Game: Session 9
Suleiman is just fine. He’s a happy little thing or at least he’s not fussy unless he’s hungry, tired, or if his diaper’s full. I don’t have any trouble smelling when that last happens, though. I’m amazed at how someone who eats the same thing all the time manages to create such a wide variety of textures and colors. Maybe it’s my milk that changes and makes the difference.
He’s starting to move a lot more, though he’s not very coordinated. He can’t hold his head up by himself yet, and he can’t even roll over yet. But he can move his arms and legs and he can grab things. He’ll grab anything that he can reach. My hair, my lip, my clothes I have to keep his nails short or he might cut me with them. Felicitation is protective of him, but she stays prudently out of reach while he’s awake. When he’s asleep, she’ll curl up with him. I tell her she’s slacking off as a familiar, but she just yawns at me. Translated you’re slacking off as a witch.
Despite everything I’ve tried, my nipples are still chapped and tender. Ow. It doesn’t hurt to nurse him, but clothes hurt a little. And not in a good way like being bitten, but a bad way like burning yourself on a hot stove or something. Being tired is like breathing now I’m always breathing, I’m always tired. Oh well.
I’m actually glad I have things to do. I’ve fantasized about not having to do anything but take care of Suleiman, but honestly he’s not very interesting company. He’s beautiful, and I can look at him just a lot, and when I put my nose in his hair and smell him I feel warm and drifty and so very nice, but he doesn’t talk. I’m on light duty I’m not supposed to be anywhere near any fighting, but I’ve still got the infirmary to organize and run, I still sit in on captain Navarr’s staff meetings, and I’m still learning how to be a witch.
I’ve learned how to turn myself into a coyote. No one else has seen it yet, not really, but I can. I was out collecting herbs and berries and roots and things from the forest edge when I suddenly knew that Suleiman needed me, or would very soon. Before I even realized what was going on, I was running back to the fort and to the infirmary. It felt so natural that I didn’t notice at first that I was running on four legs, not two, that I couldn’t see color any more, and smell was more important than my other senses. As a witch and a healer, I already paid more attention to scent than most humans an infection often smells diseased before it looks that way, and one dried and powdered herb looks much like another but they all smell different. As a coyote, I could smell the way I saw as a human. I was also faster on four legs than on two I was inside the fort and in the infirmary very quickly. Just as I took my human shape back, Suleiman woke up. Marta picked him up from his bed and held him, saying, “I’m sorry, little one, your mother’s not here right” She noticed me standing there and blinked in surprise. “Oh. She’s right here.”
“Thank you,” I told her, taking Suleiman. He stopped fussing as soon as his mouth found my nipple, and I thought about what had just happened. Dedri wanted me to learn to call and bind spirits before shapeshifting, but apparently I had other ideas about that. I hadn’t even thought about it. I just needed to run fast, and with the need came a shape suited to it.
I think I might have a lot of fun with this shape. The coyote has a playfulness, a sense of humor. I have an urge to lick Quin’s face all over. Not as a human, but as a coyote. She’d forgive me eventually.
We’ve had a couple days of calm relative calm, anyway. The spiders attacked last night, which made a lot of people happy. Or at least more comfortable. Massed attacks by semi-intelligent giant spiders were things they could deal with. Two men were bitten, but they’ll be okay.
These spiders have even worse venom than Felicitation, which is saying something. (I love her dearly, but her venom is for killing mice and insects, not for anything as large as a human. She’s still my scaly little bundle of venom and spite.) Quin was trying to take the spiders apart to find out what inside them might be useful in her magic. After she got a faceful of venom some of the glands spray out their contents when poked with something sharp she came to me for help with dissecting some of them. I’m more familiar with how mammals are put together, but I know a little about arthropods, and a lot about how animals in general work.
Most of the inside of a spider at least this kind of spider is taken up by the book-lungs they need to be able to grow so big. At this size external digestion isn’t very practical (and nature is ever practical, except when she isn’t) so there’s an actual digestive tract. These were all female, though juvenile. Their ovaries were still undeveloped. Few of them had silk glands and spinnerets, which was weird. Weirder, they had really stunted venom glands they should have been fist-sized rather than acorn-sized.
I’m not complaining about the lack of venom it made my job a lot easier, and we’d lose a lot more people if they were more venomous. But it was weird. It almost seemed like these spiders were grown specifically for harassing us and not killing us. We also happened to notice that every spider had a pattern, almost a symbol, on their bellies. Quin and I had no idea what it meant. Sal thought it was a githyanki symbol, but didn’t know any more than that. The people who’d attacked us in the astral realm on our way from Ashiri to Minoth were githyanki. They’re unfriendly, nomads in the astral realms, but I don’t know anything more than that.
