Monthly Archives: February 2017

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 25 – Second Waves

Glyra knew when she was out of her element. She’d studied scrying magic for most of her life, and that had placed her near the front lines of a battle more than once. Watching brutal struggles from afar had been enlightening and had left her with no desire whatsoever to see one up close.

What one desires however is not always what one receives.

“What happened here?” Jyl said as she burst back into the tent.

“Shadowfolk,” Glyra said. “We were attacked a moment after you left.”

“How?” Jyl asked.

“We think they tracked the resonance from one or more of the observation gnats back to us,” Glyra said.

“I thought we were shielding those?”

“We were, but there’s always going to be some leakage,” Glyra said. “It’s a balance between how much we can see and how quiet we can be while observing.”

“One of them got away,” Lipa’roon said. “And one of them didn’t.”

Her right hand was covered in blood.

Her left hung limply at her side.

“How badly are you hurt?” Jyl asked.

“More than I want to be,” she said. “It feels like he cut my arm off. Check out Kai first though.”

“There’s no need. I’m fine,” Kai said from behind a desk.

“If you’re fine then stand up,” Lipa said.

“I think I’m happier here,” Kai said.

“Let me take a look at her,” Pelay said, moved around the desk to inspect the fallen Faen kit.

“I can’t believe they tricked us like that!” Jyl said, clearly looking for something to smash but refraining due to the general chaos that was already present in the scrying tent.

“I’m not sure that they did,” Glyra said.

“You think they just got lucky?” Jyl asked.

“Or unlucky, depending on how you look at it,” Glyra said.

“Unlucky would have been appearing fifteen seconds sooner when Pelay and I were still here.”

“Not for that one,” Glyra said. “You would have had the option to fight him in a less lethal manner.”

“They probably weren’t expecting serious opposition with us gone,” Jyl said.

“They probably didn’t stop to think what the opposition would be at all,” Glyra said. “The spot that they were hiding in would have been extremely easy to overlook. Our standard sweep would have missed it entirely and a slow search would have given them plenty of time to hear us coming, which they were obviously capable of doing.”

“Even a great defense isn’t perfect though,” Jyl said. “This could have been a contingency plan.”

“If it was, wouldn’t they have had a more significant force to send against us?”

“That’s a good point,” Jyl said. “This could have been a distraction, or an act of panic in response to being discovered.”

“I’m sorry you can’t question this one,” Lipa said, pointing to the corpse and then sitting down as one of the clerics began to inspect her wound.

“You’ve got nothing to apologize for,” Jyl said. “I’m going to have the Queen pin a medal on you for taking that guy down. That took real bravery.”

“I don’t know if it was bravery,” Lipa said. “If I hadn’t been too mad to think straight I might have run away.”

“Hopefully that won’t be a question you’ll ever need to worry about again,” Jyl said.

“It looks like Kai’artha is going to be ok,” Pelay said. “The cuts didn’t hit anything major. We’ll need to knit the flesh together and the muscles will take a bit to heal up, but I think she’ll walk ok again.”

“That’s good because we’ve got to move,” Jyl said.

“I’m not sure that’s a great idea,” Pelay said.

“I know. I also know that staying here is an absolutely horrible idea,” Jyl said.

“Why? Do you think more are coming?” Lipa asked.

“If this was a panicked reaction, the yes, more are coming, because they’ll need to clean up after what happened. If this was a planned reaction, then more are definitely comes. A whole lot more.”

“Why would they keep attacking us though?” Lipa asked. “I mean especially now that you’re back?”

“Because we have proof of their involvement now, hell, we’ve got proof of their existence!” Jyl said, pointing to the blue-skinned corpse that was still laying on the desk.

“I’m sorry,” Lipa said.

“Don’t be. Like I said, you deserve a medal for that. Usually when one of the Shadowfolk takes a fatal wound they teleport away before we can catch them. It makes proving that they were involved in something incredibly difficult. Since they seem to enjoy that kind of anonymity, they’re almost certainly going to try to regain is as fast as they can.”

“But isn’t it too late for that?” Lipa asked. “I mean it’s not like we’re going to forget that we saw them.”

“It’s only going to matter that we saw them if we’re still alive to testify to that fact,” Jyl said. “That’s why we should move as soon as we can. If we can get you back home, the Shadowfolk won’t be able to track you.”

“But what about the rest of you?” Lipa asked.

“Pelay and I can take care of ourselves. Everyone else is going to head back to Highcrest castle. You’ll all be safe there.”

That was when the ground shook, indicating that none of them would reach safety in time.

Glyra had time to step to one side and strike out with the palm of her hand as another Shadowfolk warrior rippled into visibility in front of her.

She managed to lash out with a follow up kick that drove him to his knees, but then backed off as fast as she could.

Being able to sense a second or two into the future gave her some advantages in a fight but she knew from painful sparring experience that knowing a blow was coming and being able to dodge it were not the same things.

More warriors appeared in the room. Easily enough to kill them all.

This was the planned for response in the event that the Shadowfolk observers were discovered. Where the original assassins had struck with speed, the warriors who followed attacked with precision and teamwork.

Jyl and Pelay were a blur of motion, but the Shadowfolk warriors kept them separated while they also protected one another.

Glyra looked for an opening, some distraction she could provide that would allow one of the Guardians to make headway in their battle. There were two main problems with that plan though.

First, Glyra wasn’t enough to a combatant to pose a serious threat to the Shadowfolk warriors. Instead the warriors were able to turn her into a liability by merely moving in her direction.

Pelay was the one who shifted to protect her but Glyra saw that is cost the guardian ground. Instead of falling back from Pelay’s attacks, the Shadowfolk were able to force her to block and defend the attacks that they launched at her and the ones they feinted in Glyra’s direction.

Glyra looked for a place to retreat to, and noticed Adorel, one of her fellow seers being menaced by a pair of their enemies. Jyl came to Adorel’s rescue in much the same fashion as Pelay did for Glyra but there were limits to how well the two could defend their less empowered allies.

The ones in the worst position were Lipa and Kai though.

They were cut off from all aid by the positioning the Shadowfolk warriors had taken. Glyra looked with both her mundane and mystical senses but wasn’t able to find a path to them that didn’t involve being stabbed repeatedly and fatally.

The two Faen kits were helpless, but none of the Shadowfolk were moving against them.

From the damage Lipa had done to the first assassin that assaulted them, Glyra guessed the two could potentially take another one down, but it seemed like the Shadowfolk weren’t leaving them alone and unthreatened out of concern or fear.

As long as the girls didn’t move, the Shadowfolk paid them barely any attention at all.

The position and ferocity of the fighting was only the first major problem however. The second was that the shaking of the ground continued even after the Shadowfolk arrived. Glyra didn’t need future sight to know that something else was coming. Something she didn’t have any desire to meet.

“Get away! Get clear of here!” she screamed.

Everyone could hear her, but the only ones capable of escaping seemed to be the two Pact Knights. Unfortunately they were also the ones with the least interest in doing so.

“We’ve got to get out of here! They’re trying to capture us!”

Screaming wasn’t the best manner of getting an idea across, but from the renewed savagery of Jyl and Pelay’s attacks, Glyra was pretty sure they knew she was right.

With their superior numbers, the Shadowfolk could have been fighting for a win. Or at the very least fighting to inflict casualties. From how they arranged themselves and the kind of openings they were trying to exploit though, it was clear to Glyra that they were trying to herd and contain the seers, and Pact Knights, and Faen kits.

Basically everyone who knew of their existence.

“We need to get a message out,” Glyra yelled over the din. “They can’t win if queen has proof they’re here!”

Of course the only real proof lay splayed over the desk it had fallen on and making it off the battlefield carrying a corpse was just on the inside of impossible.

Glyra didn’t make the impossible happen. Her job was to see what was really there and report on it accurately.

When she looked at the battle, she saw an overwhelming response from the Shadowfolk to being discovered. What they’d done with a simple observation gnat had hit one of the most sensitive nerves the Shadowfolk had.

They were a species that was dedicated to remaining hidden and with a few simple mistakes they’d been dragged into the awareness of the very people they’d been scheming against for over a year.

Glyra felt a twinge of sorrow for them. She knew what the Butcher King had done. She knew how the Shadowfolk had been treated historically. She also knew the sort of deeds they’d done in response though. It was a thorny mess to untangle, and one that could definitely wait until they weren’t threatening her life.

Her shouting didn’t convince the Pact Knights to flee, despite the wisdom in that course of action. It did manage to draw the attention of the Shadowfolk warriors though.

With well practiced efficiency, they split Glyra away from Pelay’s protection. The harder the Queen’s Guardian fought to rescue Glyra though, the more the warriors locked their defenses and relied on sheer mass to push Pelay back.

For Glyra the experience was less pleasant. Two of the warriors turned to her and even with the second and a half of precognition she could summon up, it took all her strength to ward them off.

The situation was an unstable one. Glyra couldn’t mount an effective offense, so there was no chance to reducing the attacks against her, and her endurance was far more limited than her enemies who’d spent their lives training for battle.

Glyra gave ground as quickly as she could. The Shadowfolk were between her and the main opening to the tent, but Glyra’s insight told her that the ties holding rear wall of the tent had come loose thanks to all the shaking around them.

She didn’t want to be the one to flee and tell Queen Alari of what had gone wrong. She wasn’t sure she could even make it off the mountain for one thing, or outrun the Shadowfolk who would pursue her.

As it turned out, that didn’t prove to be an issue though.

Just as Glyra reached the back edge of the tent, an unfathomable roaring filled her ears.

Dust erupted everywhere and Glyra felt herself falling, the others shouting around her as the plummeted down the throat of an enormous multi-mawed worm.


The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 24 – Small Mix Ups

Kai’artha had expected adventuring on the surface world to be exciting. She’d expected it to involve danger and intrigue. What she hadn’t expected was to be stabbed before she had a chance to see what the sky looked like.

Her thoughts weren’t on the heavens though as the grass thin metal of the Shadowfolk blade whisked past her cheek. Pure survival gripped her mind and she spun with the speed and grace that only one of the Faeneril possessed.

