. “They’re always right here, in this moment, observing the world as it is. People tend to drift away more than that. We do things like worry about what’s at the end of run instead of watching the winds around us and the land we’re passing over. I’ve missed the most obvious things until one of my steeds pointed it out.”

“How do they communicate with you? They don’t have language do they?” Qui-kel asked.

“They do, just not like us,” Grun said. “What they want to say, they’ll express with their body language, or their whinnies, or by resisting an instruction. The biggest mistake fledgling drivers make is not listening to their steeds when the steeds are unhappy.”

“What happens then?” Qui-kel asked.

“It depends on what the steed’s noticed that the driver hasn’t,” Grun said. “Best case, the whole team will just come to a standstill until the driver fixes whatever’s wrong or gives them another path to follow.”

“And the worst case?” Qui-kel asked.

“Well, it’s not common, but if the driver’s really bad, the team can always roll the carriage over,” Grun said.

“What happens to the driver then?” Qui-kel asked.

“They fall. But like I said, that’s not common. Even the worst drivers know not to push their steeds that far,” Grun said.

“It seems like a self-correcting problem,” Qui-kel said.

“It is to some extent,” Grun said. “Still there’s always a need for good drivers. Too many people out there want to fly and only look at the Wind Steeds as a tool to make that happen.”

“If only they could speak,” Qui-kel said.

“That’d be nice but I think it’s more important for us to learn to listen,” Grun said.

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 5 – Negotiating the Terrain

Che-chara was out of her seat before Keeper Qui-kel finished her warning. It wasn’t fast enough to avoid the attack from the Shadowfolk but as usual she didn’t have to.

“And I guess that answers the question of whether they’re still hostile.”

Qui-kel was an elder among the Faenirel. By rights that should have meant that her reflexes were slowing with age. If that was true though, then the reflexes she had when she was younger would have put the gods themselves to shame.

In one paw, she held the wrist of the Shadowfolk who tried to attack Daloth. In the other hand paw, she held the throat of the Shadowfolk who tried to attack Che-chara.

“We should…” the elf woman Jyl started to say.

The Shadowfolk tried to twist out of Qui-kel’s grasp. To resume their attack. They lost blood, and maybe a throat. And then they were gone.

“…not kill them.” Jyl finished with a sigh.

“You can’t talk to them,” Qui-kel said. “And apparently you have to kill them faster that I could.”

“Or keep them in bright light, right?” Jyl said.

“What would that do?” Daloth asked.

“Block their ability to teleport. It only works shadow to shadow,” Jyl said. “Or at least that’s the rumor I heard.”

“Might be true,” Qui-kel said. “Never caught one in a fully lit area though.”

“Can they even go into a place like that?” Pelay asked.

“Maybe not, but that’s what traps are for,” Jyl said. “Something you’d think they’d consider before launching unprovoked attacks.”

Che-chara noticed both Jyl and Pelay were in their armored forms,and both had moved from their seats to flank either side of the girl named Iana. She wasn’t sure when that had happened, which was almost as scary as Qui-kel’s inexplicable reflexes.

“Lots of options for dealing with traps,” Qui-kel said. “Quick as they are, ‘kill the people who set the trap’ is probably a viable option for them most of the time. Which is why we’re leaving.”

“They’ve lost blood,” Daloth said. ”They won’t forgive that easily. We had to kill how many of them the last time before they gave up. And apparently even that wasn’t enough to keep them away forever.”

“We’ll be more convincing this time,” Qui-kel said as she rose from her chair.

“You said ‘all of us’, if you mean to include Pelay, Brenn, Iana and myself in that, we request to impose on your most gracious hospitality, so long as we place no burden on your family’s honor, until this crisis is resolved,” Jyl said.

Che-chara turned to look slowly at the surface dweller. Those were very particular words she’d spoken. Words that only another Faenirel should have known.

The room went eerily quiet for a moment as Keeper Qui-kel regarded the elven woman.

“Who’s cub are you?” she asked, in a low, quiet voice.

“I have no place among the Faen,” Jyl said. “I claim no benefit of family or kin, but I have been received by the Kuindai family of the Fallen Archives.”

“You are a friend of the Lore Keepers?” Qui-kel asked. “Why don’t you claim their friendship? Did you dishonor their hospitality?”

“We parted in joy,” Jyl said. “But I was not with them long enough to to put in a claim of friendship or family.”

“Why did you leave after so little time?” Qui-kel asked.

“I was an Adventurer once,” Jyl said. “I needed an answer from their tomes and they needed a cavern complex cleared of lava beasts.”

“You fought lava beasts? How strong is that armor you wear?” Che-chara asked.

“Oh, I didn’t have a Pact Spirit then,” Jyl said. “That’s what I needed their tomes for.”

Che-chara knew that Adventurers from the surface had the reputation for lacking in basic self-preservation instincts but fighting lava beasts without armor seemed reckless beyond what even a fool like Daloth would attempt.

“With so little contact, I am surprised you learned to request hospitality properly,” Qui-kel said.

“I…extended my stay with the Kuindai,” Jyl said. It wasn’t possible to blush through armor but the elf sounded like she might give it a try.

Qui-kel rolled her eyes and sighed.

“Olo-ven,” she said, as though the name could be assigned the blame for any number of vexing incidents.

“Was a very accommodating host,” Jyl said.

“Yes, she is” Qui-kel said. “I recall. Well, in any case, yes, I invite you and yours to enjoy my family’s hospitality until this crisis is past, or you place a burden on our honor.”

“Yuehne too,” Iana said. “You didn’t mention her but she has to come with us.”

“That will be…” Qui-kel started to say, but Jyl cut her off.

“Wait, before that’s agreed to, she is the assassin who was sent to kill you, isn’t she?” Jyl asked.

Che-chara turned to look at the other human girl. She had been exceptionally quiet through the whole proceeding. At least verbally. Her body language screamed about the whirlwind of thoughts that roared with her, but from her build and the natural readiness in her posture, Che-chara believed the girl could be a trained killer.

“That’s not important,” Iana said.

“We cannot offer hospitality to anyone who intends malice to those already under our hospitality,” Qui-kel said.

“She’s not going to hurt me, or anyone else,” Iana said.

“You can’t actually know that,” Jyl said. “Whatever she’s told you is filtered through the lens of a defeated assassin. She could be willing to say anything to get you to leave another opening for her to strike through.”

“I told her I was going to kill her,” Yuehne said.

“She’s an honest assassin at least,” Brenn, the dwarven woman said.

“It’s not going to be a problem,” Iana said.

Behind Iana, Jyl gave a cringing shrug and a look of understanding passed between her and Keeper Qui-kel. Che-chara was only rarely tasked with looking after the family’s young and she considered it a miracle from the gods that she hadn’t bitten one or more of their heads off. Yet.

“Perhaps the assassin’s target could offer her bond against the assassin’s behavior?” Che-chara suggested. It was a ridiculous idea, but ridiculous seemed to be the order of business for the day.

“Absolutely,” Iana said.

“Absolutely not,” Jyl said. “I will offer a bond for Yuehne’s behavior, since of the two of us, I am the one who knows what that means.”

“Do you?” Qui-kel asked.

“I believe I do,” Jyl said. “With my bond, I pledge that Yuehne will not violate the terms of your hospitality and if she does the dishonor from that breech will not fall on you, but will rest entirely with me.”

“That doesn’t sound that bad,” Iana said.

“The punishment for dishonor of that magnitude that is death,” Jyl said.

“Death is one of the punishments,” Qui-kel said. “The rest are no less severe though.”

“I can’t let you do that for me,” Iana said.

“You can’t do it for yourself,” Jyl said. “If you die, there would be no one to suffer for the dishonor of your being killed.”

“In dying she would take the dishonor with her,” Qui-kel said. “But as she is still a cub, and as you are her guardian, it is more fitting that your bond be given.”

“Thank you Keeper Qui-kel,” Jyl said and bowed without taking her eyes off the Keeper.

Whatever else Ol-ven had shared with the elven woman, she’d been careful to teach her proper manners too. Che-chara purred to herself. The elf was still an outsider and a surface dweller but she had respect for the Faen and that was too rarely found outside of the families.

At Che-chara’s side, Daloth relaxed, perhaps sensing her happiness or perhaps because of the general lessening of animosity in the room.