I definitely don’t know why spiders on the southern coast of Kesser would have a symbol of theirs on their bellies.
I asked the lieutenant his name is Ivan, I finally learned about the dance he’d done with the sword and a sash. He was happy to tell me about it. That dance was first done some three hundred years ago by his ancestor to celebrate the victory of Shensai over some great evil. Any details on what that great evil might have been are lost, but the victory and the dance still live. His ancestor personally received the blessing of the emperor, which gave them lots of honor and status. Like most things Shensai, it’s got a ridiculously long name, and I can’t remember any of it.
He also told me about some of the other rituals Shensai have they’ve got rituals for everything. If I was really interested in learning about Shensai, he’d start with a Ritual of Introduction. Basically, we’d meet, he’d offer tea, I’d talk about my ancestors, he’d talk about his ancestors, I’d talk about my immediate family, he’d talk about his immediate family, and finally we’d each share a story from our lives. And then he’d bow I wouldn’t, since I didn’t know how to do it right and then we’d go our separate ways.
I think I will ask him for that. Shensai is a major power in the world, and I don’t know a thing about it. Besides, he’s an interesting man himself.
One last thing, and it’s a bad one. When Otaan was fighting Navarr, he did something that left a darkness in him like a tumor. It’s not getting any better. The skin there is tender and crackly and fragile, and bleeds at a touch. Navarr is a werewolf. Werekind don’t get sick their gift/curse doesn’t share. But Navarr is very sick.
It’s a magical injury, and needs magical healing, but he’s being very stubborn about it. It took Quin two days to pester him into letting me try to fix it. I thought I could, I really did. And it really should have worked the ritual I used is one that repairs damage done to the pattern, the essence, the soul, but if anything it made things worse and I feel guilty-sick about it. Especially since he’d gotten that injury while getting my son back.
Worse, while I was examining the tumor, I sniffed at the black stuff that oozed from the cracks in the skin (I’d tried to be gentle, but even the lightest touch left bruises). To me, it smelled like Otaan, musky and sexy and intoxicating. Navarr couldn’t smell anything from it, and Quin wrinkled her nose and said it was putrid.
Gods help me, I miss him. He was a bad person in many ways and loving him almost killed me, but I did, and I still do. For all that he did, he gave me an amazing first (and so far only) time with a man, and he gave me Suleiman. I can’t think of a more precious gift than that.
I don’t think we can blame everything about this idiotic war on the demon. Sure, he feeds it, and feeds from it, but we humans are enthusiastic participants in it. It’s so much easier to just hate your enemies. Loving them makes for a lot of heartsickness.
Guilty-sick-ashamed, I left Quin and Navarr as quick as I could. I went to my room in the officer’s quarters that I never use and sat in the corner and cried. If Navarr dies from this, he’ll have died helping me, and I wouldn’t have been able to help him.
I really hate that.
Son’s Cry, Summer’s End: We had to get the hell out of Widow’s Gate the animal people invaded and drove us out. The closest defensible place was this one, and I purely hate it here. If I didn’t have an oath binding me, I’d be long since gone. As far as I can tell, there aren’t any spirits here. I’m not even sure I can do any magic. Probably I could do the things that I don’t need to ask the spirits for, but anything else I don’t know. I don’t really even want to try. It’s cold here in ways that have nothing to do with temperature.
It started very quietly. I suppose the men on the west wall found out what was going on before I did, but they found out by getting killed. Some time in the middle of the night I woke up, not sure of why I did. The Sprout was still sleeping, and I sighed. Why couldn’t I still be asleep? Of course I had to pee, so I did that. I put the cover back on the chamber pot, stood up, and shoved it back under the bed. Then I noticed the rabbit man standing not a foot away.
I squeaked. I sounded like a mouse. The rabbit touched a finger to his lips, and to mine, and shook his head. Okay, no noise. Great. I thought about fighting for a moment, or screaming, but I kept thinking about the match between him he was the same man who’d come to dinner that night and lieutenant Ivan. Maybe Ivan could’ve taken him if he’d wanted to, but I didn’t have a chance without magic, and I haven’t even tried calling for fire yet. I’ve heard whispers telling me how I could do it, but I haven’t actually tried yet. (Later I found out why this would have been a Really Bad Idea, though setting the building I’m in on fire is a bad idea all by itself.)
And it wasn’t just me I had to worry about. There was Suleiman, my staff, my patients. If going along quietly would keep them safer, I’d go along quietly. The rabbit man gestured to Suleiman, miming rocking a baby, so I picked him up (and breathed a very quiet sigh of relief that I wouldn’t have to leave him behind). He found my pack and started putting things in it, looking at me for indications of what to take. I pointed to my sword laying on my desk I have a desk, though it’s a dubious privilege since it comes with acres of paperwork and he thought about it for a moment, then nodded.