Her agility was against matched the skill and experience of a career assassin however and Kai knew that was a bad contest to gamble on. Especially since she was already injured.

She evaded another blow by hurling herself into a backwards roll over a desk. The assassin had the advantage in position and distance though and managed to spear her right calf before she put the temporary safety of the desk between them.

Agony pumped into her from the deep cut. She couldn’t risk standing on it, but she had to keep moving.


“Come on!” Lipa said. “They’re going to leave us behind if you don’t get a move on!”

Kai’artha doubted that. The Queen’s Guard had sought Lipa’roon out for a reason. They needed to move quickly but an extra minute of packing wasn’t going to be wasted. Not if they were going on an adventure.

“There’s no need to pack battlemail! We’re not going to be anywhere near the dangerous areas,” Lipa said.

Kai considered that. The Pact Knights had made it clear that they were going to take every precaution with the Faen kits. Any time a warrior went outside the clan’s holdings, they were expected to go armed and armored for a fight, but in this case Kai wasn’t sure they counted as warriors.

Traveling with the Queen’s Guard meant that they would encounter one of two different sorts of foe. The first kind would be the common villains. Highwaymen, robbers, and other miscreants. For a Faen traveling on her own, any of these could be deadly. For Faen traveling in small groups, the presence of arms and armor could be the deciding factor in an enemy choosing to seek other prey. In that sense, traveling with Pact Knights was like traveling with armor that was as thick as a castle and arms that were more powerful than a bolt of lightning.

Common bandits who dared assault them would be nothing more than a source of amusement.

The other sort of enemy encompassed anything so far outside the ordinary that it could give a Pact Knight a noticeable fight. In a battle against another faction of Pact Knights, or monsters from the unseen hollows of the world, Kai knew that she and Lipa and anyone who wasn’t part of the Queen’s Guard would be little more than a liability. No shirt of battlemail would turn aside the blows from a rampaging Lava Demon, or blunt the spears of a Lightning Elemental after all.

“Ok, you have a point,” she said, returning the battlemail to its chest. Why carry something that heavy if you weren’t going to need it she asked herself.


The trip to the observing base was faster than the trip to their new home had been. They didn’t so much fly with the wind and race past it and forge their own path through the sky.

Even so, by the time they arrived, there were tents set up and several scrying bowls receiving their last enchantments.

“Ok, they should have the observation gnats in range of the inn within the next fifteen minutes,” Jyl said. “I want you both to look over the maps we have of this location and start working out where their observation teams would be hiding. When you think you’ve got an idea of where to start checking, work with Glyra, she’s the seer I’m assigning to you.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Glyra said and gave the two Faen kits a small bow.

Glyra was a human woman who wore the traditional gauze eye wrap of a seer.

“You can see?” Kai asked, noticing that Glyra had the eye wrap pushed up onto her forehead.

“Yeah, scrying trances are easier when you’re not being bombarded by stimuli from your locale surroundings. That’s why we wear these.” Glyra said pointing at the eye wrap. “But otherwise we can see just fine.”

“What about the seer’s who are blind though?” Lipa asked.

“Well, not all blind people can master scrying magic. The ones that have the knack for it though need to be careful like the rest of us. Exerting too much effort on scrying magic can send your vision to really strange places.”

“For now let’s focus on scrying the areas around the inn,” Jyl said, and laid out a series of documents on the table in front of them.

The design of the maps was strange to Kai’s eyes. Everything was so flat. They were showing the space on a mountain but it was drawn as though the mountain had been smashed into the thickness of the paper the map depicting it was drawn on.

Proper maps had multi-dimensional notations, as any subsurface dweller could tell you. Without that you couldn’t be certain of what sight lines there were, or what might lie below you.

“This is terrifying,” Lipa said.

“What’s wrong?” Glyra asked.

“I think I understand what I’m seeing here. The space above this whole area is open isn’t it?” Lipa asked.

“There is some tree cover, but the inn is centered in a fairly large clearing,” Glyra said.

“They could be anywhere then,” Lipa said. “There are observation points almost everywhere around the inn.”

Kai saw what she was saying. There was so much space, minus the tree cover that had a clear view of the inn. She followed Lipa’s mental leap with one of her own though.

“It’s not that bad,” she said. “Remember that’s all air above what’s shown here. No one can hide anywhere above the tree line.”

“What if they’re flying and invisible though?” Lipa asked.

“Flying isn’t going to help them,” Glyra said. “There’s a rainstorm that’s blown over the mountain and brought heavy cloud cover with it. If they’re anywhere beyond a hundred yards or so from the inne they’re going to have a very hard time seeing anything that happens there.”

“What if they use scrying like we’re doing?” Lipa asked.

“Leave that to me,” Glyra said. “There’s a resonance that far sensing spells give off. As seers, we try to minimize that as much as possible normally because it clouds the images and sounds we receive, but in a situation like this it’s exceptionally important.”

“Because it can give away your position?” Kai asked.

“That and more,” Glyra said. “Hearing another seer’s scrying spells can tell you a lot about them, including their actual position and degree of magical proficiency. If you’re really good, you can even corrupt or edit the information their spell is returning to them.”

“The observation gnats have made it to the inn,” Jyl said to everyone in the tent, which included three other groups like Lipa, Kai and Glyra. “We know they’re somewhere around the inn, waiting for us. Find them without letting them find us.”

“Try here,” Lipa said, pointing to a spot on the map that seemed worthless to Kai.

Glyra slipped the eye wraps down to cover her vision and sank into a light trance. The bowl of clear water in front of her went cloud and then glowed with light, revealing the details collected from the eyes of the observation gnats.

The little bugs flew along, passing by the burned remains of the mountaintop inn and heading towards an empty edge of the field the inn sat in.

“Turn around there,” Lipa said, and the view shifted to look back at the inn.

The change in perspective also revealed a sharp drop off that was hidden by the rise of the field. Viewed from the angle Lipa had chosen it looked like the perfect spot for an observation post. Close enough to see and hear exactly what was going on, far enough that there was no danger of being accidentally exposed and with enough cover that, if a fight did begin, the people observing would be well protected for at least a few seconds. Long enough for a Shadowfolk assassin to teleport away to safety.

“It’s a good spot,” Glyra said.

“Good but not definitely where they’re hiding,” Kai said.

“You can’t see through their invisibility can you?” Lipa asked.

“No, that would require a form of counter magic I’m not versed in,” Glyra said.

“Maybe we don’t need counter magic,” Lipa said.

“What do you mean?” Glyra asked.

“You have more than one observation gnat in that area right?”

“Yes, this image is coming from three of them,” Glyra said.

“Take one and fly it through the space just over the ridge. It should see something different if it bumps into an invisible person or passes through an invisibility field,” Lipa said.

That was a wonderful idea. And an effective one. And it was precisely the wrong thing to do.

The observation gnat didn’t combust, or explode, it just fitzed away, the magic that held it together imploding on contact with the Shadowfolks’ invisibility spell.

Unfortunately for all concerned, the invisibility spell itself also fizzled, just slightly, in response to the gnats magic. It wasn’t much of a spark, but it was enough to give the spirits in the region something to play with.

The Shadowfolk observers didn’t know that the spirits had been taught to unravel invisibility spells, or that they’d been able to practice on other ones earlier that day. They didn’t know that the spirits were bored without the usual bustle of workers and travelers and had nothing better to do than gorge of stray spells they found in their domain.

Kai was shocked to see the two Shadowfolk standing exactly where Lipa had suggested looking for them, but the shock was replaced with concern when the two disappeared an instant later.

“What happened?” Jyl shouted.

“One of the observation gnats hit their invisibility spell,” Glyra said. “It’s my fault.”

“An observation gnat couldn’t reveal them like that,” Pelay said. “There’s another force at work here.”

“We need to get in there then,” Jyl said and was off.

Pelay followed her, the two taking to the sky on their own in a mad dash to find anything at the site of the inn’s destruction that would lead them to the missing princess.

“I’m sorry,” Lipa said.

“This one’s not on you,” Glyra said. “The gnats are mine to control. Guardian Pelay was right though. The gnats shouldn’t have reacted like that.”

“I just lost mine!” one of the other seers said.

“Your what?” Glyra asked.

“My gnats are gone,” he said.

“Mine too,” another seer said.

“That’s not possible,” Glyra said. “Unless…”

Kai saw her turn back to her bowl and set the water churning for a second. Glyra whipped her head up as she pulled the eye wrap from her head.

“They’re here!” she said. “The Shadowfolk. Or they will be soon.”

“How is that possible?” one of the seer’s asked.

“They followed the echoes back from the gnats,” Glyra said before blocking to her left with an unused tent pole that was leaning against a wall near her.

The sword stroke seemed to follow a long moment after the block, but Kai knew her perception of time was off by a few ticks.

Adrenaline was surging through her.

And then so was a knife.

The Shadowfolk assassin tried to take both Kai and Lipa down in a single hit from each of his weapon but there was a crackle of fading magic that preceded his attacks that gave each of the Faen kits enough warning to move away from the blow aimed in their direction. Not far enough away to avoid injury entirely but a cut on the arm was a lot better than a stab through the heart in Kai’s view.

The fight was a blue of motion and, a moment later, she was behind a desk with a badly wounded leg.

The assassin came up over the desk, intent on finishing of Kai, but he miscalculated.

The first blow Lipa took was worse than Kai’s. It was a shoulder wound but one that was bad enough to render the arm in question useless. Lipa had two things left though. The first was her other arm and the second was a Fight or Flight response that was pegged into the “Murder” end of the dial at seeing Kai’s blood spilled.

A lot of people confuse the Faen for a cat species. They have plenty of cat-like characteristics, but where they differ is in how they kill. Cats use their fangs. They tear out the throat of their prey, or cripple them and pull them apart. They’re savage as befits their status as animals.

Faen are different. They’re efficient.

Kai wouldn’t have guessed that Lipa was capable of punching directly through somone’s body with her claws, but a splatter of Shadowfolk blood and a fatal gurgle from the assassin proved her wrong.