“So where are we going to go?” Daloth asked.

“The only place we can go,” Qui-kel said. “Into the light.”

Hobgoblins of fear sunk their claws into Che-chara’s arms and legs.

“You don’t mean we’re going to leave the Underlands do you?” she asked.

“We must pass beyond the reach and sight of the Shadowfolk,” Qui-kel said. “The Underlands are many things but free of shadows is not one of them.”

“But to go to the surface?” Che-chara asked.

“We’ll have more resources to help you there,” Pelay said.

“And we can drop Brenn off,” Jyl said. “She was only conscripted into this as an impromptu guide.”

“That’s not strictly accurate,” Brenn said. “First I volunteered and second, Keeper Qui-kel said we’re all leaving and I believe she hass a very particular reason for that.”

“You’ve dealt with the Shadowfolk before?” Qui-kel asked.

“Not personally, but my family passes down stories about them too,” Brenn said. “They fight pretty dirty, and they don’t tend to leave their enemies alive for very long.”

“You haven’t done anything to them though,” Jyl said.

“Two of them saw me with you,” Brenn said. “And, to be honest, my family has stories about them because we’ve never exactly gotten along. There’s probably two or three vendetta’s I should be pursuing against them.”

“Two or three?” Iana asked.

“My family collects vendettas like other people collect paintings or sculpture. It’s hard to keep track of them all,” Brenn said.

“Thanehammer clan?” Jyl asked.

“That’s us,” Brenn said.

“Who are the Thanhammers?” Iana asked.

“They’re one of the larger dwarven clans in Gallagrin,” Jyl said. “People often mistake their customs for the typical nature of dwarves, something which doesn’t please the other clans all that much from what I’ve gathered.”

“Or those of us in the clan who…differ in view from the elders,” Brenn said.

“Then we shall all depart, immediately,” Qui-kel said.

“What if there are other Shadowfolk in your domain?” Brenn asked.

“There aren’t,” Pelay said. “I didn’t know what the odor was until the Shadowfolk appeared, but I know when the two we just saw joined us, and I can’t smell any other traces of them.”

“You can smell them?” Daloth asked.

“Yes, can’t you?” Pelay asked.

“Daloth’s nearly nose-blind,” Che-chara said. “I have no such excuse though.”

“I am not noseblind,” Daloth said. “I just don’t focus on such imprecise information as that.”

“You almost died in the fire pits five times,” Che-chara said. “It’s a miracle you can still smell at all.”

“Send word to the family,” Qui-kel said to Che-chara. “I want an invisible departure. Take nothing that isn’t irreplaceable. Tell our people to pause in mid-meal, or with whatever task they are working on undone. Leave traces that we have moved in every direction and none. I want the Shadowfolk to search this domain from top to bottom. Oh and leave a few surprises for them.”

Looting an abandoned Faenirel stronghold was a perilous prospect for many reasons, not the least of which being that an empty Faenirel home was a warren of automated death which came from every direction.

“If they can follow us from the shadows, how are we going to leave the Shadowfolk behind?” Iana asked.

“We need to find the brightest spaces we can, and when they’re not looking, vanish ourselves into shadows they will never think to check,” Qui-kel said. “Then we can begin crafting the right mechanisms to combat them.”

“Is that how you fought them before?” Brenn asked.

“Yes,” Qui-kel said. “We thought that with the security we designed for this domain that we’d be able to use it as a permanent refuge. Instead it will be the our answer to their first strike in renewing aggressions between the two of us.”

“We’ll make it count Keeper,” Che-chara said.

She took charge of organizing the family from there, spurring them all into the unthinkable yet well-practiced action of abandoning their home and living life on the run again.

No one was happy with the disruption, but enough were familiar with the family’s last war against the Shadowfolk to treat the matter with the urgency it deserved.

A while later, as they rose towards the surface, Che-chara thought to question Jyl on the support they could expect.

“Can the surface dwellers really do anything for us?” she asked.

“We’re limited by a lot of the same things that limit you,” Jyl said. “But we do a few tricks which you lack, and the Shadowfolk may not be expecting those.”

“What surprise could throw them off our path though? They’ve scented our blood, they can follow that anywhere can’t they?” Che-chara asked.

“They can follow us on the ground, but I imagine this will give them some trouble,” Jyl said, helping Che-chara up out of the sewer.

They’d arrived at a wide, open field, but in place of grass there were several slabs of poured concrete. On the smoothly constructed field, a dozen sky carriages of varying size awaited them.

They weren’t going to flee from the Shadowfolk, they were going to fly from them!

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 4 – Hidden Claws

Daloth Kinshield believed himself to be the most stalwart of the Faenirel. He’d done more than survive battles in the deepest darks of the Fire Chasms, he’d sought them out time and again. With tooth and claw, he’d beaten back demons of the lost ages that surface dwellers didn’t even have names for. His fur had been singed, scraped and ripped more times that he could count but he’d never flinched from the prospect of another battle.

Of course he’d never run face first into several hundred tons of Earth elemental at close range either.

It was a perfectly natural reaction to hiss in surprise and leap back thirty feet when the wall you were walking past came to life unexpectedly. The trembling in his arms and legs may have lacked the dignity a Faenirel was expected to exhibit, but the elders could bite their tails if they thought they could do any better.

Walls didn’t move, or at least they weren’t supposed to. Not on their own, and if they were moving it was usually a sign that something very bad was in the process of happening. Like an earthquake. Or a cave-in. Or an earthquake that was causing a cave-in.

None of those options involved the wall revealing wide rows of teeth though.

Nor people stepping out of the wall.

In armor.

“Invaders!” Daloth cried. He may have been terrified beyond reason but that didn’t mean he was going to fail in the defense of his home.

“You know I really should have seen this coming,” a short woman in armor said.

Behind her, Daloth saw a dwarven woman bury her face in her palm.

“We’re not invaders!” the other, taller woman in armor said.

“Well, technically, we are,” the shorter woman said. “But we’re probably not hostile.”

She step forward and the armor flowed off of her in a shimmering sparkle of light. From her ears, Daloth saw she was an elf, from the crook of her smile, he saw she was trouble.

“Jyl Lafli, Subcommander of the Queen’s Guard of Gallagrin,” the shorter woman introduced herself. “We’re hoping you can tell us why someone stole one of our princesses.”

Daloth heard the rustle of approaching troops. This close to the family’s home there was no shortage of warriors on duty to respond to a call of invasion. Whether all of the warriors the family possessed would be enough to stop the enormous Earth elemental was something Daloth didn’t want to think about.

“We have no princesses here,” he said. “You are trespassing on our domain. You should leave, immediately.”

“There’s an argument that says you’re the ones trespassing since everything in and under Highcrest belongs to the Queen, but I’m willing to grant your claim’s more valid in practice,” Jyl said.

“Then leave,” Daloth said.

“We need our princess back first,” Jyl said.

“We don’t have any princesses here!” Daloth said, hearing his backup arrive.

“Unfortunately it seems that we do,” Che-chara, his sometimes paramour and sometimes rival said.

Daloth turned to see the seven Faenirel warriors who’d run to support him were escorting a young Faen who was in turn escorting two human girls.

“What, exactly, is going on here?” Daloth asked, fighting the urge to copy the dwarf and bury his face in his hand.

“That’s a great question,” Jyl said. “Here’s a better one, Iana are you ok?”

“How in the Green did you get her before us?” Iana asked.

“They came inside…” Daloth’s words died away. The Earth elemental was gone. No marks on the stone. No rumbling from its departure. It was just gone. Like it never existed.

Reflexively sheathing and unsheathing one’s claws was frowned on in Faenirel society. It was considered a highly aggressive display. In that moment though Daloth didn’t care. He was feeling highly aggressive and if someone presented themselves as needing a good scratch, or better yet and full on eye gouge, he would be more than happy to oblige.

“I’m going to take that as ‘yes, Jyl, giving you a heart attack was wonderful fun, but I’m fine and ready to come home where you can lock me in chains and throw away the key’.”

“Are we allowed to lock up a princess?” Pelay asked.

“We are if we don’t tell Dae or Queen Alari about it,” Jyl said, a flicker of malicious delight dancing in her eyes.

Daloth knew about the Gallagrin Queen. Or he’d heard of her at least. Feeling like he’d stepping the middle of a bizarre family quarrel, he cleared his throat.