I had to hand Suleiman to him so I could buckle the belt on properly. But it never occurred to me that he might hurt him. Even the lion top-level predator that he was didn’t give the impression that he’d hurt me. He was a very dangerous creature, no doubt about that, but I was taboo somehow, protected by being a mother. If the lion was safe, the rabbit was even safer.
The last thing was my scrying bowl. I had a feeling I wasn’t going to be able to come back for anything, and I wasn’t about to leave that behind. So I pointed at it. The rabbit gave me a Look. ‘Woman, there’s something serious going on here, and you’re worried about a bowl?’ I made my eyes go wide and pointed again. He sighed, his ears drooping a little more, and put the bag in my pack, making a show about how heavy it was. I didn’t have a whole lot of sympathy. Anyway, he shouldered my pack and led me outside to the west wall.
A silk rope dangled from it, and the rabbit scrambled up easily. At the top, he gestured for me to climb up after him. I had Suleiman in a sling, but it still took a hand to make sure he stayed in it. I couldn’t climb that one handed, and tried to tell him so. He sighed again, turned sideways, and made some signs these were a silent code, not the pantomime that we were using to communicate with. The jaguar woman jumped down and looked me over. Close up, she smelled exactly the way I thought she would: musky, exotic, and unmistakably female. My blush was hidden under dark skin and little light, but I know she smelled her effect on me. She looked amused and cast her spell, lifting me into the air. The rabbit threw me the rope and pulled me to the wall, then pushed me out over the other side. Once I was up there I could see that the sentries on that wall were dead. Harpoons in their chests held them upright so it didn’t look too suspicious from our side.
I could also see several hundred of the bull/cow people, all with very big swords and enormous rectangular shields. The lion man from dinner and his jackal flunky were there, too. We were being invaded. I started to reconsider my decision to not make a fuss, but it was a little late by that point.
Once I was on the ground, the lion man picked two of the bull people and signed to them. ‘Take her and get her back that way,’ he told them. Obviously they wanted me out of the fight that was coming, but I had no idea what they planned to do with me after that.
We hadn’t quite cleared the ranks of bull people soldiers when the alarm went up and the fight started. Screams, alarms the battle yells of the bull soldiers were damned impressive, especially from right in the middle of them. A few explosions told me that Sal and Quin were alert and getting into the mix. I hoped they’d be all right the animal people would target them especially.
The soldiers assigned to me immediately put their swords away and got in between me and the fight, raising their shields against anything that might come our way, and poked me to hurry up.
So I hurried. We were headed west along the cliffs, towards Widow’s Keep. The noise of the battle was still very loud, and I winced, trying not to think of the people being wounded and killed back there. A new sound cut through it all as a portal opened close by and Quin stepped through. She was disoriented from it and didn’t even see the bull soldiers as they both slashed at her with those horribly big swords of theirs. Fortunately she’s tougher than she looks and it didn’t kill her. They seemed surprised, and a little impressed.
They were even more surprised when she spoke up, in their language. I had no idea what they were talking about things were moving very quickly but they got very angry and raised their swords to kill her. This time I got in the way and told them not to kill her, that she was mine, that if they killed her I couldn’t talk to them. I still don’t know what worked probably the getting in the way part, since they were going to a lot of trouble to make sure I was unharmed but it did, and they didn’t kill her. Instead, they worked out a parole and we all kept on going to their camp on the other side of the ruined keep.
At first glance it looked a whole lot like a camp we’d set up as a field headquarters. There were a few big pavilion tents, neat rows of smaller ones, torches, fires, flags and banners. The two bull men they’re called boven in their language took us to the biggest pavilion where a trio of lion, jaguar, and jackal were gathered around a table spread with maps. There wasn’t anything like the carpet I’d seen in my scrying bowl, but there was a large painted canvas one showing the battle for our fort, with markers for various units of soldiers arranged on it.
That wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before, but as I watched, I saw the markers moving on the canvas. Sometimes the markers would get smaller, and a few vanished entirely this wasn’t just a planning map, this showed exactly what was going on in the actual battle, as it actually happened. (I should mention this to the captain the Company might want to hire a wizard to make something like it.)
We talked with the lion for a little bit with Quin translating. I can sense a lot of it is smell but body language helps their moods and emotions, but the words mean nothing to me. They call me ‘Mother’ which makes sense, and I get a whole lot of respect from most of these people, which doesn’t so much. These people risked losing surprise in their attack when they came to get me out of the camp and out of the fight. I’m grateful dodging sharp pointy things while carrying Suleiman is not my idea of fun but I don’t understand. They have no intention of keeping any prisoners, they said, so as soon as they’ve established their perimeter, they’re going to give us back.