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 23 – Looking for Trouble

Lipa’roon wasn’t sure she liked her new home. The all concealing shadows of the deep caves weren’t living up to their name.

“It’s a strange instinct for the young to flee from their parents once they settle in a new place, isn’t it?” Pelay, the junior Queen’s Guardian, asked.

“I can’t say I’ve observed it in any other species,” Jyl, the senior Queen’s Guardian, said. “Given that it’s a behavior that reached the point of instinct though, it can’t be that strange however it looks to us. If it was, the Faen wouldn’t have survived adopting it.”

The two hadn’t managed to find Lipa’roon’s exact hiding spot but the fact that they’d located the tiny cavern she’d secured was disconcerting. Lipa was the cleverest kit of her pack. She should have been the last one discovered but from what she could hear she was probably going to be the first.

“I’m kind of glad we’re not on their bad side,” Pelay said. “I knew she’s here but her heart beat and breathing are so faint it’s like they’re an echo from a week ago.”

“My elvish pride is reassured by that,” Jyl said.

“How so?” Pelay asked.

“I grew up hearing so much babble about how our senses are sharper than anyone else’s, especially humans,” Jyl said. “I’m supposed to be horribly embarrassed if someone else is able hear something that escapes by my ears.”

“You don’t sound upset about it though?”

“I’ve made some questionable choices, and not gotten away from all of them scott free,” Jyl said. “I think I hear a little better than the average human, and not quite as a good as most dwarves, but you know what? My life is still just fine.”

She paused in her inspection of the room and turned her back to Lipa. It was a perfect ambush position, except Lipa wasn’t hunting elves. Without moving or breathing, she catalogued her escape options. There were two that relied on pure speed. Those were a bad bet against Pact Knights. There were three others that relied on a surprise attack and capitalizing on the confusion that followed. Those were a worse bet against Pact Knights, so Lipa stayed where she was and suppressed a growl of frustration.

“I’m hoping I can avoid those sort of choices,” Pelay said. “I don’t know how well I’d deal with losing the awareness of what’s around me.”

“It’s not quite like that,” Jyl said. “Awareness of more of a mental state than a physical one. If anything I’m probably more aware now than I used to be.”

“Because of the hearing damage?” Pelay asked. “Your other senses increased to compensate for what you lost?”

“No, I don’t think it works that way,” Jyl said. “I don’t see better now, or taste better. It’s more a matter that in our line of work we wind up practicing attentiveness more than people who lead safer more sensible lives.”

“So you make better use of the senses that you have left?” Pelay asked.

“Sort of. What I’ve noticed is that being aware is often more a matter of being able to ignore things than perceive them,” Jyl moved away but she left behind a small handful of dust that spread out in the area immediately in front of Lipa.

“But how can you notice something if you can’t perceive it?” Pelay asked.

“There’s a few options,” Jyl said. “First, ignoring things is a skill. You have to be able to edit out the unimportant stuff so that you can focus on the critical bits. Like if you’re chasing someone through a crowd, you need to be able to filter out the mass of people around you and keep a clear view on the person you’re pursuing. If you try to take in everything you’ll be overwhelmed and lose track of the quarry you’re focused on.

“But aren’t you easier to ambush in that state?” Pelay asked.

“It depends,” Jyl said. “If you’re hyper-focused on your target, then yes, you won’t see anyone else lining up for an attack. In practice though, as I’ve learned to ignore things, I’ve found that I can spend less effort keeping track of the person I’m following and my mind is able to call any other notable details to my attention. Like I’ll see a flash of a blue robe from the person I’m following, so that I’ll know I’m on the right track, but I’ll also notice the glint of sunlight off steel in a place where steel shouldn’t be. That’s how you catch arrows by the way. You need to be aware of them before they’re fired, unless you’re already transformed and you’re ramped up on speed enough to swat them out of air before they reach you.”

“I have a hard time doing that,” Pelay said. “I mean I can’t really turn things off, I have to work to focus through them.”

“Go with that then,” Jyl said. “We each manage processing the world differently. It’s why we group up in teams. If we were all the same, then Lipa’roon would be able to hide from us with no problem.”

“Instead of already being caught you mean?” Pelay asked.

“Yeah, do you think we should let her in on it?”

“We do need to get going shortly,” Pelay said.

Lipa knew they were bluffing. The shadows here were ten shades too pale for proper hiding, but neither one of them had so much as blinked when they passed her. The senior Guardian had left a handful of dust but she’d dropped plenty of those around the room in other spots already.

“She’s going to try to get out of here you know?” Jyl said.

“If the two of us can’t catch the one of her, then we might have to stay back and let someone else tackle the mission from the Queen.” Pelay said.

“That is not a thrilling idea,” Jyl said. “Undine’s going to be laughing at us for weeks as it is.”

“I’m pretty sure he couldn’t have done better,” Pelay said.

“I’m pretty sure he won’t even bother trying to suggest that. He won’t have to.”

“Fortunately, Lipa’s not going to get away.”

There was a burning need in Lipa’s fangs to prove the two Guardians wrong. It baked away the resolve she had and gnawed her patience to the bone. All she had to do was stay still.

Or wait for them to make a mistake.

It was a small one, just a subtle turn Pelay made, but it left open a path that Lipa knew she was fast enough to exploit.

Her legs coiled without conscious thought directing them and she leapt, flying soundlessly through the air to land first on the wall outside the room and then just around the bend in the corridor that would take her out of view. No light would touch her as she sailed softer than an arrow to her destination.

At least that was how things were supposed to go.

Three inches into her flight, the dust on the ground before her kicked up and exploded in a shower of sparks. The flare of light blinded her eyes and the stench of smoke forced a terrible sneeze from her nose.

Lipa didn’t so much land on the wall as crash into it, and she didn’t make it around the corner in a large part because she wasn’t sure which direction anything around was as she scrambled to regain her senses..

“Ouch, that had to sting,” Pelay said.

“Let’s help her up,” Jyl said, and Lipa felt strong hands lift her to her feet.

She sneezed again.

“Sorry about that,” Jyl said. “Here, take a whiff of this.”

The Guardian placed something under Lipa’s nose that was soothing and cool. There was a minty fragrance to it, but all Lipa could notice was how much easier it was to breath. After holding her breath for minutes the sweet air tasted better than any meal could have.

“What do you want?” Lipa asked after a few moments spent regaining her breath. She was sore from her badly landed jump but nothing was broken and the pain wouldn’t linger. Not the pain in her arms and legs at least. The wound to her pride felt far too deep to ever heal properly.

“We need your help,” Jyl said.

“You’ve been nominated as the best Sneak your Faen clan has to offer,” Pelay said.

Lipa blinked. She was sure she hadn’t heard that correctly.

“What do you mean?” she asked, not quite as angry as she’d been but still far from pleased.

“We brought your clan here to keep you safe from the Shadowfolk,” Jyl said. “But our princess has run afoul of them.”

“Intentionally we believe,” Pelay said.

“We need someone who can hide as well as the Shadowfolk can,” Jyl said.

“And from all of the reports we got, that would be you.” Pelay said.

“What do you need someone who can hide for?” Lipa asked.

“They can hide better than I can,” Jyl said. “And by most standards, I’m pretty damn good at hiding.”

“The Shadowfolk have their magics, but even without that, they’re frighteningly skillful,” Pelay said. “We found evidence that suggests they infiltrated the giant’s airie at the top of the mountain without using any spells at all.”

“That’s where you come in,” Jyl said. “We need someone who knows how to hide and thinks along path that I don’t.”

“But I can’t find the Shadowfolk,” Lipa said. “I couldn’t even hide from you.”

“Are you sure about that?” Jyl asked. “We never found you after all. You revealed yourself.”

“You said you already had me though!”

“And we did, but that was only because we knew generally where you were and that you weren’t inclined to kill us,” Jyl said. “With the Shadowfolk, if they think we’re getting close to them and we don’t know exactly where they are, they’ll vanish. Or try to kill us. Or both.”

“Yeah, but they can’t kill you, you’re Pact Knights,” Lipa said.

“That gives us an edge, but if a fight breaks out it will be very hard to ensure that they don’t wind up dead,” Jyl said.

“Is that a problem? They’re evil aren’t they?” Lipa asked.

“They’re hostile, it’s not quite the same thing,” Jyl said. “Also we need them alive for questioning. A pile of Shadowfolk corpses won’t make us any safer and they won’t be able to tell us anything about where our princess has gone.”

“I thought I heard the Shadowfolk were trying to kill all of us,” Lipa said. “What makes you think Princess Iana isn’t dead? She’s not a Pact Knight right?”

“She’s still alive,” Jyl said. “The Queen can discern that much from some enchantments that were placed on the princess. We just don’t know where she is.”

“The Shadowfolk may not know either, but we can’t be sure of that until we catch one for the Lady Dae,” Pelay said.

“So how are we going to catch one?” Lipa asked.

“We’re going to turn one of their traps back against then,” Jyl said. “But we don’t have a lot of time.”

“Ok, and what will I have to do?”

“Find the best hiding places that you can,” Jyl said.

“That’s not hard.”

“Well, you’ll only have a map and a scrying bowl to work with,” Jyl said.

“Ok, that makes it a bit more difficult. I don’t understand, why though? Why can’t I look for the spots in person?”

“The Shadowfolk have no idea where your family has gone and we’re going to keep it like that,” Jyl said.

“Also, even with Pact spirits we don’t want to engage them if we don’t have to, so we are absolutely not letting them get anywhere near you,” Pelay said.

“Oh.” Lipa felt a little saddened by that. Visions of daring battles against her families deadly enemies had been swimming in her head. They were scary to contemplate but if she could come home with a souvenir like a Shadowfolk skin? She would be renowned forever.

Of course most people who went hunting enemies like the Shadowfolk didn’t come back, so being somewhere safe didn’t seem like an entirely horrible thing either.

“Ok, I’ll do it,” she said. “On one condition.”

“What’s that?” Jyl asked.

“You’ve got to let me bring my friend Kai’artha. She will kill me in my sleep if I have an adventure like this without her!”