“Giri, would you please explain what is going on here?” Daloth asked in as slow and non-homicidal of a voice as he could muster. It was neither that slow nor that lacking in homicidal menace.

“Shadowfolk,” Giri said. “They were being stalked by Shadowfolk.”

“I told you we hadn’t seen the last of them,” Che-chara said.

Daloth sighed and abandoned his resistance against blocking out the world with the palm of his hand.

“Shadowfolk?” Jyl asked.

“Yes, they are people, creatures really, who dwell in the Underlands,” Che-chara said. “Very dangerous.”

“I know what they are, I just didn’t think we had any living anywhere near Highcrest,” Jyl said. “The Butcher King wasn’t especially fond of them.”

“They are exceptionally difficult to eradicate,” Daloth said. “A fact I conceded at the time you may recall.”

He directed the last comment to Che-chara to remind her that he’d been in favor of pursuing the last group of Shadowfold they’d encountered and he’d been overruled for a trivial reason like the potentially mortal wound he’d taken in the battle against them. It hadn’t really been that bad. He’d survive it after all and that had only taken three weeks of bed rest.

“That sounds like all the more reason for us to take our princess and get out of your domain,” Jyl said.

“I can’t do that,” Iana said.

“Of course you can’t,” Jyl moaned.”Because nothing is ever allowed to be simple.”

Despite the fact that elf had broken into his home and lacked all manner of proper decorum, Daloth found himself warming to her. They shared a bond of similar frustration if nothing else.

“Perhaps we can put away our claws and blades and move this somewhere that we can talk about it like civilized Faens?” Che-chara suggested.

“That sounds like an excellent plan,” Daloth said. “And perhaps Giri can go and invite Keeper Qui-kel to join us. I’m sure she’ll want to hear that the Shadowfolk have returned.”

Daloth watched Giri’s ears and tail droop at the suggestion. Interrupting Keeper Qui-kel during meditation hours wasn’t fun when you were bringing the best of news and the return of the Shadowfolk was about as far from the best of news as it was possible to get.

To her credit though, Giri departed without an argument, probably mindful of the scolding she was due for bringing a pair of outsiders into their domain without permission.

Che-chara led the warriors and the intruders down a winding path to a small cavern. That it happened to be the room they used as a jail for rule breaking Faen or captured enemies didn’t seem to be lost on the Queen’s Guards or the dwarf but the adults didn’t offer any protest or hesitate to take their assigned seats.

Daloth felt a stab of misgiving cut through him as he evaluated their calm faces. Dwarves were often calm in his experience, but Elves and Humans tended to object when you locked them up. He glanced at Che-chara and from her nod saw that she’d arrived at the same conclusion he had. They weren’t protesting because they didn’t think the Faen could hold them.

Daloth considered the Earth elemental and wondered if they were necessarily wrong in that belief.

“We should wait for Giri and Keeper Qui-kel before we begin any discussion,” Che-chara said, slipping into the chair to the left of the one the Keeper would sit in.

Daloth took chair to the Keeper’s right, judging himself the equal of anyone who was not a Keeper. It was a rude gesture towards the intruders, and one their leader seemed to understand from how she questioned him with a raised eyebrow. He stared back at her, no humor or mirth brightening his face.

“Agreed,” Jyl said and took the chair farthest from the Keeper’s, gesturing for her two companions to sit beside her in the other seats of low precedence.

The princess and the other girl took their seats beside Pelay, occupying an in-between realm which bordered both the Faenirel and the surface dwellers.

Daloth leaned back in his chair and smiled. From his experience with surface dwellers it would only be a matter of time, minutes at the most, before they would start talking and offer the sort of insult that Che-chara would answer with violence. She was sensible and reserved most of the time, but he’d seen her hair trigger temper slip once too often to mistake her for harmless like so many of their guests had.

To amuse himself he tried to decide who in the intruders party would be the one to provoke Che-chara’s rage, by trying to start a discussion ahead of time.

Not the Subcommander, Jyl. She was reclining in her chair, wearing a smile that matched his own. No blades were drawn but neither of them was under the delusion that the situation was anything other than a battle. If blades were drawn, she would be the first one Daloth would go for. It would be a bloody exchange but the last time a surface dweller’s reflexes exceeded Daloth’s was never, so he was confident he’d at least survive it.

Pelay, the other knight, was holding her tongue as well, and was looking to Jyl so often that Daloth was sure she wouldn’t speak before she was spoken to either.

The dwarven woman could probably be provoked into speaking, but that didn’t strike Daloth as a wise move. Angry dwarves were one of the last thing you want to fight in the underlands. Even if you won one battle, the inevitable war that followed tended to be announced by cave-ins that buried entire families in eternal tombs of stone.

Even the damn children were preternaturally silent. The one called Iana sat at attention, her gaze focused on a point in the middle distance, her thoughts entirely unreadable behind the frowning mask that she called a face.

The other one was similarly silent, though her face betrayed some bone deep terror that Daloth couldn’t begin to guess the cause of.

It was ten minutes before Keeper Qui-kel returned with Giri in tow, by which time Daloth’s smile had soured to a frown and Jyl’s had faded to a mildly amused ripple of her lips.

“Hello intruders,” Qui-kel said. “You brought Shadowfolk to our domain.”

“Hello Keeper,” Jyl said. “You stole our princess.”

“Giri says she came willing,” Qui-kel said.

“And why would she do that?” Jyl asked.

“Because they know about the Shadowfolk,” Iana said. “And while the Shadowfolk are bad at killing me, I wasn’t willing to wager they’d hold back that much when it came to killing Yuehne.”

“So, you figured to going down into the deepest hole you could find, following someone you just met was the wisest course of action available?” Jyl asked.

“I knew you were with us,” Iana said. “And, yes, it was the wisest course of action. When else would I have been able to meet the Faenirel?”

“You see how happy they are to make your acquaintance,” Jyl said.

“What I’m most displeased with is a return of the Shadowfolk and our being involved in it,” Qui-kel said.

“You’ve dealt with them before?” Jyl asked.

“We survived them,” Qui-kel said, an assessment which Daloth felt undervalued his contribution to the battles against them tremendously.

“I only know of them,” Jyl said. “I didn’t think any lived near Highcrest anymore.”

“That’s what we thought too,” Qui-kel said. “Kind of hate that we thought wrong.”

“So, basically, mistakes were made,” Jyl said. “In the interest of not making anymore, and in light of your experience in the matter, what do you want to do next, and how can we help?”

“Why would you help us?” Daloth asked.

“The Queen’s protection extends to everyone in Gallagrin,” Jyl said. “Pelay and I are sworn to her and by extension also sworn to those she protects.”

“We’ve never bent a knee to your queen and we never will,” Qui-kel said.

“No reason that you have to,” Jyl said. “You’ve protected us from the less pleasant things that lurk down here. You’re at the very least neighbors we owe a debt to, and that’s assuming you don’t wish to claim your rights as citizens of the realm.”

“Is she serious?” Qui-kel asked.

“I think so,” Pelay said.

“The new queen does seem to be the sort to say that kind of thing,” Brenn, the dwarven woman, said.

“Well good then, you can help us move,” Qui-kel said.

“What!” Daloth hadn’t imagined the Keeper would take a rumor of Shadowfolk sighting that seriously. Yes, they’d lost over twenty Faen the last time they’d warred with the Shadowfolk but that didn’t mean they would fare so poorly again.

“We’re moving. All of us. Our guests included,” Qui-kel said. “If the Shadowfolk are operating anywhere near here then they have our location discovered and mapped already. We need to get outside their sphere of influence, or, failing that, get setup somewhere that we can catch their initial scouting parties.”

“Are they that bad?” Jyl asked.

“Well, from the smell, I’d say there are two of them in the room with us now and no one’s noticed them yet,” Qui-kel said.

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 3 – Irregular Stones

Brenn rubbed her hand along the uneven texture of the stone wall beside her and had to grit her teeth against the urge to fix the one hundred and thirteen things that were wrong with it. The surface was a nightmare of uneven edges and unfinished cuts. Green-grey mold came away from the wall where she touched it. It wasn’t substandard work Brenn saw before her, it was worse than that. They weren’t standing in a created space, one crafted and cut to fit a purpose. The passage around them was a scar of destruction ripped through the rock and stone that stood between one point and the next.

