Camp NaNoWriMo

I'm doing Camp NaNoWriMo this month; some Dungeons & Dragons... fanfiction? Is it fanfiction when there's no canon characters and only the vaguest canon setting? In any case, I'm now a quarter of the way through and my work so far is below.

Update: Now 60% of the way through!

Update the second: I finished NaNoWriMo! I haven't finished the story, though, 50,000 words has gotten me about 2/3s of the way through, at a guess. I will repost the story as it is once I have time to sort out the HTML - trying to copy and paste from MS Word to Blogger is not fun at all.

Update 3: Done! Despite Word and Blogger's every effort to stop me.



Naeris absently stroked her chin with the feathered end of her quill. It would not do, she reflected, to denounce her correspondent as an idiot. Firstly because it would be impolitic; Grigor Chernin was a courtier in good standing with her step-grandmother, Queen Luisa of Arkhosia, and her father would not appreciate any undue strain on the relationship between that city and Nerath, his own. Secondly because it would be incorrect; one did not achieve the position of court mage by being lackwitted. However, it was apparently possible to achieve it while maintaining deliberate ignorance about aspects of one's field that did not directly correspond to one's own experience.

She carefully inked her quill. In regards to your request for further detail of the sensations of working sorcery, she wrote, I refer you to my previous writing on the subject. The sensation of 'intake' to which you refer, which I agree appears to be universal in wizardry, is not present in sorcery. The closest analogue would be the initial 'spiking', immediately following the 'centring', which- a knock on the door of her study interrupted her.

"Enter," she called out, voice raised to penetrate the thick wooden door. As she put away her quill the door opened to admit a young page wearing her father's colours.

"Lady Quara wishes to see you ma'am," he gasped out after a hasty bow.

"I take it this is urgent?" Naeris asked as she stood, noting his shortness of breath.

"She said to find you immediately, m'lady," he said. "They didn't seem worried or panicked, though."

Naeris nodded. "She's in father's office?"

"Yes, milady."

"Very well," she said. "Sit down and catch your breath," she added as she left.

It was no wonder the page had been out of breath. It was a noted tendency of mages to live in towers, and Naeris was no exception. Stormwind citadel had some particularly tall examples, and while hers was not the highest it would not be nearly so easy to climb its stairs as it was for her to now descend them.

She passed no one else on her way down but met and nodded to several guards, servants and courtiers as she walked from the foot of her stairs to the office. Several of the latter attempted to catch her eye, and she dissuaded them with a quick "Lady Quara is waiting on me," which served admirably. Making the High Lord's eldest daughter late for a meeting with his wife would not serve their purposes at all.

The tower was at the rear of the keep, while the office was off the throne room, near the front. Like her study, the door was both thick and warded, and no sound came out. It didn't work the other way, of course, so she knocked on the door before stepping through. Inside were Lady Quara, dictating from her desk, a scribe, seated at a smaller desk and writing frantically, and a pair of servants, doing some light cleaning while awaiting more substantial assignments.

Naeris took a seat in front of the desk to wait as her stepmother finished the letter. It sounded like it was nearly done, only the closing pleasantries remaining. When the scribe put down her quill and called a servant over to take the letter to the High Lord for sealing, Quara turned to Naeris.

"Thank you for coming," she said. Quara was in her forties, pointedly attractive and wearing a scarlet gown that beautifully complemented her dark skin. "There is some trouble at one of the warehouses. Nothing overly serious; your father suggested you go in his stead."

There was a certain tightness in Quara's voice as she said that. The defence of the city was the responsibility of its ruler. Delegating this was not unusual, in certain circumstances. One was if the ruler was not themselves capable of meeting the threat; not something Lander Stormwind could be accused of. Another was if the threat was a lesser one and the ruler felt their heir was up to the job and could use the practise.

The matter of succession was a sore point for Quara, Naeris knew. She had three daughters with Lander, and hoped one of them would inherit their father's throne. Two of them, though, were too young and the eldest had shown no talent at combat or spellcraft. Naeris was illegitimate, but historically that had mattered less to Nerath than the ability to outfight both external threats and one's rivals. The only other contender, Lander's brother-in-law Dorn, was by all accounts happy with his town on the border.

"Of course," Naeris said. "What specifically is the matter?"

"Mephits," Quara replied, "unusual, as the building had been treated and inspected not two months ago. Be sure to investigate what went wrong once the immediate issue is dealt with. A squad is preparing and will meet you at the barracks. Good luck."

Naeris thanked her and stood, leaving the office to return to her room and prepare. Mephits, spiteful little elementals, were a frequent problem for Nerath's fisheries. Little pieces of pure elemental water and earth came in with the muck on the fishers' nets, and the next thing you knew they'd gathered together and you had tiny mud creatures flying around clawing your eyes out. The city's hedge mages made good coin casting spells on warehouses and ships to disperse the bits before the formed up. Normally, though, the spells would last a year. Whoever had done these ones would have a nasty stain on their reputation.

Naeris was puffing slightly when she reached the top of her stairs again. She needed, she thought, a little more regular exercise. Practise at staff fighting, perhaps. That could wait, though. Her dress, while fine for study and acceptable for court, was no good for fighting. She stripped out of it and went to her wardrobe. Breeches, tunic, vest, coat... once she'd laced her boots and discarded her jewellery, except for the chain with the zircon crystal around her neck, she was dressed to go.

There was still one last thing, though. She grasped the zircon and reached deep inside herself, seeking her power. She found it in her centre, pulsing fierce and strong, and at the touch of her thoughts it spiked upwards. Her words and gestures wove it into a pattern, until the air around her glowed. She finished the spell and the glow faded, leaving only a ripple in the air.

Descending the stairs again was a welcome change from going up them, once she'd remembered how to walk with a dagger in her boot, and she left the keep to go to the barracks. The promised squad of soldiers was waiting outside, some doing stretches and other resting against the barracks wall, accompanied by a man in heavier armour.

"Sir Jun," Naeris greeted the knight, "I didn't know you were back from Orcwatch. Are you accompanying us?"

"I am indeed, my lady," he said with a bow. "I left the north a week ago, but only arrived in Nerath last night; I was in no rush. Restfulness is starting to become dullness, though, and I look forward to this, even if it's only mephits." He handed her a staff. "Here, my lady. The quartermaster said you;d be wanting this."

"Thank you," Naeris said, accepting the weapon. She hefted and swung it, and it was indeed her preferred length and balance. "It will be good to have you along." She might have preferred someone other than Jun, who she'd long suspected fancied himself in love with her, but he'd never even approached the bounds of propriety and was certainly a good fighter. "Shall we go?"

Jun nodded, hefted his greatsword over his shoulder, and called to the sergeant. A few screamed instructions later and the terrifying little woman had the squad marching down to the river back, half in front and half behind with Naeris and Jun in the centre.

"I didn't get much of a briefing," she admitted as they walked. "Have you heard much about what's happening?"

"A little," the knight replied. "Apparently the situation is good; they have the creatures trapped in the building and the workers are watching the windows, there's little else for them to do. Time costs silver, not blood."

"Good to hear," Naeris said. "I wasn't looking forward to chasing the beasts around the neighbourhood."

"Quite so," Jun said. "Frustrating work and you can never be sure you've got them all."

"How were things at Orcwatch when you left?" she asked.

"The orcs and gnolls were as ferocious as ever," he said, "fortunately, so is Dorn. His rages are truly inspirational. I don't believe I'll ever take up his practise of going into battle without a shirt, though."

"It's an acquired taste, certainly," Naeris agreed.

When they approached the river the sergeant sent one of the soldiers to run forward and claim a barge for them. Nerath was built in the angle between the river and the great Valley Lake, with only a little of the city intruding on the farmland on the far bank. Citadel Stormwind was the farthest inland point of the city, and it would have been a walk of over an hour to reach the warehouses on the docks. Instead, a barge could take them downriver in a matter of minutes.

By the time they had caught up with the soldier, any argument he'd had with the piermaster was done and the barge was waiting for them. When they were settled, Jun turned to Naeris again.

"I look forward to seeing you in action," he said. "I fought alongside your father once, back when I was just a spearman. It makes quite an impression, having spells arcing over your head and crashing down on the enemy."

"I'm afraid I'm not likely to be doing anything especially impressive," Naeris replied. "There's no point wasting energy on mephits."

Jun smiled. "You're expecting to encounter something later more worthy of your skills?" He asked.

"Never dismiss the possibility of dragons."

He face grew grave. "Very wise," he said with a nod. Lander had inherited his title young and unexpectedly when his mother died in a dragon attack. He and Dorn had survived the later battle, but another of his companions had not, nor had much of Nerath. Naeris had been very young then, but the damage had taken a long time to repair. The sight of stone melted by dragonfire featured in many of her childhood memories.

They waved to a dockworker at the last pier and she snared the barge with a thrown rope and she and her fellows hauled them in. The warehouse they were headed for was only a few minutes away and was easily distinguished by the workers surrounding it, keeping half an eye on the windows as they enjoyed this unexpected break from their employment.

The workers parted as the soldiers approached and formed up in front of the barred doors. The sergeant turned to Naeris.

"Alright, milady, what's the plan?"

She considered. "Two to open the doors and four with spears behind them in case they try to rush past us - or two and Sir Jun, if he's willing?" Jun nodded and Naeris continued, " - the rest with crossbows behind the spears. If everything goes well, search the place in groups of four and call for me if one tries escaping or you hit a big group. Sound good?"

"It'll do, milady," the sergeant said, and turned to the soldiers to start screaming orders.

They formed up outside the door as the two designated openers lifted the bar from the door and pushed it aside. They counted down from three and then yanked the doors open. Only two mephits were visible inside; in the time it took the creatures to notice they had a way out eight crossbow bolts and two blasts of energy from Naeris had been aimed and shot. One of them fell immediately, its muddy body pincushioned with shafts, but the second was only winged and made a rush for the door. Jun stepped forward as it came and cut it in two. The halves burst as they fell, showering him with sticky mud.

"Good shooting. Move in and keep it up," the sergeant said as Jun brushed he worst of it off. Two crossbows were exchanged with spears and the soldiers on door duty reclaimed their weapons, and they moved in.

Two mephits swooped in before the soldiers could split up and were quickly brought down by bolts and magic. After briefly waiting for any other creatures to appear, the soldiers closed and barred the door before splitting up into groups of four and going deeper into the building.

"Remember, they look just like lumps of mud when they're not moving," Naeris said called out, "if you see something suspicious, give it a jab."

"How many should we expect to find, milady?" the sergeant asked.

Naeris shook her head. "There shouldn't be any. The spells to disperse them were renewed only recently; however they were created, it wasn't the usual way."

"Weird shit, then," the sergeant said.

"I'm afraid so," Naeris agreed.

"Never turns out well."

"Let's hope this will be an exception."

They were interrupted by a mephit swooping down, having apparently hidden itself among the crates. It flinched as Naeris' blasts and the sergeant's crossbow hit home, and was brought down by a slash from Jun. It exploded, giving him a second shower of mud.

"Here, let me," Naeris said, seeing him try to scrape the stuff off with his gauntleted hands. She cast a simple spell and snapped her fingers. The mud hardened, cracked and disappeared.

"My thanks," he said. "I can't think now what it was I saw in mud as a child."

"I imagine that mud wasn't actually malevolent," Naeris said.

"Quite so," Jun replied.

They were interrupted by a loud cry of pain. After a moment to place the source they hurried into the maze of crates. When they arrived the excitement was all over: three mud-splattered guards were standing around a fourth, who was pressing her leather gauntlet to a bloody claw wound in her cheek.

The sergeant bustled over. "Alright trooper, take your hand away and let me see," she said as she tilted the soldier's head to better catch the light. "Looks shallow, you'd be fine but for all the mud. We should get it cleaned out."

"Elemental earth and water are actually very clean," Naeris said. "The mud is likely better than anything short of actual bandages and poultices."

"Well, that's a mercy," the sergeant said. "Get up trooper, the bleeding's stopping; you'll be fine until we can get you to a priest."

The soldier nodded and her comrades helped her to her feet. They were about to continue on when a shout came from the back of the warehouse.

"Milady! You should see this!"

The followed the sound. Most of the warehouse was filled with crates stacked in neat if annoyingly offset squares. The whole place smelled strongly of salt and fish; unsurprising as that was what the crates were filled with. As they neared the back, though, they noticed a smell of rot, which grew stronger the closer they got to the source of the shout.

At the far end of the warehouse were more fish, but not in crates. An open space between the piles was filled with piles of fish. More were spilling out from crates in the surrounding piles, which looked to have been smashed in.

"Has anyone come across a mephit with an axe?" Naeris asked, looking at the broken timber. The soldiers shook their heads and she turned to the spoiling seafood. "How long does it take fish to rot?"

One of the soldiers spoke up. "Left out in the sun, maybe a few hours," he said. "In here, in the chill and the shade? Maybe a day, could be as many as three."

"Yet the smell hasn't spread entirely through the building," Jun observed.

Naeris nodded. "Something's wrong." She looked at the fish scattered over the floor. No, not scattered: there was a definite, if vague, pattern. If she ignored some parts, there was a distinct circle. Others, and runes could be made out, though not ones she recognised. This was a ritual, probably what had created the mephits and rotted the fish as a side effect. It seemed awfully large for just that, though she supposed mostly dead fish wouldn't grant much power.

She stepped forward, careful not to enter the circle. "I'm going to have a look at the magic here. This will take a while, so keep an eye out for any more mephits, please?" Jun nodded and he and the soldiers formed up around the fishy runes. Naeris grasped her zircon and started to chant. Instead of spiking her power she pulled it up in gentle surges, allowing it to still and replenish between them. It was less draining than casting the usual way but took much longer, and it was several minutes before the magical auras around her became clear.

There was the pearl in the pocket of her coat, of course. Jun's sword bore a minor spell. The circle of fish was curiously vague, and she looked closer. There was certainly something there, but it was foggy and indistinct. She stepped back instead, hoping perspective would bring distance. That was it! The circle was warded against her detection spell. How strong was the ward? She push harder.

It collapsed, far too easily.

"Trap!" she cried, dismissing her spell, and the soldiers spun back to see the centre of the circle open up into an eye wrenching rift. Flickering light and faint screams issued from the circle, followed by a great stone hand that gripped the floor. One of the quicker soldiers darted forward and jabbed the hand with a spear, causing it to flinch, but another hand had already emerged and grasped the other side. After swiping its scratched hand in the soldier's direction, the creature pulled itself up, the rift closing beneath it.

It towered over them; a figure of stone resembling a gorilla, but taller and broader than any ape. Its rocky hide was covered in a pelt of bright orange hair, and its beady eyes burned like embers. A demon.

The soldiers with crossbows immediately raised their weapons and pelted it with bolts. Little fragments of stone were chipped away and the demon spun in the direction of one bolt that came close it its eye. The spear wielders were understandably wary of engaging something that towered almost a metre over them, but the sergeant and Jun charged in. Jun's greatsword scored a deep groove in its chest and it immediately turned on him, swinging an enormous stone fist into his side. The sergeant struck at the demon's knee with her sword and the rim of her shield, unbalancing it as Jun twisted away from the blow and it glanced off his armour. It roared its hatred and swung with its other fist.

Naeris was finishing a spell. Five little orbs, as transparent and apparently ephemeral as soap bubbles, shot from her fingers and flew gracefully around the combatants to touch the demon's stone skin. At that point they exploded, causing a rain of stone shards and allowing Jun to avoid the worst of the next blow. The spears charged in and for a moment it looked like the demon would be overwhelmed. Then it turned invisible.

Shields went up as they braced for an unseen attack, but none came. They heard a grunt of effort and then a thud on the ground, right in front of Naeris. She cried a single word and disappeared, reappearing atop a cube of stacked crates and spun to shoot a pair of magic blasts at where she had been standing.

One appeared to hit, and next they heard great shuddering footsteps as it turned and charged. One of the archers dived out of the way; another took a shot only to be knocked down as the demon's fist impacted with his head. Its invisibility broken, the other archers fired again and Jun charged forward. The spears, their weapons not long enough to strike past the knight, went for their crossbows.

Naeris sent another stream of effervescent magic down on the demon while Jun traded blows with it. The bolts bouncing off its head and shoulders made for a good distraction, but it wasn't going well for him. His armour wasn't made to deal with the sheer force of the demon's blows, and his greatsword was not the best weapon to batter at its rocky skin. Then it suddenly flinched, as the sergeant crept up behind it and slammed the point of her sword as hard as she could into its ankle.

It roared with rage and turned on her, driving a massive fist down. She caught it on her shield and knelt under the blow, bracing against the floor to jump back up and strike again while Jun rained blows on its back. It continued striking madly at her and she let it drive her back between the crates instead of get good blows, while Jun followed it.

By the time it realised it had been tricked, its strength was failing and another spell from Naeris brought it to its knees. Jun raised his sword and brought the hilt down on its head until it cracked and the light in its eyes died. Meanwhile, the soldiers, seeing the demon was dying, and moved to check on their wounded comrade.

"He's still alive!" one reported as Naeris climbed down from her perch. It was true, she saw; his helmet was only fit for scrap and his face was a mess, but he breathed.

"That was easier than expected," the sergeant said as they regrouped. "We faced a demon and we all lived. Makes you wonder how they destroyed the world."

"We didn't outnumber them fifteen to one then," Naeris commented, "and even now, against a weaker demon, it was a close thing." Jun's breastplate was indeed looking on the verge of caving in, not to mention the poor soldier. "Sergeant, send two soldiers to the nearest temple to get healers, and two more to the citadel to report on what we've found. My father will want to see this."

The sergeant saluted and turned to direct her troops. Naeris walked back to the circle. The rift was gone, only a few missing fish and the rapidly crumbling corpse of the demon showed it had ever been there. Demons, she thought. Cursed, bloody demons. There would be more. That had been a lesser demon, but not the least, and for someone to have the confidence to arrange a trap like this, they would have done tests, practised. Not in the city, most likely. Nerath's god had noticed nothing, and while she wasn't all knowing, this was one of her strengths. No doubt she had already informed Lord Lander.

The runes were making no more sense to her than they did before and, dissatisfied, she turned away. She walked over to Jun, who was leaning against a stack of crates, looking down at the wounded soldier.

"He is unconscious, isn't he?" she asked, looking at the pair of the soldier's comrades watching over him.

"Yes," Jun assured her. "He was probably out a moment after that thing hit him; not even time for it to hurt. The priests will put him right, don't worry. The teeth are tricky, I understand, but other than that when he wakes up he'll have some bruises, a headache and a story to tell."

Naeris nodded. "How are you feeling?"

"Like a team of horses just stampeded over me," he said, shaking his head, "and I thought gnolls were strong. Are all demons like that? I might need to get myself a nice axe or a maul."

"No, most of them are some variation on flesh," Naeris said. "You just got unlucky. Although, as I said, that was one of the weaker ones."

"Then I have no wish to fight a stronger one," Jun said, "at least not any time soon."

"Hopefully whoever did this summoning has not progressed far enough to call up anything greater," Naeris agreed. "Speaking of which, I will go out and inform the overseer of what has happened."

Jun saluted and she left him to rest. The stench of rotted fish mercifully dispersed only a little way into the maze of crates and her nose was quite clear by the time she reached the doors. The sergeant had sent two more soldiers after the messengers to bar and guard the door. Naeris suspected that any remaining mephits would have attacked them when the demon did, but the precaution seemed wise all the same.

"I would step outside," she said after walking up to the guards.

"Yes, milady," one said with a salute, and they lifted the bar from its hooks and opened the door for her. She stepped through and heard the bar thump home again behind her. Looking around, she saw the workers still loosely ringing the warehouse. One burly half-orc woman, slightly better dressed than the other, approached her.

"Are you the overseer?" Naeris asked when the woman got close.

"Yes, milady," she said. "Will we be able to get to work soon? I'm sorry, but your soldiers rushed off before I could ask."

"I'm afraid not," Naeris said. "The immediate danger is past, but a demon was summoned inside. The High Lord will be arriving shortly to investigate."

"A demon!" the woman took an involuntary step back.

"It has been slain," Naeris assured her. "What is the security like here at nights?"

"Not much," the overseer said. "Other than the fish there's just a little coin and some paperwork. That's in a safe; the doors are barred and chained, but no guards. The city watch march by regularly, there's not much need."

Naeris nodded. "Who has keys to the locks on the chains?"

"Me, the overseer for the other shifts and the owner."

"Has anyone other than the workers been inside recently?" Naeris asked her.

"We got a shipment of new crates in yesterday. That merchant's our regular supplier though, he's as straight up as merchants get. No one else I know of."

That didn't sound promising, but Naeris asked anyway. "What's his name?"

"Sepret," the overseer said, "Aoth Sepret."

"Do you know where I might find him?"

She shook her head. "The owner might know more about him. Bree Goodbarrel, lives on a farm on the other bank. She takes care of suppliers and that."

"Thank you for your help," Naeris said. "I'll see what I can do about having the warehouse reopened."

The overseer seemed about to speak, but her words were drowned out by the beating of great wings overhead. A hippogriff swooped down, claws and hooves clattering on the cobbles as it slowed to stop next to them. The overseer and other workers dropped to their knees as Lord Lander dismounted from his steed.

"Rise," he called out, his baritone echoing off the surrounding walls, and they did so. He walked over to Naeris. She did not resemble her father in the shape of her body or face, but the similarities of their colouration were undeniable. The black of his hair was speckled with grey that she wouldn't see for a century, but the stormy grey of the eyes and pallor of the skin was identical.

"Naeris," he said, "why do I have two exhausted soldiers in the barracks babbling about demons?"

"The same reason I have an unconscious soldier and a badly bloodied knight, father," she replied. "Come in and I'll show you."

They were delayed in this, however, by the return of the other two soldiers, with two priests in tow. Seeing their lord, the soldiers saluted and the priests bowed.

"At ease," Lander said, as Naeris walked up to the door and tapped on it with her staff.

"The High Lord and the priests are here," she called to the soldiers inside. The bar was lifted and the doors opened, and she showed her father inside.

"All the mephits are gone?" He asked as they walked.

"It's difficult to say for sure without entirely emptying the warehouse," Naeris replied, "but we haven't seen any since before the demon attacked."

"I imagine they're gone then," Lander said. "They can't resist company, if only to slash at it."

When they reached the demon's corpse its hair was almost gone, and its stony skin looked as though it might crumble at the slightest touch. Indeed, when Lander poked at it with the toe of his boot it did so.

"The wounded are around there," Naeris said to the priests, pointing the way. They thanked her and made their way around the crates. She noticed a slight smile on her father's face as they started their prayers; as ruler of Nerath he was linked to the city's god and could feel the interchange of prayer and power. Naeris wondered what it felt like.

"Good job bringing this down with no deaths," he said. "Show me where it came from."

She led him around to the circle of fish. He spent a while walking around it, examining the runes from different angles.

"It's hard to make out exactly what the runes are because of all the extra fish confusing the lines," he said, "which is a bad sign in itself, as it's much harder to use an imperfect summoning circle, let alone a remote one." He stroked his beard. "What triggered it?"

"Some sort of magical tripwire," Naeris said. "It felt like a ward preventing me from examining the magic, but collapsed immediately when I put any pressure on it."

"What a strange trap," Lander said. "A good one, though. What else would you do when confronted by strange magic? I'll have someone come down and transcribe the symbols. Do you have a course of action in mind to find the culprit?"

Naeris nodded. "I spoke to the overseer. She, the other overseer and the owner each have keys. There was also a delivery of crates yesterday, and conveniently enough the owner is also the one who might know where to find the merchant. My next course of action would be to speak with her."

"Good thinking," Lander said. "I shall leave it with you, then, as you seem to be doing well enough so far." He looked out the window. "It's nearly time for lunch; how about you fly back with me and go meet with her afterwards? I'll loan you Chauncey."

Naeris agreed readily; she loved to fly and got on well with her father's hippogriff. She said farewell to Jun while the sergeant discussed travel arrangements for the wounded soldier with her father; the priests had decided it would be better not to bring him around for now, and Lander agreed that sending a wagon would be the best thing.

They left, Lander snatching up a less rotted fish to give to Chauncey. The hippogriff snapped his beak on it enthusiastically and gulped it down as they mounted. At a tap on his flanks, Chauncey aimed himself down the road and started to trot, then canter, speeding up until he was galloping down the street with his wings spread wide. With a powerful beat he leapt into the air and they were off. Below them, Nerath's streets swarmed with people about their business. Many looked up on seeing Chauncey's shadow or hearing the beat of his wings. Tame hippogriffs were not common and it was easy for them to guess who the rider was. Several people waved, a few cheered. Lander was a popular ruler. Naeris waved back.

Flying was not as fast as the river, but not having to follow the streets let them make good time back to the citadel. They landed on the top platform of the eyrie and Lander gave Chauncey a fond pat before leaving him with a groom. Naeris heard him snapping at a rabbit as they went down the stairs. On the way to the dining room Naeris waved over a servant and arranged to have Bree Goodbarrel's address found and a messenger sent to inform her that Naeris wished to visit. Meanwhile Lander made his own arrangements for a wagon and a scribe to be sent to the warehouse.

Already in the dining room when they arrived were Naeris' mother, Syllin, and the elder and younger of her three half-sisters, Jalana and Selise. Syllin jumped up immediately upon seeing who had entered and wrapped Naeris in a hug. Unlike Naeris, Syllin's elven heritage was apparent from the colouring as well as her form; her eyes and hair were dark blue and her skin a paler shade of the same.

After sharing a passionate kiss with Lander, Syllin sniffed. "You two smell of feathers," she said, "have you been out flying?"

"Naeris was out taking care of some business for me, and I flew down to pick her up," Lander said as he walked over to greet his other daughters with a kiss on the forehead.

Syllin's eyes narrowed. "What sort of business?" she asked. "You haven't been sending my little girl anywhere dangerous, have you?"

"I'm hardly little anymore, mother," Naeris said, but Syllin kept her eyes on Lander.

"In my defence," he said, "I didn't know it was dangerous when I sent her there. It sounded quite routine."

"What happened?" Syllin demanded.

"I went to the docks to clear some mephits out of a warehouse," Naeris told her. "Someone had set up a summoning circle that triggered and called a demon. We slew it, with no deaths and only two bad injuries."

Syllin stared at her, eyes wide. Jalana looked alarmed as well, while Selise's trepidation was clearly mixed with interest. "A demon? How would summon a demon into the city?" Syllin asked.

"That is what I'll be investigating for the next few days," Naeris said.

Syllin threw her arms around her daughter. "Be safe," she said.

"She will be, I've no doubt," Lander said. "She knows what she's doing. Where's Quara?"

"She'll be joining us, but she's delayed by work. She's busy running your city for you, my love," Syllin said, going back to her seat.

"She needs to delegate more," Lander replied. "What if she gets sick? How much has she been getting you to do, Jalana?"

"I go to meetings with her, read reports," Jalana said. She resembled her mother both in appearance and talents, although she had a romantic streak her mother lacked. "I'm quite well informed on what's happening, although I'm not sure I could fill in for her."

"It shouldn't be that hard," Lander said. "She needs to trust more in her subordinates. Enough about business, though, bad for the digestion; have you heard from Amafrey?" Amafrey was the middle sister, currently living with her uncles up in Orcwatch.

While the others were occupied Selise turned to Naeris. "What was it like, fighting a demon?" she asked.

Naeris thought about it. "Alarming, especially as I didn't see it coming. The part when it turned invisible and jumped in front of me was extremely startling and finally bringing it down was very satisfying."

"What sort of demon was it?"

"A barlgura. Have you learned about those?" Naeris asked. Selise was studying under Lander, as she had, the only one of the three sisters with her father's talent for magic.