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 22 – Recruiting

Nelosa considered herself to be faithful. The Shadowfolk had always lived an existence that was rooted in the bounds of community and the sanctity of the rules they followed which allowed them to survive.

At the same time though, she’d raised a family, fled from the Butcher King’s persecution, and cared for an ailing husband. There were years enough under her belt that she knew some rules you followed because they were sensible and others you ignored and everyone else ignored them right along with you.

Finding a dwarf in her kitchen was, in theory, covered by the edicts that the Shadowfolk Elders had decreed.

Anyone not of the Shadowfolk who discovered the Shadowfolk, was to be put to immediate death and their bodies tossed into the deepest shadows, if such was an option.

Like most absolute rules, it was phrased as a matter of life and death. That was a wonderful ploy to get children to listen. It didn’t work of course, not on children or on adults, but it left the Elders with the impression that they were justified in extreme punishments for any who violated that rule.

In Nelosa’s case, she’s long ago had enough of killing and blooshed, but she was still extra wary of the unexpected visitor.  The dwarf was stunned and reeling and there was a portal flickering in the air behind her, but over the years Nelosa had seen stranger and more disturbing things.

“Who in the Odious Sunken Pits are you?” she asked, politely grabbing a carving knife from the counter.

“Wow, they didn’t warn about the kick that comes with that,” Venita said. “Am I still in one piece?”

“For another five second, yes,” Nelosa said. “Then I’m going to get annoyed and take you apart, starting with whatever your least favorite body part is.”

“Excuse me? Least favorite?” Venita asked.

“Gives the victim a chance to appreciate what they’re losing,” Pelosa said. “Now what’s your name and why are you here?”

“Venita, and to save your people.”

“We don’t need any help from dwarves,” Pelosa said. “So why don’t you just turn around and head right back into that portal that you came out of.”

“One, it’s not my portal, and two, I’m not the only one who’s trying to help you,” Venita said.

“Who else is with you?” Nelosa asked.

“We are,” Wynni said, stepping through the portal, followed by Gendaw.

“Traveling with a dwarf? You outcasts then?” Nelosa asked.

Nelosa had four children. Once it had been five, but the middle one, it was always the middle one for some reason, got their own ideas about what was best for the Shadowfolk. They got themselves outcast for speaking against the Elders and in a stroke, Nelosa was down to four children and one she could never speak of or acknowledge again.

People had gone on after the sentencing as though nothing had occurred. As those Hamell, her middle child, had never existed. Nelosa herself had refrained from any show of grief or acknowledgement of loss. Maybe her neighbors and friends had believed that she was as capable as they were of casting Hamell out of her thoughts, but there were bonds there which no judgment could ever severe.

Though she’d never sought Hamell out, Nelosa had felt the loss every day since, and her thoughts often turned to the hardships and trials her wayward offspring would face in a life apart from all who could know or trust them.

“No, we’re not outcasts. Not yet anyways,” Wynni said.

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” Gendaw said.

“What’s complicated about it?” Nelosa asked as two more people entered the room, two  human children. “And who invited you?”

“This is less of an invitation and more of an invasion,” Iana said. “I think we’re just foolish enough to hope that it can be a peaceful one.”

“Peace is it?” Nelosa said. “And what kind of peace do we get from your kind?”

“Little to none in the past from what I’ve been told,” Iana said. “That’s why I’m not going to ask for your trust.”


“She is,” Iana said, indicate Wynni.

“You’re a Tactical Squad Commander?” Wynni asked, looking at a plaque that had hung on Nelosa’s wall for years.

“I was,” she said. “That why I’m going to turn you in.”

“That’s what you have to do,” Wynnni said.

“But?” Nelosa asked.

“But, it’s not directly stipulated what you’re required or allowed to do before then,” Wynni said.

“You want me to give you a head start?” Nelosa asked.

More people poured into the kitchen. Humans mostly. Unfortunate for them. A dwarf might be exempted from the fatal mandate on non-Shadowfolk but no one was going to speak in favor of extending the same mercy to humans.

“We’re not running,” Wynni said. “The princess called this an invasion for a reason.”

“The princess? What princess?” Nelosa asked. Princesses and invasions were so far above her pay grade, that Nelosa felt like a void storm had ripped her house apart around her and she was standing in the narrow eye at its center. One move in any direction and she would be shredded, but standing still didn’t offer any sort of permanent safety either.

“The First Princess of Gallagrin,” Gendaw said, and indicated Iana. “Her.”

“Isn’t she supposed to be dead?” Nelosa asked.

“That was the plan,” Iana said. “There was just one slight complication.”

“You didn’t want to be dead?” Nelosa asked.

“Presumably that’s true too, though with how she behaves I’d wouldn’t swear to it,” Wynni said. “No, she’s talking about the part where killing her will lead to the eradication of our species.”

“And why would the loss of one little human cause that kind of problem?” Nelosa asked. “The Elders said by unbalancing the human royalty we’d ensure they never grew strong enough to threaten us again.”

“The Elders are wrong,” Gendaw said. It was a blasphemous sentiment and for a moment Nelosa wanted to scream out in rage. If her Hamell had been banished for speaking against the Elders why should these traitors be allowed to speak? She fought back the impulse.

“Their worse than that,” Wynni said. “They’re ignorant, willfully so. They’re working on plans that benefit themselves, that help them hold onto power, at the cost of placing us against a divine force.”

“Divine force?” Nelosa scoffed. “The Sleeping Gods are still asleep last I checked. What divine force is there for us to worry about.”

“Silian says the Queen and her wife fit that bill,” Wynni said.

“Are you touched in the head?” Nelosa asked. “Silian’s been dead for a million years now.”

“He says its been considerably less than a million years and that he’s considerably less dead than we’ve all supposed,” Wynni said.

“You think he’s talking to you?” Nelosa asked. “Right now?

“He says Hamell shouldn’t have been exiled, and that there’s a outcast colony on one of the deep shadow worlds where he’s wound up,” Wynni said. “And are you going to tell her where that is? What do you mean why? You think it’s important to her to know that this Hamell is alive and yet not be able to find him? Yes, I know he’s an outcast. No, I don’t think she could have sought him out before. Where would she have started looking? Ugh, no we don’t have maps of the outcast camps. They’re outcasts, why would we keep a map of where they went? So you’re saying the Elders have those maps? Do any of us look like Elders? Yes, I know she could be one, but if she was don’t you think she would have called for the guards by now? I’m glad we agree, now what about where she can find this Hamell?”

Everyone watched Wynni have a conversation with thin air and no one was interested in interrupting her, least of all Nelosa.

“I’m sorry, he says he’ll be right back,” Wynni said. “Sleeping Gods alone know what he’s planning but I’ve got to admit it’s kind of nice that he’s not nattering on in my eye for a bit.”

“You’re mad, completely mad!” Nelosa said.

“Trust me, I am keenly aware of how much it looks like I am, but give Silian about five minutes, if he’s not back by then scream for the guards and I promise no one here will do anything to stop you.

“How did you know I had a child named Hamell?” Nelosa asked.

“I didn’t. We’ve never met as far as I remember,” Wynni said. “Silian though seems to know whatever is least convenient for him to be aware of.”

“But he can’t be alive,” Nelosa said. “That was so long ago. No one could live that long.”

“No one could escape the notice of the Gods either,” Wynni said. “Trust me, I have issues with this too. I mean the stories about Silian don’t even make sense. I didn’t ask him to use me as his personal messanger services, but then I didn’t ask for a lot of thing that have messed up my life.”

“Do you believe her?” Nelosa asked.

“I do,” Gendaw said. “Even if she’s having a mental breakdown, it’s one that’s giving her impossible powers of insight and knowledge, so I think just running with the idea that there’s a Silian just makes the most sense.”

“That’s a wonderful vote of confidence,” Wynni said.

“Just being practical,” Gendaw said.

A piece of paper appeared in Nelosa’s open hand.

The parchment was rich and the design on it more impressive than any document Nelosa could remember handling. Without unfolding it, she knew what was on the paper. It was one of the grand maps – the well guarded route markers that showed the relationship of the Shadowfolks’  realms with the worlds they traveled through. The contents of the map were a state secret, not because the Elders wanted people to go missing, but because knowledge of how the worlds interconnected would allow other races to track them down into the Shadowfolks’ most secure hiding holes. It was treason to even hold the map without the proper rank and clearance, and glancing at it was yet another capital crime.

Nelosa’s hesitation lasted a full three seconds and then she devoured the contents of the map with her eyes.

It had been a long time since she’d read a multi-world chart, and none of the one’s she’d dealt with had the complexity of one in her hands. Old skills at deciphering the maps schema came back to her though and bit by bit she pieced together where she was and which worlds surrounded her.

“Silian says that Hamell lives with the Jass outcasts. Their world is far off, towards the bottom of the map, but they’re well defended and well supplied, so despite the instability of the shard they’re on, they’re doing better than most outcasts.”

“Is this true?” Nelosa asked, the energy orbs that made up her eyes radiating to a deep shade of violet, the Shadowfolk equivalent of tears forming in a human.

“It’s what Silian is saying,” Wynni said. “Honestly he doesn’t have the best reputation, but in this case I don’t see why he’d lie either.”

“To get her to help us,” Iana said.

“That not helping your case,” Gendaw said.

“I’m not interested in helping my case,” Iana said. “If there’s any chance to start healing the rift between the Shadowfolk and the sunlight dwellers of Gallagrin, we have to be honest. I have to be honest. As much as I can be.”

“But there’s a chance he’s telling the truth,” Nelosa said.

“A reasonably good chance, yes,” Iana said. “And I suspect that display from Silian was more to prove that he exists than to fully convince you.”

“Convince her to commit treason?” Tonel asked, appearing in the doorway of the house with a company of armed guards behind him.

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 21 – Next Steps

The moonlight blade had a purpose, and it had a name. Those two things weren’t enough to grant it a will, but they did serve to guide the magic that was channeled into it. Within the folds of light that the blade was crafted from little bits of awareness were caught and sewn together.