This lion man’s jaguar, also a woman and apparently a sorcerer took one of Quin’s books and left with it, looking very happy about getting a new toy. I watched her go, not really caring that I was being obvious about it. Just the rocking of her hips alone is hypnotic. Add in the tail and the fur and it’s devastating.
Like I need to be attracted to any more enemies. Quin pointed that out. And: “She’s not human.”
“I know.” Swish, sway, sigh.
“And she’s furry.”
“Yeah?” I guess it poked at Quin’s memories of having been a cat, but for me it was just exotic and exciting. I wondered what it felt like.
After that the lion man called over one of the rabbit-people they fill the same roles as NCOs do in the Company and told him to make sure we were comfortable. He led us to a tent where a couple of beds waited. They were thin pallets resting on the canvas floor of the tent with a few brightly colored cushions. Suleiman needed changing, and needed to eat, so we took care of that and fell asleep.
A while later about two and a half hours the rabbit man shook me awake, but gently. It was time to go, so we did. One of the boven carried my pack and I carried the still-sleeping boy. I’d suspected that the boven were smarter than they let on Quin confirmed that when she told me they suddenly got a whole lot more articulate when the predators were out of earshot. They talked about gods and religion they worship a god called Inyι, one of a pair of twin gods, Inis and Inyι. I told them, through Quin’s translation (that’s a very handy spell she’s got) that I worshiped twin gods, Rial and Kial, the two moons above. Their response was basically “Well, of course. There’s only the one of them, and different names are just different names.”
We didn’t really get into the other seven. And definitely not into the Other Three.
And we learned a little about their beliefs about death, which should interest Sal. Being buried is the greatest honor they have, being eaten by the predators is also an honor, and being burned is a dire insult. I’ve been thinking about it since then, and I think I’d like to be left under a tree somewhere. Scavengers and insects and fungi would feed on my corpse, sending my flesh around the circle again just as my soul is reborn in new flesh. In the desert, there aren’t many trees, but nothing is ever wasted.
I know the idea of being eaten by vultures and jackals would be unsettling to most people, but I think it’s actually pretty comforting. Burning on a pyre the way people in some cultures do feels selfish. After all, when I’m dead, I’m done with the meat and bone. If there are animals and plants that can use that, they’re welcome to it. I should probably tell Quin and Sal about it so they know, just in case.
Morbid, huh? But being in this damned silent heap of stone has me in a morbid turn of mind. It eats at me, and I don’t know how to make it stop.
Soon enough we got to our camp and the boven carefully went stupid again. There was a large pile of our dead, another of theirs, and fifteen humans still alive, sitting with their hands on their heads. Marta was one of them.
The lion man who led the attacking force looked like he’d been through hell half his mane had been burned away, his fur was matted with blood, and there were still snapped-off arrows sticking out of him. That had to hurt. Even if he was an enemy, I didn’t like seeing him in that much pain. So I asked Quin to ask him if I could take Marta with me, and if he would accept any healing.
That was a very bad mistake. I’d offended the lion man’s pride, and got all up in my face about it. I should have groveled, but I was pissed that he was yelling at me for offering to help. “Do you think I’m weak?” he snarled at me. (Again, Quin translated.)
“No,” I told him, not backing down a bit. I don’t know where they think humans should fit in their food-chain hierarchy, but I wanted to be treated as the predators we actually are. Maybe having a predator as another shape helped too. “I think you’re injured. There’s a difference.”
He told us to pick two from among the prisoners. I chose Marta, Quin chose a man who’d been unapologetically watching us in the showers. And then the lion man had them both killed, right there. The others were prodded to their feet (or carried if they couldn’t walk) and pushed over to join Quin and me. If there’d been any chance that I could get away with it without getting all of the rest of us killed, I’d have killed him. As it was, I felt a flicker of hate warm my heart, and I growled.
“Are you challenging me?”
“Get them out of my sight.” The rabbit man nodded to him as one of the chief lion man’s soldiers, he was protected from this guy, no matter how angry he was.
So fifteen of us were taken to the edge of the territory they claimed. The boven had already dug an impressive trench and were throwing up earthworks behind it. The rabbit man checked with Quin on our truce practices, tied a white cloth to the end of a spear, and we all went out to the other side of the earthworks. Everything went very smoothly we transferred the people who couldn’t walk to stretchers. I thanked the boven and the rabbit man for taking such good care of us, and asked them to think about one thing. They are many. They are many, and strong, and if they decided to refuse to be food any more, things could change drastically.
It’s not much, but it might be a start. I don’t know I know they’re sad about being food, but it seems to be a religious duty for them.
I kissed the rabbit on the cheek and waved, and we all went our separate ways. Then we marched hard for three days to get here.