Selise nodded. "They're the big stone apes, aren't they? How did you kill it?"

"Nothing clever, I'm afraid," Naeris said, "just hitting it as hard as we could until it dropped. It was a good think all those soldiers were there, I think it would have killed Jun had it just been him and me."

"What sort of spells did you cast?"

"Well, I had my armour," Naeris waved a hand, displaying the rippling effect of her spell, "but as it happened it never ended up being used. For the fighting it was all mana blasts and explosive effervescence, except for one flash step when it leapt in front of me."

Selise nodded. "Father hasn't taught me any of those spells yet."

"I should think not, they're dangerous," Naeris said. "I didn't learn any of them until I was as at least twenty."

"But don't half-elves grow up slower than humans?" Selise asked.

"Not that much slower," Naeris said. Selise pouted, and Naeris chuckled. "Don't worry, you'll get there eventually. What were you reading?" she asked, pointing at the book Selise had put down when they came in.

"The Saga of Adrik and Kathra," Selise said. "Father wants me to learn Dwarven."

Naeris nodded. "I read that too. How do you like it?"

"It's a bit lovey-dovey," Selise said, "and they talk so much about what everyone's wearing, but there's hardly any detail about anything else. Even the battles are just 'so-and-so cut down three score of the foe but was then herself struck down'."

"The bit about the clothes is a dwarven thing," Naeris told her. "They have a lot of rules about what you can wear, and then even more rules about the proper way to break the first rules. There's a book in the library about it, it's pretty interesting. For the book itself though, what I'd recommend is to read it through once very quickly, and then do a more in depth reading once you know the ending. A lot of the stuff that's boring the first time through is completely different when you look at it in the context of the ending."

"Okay," Selise said. "That seems like a weird way to write a story, though."

"Apparently it comes off as foreshadowing if you've had enough experience in dwarven culture to pick up on it. It's just like how elven tree epics only make sense to elves."

"What's a tree epic?"

"It's a long poem about the life of a tree, sapling to death. They don't translate well at all, it's just 'it grew, it grew, it grew, nesting birds, it grew' in any language other than Elven." Naeris said.

"That sounds incredibly boring. I'm glad I didn't have to read that when I was learning Elven," Selise said.

"I completely agree," Naeris said.

The door opened and Quara entered, trailed by a scribe who was still taking dictation. Lander covered his eyes and shook his head. Syllin stood, walked up to her and pressed a finger to her lips until she stopped talking, then swept her into a kiss as passionate as the one she'd given Lander.

"We're having lunch now," she said gently, "you can finish your letter later."

Quara took a moment to compose herself. "Quite," she said, and dismissed the scribe. "You're very good at that," she said as she sat down.

"Of course," Syllin said as she took her own seat, "I used to be a professional."

The servants brought in the first course: crab salad and marinara soup. The shores of the Valley Lake seethed with life, and when not used in summoning rituals most of it was delicious. Quara asked Naeris about the incident with the demon and she explained it, giving little detail of the actual fight at her mother's request.

"I hope it can be resolved quickly," Quara said when Naeris had finished. "If you recall, my parents are visiting in two weeks."

"Fires, I had forgotten that," Lander muttered. "We'll have to get it done before then, I can't let demons gnaw on the in-laws. It's too early to be asking how long it'll though, isn't it."

Naeris nodded. "Perhaps after speaking with Ms Goodbarrel I'll have some idea, but for now I just have strings to pull with no indication of how long they are, or if they have what I want attached."

"Do what you can and if you need anything, just ask. It getting done is more important than who does it now," Lander said.

Naeris nodded. Demon summoning was a difficult crime to investigate when the culprit wasn't right there, screaming about never being laughed at again. There wasn't any rational motive a person could have for doing it; what could be worth the risk of causing the world to end all over again?

Once, civilization had spread across the plane. Naeris had seen relics of that time when she visited Orcwatch, and had gone with her father and uncle out of the valley and into the blasted lands above. Orcs and gnolls, the two races that had fought with the demons instead of against them, scratched out a meagre existence there, supplemented by frequent raids on the valley. Treasure hunters went there, braving the raiders and remaining demons to search for artefacts of the lost age in crumbling ruins.

Yes, it hadn't happened all at once. It was possible to summon a demon and keep control of it, or there never would have been enough demons summoned to cause the damage they had. Some always got loose, though. Eventually enough would get loose to free others, and you ended up with something twenty feet tall that bled molten brass on a rampage in the middle of a city. People remembered, even centuries later. The mere mention of demons put fear into most people and sent the rest reaching for blades or readying spells. And yet, there was a demon summoner on the loose. It boggled the mind.

She left the room quickly after lunch finished, eager to get started, and found the servant she'd arranged the messenger with outside the door.

"Excuse me, my lady," he said, "but the messenger has come back. Ms Goodbarrel will be at home to you this afternoon. I've had a map prepared with her estate marked."

"Excellent thinking," Naeris said, accepting the parchment and unrolling it. "Thank you for your work."

The servant bowed. "My pleasure, my lady," he said. "Is there anything else you require?"

"No thank you, that will be all," she said and he left.

The Goodbarrel estate was of an impressive size, though not in the prime position directly adjacent the river. It had been outlined and the main residence marked. A good thing; it seemed to be a traditional semi-underground halfling residence, difficult to spot from the air. Naeris was about to leave when the door opened and her father stepped out.

"Before you go," he said, "I wanted to lend you this." He tugged one of the rings off his finger. It was thick steel, with a shield shaped ornament on the front. It looked much too large for Naeris' finger, but shrunk to fit when she slipped it on. "Just in case you end up face to face with a demon again," Lander said.

"Thank you papa," she said, jumping up and hugging him.

"Don't mention it," he said, hugging her back. "You mother would never forgive me if I didn't do everything I could to help you. You're leaving now?"

She nodded. "I just got a map and she's expecting me. I shouldn't keep her waiting."

He clapped her on the shoulder. "Good luck."

She waved goodbye and made her way to the eyrie. Chauncey was in his stall, squawking at a hawk in a cage opposite him. She wondered if they could actually communicate or if Chauncey just didn't like the hawk. Accepting a rabbit leg from a groom, she attracted his attention with the morsel and stroked him feathers as he snapped at it.

"Hello Chauncey," she cooed to the hippogriff, "remember me? I need to take you out for a fly. Do you want to go flying?"

Hippogriffs weren't known for their intelligence, but Chauncey knew the word 'fly' and reacted enthusiastically. Naeris led him out of his stall and kept stroking his feathers as the groom put a saddle on him. She mounted up and he trotted happily up to the platform and leapt off. Her stomach jumped up to her throat as they dived before Chauncey spread his wings and they began to glide.

Flying from the citadel was much easier and smoother than the other way; the eyrie was in the highest tower of the citadel, which was built on the highest hill, so from there almost anywhere in the city could be reached by gliding. They flew along the city side of the river as far as possible, taking advantage of the thermals from the sunbaked stones of the streets, before turning towards the farmland. Fields of flax, wheat, potatoes and other crops stretched out beneath them.

As she'd expected, the Goodbarrel home was not easy to spot from the air. She didn't spot it on the first pass over, so the second time she directed Chauncey to fly over the main road and she saw the little lane leading up from it. Chauncey followed the lane and landed in the courtyard.

The house was built into a low hill, a section of which had been dug away to leave a flat area for the courtyard and a front wall. In the wall, under a little overhand of spilling turf, were two doors; one round with a knocker and the other larger and square. Presumably the first led into the house and the second to a stable. The smell was about right. Naeris dismounted, led Chauncey over to the presumed stable and knocked on the door.

A voice inside called out "Just a minute!" and after a short wait the door opened up to reveal a matronly halfling woman. "Hello there, are you the High Lord's girl? Missus said you'd be along." She looked up at Chauncey. "My my, I don't get to see many like you," she said to the hippogriff. "You'll be wanting somewhere for him to stay?"

Naeris agreed that she was.

"I'm not sure he'd fit in our stalls, we mostly keep ponies and dogs, you understand," the groom explained. "How about we tie him to the fence, and I'll get a shelter ready in case it rains." She looked up at the warm blue sky. "Not that there's much chance of that, by the look of things. Here, how about you pick a nice bit of fence - I don't like the thought of being tossed if he takes exception to me - and I'll find him a snack. How does he feel about rat? The mousers have been right busy today."

"He likes rat, and doesn't get it often," Naeris said. "It tends to go to the hawks, and he gets bigger things."

"Excellent," the woman said, and bustled off inside. The fields came right up to the path, and Naeris selected a study looking bit of fence to tie Chauncey's reins to. She loosed the reins as much as possible to let him have some freedom to move, and stroked him feathers while she waited for the groom to come back.

She wasn't waiting long before the groom emerged swinging a bucket of rats. She tossed one expertly to Chauncey, who snapped it greedily out of the air. "He's quick, isn't he? Who's a clever boy?" she cooed as she put the bucket down in front of him. "I remember hearing you can't overfeed hippogriffs, is that true?" she asked Naeris.

"Sort of," she said. "They do stop eating on their own more reliably than most animals, but mostly they just need so much food that giving them enough can be a challenge, let alone too much."

"Good to hear!" the groom said. "I'll leave him with these then and check on him in a while."

Naeris waved goodbye and went to the front door. Tapping on the knocker and waiting for a minute resulted in the door being answered by an older halfling man, who smiled up at her.

"Afternoon, miss," he said. "Naeris Meliamne, down from the citadel to see Mother?"

"That's me," Naeris said, only slightly surprised to see the owner's son answering the door. Halflings tended not to put much stake on formality.

"Come in, come in," the man said, and Naeris ducked under the doorframe and stepped inside.

The house was built on a scale slightly larger than necessary for halflings, a concession to their bigger neighbours, but still not quite enough for Naeris to stand comfortably. She was led deeper into the house until they arrived at a room that, even through the door, Naeris could tell was much warmer than the rest of the house.

"Mother, the lady from the citadel is here to see you," the man called through the door as he knocked. Naeris could not make out what was croaked back, but he smiled, nodded to her and opened the door.

She stepped inside, muttering a quick spell to keep the heat off. It was winter, but the seasons were mild in the Valley Lake and the roaring fire hardly seemed necessary for the middle of the day. Despite the heat Bree, or so Naeris assumed the ancient halfling matriarch to be, was wrapped in a blanket and a shawl. A steaming teapot and two cups sat on a table in front of her.

"Sit down and pour some tea," Bree rasped and Naeris complied, taking the seat opposite. "Your letter said you wanted to ask some questions about my warehouse. I own lots of warehouses, but I'm not getting reports on any of them for three days, so if you know something worth asking about, you probably know more than me. With that said, what did you want to ask?"

"I wanted to ask about demons," Naeris said, sipping her tea. Her spell from before had given it a refreshing chill.

"Demon?" Bree asked. "I haven't had anything to do with demons for a hundred and fifty years. What do you want to know about demons?"

"One was summoned in a warehouse of yours this morning. I think the summoning circle was arranged last night. You have a key to the doors, is it possible anyone had taken it?"

"Keys of that sort are all in a safe. You can't open it unless you're me or have a drop of my blood, and no one's taken any of that lately. I'd know, I feel every little thing these days."

"What led you to encounter demons a hundred and fifty years ago?" Naeris asked.

Bree laughed. "I had a bit of a wild youth. Went treasure hunting, out in the wastes. Found some, too, but plenty of nasties as well."

"What sort of demons did you encounter? Was there a big stone ape?" Naeris asked. Slain demons could reconstitute themselves after some time; barlgura were usually too stupid for such things but sometimes they took vengeance on their killers.

Bree shook her head. "Biggest one we saw was a vulture looking thing. Danced around a lot, nasty claws. Other than there were these green pigs walking upright and some fat, rotten looking beasts."

That shot down the vengeance aspect. "The overseer said that merchant made a delivery of crates yesterday, and that you took care of suppliers and might know where to find him."

"Crates? Crates are old Chathi Sepret's grandson's business. She was with me in the wastes. Long dead now, humans go so quickly. Now that I think of it, it wouldn't be her grandson any more, would it? Great-great-grandson, maybe? A son of some kind, anyway," Bree said.

"Yes, the overseer said his name was Aoth. Do you know where I'd be able to find him?"

Bree thought. "The family don't live in the city; they're from up north, near the forest. He'd be staying in an inn while he's here. Corrin!" she suddenly screeched.

The halfling man who'd opened the door for Naeris poked his head around the corner. "Yes, mum?"

"Who meets with the Seprets these days?"

"Cousin Lavinia, mum," Corrin said. "I think she's in at the moment. Shall I go get her?"

"Yes," Bree said. "I want to know where Aoth Sepret stays when he's in town."

"I can tell you that, mum," Corrin said, "the sign of the Wilting Wyvern. It's on the main street from the north gate."

"Good," Bree said. She turned to Naeris. "Is there anything else you wanted to ask?"

"Yes, the overseer I spoke with was a half-orc woman, but she said there was another overseer who also had a key. Do you have their name?"

Bree turned back to Corrin. "You know that too?"

He twisted his face up. "I do know, it's just not coming. The woman is Tana Starag and the other one's a man. He's human..." He squeezed his eyes tight shut, forehead wrinkling, and then they burst open. "That's it, his name's Wan Meng. Would you like their details sent to the citadel, miss?"

"That would be very helpful, thank you," Naeris said.

"Anything else, mum?" Corrin asked.

Bree turned back to Naeris, who shook her head. "I believe that's everything. I'll send another message if anything else comes up."

Bree nodded. "Good. I can't have demons in my buildings, it's bad for business. Best of luck to you. Corrin will show you out."

"Thank you for the tea," Naeris said as she got up. Corrin led her back through the corridors to the door.

"I'll send that message soonest, miss," he said. "Hope everything works out with those demons."

"Me too," Naeris said. "Thank you for the help." She waved goodbye to him and after the door shut behind her turned to take a deep breath of the crisp air. Fires but it had been stuffy in there; she didn't know how the old woman could stand it.

She walked over to Chauncey, who was clattering his beak inside the empty rat bucket, and stroked his feathers. He looked up at her and she picked up the bucket. "I'll just give this back," she said, "and then we can be off."

The groom opened the stable door soon after Naeris knocked on it. "Hello, love," she said and Naeris handed her the bucket. "You're going now? Shame, I'd have liked to spend more time with him but the mastiffs are poorly. All the best!"

They waved goodbye. Naeris untied Chauncey and mounted up. They galloped down the lane until he'd built up enough speed to launch himself into the air. This was a harder flight; not so hard as flying up to the citadel, but the north gate was still higher than the farmlands. Once they were over the river the thermals from the stones helped, but it was still a rough ride before they touched down in a gap in traffic on the main road.

Their landing caused a stir among the crowds; it didn't take long for a few better informed bystanders to put together 'hippogriff' and 'half-elf'. A few hailed her by name, a few bowed. She stopped one of the men who hailed her and asked for directions to the Wilting Wyvern. He pointed along the street and she dismounted and led Chauncey towards the inn.

The yard before the inn's stables was filled with wagons; clearly Sepret wasn't the only merchant patron there. They threaded their way between the vehicles and found a young woman brushing down a horse.

"Are there any free stalls?" Naeris asked her.

The girl looked up, lost her balance, tried to steady herself on the horse which pushed her off, leaving her on the ground with her back against the stall wall. Naeris stepped forward and helped her up. "Sorry about that ma'am," she said. "Yes, there's a stall. Uh, what should I give it to eat?"

"Nothing, he's had quite enough already. I don't expect to be long anyway. Just give him some water and brush the horse half if you have time." She handed over the reins and a silver coin and turned to give Chauncey a pat. "You be a good boy and don't snap at the horses," she said. Chauncey didn't understand, of course, but he chirped happily anyway.

As Naeris approached the doors of the inn she heard raised voices inside. Strange; it was too early for rowdy evening drinkers, and merchants tended not to be the shouty sort of drunks. She pushed the door open and saw what seemed to be a small but armed mob surrounding the innkeeper. A second glance revealed that none of them had actually drawn their weapons and the innkeeper was shouting back, which indicated that he didn't feel himself in danger of imminent murder.

She recast her spell as she approached. They were too engrossed in their argument to notice her, but what she gathered from their shouting was that the mob was looking for someone who the innkeeper was claiming was not there, and they were not inclined to take his word for it. Naeris had a bad feeling she knew who they were talking about. She set off a spray of harmless sparks in the middle of the mob at head height - or at least head height for most of them, a gap in the mob indicated a halfling was standing directly in front of the innkeeper - and waved when they looked around for the source.

"Are you looking for Aoth Sepret?" she asked.

The mob parted to let a halfling woman come to the front. She looked up at Naeris suspiciously, hands on the grips of her crossbows. "Who's asking?"

"Naeris Meliamne, of House Stormwind," she said, raising her hand so the woman could see her signet ring.

"Ah," the halfling focussed on the ring, and when she looked back up at Naeris her eyes were only slightly less suspicious, but her tone was much more cordial. "Yes, milady, we are. Would you happen to know where we might find him?"

Naeris shook her head. "I'm afraid that I'm looking for him as well. I heard he was staying here, but apparently he's not in?"

The innkeeper spoke up. "Mr Sepret is out, milady. I was telling this lot I can take a message for him, but I can't let you in to his room." He hesitated. "Well, I suppose I could let you in, milady, if you stamp something to make it official. He didn't come back last night and I wouldn't mind finding out where he is either, so if it helps you..."

"Thank you, I believe I will take you up on that, but first," Naeris turned back to the halfling, "why are you looking for Sepret?"

"He stiffed us," she said. "We're caravan guards, came down with him on his way here for a flat rate on arrival and a cut after he'd sold the goods. He gave us the flat rate and his address to pick up the rest but we get here and he's done a runner. So much for Mister Reliable!" she added, turning to look at the two men behind her.

"Hey, don't look at us," one said. "We've done this run with him five times before now and he's always paid up. How were we to know he'd pick this time to throw it all away?"

The halfling sighed. "You're right, you're right. I'll save it for when we find him. So," she turned back to Naeris, "why are you looking for him? He stiff you too?"

"Something rather worse than that, I'm afraid," Naeris said. "Come up with me and watch the door while I look around and I'll tell you."

She turned to the innkeeper, who had found some paper and wax. Naeris wrote a short document explaining that she was searching the room in the absence of its owner and any complaints could be addressed to the court. The four guards hashed things out between them; the two human men would stay downstairs and watch the door and the halfling and half-orc woman would come upstairs with Naeris.

"So, what were you going to tell us?" the halfling asked as they reached the top of the stairs.

"I'm looking for Sepret in connection to the summoning of a demon," Naeris replied.

"Seriously? He's a demon cultist?" she said, "I thought he was just your regular skinflint goldgrubber."

"He may not have had anything to do with it," Naeris said. "He made a delivery to the location the day before it happened. The sudden disappearance is certainly suggestive of more, though."

"Bloody hell, I'll say so."

They reached the door; Naeris unlocked it with the key the innkeeper had given her. "Wait outside and watch for Sepret, would you?" she said as she stepped inside. She heard the others take up position on each side of the door. The room was a higher end but otherwise ordinary inn room. Not terribly big, but the mattress was feathers and cloth instead of straw , there was a writing desk with a chair with a padded seat and through that little door - she walked over and checked - yes, there was a privy with piped water. Very nice.

It was all the nicer for being, as far as she could see, unused. Even if the rooms here were cleaned daily instead of when a customer left there was neither the smell of a person or of a cleansing wash to remove it. She checked the wardrobe; Sepret had hung his spare clothes up, even if he hadn't stayed here.

"When did you and Sepret arrive?" she called out.

"Yesterday, late afternoon," the halfling called back.

"Thank you... I'm sorry, what are your names?" Naeris realised she hadn't asked before.

"I'm Jillian," the halfling replied.

"Umara," the half-orc said, the first word Naeris had heard from her.

"A pleasure to meet you both," she said.

There was a chest at the foot of the bed, a heavy, oaken thing. Sepret might have brought it with him. Even if it did belong to the inn the door key probably wouldn't work. Still it was worth a try, and to her considerable surprise it opened. Not that there was much in there. A purse filled with coins, mostly silver, presumably a spare in case of pickpockets. A map, showing much of the north-eastern Valley Lake in some detail; he'd need to know where to go, after all. A book, bound in leather. The first page gave his name and a date five years previously. The next page had the same date and a brief journal entry, recording that he'd found the book in a market and thought the price very cheap for such fine binding.

"Did Sepret keep a journal that you saw?" she called out.

"Wrote in it every night," Jillian called back.

Naeris turned to the last page. Blank. She flicked back until she saw writing. Wait, no, this wasn't writing. It was scribble; it looked like writing, had the general shape of very poor cursive, but there was no actual script in it. Why would Aoth scribble in a book that, according to the first entry at least, he valued? Before she could puzzle it out, she was interrupted by the sound of shouting from the common room downstairs. She shoved the journal in her coat pocket and ran down, Jillian and Umara following.

On the floor, near the door, was the body of one of the caravan guards, blood pooling from a deep cut in his throat. "It was Sepret," the innkeeper called out when he saw them, "the other fella's chasing him," he added, pointing to the wide open door.

The rushed out and looked around. The shield on the other guard's back was visible through a wide path in the shocked crowd. "You two, follow him," Naeris said, "catch him and I'll pay what he owed you and more." She thrust her hand into her pocket, grasping the pearl. She'd expended a great deal of power in the warehouse, and she'd need more now. A whispered word and the pearl's power flooded into her; she spiked it, spoke the words and gestured the signs and stepped into the sky.

Flying was much faster than walking. It took power, more than she liked to spend casually, which was why she had Chauncey, but sometimes it was worth it. Some evenings, when she hadn't used much that day, she cast the spell and zipped around the towers, just to enjoy the feeling. Chasing someone felt even better.

She quickly passed Umara, who was carrying Jillian on her shoulders to prevent the halfling's little legs from slowing her down. Further on the guard was making headway through the crowd by holding his shield out in front of him as though he was charging a line of spears. He wasn't quite catching up to Sepret, though, who was smashing his way through just as easily despite empty hands and a slight build. Something was very odd there.

Naeris caught up to him easily and lined up beside him, so any missed shots would hit the wall instead of him. Both of her first pair of blast hit, but he didn't slow or stumble despite their force and his lack of armour or any other visible protection. That was not natural.

They were nearing the gate. Naeris fired another two blasts and sped ahead, stopping to hover in front of the gate guards.

"Murderer," she said, "in an orange robe, headed this way. He's much stronger than he looks and isn't reacting to pain." She pointed to the rapidly approaching Sepret. The guards nodded; two of the four hefting spears and shields, the other two remaining to guard the gate.

One of those remaining called up to the wall. "Archers! Inner side, orange robe! Give him a feathering for Lady Naeris!"

The two spears waved the crowds away and braced side by side as Sepret approached. "Halt, by the throne!" one called out. Sepret ignored her. Naeris fired two more blasts over his head; his robe tore but he took no notice. He came closer. The guards readied themselves and struck, their spearheads sinking deep into his chest. He still came forward, tearing the weapons from their grasp and tossing them aside with a sweep of his arm.

Naeris glided away, firing more blasts at his retreating back as he turned and ran down the alley. One hit, as did several of the hail of crossbow bolts from the wall, but he kept running. She couldn't believe it. Were they going to have to strip his body to the bone? She looked back at the fallen guards; their armour had protected them and they seemed more stunned than hurt. The caravan guard rounded the corner and kept running. She waved to Umara, pointing the way they were going, and followed him.

She kept up her salvos of magic and the guards on the wall kept firing their bolts. Even if he didn't react his body was certainly being damaged; even the undead could be hacked apart eventually. His robe at least was much the worse for wear; after a while it tore off almost completely. Sepret simply kept running half naked, which did nothing for Naeris' enthusiasm for the chase. He reached the river and turned again, to her relief; if she had to fight an indestructible madman she'd rather not do it underwater. Instead, a short way down the bank, he turned again and ran into one of the citadel's sewer outflows.

Naeris cursed. She would have liked to be able to fly out of his reach. Not to mention all the things that lurked in the sewers. Her father was forever paying bounties to aspiring heroes who hunted down something especially nasty in there. She'd done it a time or two herself. There was nothing else to be done, though, so she cast another minor spell and her zircon lit up like a torch. She could see in the dark well enough, but the guard was human and halflings couldn't see in the dark either.

She flew cautiously into the sewer, hovering over the foul water, the guard right behind her. The smell wasn't that bad, anything truly vile would be diluted by the huge quantities of water, but all the same she used her little spell from before to give her coat the scent of lemons and vanilla. She breathed deep. Much better.

Sepret was splashing down the tunnel ahead of her, in full view, and she sent another salvo after him. His exposed flesh bruised and bled, but he didn't slow. He looked about to go further into the tunnels when part of the stonework suddenly shifted and lashed out at him. Grick! It slashed its bladed tentacles at his arm and, finding purchase, snapped its parrot-like beak down, severing it completely.

Or almost completely. Something black and fibrous remained as the flesh fell away, and it lashed out at the grick, slashing at its fleshy, wormlike body. The grick screeched and snapped again, tentacles slashing at Sepret's chest. It grabbed hold again and buried its beak into the spear wound, but whatever it found there was far from edible. More black tendrils erupted out of the back of its head; it thrashed wildly and then sank to the ground.

"Fucking demons," Naeris said. The thing slashed its way out of the remains of Sepret's body, leaving only a tangle of sharp, finger-like limbs, which charged at them. She flew backward, away from the thing, casting an explosive effervescence.

The guard held his ground, catching the first few tendrils on his shield and hacking off two more with his sword before the next stabbed into his calf. He cried out, but before the demon could take advantage Naeris' bubbles floated into it, detonating and sending fingery bits flying. It recoiled slightly; losing the protection of Sepret's flesh seemed to have made it sensitive to pain.

He took advantage of the brief respite to slice through more of its spidery limbs, only for it to lunge back at him, sending him back behind his shield. Naeris began another spell as Jillian and Umara arrived. Jillian drew her crossbows but, seeing the thing had no centre mass for her to aim at, holstered them again and readied her sword and shield instead. Umara did the same with her shield and axe. The tunnel it was in was too narrow, though, for them to help.

"Come back, Bran," Jillian called, "bring it toward us!"

He did so slowly, favouring his injured leg, giving ground helping him hold the thing off. More bubbles from Naeris blasted away some of the bolder tendrils, giving him some breathing space. It kept lunging at him after he emerged into the wider section, allowing Jillian and Umara to hack at the extended tendril from the side. It began to stab at him more and more frantically as they cut them away, until at last it threw its entire body at him.

With a leg injured, Bran couldn't take its weight and fell back. Naeris hammered it with her explosive bubbles while Umara and Jillian slashed away its stabbing limbs, while Bran slashed blindly from behind his shield. Eventually they reduced it to simply a twitching ball of stumps, but it was too late for Bran. His shield had been too small to cover all of his body, and his blood flowed into the water. Umara sank to her knees beside him.

"Shit," said Jillian. "What was that?"

"A demon," Naeris said quietly, not wanting to disturb Umara. "Not a kind I've ever heard of, but they're famously changeable creatures."

"I don't want to spoil the mood or anything," Jillian said, "but I do recall you saying you'd pay us. I think demons are something that should be charged extra for, as well."

"Reasonable," Naeris said. "I need to get my hippogriff back before my flight spell runs out. Take this," she slipped her signet ring off her glove and handed it to Jillian, "and bring him and those remains to the citadel. There's a path up from the pier just downriver of here. Bring him to the mortuary and the remains to my father. If anyone tries to stop you, show them the ring and tell them I sent you."