“I’ve never been a part of the Mining Guild but this doesn’t look a dwarf was ever even near this work before,” Jyl said.

“There are more than dwarves in the Mining Guild,” Brenn said. “But you’re right, this isn’t worked stone. It was torn apart.”

“By monsters?” Pelay asked.

“Of one kind or another,” Brenn said. Probably the worst monster of all if Brenn’s guess was right; humans in a hurry.

Brenn, Jyl and Pelay had passed down through maintenance tunnels and closed sewer works, long forgotten overflow cisterns and never used defense posts. They were pursuing a pair of girls who’d been the target of a simple street mugging, and despite over an hour of pursuit were no closer to their goal than when they’d started.

Neither of Jyl nor Pelay had named the missing girls, but Brenn didn’t need to be told that their quarry was one of the foreign princesses the queen had brought back from the war with the Green Council. If a regular girl from Brenn’s neighborhood had been snatched down to the Deep Galleries there would have been an investigation but it wouldn’t have involved two of the Queen’s Guard and it wouldn’t have involved sending people down to retrieve the missing person.

“I found another trail mark,” Pelay said, pointing to a small series of scratches on the wall.

“How is she leaving those?” Brenn asked. The previous one’s they found had been left in concrete or well worn stone surfaces. Easy enough substances to mark if you knew what you were doing. The latest set of marks were carved into Chiselbreak – stone hard enough that you generally used enchanted picks to work it. Whoever had cleared the downward sloping path that they were on had clearly lacked those tools and contented themselves with carving away the weaker vein of rock to make a passageway.

“She’s carrying an enchanted blade,” Jyl said. “Or more importantly, she’s still carrying an enchanted blade.”

“Or whoever took her is,” Brenn said and wanted to bite back the words. Dwarves are dour. Everyone said that. Everyone knew that. Everyone except dwarves themselves.

“I don’t read Council glyphs,” Jyl said. “But that’s what these look like to me.”

“So either Iana’s leaving the marks herself so that we’ll follow her, or whoever snatched her is from the Council and is leading us into a trap,” Pelay said.

Her eyes reminded Brenn of a rabbit. Furtive, forever twitching about looking for sign of danger. There was no arguing with the results though. Pelay had picked up signs of Iana’s passage that even Brenn had missed, and Breen considered herself to have a masterful ability to read stone.

“Anything’s possible,” Jyl said. “I’m putting my money on Iana though. She knows we were watching over her.”

“I think whoever took her wants to get her lost,” Brenn said. “For all the traveling we’ve been doing, we haven’t moved that far from where we started. A lot of the ups and downs we’ve followed them through have been spiraling us around beneath the Silver Spring Shrine.”

“They’re avoiding sanctified ground?” Jyl asked.

“No, we’ve crossed underneath it a few times now,” Brenn said.

“Are the sewers more advanced under the Shrine than elsewhere?” Jyl asked.

“The sewer works we’ve been through? Not so much,” Brenn said. “If anything there’s fewer sewer routes than normal.”

“Why would that be?” Pelay asked.

“The space is in use by something else.” Jyl said as she worked out the possibilities.

“Basements, sub-basements and catacombs most likely,” Brenn said. “Shrines, churches and temples, they all seem to love to build themselves on top warrens of catacombs.”

“Good job security for you though right?” Jyl asked.

“I’m not with the Guild,” Brenn said, and braced herself waiting for the typical onslaught of questions. The idea of a dwarf with extensive stoneworking knowledge who wasn’t part of Gallagrin’s Mining Guild was too much for some people to process. They had to know her justification for being so horribly different from their expectations, no matter how personal the reasons might be.

“Excellent,” Jyl said. “Then I won’t get in trouble for doing this.”

Brenn hadn’t expected that response, and in her experience statements like that were never followed up by any safe or sane courses of action.

Jyl confirmed that guess when she brought a small whistle to her mouth and started playing out a distinctive medley of tweets accompanied by a rhythmic wraps against the stone floor.

“That’s not a rock caller is it?” Brenn asked, pointing at the whistle which had begun to glow in Jyl’s mouth.

Jyl looked studiously away at that, pretending to have no idea what Brenn was referring to. It would have been a good act, except for the rumbling beneath the earth which grew steadily louder as Jyl played.

Brenn knew of the device Jyl was using. She’d never seen one though, primarily because they were outlawed by the Mining Guild and avoided like the plague by every sane person who ever ventured underground. Using a rock caller when one was surrounded by the uncountable tons of earth was roughly the same as summoning a tornado while riding in a sky carriage.

The Earth elemental who burst from the wall at the end of Jyl’s playing filled Brenn with a sense of calm.

It was possible to banish small Earth elementals with the proper materials and rituals. This often resulted in deaths of two or three of the ritual’s casters as even small Earth elementals did not enjoy the process of being expelled from the material realm.

There was no worry of that with the Earth elemental that Jyl summoned though. It was far too large for any simple banishment ritual that Brenn could think of performing against it.

And it formed its body from the Chiselbreak stone of the walls around them. So fighting it with swords or picks was out of question too.

Hence the feeling of calm. Panic was useful to spur a flight or fight response. When you were completely doomed, only calm made any sense.

“Why did you call that?” Pelay asked, backing away from the elemental with a look in her eyes that suggested to Brenn a lack of understanding of how little a few extra feet of distance would help.

“Gnasher here can take us through a few short cuts, help us catch up with Iana and whoever took her,” Jyl said.

And then she started drumming her fingers on the elemental’s head.

And it rumbled.

No, not rumbled. Purred.

It rubbed against Jyl and she switched to tapping a rhythm onto it with both hands. It was like a pair of drum beats and the elemental’s body bounced and weaved in time with the song that Jyl was playing on it.

“What in the crystal caves have you done to that thing?” Brenn asked, mesmerized by the dancing of a creature far too heavy and ungainly to ever be doing such a thing.

“Nothing,” Jyl said. “Gnasher just likes a good beat.”

“How do you know the name of an Earth elemental?” Pelay asked.

“I don’t,” Jyl said. “I picked Gnasher since I can’t speak Earth elemental. I’d need boulders in my throat to make the right sounds from what I’ve read.”

“Where did you read about Earth elementals?” Brenn asked.

“I, uh, probably shouldn’t say. It wasn’t a place that encourages visitors and they might be unhappy to learn I’d snuck a peek at some of the forbidden scrolls.”

Brenn’s mind whirled. How had an elf, of all people, broken into one of the Sacred Vaults? They were guarded by every trap and defense known to dwarvenkind!

“How will Gnasher be able to help us sneak past Iana’s captors?” Pelay asked. “I’m guessing they’d notice a few hundred tons of rock slinking up behind them.”

“Oh we’re not going to slink up anywhere,” Jyl said. “We’re going to beat them to the deepest levels of the catacombs.”

“Why there?” Pelay asked.

“Because when it comes to catacombs, that’s always the place the important people hang out,” Jyl said. “They go down into the depths to get away from the surface folk and they farther they are, the safer they feel.”

Brenn wanted to debate that point, citing the numerous Dwarven cities which didn’t conform to the “deepest is best” philosophy, but when it came to catacombs she was hard pressed to think of any where that wasn’t the case.

“I don’t really want to ask this, but is this shortcut going to leave the walls down here at all stable?” Brenn asked, thinking of the immediate peril of bashing a new path through the underground.

“Perfectly,” Jyl said. “We won’t disturb them a bit.”

“That leaves me so full of questions,” Pelay said.

“Then step aboard and experience the answers for yourself!” Jyl said, and promptly stepped into Gnasher’s open mouth.

In the long list of things Brenn had never expected to find herself faced with, the prospect of willingly leaping into the crushing jaws of a monster the size of a small geographic feature was near the top of the list. With Jyl leading by example though it was strangely easy to follow.

Once Pelay joined them inside the beast’s belly, Gnasher took off.

“It doesn’t feel like we’re hitting anything but we’re definitely moving,” Brenn said.

“Yeah, we’re skimming on the edge of the Solid Space,” Jyl said. “Which you may know better than I do.”

“That’s the mythical parallel universe the gods drew the material of our world from,” Brenn said.

“Not so much mythical as inimical to our sort of life. Elementals love it though,” Jyl said.

“I understand none of this,” Pelay said.