It wasn’t an accident or a mistake in the design. For the moonlight blade to serve its purpose it had to possess a measure of awareness. It had to be able to connect with its wielder and act as a channel for their will. That was the only method of allowing it to fulfill its purpose.

Without a will, the blade would cut the shadows but have no particular destination and leave nothing more that a portal to the void when swung to pierce the dimensions.

“That can take us back to the real world?” Iana asked.

“Your world is no more real than the shadow worlds,” Lagressa said. “But yes, it should be able to provide passage between that world and this.”

“And if it fails?” Wynni asked. “What happens to us in that case?”

“It depends on how it fails,” Lagressa said. “The potential outcomes include being lost in the empty space between the worlds, ripped to pieces by an imploding portal or the portal exploding with deadly force over a wide radius.”

“How wide?” Iana asked.

“Anywhere from within a few feet of it to the entirety of this planet.”

“I see why you didn’t try it out earlier,” Iana said.

“It wasn’t ready earlier,” Lagressa said.

“Our timing seems awfully convenient then,” Iana said.

“It’s less a matter of convenience and more a matter of fate,” Lagressa said. “When the Silence Breaker is used, it cuts across not only the space but time as well. In doing so, it creates a weakness in both space and time so that things, or people, who are going to transfer between the worlds are more likely to wind up transferring along the same pathway where it is, was, or will be opened.”

“It does what now?” Venita, the dwarven air courier, asked.

“The worlds are separate,” Lagressa said. “Carving permanent holes between them could have disastrous consequences, so the Silence Breaker cuts a path through space and time.”

“That seems a thousand times worse,” Londela, the human land courier, said.

“It’s much safer. The tear only exists through a set amount of time, means that it automatically closes and was effectively never open afterwards.”

“That doesn’t make much sense,” Daggrel said. “How can something do that?”

“It’s magic,” Gertrude said as though that was the full and complete explanation for everything that she’d experience in the last several hours.

“Can’t say as I like magic,” Daggrel’s complaint was silently shared by most of the rest of the group, except, notably, for Iana.

“If it can get us back home, then I’m more than willing to try it out,” she said. “Commander Wynni, you said you would be able to evaluate the portal before we risked it?”

“I said we might be able to evaluate it. Our magic is internal. It’s a part of who and what we are,” Wynni said. “Either what the blade is going to do will resonate with us or we’ll have no more idea than you of what will happen to anyone that tries to pass through it.”

“Then I should be the first to go,” Iana said.

“No,” Yuehne stepped forward.

“You don’t want me to risk life and limb?” Iana asked. “I thought you wanted me dead?”

“Not here, and not like this,” Yuehne said. “Think; if you die or get lost, what happens to the Shadowfolk? What happens to the nobles of Gallagrin? What happens to my family?”

“The same thing that happens if I don’t get out of here at all,” Iana said, taken aback by the vehemence of Yuehne’s questions.

“The portal will be able to take more than one person right? So someone else can test it first?” Yuehne asked, turning to face Lagressa.

“If it’s stable, yes. We’ll cut through enough time with it that everyone can pass to the far end before it closes,” Lagressa said.

The Silence Breaker felt conflicting wills reach out for it. Those were easy to ignore though. Only one hand was on its hilt, and its maker had a special claim on its attention.

“Let me go through first then,” Yuehne said. “If I get scrambled, no one is going to miss me. They all expected me to die on this mission anyways.”

“No, I can’t let you do that,” Iana said.

“You have to take all the glory, is that it?” Yuehne said.

“No, there’s no glory here,” Iana said. “It’s simply a matter that no one else has the protections cast on them that I do. I’m also reasonably sure that if I’m lost, Dae will be able to find me. She doesn’t have the same connections with the rest of you to draw on. Most importantly though, you’re more critical to this moment than I am.”

“They’re going to start a war that could end a species because of you!” Yuehne said. “How am I more important than that?”

“Because you can give testimony about what you saw,” Iana said. “By living, I can forestall another  war, but you can help us root out the real culprits who are responsible for bringing us to this place.”

“I’m a failed assassin!” Yuehne said. “No one is going to believe anything I say!”

“You’re not a failed assassin. You’re a witness. One whose been brave enough to survive this far. Don’t sell yourself short.”

“Brave? I didn’t have any choice for any of this!” Yuehne said.

“You’ve had at least a dozen chances to get away clean and easy since I met you,” Venita said. “And about half as many chances to finish your mission. I think our princess is right. You’re not as much a prisoner here as I first took you for. That’s why I’m the one who’s going to go through first.”

“Venita! No! I can’t ask that of you!” Iana said.

“That’s right. You can’t,” Venita said. “Which is why I’m not offering, I’m telling you, this is how it’s going to be.”

“I thought it was the royalty who gave the orders?” Gendaw said.

“You need to study Gallagrin more,” Venita said. “Royalty gives us suggestions. We then do with those suggestions whatever is most fitting.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not how it really works,” Wynni said.

“Well it’s how it’s going to work this time,” Venita said. “We can’t risk the princess being torn to shreds or tossed to a place worse than this, and I’m not letting a child run a risk that I’m afraid to face myself. So there. No. More. Arguments.”

The Silence Breaker knew that there wouldn’t be further discussion. Of all of the wills focused on it, Venita’s was the strongest. Even its owner was less committed to the course of action than the dwarf was.

“What about the wounded?” Londela asked. “Should we move them someplace safe before we try anything?”

“Yes,” Lagressa said. “Place them in the apartment I secured for her.”

She nodded at Miaza, who was staring open mouthed at the proceedings.

“The apartment you did what to?” she asked, snapping out of her surprise.

“The building you found where you’ve recuperated for the last few days? It had been the nest of a colony of swarm bears.”

“Sleeping Gods!” Wynni said. Neither she nor Miaza offered any other commentary, though both clearly knew of the creatures Lagressa was referring to.

“What’s a swarm bear?” Yuehne asked.

“You’re familiar with bees and bears?” Gendaw said. “Before the Sleeping Gods made those two creatures in their current form, they spawned a great number of early versions where the two were one entity.”

“So tiny little flying bears?” Yuehne asked.

“No, bear sized bees, complete with bear bites and bear claws. Sometimes the gods made wise choices in the animals they did not include in the final version of the Blessed Realms.”

“And you…?” Yuehne asked, turning to Lagressa.

“Drowned them. They were a nuisance and I’d meant to get around to it eventually. Her arrival just made it a more urgent matter.”

“So the meat and honey I’ve been eating?” Miaza asked.

“Was very fresh,” Lagressa said with a nod.

“Why? Why would you do that for me?” Miaza asked. Her expression was more than faintly horrified though whether that was due to Lagressa’s action or dining on Swarm Bears was difficult to say.

“The colony was hostile and unreasonable,” Lagressa said. “I hoped you wouldn’t be.”

“It’s not easy being more than you were designed to be. Especially not alone,” Iana said.

Lagressa answered with a small, tight nod.

“How long will it take to get ready to bring us back?” Venita asked.

“We could try immediately,” Lagressa said, “But I would be grateful to have the Shadowfolk inspect the edge of the blade. I have not made many of Silence Breakers and the construction of one is not a trivial task.”

“Let’s take an hour’s break then,” Iana said. “We had a long night and if we head back too quickly, we may run into the wrong people.”

“That should be enough time for our review,” Wynni said.

“Presuming you find no flaws in the blade,” Lagressa said.

“If we do we can re-evaluate our time table. If we don’t find anything in an hour though I don’t think we’ll find it in a day either.”

The Silence Breaker felt the relaxation of intent that followed. It wouldn’t be used yet.

Instead it was poked and prodded, turned over and used to cut a number of mundane objects. Nothing for which a true focus of vision was required.

Then Venita picked it up.

“An hour sure passes fast,” she said, and the Silence Breaker felt both her focus and her reservation.

“My hands will need to be on the blade as well,” Lagressa said.

“Does that mean I’m going to drown?” Venita asked.

“No,” Iana said. “Lagressa and I practiced while we were waiting.”

“Practiced what?” Venita asked.

“My curse is something I can control,” Lagressa said. “It was intended as a weapon after all.”

“The problem was, she never had anyone to practice the magic with, everyone would die at the first touch, so the effect was always on,” Iana said.

“And now you can turn it off?” Venita asked.

“I believe so,” Lagressa said.

“Well, that’s extremely comforting,” Venita said.

“You don’t have to do this,” Iana said.

“Yes, I do.”

“Then take my hand,” Lagressa said.

The Silence Breaker felt Venita’s will coalesce. Dwarves weren’t made of iron, but their wills were.

Moonlight blazed down the edge of the Silence Breaker, driving back the shadows and making the mountaintop visible for hundred of miles in every direction.

“Focus on your world, hold an image of it in your mind,” Lagressa said. “The sharper the picture, the more details you can see, the cleaner the cut will be.”

“I’ve got it,” Venita said, her voice reverberating with the Silence Breaker’s power.

“Then lift the blade high,” Lagressa said, “And slash through the barrier that stands before you.”

The Silence Breaker descended like a bolt of judgement. Along its edge, the veil of shadows that stand between the worlds, cutting each off from the other, was rent in two. Moonlight burned through the fabric of reality, pushing aside the old boundaries, and two realms that had never touched, met at a single point in space and a brief moment in time.

Without waiting for anyone’s approval, Venita stepped through the rift in space.

She left the Silence Breaker with Lagressa. For all the blade’s power, it was nothing more than moonlight unless it’s owner chose to relinquish it.

If the portal lead back to the Blessed Realms, then it would be obvious enough for the others to see and follow in Venita’s wake. If it didn’t then Lagressa would need to forge the Silence Breaker anew and they would need to try again.

In either case Venita’s fate was sealed the moment she committed herself and from the smile on the dwarfs face as she entered the portal she was perfectly ok with that.

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 20 – Rousing Ire

Miaza focused her aim on Gendaw but imagined a path through him to her true target. She hadn’t been cleared for execution, but if the princess of Gallagrin was lost in the deep shadow worlds and had the help of both a shadow dweller and two of Shadowfolk then the original scheme had failed to such a degree that wanton killing seemed like the only reasonable path forward.