The sneaky man who had been busted down to corporal has been promoted to captain Navarr has orders to get to Minoth by the first boat he can find and is no longer in command of our unit. Quin is desperately afraid for him. With the corruption as bad as it is, he probably won’t live long enough to get to Minoth, much less be effective there. Maybe someone here can heal him. I’m afraid to try after what happened the last time.
Nothing much lives here except us. The ground is barren and rocky and you can see bones in it. Some lichen grows on the rocks and the bones, but that’s all. As I got closer and closer to the castle, the few spirits I did see were twisted and mangled. And here there just aren’t any spirits. There are figures that wander around the valley below the castle, but they’re echoes of dead people, too badly damaged to even be ghosts. It’s silent and it’s dead and I want to run away as fast as I can.
I can feel the hate eating at my soul. Every person that died here, every person that killed left an impression. Their hate and rage and despair feed the demon Steel. I can’t keep it out the part of me that is demon lusts after it too much I can only try to hold it back. I just don’t think it’s working very well.
Lieutenant Ivan is dead, though he saved Navarr’s life by giving his. Some years ago, when Navarr was newly-bitten and didn’t have nearly the control over his curse that he does now, he killed his wife and children in a berserker fit. When the rage finally lifted from him, he swore that he would never again know the peace of the gods. Apparently that meant not accepting magical healing, blessing, or absolution from priests of the Nine which is why he wouldn’t go to the Alexians at Mother’s Grace Temple to have the corruption healed. (We learned that any healing would work, as long as it was done on ground consecrated to the Nine. There was a small temple here that actually was mostly clean of the filth that covered everything else. I fled there )
The healing I’d given him was iffy, and he probably would have refused that too if we hadn’t been in the middle of various fights at the time. He also wouldn’t accept any jade tea or a jade charm (which would have at least slowed the corruption’s progression) from Ivan, even though the Shensai man didn’t worship the Nine at all, but instead prayed to his ancestors.
Navarr was going to follow his orders to the letter and find a boat for Minoth, knowing that he’d most likely die long before he got there. Quin and Sal decided that if they couldn’t talk him out of not getting himself healed, they’d knock him out and have him healed while he was unconscious. I didn’t want to be part of that I wasn’t going to try to stop them, but I wasn’t going to break the man’s oath for him.
They went to the stables to try one last time to talk to Navarr, and I followed after them. It seemed likely that if they were going to try anything violent (and Navarr wasn’t likely to change his mind at this point, the stubborn bastard) someone was going to need patching up. Sure enough, lieutenant Ivan did, after Sal smacked him across the back of the head with the pommel of his dagger. Ivan fell over and Sal went inside I could hear them fighting in there while I gently felt the back of Ivan’s head to make sure nothing was seriously wrong. Nothing was, fortunately. He’d have a terrible headache when he woke up, so I put my hands over the growing lump and asked for healing.
It should have been easy minor magic, small magic and it was one of the hardest healings I’ve done. The power had to come from a long way away and I had to pull it every inch like a donkey that didn’t want to go.
That’s the other reason I didn’t want to heal Navarr. Not so deep down, I was afraid I couldn’t. My soul got dirtier with every heartbeat. How could I heal anyone with that on me?
But it worked the scrapes he’d gotten when he fell closed and faded away and Ivan woke up, wincing at the light when he opened his eyes. “Ow.”
“Don’t try to sit up too fast,” I warned him. “You’ve still got a lump there, though I think I got the worst of it.”
I blinked at him, not wanting to answer. Besides, the fight inside was still going on we could both hear it clearly. The blast of thunder was startling. I squeaked and jumped as well as I could for someone sitting on the ground. Ivan, more used to loud noises and fighting than I was, didn’t. I think his question was answered when Sal staggered out of the stable carrying an unconscious Navarr over one shoulder. The burn where a lightning bolt had hit him was pretty clear. So was the guilt and nervousness on Quin’s scent. Face too, but I noticed the scent first.
Maybe that’s a side effect of the shapeshifting ability qualities from my animal shapes bleed over into my human shape the way my human self changes the animal. The time I was a coyote, I had many of the instincts of that animal my mind changed with my body. It had to. I didn’t need to think about how to coordinate four legs and a tail to run, I just ran and my body responded as easily as it would if I’d been human. It didn’t seem at all strange that I couldn’t see color any more, and could smell much much more than I could with a human nose. Those are changes of mind, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there were other changes I just didn’t notice then.
I think that Ivan had his answer. When Quin and Sal were back in the keep, I stood up, brushing at the dust on my uniform. Yes, I was in uniform they’d had one that would fit me in stores here, which was a blessing after wearing the same dress for three days of hard marching. “I’m going to go see to the horses,” I told him. They’d been spooked pretty badly by the lightning bolt, and I wanted to reassure them that everything was all right and try to calm them down. Ivan came with me, and he was good with them, gentle and careful and caring.