“Picture a dimension of solid earth,” Jyl said. “Now picture the sort of creatures who could live there. That’s Solid Space and Earth elementals.”

“How do you move around in a place of solid earth?” Pelay asked.

“Either you can phase through matter, like Gnasher here, or you sit in one place forever,” Jyl said.

“There are a few other options but phasing is the most preferred,” Brenn said. “How did you ever discover all this though?”

“Before I was a Queen’s Guard, I spent a fair bit of time adventuring on my own. It’s how I found my Pact Spirit,” Jyl said.

“Ah, you’re an Adventurer,” Brenn said. She tried not to make it sound like she was saying “Ah, you’re completely insane” but she wasn’t sure if she succeeded.

Her clan had experience with Adventurers. They sent such foolish souls into the deep, dark places of the Earth to retrieve things that no one in their right mind would risk searching for.

And now she was with one of them.

Venturing into a deep, dark place.

The sense of doomed calm settled on Brenn’s shoulders like a well worn blanket.

“For what it’s worth,” Jyl said. “I obviously survived, and retired, so I’m not one of the ones who would bite off more than they could chew.”

“Biting and chewing are not exactly comforting thoughts at the moment,” Pelay said.

“Just be glad you didn’t grow up listening to ghost stories that ended almost exactly like this,” Brenn said.

“When we get back from this, when not if, you should have some excellent stories to tell at the next moot you attend,” Jyl said.

“That is a very dwarven payment for services rendered,” Brenn said. “If not for the pointy ears, I’d almost think you had some of our blood in you.”

“Elven to the bone, I’m afraid, but you love a few dwarves and it’s funny the sort of things that rub off on you,” Jyl said.

The wistfulness in her voice invited further questions but those were set aside as Gnasher’s mouth opened to reveal they’d arrived at the deepest level of the catacombs, and they were far from alone.

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 2 – Playing with Shadows

Jyl crouched several feet back from the edge of the roof doing a remarkable impersonation of a gargoyle. Her protege however was vibrating with barely suppressed nerves.

“Shouldn’t we do something about this?” Pelay asked, her voice pitched higher by nervous terror.

Down below them a princess of the realm and her assassin were being pursued by a trio of were-rats. As members of the Queen’s Guard, Jyl and Pelay were responsible for more than just the queen’s welfare. The health of her adopted daughters and sons was also part of their remit. In theory that duty also included the Queen-Consort as well but Jyl was reasonably certain that anything which posed a threat to Daelynne Akorli was a foe she couldn’t meaningful help defend against.

“No,” Jyl said. “Iana has this covered. See how she’s directing them down that alley?”

Iana, the princess in question, mentioned something about taking a shortcut at just enough volume to sound like speech yet be heard from the rooftops. Jyl wouldn’t have taken a bet as to whether Iana knew she had a pair of guardians present and lurking above her, but she was certain the girl could handle herself under the circumstances.

“That’s going to leave them cornered though,” Pelay said.

As a Pact Knight, Pelay had demonstrated above average skill, but that was a given for someone brought into the Queen’s Guard. Technically she was still provisional in the role, but Jyl had spent enough time training the new recruit in the Guardian’s Hall that some practical fieldwork felt like a perfect next step in testing Pelay’s aptitude for job.

It was, admittedly, Jyl thought, a little cruel to make Pelay’s first assignment one where the life of the heir-apparent to the crown lay in the balance. Given that Jyl’s first real assignment had been the historically unheard of overthrow of another realm though, she was only worried that Pelay might be starting with too easy of a task.

The three were-rats took the bait and followed Iana and her companion down the narrow alley, and moments later cries of shock were following by muffled screams of pain.

To Jyl’s amazement three different groups of people emerged from the buildings around the alley moments later and proceeded to venture forward to check out the disturbance.

People didn’t do that.

Or at least they hadn’t in Jyl’s experience.

She motioned for Pelay to hold her position and watched as the citizens of Highcrest apparently became involved in their community? The people weren’t forming a violent mob, and weren’t a group of drunken ruffians. They were just normal folks who reacted to a problem in their neighborhood by banding together and investigating it calmly. The idea boggled Jyl more than chasing after a royal heir who’d escaped the palace with her own assassin.

Highcrest was the royal capital of Gallagrin, but that didn’t mean it was well patrolled or defended in all quarters. Like any great city, Highcrest grew and grew until it had absorbed all of the available land. Thanks to Gallagrin being what it was, Highcrest then began turning unavailable land into habitable living spaces.

Just because you’re surrounded on all sides by mountains doesn’t mean you can’t expand. It just means that you have lots and lots of building material to work with.

Under Queen Alari’s reign, the royal treasury had never sat idle. The damage from the civil war that placed her on the throne had taken wealth to fix, and the damage inflicted by her father’s ruinous misuse and neglect of the realm had required even more. Even the war against the Green Council, successful though it had been, had not brought in piles of new wealth in any liquid form.

All that added up to mean Highcrest was not the opulent and overly endowed jewel of the realm it had once been. It wasn’t a cesspool of despair and misery by any stretch of the imagination, but things weren’t particularly easy for everyone either.

Jyl watched as the citizens carried three prone bodies out of the alley. They were all were-rats. Iana and Yuehne emerged on their own, walking beside a half-giant woman and a dwarf.

“They had these,” Iana said and passed a trio of clubs with nails in them over to the dwarf. She repeated the trick of speaking just loud enough to sound like she wasn’t shouting while at the same time projecting her voice so that the crowd (and the rooftops) could hear her.

“She absolutely knows we’re here,” Jyl said, not bothering to suppress her grin.

Officially, Iana had left the palace grounds without informing anyone. Rumors were circulating that she had been kidnapped by agents hostile to the queen but only a select few had been allowed to hear those rumors at first. Since they were started by Queen Alari, Jyl had questioned them from the beginning. She’d also questioned Wylika, Iana’s former second-in-command and still closest confidant.

Wylika didn’t come right out and say that Iana had told left a note to explain her departure. Given the illiteracy the two were still working to overcome an actual note was unlikely, but Jyl had seen them communicate with symbols on a far deeper level than most people would have imagined to be possible.

From Wylika, Jyl gathered that leaving had been Iana’s idea and was part of a grander plan. Alari concurred with that assessment and made the leap to join her adopted daughter in the idea of uprooting the conspiracy of harassment that had been plaguing them for more than a year.

Iana had an asset of the conspirators which they’d never had access to before; one of the assassin’s themselves. Alari and Dae believed in their daughter but, wisely Jyl felt, chose not to leave her completely on her own. Thus, the assignment to shadow Iana and assist her as much as, and only when, needed.

Undine had lobbied to take on the role of the princess’s silent defender but no one in the Queen’s Guard could compete with Jyl when it came to passing unseen and unnoticed. The only person she knew who could rival her in that arena was the current ducal heir to the Lafli family and Jyl was reasonably sure her sister had other issues to worry about than helping chase down a missing royal princess.

The crowd below parted as a pair of Highcrest constables arrived on the scene. They started taking testimony and deputized a few of the citizens on the spot. The deputies watched over the were-rats while the constables took statements from the crowd, from Iana and from the were-rats themselves. It was handled with such a lack of excitement that Jyl guessed the interplay between the law officers and the community was a common occurrence. Even the were-rats seemed to be aware of what their role in the proceedings needed to be. One of them shifted back to human form but the other two remained in their hybrid rat-human state, allowing the human form member of their group to answer all of the constables questions for them.

The situation on the ground was so calm and under control that Jyl almost missed what was happening on the rooftops with them. Pelay, for all her nervous excitement, did not though.

“We’re not alone,” Pelay whispered, indicating with a glance where their fellow rooftop skulker was.

Jyl narrowed her eyes and peered into the deep shadows that covered the building across the street from them. There was someone else watching the spectacle on the street. Someone in the sort of concealing, yet form fitting black garb which suggested they were not simple residents of the building.

“They’re good,” Jyl said. “How did you spot them?”

As an elf, Jyl’s eyesight and hearing ranges usually well exceeded that of her human counterparts. Pelay didn’t have that advantage and didn’t seem to need it.

“The shadows flicker but the clothes they’re in keep the area they’re standing in a shade too dark,” Pelay said.

Jyl nodded. It was one of the risks of working in stealth. Often the vantage point you wanted or needed was not the most concealing one available. The observer had selected their spot well but had been constrained by the need to watch the action below them.