"And there'll be gold at the end of that?" Jillian asked.

"Gold, dinner, warm beds and more paying work if you want it," Naeris promised. "See you soon." She hovered out of the sewer and launched herself up, away from the stink and the rush of water. Her finger felt very odd without the weight of her signet ring, even with her gloves on. Usually she only took it off to sleep. She flew around the citadel, back the way she'd come. Some guards on the wall spotted her as she flew by.

"Did you get him?" They called out. She answered in the affirmative and they cheered.

She zipped back down the street and landed in front of the inn's stables. The stablegirl was very cautiously brushing down Chauncey's hindquarters. As Naeris approached, she looked up and held out a hand, palm forward.

"Hold on a moment," she said, hopping down from the stall wall, and ran into the inn. "Papa," Naeris could hear her shouting, "Lady Naeris is back!"

Naeris stroked Chauncey's head as she waited. He nipped fondly at her hand. The innkeeper came out, followed by his daughter.

"Hello, milady. Is Mister Sepret, uh..." he seemed unwilling to finish the sentence.

"He's dead, yes," Naeris said. She felt too tired for diplomacy. Two demons in one day was more than enough for anyone.

"Yes, uh, I was wondering if you wanted anything in particular done with his things, milady. Since he won't be coming for them, and all," the innkeeper said.

"There's a purse of coins in the chest," Naeris said. "Take that as payment for his stay and any trouble this has brought you. Put everything else in a sack, I'll send someone for it. Oh, and here's the key." She'd almost forgotten she still had that.

"Thank you, milady," he said. "Good health to you."

"And to you," she replied as she opened the gate to Chauncey's stall. "Come on, time to go home," she told him as she mounted up. The ride back was brief but rough; the inn was at the foot of the hill the citadel stood on, so it consisted almost entirely of gaining altitude. She handed Chauncey off to a groom at the eyrie and went downstairs to see where Jillian and Umara had got to.

She went first to her father's tower. Her flight spell had long since expired, so she hauled herself up the stairs. Fortunately, her father and Jillian were there. The remains of the demon, a heart-sized black lump with a few twitching stubs still on it, was on the desk between them. Lander poked it with a glass rod, and a stub twitched at it.

"I imagine this was very unpleasant to deal with when these were longer," he said, and poked it again.

"Lethally so," Naeris said as she walked over to the desk. "Where's Umara?" she asked Jillian.

"Still down in the mortuary, I think," she said.

Naeris nodded and collapsed into a chair. "How much do I owe you? I said I'd pay what Sepret owed you, but he promised you a cut of his profits, didn't he? I don't know how much he made."

Jillian shrugged. "Call it four gold each. You said extra to catch him and I said extra for demons."

Naeris dug through her pockets and came up with thirteen gold pieces. "Do you want more work if I have it?" she asked as she passed six of them over.

"If you keep paying like this?" Jillian asked, staring down at the coins in her hand. "Definitely."

"Do you still have my ring?" Naeris asked.

"Oh, yeah," Jillian said, fishing out of a pocket.

She passed it over and Naeris slid it back on. She felt better, somehow, with its familiar weight on her finger.

"That thing's not going to regrow its limbs, is it?" she asked her father.

"Hard to say for sure," Lander said as he poured a ladle-full of acid over the lump. It sizzled and steamed, and its stumps thrashed wildly. "It is a concern, though. I'd like to keep it around for testing, but I suppose I'll just disintegrate it. That should finish it off." He stroked his beard, looking around the laboratory. "Not just yet, though," he said as he spotted a vial of holy water. "So, eliminating a demon is certainly good work, but did it further your investigation at all?"

"I think so," Naeris said. "I found a journal in the merchant's room. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but I suspect it might have a hint on how to proceed. May I be excused from dinner? I'd like to read it as soon as possible but I'm starving."

"Go ahead," Lander said. "I'm going to be eating up here and I don't imagine your mother will be able to get Quara out of her office twice in one day."

"Excellent," Naeris said, and got up. "Coming, Jillian?"

"Alright, it's been ages since lunch," the halfling said, following her out. "What are we having?"

"Something hearty, I think," Naeris replied, "beef or pork or venison. That will take a while to cook though; time for a bath. Would you care to join me?"

"Sounds good, I could do with a dip after that sewer," Jillian said. "I'm sure there've been people with angry eyes and buckets following me around this place."

Surprised and pleased by Jillian's acquiescence, Naeris felt quite energised for the climb up her tower stairs after arranging dinner with a servant. She led the way into her room, tapped the runes in the rim of her bathtub - you couldn't pipe water up a tower like hers, getting it into the citadel at all was a trick - and started to undress. Around the time she was undoing her belt she noticed a distinct lack of movement from Jillian and turned to look more closely. Jillian was still fully dressed, her dark face ashen, and looking at Naeris in what she could almost make herself believe was awe... but no. It wasn't happening.

Unwilling to completely give up hope, she asked, "Is something wrong?"

"I... uh... when you said to join you..." Jillian stuttered, still staring.

"To join me in a bath," Naeris finished. "You and me in a bathtub. No?"

"That's not... you're very... but I..."

Naeris sighed. "I see. If you wish something to pass the time there are bookcases in my study on the next floor up. I'll call you down when the tub is free."

Jillian nodded jerkily and, after a long, awkward pause, left. Naeris finished undressing and stepped into the tub. It felt awfully roomy, and she wasn't used to that being a bad thing. Sighing, she sank back in the hot water, trying to relax despite the intruding visions of short, ebony limbs intertwining with hers. On the other hand, she supposed, they could assist in relaxation...

Later, disappointed but refreshed, she wrapped herself in a towel, fetched her dress and went up to her study to find Jillian. She opened the door to see the halfling climbing a bookcase to look into the upper shelves. They were just at head height for Naeris, and the only people who usually visited her there were her father and Selise. Perhaps she could have a stepladder installed.

"Bath's free," she said, startling Jillian, who promptly hopped down.

"Thanks," Jillian said, not meeting her eyes, and went out.

Sighing again, Naeris began towelling herself off. Frustration or not, she felt much less tired after her bath. He eyes fell on the letter she'd been writing... that morning? Had it really only been that long? It felt like it could have been a week. She'd have to finish it eventually, but there were more important things on her plate now.

While rubbing the water from her hair, she realised she'd forgotten her comb and groaned. Wrapping herself back up, she went back downstairs. As silly as it seemed with her own room, she knocked before entering, stepping inside to see Jillian peeking over the rim of the tub.

"I forgot to get a comb," she explained, and went to her vanity. She had been going to return to the study, but then she couldn't see the tub from here, even in the mirror, so why bother? Instead she sat down and started to do her hair. They were both silent for a while.

"I grew up in a village a few days north of Bael Turath," Jillian said eventually, naming a city three days' sailing from Nerath.

"I've heard things can be hard there," Naeris said. Bael Turath's many nobles were famed across the Valley Lake for greed and ruthlessness.

"It's not so bad once you get out of the city," Jillian said. "It was a nice place to grow up. It got a bit dull for me once I wasn't a kid anymore, but before that, nice."

Naeris nodded silently and waited for her to continue.

"There was this old tiefling woman who lived there; I think her name was Bryseis. She came from the city; she'd been a scholar in some court or other and was sick of politics. Not a wizard or anything, just educated. Every so often she'd get all the kids together and tell us a story, something out of history. The way she told them generally didn't make any nobles in them sound too good; thinking back, she'd probably had to tell them in ways that flattered her patrons before."

Naeris smiled, imagining a horde of little halfling moppets gathered around the old woman.

"Anyway, I was in her house a time or two. She had this little set of shelves full of books; two high, maybe a half or a third as wide across as yours in there. You know what? Before today that was more books than I'd seen in the rest of my life. Then I saw your dad's room."

"It must have been quite an experience," Naeris said, still trying to wrap her head around the idea of having only an eighth of a bookcase. If she had to cut down to that, which would she choose? The mind boggled.

"It was, but what really got me was how I reacted when I saw the book in your study. I was just 'oh, books'. You still had way more than I'd seen before, but it was like I'd adjusted to it. It surprised me that I could get used to things that quickly."

"That wasn't where I expected that story to go," Naeris said, "but I take your point. Normality is certainly a disturbingly changeable thing."

There was another long silence, but a more comfortable one.

"Um, do you have another towel?" Jillian asked.

"There's a little cabinet near the tub. In there," Naeris said.

A few splashing sounds later, Jillian spoke again. "Thanks. Wow, these are nice towels."

"I shall pass your recommendation on to the seneschal."

"The what?" Jillian asked.

"Seneschal," Naeris repeated, more slowly, "the head servant, similar to a housekeeper."

"Why not just say 'housekeeper'?"

"Because we're not in a house. We're in a citadel." Naeris said.

"Why do citadels get special words?" Jillian asked.

"Why do houses?" Naeris replied. "'Housekeeper' is clearly the more exclusive word."

"Are you making fun of me?" Jillian asked.

"Not at all," Naeris said. "I'm enjoying the sparkle of our conversation."

"You are making fun of me."

"Now you're just being paranoid."

"I am not!"

"And argumentative."

"You're using big words because you think I won't know you're making fun of me."

"Perhaps you'd know what the words mean if you'd read my books instead of climbing on them."

Before Jillian could respond there was a knock on the door. "Come in," Naeris called, and the door opened to admit a maid and Umara, both of them carrying trays of food.

"Apparently I'm a servant now," Umara said, "what do I get paid?"

"Less than if you kept working as a mercenary," Naeris replied. Half-orcs didn't pout well but Umara gave it a good try.

"Perhaps I should look into a career at arms then, milady," the maid said as they laid the trays on the desk.

"Perhaps, but at the moment I think you'll find service has a much lower chance of demons," Naeris advised her.

"Probably not worth it then, milady," the maid said. "Better silver I can spend than a gold-filled grave. Will you want anything else?"

"Have rooms for Umara and Jillian been arranged?" Naeris asked.

"I believe so, milady, but I'll go and make sure," the maid said with a curtsey and left.

"How did you end up carrying trays?" Naeris asked Umara once the door had closed.

She shrugged. "I found my way into the kitchen. When someone asked who I was, I said I was looking for you. They said 'great, I'm going to her tower; just help me with this tray'. So here I am. With food," she added, lifting the lid from a tray. "Mmm, beef stew?"

Naeris gave her hair a last stroke and went over to look. "No, that's venison. Probably someone's been hunting," she said. There was a forest just up the river, on the farmland side, protected by order of the throne. Permits were purchased, or sometimes given as favours to officers or courtiers, and it was considered polite to gift some of the game to the citadel.

She lifted the other lid, revealing piles of crusty bread and a collection of sauces, as though the stew wouldn't be thick enough. She'd asked for hearty and she'd certainly got it. They shared out the food and tucked in.

"This," Umara declared, "is better than everything I've eaten all year, put together." She took another bite and sighed. "Jill, I've decided: from now on, we only work for princesses."

Naeris and Jillian laughed. "Now that she mentions it, though," Jillian said, "are you a princess? I mean, as far as I can tell your dad's in charge, but you didn't mention a title or anything in the inn when you flashed that ring."

"I don't have that title, no," Naeris said. "In fact, I don't think anyone does anymore; the only times I've seen it used have been figurative or pre-Demon War. In any case, father is High Lord of Nerath and Uncle Taman is Lord of Orcwatch. No one else has actual titles, but my step-mother and half-sisters get 'Lady' as an honorific."

The mercenaries thought about this. "I like the sound of that better than Bael Turath," Jillian said, "where they just threw titles at each other all day, from what I could tell, but I'm still confused. Why do your half-sisters get titles and you don't?"

"Honorifics, not titles, and because they're legitimate and I'm not," Naeris said. "Our father married their mother but not mine. It was part of a treaty."

"Royalty's weird," Umara said. "Why would your dad sign a treaty that made him marry someone?"

"He needed the money," Naeris explained. "You know about the dragon attack twenty years ago?"

"I've heard of it, don't know much."

"Well, that was it," Naeris said. "He needed some money to rebuild the city. Arkhosia had money and needed an alliance. Things worked out well for both of them."

"The dragon's hoard didn't cover it?" Jillian asked.

"We never found where it was lairing, actually. There's a fortune out there somewhere, but my father's scrying couldn't locate it. That was odd in itself, because most of the treasury must have been there so it shouldn't have been hard to establish a connection."

"Where would you look for it, if you were going to?" Jillian asked.

"Most treasure hunters have gone for either the mangroves between the cliffs to the southeast, or the swamp at the foot of the mountains south of the elf wood," Naeris said. "None have ever found anything, but enough simply haven't returned to make it possible that the lair has been taken over by something dangerous enough to protect it."

They thought about this. "I'm less excited about dragon treasure now," Umara said.

"Maybe in a few years," Jillian said.

"So," Umara said, putting down her plate, "I see used towels around..." She looked longingly at the tub.

"Yes, you can have a bath," Naeris said. "I'll set it up." She put down her own plate - she should have stopped eating earlier, she knew, but it was so good - and walked over to tap the runes.

"Do you want us to step out or something?" she heard Jillian say.

"And rob you two of the chance to feast your eyes?" Umara replied.

Naturally, Naeris turned to look. Umara was a bit hairy, as half-orcs tended to be, but she didn't mind that. Besides, her muscles were just marvellous. Seeing her staring, Umara gave her a wink and strutted over to the tub, flexing and posing before getting in. Naeris winked back and went to lie down. While Umara busied herself with scrubbing, Jillian sidled over and tapped Naeris on the shoulder.

"Don't get too excited," the halfling whispered, "she just likes the attention."

Naeris sighed. She liked to look as much as the next woman but two disappointments in the space of an hour were wearying. Before she could start to dwell on it, she remembered there was something she was supposed to be doing during dinner. The book!

She hopped back up and retrieved it from her coat pocket. "You said Sepret wrote in this every night, yes?"

Umara nodded. "Bran said he always did."

Naeris opened the book at the end and flicked back until she found the last written on page. Well, the last scribbled on page. If Sepret was known to regularly write in it, she supposed the demon inside him might have done it to keep up the appearance of being him. Actually writing would have been smarter, but demons famously disliked any kind of making or creation, writing included.

She flicked back through the pages. The demon had not, of course, dated its scribbles, but there were distinct gaps between them that might indicate separate sections. If so, Sepret had been possessed for several weeks. Eventually she found an actual, written entry. Somewhat surprisingly, it was entirely unhelpful. Sepret's writing gave no indication he was about to lose himself to a demon. The entry merely shared an anecdote of a trick his nephew and nieces had played on his sister, and his regret at having to leave them again to travel to Nerath.

Naeris supposed that if he had become possessed very suddenly there wouldn't be any indication of it, but that seemed unlikely. Texts on demonology were not common, most of them having been destroyed in the war, but she had read some books that touched on the subject and she recalled that possession was almost always a slow process. She read back further. Sepret seemed to have been a family man. References to a half-elf lover and a lumber business indicated he probably lived in one of the larger villages close to the elf wood.

Eventually she found something that seemed relevant. Sepret had met a trio of treasure hunters in his local inn, returning from the wastes to sell their haul in Nerath. He'd introduced himself as a merchant and, after buying them a round, asked if he might be able to save them the trouble of finding a buyer for any curiosities that might not fetch a good price at regular stores. Naeris wondered just how many buyers for such things a seller of crates would know, although she supposed that Bree Goodbarrel appeared to be a woman of diverse interests.

The treasure hunters hadn't been interested at first, but had eventually come around. Sepret hadn't described the conversation in enough detail for her to tell what had changed their minds, but they'd sold him something he described as a 'vinewood boat-dagger'. Naeris had heard the shape of boats likened to daggers, but not the other way around, and who would make a dagger of any sort from wood?

"Have either of you ever heard of a 'boat-dagger'?" she asked.

"Like a knife for a sailor?" Jillian asked. "I've never seen a sailor without one, but they don't seem any different from most people's knives."

"Apparently they're made of wood," Naeris clarified.

"Wood? I've heard of stuff called ironwood that's as good as metal for armour, but I don't think it holds an edge." Jillian said.

"Sounds crazy to me," Umara put in. "Where are you getting this?"

"Sepret's journal," Naeris replied. "He apparently bought one from a group of treasure hunters about a week ago, at a guess."

"What does that have to do with him being a demon?" Jillian asked.

"He was taken over by a demon, he wasn't one himself," Naeris corrected absently. "Why would the treasure hunters sell it to him, though? It reads as though they had it on them, so it wasn't especially bulky or otherwise difficult to carry."

"They wanted money, I guess," Umara said with a shrug.

"It seems unlikely they couldn't have gotten more money in Nerath," Naeris said.

"Maybe they didn't want to go to the city?" Jillian suggested. "Some people find the laws here a bit restrictive."

Naeris grimaced. "If they were going to Bael Turath to buy children they still could have gotten a better price there."

"So why do you think they sold to him, then?" Jillian asked.

"I suspect they weren't really treasure hunters," Naeris said, "but demon cultists, and the boat-dagger, whatever it is, had an incorporeal demon inside it that possessed Sepret when he bought it."

"Where are you getting this from?" Jillian asked.

Naeris sighed. "From the fact that nothing else happened to Sepret that seemed remotely out of the ordinary," she said dolefully. "I suppose it doesn't really matter. The entries become scribbles before he left, so he definitely became possessed while he was at home. We might be able to find out more if we go to his village."

"We met up with him in a place called Knothill," Umara said, "along the road from Orcwatch, near the elf wood. That sound like the place?"

"It matches what Sepret says about his home. How do you feel about going back there?" Naeris asked. "I think I could do with some time away from the city."

"Sounds good to me," Umara said. "The inn there had this great spiced beer, and when the locals got drunk they sang this song about-" she stopped abruptly as Jillian gave her a warning look "-uh... never mind."

"No, no, go on," Naeris purred. "I rather like tavern songs. What do they sing about in Knothill?"

"Well... uh... it's really not that interesting," Umara said, "not much of a song at all. I don't know why I mentioned it."

"Dull songs are still songs," Naeris said. "Wars are nothing without peace to bring them context. Go on. Tell me."

"It's about a half-elf... uh... escort," Umara admitted.

"Prostitute," corrected Naeris.

"Yes."

"A woman? Is it the one that lists her body parts and how blue they are?" Naeris asked.

"You know it?" Jillian asked, shocked.

"Of course," Naeris said. "It's about my mother. She's very fond of it. She doesn't sing it herself, of course, but she hums the tune often."

Jillian and Umara shared a look. "Your mother has her own bawdy song?" Jillian asked.

Naeris nodded. "She was very good at her job," she said. "I suppose you could say she still is, if you see 'concubine' as a promotion rather than a change in career."

Umara laughed. "She fucked her way into folklore? Naeris, I have to meet your mother."

"I'll introduce you tomorrow, before we leave."

"We're going tomorrow?" Umara asked.

"I am, and I'm offering to pay you to come with me." Naeris said.

"I guess we'd better get to bed, then," Jillian said. "That maid said she was checking on rooms for us, right?"

Naeris nodded. "She should be back soon to pick up the trays."

She was, and, after Umara towelled herself off and dressed, led them to their rooms. Naeris briefly considered going up to finish her letter, but decided against it. She needed her sleep. Zzz...

_

The next morning she was awakened by the usual shrieking of the birds in the eyrie, followed by Chauncey's equally loud complaints at having been woken up. Proximity to the eyrie was definitely one of the downsides to living in a tower. Still, it was a very effective way to wake up and she was dressed and groomed before the servant arrived to inform her of which dining room her family and guests would be breakfasting in today.

She was not ready in enough time to finish her letter, however, and so when she saw Quara emerging from the dining room she beckoned her stepmother over.

"Good morning, Naeris," the older woman said. "I'm glad to hear your investigation is bearing fruit."

"I hope it continues to do so," Naeris said, "but I wanted to ask a favour. I haven't yet replied to Grigor's last letter; I was writing it when this whole mess began. I doubt I'll get a chance to finish it soon; could you mention that I've been engaged in business here in your next letter to your mother?"

"Of course," Quara said. "I'm writing to her anyway, I'll make sure to ask her to mention it to him. To be honest, I'm surprised you were planning on writing back at all; your father's been pushing his letters back to the scribes for years."

"I think that may reflect as much on father as on Grigor," Naeris said. "He's not a natural correspondent."

Quara's lips twitched. "Quite," she said. "Now, your companions mentioned you were going north to Knothill. Do you think you might be proceeding on to Orcwatch?"

"It's possible," Naeris said, "but it really depends on what we find in Knothill. Did you have something you wanted taken there? I could send it on from the inn if you want."

"That would be excellent. I'll have someone bring it to you before you leave. All the best for your journey," Quara said before leaving.

Naeris continued into the dining room, finding her mother conducting her father and Umara in an impromptu rendition of 'Syllin's Sapphires', the song she'd been talking about last night. It had nothing to do with literal gems. Jalana was giggling madly, Jillian was pointedly looking away from them and Selise was ignoring them, her head in a book. Naeris smiled and sat down next to Jillian.

"I suppose I don't have to introduce them now," she said.

Jillian groaned. "Are they always like this, or is it Umara's bad influence?" she whispered.

"Not always, but this isn't unusual for them. Mother does love that song."

"I suppose it got her plenty of business back in the day, but at breakfast?"

Naeris shrugged. "Umara's enjoying it."

Jillian grimaced. "She can be so embarrassing."

Naeris chuckled. "Maybe it's just a cultural thing." Halflings were famous for their prudishness.

Jillian huffed, but said nothing more. After breakfast, she and Umara went back to their inn to pick up their things, while Naeris organised supplier for their journey. They'd need mounts, two horses for herself and Umara and a mastiff for Jillian, who'd said she didn't like ponies. She got some fresh bread, fruit and cheese for the first day and durable dried fruit and jerky or the days after. They didn't expect to spend many nights out in the wild, as the road north was studded with secure night forts to protect and encourage trade, but it paid to be prepared. The two mercenaries had their own weapons but Naeris sent them to the armoury for spelled weapons, and she left behind her staff, finding it too unwieldy to ride with.

They left at midmorning, Umara still exclaiming over the quality of her steed.

"Yes, he's trained for battle," Naeris told her, "but if anything happens to him you won't be able to keep up, so please don't try a one woman cavalry charge."

"How about a two woman cavalry charge? You could come with me!" Umara enthused.

"I am not getting any closer to anything we might run in to than I have to," Naeris said. "If indeed we do encounter anything on the road. You didn't have any trouble on the way down, did you?"

"Not much," Jillian said. "A bunch of raptors came sniffing around one night, but after I shot one they kept their distance."

"I doubt we'll see much worse," Naeris said.

For the first day at least she was right. They passed a few caravans as they rode; the big wagons even slower than Jillian's mastiff. Naeris and Umara frequently took turns riding a little way off the road, both to do some scouting and to help Jillian keep up. They spotted a few creatures lurking, in long grass or the occasional copse. Most kept their distance, the few that didn't were dissuaded by a thrown rock or a spray of magical blasts.

At the same time, it was clear that their safety was as much a matter of luck as the efforts of Nerath's patrols. They passed several signs of attacks; the corpse of a giant spider, feathered with arrows and bolts, and a caravan halted in their journey to bandage their wounded and pluck the feathers from the axe beaks that had attacked them. Naeris rode up to ask if they needed assistance; the caravan master said that clearing the road ahead would be help enough.

They reached the first night fort without further incident. Away from the city the gentle hills Nerath was built on became even flatter, and the highest ground the builders had found for it to occupy was a low rise with a slope so gentle it was barely noticeable. The light was starting to fade, but it wouldn't be truly dark for at least an hour; the night forts had been spaced for wagons, not lone riders, and even having left later they had still passed all the caravans and arrived first.

They rode in through the gates; they were only locked in the event of an attack or between dusk and dawn. Inside, around a central courtyard, were an inn, a barracks, a stable and a storehouse. All were plain and functional, unlike the artistry of Nerath's architecture. There was no point in spending money decorating something expected to have ogres beating on it.

Several squads of soldiers were training in the courtyard, taking advantage of the remaining time before it was filled with wagons and carts. Between them, the lookouts on the walls and the presumed squad on their break shift, the garrison appeared to be at full complement.

They left their mounts at the stable and went into the inn. It was much simpler than the one Sepret had stayed in in Nerath, in keeping with the night fort's generally utilitarian style. The innkeeper was a dwarf, unusual this far south.

"I told you, we're out of-" he said before looking up. "Oh, pardon me, milady," he corrected himself as he saw Naeris, "I didn't expect to see guests this early. Are you looking for beds?"

Naeris hesitated with her hand halfway to her coin pouch. She'd forgotten the night forts only had group bunks, not private rooms. "Just drinks for now," she said, taking out some copper. "A cup of red wine and two mugs of ale, please."

"Alright, but if don't wait too long if you do want somewhere to stay," he said as he took the coins. "This place will fill up awful fast once the rest of them catch up to you."

Naeris nodded. "They were a fair way behind us, we should have time to think," she said as they took their drinks and found a seat.

Sitting in the mostly empty inn was an odd feeling. Apart from the bar there were several long tables, as many as could be fitted in while still giving space for people to get into them. It must be awful trying to move around when the place is full, Naeris thought, but it's so empty now it almost feels abandoned, even with the soldiers outside.

"So, why aren't we getting rooms?" Umara asked as she took a gulp of her drink. "Oh, that's good. My tongue felt like it's coated in dust."

"I'd forgotten they don't have rooms here," Naeris said. "If we keep moving and camp tonight we can get to a village with a proper inn tomorrow."

"Seriously?" Jillian said. "You want us to camp outside for the night - out with the spiders and axe beaks and raptors - so you don't have to share a room? No!"

"I don't know, Jill," Umara said. "I don't like the idea of camping out either, but cutting a day off our travel time sounds pretty good. You've got something to keep the beasties away, right Naeris?"

"I can put up alarm spells around our camp," she said, "to wake us up if anything approaches."

Umara looked downcast. "I was hoping for something more along the lines of a magic wall. I don't like the idea of getting up in the night to fend off dire wolves. It's better than not knowing about them until they're chewing on you, yeah, but I'd still rather not."

Naeris sighed. "I suppose you're right. How do you feel about leaving early tomorrow to get a head start? We might be able to get to the village early if we put the hours in."

"You think the horses can take it?" Umara asked. "I thought warhorses were good for sprints."

"Their trained for battle, but they aren't bred for cavalry charges," Naeris said. "They're for scouts and outriders. Riding horses, just less skittish."

"What about me, though?" Jillian asked. "The caravans had a head start, sure, but not that much of one and we only beat them here by maybe half an hour. The horses can outpace them easily, sure, but my dog isn't that fast."

Naeris considered this. "How do you feel about riding with me?" she asked. "I don't have as much gear as Umara, so weight won't be an issue, and if we get in a fight I won't be charging around like she probably will."

Umara grinned and nodded.

Jillian seemed uncertain. "What about the dog, though? We can't just leave her here."

"Some of the soldiers here will be rotating back to the city either tomorrow or the day after," Naeris said. "I can talk to the officer in charge and have the dog taken along with them."

Jillian nodded. "Alright," she said. "If it saves us some time, I'll do it."

"Great," Naeris said. She got out a pair of gold coins and put them on the table. "You get us beds and I'll find the lieutenant."

They looked down at the coins. "Uh, Naeris?" Jillian said. "Your royalty is showing. We're not going to need a quarter of this."

"Oh," Naeris said, "sorry." She scooped the coins back up and replaced them with twice as many silvers. "Is that better?"

"Yes," Jillian said, "but how do you not know this? I get that your family owns pretty much everything you've ever seen, but don't you need to know how to set taxes and stuff?"