“Does she have any sense of self-preservation left?” Iana asked, gazing in Miaza’s direction.

The Gallagrin princess couldn’t see her, Miaza was sure of that.

Or mostly sure of it.

Hopeful of it?

The girl wasn’t supposed to be anything special or challenging to deal with. She didn’t have a pact spirit bonded to her. She was human, and despite being raised in the Green Council that should have meant that her capabilities were well understood. The Shadowfolk practiced against humans as a baseline opponent since that was who the majority of their targets were.

It had been miserable luck and the presence of an unnaturally perceptive Faeneril that had ruined Miaza’s surveillance of the princess. She felt bad about her mistake, though being lost in the deep shadow worlds and injured almost to death seemed like sufficient penance for a minor error. What she didn’t feel was out classed by the princess.

Following the girl had been simple. Evading the other Faen had been simple. Delivering a fatal blow would have been simple too, but the mission wasn’t a simple one.

As far as Miaza knew, her partner Shippu hadn’t survived the jump into the shadows. His throat looked bad in the brief instant she’d seen him before they vanished. That they hadn’t wound up together at the same spot wasn’t unheard of but given how much good fortune she’d needed to survive, it didn’t seem probable that he’d landed in a similar situation and lived too.

So Miaza had his death to avenge as well.

“I don’t think she does,” Wynni said. “My guess is that in addition to being an utter screw up, she’s also working on a justification for why she should act directly against the parameters of the mission she was given.”

“Shippu’s not dead,” Gendaw said, concern in his voice driven by crossbow she was pointing at him. “He wasn’t strong enough to jump as far as you did so he landed closer, and we got to him in time. He might not speak again but he’s going to live.”

Miaza wondered if there was any point to maintaining the fiction that she was hidden from them. The other humans in the group were looking around and didn’t seem to be able to spy her position in the dark, but it was clear that they were also looking for other sources of danger too and not as concerned about her.

“Do you think you can talk to her?” Iana asked.

“I suppose I have to try,” Wynni said. “If I get shot though, will someone step over into the shadows and punch Silian for me. This is all his fault as far as I’m concerned.”

Miaza had to wonder if Wynni had gone insane. The woman wasn’t emotionally deranged but Silian had been dead for millenia. He was an important and revered figure, but talking to him was less likely than talking to one of the Sleeping Gods.

The scaled woman, Lagressa, began to hum a soft tune. It should have been irritating, Miaza hated music, especially any form of singing, but the humming felt too close to a natural sound to trigger Miaza’s disapproval.

Wynni relaxed visibly and walked forward, placing herself between Gendaw and Miaza.

“I know you can still shoot past me,” Wynni said. “Or through me. I’d prefer it if you did neither though.”

“Why shouldn’t I? You’re a traitor,” Miaza asked.

“No, I’m the best hope our people have,” Wynni said. “Or at least that’s what a certain annoying jerk keeps saying in my ear. Over and over and over.”

“Gendaw’s silent,” Miaza said.

“Gendaw’s not a jerk either,” Wynni said.

“I’m going to remind you that you said that,” Gendaw said.

“Sometimes you’re a clod, but do you really think I’d have spent this many years with a jerk?” Wynni asked.

“You’re both traitors,” Miaza said.

“You messed up,” Wynni said. “In fact you messed up worse than you can imagine, but honestly, none of this is your fault.”

“I will own my mistakes,” Miaza said. “They do not absolve you of keeping the company that you are in.”

She wanted to pull the trigger. Things were very broken and very wrong, and pulling the trigger on her crossbow would set off a series of events that would make everything right again.

Except she couldn’t.

She tried to tighten her finger on the trigger and something fought back.

It wasn’t fear, and it wasn’t her sense of morality.

It was her will to live.

The humming from the scaled woman reminded her of a song from her childhood. She pictured the girl she used to be. She pictured the pride her mother showed in her accomplishments. That girl couldn’t die. Not lost in the dark. Not at the hands of her own people.

She’d been picturing a scene where the hated betrayers of her race fell one after the other, their blood flowing like wine to make her drunk. That dream fizzled away though, replaced by the tableau her mind knew would the real result of her actions.

She would shoot Wynni. The bolt might or might not kill the woman, with the odds tending towards not because Miaza was an indifferent shot by Shadowfolk standards and Wynni was adept at dodging.

The bolt would connect, draw blood and before she could reload a return attack from Wynni, Gendaw or possibly the princess would strike her back. Miaza might survive the return strike but it would impair her and they would show no mercy. If their second blow wasn’t an instantly fatal one, their third would be, and all of them would land faster than she could jump to another shadow.

In the light reveries of Lagressa’s humming song, Miaza saw that she was not enacting vengeance but committing suicide, and she couldn’t move forward on that. She wanted to live.

She lowered the crossbow to her side, not giving up its protection but signaling that she wasn’t as much a threat.

“You’re mistake might have saved us all,” Wynni said.

“How?” Miaza asked, certain that Wynni was feeding her a line.

“You doomed us, and more importantly the plan we were following,” Wynni said.

“What? How would that save us?” Miaza asked.

“Because the plan was doomed overall,” Gendaw said. “You and Shippu being revealed accelerated that and made the plans shortcomings clear before they were irreversible.”

“We’ve spent years working on this plan though,” Miaza said. “The Elders have reviewed it dozens of times.”

“That’s the problem,” Iana said. “You’re Elders aren’t looking out for the welfare of your people. They have more personal concerns they’re trying to address.”

“What do you know of our Elders?” Miaza asked.

“I’ve seen it before,” Iana said.

“You’re a child. Don’t lecture me on what you’ve seen,” Miaza said.

Iana pushed past Wynni, fire burning in her eyes.

“I am a princess of Gallagrin and I was the commander of the Green Council’s Warbringers. I have invaded foreign realms and spoken with a god,” Iana said. “You can’t imagine the things I’ve seen.”

Rage flared in her breast and Miaza raised and fired her crossbow in one smooth, thought-free motion, just as she’d been trained.

The bolt splintered into dust where it hit the princess.

“And I am blessed by the first sorceress of the realm,” Iana said, brushing the dust from her shirt.

Miaza heard the crossbow clatter on the ground and wondered when her fingers had dropped it. Everything felt numb.

“That’s impossible,” she said.

“That’s what our Elder were pitting us against,” Wynni said. “They told you the assignment was a position of honor. Tonel promised you in secret that he’d clear your marriage bond with Belcon and convince your family to accept Shippu’s offer, but Tonel’s not a favorite of the match makers. He knew he wouldn’t have to follow through because he knew you weren’t going to succeed.”

“What? How? You can’t know that!” Miaza said.

“You are completely right. I wasn’t there when you got your assignment, and I’m not on Tonel’s good side, so he’d never share that information with me,” Wynni said. “You know who does know that kind of thing though?”

“Who?” Miaza asked.

“Silian,” Wynni said.

“But he’s dead?” Miaza said.

“Yeah, that’s why I thought too,” Wynni said. “Turns out he’s not, he’s just intent on making me wish he was.”

“I don’t understand?”

“Apparently I am convenient for him to talk with. Or amusing. Surprising revelation; he’s kind of a jerk! Anyways, the short bit of this story is, he’s informed on pretty much everything and since Tonel and his flunkies managed to mess up things up to the point where the survival of our entire species was in jeopardy, he decided to step in and give us a hand.”

“That’s…how can it be so bad? No one speaks to the Faen who saw us and the people there only caught the slightest glimpse of what we were before we shadow jumped.”

“Like I said, it’s not your mistake that was ultimately at fault. This whole plan was designed to destroy us.”

“But the Elders wouldn’t do that.”

“You’re Elders didn’t know what they were doing,” Iana said. “They thought they were keeping control of you all by focusing you on an external threat. The problem was they never bothered trying to understand that what they were pointing you at wasn’t a threat to them at all unless they made it one.”

“But how could our whole species be at risk?” Miaza asked.

“Silian says that provoking the ire of the most powerful queen in the world and the world’s first sorceress is something that even a Sleeping God realized was a mistake. Do you think we can fight a team that can beat a god?”

“But we were going to turn them against their nobles,” Miaza said, the plan sounding less certain with every word she uttered.

“Neither Queen Alari nor Dae are that easy to fool,” Iana said.

“And they would destroy us all for killing you?” Miaza asked.

“Queen Alari wouldn’t. I think. I’ve seen that her first instinct is kindness,” Iana said.

“But if she loses someone she cares about?” Wynni asked. “That’s Silian’s concern.”

“She had her Consort King beheaded, so she’s not all sweetness and light,” Iana said. “The real concern though would be if you convinced Dae that you were a threat to Queen Alari, and killing me might accomplish that.”

“What would happen then?” Miaza asked.

“Dae might not let you die, but I’m am very sure you would want to,” Iana said.

“Is she the devil?” Miaza asked.

“No, but do you remember how the angels of the Sleeping Gods would usually greet mortals with the words ‘be not afraid’? I think Dae is an angel like that.”

“A messanger?” Miaza asked.

“No. A horror that is being very careful to remain as human and non-threatening as possible because the one she loves wishes her to be so,” Iana said. “If there was a reason the Sleeping Gods left us, I think it was because they didn’t want to risk meeting someone like Dae, and your Elders very brilliantly tried to remove her restraints.”

“What does Silian want us to do then?” Miaza asked.

“He wants us to save our people,” Wynni said.

“But Tonel will be continuing the plan won’t he?” Miaza asked.

“Yes, he tried to carry it forward after you were lost,” Wynni said. “He sent Koblani and Pergrez to try to assassinate Princess Iana at a remote location.”

“What happened?” Miaza asked.

“The princess got the better of them,” Wynni said.

“That’s not possible,” Miaza said. “How did you see them coming?”

“I had some help,” Iana said.

“Any chance you can call on that help here?” Wynni asked.

“I believe she already has,” Lagressa said, holding a blade of gleaming moonlight in her hands.