“I think the were-rats are well in hand,” Jyl said. “Let’s go talk to our eavesdropper.”

Maneuvering to the opposing rooftop in stealth was a viable option, but it would require more time than they necessarily had available.

So, instead, Jyl leaped. Everyone thought of Pact armor as being bulky, heavy platemail. Few understand that the armor could be slimmed down to emphasize speed over power though.

Powered by pact magic, Jyl’s leap didn’t send her on a long arcing trajectory. She flew straight as an arrow from a bow and slammed into the other observer, taking the woman down to the ground as the two of them rolled across the rooftop fighting for control over the other.

Pelay landed beside as Jyl dragged her prey up to stand before them.

Her prey, the dummy filled with twigs and straw.

“That’s not possible,” Pelay said. “I saw her move just as you leapt!’

“What I hit was soft, but not this soft,” Jyl said.

They both stared at the bundle of clothes and then raced to the edge of the roof.

Iana was nowhere in sight.

Jyl didn’t so much drop to the street as fly to it.

Her arrival was met with astonishment. For the people who’d gathered, seeing a Pact Knight, much less one bearing the insignia of Gallagrin’s Queen was a momentous occasion.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Jyl said. “I’m looking for the girl who was accosted, did anyone see where she went?”

There was a flurry of questions from the crowd, but, maddeningly, no answers.

“I think I found something,” Pelay said, leading Jyl through the crowd and pointing to a sewer cover in the middle of the alley Iana had lured the were-rats to in order to fight them one at a time. “It’s been moved recently.”

Jyl saw the mismatch of the mold that grew on the sewer cover and the mold that grew around it. Whatever or whoever had taken Iana, they’d dragged her into the underworld beneath Highcrest. Aside from the sewers there wasn’t supposed to be anything down there, but the myths remained of whole communities that had fled from one unjust ruler or another and made their home down in the Deep Galleries.

“Is this part of the regular sewer system?” Jyl asked the half giant woman  who was nearby.

“I don’t think so,” the woman said. “It doesn’t back up when the others do.”

“Does it lead to the Deep Galleries?” Pelay asked.

“I’ve lived here for twenty years and I can’t say for sure,” the dwarf said.

“Only one way to find out then,” Jyl said and walked over to the sewer cover. “Pelay, report back to the queen, I’m going after them both.”

“We can have a report sent to Her Majesty,” Pelay said. “I think it would be good if I stayed with you until other backup can arrive.”

Jyl wanted to explain that sending Pelay away would make things easier since Jyl could focus on protecting herself and would be able to move at full speed, but then the dwarf spoke up.

“You’ll need a guide too,” the dwarf said. “I don’t know the sewers here but I know the specs they were built to. I may not be able to get you where you need to be but I can make sure you don’t get lost trying to find wherever that is.”

“I’d offer to go with you Brenn but I don’t think I’ve even fit through the hole to get in there much less be able to crawl around with you,” the half giant said.

Jyl debated for all of a single second. Taking two fledglings into an area as full of unknown dangers as the Deep Galleries was a huge risk, but it was the sort of peril she’d managed before.

“Thank you,” Jyl said. “We need to leave immediately though.”

“Yeah, that’s how adventures always seem to begin,” the dwarf said.

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 1 – The Madness That Runs from Parent to Child

Iana didn’t find reading easy. The tight wiggly marks that Gallagrin used for its standard script had none of the grace or clear imagery of the Green Council’s basic symbol set.  It hurt her eyes to stare at them for hours at a time, but she was used to pain and used to pushing her limits. That someone was creeping up to stab her while she was working so hard was either a great relief, or a mild annoyance. She hadn’t decided which.

The intruder was stealthy, nearly indetectable by Gallagrin standards, but those were the standards of people who wandered around in enormous metal platemail and thought tactics like “hit them with your offhand” were true examples of subtlety.

Iana stayed focused on her text, a simple picture book fit for toddlers, but tracked her assailant by the scritching the talons on their gauntlets made on the stone as they maneuvered onto the ceiling directly above where Iana was sitting.

It was a good spot to attack from. From directly above, the movement as they dropped down onto her wouldn’t catch Iana’s attention. If the attack was executed well, Iana would die before she was aware she was in the slightest danger. Merciful and sensible. Iana appreciated the effort and diligence the attacker showed, despite their ineptitude at actual stealth. That they were trying to kill her would have been frightening if she wasn’t used to the attempts from their frequent repetition. Her certainty of surviving the attempt was fueled by that same level of well worn experience.

She’d been a Princess of Gallagrin for a little over a year and in that time, she’d survived over a dozen attempts on her life. That was due in part to the diligence of her adopted family, in part to the care and talent of the people assigned to guard her, and in part because whoever was sending the assassins didn’t seem to be interested in actually harming her.

The attackers always arrived bent on mayhem but they never came equipped with sufficient tools to enact the violence they attempted. Instead they had, to the last, been outfitted exceptionally well for quick escapes.

Alari (Iana was still working on attaching ‘Queen’ before her name, something daily and informal contact made increasingly difficult) explained that the attempts were a message from one, or more, of the nobles. The attackers left subtle clue pointing towards various noble houses of Gallagrin. Nowhere near enough for Alari to bring the indicated Duchess or Duke to stand before her and answer charges, but enough to open questions as to their loyalty.

“Whoever’s behind this is testing me,” Alari had said. “Trying to see where I’m likely to break and against whom.”

She’d promised to reinforce the guard, and move the princesses and princes to a safer location, but Iana had spoken with her fellow heirs to the throne. Gallagrin was a foreign realm and, despite it’s monarch’s kindness, the group of Ex-Green Council Warbringer pilots felt safest staying together and staying near Alari’s sheltering influence.

That kept them in the royal castle and Iana’s insistence kept the guards and protections at a reasonable level. She didn’t want the attacks to stop, she wanted to discover who was behind them. There were sins in the world and then there was causing Alari pain or grief and Iana found herself agreeing with Dae that the latter was far worse than the former.

Thanks to Dae, the heirs were uniquely well protected too, which was part of why Iana had voted to keep them all within the castle. The sorcerous wards that Dae placed on their dwelling prevented anyone with a full Pact Spirit from entering who was not the monarch of the realm. That eliminated the truly dangerous threats and left ones like the somewhat clumsy attacker who was scuttling across the ceiling like an inebriated spider.

Iana gave them the time to get in place, using the slow minutes to try to puzzle out the next few words in her picture book. Reading was a form of magic she’d only barely been exposed to as a Warbringer commander. Her orders were all conveyed directly via the Deep Root network she’d been grafted into while she lay in her command bower. Even the readouts within the Warbringer used a pictographic symbology set that was much simpler, in Iana’s mind, than the largely arbitrary arrangement of curling lines that Gallagrin stored its information in.

If she was going to be a proper princess though, she needed to understand her newly adopted homeland and it’s history lay in books far more than it did in any oral tradition. That was why she had to master the magic of reading.

There were other perks to conquering the challenging of reading too. Alari and Dae spoke of the adventures they’d had in their youth, raiding forbidden libraries and learning all manner of esoteric things. Dae credited that as one of the foundations of the sorcery she was able to work. According to her, becoming a sorcerer had been relatively straight forward, being able to work magic effectively was something else entirely though.

Iana didn’t expect that she would ever manage to cast spells like Dae did. Privately, she didn’t think she would ever really merit the title of ‘Princess’ either, but she liked challenges, especially ones which helped her understand her world better.

She’d worked out the fifth word on the page when she heard the distinctive scrap of metal talons sliding free of the stone they gripped. The poor assassin would have starved in the forests of the Green Council with an ambush technique as bad as that, she thought as she rolled away and drew the enchanted dagger Dae had gifted her with.

Halfway through her roll, she heard a cry of dismay ring out from her attacker. The beauty of falling was that it was reasonably silent, very quick and generated a lot of force behind the initial blow the attacker struck. There was, however, the slight problem that once you began falling it was exceedingly difficult to change your path unless you had wings.

As her attacker was not a fully bonded Pact Knight, wings were pretty much out of the question, which meant that instead of a nice soft Iana-body to break their fall, they got to meet the stone floor of the library that Iana had been sitting in at full falling speed.