"Strictly speaking, no," Naeris said. "In the unlikely event that I was to inherit I'd probably have someone to do that for me, like my step-mother does for my father. As it happens I do know how to do that, but it's not something I'm used to looking at from the other direction so I go with what feels right."

"Fair enough," Umara said, scooping up the coins. She and Naeris both got up; Umara went back to the bar and Naeris went out into the courtyard. The soldiers had finished their drills and were lined up at attention while a half-elven sergeant shouted motivational disparagement at them. Naeris stood by patiently until the soldiers marched back to the barracks.

She walked up to the sergeant. "Excuse me."

The other half-elf turned and looked her up and down. Naeris did the same; the sergeant was slightly shorter than her, brown skinned with green hair and eyes, a common colouration for elves. Judging by the strength of the elven lilt in her previous shouting, which was greater than Naeris' but less than Syllin's, she'd grown up near the elf wood but not in it.

"Can I help you, ma'am?" she asked.

"I need to speak to the commanding officer, sergeant," Naeris said.

"Who's asking?" The sergeant's question was a formality, Naeris was sure. She'd most certainly seen her signet ring, and even without seeing the sigil on it it wouldn't be hard to put together her identity.

Still, there was nothing wrong with observing formalities. "Naeris Meliamne, of House Stormwind," she said, raising her hand to give the sergeant a better look at her ring.

The sergeant took a close look at it and nodded. "Very well, milady, please come with me." She led the way into the barracks, past the rows of bunks filled with relaxing soldiers and into a corridor at the end. She knocked on one of the doors branching off it and opened it onto a small office. She snapped of a smart salute to the man sitting behind the desk. "Sir, Naeris of House Stormwind to see you."

The lieutenant looked up and blinked. Then his brain caught up with his ears. "My lady, an honour to meet you! Please, sit down," he gestured to the chair in front of his desk. "Thank you, sergeant, you may go."

"Actually I'd like the sergeant to stay, if she could," Naeris said as she sat down. "Is that alright?" she asked, turning to address the sergeant.

"I'll need to go and organise the caravans when they arrive, but I can stay until then."

"Excellent," Naeris said, turning back to the lieutenant. "Firstly, then, what news have you had from the north that might not have reached the city? Anything from Knothill, in particular."

"Knothill?" The lieutenant repeated. "I don't believe we've heard anything from them recently. Nothing out of the ordinary, in any case; ankhegs, allosauruses, blights, all the usual, of course, but we haven't had anything I'd call memorable. Are you expecting some sort of attack there?"

"Yesterday, a resident of Knothill who had come to Nerath to trade turned out to be possessed by a demon. The creature was destroyed but he appears to have been possessed while he was at home. If there had been any unusual reports, they might have been related to similar incidents," Naeris explained.

The lieutenant looked alarmed. "Demons? By the god. What would you have us do, milady?"

"What you always do," she said. "Watch for threats. Just know that there may be less obvious ones about. Oh, and one small service; some of the soldiers will be rotated back to Nerath soon, yes?"

The lieutenant nodded. "They'll be leaving tomorrow."

"Good. My companions and I will be increasing our pace tomorrow as we need to reach Knothill as soon as possible, but one of them is riding a mastiff that will not be able to keep up. Can you have it taken back to the palace kennels?"

"Of course," the lieutenant said.

As Naeris gave him the number of the stall the dog was in, the sound of running boots on stone could be heard through the door. They looked up and someone starting knocking; the sergeant opened the door to admit an exhausted looking soldier.

"News from-" the soldier gasped "-the north, sir." Naeris stood up and offered her chair, the woman nodded gratefully and collapsed into it as she caught her breath.

"How long have you been riding, soldier?" the sergeant asked.

"Left before dawn this morning, sarge," she said, "and been riding ever since; only stopped to change horses. We got a rider in this morning from the fort just south of Knothill, he did about the same as me but through the night. He said they'd got only a handful of merchants coming south, with no wagons or merchandise. Told them demons were blocking the road."

Both the lieutenant and the sergeant looked at Naeris. She looked back. "Clearly I was wrong about the 'less obvious' part," she said. She turned to the soldier. "Did the rider say what kind of demons they were?"

"He mentioned spiky bat creatures and men with tentacle beards, milady," she said.

"Is that bad?" The sergeant asked Naeris.

"Not especially, those types of demon, barbazu and spinagons, aren't all that powerful," she said. "You should probably requisition some silver plated weapons though, just in case they come here. Barbazu are very difficult to harm with steel or wood. I can write a letter to have the requisition escalated, if you'd like."

The lieutenant nodded. "I believe I'll take you up on that, milady. If there are demons about we can't be handicapped." He turned to the soldier. "Thank you for your efforts, trooper, and know that they're appreciated. Sergeant, please make sure she gets some food and rest."

"Yes sir," the sergeant said, and stepped forward to help the soldier stagger back to her feet.

After they had left, the lieutenant turned back to Naeris. "I'll go see the quartermaster about getting those silvered weapons then. Here's some paper, ink and wax; use my desk while I'm gone."

"Thank you, lieutenant. If I'm not here when you're back, I'll be in the inn."

"I shall seek you there if I need you, milady."

He left and Naeris resumed her seat to write. She addressed the letter to Quara and informed her of the demonic bandits in the north and the necessity of equipping the soldiers with silvered weapons. She also added that the riding dog would be returning and to expect it. After signing and sealing it she left the office to go back to the inn.

In the general area of the barracks the other soldiers had gravitated towards the exhausted rider. She was sitting on a bunk, telling the story to a group of other soldiers between sips of soup. Her description of the other rider's arrival at her fort was a good deal more evocative than when she'd told the lieutenant about it and they clapped her gently on the back.

Out in the courtyard the caravans were beginning to come in. Soldiers directed the wagons into a tight grid to fit as many in as possible. Naeris could see the sergeant standing on the walkway over the gate, looking from the courtyard to the lines of caravans outside and called orders. Naeris walked around the courtyard to get back to the inn.

The long tables in the inn were beginning to fill up. It wasn't yet to the point of being cramped, but it was already clear how unpleasant it would be when it was a full as the courtyard was becoming. Naeris spotted Jillian and Umara waving to her from the end of a table and went to join them.

"You were gone a while," Umara said, pushing a bowl of soup over to her, "what happened? The lieutenant not like dogs?"

"Nothing that simple," Naeris said, "a messenger arrived while I was meeting with him; demons are blocking off the road to Knothill."

"You reckon we'll be able to get through?" Umara asked.

"I'll want to check with the last garrison before the village, but yes, I think so. From the descriptions these aren't very powerful demons."

"When you say they aren't very powerful," Jillian said, "we're talking a good bit weaker than that thing inside Sepret, right?"

"If not actually weaker, than at least not so difficult to fight," Naeris said. "These have actual bodies rather than a mass of stabbing limbs. The barbazu are powerful warriors, but not to an astonishing degree. Their weapons have a kind of magic in them that makes the wounds they deal bleed profusely, though, and their beards are poisonous."

"Wait, how do you have a poisonous beard?" Jillian asked.

"They're made up of short, spiky tentacles rather than hair," Naeris said. "The spinagon are smaller and much weaker, but they can fly and hurl burning spikes from their tails. They're by far the lesser threat, though, so I recommend we focus on the barbazu should we face a mixed group."

"Right," Umara said with a nod. "Hit the beards."

"That's right," Naeris said. "How much do I owe you for the soup, by the way?"

"Eh," Umara shrugged. "Don't worry about it, you paid for the rooms."

"Alright," Naeris said. She looked around at the room, which was nearing capacity. Merchants and their guards sipped at soup, clinked mugs and got out decks of cards or dragonchess sets. "Was it this busy the last time you were here?"

"About this, yeah," Umara said. "There won't be this many people in the bunks, though. The merchants are always paranoid about someone sabotaging or stealing from their wagons, not to mention what can happen to the ones that can't get a place inside, so a lot of the guards will be sleeping outside."

"Not much fun in winter," Naeris said. The seasons were mild in the port cities like Nerath, but they became rapidly more extreme further from the lake. There was a noticeable nip in the air even this close to the city; in Orcwatch it could even be snowing.

"Nope, but you do get paid extra," Umara said.

"Not enough," Jillian grumbled.

They were considering turning in for an early night when someone tapped Naeris on the shoulder. She turned around and saw the sergeant standing behind her, holding four foaming mugs.

"Evening, milady," she said. "Mind if I join you?"

There was still some space on the benches, so Naeris said, "Why not? Here, have a seat," and moved up the bench, patting the space next to her.

The sergeant sat down and handed out the mugs. "I'm afraid I didn't introduce myself before, milady. Kao Tai, at your service," she said.

Naeris nodded. "This is Umara and Jillian," she said.

They raised their mugs. "Cheers," they said as they clinked their mugs with Tai's and Naeris'.

“I wanted to give you heads up,” Tai said, “that things might get unpleasant in a minute.”

“Why’s that?” Jillian asked.

“We’re about to give this lot the bad news,” she said, nodding to the door, where the lieutenant was coming in followed by a soldier with a horn.

“About the demons?” Umara asked. “Damn,” she said when Tai nodded, “are you going to tell them they can’t go north? They won’t take that well.”

Naeris shook her head, and Tai replied, “You three will outpace them easily; with any luck you’ll sort things out before they’re halfway there. This is just to let them know.”

The soldier blew his horn as the lieutenant stepped up on a chair. Everyone fell silent, except for a few nearer the horn who clutched their ears and cursed, and he spoke.

“Good people!” He said. “We have received word from the north that the road to Knothill is blockaded by demonic bandits. The High Lord is aware of the situation and is taking action. Those of you heading south may wish to prolong your stay in the city. Those of you heading north may wish to turn back. We advise you to be cautious and to stay south until the situation has been resolved.”

There was some muttering, but most of the listeners were shocked. Usually there would be anger, accusations that the army wasn’t doing its job. The lieutenant had said the magic word, though: demonic.

“What’s the High Lord doing about it?” Someone yelled out. There was always one.

“That’s his business,” the lieutenant said. “You want to make a complaint, well, you know where he lives.” A few people laughed, and the loudmouth said nothing more. “Thank you for your time and be safe,” the lieutenant said as he stepped down.

The quiet continued a few moments after he walked out before conversation started up again.

“Well, that went better than expected,” Tai said.

“People know you don’t fuck around with demons,” Jillian said.

Tai nodded. "Anyway, I take it you were riding the dog being sent back?" she asked Jillian.

The halfling nodded. "A good animal, but he couldn't keep up with those damn long legs on the horses."

"How are you going to be travelling? Have you bought another horse?"

Jillian shook her head. "She's riding with me," Naeris said.

Tai arched an eyebrow. "Really? Sounds like fun; I don't do doubles often but it does get cosy in those saddles if you don't mind the weight."

Umara and Naeris laughed; Jillian looked scandalised. It was hard to tell with her dark skin and the poor light, but Naeris was pretty sure she was blushing.

"Is it too late to ask to ride with Umara?" she said. "I don't want to spend all of tomorrow fearing for my virtue."

Umara snorted and Naeris rolled her eyes. "Your virtue is exactly as safe as you want it to be, I promise," Naeris said.

"The door's locked, but there's a window open around the back," Umara stage whispered. Jillian's eyes widened in horror and she turned to slap her friend on the arm. Umara laughed and Jillian slapped her again. "I'm sorry, Jill," she said through her chuckles, "it was just such a good opening."

"So was that," Tai said, "but as I don't want to be slapped I'll leave it alone."

"I think it would be thoughtful to leave Jillian out of any discussion of openings," Naeris said, "as a beating often offends."

"Thank you!" Jillian said, throwing her hands up in relief.

"So, how long have you three been together?" Tai asked.

"A day and a half," Naeris said. "Their previous contract was with the Knothill trader I mentioned earlier; they were with me when the demon came out of him, and made a good showing."

"Make sure you put that in our references when this is over," Jillian said. "'Made good showing against demon'."

"Huh. I got the impression you'd been together longer," Tai said. "Thought you might have put together an adventuring band like your dad did."

"I might just do that once this is over," Naeris said. "Why? Are you angling for an invitation?"

"No, no, no," Tai said, putting her hands up, "not that kind of invitation. I'm happy with steady pay and a few dozen soldiers at my back, not gambling on fortune or death odds with a handful of people crazy enough to do the same thing."

"That's a fair choice," Naeris said. "There's nothing wrong with liking a steady life."

"Hey, I'll gamble on death or fortune odds," Umara said, "it worked out pretty well for the last half-orc to follow your family around. How about it, Naeris? If you become High Lady, could I get Orcwatch when Dorn retires?"

Naeris laughed. "I like your enthusiasm, but firstly I'm probably not going to be High Lady, and secondly you'd have to fight Amafrey for it."

Umara thought about this. "I reckon I could take her."

Tai shook her head. "You've never seen her fight, have you?"

Umara shrugged. "She can't be that good; she's human and younger than me."

"She's not nearly up to Dorn's standard," Tai said, "but I have seen her fight and it's pretty impressive. Sorry, but I'd put my bet on her."

Umara frowned, and Jillian patted her on the back. "There there, big girl," she said. "I believe in you."

"I should also point out," Naeris said, "that strictly speaking Dorn isn't Lord of Orcwatch. Taman is."

"You know, I've wondered about that," Tai said. "How did that get worked out? I mean, Lord Taman's older than your father, isn't he? Why isn't he High Lord and your father up in Orcwatch?"

"The short version of the answer to that is that they decided that was the situation they were all happiest with," Naeris said. "Taman prefers Nerath to Orcwatch, but he's not powerful enough himself to channel the god's power like father does, so he couldn't be High Lord. The only other option was Dorn, who isn't a Stormwind and didn't want the position anyway."

"Okay, that makes sense," Tai said, "but why then is Taman Lord and not Dorn?"

"Orcwatch doesn't have its own god, so it's not so important that its ruler be powerful," Naeris said. "Dorn wasn't sold on the idea of tying himself to the town for good, and he and Taman had hit it off, so they married and Taman took the title."

"As much as I love hearing about politics," Jillian said, "I should probably be getting to bed, since we're leaving early tomorrow." She drained the rest of her mug.

Umara nodded glumly. "Yeah, I guess I should too. I'll be along in a bit, g'night."

They waved goodbye as Jillian went up to the bunks.

"So, what kind of invitation were you angling for?" Naeris asked Tai.

“I was actually think of making one myself,” she said, putting her hand on Naeris’ thigh.

Naeris smiled and put her hand over Tai’s. Umara quickly drained her mug. “Well, I should be off to bed too,” she said quickly. “Want me to tell the innkeeper he has a spare bed?”

“I think that would be a good idea,” Naeris said. “Thank you.”

“No problem. You two have fun.”

They waved Umara goodbye as she went to join Jillian. “Shall we go?” Tai asked.

“Let’s,” Naeris said, and they got up, Tai helping Naeris to her feet. “So, do sergeants get a private room or are we giving the barracks a show?”

Tai laughed. “I’m happy to say that at the night forts at least there are enough single rooms for us. Your privacy will not require you to pull rank and commandeer the lieutenant’s room.”

“I wouldn’t do that anyway. Bad for morale.”

As they walked out. Tai put her arm around Naeris’ waist and pulled her in for a kiss on the cheek. “Umara seems nice,” she said after.”

Naeris nodded. “She’s very good humoured.”

“Jillian is totally hot for you,” Tai continued.

Naeris arched an eyebrow. “That’s what you got from her disgust at all that talk of ‘openings’?”

Tai nodded confidently. “Truth cuts deepest,” she said. “If she didn’t like the idea a little she’d just have grumped about it.”

“Perhaps I should mention then that she’s already turned me down?”

“Of course she did,” Tai said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “She’s a prude. They don’t like to be reminded they’re just as into it as everyone else. She’ll think it over again. Probably already has,” she added with a suggestive wink. “Maybe she is right now.”

Naeris smiled. “As stimulating as that image is, shouldn’t you be trying to keep my attention on you?”

“That’s what the physical contact is for,” Tai said, and pulled her close again.

They stepped into the barracks. Most of the soldiers not on night watch duty were already in bed, although a few had had the same idea as Naeris and Tai. Tai led the way down toward the Lieutenant’s office, but opened a different door in the corridor that revealed a spare little room that nonetheless at least offered privacy.

Naeris put down her bag and laid down her coat over a small chest that seemed to be the room’s only piece of non-essential furniture, while Tai shut the door. Tai came up behind her and kissed her neck while rubbing her arms.

“What do you want to do?” Tai asked.

“Nothing too energetic,” Naeris said. “I’ve been riding all day and I’ll be riding for most of tomorrow.

Tai chuckled. “I’ll do the riding now, then,” she said.

She did.

_

Naersi woke up in anticipation of the bird cries, which didn’t come. She tried to wriggle out from under Tai, who had evidently fallen asleep on top of her in the narrow cot they’d shared, but the movement caused Tai to hold her tighter. She tried shaking herself, and called Tai’s name a few times, before sighing in frustration and nipping the closest bit of her arm.

Tai sprang awake with a cry. “Sorry,” Naeris said, “but I have to get going and you’re a real limpet when you’re asleep.”

“Oh, right,” Tai said, letting her go and rubbing her arm. “Sorry about that. It’s these narrow beds, I always feel like I’m going to fall out of them,” she said as she watched Naeris dress. “I should be getting up too, soon.”

“If you’re still stationed in Nerath when I get back,” Naeris said, “we can have a go in my bed. Plenty of room.”

“I’ll see if I can call in a favour,” Tai said. A loud horn blow split the air and they both flinched. “There we are,” she said, and swung herself out of the cot.

Naeris would have liked to stay and watch Tai dress, but as she’d said she had to be going and she contented herself with a kiss.

“See you in the city,” Tai said as she left.

Naeris hurried out through the barracks, reaching the stables in time to have both horses saddled and ready by the time Umara and Jillian arrived.

“Wow,” Umara said, “I thought you’d be all worn out and we’d have to come drag you away from Ms Leafy-locks.”

“Stamina isn’t exclusive to people of the ‘hitting things with heavy bits of metal’ persuasion,” Naeris said. “My armour is much easier to put on, too,” she added, sweeping an arm through the air to display the rippling effect.

“If you two are done, we should get going before the merchants start racing to be first out of the gate,” Jillian said, standing by Naeris’ horse. It was quite clear than she couldn’t mount it on her own; it took some effort for Naeris to do it and Jillian barely topped her waist. Naeris picked her up and lifted her until she could scramble onto the saddle, and Naeris then mounted behind her. “That was extremely undignified,” she said as she tried to find a comfortable position on Naeris’ lap.

“I’m afraid that mounting won’t get any better,” Naeris said as she urged her horse after Umara’s between the wagons, “but if we’re lucky we might be able to buy a double saddle in the next village, so you won’t have to sit in my lap.”

“You’re not enjoying it then?” Jillian asked.

“I’m pretty sure Tai was joking about that, Jill,” Naeris said. “Any sort of weight on your lap gets unpleasant quickly, and that goes double when you’re horse riding.”

“Right,” Jill said. “You and her had a long talk about horse riding and humour last night, then?”

“No, we had sex,” Naeris said. “You seem more acerbic than usual. Did you not sleep well last night?”

“I slept fine, thank you,” Jillian grated out.

“Food disagree with you?”

“No.”

“Jealous?” Naeris asked.

“No!”

“Alright,” Naeris said. There was silence for a while, as they rode out the gate and away from the night fort. Umara stayed a little way ahead, looking out for dangers. There would probably be little so close to the fort, but it paid to be careful.

“That’s it?” Jillian asked after a while.

“What’s it?” Naeris asked, confused.

“Just ‘Alright.’? Nothing else?”

“I’m not quite sure what else you’re looking for,” Naeris said. “You seem upset, and I get the impression it has something to do with me and Tai, but I really can’t think why that would be.”

“You really have no idea?” Jillian asked.

“No, I don’t.” Naeris said. They rode along in silence for a while longer. “Do you want to explain it to me?”

“Not really,” Jillian said.

Naeris sighed. “Jillian, I don’t want to upset you, but I can’t try to avoid doing it if I don’t know what you have a problem with.”

Jillian remained sullenly silent for a while longer before asking, “Do you try to sleep with everyone you meet?”

“No,” Naeris said calmly, “I try and sleep with women whom I’m attracted to when the circumstances seem appropriate.”

“Really?” Jillian asked, “Because from my count you’re three for three. Me, Umara and Tai.”

“If you recall, I didn’t actually proposition Umara. You told me she wouldn’t be interested before I said anything. Was that true, by the way?”

“What? Of course it’s true. Why would I lie about that?” Jillian demanded.

Naeris shrugged. Jillian couldn’t see it, of course, but she could probably feel the motion. “You do seem to find me sleeping with other people objectionable.”

Jillian was quiet for a while longer. “I suppose that’s fair. It was true; Umara only likes men.”

Naeris nodded. “How about you, who do you like? I take it you’re not one to spread yourself around, so is there maybe someone waiting back in that village north of Bael Turath?”

“Just family,” Jillian said. “No one like that. Maybe if I went back there more often.”

“Why don’t you?”

“It’s hard to get to. I get why Nerath doesn’t trade with Bael Turath, but it means I need two ships instead of one to get home, and there aren’t many that visit the smaller ports. It’s not like I could hike through the elf wood either.”

“Why not?” Naeris asked.

“I don’t want to be eaten by giant wolves?”

“You couldn’t hire a guide?”

“With what? Elves don’t use money.” Jillian said.

“No, but they’d probably trade a trip across the forest for a nice sword.” Naeris said.

Jillian sighed. “I forgot you don’t do little people money. Swords are expensive, much more than a ride on a ship.”

“Oh, yes,” Naeris said, “of course. Why do you work so far away from your family?”

“I like Nerath,” Jillian said. “It’s not… not hard, like Bael Turath is, where you feel like you have to watch your back everywhere you go. The people are friendly and trustworthy. Well, mostly, anyway. I guess whoever’s doing the demon summoning isn’t all that nice.”

Naeris chuckled. “No, I wouldn’t imagine so,” she said. “Has your family ever considered moving to Nerath, then?”

Jillian shook her head. “Only in the way they’ve considered flying on dragons. Little people money again; it’s not just my parents and siblings, I’ve got a whole clan back there. We’ve got a lot of stuff; it’d be expensive to ship over, but just as expensive to buy it new when we get there, not to mention finding a place to live. If I find that missing dragon hoard, then maybe, but not before.”

“Ah,” Naeris nodded. “Do you get on with your family?”

“Sure, they’re great. They’d like it if I worked closer to home, but they understand why I don’t.”

“That’s good,” Naeris said. “Do you think you might go back there one day? Take up a trade, or train the little ones?”

“Maybe,” Jillian said. “One day, if I can’t do this anymore or meet someone who makes me want to settle down.”

“Hey, guys,” Umara said, slowing to let them ride up beside her, in tones rather more subdued than her normal boisterous resonance.

“Hello,” Naeris said quietly. “Is something up ahead?”

“Sure is,” Umara said quietly, “they’re a bit far away just now, but there’s a big group of something, I think it’s either axe beaks or raptors, up ahead on the right-hand side of the road.”

Jillian peered up ahead. “Yeah, I see them,” she said. “I think they’re axe beaks, raptors’ feathers are brighter.”

“What do you think?” Naeris asked. “Can we go off the road in the other direction and avoid them?”

“Depends which way they’re moving, really,” Umara said. “Right now they seem to be running alongside the road, but that can change awfully fast.”

“If they’re ahead of us, won’t they stay that way, at least long enough to change direction and either cross the road or move away from us? I’d thought axe beaks were as fast as horses,” Naeris said.

“Not quite, but they’re close,” Jillian said. “We could just slow our pace, or even take a break for a while. They probably won’t turn back this way.”

“Let’s slow our pace for a while,” Naeris decided. “Not too long though; I’d rather fight axe beaks than let demons run lose for longer than we have to.”

“Sounds good,” Umara said. They reined the horses back to a slow walk.

“Jillian and I were just talking about her family,” Naeris said, “and you met mine. How about yours, where did you grow up?”

“Oh, I’m from Orcwatch,” Umara said. “Both my parents are soldiers, so I spent most of my time as a kid running around with another twenty or so kids in the same position, while whichever poor fool pissed off the commander that week tried to stop us killing ourselves.” She laughed. “Good times.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t join the army yourself,” Naeris said.

“I was all set to up until when I was actually old enough to sign on. That was when I decided I’d already had enough of the army and thought I’d find something more interesting. So here I am!”

“Has it been more interesting?” Naeris asked.

“Eh. Sometimes it’s ridiculously boring, sometimes it’s great,” Umara said. “I wouldn’t mind going out to the wastes someday, though. You think you might go out there some time after this is done with?”

“It’s pretty much a rite of passage,” Naeris said. “I have been out there before a few times, but I think the idea is to do it as a group.”

“A ‘few times’?” Jillian asked. “What were you doing out there?”

“Oh, the first time was just Father and Dorn showing me what they looked like. That would have been about seven years ago.”

“Hey, I remember that!” Umara exclaimed.

Naeris looked at her sceptically. “I think I would have noticed had you been there. Dorn certainly would have.”

“I don’t mean there at that moment, but I remember you visiting Orcwatch seven years ago. It was right after that big attack, when the orcs and gnolls allied, and you and your dad had that ceremony where you gave out medals.”

“Ah, yes. You were in the crowd?” Naeris asked.

Umara nodded enthusiastically. “In the second row. My mother was one of the soldiers who got that dragon tooth medal.”

“That’s impressive,” Naeris said. “I’m afraid I don’t remember her though. It was too long ago.”

“Yeah, I figured you might not remember. Were you in the battle itself at all? I know your dad was.”

“I was in the city, but that was before I’d learned any decent battle magic. I stayed in the keep, out of the way.”

“Good plan. I was so annoyed at not being allowed to fight, but looking back… yeah, not the best idea,” Umara said, and laughed.

They crested a small rise and saw the distant shapes of axe beaks turning away from the road.

“That’s nice to see,” Jillian said.

“I don’t know,” Umara replied, “I could have done with getting my blood up.”

“We wouldn’t have had time to pluck them, though, and it would have been a shame to leave the feathers to rot,” Naeris said.

“What are axe beak feathers used for, anyway?” Jillian asked.

“Same thing as any other feather too big or small for fletching,” Naeris said. “Decoration. I have a few dresses with axe beak feathers on them.”

“Doesn’t that look a bit bland, though?” Jillian asked after some thought. “I mean, they’re just this sort of dull grey colour.”

“That’s because they get dusty when they’re still on the bird. They come up a lovely glossy black when they’re cleaned and treated.”

“Treated?” Jillian asked.

“Some alchemical process, I’m not sure about the details,” Naeris said. “It makes them last longer, so you don’t need new ones every time you wear them.”

They continued on in peace through the rest of the day, Umara alternately riding ahead and hanging back to talk. After about four hours of riding they met a column of soldiers coming the other way, whose sergeant called a halt and waved them down. He asked after the rider, seemed relieved that she’d made it through and even more surprised that Nerath had already sent them out to deal with the problem. In turn they warned him about the pack of axe beaks. The soldiers continued on, and they stopped a little after noon, when they came to the next night fort.

“Might as well eat with a roof over our heads,” Umara had said, and the others agreed. The meal ended up being somewhat dispiriting, partly due to the emptiness of the inn and partly due to the food being rather poor; the turnips in the stew were greatly underdone. The horses, however, seemed much refreshed from their brief rest.

They were making good progress for an hour when a series of piercing cries split their air above them.

“Well crap,” Jillian said, drawing her crossbows, “blood hawks.” She aimed upwards and sent a pair of bolts into the breasts of two diving crimson birds. Naeris followed up with mana blasts, clipping one and striking another head on. The three felled birds thudded into the ground, while the other five continued their dive.