I wanted to talk with him more, but Felicitation came looking for me I was needed for something. I looked at Ivan and gave him a half-smile. “I should go. If I don’t do what she tells me, she gets mad. And she’s already unhappy about being here.”
He gave me that ‘what the hell is she talking about?’ look and I tried to explain. “She’s my familiar. I asked her for her help with things when she was just an egg. If I can’t take my familiar’s advice, whose can I?”
I could tell he didn’t really understand, but at least he didn’t think I was completely crazy. Or not any crazier than any spellcaster. “Take care, sir,” I said, and left, following the beaded lizard. She’s a pretty thing, all black and orange and red with pebbly skin. Usually she’d have been with me, but she’s very protective of my infant son Suleiman and tends to stay with him when I have to be somewhere else.
She led me through the castle until we came to a place where I had to make a decision. If I went to the right, I would come to the small chapel where Sal and Quin had taken Navarr and I could heal him. If I went to the left, I could do something that might give the poor wraiths haunting the valley below Son’s Cry some comfort, and might let them rest and be reborn.
It was one of the most difficult choices I’d ever had to make. I didn’t know which choice was right the way I’d known I wanted to keep the baby Otaan had gotten me with. Either way I went, someone would suffer. If I went to heal Navarr, I’d have broken his oath and the wanderers outside would still be caught in their torment. If I went outside, Navarr would die and Quin would be heartbroken.
In the end, I went to the left, outside to the valley. (Felicitation licked me when I scratched her and went back to Suleiman.) I was just starting down the slope it was dangerous footing and I had to move carefully when Sal came out of the castle looking for me. “You need to come heal Navarr,” he told me.
“No. I can’t. I won’t. I won’t break his oath any more than I already have.” I looked down at my feet, glanced at the wraiths around us. “Besides, these people need my help too.”
Sal was furious. I thought he was going to hit me, but he didn’t. His reflexive knife appeared in his fist and he attacked the closest wraith, stabbing the poor confused thing until it lost what little integrity it had left and drifted away as smoke. “If you don’t come, I’ll keep killing them.”
The hate was stronger out here my soul was wearing away like a sandcastle in rain and I snarled at him instead of sobbing. “Happy now? Did that make you feel better? I won’t go. There’s something I have to do here.”
He glared at me for a while but eventually put his knife away and went back inside. The Something I’d been following since Felicitation left me said I should go down the valley towards the seashore, so I did.
It was completely out of place here, but there was a winged horse playing in the surf where land met ocean. Obviously a stallion, he was very, very beautiful, pure white tinged with gold in his mane and tail and along the edges of his feathers. I almost didn’t notice the man standing there, but he was as out of place as the winged horse was. He was tall and slender, wearing full plate armor all bright-polished steel and gold, as beautiful in his way as the horse was. When he took off his helm (also steel with gold-feathered wings) I could see that he was Atorian, and he had to be a paladin. What the hell was someone like this doing here?
So I asked him. Before he told me, he looked at me. It felt like he saw my soul instead of my flesh. “There is a taint upon you,” he said. His voice was even more beautiful than Otaan’s was, but without the edge of wickedness that his had.
I looked down at my sandaled feet. It felt good to have my feet in sand again, and I tried to think about that and not the corruption eating me the way Navarr’s was eating him. “I know,” I sighed. “It’s this place. It eats away at my soul. I can’t keep it out.”
The Atorian didn’t even hesitate he just lifted his hand and said, “The Blessing of D’Shen be upon you, child.” I saw a bright light, bright as the sun but not painful to look at, and I felt better. The hate, the evil was still there, but it couldn’t touch me. Even the parts of my soul it had eroded were clean now. One thing it meant is that I didn’t have it as an excuse any more. Any hate in me was all mine. I checked, thinking about the lion man who’d killed Marta. I was still angry about what he’d done, but the thought didn’t make me obsess about burning him to death. Eventually I’d get past it and just mourn her loss. I’m very tired of people important to me dying.
Back in the world outside me, the Atorian was talking, answering my question: “What are you doing here?” He was there to try to bring an end to the centuries-long war, but he and his colleagues still didn’t know how it started.
“If I remember right,” I told him. “It started with the war that broke Kessel into Kesser and Sayd. A Saydean wielder summoned a demon called Steel to try to stop a Kesserit incursion.” (Listen to me using words like incursion. Next thing you know I’ll be using ‘deploy’ in conversation.) “I have no idea if it worked or not, but the summoner was killed. The demon’s still here fueling the war and feeding off it.”