Falls are funny things. Iana had seen creatures make and survive all manner of drops, some intentional, some not. One of the common elements though was that landing on something other than what you planned to was never a fun experience.

Neither was having an enchanted dagger pressed to the unarmored flesh of your throat while you tried to recover from the pain and disorientation of cracking bones against an unyielding surface.

“Standard protocol when dealing with hostile enemies calls for immediate termination to ensure the health and safety of all members of the command unit,” Iana said, citing the Green Council regulations that had been drilled into her head from the time language had meaning to her.”

“Go ahead and kill me,” the girl who tried to assassinate Iana said.

“If the situation allows it, the commander in charge of the scene may choose to use the hostile as a baiting mechanism to draw out additional enemies,” Iana said. “Regulations suggest maiming the hostile in a manner that renders them permanently harmless and will elicit sympathy from any allies they might have is the most efficacious method of proceeding in most cases. Typically removal of the eyes is sufficient to accomplish this goal.”

The girl startled at that and tried to break free. Iana had expected her reaction and removed the knife from the girl’s throat before the assassin could managed to inadvertently slash herself on its edge.

A bracelet on the girl’s arm glowed a orange-red, like the center of a forge, and pulled her from Iana’s grasp. The primary escape provision had been deployed.

Iana slashed the metal bracelet off without harming a hair on the girl’s wrist.

Enchanted daggers were wonderful tools when they were enchanted properly.

The girl’s necklace glowed silver-blue next, the secondary escape provision deploying jagged wings that tried to lift the girl into the air.

Those fell by her side, sliced from the necklace in a single stroke.

The escape options defeated, necklace changed it’s glow from a soft blue-white light to a deep green one.

In less than an instant it too lay on the ground. Iana severed it before the necklace was able to do more than constrict the girl’s throat and leave a shallow crease behind. As it lay on the ground, the necklace finished it’s constriction and wound up the size of one of Gallagrin’s smaller coins.

Iana frowned. None of the previous assassin’s had been slain by their tools but none of them had come close to being captured either. The assassin’s handlers hadn’t made a serious play against Iana’s life but they seemed quite willing to terminate their agents rather than risk exposure.

“My teachers taught me never to show mercy to an enemy, never to expose myself to peril unless it was absolutely necessary,” Iana said.

“Why did you cut the necklace off then?” the girl asked, her glare filled with what Iana could only read as unbridled rage.

“Because my teachers were wrong,” Iana said. “They betrayed me the same as your masters just betrayed you.”

“I wasn’t betrayed,” the girl said. “I’d rather die than tell you anything. I wore that necklace on purpose!”

“They betrayed you when they sent you to kill me,” Iana said. “They knew they hadn’t given you the tools you needed and they sent you anyways.”

“That’s a lie, just like all your other lies,” the girl said.

“Do you know how many they’ve sent before you?” Iana asked. “They know very well what won’t work, and yet they’re not sending anyone better equipped to do the job. Why do you think that is?”

“I could have done it.You just got lucky!” the girl said.

Iana pulled the girl to her feet, and put away the enchanted dagger.

“What are you doing?” the girl asked.

“Try,” Iana said.

“Try what?”

“If you can kill me, then try.”

The girl hesitated and Iana swept her off her feet, knocking her to the ground before stepping a pace away and gesturing for the girl to rise.

For their next exchange neither held back. The girl lunged upward, aiming a clawed hand at Iana’s throat and trying to overbear her at the same time.

That didn’t go well for the girl. Iana didn’t have pact spirit reflexes, strength, or toughness. What she did have was training in hand-to-hand combat since before she could walk. Warbringers were biologic machines of vast power, but their combat skill stemmed from their driver’s capabilities and strengths and Iana had been one of the best the Council had.

After three more attempts the girl remained seating. Her shoulders drooping and her head bowed.

“You weren’t meant to succeed. You were meant to try and escape,” Iana said.

“No! I was meant to send a message,” the girl said.

“What was the message?” Iana asked. “All these times, none of you have ever said why it is you are doing this. How does my death serve your needs?”

“You corrupted the queen and you’re going to corrupt Gallagrin!” the girl said. “Gallagrin’s spirit can never be held in the hands of a foreigner!”

“What is your name?” Iana asked.

“Yuehne,” the girl said.

“And how did I corrupt the Queen?” Iana asked.

“You ensorcelled her with your blasphemous magic and forced her to accept you as her heir when your invasion failed!” Yuehne said.

“Who told you that?” Iana asked.

“Everyone knows it’s true,” Yuehne said.

“”Who’s everyone?” Iana asked. “General Kemoral doesn’t think it’s true. Dae doesn’t think it’s true. Am I supposed to have ensorcelled the strongest spell caster in the world? Is my magic stronger than a god’s?”

“The Sorceress is in league with the Green Council! The whole war was a lie,,” Yuehne said.

“You were there? You know what we fought?” Iana asked.

“It was all for show,” Yuehne said.

Iana thought back and remembered the sensation of a god’s fury raging around her. She thought of the soul numbing dread she felt when her Warbringer was drained by the Blighted Legion. She thought of the repeated and sincere assassination attempts Dagmauru had made on her life.

Wordlessly, she pulled the shoulder of her tunic down to reveal the residual scars from where the flame beetles had tried to incinerate her.

“Is this for show?” she asked. “They tried to murder me too. My superior and his allies in the Council. They tried to burn me alive when I became inconvenient for them.”

Yuehne stared at the melted flesh on Iana’s shoulder.

“I was caught, helpless in my command bower,” Iana said. “I couldn’t move. No matter how hard I struggled. Vines were grown into me and the beetles had their orders. Alari saved me from that.”

Iana pointed to the small pock marked areas on her arms and neck, the last visible markers of the interface points that she used to be connected to her Warbringer by.

“I foreswore my realm for her because of what she did for me,” Iana said. “So think whatever evil you wish of me, I don’t care, but do not think less of her. Ever.”

“She shouldn’t be giving Gallagrin to a foreigner,” Yuehne said.

“I have no realm, so this is my home as much as any other,” Iana said. “I can never return to the Green Council’s domain, not after what they did to me. But I also know I’m not fit to bear the Spirit of Gallagrin and when the time comes I am sure it will choose to pass to a worthy successor instead.”

“But you’re the Princess,” Yuehne said. “You’re the heir!”

“Alari only did that to show people that we were under her protection,” Iana said.

“She didn’t protect you from me.”

“I asked her not to,” Iana said. “I knew if we let your people keep trying we’d catch one of you eventually.”

“I won’t turn on them,” Yuehne said.

“I won’t ask you to,” Iana said. “I want to know what you want. What convinced you that I should die.”

“It’s not about you,” Yuehne said. “It’s about maintaining the purity of our realm.”

“I’ve heard that argument all my life,” Iana said.

“It’s how the gods designed us,” Yuehne said. “It’s why you’re an abomination.”

Iana let a bitter chuckle escape her lips.

“I’ve spoken with a god, and seen what a true abomination is,” Iana said. “Abominations are born from fearing and hating others. We…I have done terrible things from fear and hatred.”

“But they still made you a Princess.”

“What if I wasn’t?” Iana asked. “What if I left here with you.”

After a year of listening to Alari and Dae’s tales, Iana was able to recognize when a mad plan had gripped her mind, but, thanks to the example they set, incapable of resisting it.

“Why?” Yuehne asked. “I mean why would you do that?”

“I have a lot to learn about Gallagrin, and I’m not going to learn it here in the castle,” Iana said. “And you have a lot to learn about me.”

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 57

Dae woke softly before the dawn and resisted the urge to stretch lest she disturb the queen who slept nuzzled up against her. Just the sight of Alari, serene and at peace, put a lump in Dae’s throat and an insatiable desire to kiss her on Dae’s lips. Only the desire to preserve that peace held Dae back and let her enjoy the minutes as they passed by, giving her time to gaze softly at the woman in her arms.

Dae remembered her dreams and for a change didn’t flinch from them. Gone were the images of dragons and waves of terror. In their place she walked barefoot in a garden of soft grasses and clear streams. The calm she felt there soothed her heart and let her view the world around her without plunging into worry about the world to come. As blessings from a goddess went, there wasn’t anything Telliakai could have gifted Dae with that would have been kinder.

Even in the dark of the night’s last vestiges, there was light in her world. The moon shone down through the windows the kept out the chilly spring breezes and kept in the warmth from the small room’s hearth. Light pooled on the bed, accenting Alari’s long hair and soft features.