One thumped into Umara’s shield and fell to the ground, broken by the impact, while another’s claws scraped harmlessly on her armour. The other three swarmed Naeris; two of them were frustrated by her armour spell rippling them away, while the last managed to seize her shoulder, claws gripping tightly through the leather.

She brought her hands together and the sound was like a stroke of thunder. The three blood hawks were thrown away. Jillian reloaded her crossbows and shot the last one.

“Nice spell,” Jillian said. “That’s four for you, three for me and one for Umara.”

Umara pouted. “You wait until we fight something that’s on the ground, then you’ll see.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Jillian waved a hand dismissively. Umara poked her tongue out at her.

They rode on for a while before Naeris spoke up. “I’ve just had a thought. It might be better if you rode with Umara, Jillian.”

“Why? You said before that riding with you would be safer because Umara would be charging in like a lunatic.”

“I don’t think I put it quite like that,” Naeris said. “That is what I’m thinking of now, though. We can’t afford to lose either of the horses; one of them couldn’t carry all three of us, and we need the speed. So if Umara wants to go charging in, she’ll need to do it on foot, and in that case we’ll need someone to keep control of her horse.”

“That makes sense,” Jillian said, “but I’m not sure I can control a horse. I have a hard enough time with ponies.”

“You shouldn’t need to do it for long,” Naeris said, “or do very much. Just keep it from galloping away.”

“Okay,” Jillian said. “I guess I can try. Hey, Umara!” She yelled out at the half-orc, who had ridden ahead again, “It’s time to play ‘Pass the Halfling’!”

“I don’t think I like that game,” Umara said when they’d caught up with her, “why are we playing?” They explained. “Oh, okay. I’d like to do a cavalry charge, but I see your point. You want to stop?”

“I’m not jumping, and she’s not throwing me,” Jillian said. “Come on, pull up.”

They stopped on the turf next to the road. Naeris and Umara both got off and Naeris helped Jillian down.

“Huh, didn’t think you were that heavy, Jill,” Umara said when Jillian’s feet hit the ground.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jillian asked.

“The ground shook when you dropped down,” Umara said. “No, wait, there it is again.”

Jillian’s eyes widened. “Ankheg! Get down!” She shouted and dived away. Naeris moved in the opposite direction. Umara readied her shield, looked around, and happened to be facing in just the right direction when a huge, mandibled head emerged from the ground and spat a gout of acid at her. It sizzled alarmingly when it struck her shield.

Jillian fired her crossbows; one deflected off a chitinous plate, but the other found a weak spot and sunk deep into the ankheg’s flesh. Naeris, meanwhile, was weaving a spell, sending a cascade of little bubbles towards the creature. Tiny cracks appeared in the thing’s shell where they detonated. Umara sped forward and slammed her shield into its face. It grabbed the shield in its mandibles and she slammed her axe down on one of them, cracking it between the blade and shield rim.

It shrieked hideously, but the mandible held and it jerk its head forward, trying to slash her behind the shield and when that failed it pulled back, trying to drag her underground. Naeris followed her bubbles up with a pair of mana blasts, which cracked its shell further. Its head thrashed about, lifting Umara off her feet before Jillian put two more bolts into it and it collapsed.

“Ow, ow, ow,” Umara complained as she picked herself up. She looked at her shield, now pitted from the ankheg’s acid. “Could be worse, I guess. Ah!” She screamed, as the acid that had splashed around the shield finally ate through her armour. “Fuck acid!”

Jillian rushed up to her with a waterskin, pouring it over the wound and wherever else the acid had touched. It foamed up briefly and ceased to burn. Naeris came over and examined the new gap in her armour. She pressed her hand to it and chanted briefly, holding her zircon, and when she took her hand away the maille was whole again.

“Nice trick,” Umara said. “Fuck that thing’s ugly, let’s get out of here.”

“Good idea,” Jillian said. Umara helped her into the saddle and climbed in behind her, while Naeris returned to her own mount.

“How did you know that ‘ground rumbling’ means ‘ankheg’?” Umara asked.

“I grew up around farmers. Those things love to pop up and grab a pig,” Jillian said. “Or a farmer, for that matter.”

“What was it doing around here, then?”

“Maybe it prefers axe beak,” Naeris suggested, “or perhaps a bigger ankheg pushed it out of better territory.”

“Could be,” Jillian said, “they’re very territorial.”

They continued on. Soon they saw caravans on the road ahead; those that had set out from the last night fort that morning. They pushed forward, riding off the road to go around the caravans and get to the village first.

They rode past watchtowers and several fields before reaching the village proper. Hommlet was a large village that would have been very, very small had it not had the luck to be located along the easiest route north. While it didn’t have the safety of the night fort’s stone walls, it also didn’t have their confinement and the main road boasted half a dozen inns. They dismounted as they reached the town centre and Naeris led them towards the nicest looking inn.

“I’ve heard that place is really expensive,” Umara said.

“Sounds perfect,” Naeris replied, and walked into the inn’s stable yard. They left a groom with the horses and plenty of silver and went inside. The innkeeper was a half-elven woman, aging but still glamorous. She took one look at Naeris’ clothes and ring and welcomed them like long-lost daughters, assigning them each a servant to show them to their rooms. It didn’t escape Naeris’ notice that hers was a woman, Umara’s was a man and Jillian’s was also a woman. That interesting; innkeepers were often the insightful type.

Meilil, her servant, gave her a long explanation of the room and its amenities, and she asked some further questions after that. Her last one was, “Is this a brothel as well as an inn?” She’d noticed that the servant’s uniforms were not, in fact, uniform. While it wasn’t unusual in cheaper establishments for the staff to wear what they liked, or in pricier ones to have uniforms, Meilil and her co-workers wore clothes similar enough to declare their employer, but varied enough to flatter their various attractions.

Meilil smiled at the question. “The Satyr’s Flute does not offer such services. Patrons may make arrangements as they are able.” ‘Ask me nicely enough,’ Naeris translated that as, though she didn’t intend to. She’d been curious, not actually interested.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she said.

Meilil nodded. “Dinner will be served in a little over an hour. Would you and your companions like a private room, milady?”

“Yes, please,” Naeris said.

“Excellent. I hope you enjoy your stay.” She bowed low and left with a swish of her hips.

Naeris smiled and locked the door. There should be time for a bath; magical cleaning was good but just wasn’t as satisfying as a good soak. As she ran the water – piped, not magical – there was a knock on the door.

“It’s Umara.”

Naeris unlocked the door to let her in, locking the door again behind her.

“Wow,” the half-orc said, “This place is really something else. Remind you of home?”

Naeris shook her head. “It’s not quite that nice, but it’s good all the same. You aren’t going to take a bath yourself?” she asked as she climbed into the tub. Umara bit her lip. “Are you embarrassed, Umara?” Naeris asked. “That’s not like you. Go on, tell me.”

“I was thinking of asking Jandar to join me,” Umara said. Naeris recalled the innkeeper introducing Umara’s valet to her by that name. “I thought he was acting sort of flirty, but I wasn’t sure if I was imagining it.”

Naeris nodded. “He probably thinks you have enough money to make it worth his while,” she said, “and if you still have what I paid you for helping catch Sepret, you do.”

Umara looked downcast. “So it’s just money, then.”

“Not just money,” Naeris said. “I asked Meilil about it before; this place isn’t a brothel, he’s under no obligation to offer that kind of service. He must like you a little if he’s flirting.”

“You think so?”

Naeris smiled. “I’d take a bath with you,” she said.

Umara grinned and flexed her arms. “You like?”

“Very much,” Naeris said, “but I’m not going to get to touch, am I?”

Umara deflated a little. “No, sorry. I don’t mean to lead you on or anything, I just like being looked at that way. Women just don’t do it for me.”

“It’s fine,” Naeris said. “Now go on and have your own bath, if you don’t want to share with me. Invite Jandar if you want.”

“Alright,” Umara decided, “I will. What should I say?”

Naeris shrugged. “Tell him that you’re having a bath and you’d appreciate his company. Don’t mention money, just leave some silver somewhere it’s visible.”

“Alright,” Umara said again, “wish me luck!”

Naeris blew her a kiss instead, and got a wink back before Umara left. She listened carefully, but the inn’s walls were too thick for her to make out any sound, if there was any. There was a second knock on the door as she was getting dressed again.

“Who is it?”

“It’s Jillian.”

“It’s not locked,” Naeris called back. Umara hadn’t had the key to lock it on her way out, and Naeris hadn’t bothered.

Jillian stepped inside, saw Naeris putting on her tunic, and froze. “You, uh, you could have said you were dressing,” she said.

Naeris shrugged. “I don’t mind. Umara came in while I was bathing. How was your bath?” she asked, noticing the halfling’s hair was damp.

“Exactly what I needed, after two days of riding,” she said. “What did Umara have to say? She didn’t come to see me.”

“She wanted to talk about her valet,” Naeris said. “Perhaps she thought you’d be uncomfortable? You didn’t like the conversation last night.”

“I guess,” Jillian said. “What did she want to talk about?”

“She thought he was flirting with her, and was wondering if she should invite him to have a bath with her,” Naeris said.

Jillian grimaced. “What is it with baths?” She asked. “What did you tell her?”

“I said she should go for it if she felt he was worth the money.”

“Money? Wait, is this a brothel?”

“Not exactly,” Naeris said. “It just provides what you might call a conductive atmosphere, so if your valet likes the look of you, you might be more inclined to interpret any flirtations in the way they want.”

“So it’s a really subtle brothel?” Jillian asked.

“It’s an inn. The person assigned to you might permit you to pay them for sex, if they find you sufficiently attractive or charming.”

“So it’s a really choosy brothel?”

Naeris gave up. “If it can be a brothel despite probably a majority of its patrons not having sex there, yes, it’s a brothel.”

Jillian nodded. “I wonder how they assign the valets? It’s lucky for Umara she was the one who got the only man.”

“Presumably the innkeeper thought she’d be more likely to go for him,” Naeris said.

Jillian nodded, then frowned. “Then why did I get a woman?”

Naeris had her own suspicions, but chose to say, “Maybe they don’t have as many male staff, and thought Umara was a better bet than you?”

“I suppose,” Jillian said. “Doesn’t explain why my valet was flirting with me, though.”

“Perhaps she thought it was worth a shot?” Naeris suggested.

“Maybe, but Tai got all suggestive about me riding with you too.”

“I think that was more about her making sure I was available,” Naeris said.

“Why me, though? Why not Umara?” Jillian asked.

Naeris shrugged. “I don’t know. Is it really a problem?”

“I… I don’t know,” Jillian said. “I just want to know why.”

“I’m afraid I can’t help you with that,” Naeris said. “Guessing people’s preferences isn’t something I’ve ever had much facility with. I suppose you could try having a deep and meaningful conversation with the innkeeper?”

“No, no, no,” Jillian said. “That would just be too, too embarrassing.” She was quiet for a while. “What about you? You asked me to… well…”

“Join me in a bath? Yes, but I was very surprised when I thought you’d accepted,” Naeris said. “I can’t tell you why people seem to think you’re interested mostly in women, only agree with you that they do.” Something occurred to her. “Perhaps it’s me rather than you? Did this happen much before we met?”

Jillian nodded. “Not as much, but it did. Lots of people have asked me questions – that sort of question – about Umara.”

“Oh. In that case, I don’t know.”

Jillian sighed. “Does this happen to you? In reverse, I mean; do you get people assuming you’re with a man or interested in one?”

“In my experience,” Naeris said, “people tend to assume that half-elves are up for anything.”

“That sound incredibly awkward,” Jillian said.

“Oh, it is,” Naeris agreed. “I’ve had a lot of very friendly invitations to things from people who should probably have taken the time to get to know me. Being less vague in the invitations might have helped as well. Most of them worked out in the end, though.”

“When you say they worked out in the end…” Jillian said.

“I said it wasn’t something I was interested in and they said okay.”

“Ah.” Jillian said. If she’d been about to say more, she was interrupted by a knock on the door.

“Who is it?” Naeris called.

“Meilil, milady. Dinner will be served shortly. May I escort you to your dining room?”

“Yes, thank you,” Naeris said, rising and going to the door. Meilil was standing outside, as was Jandar and Jillian’s valet, a petite half-elf Naeris recalled was named Lael. Naeris supposed she’d tried Jillian’s door already.

Umara came out of her own room, a distinct glow to her grey skin, and smiled broadly and Jandar. Nice to know that had worked out, Naeris thought. The valets led them downstairs into a room not much larger than the bedrooms, though the sparser furnishings helped increase the apparent size. There were several chaises longue arranged around a low oval table, currently supporting a trio of wine glasses and pewter tankards, a bottle of wine, a pitcher of ale and a small bowl of nuts and berries.

“Are the drinks suitable?” Lael asked.

“Yes, thank you,” Naeris said.

“Excellent,” Meilil said. “We’ll be bringing up the first of the dishes shortly.”

The three valets left. Jillian picked up a wine glass tentatively. “How much do you think this is worth?” she asked.

Naeris picked one up and examined it critically. “A few silver,” she said. “Certainly not gold. Why?”

“My great-great-great-grandmother had a pair of glass cups,” she said. “They were kept up in a high, locked cupboard, and only taken out for special occasions. I think I only saw them four or five times in my life. When she died, everyone was incredibly envious of the branch of the family that got them.” She looked down at the glass again, gently touching the stem. “They were just flat bottomed cylinders. Not like this.”

“I imagine they had a lot of family history connected to them,” Naeris said. “More value than their worth in silver.”

“I know, but still,” Jillian said, putting the glass down, “I think I’ll stick to the ale.”

“Fair enough,” Naeris said as she poured herself some wine and Umara poured the ale.

The valets returned with the food. There were half a dozen small platters, each too small for a meal individually but a decent size put together. Along with them were a plate for each of the diners.

“Could we get another pitcher, please?” Naeris asked, having noted that Umara and Jillian’s tankards between them had more than half-emptied it.

“Of course,” Meilil said, and the valets left.

“So, how do we do this?” Umara asked, looking at the food.

“Just take a piece of everything that looks nice,” Naeris said, taking a piece of crispy-looking fish. “There’ll be more dishes along soon, though, so don’t feel you have to fill up.”

They tucked in and were soon all chewing happily. “You prefer wine,” Umara asked after taking a gulp of her ale. Naeris nodded, mouth full of something she suspected was rabbit. “Must be the elf bit,” the half-orc said.

Naeris shook her head and swallowed. “People say that a lot, but I don’t know where it comes from,” she said. “Elves don’t drink a lot of alcohol in general, and what they do drink is mostly mead.”

“I thought mead was a dwarven drink,” Jillian said.

“They like it too,” Naeris said. “One of the few things the races have in common. They don’t make it themselves, though; no bees in the cliffs.”

“They buy it from the elves, then?” Jillian asked. “Like the spices?”

“Actually they buy it from halflings, mostly. Your clan didn’t keep bees?” Naeris asked. Jillian shook her head. “The dwarves near Bael Turath probably buy it from humans, then. Probably complain about it, too. The elves don’t produce enough of the stuff to export it,” she explained, “or have a good way to carry it. It’s not like the spices, that are very portable, lucrative and they don’t want anyway.”

“Wait,” Umara said, “elves don’t use spices? Everyone calls them ‘elven spices’, though.”

“They’re gathered and traded by elves,” Naeris said. “I think they might use small amounts in some medicines, but they don’t eat them as a matter of course.”

“I’ve eaten elf food, though, and it’s spicy,” Umara said.

“Did an actual elf give it to you?” Naeris asked, and Umara shook her head. “Then that wasn’t genuine elven food. You wouldn’t have liked it very much if it was; it’s very bland to non-elves. My mother often mentions what a revelation it was for her, the first time she ate something outside the forest. Food she could taste!”

The others laughed. “It’s the opposite of dwarven food, then?” Jillian asked, and Naeris nodded.

“I tried a genuine dwarven curry once,” Umara said. “Couldn’t taste anything afterwards for three days. The first half mouthful or so was good, though.”

“Have you had another one since?” Naeris asked.

Umara snorted. “Of course not.”

“You’re brighter than Dorn, then,” Naeris said. “He has one every few years. He swears than eventually he’ll get a taste for it, but I don’t think it’s working.”

“Fires,” Umara said, as Jillian laughed. “Can he taste anything anymore?”

“I’ve never asked,” Naeris said. “I don’t want to rub it in.”

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever eaten, Naeris?” Jillian asked.

She thought about it. “Does it have to be something that’s inherently bad? I had some truly awful rabbit once.”

“Nah, that doesn’t count. Something that was just bad, not a bad example of something good.”

“Lake slug,” she said.

Jillian’s face slowly morphed from blank to a disgusted grimace. It was like her tongue was trying to escape. “On the one hand, I want to know,” she said, “but on the other hand, I think I really, really don’t want to know.”

“It wasn’t in any peculiar circumstance or anything like that,” Naeris said. “Someone served it at a party once. Possibly as a joke.”

Jillian rubbed at her throat. “Maybe that wasn’t such a great question for dinner,” she said, taking a gulp of ale.

The valets returned, with another four trays and the second pitcher of ale. They took the emptied plates and left again.

Umara looked at her newly refilled mug. “This is great ale,” she said, and took a sip, “but should we be going easy on it? Are we riding early in the morning?”

“It would be good to,” Naeris said, “but we’ll have to stay a while to look for that double saddle. Hopefully there’s one available, we definitely don’t have time for one to be made.”

“Do you think there will be?” Umara asked. “I don’t ride much, but it seems like an unusual thing to want.”

“They’re fairly common anywhere riding is. Mostly they’re used for teaching children to ride, but generally the smaller saddle is sized for halflings and there are straps to adjust the fit,” Naeris said.

“Oh. So there should be one?”

“I certainly hope so,” Naeris said. “I’m going to feel terrible if we end up wasting time. Although I suppose the horses could use the extra rest.”

The rest of the meal passed pleasantly, and they returned to their rooms satiated. Jillian and Naeris wished their valets goodnight, while Umara beckoned Jandar into her room. Naeris smiled as she watched Umara’s door close behind him, then shut and locked her own.

_

Naeris woke up again to the non-existent shrieks of birds. How long, she wondered, would it be before that wore off? Not that it wasn’t useful. As she dressed, there was a knock on her door.

“It’s Meilil, milady.”

She got up and opened the door. The knock had come before she’d gotten to buttoning her tunic, and Meilil’s eyes briefly but noticeably dropped to her breasts. Her expression in that moment almost made Naeris regretful that she hadn’t purchased her services.

“Breakfast will be ready soon, milady,” Meilil said once she’d recovered, “would you like to have a private dining room or have it in your room?”

“In the dining room, please,” Naeris said, “and would you mind asking my companions if they wish to join me?”

“Not at all, milady,” Meilil said. “Shall I wait for you to finish dressing and escort you down?”

“That will be fine.”

Naeris could feel Meilil’s eyes on her as she dressed, and may have posed a little more than usual. Umara wasn’t the only one who enjoyed being looked at. Afterwards they went downstairs, to a different dining room this time. Naeris wondered at the reason for the change for a moment before noticing the light; this room was angled east and caught more of the morning sun.

“I’ll check with your companions now, milady. Breakfast should be ready shortly.” Naeris nodded and Meilil left.

Jillian and Lael were the next ones down.

“Morning, Jill,” Naeris said. “How did you sleep?”

“A damn sight better than I did last night,” Jillian said. “I hope I’m not getting soft; you’re going to ruin me, with your citadels and fancy inns.”

“Then at least you’ll enjoy your ruination,” Naeris said.

“I was hoping not to get fat and soft until I was at least eighty,” Jillian said. “Oh well. How about you?”

“Very well, thank you. I’m still waking up in time for the screeches from the eyrie, though.”

“Is that what that racket was?” Jillian asked. “Does that happen often?”

“Every sunrise,” Naeris said.

“Bloody hell,” Jillian said, “I’d have strangled the damn things within a week.”

“You get used to it after a while, and as I said, they’re excellent for regular waking.”

The door opened to admit Umara and Jandar; Jandar promptly left again but not before Umara had pulled him into a kiss. Jillian glanced up as they came in but looked away again when she saw what they were doing; Naeris did much the same. She was happy that Umara was enjoying herself, but didn’t feel the need to see it happen.

“I take it you had a pleasant night?” Naeris asked once Umara had let him go.

Umara stretched hugely. “Fantastic. He’s just amazing; so much endurance!”

Jillian grimaced. “I really didn’t need to hear that,” she said.

“I’m glad you had a good time, but I’d prefer to skip the details too,” Naeris agreed.

“Oh, okay. Yeah, though, great time.” Umara lay down. “So, off to find a leatherworker’s and then back on the road?”

“That is the plan,” Naeris said.

The valets brought in plates full of eggs, flatbread, beans and sausages, and pots of tea and juices, then left with a bow. Naeris piled her plate with eggs and sausages, Umara with bread and sausages and Jillian with some of everything.

“These sausages taste weird,” Umara said, peering at them.

“You know they say you should never look too close at a sausage,” Jillian reminded her, “especially when you’ve already had a bite of it.”

“Those sausages are safe to look at,” Naeris said. “That probably why they taste odd. They’re made of actual meat, not… whatever they’re usually made of.”

“Then what’s this green bit?” Umara asked, holding the fork towards Naeris.

“Parsley, I think,” she said, after a quick look.

“Alright,” Umara said, and ate it. “You know,” she said after a pause. “I think I actually prefer the ones made out of rat knees or whatever. Not that these are bad, but…”

“They aren’t what you’re used to,” Naeris finished, and she nodded. “I suppose it’s not for everyone.”

She ate them anyway. After breakfast, they went downstairs and Naeris settled their bill and enquired after a leatherworker. After getting directions they set off, Umara waving goodbye to Jandar.

“Be honest, guys,” Umara said. “Am I kidding myself about him?”

“Yes,” Jillian said.

“Too early to tell,” Naeris said. “My parents didn’t get together until he’d hired her about five times, I think.”

“Five times?” Umara said, “I don’t think I could afford to stay there even once on my own. I think I might actually prefer your version, Jill. Cleaner.”

“You don’t know what might happen between now and the next time you come here,” Naeris said. “You might come back with a purse full of platinum. Even then, though, did you actually do anything with him besides the sex?”

“Well…” Umara scratched her head, “not really. The sex took up a lot of time. I told you about-“

“Yes, you did,” Naeris interrupted. “I think you should take some time to cool down before you rush into anything. Good looks and great sex are important, don’t get me wrong, but you need to like someone as well as lust after them if you want a relationship. Okay?”

“I guess,” Umara said.

“Didn’t you sort of rush into things with Tai?” Jillian asked.

Naeris shook her head. “We had sex and we’re meeting in the city if we can. Maybe things will go from there, or maybe they won’t.”

“Looking forward to it?” Umara asked.

“Of course,” Naeris said. “Particularly because getting to do it will mean the demon problem will have been solved.”

They arrived at the leatherworker’s shop and found that he did indeed have a very fine double saddle for sale. It had been made for a special order, he said, but the day the customer was meant to pick it up had come and gone several weeks ago, and he suspected something unfortunate had befallen her. Naeris paid him a slightly lesser amount than the asking price and gave him the previous saddle, still in good condition. He helped them put it on and spent a while showing Jillian how to fasten and attached the straps.

After they’d farewelled him and were on their way, Umara said, “Looks like you’ve got an admirer now, Jill.”

“What do you mean?” Jillian said.

“Come on, you didn’t see the way he looked at you? All that time he spent fiddling with your straps? He wanted more than a repeat customer, with service like that,” Umara said.

“You’re full of it,” Jillian said.

“You tell her, Naeris,” Umara said.

“I would have preferred if he cut down the instructions a bit, but yes, he definitely seemed interested.”

“Now we both have a reason to come back,” Umara said.

“No we don’t,” Jillian replied. “You can get cheaper whores elsewhere and you’re talking nonsense about that leatherworker. That was just business.”

“Grump,” Umara said cheerfully. “I’d be happy if a man who looked like that was all over me.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jillian said.

“What, you didn’t think he was good looking?”

“No.”

“What did you think of him, Naeris?” Umara asked.

Naeris shrugged. “I don’t really feel myself qualified to judge. He wasn’t ugly, I suppose.”

“Yeah, I guess I was asking for that,” Umara said. “So, what do you like in a man, Jill? I don’t ever remember you saying much about it.”

“I like halfling men, and I don’t talk about it because I think that sort of thing should be private.” Jillian said. Umara sighed and was silent.

The silence wasn’t broken, but did become less awkward as the day went on. Around midmorning they reached the tail end of the last merchant caravan and began to ride past it. A few of the guards and merchants waved to them and they waved back, but didn’t slow to talk. They felt they’d lost enough time buying the saddle.

They continued on. Jillian spotted a spray of blood eagles in the sky, but too far away to attack. The next caravan was continuing on as smoothly as the last. It wasn’t until the third caravan that the road proved dangerous again. As they approached they saw the caravan had stopped and that long, low figures were moving off to one side. They rode in closer, Jillian drawing her crossbows, Naeris readying her magic and Umara taking a javelin from the quiver at her saddle.

Closing in, the situation became clearer: goblin-carrying worgs were assaulting the caravan. The skull headed wolf-like creatures raced from up and down the line of wagons, looking for a weak point in the defenders while their diminutive helpers fired their bows in an effort to create one. When they did, the worg would jump into the breach, snapping a clawing as the goblin slashed around it with its sword until the guards reinforced the gap and the worg retreated.

It seemed to be working, although the worg’s weren’t all having it their own way: a pair of furry bodies lay still, and one of the four still standing had lost its rider. As they rode in, the riderless worg saw an opportunity and leapt. Jillian raised her crossbows and Umara hurled her javelin; the missiles struck the creature in the side and it fell. The closer guards briefly turned to look and whooped as they saw help coming.

Naeris had seen a different opportunity to attack. Two of the other worgs were about to pass close together. She chanted and gestured and a boneshattering wave of sound went off between them. One of the goblins was bodily thrown from its mount. The other’s legs had a better grip, and they stayed on, but its torso did not. The worgs thicker muscles and heavy pelts took the worst of it, but they clearly knew the biggest threat now, and charged at the new arrivals.

Jillian reloaded and fired two more bolts at an oncoming worg. One had a poor angle and was lost in its fur, but the other thudded home. Umara, meanwhile, had dismounted after her throw and counter-charged the oncoming creatures. One tried to bowl her over and was deflected by her shield as she slammed her axe into the other’s chest. It went down and the remaining two, seeing the battle had turned against them, fled, followed by a flurry of arrows and magic.

Umara wiped her axe off on the worg's fur and remounted. They rode past the caravan, the guards not engaged in tending to the wounded saluting.

"That was a good day's work," Umara said. "Not that the blood hawks or ankheg wouldn't have gone for someone eventually, but it's nice to make a difference where you can see it."

"Would have been nice if we got there earlier," Jillian said. "There were more than just worgs and goblins on the ground."

"Perhaps then we would have been injured," Naeris said, "and less able to confront the demons."

"I suppose," Jillian said.

They continued on, passing several more caravans and the remains of monster or bandit attacks. The Valley Lake was immensely fertile, but that served the monsters as much as the people and the population seemed endless. They reached the first night fort uncomfortably late and only stopped a few minutes to get food, refill their water skins and for the horses to be rubbed down. Even with their attempt to save time, though, it was still getting dark when the second night fort was only on the horizon.

"If we die out here and you don't, Naeris, I'm haunting you forever." Jillian said as they heard howls in the distance.

"I look forward to your continued companionship," Naeris replied.

"Funny." Jillian looked out at the gathering gloom. "Fires, I can barely see a thing."