A look of pure joy blossomed on the Atorian’s face. I swear he had to stop himself from kissing me. “You know? Those of my Order have been searching centuries for the beginning to this war, and all we had to do was ask someone? You know the cause and its name!”
I blinked at him, a little stunned. “Uh, no. Most people don’t have any idea there’s a demon involved. I didn’t know until the head of the Order of Masters told me. And I don’t know its name, I only know what it’s called.”
“My dear girl, it’s a start. It’s a very good start.”
We talked some more, about the demon, about the invasions of the airship people they were going to be coming here, he said. (Why doesn’t that surprise me?) It sounded like it was going to be happening pretty soon, too. “Would you like to help?” he asked.
My eyes went wide. It’s possibly the most important thing that anyone can do in the world right now at least the Order believes it is and I could help make it happen? I’d love to. “Yes! Yes, please. My friends would too. We, ah, we’ve dedicated ourselves to hunting demons.”
“The object is not to kill it, Sofiyah,” the paladin said. I didn’t think about it then, but I’d never told him my name.
“Oh, I know. We just want it gone, sent back to Hehl where it belongs.”
“Exactly. Meet me at the temple of the Mother’s Grace in two moon’s time.”
I’d have to work out some way to get the Company to let us do that, but I’d worry about that later. “Two moons from now, okay.”
The paladin put his helmet back on and called to the winged horse in a liquid, flowing language. It didn’t have reins, a saddle, anything, but knelt to let the paladin mount. Before he flew away, I asked his name. The Sunstone Paladin, he said. Weird sort of name, but I think being an Atorian paladin qualifies as weird already. A weird name doesn’t do much more. I also asked him if he could see a mark on my forehead. He could it read “Otaan” in the alphabet the gods used. It was fading, though, and would be gone completely in a while.
I wanted to run, so I changed my human skin for the coyote’s and ran. It’s so different, being an animal with four legs instead of two. My back doesn’t hurt when I’m in that shape. The pads of my paws are tougher than leather, letting me run barefoot across broken ground like this. I have a huge bottlebrush of a tail, which I have urges to try to catch in my teeth. When I changed, I sat down, twisted to nibble at the base of my tail, scratched my ear with a hind foot, stood up and stretched splaying all four legs and arching my back. Everything seemed to be in order. I stood up and started running.
Going flat out, I’m much faster than a human. Something told me I wasn’t quite as fast as a deer (and that I shouldn’t be hunting deer alone anyway rabbits and mice and snakes were better choices for dinner), but I could run one down with enough time to chase.
All four paws hit the ground almost at once in a quick one-two-three-four rhythm, spaced wide apart as I flow from one step to the next. If this place smelled like clean dirt and grass and trees and old animal traces instead of blood and death, it would have been a great run. I so have to get out of this place.
Even dodging arrows from the men on the castle walls was kind of fun. Dangerous as hell, but the coyote likes dangerous games. When one grazed my left back leg, I decided I’d had enough and changed back to human so I could talk to these guys. “What the hell are you doing?” I yelled. Diplomacy. Tact.
“You first. What the hell are you doing?” one of the soldiers on the wall asked.
“Trying to get back inside! Let me in! And no more Gods-damned arrows!”
They talked with each other a bit: She’s wearing a Company uniform. But she’s a Saydean! She was that coyote, too. Yeah. That’s just weird. (”I’m a witch!”)
The one who’d yelled down at me the first time asked, “What’s the password?”
I rolled my eyes. No one had told me a password. There wasn’t a Saydean around for miles, except for me and Quin and Sal. “I work for Navarr.” I did not call him an asshole, which I’m counting as a big accomplishment.
“How do we know that?”
“You could go ask him!”
They eventually decided they didn’t need to go bother Navarr and let me in with much suspicion. “We need to search you for, uh, hidden weapons and stuff.”
I was wearing a sword and a curved dagger on my belt. I rolled my eyes again. “You just want to get a good feel,” I said, sounding bored.
He tried to protest that it was just normal procedure, but I didn’t bother paying any attention to that. Instead I just put my hands on the wall, wide apart with my legs spread. “Go on then. Search me.”
I guess it’s different groping a girl openly instead of trying to pretend that you’re doing something else. He was almost shy about it, and his friends just watched instead of offering advice. When he was done and said I could go, I gave him the sweetest smile I could. “I know. You’re just doing your job.”
Navarr isn’t dead, though lieutenant Ivan is. He sacrificed his life for Navarr’s. It turns out that there aren’t any actual priests, the sort whose prayers call on the powers of the gods, anywhere near here, the same way there aren’t any wielders. The people who run the small temple here are nice folks, sincere in their faith, but they don’t have any power. They couldn’t possibly have healed Navarr, though they and their predecessors have managed to keep their small chapel mostly free of the hate that has corrupted everything else.