Dae watched as Alari breathed, unable to believe the path her life had taken. From noble’s daughter to condemned prisoner to a princess’s handmaiden and a queen’s knight. She’d stumbled and fallen so many times, and believed more than once that she would never get up again. Yet, as a new dawn approached, she found herself suspended in a perfect moment.

All was quiet. All was calm. The maelstrom of problems that always awaited was no more formidable than on any other day and far easier than some recent trials had been. Alari was safe, and secure and happy and hers.

Dae’s eyes drunk that in. Just the sheer sight of so beautiful and precious a person so close and open to her. Memories swept through her, of time spent sleeping alone in military barracks or, worse, surrounded by friendly troops and still alone in tents or fields or castle quarters.

She’d left Alari to keep her safe, but Dae had also left to find her own life. In doing so she’d discovered strengths and weaknesses both of which had served her well. In the end though the deepest lesson she’d learned was that allowing her life to be intertwined with another’s, with Alari’s, was what she’d always truly wanted.

“It’s not fair waking up before me,” Alari said with a lazy stretch that arched her back and brought her head up closer to be level with Dae’s.

“No bad dreams this time,” Dae said. “Only a really nice one that I got to wake up beside.”

“I’d ask you to pinch me to make sure I’m not the one who’s dreaming, but we might never get out of bed then,” Alari said.

“I can enchant the door to be unopenable if you’d like?” Dae said. The idea was more than half tempting. Despite the nights they’d spent together, Dae was far from having her fill of time alone with Alari.

“I won’t say no to that, not today,” Alari said.

“You cleared your schedule?” Dae asked.

“Yes I did. Do you know why?”

“It’s not my birthday,” Dae said. “Or yours.”

“You’re worth celebrating every day, not just once a year,” Alari said. “And I want you as my present every time I wake up.”

“Why clear today then?” Dae asked. “I mean as tempting as it would be I don’t think we can lock ourselves up in here forever.”

“Because today the nobles are going home,” Alari said. “The last group reswore their fealty to me at the end of the open court.”

“Wait, what? I thought they asked for a week to formulate their list of demands,” Dae said.

“Technically they were supposed to be giving me their requests and recommendations,” Alari said. “Faen talked with them though and they dropped their discussions.”

Dae laughed.

“He problem said I’d eat them if they aggravated you any further,” Dae said.

“I don’t know, they seemed tired more than anything else,” Alari said. “A few chose to retire and have their heir take their place, probably at Faen’s prompting, but the rest seemed genuinely interested in putting the past behind us.”

“Forgiving them all, again, probably helped. It’s got to be dispiriting to keep trying to revolt only to have your monarch treat you kindly each time you fail,” Dae said.

“Maybe for some of them. I think the rest saw the sort of profits the royal treasury was reaping from trade with our neighbors while they squandered their time and money trying to unseat me. Kindness may warm their hearts, but money gets them out of bed in the morning.”

“You know there’s not enough money in the world to get me out of this bed,” Dae said and flicked her hand towards the door. A sparkle of light appeared around its frame and lingered there. The dragons of Paxmer, all of them, could try to break down the door and it wouldn’t budge an inch.

“And here I was looking forward to seeing you in the royal baths,” Alari said, mischief alight in her eyes.

Dae kissed her.

“You can see me wherever and whenever you like,” she said when they paused for breath.

“Do you know how happy you make me?” Alari asked. “I never thought I’d have this.”

“Kisses? I used to give you lots of them,” Dae said and gave Alari a little peck on her left earlobe.

“Oh, believe me, I remember every one of them,” Alari said. “I spent a lot of nights here with nothing but those memories for company. That’s not what I meant though. For so long I thought my being queen meant that you’d hold yourself apart from me. Like I was a precious kind of doll that could only be admired so much.”

“I think I did feel like that at first. Like the time I got to spend with you and the things we did together were all just pretend,” Dae said. “I always knew you would have to do the right thing for Gallagrin and marry some Prince to produce little heirs. Even if we’d stayed together there wouldn’t really have been a place for me in that arrangement.”

“Well we see how well the whole ‘marry a Prince’ idea worked out,” Alari said.

“It was a good idea at the time,” Dae said. “Don’t get me wrong, I still wish I could chop his head off again and again, but right then it was what you needed to do and I don’t fault you for it at all.”

“I do,” Alari said. “I can’t claim that I knew how bad he was. I was more blind to that than anyone, and I think for a time I really did care for him. But it never felt quite right. I cared for him but I loved someone else, and even though she was far away, and hated me, I still wanted to be with her more than anything, because what I did with her was never just pretending.”

“You’re very wrong about that,” Dae said. “I never hated you. I hated myself. I might have hated your Consort-King too, but that was jealousy, pure and simple. And I never wanted what was between us to be pretend, I just couldn’t bring myself to hope for more than that. Halrek got you and that was how everyone thought it should be. My feelings were a tiny little thing compared to the good of the realm.”

“Bet it felt good to behead him,” Alari said.

“Oh you have no idea,” Dae said. “But that was mostly in retrospect. Seeing you as hurt as you were then almost killed me.”

“It was worth it,” Alari said. “Every ache, every pain, everything that got us to today was worth it.”

“Yes,” Dae said. “Yes it was. I thought the dragon broke me, but he didn’t, and if I hadn’t faced him I could never have faced the Divine Sanction with you.”

“And now you’re a sorcerer,” Alari said. “How does that feel?”

“It’s hard to describe,” Dae said. “I feel like I’m always changing, always transforming into something new, but without the wild uncontrollable surges that I used to feel when I merged with Kirios.”

“And it doesn’t hurt?” Alari asked.

“No, I probably should have noticed that from the first but it didn’t occur to me,” Dae said. “I thought I could manage to get into the state Mayleena’s in, where’s she kind of a Berserker and kind of not at the same time, but that’s not where I wound up.”

Alari reached over and hugged her.

“When you said you were going to turn into a Berserker do you know what my first thought was?” Alari asked, holding Dae close.

“You were going to order my magic away,” Dae said, gently hugging Alari back.

“No, that was the plan I came up with,” Alari said. “My first thought was whether I’d be able to become one with you.”

“A queen of Gallagrin going berserk would have been pretty unstoppable,” Alari said.

“I had to keep you safe somehow,” Alari said.

“You did,” Dae said. “I’m not being metaphorical either. You saved me when we were little and you saved me a thousand times since then. Every time the world felt like it was dragging me under, you were there, you were my lifeline.”

“I wasn’t with you when you needed me most though,” Alari said. “I almost lost you.”

“Kirios said that after Haldraxan, I wasn’t afraid of his power enough,” Dae said. “It’s why he couldn’t transform with me. I wasn’t afraid enough to hold back anymore, and if we’d transformed together we would have gone berserk for sure. When it came down to it though, he was wrong. There was one fear I had left and it was stronger than anything else. I called for magic and let him go and it was my fear of never seeing you again that let me hang on to who I was.”

Alari hugged her tighter and Dae felt tears fall onto her shoulder.

“I knew you couldn’t be for me,” Dae said, ”But you showed me your love so many times and in so many ways, that I was able to hang on while hanging on was impossible. I can never repay you for how much you’ve given to my life, I can only give you all of me that there is to give.”

“I am for you though” Alari said. “And I want you for me. I want all of you and I want to give you all of me. Forever.”

“Then I’m yours, forever, no qualifiers. All of who I am, all of who I’ll become.” Dae said.

“What can I offer but the same. All of who I am and all of who I’ll become. Yours, forever,” Alari said.

“You are still the queen though,” Dae said. “I feel like I’m robbing Gallagin of its finest treasure. Not that I plan to give you back mind you, but still you are kind of precious.”

Alari pushed away and stared straight into Dae’s eyes.

“I am no more precious than you,” she said. “If we’re going to be together, really together, I can’t be your queen. You can’t put me on a pedestal, or hold me at a distance. First and foremost we have to be in this together. As equals.”

“All of me and all of you,” Dae said. “I promise there’s nothing you’ll have to face alone and if I hold you it’s only going to be to bring you closer.”

Dae kissed Alari again and they drew each other in tighter to their shared embrace, hope and joy and fulfillment radiating from them to light all of their days and nights to come.

The End