"I'd cast you a spell for light, but I'd prefer to avoid attracting any more attention than necessary."

"It's fine; just keep in mind I'm not going to be a lot of use if I can't see to aim."

"Half-elves have good night eyes too, right?" Umara asked, and rode closer for a high five when Naeris nodded.

"That's right, rub it in," Jillian grumbled.

Despite frequent alarming noises and suspicious shadows, nothing attacked them on the last stretch before the night fort. Naeris cast the light spell on her signet ring as they approached the gate, so the guards wouldn't think they were sneaking up.

"Who goes there?" came the challenge.

"Naeris, of High House Stormwind, and her companions, seeking shelter for the night," Naeris said, holding the ring high. It wouldn't be possible to make out the detail from the top of the gate, but what it was should be obvious.

The guards called down to open the gate and they rode in. The courtyard was packed tight with wagons. They hadn't seen any on the outside, though, so there were certainly fewer people here. Naeris hoped there might still be some room in the stables; the horses badly needed proper rest.

They led the horses around the courtyard and peeked into the stable. To their dismay, it seemed entirely full; some stalls even had two occupants. They were considering their options when an officer, accompanied by two other soldiers, approached them, the fort's lieutenant by his uniform.

"Excuse me, milady?" He asked, "Are you here to deal with the demons?"

"Yes," Naeris said. "Have they been sighted here?"

"Fortunately not, milady," the lieutenant said. "Please, stable your horses with ours, and I will explain further in my office." He gestured to the other soldiers, who led the horses away, and led the three towards the barracks.

The barracks was much emptier than the one at Tai's fort. Naeris saw less than half the bunks full; even knowing they were meant to have extra room, and that soldiers would be on guard, the fort was clearly terribly under strength. The lieutenant led them into his office.

"Please, take a seat milady," he said. Then he appeared to notice Jillian and Umara. There were only the two chairs."Oh. I-"

"We'll get seats from that table out there," Jillian said, and went back out with Umara.

The lieutenant nodded and turned back to Naeris. "How was your journey, milady?"

"Exhausting," she said. "We left Hommlet too late; we had to, due to a change in our travel arrangements, but still. The road remains dangerous, although less so than the one ahead, I'm sure. Nonetheless, though, we are proceeding close to our schedule and I remain hopeful that we are not too late."

The lieutenant nodded as Jillian and Umara returned with their chairs. "I share that hope, milady, and I believe it is accurate. I've received regular reports from the north, regarding the movements of the demons. Lieutenant Shemov, my counterpart in the fort south of Knothill, led an attack on the creatures soon after they appeared."

"You sent troops to reinforce her when it failed?" Naeris guessed.

"Yes indeed, milady," the lieutenant said. "Her need seemed greater than mine. For the same reason I did not send any soldiers south for the usual rotation; whether further reinforcements are needed in the north, or the demons make their way here, it seemed prudent to keep them close to the trouble."

"A reasonable decision," Naeris said. "Were there any slight successes in Lieutenant Shemov's attack?"

"There were indeed, milady. Shemov reported one demon confirmed dead and a second suspected so, as well as several wounded. Unfortunately her forces suffered far worse casualties, and she herself was quite badly wounded, but it was not fruitless."

"What is the situation as it stands?" Naeris asked.

"The demons have blockaded the roads south and north of Knothill. There are also flying demons circling the village, and several occasionally go south to harass the fort's defenders. They may also be going north as well, communication has proven difficult. We suspect there are also demons in the village itself, but there's no way to know until we can get in there."

"That does seem a reasonable assumption. Thank you for your briefing, Lieutenant," Naeris said. "I noticed that your troops heading north has left several of your bunks free; would you object to us using them?"

"Not at all, milady," the lieutenant said. "One of my sergeants has also gone north and his room is free, if you wish some privacy."

"I'd appreciate that, thank you."

"Also, milady, would I be right in assuming that you have ridden hard from Nerath? The messenger was certainly travelling quickly, but I'm he, or whoever took his message on, couldn't have reached the city that long ago."

"We actually left the city before the message arrived," Naeris said, "but yes, we have ridden very hard. I'm grateful for you keeping our horses in your stable, I'm not sure they would have lasted another day without a proper rest."

"I'd be pleased to offer you the use of our horses. They're all your father's in the end, after all."

"Thank you," Naeris said. "I must say, you're being extremely generous, Lieutenant."

"To be honest, Milady," he said, "I've been feeling somewhat helpless here. I don't want to leave my comrades to the north on their own, but neither do I want to leave this fort undefended. Doing anything to help, if only giving you supplies, greatly calms my mind."

"Then I'm please we can help you be letting you help us," Naeris said. "Have a good night, Lieutenant."

"You too, Milady," he said.

They left the room and Jillian said, "You're doing a good job dodging the group bunks."

"You're welcome to join me, if you wish," Naeris said.

"Still no," Jillian replied.

"I'll join you," Umara said.

"Really?" Naeris asked.

"Not for sex or anything, but I could go for some privacy and friendly cuddling."

Naeris thought about it. "Sounds good," she said. "Are you sure you don't want to come, Jillian?"

The halfling frowned. "Alright, but only because I don't want to be alone out there," she grumbled. "Come on."

They found the empty room and went about trying to fit into the narrow cot. It was difficult to find a position both comfortable and acceptably platonic, but eventually Naeris and Jillian found places to lie on top of Umara, and the drifted off to sleep.

_

Naeris awoke with a start, and was again disappointed in her expectation of screeching birds. She pushed herself up and tried to get off Umara without waking her or Jillian, but they both woke before she got to the floor.

"You've really missed your calling as a mattress, Umara," she said as she put her belt and coat on, "that was an excellent sleep."

"Thanks," the half-orc said fuzzily, "you guys made good blankets, too."

After collecting their weapons and other accoutrements they went to the inn to get breakfast, which they ate on the walk to the stables.

"This is not going to fill me up," Jillian complained.

"We still have plenty of jerky and fruit, you can have some when we're riding," Naeris said.

The groom showed them their new horses; they weren't quite up to the standard of their previous mounts, but being well rested more than made up for that. They rode out as soon as the gate opened. This far from the city the land had grown hillier, in the foothills around Mount Boccob to the west. The road curved around the mountain; had they been on foot they might have attempted a shortcut through the hills, but with horses there was too much risk of one being lamed.

"Know anyone who's climbed that thing?" Umara asked Naeris, nodding at the mountain.

"A few," she replied. "Dorn, Jenneleth and my father did once. It's much like the wastes; a rite of passage."

"Who's Jenneleth? I haven't heard you mention her before," Jillian said.

"Sie was a friend of my father's. Sie didn't survive the battle against the dragon."

"Oh. I'm sorry to hear that."

"It's fine," Naeris said. "I didn't know ser; I was only about three at the time."

They were quiet a while, before Jillian said, "Uh guys? Incoming from the mountain!"

Naeris and Umara looked up. Something big was swooping towards them on wide wings.

"Oh, shit," Umara said, "that had better not be a dragon."

"It's not," Naeris said. "The head and tail are the wrong shape, and it's not fast enough. I think that's a manticore."

"Well, that's a relief," Umara said, "but I don't fancy being stuck through with its tail spikes much more than being incinerated."

"Come over here," Naeris said, reaching for her zircon. Umara obeyed, and Naeris cast a spell and touched Umara's arm.

"What does that- hey, I feel all light!"

"You should be able to fly, just like I did when we chased down Sepret. Wait till it gets in range, and then go for it."

"Right," Umara said, slipping her feet out of the stirrups.

Naeris began pelting it with blast of magic as it approached, scoring a few solid hits. The massive creature, easily larger than a horse and far bulkier, seemed unfazed and whipped its tail around, sending a trio of spines from its tail back at her. Two were deflected entirely, but the third pierced her coat and jabbed her arm. She swept it away as she began another spell.

Umara urged her horse forward as the manticore circled. Jillian fired her crossbows but the range was too far, and only one pierced its hide. Then Umara launched herself from the saddle, javelin in hand, and flew into the air. She released the missile as she approached and it pierced the stunned creature in the shoulder. Another salvo of blasts and bolts showered it from below as it swooped away from her, sending another trio of spikes towards her. They clattered off her armour and shield and she launched herself toward it again.

The manticore continued to retreat from her, even as Jillian and Naeris struck at it from below. Occasionally a spike would find a weak point in her armour and strike at a better angle, but none actually penetrated. Still, the chase frustrated her. She'd only taken one javelin from her saddle and after she'd thrown her two hand axes there was nothing to do but chase. Naeris' spell was faster than the manticore's wings, but not so much faster that catching it was easy, especially with its head start. Then one of Jillian's bolts found the stem of its wing.

It fell out of the air and landed with an immense thump on the ground. Umara landed next to it and found it unmoving. Just in case, she slammed her axe into its neck, and when this produced no effect she collected her thrown axes and flew back to the others.

"I didn't even get to hit it, Jill," she complained, hovering over the horse.

"It sure looks like you did," Jillian said, eying her bloody axe.

"When it was still moving, I mean."

"You got in some decent throws."

"It's just not the same," Umara said with a sigh.

"Look, are you going to get back in the saddle or what?" Jillian asked.

"I think I might fly around a bit more," Umara said. "This is fun. How long does it last, Naeris?"

"A few minutes, so don't go far. You won't be faster than the horses, anyway."

"They'll appreciate not having the extra weight, though," Umara pointed out.

"True. Go on, then, I'll tell you when it's about to run out," Naeris said.

They continued on their way, seeing little in the way of other creatures. Possibly most of them had fled the manticore. Umara grumbled for a while after the flight spell ran out.

"You're sure I can't have another one?"

"It's a very draining spell," Naeris replied. "I might need that power later if we get into another fight."

"Y'know, since you bring it up," Jillian said, "I don't think I've ever seen you running low. You always seem to have more of those little blasts."

"They're like cleaning, or light," Naeris said. "They don't use an appreciable amount of power. It's things like flying or thunderclaps that drain. You have seen me running low, too. I was almost out on that first night, when we met."

"Really?" Jillian asked. "You just seemed tired. I thought you just had a long day."

"Well, yes," Naeris said. "That's what it's like."

"Oh. I thought it would look more... I don't know. Magical," Jillian said.

"You thought me running out of magic would look more magical?" Naeris asked.

"When you put it like that..."

The next night fort was the only one before Knothill that deviated from the standardised design. By luck, there was a rocky spire that towered over the surrounding foothills at just the right distance between the other two forts, and one of Lander's forebears had hired dwarven masons to build the fort inside.

The outside had started as a vague cone and been worked into smoothness, broken by several exterior walkways and platforms for archers. The excavated stone had been worked into a wall that ringed the spire and a stable that was built against its side. There would have been enough room inside, but the horses tended not to appreciate the tight spaces. There were a lot of horses, too: the ring had an unusual amount of carts and wagons for the middle of the day, and the stables were well stocked.

The dining hall was a marvellous example of dwarven architecture, at least the kind they exported. Despite the walls and floor being uncovered stone it was almost entirely devoid of echoes, leaving only enough to prevent the 'silence-madness' that could be caused by their complete elimination. Not that there was much chance of that; the place was well occupied, considering the hour. Some of the merchants clearly wanted to be as close to Knothill as possible when the trouble was dealt with. The food, fortunately, was not dwarven and they emerged back into the sunlight with their tastebuds intact.

The road led further from the mountain and the landscape began to flatten again. To the west they could see the elf wood around the mountain, to the east the land continued down until it reached the next of the Valley's cliffs. Ahead of them, when the road rose a little, they could see the next fort in the distance, and Knothill as a vague assortment of shapes beyond that.

As they were riding up to the fort, they saw that the gate was down, despite it still being light, and saw no guards on the southern wall. The sound of whizzing arrows and demonic cackling became clear as they got closer. Naeris swore, cast her flight spell and stepped up and out of her saddle.

"I'll try and draw them around to you," she said and flew to the north side of the fortress.

There were only two demons attacking, both the small, spiky creatures Naeris knew as spinagons, but they were nonetheless giving the soldiers a hard fight. Several troopers were on the ground or being carried down from the wall by others, having been pierced by the demon's flung burning tail spikes, while their arrows and bolts barely marked the demons' spiky hides. Still, the creatures weren't unharmed. Naeris centred and spiked her power, shaping it into her explosive effervescence and directing it at the demon that looked the most hurt.

It screeched in pain as the bubbles detonated against it and attempted to flee. The second swung away from the wall and toward Naeris, slinging a pair of spines at her. One was deflected by her armour, the other stabbed into her coat; it stopped before it pierced her, but was searingly hot. She brushed it away, felled the fleeing demon with a pair of blasts, and then retreated back behind the corner of the fort.

The demon followed and was immediately struck by a pair of bolts from Jillian's spelled crossbows. It too tried to flee and was blasted down by Naeris. She flew back above the walls and the soldiers started to cheer. Naeris waved as she flew forward, seeking out and finding the woman in the lieutenant's uniform.

"Lieutenant Shemov?" she asked.

"Yes, milady," Shemov said, "thank you for your aid. Those beasts have been at us every day and our weapons could barely more than scratch them. We brought one down when they first started, but since then the rest have been more cautious."

"You're welcome, Lieutenant. Could you have the gate opened? My companions and our mounts are waiting outside."

"Of course, milady." The lieutenant gave the order and Naeris flew back down to her mount.

"That was a lot of cheering for just two critters," Jillian said.

"They didn't have the weapons to deal with them," Naeris said, "and there were a lot of injured and worse carried down from the wall."

"Good thing we got these, then," Jillian said, stroked the grips of her crossbows.

"I just wish I got to use mine," Umara grumbled.

"You got that worg yesterday," Jillian reminded her. "A few good blows on that ankheg, too."

"Sure, but I could have done that with my old axe," Umara said, but quietly, as the gate was lifting.

A cheering crowd greeted them inside the fort. They dismounted and handed their horses to waiting guards. Shemov clapped the three of them on the shoulder and turned to her troops.

"Alright, those on duty, stay on the walls. There still could be more of them and we don't want to be caught with our pants down after our first real victory. Everyone else, let's have a drink."

There was another cheer and Shemov led the way into the inn. Instead of an innkeeper, behind the bar were a pair of soldiers, who began handing out mugs to their comrades. Shemov passed the first three mugs to Naeris, Jillian and Umara and led them to a seat.

"Allow me to properly introduce myself, milady," she said, "Lieutenant Katernin Shemov, at your service. Things have not been going well here, as I'm sure you have heard. Our message got through to Nerath, then?"

"It had gotten to the last fort before the city when I heard it, Lieutenant," Naeris said. "We became aware of the problem in other ways. We might not have come so quickly had we not been aware of your difficulties, however."

"I thank you for your haste, milady," Katernin said. "Those little demons have been picking us off since our attack. I had been considering securing the barracks and bunkering down in there, but that would have surrendered the fort to them, and I had no guarantee we would do better in close quarters."

"What happened in the attack?" Naeris asked.

"The night before, the merchants we'd sent away that morning came back, or at least the survivors did, without their goods, carts, or anything but a few mounts and what they carried themselves," Katernin said. "Needless to say, this caused some consternation among the new arrivals. They had run into a blockade of strange creatures, who charged them as soon as they came in view. Initially they thought the attackers were some manner of mutated hobgoblin, but the poisonous beards soon convinced them otherwise.

"Their guards attempted to defend them and were killed. Many of the merchants were set upon by the little flying ones, as you slew earlier, and killed as well. The next morning I gathered the bulk of my troops, recruited some of the caravan guards and made an attack on the barricade. It was, obviously, unsuccessful. We outnumbered them six to one, but they were all but proof against our weapons. We bloodied them, slew one of the fliers, maybe two, but we just couldn't bring the bearded ones down. We lost... far, far too many of our own."

"You did what you could, Katernin," Naeris said. "You've held them back from going further south."

"I don't know if they were even really trying," Katernin said, "or just toying with us. But! Now you are here and have slain two already. Are you intending to attack tomorrow?"

"We are, unless there is some pressing reason we should not," Naeris said.

"Not at all," Katernin said. "Do you want us to ride out with you?"

"I think your troops have had enough of danger for now, Lieutenant," Naeris said. "We will return or send word if we have difficulties."

"I would be glad to help you if you required it," Katernin said, "but I cannot deny I'm relieved you do not. That failed attack has been a burden on my mind; I look forward to seeing Knothill again." She took a deep pull from her mug. "But enough talk! Tomorrow you we be victorious, I have no doubt. Tonight we celebrate!"

The soldiers cheered again as Katernin yelled. Seeing the creatures that had tormented them fall clearly cheered them. Some brought out instruments and started to play, while others danced along. Still others fetched decks of cards or game boards and started to play, while the rest drank, made merry and occasionally slipped away together.

Umara got up to dance, while Naeris and Jillian joined the games; Naeris taking out her own Three Dragon Ante deck and dealing Jillian and a pair of soldiers in. The soldiers were knocked out early, while the small pile of coppers the group were gambling with were gathered up by Naeris' gradual, safe gambits until one of Jillian's big risks paid off and the cycle began again. The back and forth continued until Jillian threw everything in on one big hand, and ran straight into a Naeris' flight of three huge gold dragons.

Jillian sighed. "All right, fair play." They shook hands and Jillian went to find a drink while Naeris talked with the beaten soldiers, who had stayed to watch the game end.

One of them, tipsy and daring, pressed a kiss to Naeris' cheek. Naeris smiled and winked back before kissing her friend, who responded by reached out her arm and pulling in the first soldier for a third kiss. This continued on in the same vein until they linked arms and went up to the bunk room. There were a lot of other couples and groups who'd had the same idea, but a lot of bunks as well.

_

Naeris woke again in expectation of screeching birds, and found the bunk she was sleeping on was less crowded than it had been the other night. One of her partners had gone back on duty, she assumed. She climbed out of bed and gathered up her clothes. Once dressed, she walked down the line of bunks until she found a pile of bodies with a familiar pair of grey buttocks visible. She leant in and gave Umara a firm pinch on the rump. The half-orc jerked awake, setting off a wave of groaning and grumbling in her bedmates.

"Wakey wakey," Naeris called, "time to go fight demons."

"I'm up," Umara said as she pulled herself out of the pile, "I'm up. Where's Jill?"

"Not here that I've seen. I'm going to go look for her."

"Right," Umara got to her feet and started dressing.

Naeris checked a few more piles of dozing soldiers but, as she'd expected, didn't find Jillian. She went downstairs and found her curled up in a soldier's cloak. Kneeling down, she took Jillian's hand in hers and rubbed the palm until the halfling stirred.

"Morning, sleepyhead," she said.

"Mmph..." Jillian groaned. "Is it time to go?"

"Not quite," Naeris said. "We need to get some food first."

"That sounds great," Jillian said. "Why did we do that the night before fighting demons?"

"Jillian, are you hung over?"

"Maybe a bit," she said. "I'll be fine by the time we get there."

"I suppose you'll be able to sleep on the horse," Naeris said. "Come on, let's find some food."

They found some waking soldiers in the back of the inn who pointed them to the food stores, took enough for breakfast and came out to see Umara coming down the stairs. They collected their horses, found someone to open the gate and set off. Jillian spent most of the journey asleep, leaning back against Umara's chest.

After a few hours on the road, Umara said, "Naeris, I think we've got something coming." Naeris looked up and saw a pair of winged shapes approaching from the east. "Think they're more of those spiny demons?"

"The shape looks to be right," Naeris said. "Here," she reached out and cast her flight spell on Umara, "wait until they come close; their spines have nothing like the range of a manticore's. Don't bother with javelins, either, only your axe will hurt them properly."

"Right," Umara said, and tapped Jillian on the shoulder until the halfling woke. "Time for you to do your thing, Jill," she said.

As soon as the demons got in range Naeris began pelting one with magical blasts. Fragile to magic, it gave a panicked screech after only two hits and turned tail.

"Forget waiting, get them!" Naeris shouted, and turned her horse off the road and after the fleeing demons.

Umara freed her feet from her stirrups and jumped into the air, plucking her axe from her belt as she did so. Naeris' next two blasts struck down the wounded demon and the other must have realised it was not in a position to get away, because it swooped back towards Naeris and flung a pair of spines. One of them caught her in the shoulder, though her coat and armour blunted the impact, and she retaliated with another pair of blasts. Umara's horse had brought Jillian within range and she followed up with two bolts before Umara turned and cracked the demon's skull with her axe.

"Finally!" she shouted, as the body fell from the sky. "I was given this axe to kill demons, and now it's killed a demon." She grinned widely.

"Well done," Naeris said, "but there's more to kill ahead. Let's go." She and Jillian turned the horses back to the road, Umara floating along behind them.

"You think they were going to the fort?" Jillian asked.

"It seems probable," Naeris said. "If there were two pairs of demons, alternating days of attacking and healing, it would have contributed to the soldiers' impression of being unable to permanently damage them."

"Are they bright enough to think of that?" Umara asked.

"Not all demons are stupid. Spinagons are no less intelligent than people, they're simply vicious."

They continued on. The barricade came into view near noon; a pile of broken wagons, crates and, they thought, bodies. Two bipedal figures were visible in front of it, and around it they could see glimpses of Knothill, and the twists of smoke rising from the village. As they approached, the figures gave a yell and ran at them, and two more spinagons leapt into the air.

"Umara, hold off the barbazu while we kill the spinagon," Naeris called, sending two blasts into one of the flying demons.

"You want me to charge them?" Umara asked as she dismounted.

"No, let them come. If we can take the fliers down before they get here, all the better," Naeris said.

"Right," Umara replied, thrusting her spare javelins into the hard packed dirt of the road.

Jillian drew her crossbows and waited for them to come in range. They did shortly after Naeris launched her second salvo of blasts at the demon she'd previously struck, and Jillian shot that one down but missed the other. They were still a little far.

She kept firing even so, landing another hit on the remaining one as it got close enough to hurl its spines. Not close enough though, as Naeris dodged one, the other deflected off her armour and she blasted it down a moment later. Jillian turned her attention to the oncoming barbazu.

It was easy to see how the soldiers had mistaken them for warped hobgoblins. They shared the same orange-red skin and statuesque build, but the demons had beards of short, spiked tentacles that glistened with poison, not like the coarse, spiky hair of a hobgoblin. The spinagon's wings had left them behind, but they were quickly closing the distance. Jillian fired her crossbows and, despite the distance, both struck one of the demons in the chest. It kept coming.

"I don't think these are going to go down so easily, Naeris," she said as she reloaded.

"It would almost be disappointing if they did, don't you think?" Naeris replied, and sent another pair of blasts at the demons.

Umara hurled her first javelin; the hit was solid, but without magic it barely scratched the demon's hide. They were closing in; she drew her axe and raised her shield. Naeris and Jillian continued hammering them with their shots as they neared Umara. She raised her shield to fend off their ominously glimmering glaives and then slashed out with her axe as they tried to close further and strike her with their tentacles. The axe bit into one of the demon's hard flesh and it staggered back. Another salvo from Jillian and Naeris brought it down.

The remaining demon brought its glaive around in a powerful slash. Umara brought her shield up but the blow knocked it to the side and the infernal steel bit through the leather on her bicep and cut into the muscle. The wound wasn't deep, but she could feel an unnatural amount of blood spilling from it. Enough strength remained, however, to knock back the demon again when it tried to strike her with its tentacles, and her axe found its jaw as it staggered. A severed piece of tentacle hit the road, the dirt sizzling as the venom touched it.

The demon's glaive whirled, striking at Umara once, twice, three times. She blocked the first, parried the second and blocked the third and then a tentacle reached over her shield and struck her across the face, the venomous spikes leaving tiny cuts in her cheek. The wound burned with pain, but the poison went no further. The demon tried to press its attack but a blast from Naeris struck it as it raised its glaive again.

The second blast missed but Jillian's bolt didn't, taking the demon in the chest. Umara lashed out with her shield as a distraction, intending to chop at the demon's head, but the creature saw it coming and thrust out with the butt of its glaive. Umara adjusted to go for its side instead when Jillian's second bolt pierced the demon's heel and it sank to one knee. Umara's axe crashing into its head, and it was over.

She took a deep breath and turned to the others. "Well, that didn't go too badly, did it?"

"Umara, your arm!" Naeris said. "Drink a potion!"

Her alarm was so obvious that Umara dropped her axe and tore a vial from her belt almost automatically. Only after the thin, nutty fluid was down her throat and spreading through her body did she look at her arm. The demon's glaive had bitten in to her bicep, about halfway down from her shoulder, and everything below that was soaked in an astonishing amount of blood. Umara was no stranger to bloody fights, but she wasn't used to seeing quite so much of her own and after a second of staring at it vomited over the demon's corpses.

"That'll show them," Jillian said. "How do you feel?"

Umara took a moment to wash out her mouth before replying. "Not actually so bad. A bit woozy, though."

"It probably looks worse than it is," Naeris said. "The same curse that makes the blood keep flowing thins it, too; there's probably only a coating of blood rather than it being soaked through."

"Yeah, you're probably right," Umara said. "I think I could do with a rest, though. That was still a lot of blood."

Naeris nodded. "If the demons are as organised as they seem to be, perhaps they'll come for a shift change. It would be better to pick them off in smaller groups if we can. Not to mention we should probably eat."

They set up a short distance from the blockade; the twisted bodies in it were too disturbing to stay close. After an hour of resting, chewing on jerky and dried fruit, Umara declared she was ready to go on and the others agreed. They remounted and rode down into Knothill. The village started with a watchtower by the road, the door hanging ominously empty.

"Hopefully whoever was in there heard the hall bells ring an alarm in the village and ran down to help," Naeris said. The others nodded, unable to think of a happier circumstance.

Beyond the tower were fenced fields. By the look of the remains in the ash they'd once grown wheat. Further along they saw more evidence of demons - buildings with collapsed rooves, a well emitted a repulsive stench - but found no more of the creatures themselves until they reached the village's centre. In front of the hall were two more barbazu, and a spinagon perched on the roof. The building was of stone, which went some way to explaining why it hadn't been burned as several other villages they'd seen had been.

Jillian noticed them first. Naeris nodded. "Don't go for the spinagon first; hit the barbazu with everything you have. We can't have Umara bleeding out." So saying, she launched her blasts at the nearest of the bearded demons.

As it turned out, she needn't have bothered; the spinagon took wing and flew away when it saw them, heading for the wood.

"Well, that's handy," Umara said as she dismounted.

"Not really," Naeris said. "Who is it flying off to? We don't need it bringing in reinforcements."

The barbazu started running towards them, glaives held out. Jillian drew her crossbows and shot at the one Naeris had blasted. They were a bit far but one bolt struck home. Umara raised her shield as the demons ran in, further blasts from Naeris bursting on one's hide. She chopped that that one, her axe jarring against the haft of its glaive, knocking it off balance. Jillian shot it twice more and another blast from Naeris finished it.

Umara turned to the second, raising her shield just in time to halt a slash from its glaive. She kept her shield up, chopping around the edges to keep the demon off balance while her companions rained down shots on it. When it hacked at her she deflected, when its tentacles reached out she shoved and when a shot from Jillian pierced its wrist and spoiled its attack she slammed her axe into its belly. She whooped as it crumpled.

"How are you feeling this time?" Naeris asked.

"Not bleeding! My arms are a bit worn out. I hope those reinforcements don't come too soon."

"Quite. Let's have a look at the hall. It's stone, largely unspoiled and the doors are closed; if there are survivors that would seem a good place to look for them," Naeris said.

"Right," Jillian said, and they led the horses across the square. They tried the doors and found them barred on the inside. Naeris nodded to Umara and she pounded on the door.

"Is anyone in there?" She yelled. No answer. "The demons outside are dead. So are the ones on the southern road."