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 19 – The Power of Illumination

Lagressa felt many eyes settle on her.  There were at least a dozen people who were painfully aware of her presence. A dozen people who’d thought they were safer than they were. A dozen people who had been warned that everything in the Shadow Worlds was dangerous.

Lagressa hadn’t stopped to consider how well armed the party that she was approaching was. She made a mental note of that as a forest of blades appeared in the hands of those she was addressing.

Not all of the weapons were aimed at her, of course. Several were held in position to deflect attacks from the side and rear of the group. For what looked like a rag tag group of travelers, they had surprisingly sensible reactions to the sudden appearance of danger.

“You don’t want to stab me,” Lagressa said. She’d been taught since she could understand language that the first reaction of any sunlight dweller would have to seeing her was likely to involve violence. From the stern edges of the expressions that faced her, she was beginning to believe those lessons had been correct.

“What will your friends do if that happens?” Wynni asked.

“That’s not why you don’t want to stab me.”

Lagressa didn’t have any friend waiting to strike back against any harm done to her. She didn’t really have any friends at all in fact. She was horribly outnumbered but that didn’t mean that she was in danger. Not with what she’d been designed to do.

“I don’t bleed,” Lagressa said. “If you stab me, I will touch you, and if I touch you, you will drown.”

“We’re not going to stab her,” Iana said, moving to stand in front of Wynni and putting a hand on the taller woman’s arm. “Why did you stop us?”, she asked, giving Lagressa her full attention.

For a human who looked so young, the girl Iana seemed to take command more easily than seemed proper. What was stranger was how the rest of the people with her listened to her commands.

“You spoke of needing to return to the sunlight lands,” Lagressa said. “I can be of assistance in that.”

“How and why?” Iana asked. The plainness in her tone made it less a challenge and more an invitation. That it was an invitation to avoid being stabbed was something not lost on Lagressa.

“The how is simple enough, I have been crafting a tool to breach the barriers between the worlds. The why is simple as well; I need someone to test it for me.”

The other young human girl laughed.

“That’s an awfully convenient story,” Yuehne said. “We traveled randomly into the shadow worlds and just happen to wind up on the doorstep of someone who has a tool to help us get back?”

“You are not the only ones who have arrived here,” Lagressa said. “Nor is this a random destination.”

“What do you mean?” Wynni asked.

The others in the party were shifting around, watching the darkness that surrounded them for more foes. A few weeks ago, that would have been a necessity for their survival on the mountaintop. Lagressa had worked to make the environs safer, but their watchfulness was still a wise choice.

Without a sun to light the sky, most of the Shadow Worlds had only moon and starlight to provide illumination to them. The nameless fragment Lagressa had fled to supported bursts of of glowing flowers as well, but their light was all pale violets and pinks. It would have been a perfect spot for an ambush.

Lagressa had made her sanctuary on the outskirts of the flower lit grove for just that reason. She’d expect her own people to chase after her and she wanted the best chance at surprising them that she could get.

“Another of your kind arrived here, days ago,” Lagressa said, watching both Iana and Wynni carefully to gauge their reactions.

“What did you do to her?” Gendaw asked, surprise showing on his fact where it was masked on Iana’s and Wynni’s.

Lagressa had expected the party would know of her earlier visitor. It wasn’t as if anyone arrived on the mountaintop by accident, and two groups fleeing from the sunlight world in desperation were more likely than not to share other things in common than the direness of their straits.

Those connection, Lagressa hoped, might be fortunate ones. If these new people were affiliated with the one who’d arrived earlier it might make it easier for them to trust her.

“I left her alone,” Lagressa said.

“She was injured. Badly.” Wynni’s grip on her blade tightened.

“Yes,” Lagressa said. “That’s why I made sure she was alone.”

“You let bleed out!” Wynni advanced forward a step.

“Wait,” Iana said, grabbing her arm. “You didn’t leave the other Shadowfolk woman to die. You protected her from the things that would have preyed on her, didn’t you?”

“Yes, and left food where she could discover it,” Lagressa said.

“I don’t understand?” Wynni said.

“Do you know what this woman is?” Iana asked.

“No,” Wynni said. “I’ve never seen her kind before.”

“Neither have I, but I believe her about drowning if we touch her. She’s not a nereid, but she could be a predecessor to their race. That limits the kind of things she could have done for your compatriot.”

“I am not one of these nereids that you speak of,,” Lagressa said. “There’s nothing of the sunlight races within me. I was constructed to be as I am. I was built to be a weapon, and my touch is death.”

“Well, that’s a comforting thought,” Venita, the dwarven woman, said.

“If we can’t stab her, and she can kill us with a touch, should we be standing this close to her?” Daggrel asked.

“First fire and now water,” Gertrude complained and adjusted her grip on the kitchen knife she was carrying while stepping back two paces.

“A better question,” Venita said. “Should we be helping someone who can kill with a touch to move out of this place and on to our world?”

“Yes,” Iana said.

“How can we trust her though?” Venita asked.

“The same as you can trust me,” Iana said and strode forward.

Lagressa had no idea why the girl was walking towards her until Iana raised an empty hand and reached for Lagressa’s shoulder.

Lagressa tried to flinch away, to roll back before Iana could touch her. No one had ever been foolish enough to risk the curse that Lagressa was under. Killing the apparent leader of the group that surrounded her, even if Lagressa had no interest in doing so, was not going to endear her to them at all.

She felt warmth spread through her shoulder. It was an alien sensation but not an unwelcome one. For a moment the strangeness of it fuzzed the edges of her awareness as she asked herself what was happening.

Someone had touched her.


And then the sensation was gone.

Iana stepped back. In her hands she held a dagger that pulsed with a soft light.

Had that been the cause of the warm sensation?

No. Lagressa’s thoughts came back into focus. Iana had reached up with her empty hand. She’d touched Lagressa on the shoulder. It was a simple gesture. Lagressa had seen other people do it on many occasions. It just wasn’t something she’d ever expected to experience for herself.

“Her touch can’t kill me,” Iana said after spitting out a mouthful of water. “Not with the protections that Dae’s given me.”

“What about the rest of us?” Daggerel asked.

“Any one of us could kill any of the others,” Iana said. “Some of us may even still want to.”

She looked at Yuehne, who frowned and looked away.

“But none of us are going to do that,” Iana continued. “Because we need each other, and because I will personally slay anyone who harms anyone in our unit here.”

“We’re a unit now?” Wynni asked.

“A poorly organized and temporary one, but yes,” Iana said.

The talked about something. Maybe who would lead them. Or what their next steps would be. Lagressa wasn’t sure. Her mind was wandering in and out of its fuzzy state, recalling the warmth that came from being touched.

She struggled with the memory, and managed to tuck it away only when she was asked another question.

“I’m sorry, what was that?” she asked, having missed the words up until attention returned to her.

“You said you needed to experiment with the tool you created,” Iana said. “What can you tell us about it?”

“It is called a Silence Breaker, and it is tied to my nature, to the magics that empower and define me,” Lagressa said.

“What does it do, exactly,” Iana asked.

“Light can dispel shadows,” Lagressa said. “And water can find the weak points in any structure. By capturing moonlight in a blade of water droplets, I can slice a hole between any two worlds.”

“How large is the hole, and how long does it last?” Iana asked.

“It varies, from what I’ve been told,” Lagressa said. “Bigger holes close faster but the rate of closure isn’t constant.”

“Will there be enough time for all of us to get through one hole?” Iana asked.

“There should be,” Lagressa said. “If I’ve forged the blade properly.”

“And if you haven’t?” Iana asked.

“Then the rift may appear to go where its intended to, but anyone crossing through it could fall into a rift-within-the-rift.”

“And that would drop them off almost anywhere I’m guessing?” Iana asked.

“So long as a survivable destination is focused on when the rift is made, all of the world that are adjacent to it should also be survivable,” Lagressa said.

“So worst case we step through, wind up someplace we don’t want to be and we can cut open another rift to get out?” Iana asked.

“That’s far from the worst case,” Lagressa said. “Cutting a rift open puts strain on the Silence Breaker and if we wind up in a realm where there’s no moonlight at all then there’d be nothing to reforge the blade with.”

“We could help with that perhaps?” Wynni said. “We can travel the shadows on our own. If we inspect the rift before going through it we may be able to tell if the passage is stable or not.”

“I can’t say I’m a fan of this idea, but it sounds better than our other strategy of ‘waiting around here until we die of old age’,” Venita said.

“I thought the eyeless people were going to be able to get us back home?” Gertrude said.

“Shadowfolk come back from the deep realms fairly often,” Gendaw said. “And usually when they don’t its because they arrived alone and injured.”

“Speaking of that, what happened with the injured woman who arrived here before us?” Iana asked.

“She’s still here. Recovering,” Lagressa said.

“Did you provide her with any weapons?” Wynni asked.

“No. I chased off the predator beasts from the area so she wouldn’t need any,” Lagressa said.

“Then she’ll be using the ones she was sent on her mission with,” Wynni said.

“Is that a good thing?” Iana asked.

“Yes. For a surveillance mission, Miaza wouldn’t have been carrying poison coated bolts,” Wynni said.

“That should make approaching her easier,” Iana said.

“Approaching her won’t be a problem,” Wynni said. “According to Silian she’s already here.”

“Does he know where she is?” Iana asked.

“She was moving,” Wynni said. ‘Trying to get into position for a decent shot on you.”

“And she heard us talking her,” Iana said.

“And still hears us,” Wynni said.

“Who would she have to shoot through at the moment to get to me?” Iana asked.

“Gendaw,” Wynni said.

“She’s hesitating because she doesn’t want to kill one of your own?” Iana asked.

“No, I think she’s hesitating because she can’t believe we’re standing together and talking calmly,” Wynni said. “Unless I miss my guess she’s trying to decide which of us needs to die first.”

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 18 – Observations

The Blessed Realms were constructed from stardust and gravity, like most other worlds are. For the Blessed Realms though, the stardust was synthesized not in early supernovae but through an act of divine fiat. The gods of the Blessed Realms came as architects and dreamers. They crafted the realms as one milieu in a long series of realities wherein they tried out variations on millions of separate and interlocking themes.