Ivan came in to the chapel where Quin and Sal had taken Navarr. Using a knife borrowed from Sal and the jade charm that he always wore, he somehow took the corruption from Navarr into himself. He didn’t have the healing powers of a werewolf and it spread frightfully quickly. Navarr gave him the mercy blow.
I liked him. He was a good man, interesting, and didn’t ever seem to mind a young girl’s stupid questions. I would have liked to get to know him better, to learn more about Shensai from him, and now I never will. I’m sure he’ll be back soon, but he won’t remember this life. I’m glad I wasn’t there to watch him die.
Dedri’s here I’m so very glad to see her. (She says there are spirits here, but they’re hiding and hardly ever come out.) I’d been working on getting the medical section settled in and slogging through the eternal paperwork when Suleiman woke up hungry. Needing the excuse for a break, I took him outside to one of the terraces looking north, where there are actual trees and grasses to look at. The sun felt good on my skin, the stone couch was pleasantly warm underneath me, Suleiman’s mouth felt good on my breast, and I sort of dozed off. I wasn’t exactly asleep, but I wasn’t exactly awake either.
A seagull drifted overhead, circling the castle. We were close enough to shore that a seagull wouldn’t be unusual, but just one would be. Seagulls like to stick close to each other, though they don’t actually like each other all that much. They’re like a family that fights a lot but would never dream of splitting apart. So I wondered, lazily, what it was doing there.
I found out when it swooped down to the terrace where I was sitting with Suleiman and shimmered into sparkling dust that reshaped itself into Dedri. First thought: So that’s what it looks like! Cool. My second thought was Yay Dedri! I grinned, happy just to see her, but the grin sort of froze and cracked when I saw the claw marks across her face. They were healing, but they were obviously going to leave scars. “Oh, Dedri. What happened?”
“Later,” she said, looking at me, and at Suleiman. I shifted so that there was room for her to sit on the couch next to me, and she did, ruffling my hair and laying her hand on Suleiman’s head. “So this is your son. What’s his name?”
“Suleiman.” For the first time since I’d been here I felt almost whole again. Even if I couldn’t sense the spirits around me, Dedri was here and that was almost enough. I suppose that there are people who are spirit-called like Ira and Dedri and me that I wouldn’t love, but I’m not in a hurry to find them. “I’m hoping that he has a life to go with the name.”
“You want him to be a king?” she asked, teasing. I chuckled politely.
“No. I don’t know any kings personally, but it doesn’t seem like a job for a good person. I’m hoping for peace and wisdom.”
“And his father?” Dedri said it as gently as she could. She knew about Otaan I’d told her everything about him, about the morning Suleiman was conceived and knew that I loved him.
“Dead. It’s for the best. I’d have had to give up Suleiman or always be worrying that Otaan would come take him.”
“It still hurts,” she said, squeezing my hand.
“Yeah.” I looked down at Suleiman, swallowed, nodded.
“It’s okay. I’m dealing.”
We just sat there for a little while. Dedri held Suleiman, rocking him gently. It felt right, seeing him there in her arms.
“So you’ve learned how to change shapes,” she said quietly.
“I’d hoped you’d learned to bind spirits, but each of us follows her own path.”
“But it’s fun!”
Dedri chuckled. “I know. What shape do you like best?”
She handed Suleiman back to me and got serious. The things that had given her those claw marks across her face were wasp-like creatures roughly our size. They stood on two legs and had hands on the other four and there were lots of them. The three tutors were on their way to Widow’s Gate with a couple of soldiers when they were attacked by these things the others are still there and not in the best shape. I told her about meeting the paladin and she told me to be careful about them, their priorities aren’t necessarily the same as ours. But since he was planning to do something about this idiotic war, it was probably not a bad thing to join forces for a while.
And then she told me what was going on with the Verdant Order. Some werewolves had been raiding from the north, and the Shensai reacted predictably by sending a legion of ten thousand soldiers to kill every werecreature they could find. The Verdant Forest is in the middle of all this, and they’re starting to worry that they might need to plant seeds in other parts of the world in order to survive. The rituals are pretty simple, and she knows them, and would I like to join them?
Yes. Absolutely yes. The reason she’s asking right now is awful, but I do want to join them.
We’re going with thirty soldiers to go get the other tutors, and we’re leaving very soon. I have to leave Suleiman here one of the castle women is nursing, so he won’t be hungry, but I hate having to go away. My breasts ache already at the thought of not having him nursing several times a day. If this takes too long, my milk will dry up. Unless I do something about that. Maybe Dedri knows something that’ll help with this. I know I’ll have to wean him off me and sooner than I’d like, but I want to put that day off as long as possible.