"How do we know you aren't demons?" asked an elderly female voice, "or more of those accursed cultists?"

They looked at each other. "Is there somewhere you can see out? We could drag over a demon corpse," Naeris suggested.

"Hmm. I suppose that will have to do," the old lady said. "There's a crack in the wall around the side. Amnon! Give the wall a tap near that crack." There was a thumping around the side of the hall.

Naeris and Umara went back to the corpses to drag one over to the indicated spot, while Jillian kept watch in case the spinagon returned. It didn't and once the corpse was in place they tapped on the wall.

"I suppose that will do," the old woman said. "I'll have the door unbarred. Come in quick, though, in case more of them come in."

They came back to the front door and slipped in once it was opened a crack. A wizened halfling woman stood before them, while a muscular tiefling man replaced the bars on the doors.

"Who are you then?" the woman asked.

"Naeris, of House Stormwind," Naeris said, holding out her hand to show her ring, "and these are my companions, Jillian and Umara."

The woman looked carefully at the ring, nodded and turned to Jillian. "I don't know you. Where are you from?"

"Near Bael Turath, ma'am," Jillian said with a bow.

The elder woman frowned in thought. "North? Place called Saltriver?"

"Yes, ma'am," Jillian said.

"I've got one of your cousins or some such as a great-grandson-in-law."

"Roscoe Tealeaf?" Jillian asked.

"That's him. Useless farmer. Works at the lumber mill. Might not be dead, they've got stronger walls there than here." She turned back to Naeris. "Right then, welcome to Knothill, milady. I'm Mayor Underbough. We're all in a bit of shit right now so anything more official than that will have to wait. I hope you're here to kill demons."

"We are indeed. How long have they been here?" Naeris asked.

"Not quite a week, I think. Lucky thing we had plenty of food stored away. Have you seen any other survivors?"

"No," Naeris said. "You're the first we've seen. Is there anyone else here?" Apart from Mayor Underbough and Amnon, there were only a few soldiers visible, presumably the remains of the village's garrison.

"There's a few hiding in the cellar. Partly because it feels safer down there with all the stone, partly in case it isn't safer and the demons try tunnelling. Like I said, there might be more at the Sepret's mill. Their ancestors built strong down there." The Mayor said.

"Do you know the Seprets well?" Naeris asked.

"What's that got to do with anything? I know them alright; they've been here a good many generations. They've got money and the put a lot of it back into the village. Might have had to stop calling it a village if it kept growing the way it was instead of everyone being slaughtered."

"Aoth Sepret was possessed by a demon," Naeris told her. "He set up a summoning circle and killed several people in Nerath."

"Fires! I'd never have thought it of him, mild as milk when he wasn't negotiating. I suppose it wouldn't be any good possessing someone if it were obvious, though. Maybe the walls down there aren't so safe after all." The Mayor said.

"You mentioned cultists before," Naeris said. "We haven't seen anyone about but demons. Do you know where they are?"

"Wandering around smashing things and making a nuisance of themselves, I expect," the Mayor said, "or maybe the demons have turned on them. That'd be something. I haven't seen them myself. They summoned the demons in the basement of the Blushing Boar," the Mayor pointed towards the door. Naeris remembered a burned building across the square that could have been an inn. "One of the servants there saw them and raised the alarm. She's in the cellar if you want to talk to her, but she told me there were five of them, all got up in robes and suchlike so she couldn't see their faces, but all but one of them were big folk like yourself. If they're still dressed like that you won't have trouble spotting them."

"We'll keep an eye out for them," Naeris said. "Would you be able to keep our horses here?"

"I suppose we could, milady," the Mayor said. "We've got no food for them in here, though, so if this isn't over in a day they're not going to be in a state for riding."

"We'll finish this as soon as we're able," Naeris said. "Thank you."

"See that you do," the Mayor said, waving Amnon to open the doors again and some soldiers to lead in the horses.

They followed the soldiers outside and kept watch as the horses were brought in. The spinagon did not return.

"So, what's our next move?" Jillian asked as the doors closed.

"By what the mayor said and the direction that demon flew off in, it sounds like there will be a lot of demons, and perhaps the cultists, at the Sepret's mill. They're also presumably waiting for us," Naeris said. "I'm torn between going directly to the mill, or letting them sweat a bit and going to the north road."

"If Roscoe's at the mill..." Jillian murmured.

"Then he will be no less safe in an hour or so than he is now," Naeris said. "If the mill is barricaded, they will likely have ceased efforts to open it and either begun preparing for an attack or sent more demons here. Hopefully the second, it would be nice if they split up further. Yes, let's go to the north road."

Jillian sighed but followed them as they walked through the ruined village. The pointlessness of the destruction the demons and their summoners had wrought was dispiriting. Fence posts were cut down, walls were defaced and even paving stones had been torn up and tossed around. They saw no bodies, however, but this was not an encouraging sign. There was no doubt the villagers had been killed, but the thought of what had been done with them afterwards had too many horrible answers to speculate on.

"Looks like our friend is back," Jillian said. Naeris followed her pointing finger and saw a spinagon flapping away from the village and towards where they suspected the northern barricade was.

"I wonder if it's taking a message?" Naeris asked as she sent a pair of blasts at the creature. It screeched and tried to fly ahead, but with the angle of the road its flight brought it no further from them and Naeris blasted it again. It flew away, back to the mill, with an angry screech.

"It'll tell them where we are," Umara said.

"True," Naeris replied, "but we should be done before it gets there, never mind them doing anything about it."

They walked towards the barricade and as they got near, heard clashing metal and the sound of horses behind it. The spinagons were up in the air, launching their spines at the attackers, but someone on the other side was sending thin blue rays back at them.

"Has the northern fort made an attack?" Jillian asked, drawing her crossbows as they hurried their pace.

"I don't think so," Naeris said, calmly blasting the spinagons. Umara draw her axe and ran toward the barriade.

The spinagons turned to shoot back at Naeris and Jillian as they approached, but having been taken by surprise they didn't last long, and fell atop the barricade. Umara ran around it and Naeris and Jillian followed. On the other side the barbazu were trying to hold off three mounted knights, supported by robe-clad tiefling, and failing miserably. One was struck down between Umara reached them and the other followed it a moment later, as axe, blasts and bolts added to the swords of the knights.

"I recognise that armour," Naeris said to Jillian. "Amafrey! The message got to Orcwatch, then?" She shouted to the knights.

The knight in the finest armour rode up to them and raised the visor on her helmet, revealing a light brown face and excited eyes. "Naeris! Fancy seeing you here, sister, I thought whoever came from the city wouldn't even be halfway here by now."

"I suspect we had something of a head start," Naeris said, "and we didn't stop at every fort along the way."

"You double-timed it? Oh Naeris, you are naughty, your poor horses must be exhausted." Amafrey looked around. "You did ride here, didn't you?"

"Of course," Naeris said. "Our mounts are with Knothill's survivors."

"Survivors? I suppose hoping for anything more would be wildly optimistic if the roads are guarded by demons," Amafrey said. "We'd better get down there. Introductions on the way, though; these are Sir Khemed, Sir Rowan and Damakos." The two knights waved in turn, and Amafrey winked at Naeris when she introduced Damakos. Naeris sighed, but smiled. Amafrey did love a person with a tail.

"Umara and Jillian," Naeris introduced her companions.

"Share a ride?" Amafrey offered. "Better to get down there quicker and you don't want to be craning up to talk to me."

Naeris accepted a hand up. Khemed assisted Umara and Rowan Jillian.

"So, what's the situation?" Amafrey asked.

"The village is close to wiped out," Naeris said. "The mayor, some soldiers and a few surviving villagers have holed up in the hall; it's stone so the demons haven't been able to burn them out. There's definitely at least one more flying demon about, and probably both demons and cultists at the lumber mill; there might be survivors there too, but it belongs to the family of the possessed man who summoned the demons in Nerath. Had you heard about that?"

Amafrey nodded. "Uncle Taman went to the temple and talked to father when we got the message, I heard it all the day we left." Orcwatch was the only settlement in Nerath's domain large enough to support a proper temple. Praying there was a quick way for Taman to reach his brother.

"Good. Well, we're hoping it was just him and not his family too. Jillian has a relative-"

"My uncle," Jillian put in.

"-an uncle working at the mill. According to the mayor it has strong stone walls, so if there's any place other than the hall with survivors that would be it."

"We're off to the mill, then," Amafrey said. "So, how are things in Nerath? Father and Taman were all business."

"As you'd expect," Naeris said. "My mother's worried about me, and would be about you if she knew you were here. You mother's worried about your grandparents' visit-"

"Fires, I forgot they were coming. Do you think I should come down?" Amafrey asked.

Naeris shrugged. "Not if you don't want to. I'm sure we'd all like to see you, though."

They rode into the village, and Amafrey stared at the ruined houses."Fires, those demons really tore this place apart. It's a wonder there are any ruins left out in the wastes," she said.

"I'm still trying not to think of where the bodies have gone," Naeris said.

"I hadn't thought of that. Why did you say that? Fires, they ate them, didn't they?"

"I'm sure they ate some of them," Naeris said.

"'Some' is not better than 'all' in this circumstance, Naeris," Amafrey said.

"If you want to leave your horses, the survivors are in there," Naeris pointed out the hall as they passed.

"No thanks," Amafrey said. "I like my height advantage. Any ideas on what's waiting for us?"

"One badly wounded spinagon and whoever it was reporting to," Naeris said. "I'm not sure if it saw you, but it definitely knows Umara, Jillian and I are here."

"Hopefully we can surprise them, then."

The lumber mill was on the far west of the village; close, naturally, to the elf wood. It wasn't especially tall, but there were few other buildings about so it was visible for a considerable distance.

"What are those lumps on the roof?" Damakos asked. "I don't remember them from the last time I was here."

Jillian peered at them. "Heads," she said. "I guess that's what happened to the bodies."

"Part of the bodies, anyway," Amafrey said. "Where's the rest? No one say 'eaten', please."

"We're thinking it, though," Umara said.

"That's not helpful," Amafrey complained.

A spinagon flew up from behind the roof. It gave a screech as it saw them, quickly cut off when Naeris blasted it and it fell to the ground.

"Well, they know we're here," Khemed said.

"Hard and fast?" Rowan asked.

"That's right," Amafrey said. "You ready to dismount?"

Naeris, Jillian and Umara nodded.

"Great. Let's go."

They rode onto the bridge and around the mill. It wasn't the stone building the mayor had mentioned itself; it wasn't even walled. Another building, defaced but still whole, lay on the other side of the river, some distance from the mill. On the other side of the mill, hidden from the village's view, the cultists had set up camp.

Limbs knotted in ropes of intestine marked out a summoning circle. Around it stood five hooded figures, limned by greasily glowing infernal energy. Around them four barbazu stood at attention; they raised their glaives as the horses approached. The same number of spinagons took wing. One of the hooded figures stepped out of the circle.

“Greetings-“ was as far as he got before Naeris blasted him in the face.

She slipped out of the saddle, heard Umara and Jillian do the same and Amafrey shouted for a charge. The knights spurred their horses forward towards the two nearest barbazu, Umara following. Damakos’s horse trotted behind them as he wove a spell, sending three claw-like bolts towards a spinagon. Naersi recognised it as relation of her own effervescence spell when the demon tried to dodge and the claws twisted in the air to follow it. Jillian stepped forward, firing and clipping the wing of the demon as it dodged. Naeris finished it with another blast, sent a second at another and overspiked her power to set off another bone-shattering thunderclap in the crowd of cultists and demons mobbing the knights. The demons were as resistant to that as they were to mundane weapons, but two cultists were sent flying and didn’t rise again.

“Nice!” Damakos said as he gathered energy for his next spell. “You’ll have to teach me that one!”

“You’re out of luck,” Naeris said as she finished off the demon he’d just blasted, “that was sorcery, I can’t teach it to you.”

“Really?” He said, directing a freezing blue ray at a cultist, “I thought Amafrey said you were learning wizardry.”

“Father taught me wizardry,” she said, adding her blasts to Jillian’s bolts to bring down another spinagon, “but just to supplement my sorcery. I don’t have much in my spellbook.”

The knights were gradually wearing down the barbazu, who were finding their infernal glaives were less than effective against the knight's steel plate while the silver-plated greatswords drew blood with every swing. Two of the cultists who had survived Naeris' thunderclap ganged up on Umara when the knight's armour proved too much and had found her shield to be not much less difficult to deal with and been cut down. Jillian was staying out of the way of the glaives and firing at the pair of remaining spinagons.

The remaining cultist, who Naeris had blasted at the beginning of the fight, had conjured a glowing, bladed chain that was slashing at Umara, distracting her while she went for one of the barbazu. Seeing him cast, Naeris directed a stream of explosive bubbles at him.

"Damakos, Jillian," she called, "hit the last cultist!"

Bubbles, claws and bolts converged on the cultist as he completed his spell. Rowan's limbs became rigid and solid, giving the barbazu all the time they needed to line up strikes with the weaker sections of her armour. When the cultist died and the spell ended, she fell from her horse.

"Rowan!" Amafrey screamed, her sword flaring with magical light as she hacked a barbazu's head from its shoulders and knocked the last one back into Umara's swinging axe. She looked around, saw her foes dead around her, dismounted and knelt beside the knight. Damakos ran to her side. She pulled off Rowan's helmet, fumbled at her belt for a potion and poured the clear liquid into Rowan's slack mouth. The knight grew no livelier.

"Why isn't it working?" she screamed.

"She must have gotten too large a dose of their venom," Naeris said. "It prevents healing."

"What do we do?" Amafrey demanded of her sister.

"Keep her alive for another minute and try again," was all Naeris could offer. "The venom doesn't last long."

Amafrey and Khemed tore at the straps of Rowan's armour where she had been wounded while Damakos ran for the nearest horse, looking for a medicine kit. Jillian knelt above Rowan's head, holding a vial and feeling for her breath. Naeris tapped her hand against her thigh, keeping time, trying to estimate how long ago the venom had gotten in to Rowan's system.

"Now," she said, and Jillian hurriedly uncorked the vial and poured the contents in.

Rowan blinked, gasped and coughed. "What happened? All of a sudden I couldn't move."

"The cultist's leader paralysed you," Naeris said. "How do you feel?"

"I have a new sympathy for pincushions," she said, "and my jaw's stinging where those tentacles got under my helmet." She tried to get up. "What happened to my armour? After one last grope, Ama?" She asked, patting Amafrey on the side.

"Very funny," Amafrey said as she redid the straps on Rowan's armour. "I'm glad you pulled through."

"Me too," Rowan said. "Well, I think I can move without collapsing, where are we going now?"

"We should check on the mill house," Naeris said. "There may be survivors inside."

"Hopefully survivors and not more cultists," Umara grunted as they set off.

"None of the cultists had any resemblance to Aoth," Naeris said.

"Who?" Amafrey asked.

"Aoth Sepret was the possessed merchant who was responsible for the summoning in Nerath," Naeris said. "The mill and the house are his family's estate."

"You thought they might be the cultists who got him possessed? That's messed up."

"I thought they might have been possessed as well, actually," Naeris said. "My current theory is that something be bought contained a demon. Speaking of which, have you ever head of a 'boat-dagger'?"

"What, like a dagger for sailors? You'd know better than me, you still live on the lake," Amafrey said.

"All the sailors I've met have used ordinary daggers. This one was apparently made of vine wood."

"That's a stupid thing to make a dagger out of, boat or otherwise," Amafrey said.

They arrived in front of the house. The windows were boarded up and using the door knocker resulting in a dull thumping suggesting that things were piled against the door.

"That's some good barricading," Amafrey said, and kicked the door. The sound was somewhat more resonant, but still unsatisfying. "Damakos, do your doom voice."

"What should I say?" the tiefling asked.

"Say that the demons and cultists are dead and we want to talk with them."

Damakos cleared his throat, took a deep breath and boomed "THE DEMONS ARE DEAD. THE CULTISTS ARE DEAD. LADIES AMAFREY AND NAERIS STORMWIND WOULD SPEAK TO ANY SURVIVORS ON THE SEPRET ESTATE."

Umara, who hadn't noticed Khemed and Rowan moving cautiously away from Damakos, tapped her ear, dazed.

"I don't think that would reassure me," Jillian muttered. "I'd think that if the demons were dead it'd be because a bigger demon ate them."

Nonetheless, after a brief wait the sound of heavy things being shifted came from behind the door. It opened and a middle-aged woman stood just inside, pointing a bow out. She looked out at the people assembled in front of her house and lowered the weapon.

"Sorry about that, my ladies," she said. "Nephis Sepret, at your service. The demons and cultists are really all gone?"

"We'll do another sweep of the town, just in case," Amafrey said, "but yes, I think we've killed them all."

"That's a relief," she said, walking out. She caught sight of the village. "Fires, it's ruined. Did anyone else survive?"

"The mayor, some soldiers, and I believe some other villagers are in the hall," Naeris said.

Nephis nodded. "You're Lady Naeris? You don't look much like your mum."

"I'm told the resemblance is more apparent without clothes," Naeris said drily.

Nephis chuckled, and then looked back inside. "Well, there's a fair few of us in here," she said. "What did you want to talk about?"

"Is Roscoe Tealeaf alive?" Jillian asked before anyone else could answer.

"He is, are you a relative of his?" Nephis asked. Jillian nodded. Nephis turned to the house. "Fain! Roscoe's got a relative here; can you take her to see him?"

A half-elven man stepped out from behind the door, nodded, and waved Jillian over. They went inside.

"That was easy, then. Was there anything else?" Nephis asked.

"Yes," Naeris said. "It's about Aoth Sepret."

"My brother," Nephis said. "Or my great-grandfather, but I don't imagine you want to know about him. He left before this all started, should be halfway back from Nerath if he's not heard the news and decided to keep his head down in the city. Wouldn't blame him if he did."

"Actually, Nephis, I'm afraid I have some bad news," Naeris said. " Aoth is dead."

Nephis' face went blank. "What happened? Bandits?" she asked.

Naeris shook her head. "He was possessed by a demon," she said. "That was how we knew to come here, before the warning went out."

"Shit," Nephis said. "Fires. I knew it was too good to be true, that we'd all come out of this alive." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "When can we get the body? Is the citadel holding it?"

"There is no body," Naeris said. "The demon destroyed it when it emerged."

"Fires. Well, I suppose we won't have to wait to- What? Are those heads on my mill?"

"I'm afraid so," Naeris said.

Nephis sighed. "Fuck. This is too much. Is there something I can help you with? I just don't want to know any more right now."

Naeris reached into her bag and pulled out the sack containing Aoth's things from his inn room. "These are Aoth's things. In his journal, he mentioned a 'vine wood boat-dagger' he'd bought recently; I think a day or two before he left. Do you know what it is, and can you take me to it?"

"That I can do," Nephis said, "and thank you for bringing these back."

"We'll sweep the village," Amafrey said, "and meet you at the hall. Want to come, Umara?"

"I want to see what this 'boat-dagger' thing is," Umara said. "Thanks, though."

"Right, see you then. Let's go, and Rowan, stay close and don't take risks." The knights and Damakos rode off.

Nephis led them inside. The house was pleasantly furnished, if a little musty from being sealed for so long. Chathi Sepret's descendants had clearly taken care of their foremother's investment.

"This is Aoth's study," Nephis said, as she opened a door off a long corridor. "He kept most of the trinkets he collected here. He didn't sell many of them." The room reminded Naeris' of a mix between her father's study and step-mother's office: it was smaller and had none of the magical equipment of Lander's rooms, but was studded with far more curiosities than Quara would ever be seen with. "That's it," Nephis said, pointing at an object on the desk.

"Boat-dagger?" Umara said. "That looks like an egg."

It did, sort of. "I don't know," Naeris said. "It looks fairly streamlined; I suppose it could be rather nautical in a different setting." It was a roughly head sized semi-ovoid, with a flattened bottom and a pointed front. The top was partly cut away in a vaguely leafy pattern. Naeris went closer to look inside. It was hollow.

"I don't know why it's called that either," Nephis said, "but Aoth seemed very sure that was what it was."

"Did he say anything about where he got it?" Naeris asked.

"Bought it from some treasure hunters, is what he said. Apparently it's valuable, but it just looks like shaped wood to me. Nice work but not useful. Why did you want to see it?" Nephis asked.

"Buying this was the only thing remotely out of the ordinary in his journal before he was possessed," Naeris said. "It doesn't seem likely that it was possessed, but I don't have a lot of other leads."

Nephis looked horrified. "I- I've touched it, could I be..."

"I don't think so," Naeris said. "Demon possession is generally single-occupancy. The demon from this, if there was one, would have been the one in Aoth. I can check you when I check it if you'd like, though if you're really worried the temple at Orcwatch or Nerath would be better suited."

“I’ll take a trip north, then, once everything here is sorted out, but if you can see anything…”

“Of course,” Naeris said, and began to chant. It was the same long spell she’d used in the warehouse; casting slowly to lower the power use to the same infinitesimal level as her blasts. This time, fortunately, she felt nothing like the too-weak resistance of the trap in the warehouse. Nephis was clear of any magic, although her bow was clearly enspelled. The egg-boat-dagger-thing, on the other hand, bore faint but unmistakeable traces of infernal energy. For the sake of completeness she examined Umara too. The half-orc’s wounds were tainted, of course, and her axe shone brightly, but she was otherwise clear.

“Don’t worry, Nephis, you’re clear. The spells on your bow are very good, too. A relic of your foremother?” Naeris asked.

“Yes, milady,” Nephis said.

“The boat-dagger, on the other hand, is slightly tainted, as I’d expect from something that had been possessed. Did Aoth say anything about the treasure hunters he bought it from?”

“Not really, milady, just that they were staying at one of the inns and heading south. I didn’t pay that much attention, honestly, we get a fair few treasure hunters and Aoth often bought trinkets from them.”

"Would it be possible for me to buy it from you?" Naeris asked.

"Just take it," Nephis said. "If it's tainted, I don't want it in the house."

“Alright,” Naeris said. “Thank you for your help, and I’m sorry for your loss.”

Nephis nodded sadly. Naeris and Umara walked back to the front door.

“Can you wait here for Jillian?” Naeris asked. “I don’t know how long she’ll be with her uncle. Tell her to meet me at the hall.”

“Sure thing,” Umara said. “I could do with a sit down.” She sat back beside the door and waved Naeris goodbye.

Naeris walked back into the ruined village. The burned and defaced buildings were dispiriting. They’d be torn down and rebuilt soon enough, of course – Nerath would send an army of labourers to rebuild the village, not to mention the actual army to protect them – but they still represented a lot of lost memories. It would be a long time, too, before Knothill was ready to properly shelter travellers again. There simply wouldn’t be enough people to handle them until the village was resettled. For all the melancholy surroundings, though, she had to admit it was nice to be on her own for a while. She wasn’t used to having company at every hour of the day.

She arrived at the hall and knocked on the barred doors. “The demons and cultists at the mill are dead, and there are knights hunting for any more. You should be safe now.”

There was thumping from inside as the bars were lifted and the door opened. Mayor Underbough was standing inside. “How certain are you of that?” she demanded.

“Not so much that I’d be offended if you elected to stay here until Nerath sends work crews,” Naeris said as she came in.

“Hmph. Good enough, I suppose,” the mayor said. “We’ll leave the door open for now; we could do for some fresh air. That means you lot need to organise a watch!” She added in a yell over her shoulder at the guards. “Were you wanting your horses back?” She asked, turning back to Naeris.

“Not just yet. You mentioned before that the servant who saw the cultists in the inn was here. Could I speak to her?”

“If she wants to speak to you,” the mayor said. “Go downstairs and ask for Lael.”

“Thank you,” Naeris said, and went to look for the stairs down.

The cellar under the hall was obviously not meant for people. There were a few crates, some weapon racks, stored food, waterproof document cabinets and old furniture. It had been made slightly homier by the addition of an insufficient number of pillows, which were mostly occupied by the few children too old to be held permanently. There were perhaps two dozen people there. Those closest looked up with hopeful eyes. It must have been a long time since they’d seen an unfamiliar face, she thought.

“Is Lael here?” she asked the room.

“I’m Lael, milady,” said a purple half-elven woman, getting up from her crate. She looked a few years younger than Naeris and had a much stronger elven accent. “Is it safe to go out?”

“It should be,” Naeris said, “but you might not want to go too far right away. I have some questions for you; would you like to walk with me as we talk?”

“Yes, please, milady,” Lael said. “We’ve been down here nearly a week, I’d like to see sunlight again.”

Naeris offered her arm; Lael took it and they went up the stairs, the other villagers following. Soon they were up in the afternoon sunshine, looking in shock at the ruined buildings. Naeris and Lael walked over to the burned out husk of the inn.

"It's not as bad as I thought it would be," Lael said. "I'd imagined that everything would be razed to the ground, and there'd be nothing left but bodies and ash."

"In a sense that would have been better, actually," Naeris said. "It will have to be knocked down so a new one can be built - this isn't in any state to be fixed."

"Oh. How long do you think it will take to rebuilt?"

"The inn specifically, or the whole village?" Naeris asked. "Not too long once Nerath sends supplies and work crews. We can ride to the northern fort, have a message taken to Orcwatch... it might take them a week to get here and in another week there'll be something you could call a settlement again. Father and Quara will work something out."

"I'm glad to hear that, milady," Lael said. "There was something you wanted to ask me?"

"Yes," Naeris said. "The mayor said you saw the cultists performing a ritual?"

Lael nodded. "It was awful, milady! They'd gutted him like an animal and twisted his entrails into some disgusting rune." she shuddered.

Naeris rubbed her back comfortingly. "I'm very sorry you saw that. Do you remember how many there were?"

"Five, milady," Lael said. "Four about our size and one was a halfling. They were all hooded, I couldn't see more than that, but I've been thinking, and there was a group of five staying with us that night. Three humans, a half-orc and a halfling. I remember thinking it was odd, because they looked like treasure hunters, but they always want to get to the city as soon as possible, and these ones had been here three nights."

"That is unusual," Naeris said. "Do you know Aoth Sepret?"

"Not well, milady, but I know his name and face. I don't know how you knew it, but he was talking to those people, I think the first night they were here. The last I saw they looked like they might be haggling, but then I went upstairs with a customer and when we were done he'd left."

"I see," Naeris said. "That fits quite well with what I know. I don't suppose any of them were customers of yours?"

"No, milady," Lael said. "I'm rather glad of that, in hindsight."

"Of course," Naeris said. "Could you describe them?"

"Let me think. The half-orc was a man, big like they tend to be, but dark. I thought that was odd, half-orcs are generally pale, but this one wasn't far off charcoal. The halfling lass was pale and red haired, nothing unusual. Two of the humans were middling brown skinned and black haired. Their features were similar, might have been siblings. One was a man and the other I wasn't sure about. The third one was a woman and she was lovely, golden skinned and slender. I made an offer or two to her, and don't I feel silly about that now?"

Naeris thought back to the aftermath of the fight at the mill. Yes, that described the cultists very well. "Do you know which way they came from?" she asked.

"They said north, milady, and no one said otherwise," Lael said. "There were several soldiers from the watchtowers drinking here that night, and they might have thought it odd if people they'd seen coming from the south were talking about their adventures in the wastes."

"Thank you, Lael, that was extremely helpful," she said, slipping a gold coin out of her purse and handing it to the younger woman.

Lael stared at it. "I- Thank you, milady," she stuttered out. "Did you want to slip around the corner, or something? I wouldn't ask this much for a whole night, even if you hadn't saved my life."

"I didn't do it alone," Naeris said, "and it's my job. Not to mention all the lives you saved by stumbling on that ritual when you did. How many people would have made it to that cellar without your warning?"