As with many works of art though, they had to go through a few initial designs before they reached one which they felt was right.

Those early works reached varying stages of fullness in the creation. Some were bare sketches of a world; smooth, lifeless spheres where the fundamental physical laws were applied in a haphazard fashion.

Other worlds more closely resembled the Blessed Realms, containing early copies of the mountains and lakes and wonders that the Mindful Races of the realms would live near, work on, and fight over.

Because the sun of the Blessed Realms didn’t shine on any of these half finished creations, they were known as shadow worlds and if there was one thing which united them it was that shadow worlds were never safe for those of the sunlight world to travel through.

Lagressa of the Drowning Kiss knew this. She also knew that as a child of the shadow worlds, they weren’t necessarily safe for her either.

“Those were frighteningly accurate copies of us,” a young girl said. “Are you sure that the queen’s wife is going to be able to tell that they’re not really our bodies?”

“I have no idea,” a Shadowfolk woman said.

Lagressa watched them walk under her tree house hideaway. The instincts that had been drilled into her said to wait for them to pass by and then stalk them from the rear.

Lagressa cast that thought aside. She’d fled to the ruined city on the mountain precisely because she didn’t want to be the person her people wanted her to be. The person she was designed and created to be.

“Do you know where we are?” another young girl asked. This one seemed more assured. She walked with an awareness of the space around her, flowing through the air with small turns that expanded her field of vision while making an attack on her vital organs more difficult.

“We’ve gone to one of the hells,” an older, human woman said. “One of the dark and bad ones.”

“There are bright and happy hells?” a dwarven woman asked.

“Sure, they’re lit by the fools they set on fire there and that makes the demons in them real happy,” the human woman said.

Lagressa couldn’t contain her fascination. Humans and Dwarves were sunlight folk. They never came to the shadow worlds. Not unless something was very wrong.

The Shadowfolk woman was an even greater anomaly though. Shadowfolk and the sunlight people never mixed. Even at the best of times there was too much suspicion between them, and the last decade had not been the best of times for either side.

“We’re not in hell,” a Shadowfolk man said. “The hells are lot easier to get out of than the deep shadows.”

The party that was walking beneath Lagressa’s hideout represented more people than she’d seen over the last six months, and each one of them was a puzzle she couldn’t resist trying to piece together.

“The Council doesn’t believe in Hells,” Iana said. “What’s a wolf’s heaven but a rabbit’s hell? I was taught.”

“I thought the hells were where the worst of the god’s cast offs were thrown?” Yuehne said. “The things that were broken and wrong.”

“Yeah, like the Shadowfolk,” Gertrude, the older human woman, said.

“You might want to consider that it’s those same Shadowfolk who are our only chance of making it back to the sunlit lands,” Venita, the dwarven woman, said. “And more importantly, you might consider that they can hear you and have feelings too.”

“As if we hear anything else from you sunlighters?” Gendaw, the Shadowfolk man, said.

“Whatever you’ve heard in the past, Venita’s right,” Iana said. “Gertrude, these people are representatives from their own sovereign nation. Respect them.”

“Like we got any respect?” Gertrude said. “They burned down my inn!”

“No,” Iana said. “I burned down your inn. If you have a problem with that…”

“I do! I do have a problem with that. I didn’t ask for you to come! I didn’t want you in my inn and I don’t want you in my country.”

“I owe you for the inn,” Iana said. “I have to make that up to you, and make it right. You can judge when I’ve done enough to achieve that. The loss of your inn though does not give you the right to malign others.”

“You’re going to give her a new one, right Princess? A new inn?” Daggrel, a human man, asked.

“Absolutely,” Iana said. “The Queen will consider it a savings if she only has to pay for one new inn instead of assigning a permanent member of her guard to watch over me.”

“Speaking of those two, what are they doing?” Yuehne asked. “Why haven’t they come after us?”

“The safety of an entire clan of people has to outweigh my own,” Iana said. “Plus, I expect Dae has been spying on us.”

“What? Why would she leave you unprotected? Why did she let you burn down the inn and fake our deaths?” Yuehne asked.

“A show of trust maybe?” Iana said. “Or she’s working on the problem through her own channels.”

“That seems to be what Silian is most afraid of,” Wynni said. “It’s why we need to draw my people back away from the sunlight worlds.”

“So that they won’t move onto assaulting the queen?” Yuehne asked.

“No, so they won’t be as easy for Lady Dae to track,” Gendaw said.

“Can she find them in these Shadow Worlds?” Londela, the courier, asked.

There was silence for a moment and then Wynni said, “Silian hopes it will slow her down.”

“It’s not entirely clear what Dae can and can’t do,” Iana said. “The world hasn’t seen a Sorcerer like her yet.”

“I’m surprised more people aren’t trying to assassinate her,” Venita said. “Not that I bear her any ill will but people tend to be scared of what they don’t understand. Our present company as a specific example of that.”

“I think beating a god into submission was enough to give other people pause,” Iana said. “The world is peaceful at the moment, and for now, no one has a pressing need to upset that. Not after the Green Council was used as an object lesson for what a bad idea doing so could be.”

“You sound like you know a lot about that?” Daggrel asked.

“I was there,” Iana said.

“Where? In the Council?” Venita asked.

“At the final battle,” Iana said. “I was at Queen Alari’s side when she fought against one of my gods.”

“But you’re so young?” Londela said.

“I commanded the division of Warbringers that first invaded Senkin,” Iana said. “I’ve been trained since birth for warfare.”

“That’s not fair,” Yuehne said.

“No,” Iana said. “It’s not.”

Silence reigned over the group for a long moment and Lagressa felt her skin buzzing with excitement.

Living on the edges of the world had been a lonely existence. She had no idea how great a cavity that had left in her until she heard the voices that surrounded her. She longed to reach out and alert them all to her presence, but she knew the peril in that.

The Shadowfolk were a threat she’d encountered before. They exterminated people like Lagressa on the general principal of destroying anything that could threaten their precarious existence. Sunlighters though? They would never trust her. They couldn’t trust the Shadowfolk after all and the Shadowfolk had at least been made to live in the same world as the Sunlighters.

“What are we going to do with these two?” Daggrel asked, pointing to two unconscious Shadowfolk they were carrying on makeshift litters. “You broke them pretty good and they’re getting heavy to carry.”

“We’ll need to find shelter here until we get our bearings,” Iana said.

“Normally we’d toss them into the abyss if they were going to endanger the mission,” Wynni said and held up a hand to shush the objections that leapt to several people’s lips.  “But since that’s the sort of thinking we’re trying to change, that’s not an option here.”

“Are these buildings safe?” Yuehne asked. “Maybe there’s room for them in there?”

The buildings were not safe.

Lagressa knew that from painful experience.

The problem was that they looked safe. In the shadow worlds though, how things appeared and what they were actually like often differed. Harmless spaces in particular were rare. With the base laws of reality being flexible, the areas which could support life were fewer than appearances indicated and those places which did have stable physical laws supporting them were often already claimed by the creatures which lurked in the shadow worlds.

“Nowhere here is safe,” Wynni said. “We can check them out but we need to be very careful.”

“Isn’t this where your people live though?” Londela asked.

“It’s not like that matters. Plenty of dangerous things where my people live,” Venita, the dwarf, said. “Doesn’t mean we can’t live there, and doesn’t mean some of us don’t still die because of one dangerous thing or another.”

“We’re deep in the Shadow Worlds now too,” Wynni said. “This is a place my people rarely choose to tread.”

“So there’s spots there are close to our world and ones that are farther away?” Londela asked. “Why did we go to one of the far ones? Was it to throw off your peoples’ trackers?”

“Yes, after we switched places with our mirror bodies, we had to make a blind jump into the Shadows,” Wynni said. “We don’t control where those go, and so we also can’t track them.”

“That was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen,” Daggrel said. “You dragged a whole other me right out of the mirror.”

“It wasn’t you,” Gendaw said. “It was a reflection body. It looked like you because of the mirror but they’re just empty shells so it could have been anyone.”

“Yeah, but how do you do that?” Daggrel asked.

“It’s bit of Shadow magic. One that’s hard to detect,” Gendaw said.

“Also not widely known,” Wynni said.

“Will your trackers know to check for it?” Iana asked.

“Silian apparently fooled the gods with it when they were looking for him, so it should escape our tracker’s notice too,” Wynni said. “The bodies were inert but the fire burned hot enough that no one will be able to tell that.”

“If the trackers can’t follow us here why go to all the trouble to leave bodies behind?” Londela asked.

“Without the bodies they would have kept looking for me,” Iana said.

“Once they find her though. They’ll try to put together a scene to implicate someone else in the princess’s killing,” Wynni said.

“And Dae will see right through it,” Iana said.

“How does that help us though if we’re lost out in the middle of nowhere?” Venita asked.

“It’ll buy us time to recruit support from within the ranks of my people,” Wynni said.

“Is that possible?” Londela asked.

“Normally it wouldn’t be,” Gendaw said. “Normally we’re trained to be loyal unto death.”

Iana laughed.

“It’s always unto our own death isn’t it?” she said. “The one’s we’re supposed to be loyal to are never the ones who are at risk.”

“That’s not how it’s supposed to be,” Wynni said. “It’s not what Silian wanted for us.”

“If all the Shadowfolk are brainwashed, won’t they refuse to help?” Daggrel asked.

“They’re not brainwashed,” Wynni said. “And I can get through to them. Or at least enough of them to turn things around.”

“How do you know?” Yuehne asked.

“Because I’ve got the voice of our progenitor nagging in my ear,” Wynni said.”They won’t listen to me, but he knows how to convince them. He managed to convince me after all.”

“Now the trick is getting out of this place and back to the umbral worlds so you can talk to them,” Gendaw said.

“I believe I can help with that.” Lagressa didn’t mean to give herself away. The words slipped out before she was aware she was saying them, but in the silence that followed she decided she wasn’t going to take them back.

Come what may, she was a part of the story she saw unfolding before her.