Lael smiled sweetly. "I suppose that was a worthy deed. Am I in the kind of story where the hero gets a kiss from the princess?"

Naeris chuckled and swept her in for a kiss. The sound of hooves on cobbles came up behind them.

"Well, this brings back memories," Amafrey said. "Who's the lucky lady this time?"

Naeris held up a finger, signalling to wait until they'd finished. "This is Lael," she said when they parted. "She walked in on the cultists' ritual and warned people, which is why so many people made it too the hall." She waved a hand at the survivors. "I pointed out that the act qualified as heroism and she wondered if that entitled her to a kiss from a princess."

Amafrey laughed. "That is so cheesy."

"True," Naeris said, and patted Amafrey on the thigh, "but you're still going to let her double dip."

"Double-? Oh..." she looked down at Lael, who was smiling up winsomely. "Damakos, are you alright with this?"

He sighed, and then laughed. "Go ahead."

Naeris smiled and walked away as Amafrey dismounted. She walked back to the hall, leaving the moans and smacking lips behind her, and fetched the horses. By the time she got back, Lael and Amafrey had separated, though Lael's gaze was hopping between the two half-sisters speculatively.

"So," Amafrey said. "I guess I'll have to go back north, get to the fort as soon as possible to send the message on. What about you? Back to Nerath?"

Naeris shook her head. "I'm going north too. That's where the cultists came from and there might still be more."

"Yes!" Amafrey stepped forward and embraced her. "Do you think you'll be able to stay in Orcwatch for a while after they're dealt with?"

"I'm sure that won't be a problem," Naeris said. "It might mean I'll end up missing your grandparents' visit, but I'm sure they won't mind."

"I'll say. I love them, but they're really stuck on the whole illegitimacy thing," Amafrey said. "Alright then, we'd better be going. Where are your mercenaries?"

"At the mill," Naeris said. "I told them I'd be here. If they don't come down soon- wait, there they are." She waved to them and they started hurrying over.

"Right," said Amafrey. "I'll go do the official thing and talk to the mayor, then we can go. It was lovely tongue wrestling with you," she said to Lael with a wink, and led her charger over to where the mayor was sitting.

When they set off shortly afterwards it was already late afternoon.

"The guards at the fort won't be happy with us," Amafrey said, "especially the poor bastard who has to race to Orcwatch with the message."

"I'd hope they'll be relieved enough that the demons are gone that they won't mind too much," Naeris said. "Were they being attacked by spinagons every day as well?"

"Are they the little flying things?" Amafrey asked. "Those were a bitch to get rid of. I wish I had a hippogriff like dad. Or a wyvern, or something; flying monsters are just too annoying when you're stuck on the ground."

"You'll get there eventually," Naeris said. Amafrey, like Naeris, had developed sorcery, but unlike her half-sister she had a great deal of trouble getting her powers to work. She'd started making progress through training with weapons, much as Naeris had through studying wizardry, though it had been hard going.

The sun went down just as the fort was appearing on the horizon, and as it grew dark they had a brief discussion about the practicality of light spells. Naeris suggested it and was supported by Umara, saying that the extra light would help them see and the party's numbers would scare off most beasts. Amafrey pointed out that everyone other than them and Damakos would actually be blinded by the light and that if anything did attack them despite their numbers, Rowan at least was in no state to fight it off. Naeris conceded the point, and they rode on in darkness.

"Who goes there?" shouted the guard at the gate as they approached. Naeris cast her light spell on Amafrey's cuirass.

"Lady Amafrey Stormwind and her companions," Amafrey called back. "Raise the gate and rouse the lieutenant, if he's awake."

"At once, milady!" The guard said. They dismounted and led their horses in and towards the barracks. There were a few wagons in the courtyard; Naeris wondered how long they'd been waiting. Hopefully some of them carried unspoiled food, Knothill would need it.

The lieutenant walked out of the barracks, accompanied by another soldier. He was a little dishevelled, obviously having just got out of bed, but saluted smartly.

"Milady, I'm glad to see you back safely. I take it you were successful?"

"We were, although some were safer than others. One of my knights is in need of a healer." Amafrey indicated Rowan, who was being supported by Khedem. The lieutenant promptly gave the order for the soldier to fetch the healer. Khedem and Rowan followed. "A message also needs to be sent to Orcwatch. Knothill is in ruins, and needs aid from Nerath. The entire village will need to be rebuilt."

"I'll have a pair of riders sent out right away, milady. I'll find someone to stable your horses," he said, taking the reins, "help yourselves to the bunks in the inn."

"Thank you, lieutenant," Amafrey said, and led the way to the inn. "Do you have anything to eat, Naeris? I don't want to wake up anyone else, but I'm starving."

"I have some jerky and fruit left," she said.

"Sounds good," Amafrey said.

They ate quickly before going up to the bunks. There was plenty of space; the inn normally held five times the amount of people who were there. They fell asleep moments after lying down.

_

Naeris woke up, expecting birds, and looked over to see Amafrey had woken as well.

"The birds?" Amafrey asked.

"You still have them?"

"Oh yes, those damn things take a good deal more than two years in the north to go away. Help me with my armour?"

"Alright." Naeris put on her coat and boots and went to play squire for her little sister. "Does Damakos not usually do this?"

"Pff, as if he ever gets up early enough. Wizards, right?"

"Father gets up early," Naeris pointed out.

"Father has evil birds screeching in his ear like we do. Actually, it's probably even more ingrained in him." Amafrey said.

"True. How are Taman and Dorn?"

"Less noisy than the birds, or maybe just less piercing. A week or so ago someone in the barracks was saying how he didn't want to get old because it'd be so boring and sexless and I just laughed for about five straight minutes."

"I was asking more about their well being, although I suppose if they can manage that kind of vigour they can't be too bad," Naeris said.

"Pretty much," Amafrey agreed. "How are the parents?"

"About the same," Naeris said.

"The same as they were last time I was there, or the same as Taman and Dorn?"

"The latter, except there are more of them, of course."

"But not, like, all together, right?" Amafrey asked.

"No, your parents still only hold hands on special occasions," Naeris replied.

"Oh, good," Amafrey said. "Let's get something to eat."

They ate, after Naeris asked the innkeeper about the cultists - they had come through there. Umara and Jillian came down later with a rather grumpy Damakos - apparently Jillian had woken him with a tug on his tail. Khemed and an extremely achy Rowan walked in later still.

"Can I just say how nice it is to be able to sit down during breakfast?" Umara said. "We've been riding from dawn to dusk for the last three days and eating while riding. This is just amazing after that."

"Three days?" Amafrey asked. "Why do you hate horses, Naeris?"

"We only did that on the same horses for two days straight," Naeris pointed out.

"That's still terrible."

After breakfast they saddled up again and were on their way. The air grew colder as they went north. It wasn't snowing yet; it didn't snow anywhere between Orcwatch and Nerath except the tops of the cliffs and the peak of Mount Boccob. Whatever maintained the Valley Lake's preternatural fecundity seemed to run out once the elevation got high enough.

"Did you get attacked much on the way down?" Jillian asked as they rode.

"Not really," Amafrey said. "Some axe beaks, some wolves, not much."

"Okay. There's a troll headed this way."

"That could have come first," Amafrey observed, balling her hand and chanting as it began to glow. "Where?"

Jillian pointed north-west. A towering green creature, perhaps nine feet tall, was sprinting towards them across the grass. Its dangling arms and drooping lower jaw swayed nauseatingly in time with its strides. It paid little attention to Naeris' blasts pounding on its hide, but gave a pained, gargling screech when it got close enough and Amafrey launched her bolt of fire. Damakos did the same a moment later. Khemed urged his horse forward and Umara dismounted and walked up. Rowan went to join them but Amafrey warned her back, and she sighed and obeyed.

"Do we have a plan?" Khemed asked.

"Chop it up while Damakos burns it down," Amafrey said. "They aren't as tough as people say, as long as they're on fire."

"Fighting things that are on fire is not fun," he replied.

"It doesn't have to be a lot of fire," Amafrey said hurling more fire. "Oh, and it's going to try to go for us, and probably ignore you while it's at it," she added, turned her horse away.

She was right. The troll, enraged by the burns, mindlessly charged through Umara and Khemed despite the wounds they inflicted as it passed. Amafrey fled until it chased Damakos and then he fled until it went for her again. Occasionally it would manage to dodge one of their bolts of fire, but never both at once, until it could take no more and fell.

"I can't believe I was scared of those things when I was young," Rowan said.

"Oh, they're scary enough if you can't conjure fire and don't hugely outnumber them," Amafrey said. "They just aren't good at picking fights. If it had been a caravan they'd have lost people for sure."

They continued on, arriving at the next fort in the late afternoon.

"We might as well stop here for the night," Amafrey said as they rode up. "I'll go check the riders got here, you guys go eat."

The nearest entrance to the dwarven tunnels was in the north, and the influence was clear from the food.

"This is depressingly bland," Naeris muttered, picking at her potato and turnip curry.

"At least they didn't go full dwarf," Khemed offered.

"One extreme is not better than the other," Naeris said. "Heavily spiced food is not something you should try making on a budget, even between the elf wood and the tunnels."

"Swap you for my potato bread?" Rowan asked.

"Done," Naeris said, pushing over her bowl and taking the roll.

Amafrey came in and sat down. "The riders came through, swapped horses and set off again," she said as Khemed handed over her dinner. "They'll probably have switched out for someone else at the next fort and whoever replaces them will be at Orcwatch by tomorrow. Knothill should be- Wow. This is depressingly bland." She said, and then added "What?" when everyone else laughed.

"I'm seeing the sisterly resemblance for the first time," Jillian said, chuckling.

"I don't have the faintest idea what you're talking about," Amafrey said.

"Swap you for my potato bread?" Umara offered.

"No way," Amafrey said. "It's not that bad."

"I guess they aren't so similar after all."

Afterwards they played Three Dragon Ante until they owed Naeris an improbable amount of money and she forgave them their debts before heading to bed.

_

"That breakfast was so much better than the dinner," Amafrey said as they rode off the next day.

"It's amazing what you can do with a little rice and honey," Khemed agreed, licking his lips.

"So, where are you guys from?" Umara asked the knights.

"Born in Orcwatch, lived there all my life," Rowan said, "apart from the occasional posting in Nerath. It's just too hot there, though. I love the cold."

"You are quite mad," Khemed said. "I'm from Arkhosia; I came here as a child with my mother, she was part of Lady Quara's honour guard. The camaraderie at Orcwatch, and the satisfaction of defending the land against true evil and not mere bandits or monsters, is lovely, but the weather is not."

Naeris suddenly snapped her fingers. "I thought I recognised your voice!" She said. "Your mother is Zasheida Dumein, yes?"

"Yes, that's her," Khemed said. "You remember me?"

"I did something to you when my magic was still unstable, didn't I?" she said. "Did I turn your face blue or make you smell of something?"

"You made me smell of lemons and cursed me with perpetual cleanliness," he said, "which only lasted a week, of course. I remember it being so frustrating to not be able to play by the river; the mud would simply slide away from me."

"Father didn't break the curse? I remember he had to do that a lot."

"My mother asked him not to. She found it rather convenient, or at least the nurses did."

"I'm glad I didn't know you as a child," Umara said. "I don't like the sound of being cursed."

"It was never with anything very bad," Naeris said, "and it almost always happened to Jalana."

"Did you two not get on?"

"We got on fine; I was just around her more often. She enjoyed most of it, anyway, when you're five being green for an hour is great fun."

"You didn't do that to Amafrey?" Rowan asked, with a sly look.

"She was too busy trying to kill herself."

"What?" Jillian asked.

"She was that kind of child. Fearless in the stupidest possible way," Naeris said.

"I can't help but feel a little insulted," Amafrey commented.

"You've mostly grown out of it," Naeris replied, "but I do remember you charging towards the edge of the eyrie platform, being caught and then doing at again as soon as you were let go."

"I remember none of this," Amafrey said. "Sometimes I think it's a conspiracy you've all cooked up to make fun of me."

"I remember you charging in front of a group of cantering horses," Khemed said.

"Maybe I hadn't seen them?" Amafrey suggested hopefully.

"You were screaming 'horsie!' at the time."

"Well... shit."

"I probably would have done the same thing if I'd gotten the chance," Umara admitted. "To hear my parents tell it at any rate. Of course, according to my grandparents, they were the same way."

Amafrey laughed. "What I wouldn't give to have something like that on my parents," she said. "Of course, I've got no grandparents on my father's side and the ones on my mother's side... yeah, they're not really the 'funny story' kind of people."

"Also, spreading funny stories about them is probably some kind of treason," Damakos pointed out.

"Perhaps, but I doubt they'd go after you for it," Naeris said.

"Unless it was really embarrassing," Umara added.

The day's ride was peaceful. Occasionally various beasts would fly or prowl towards them, only to be dissuaded by their numbers and Naeris' blasts. They began to see caravans heading the other way, who cheered when they saw the sigil on Amafrey's tabard. They waved back.

The last fort was notably busier and the innkeeper thanked them for bringing back their custom. The officer confirmed that the message had been carried on, and the innkeeper that the cultists had indeed been through.

After that the only place left before Orcwatch was Snowedge, the highest point before the snow started and the nearest settlement to the entrance to the dwarven tunnels. Like Knothill it was wealthier than its population would suggest due to its location on the trade routes. Unlike Knothill, however, its proximity to Orcwatch ensured a constant stream of soldiers on leave in addition to the merchants. They rode past a watchtower and fields full of broccoli and carrots and arrived in a square that looked like part of Nerath's visitor's district had been removed and placed in the centre of a tiny village.

The square and the streets leading up to it were paved, rather than cobblestones or packed earth. Aside from the hall, the buildings were inns, taverns and shops that sold either luxuries or goods of a quality not normally found outside a large town. The people walking or sitting about were mostly relaxing. Yet still visible on either side of the square were the fields and packed earth roads. There was a considerable amount of crossover - the taverns were intended for the villagers, of course - but the contrast was nonetheless delightful.

"Stable the horses first," Amafrey decided. "Naeris, do you want to blow all our gold on the best inn, or most of it on the second best?"

"I think you're underestimating how much money I brought with me," Naeris said, "but the first option sounds delightful."

"Great! Do you want to get the rooms while we handle the horses? We'll need three rooms."

Naeris nodded and they dismounted. The knights and Damakos led the horses towards the stable while she, Umara and Jillian went inside. The decor was less plush than the inn in Hommlet; more refined than luxurious. Part of that impression was probably caused by the fact of the architecture being dwarven, as was the proprietor.

In the tradition of dwarven architecture, the inn was solid, blocky and covered with intricate decoration. In the tradition of dwarven women, the proprietor was dark, broad and lushly curved. She sat in a padded stone chair just inside the entrance.

"Welcome," her eyes flicked briefly to Naeris' ring then back to her face, "my lady. I am Liftrasa Strakeln, and this is my Golden Garden. Are you looking for rooms?""

"Yes," Naeris said. "Six, please."

Liftrasa clapped twice and after a brief pause an elegantly dressed half-elven man stepped into the entrance hall. "These ladies would like to stay here, Wen," she said. "They require six rooms."

Wen bowed. "How long will you be staying, milady?"

"Just one night," Naeris said.

"Excellent. Will you be dining here tonight?"

Naeris thought about it, and then nodded. "Yes, we will."

"I shall make arrangements. Will there be anything else?"

"Yes, actually," she said. "Did you have a party of five staying here, about a week ago?"

Wen looked to Liftrasa, who turned to Naeris. "Is this an official citadel matter? I'm sure you appreciate that we must keep our clients privacy as much as we can."

"I'm afraid it is; related to the demon attack on Knothill."

"I see. In that case my conscience is clear in telling you that we had no such party here. We rarely have clients in such large groups, it would certainly be remembered if we had," Liftrasa said.

"I see," Naeris replied. "Thank you for your help."

"Not a problem," Liftrasa said. "I'm sorry I could not do more. I take it you're expecting others to join you?"

"Yes, my sister Amafrey, her lover and two knights. They're stabling the horses now."

"Then I shall greet them when they arrive. Will you be going up to your rooms now?"

"No, I have some business to attend to. We will be back for dinner," Naeris said.

"Ah. I hope you find what you are looking for, my lady," Liftrasa said.

"So do I," Naeris said. "Goodbye."

"Are we going to every inn in town looking for where those cultists stayed?" Umara asked after they left.

"Yes," Naeris said, leading the way to the next establishment.

"Why?" Jillian asked. "They're already dead, aren't they?"

"There may be more, though," Naeris said. "We cannot have demons popping up like mushrooms; we need to strike at the source. If that was all of them, then at least we will know that for sure."

"Fair enough, then. Where do you think they might be?"

"I'm hoping they have a shrine somewhere off the trade route, and if we cannot find somewhere they stayed, when they were at the next place along, we'll have an idea of where to look," Naeris said.

"So we're hoping to find nothing?" Umara asked.

"Yes, because if we trace them to here, then we add the possibility that they really did bring that thing out of the wastes."

"Would that be so bad? I wouldn't mind seeing the wastes," Umara said.

"Yes, it would," Naeris replied, pausing before entering the next inn. "Firstly, because the wastes are vast, many times over the size of the Valley Lake, and we have no way of finding where they might be. Secondly, because they are horrifically dangerous even without more demons being summoned into them. In any case, let's continue this discussion once we've checked this inn."

Naeris' next port of call was also the one Amafrey had referred to as the second best. It had far more of the plush furnishings of the inn in Hommlet and more typical human architecture. The main room was centred around a bar, currently empty, and Naeris walked up to the stout woman behind it.

"Hello," the woman said, looking up. "You're here early. Looking for rooms?"

"I'm afraid not," Naeris said, putting her hands on the bar with her ring clearly visible. "I need to ask you about some patrons you may have had a week ago."

"I see, uh, milady," the innkeeper said. "Is this about what happened in Knothill?"

"Word has got around then? Yes, it is."

"Then by all means, ask."

"Did you have, around a week ago, a group of five staying here? Three humans, a half-orc and a halfling, appearing to be treasure hunters," Naeris asked.

"I'm afraid not, milady. I don't get a lot of treasure hunters; they tend to want to hold onto their coin until they reach the city. Is there anything else?" The innkeeper asked.

"No, but thank you for your time," Naeris said.

"You're very welcome, milady. Thank you for opening up the road to Nerath again."

Naeris nodded and left.

"Alright," Umara said, "I see your point about not being able to find them, but don't treasure hunters go into the wastes all the time? They seem to make it back. Most of the time, anyway."

"Firstly, they don't make it back that often," Naeris said, "if they did it would be a much more popular enterprise. Secondly, they don't stay in the wastes for long. They pick a landmark, go there, look around and come back. We would be going around all over the wastes looking everywhere. We'd end up with countless gnoll packs and orc tribes hunting us, not to mention the demons."

"It wouldn't be that bad, would it?" Jillian asked. "I mean, they'd need supplies, right? Since they're attacking here, they're probably closer to us than to, say, Bael Turath as well."

"They don't necessarily need supplies," Naeris said. "Magic can produce food and we know they have some of that. They might be able to get other supplies from whatever ruin they're in; things have a way of being preserved there, at least when the demons aren't getting at them. Their proximity to us is a good point, though."

"Wouldn't the cultists have to deal with the orcs and gnolls too?" Umara asked.

"Possibly," Naeris said. "Not if the demon they worship is allied with the orcs' demon or the gnolls' demon."

"Or if they worship the same demon."

"No, it doesn't work like that. The demons they worship are specific to their... you don't know about orc culture?" Naeris asked Umara.

"No. Why would I?"

"You aren't interested in that side of your heritage?"

"What side? I'm half-orc on both sides." Umara said.

"Yes, but-"

Umara interrupted. "No one likes orcs. They picked the wrong side in the demon war, they keep trying to fight the demon war and they turn their women into livestock. I want nothing to do with that. I'd never even call myself a half-orc if there was a word that didn't have 'orc' in it."

Naeris was quiet a while. "I see. My apologies. I'll cut my previous comment short then and just say that no one else would get any benefit from worshipping the same demons as the orcs and gnolls do, and in fact it would probably get them killed."

"Would it help to know which demon they worship?" Jillian asked.

"It's knowledge that might come in handy. I wouldn't turn down an opportunity to know out of hand."

"Is there a way we could find out which demons are allied with the orcs' or the gnolls'?"

"Not without summoning one of our own, unfortunately," Naeris said.

They checked through the inns, circling around the square. They got steadily nastier, and unsteadily cheaper, as they got further away from their own. Finally in one, operated by a gaunt tiefling man, they got something.

"Yeah, I remember them," the innkeeper said, wiping his hands on his apron. "I don't usually get the treasure hunter business, so they didn't exactly blend in. They were too early, as well. I'd figured that they rode down when they came in, but when I checked the stable later there was nothing. Wherever they came from, it wasn't Orcwatch."

"That's very helpful," Naeris said, passing him some silver. "Thank you for your time."

"Happy to help, milady," he said with a smile as he pocketed the coins.

They walked out. "Shit," said Naeris.

"Looks like we're going to the wastes after all," Umara said.

"I don't like how happy you sounded just then," Jillian said.

They returned to their inn. Liftrasa directed them to a dining room, where the others were already seated. It looked small but was more capacious than it first appeared, and they all fitted in easily. The walls and furniture were all of stone inlaid with bronze, with a little padding on the seat to make it bearable.

"We've been waiting!" Amafrey said. "They wouldn't bring us the food until you got here. Apparently you've been out gathering information."

Naeris nodded. "The cultists appear to have come from the wastes."

"Well, shit," Amafrey said. "Any chance they were just there to hunt for treasure? I mean, they'd need silver as much as anyone else, and if they were okay with summoning demons they pretty clearly didn't have much in the way of self-preservation instincts. Maybe they found that weird egg-boat thing on a hunt?"

"That is a very comforting thought," Naeris said, "except that we have no way to verify it. We'll need to look for other cultists anyway, just in case."

"How certain are you they're in the wastes?" Rowan asked.

"Not certain. They came from somewhere nearer than Orcwatch or the southern or eastern fort. I think they crossed into the Valley on the far side of the entrance, camped out for a while and then joined the road and came in that way, pretending they'd come from Orcwatch. It is possible, though, they started from a hidden location in the Valley," Naeris said. "Honestly, I'd prefer the second option. Looking for people in the wastes does not appeal to me at all."

The door opened and the food came in.

"I don't want to make a fuss over nothing," Jillian said, "but why are the plates floating?"

"There must be spells bound into the stone," Naeris replied. "We have a few in the citadel. The idea is to have service that doesn't intrude on your privacy and can't be bribed."

Jillian looked at the floating trays as one settled down in front of her. "How do you know they won't suddenly start throwing things at you or something?"

"That's not how the spell works," Naeris said as she filled her plate. "Mmm. That's good."

"Not depressingly bland?" Khemed asked.

"No, this is definitely how dwarven food should be made. For non-dwarves, anyway," she added.

"So, what's the plan?" Umara asked.

"In the morning, we ride back to Orcwatch," Amafrey said. "Then we get Dorn to send out some scouts to hunt around for the shrine or whatever and go to sleep. A week later, when we wake up, the scouts will be back and we can go and wipe out the shrine if they find it or go into the wastes if they don't."

"A week would give them a lot of time to make another attack, though," Naeris said.

"True, but if they do make another attack, that gives us more information to locate them. On the other hand, if they don't, then they aren't hurting anyone and nothing is lost," Amafrey said, "and anyway, what else will we do? I'm not a tracker. You're not. I don't think any of us are." The others shook their heads. "Might as well let the experts do their thing."

Naeris nodded. "Good points. It would certainly be nice to stay in one place for a while."

"Can I get some time off to go see my folks?" Umara asked.

"Of course," Naeris said. "I won't have anything for you to do while we're there in any case. I'll pay you when we arrive and you let me know where you're staying so I can find you when it's time to go. Unless you don't wish to continue on, of course."

"Oh, we're in for the long haul. Right, Jill?"

Jillian nodded. "We've come this far and it's good work. We're in."

"Excellent," Naeris said. "What are you planning to do while you're in Orcwatch, Jillian?"

"I'll probably go see Umara's folks with her. Do some target shooting, play some cards. How about you? I assume you won't actually be sleeping a full week."

"No, I don't think that's going to happen," Naeris said. "I'll go to the temple and speak with Father, catch up with Taman and Dorn, probably talk with some of the town's wizards... there'll be lots to do. How about you two," she said, turning to Rowan and Khemed, "back on duty?"

They nodded. "We'll probably be back to patrolling the Valley entrance and the roads. Depends what the orders are." Rowan said.

"Maybe you'll be helping with the search?" Amafrey suggested.

"I hope not," Khemed said. "The cold is bad enough when you're riding or walking. Sitting in a tent all day waiting? Awful."

"I'll have a word with someone, then," Amafrey said. "You don't mind the cold, though, do you Rowan?"

"No, sitting in a tent for a while sounds good after a week of riding," she said. "What are your plans, boss?"

Amafrey grinned and squeezed Damakos' tail.

"I suppose that answers what Damakos' plans are too," Naeris said.

"I was actually hoping to study," he said.

"There will be breaks," Amafrey promised, and pulled him in for a kiss

"I think that may be our cue to go to bed," Naeris said. They did.

_

Orcwatch was difficult to see from the road, not because there was anything shielding it from view but because it blended in with the cliffs behind it. The only exit from the Valley Lake near Nerath was a gap in the cliffs about an hour's walk wide, and Orcwatch was built into the base of the cliffs next to it. Attempts had been made to build towers on the edges of the divide, to see into the wastes, but the construction had been too visible and the orcs and gnolls had always untied to attack them.

It was only when they grew close that the high walls and the towers became distinct from the cliffs. Unike Nerath, sprawling and open, Orcwatch was a fortress-town, huddled against the cliff inside three strong walls. Like the some of the northern forts, they were largely dwarven work and decorated as such. Ten foot high frescoes greeted travellers, mostly showing various people killing orcs and gnolls. Dwarves could be marvellously subtle, but didn't often think it worth the effort.

The gate guards saluted as Amafrey and Naeris rode in and they nodded back. Each gate was all but a fortress in itself; even past the portcullis and doors they were full of positions for archers or mages to shoot down at any attackers. Once inside the gate they could see the town itself, though even inside it was still built for war: rooves were angled and reinforced to blunt dragon breath and giant's boulders, and towers were spaced throughout the city as platforms for archers and mages to strike at flying foes.

"Shall we settle up now?" Naeris asked Jillian and Umara as they rode in through the third gate.

They nodded and Naeris called to Amafrey to wait. She passed them each two platinum coins.

Jillian looked at them and raised a hand. "I have two questions," she said.

"Go ahead," Naeris replied.

"Firstly, can I get paid in something that won't make whoever I give it to shit themselves? You're having little money problems again."

Naeris looked through her pouch. "Do you have any gold left, Amafrey? I need to start paying for more things in platinum. I just can't stand the weight." Amafrey dug around in her purse as well. Between them they came up with slightly less than two platinum's worth. "I'm afraid we can only change one of those, unless you want to take a bit of a pay cut."

"No, one is fine," Jillian said. "Second question: how do we find you if something comes up? Something of the demons and cultists variety, specifically," she added after the swap was made.

"Come to the keep, or send a message there," Naeris said. "I'll let the guards know you might be coming."

"Alright. See you in a week, then." They waved goodbye and Naeris took the reins of their horse.

After Khemed and Rowan had left to report their return and get new orders, Amafrey rode in close to Naeris. "So," she said, "you and Jillian..."

"Yes?" Naeris asked.

"I noticed you had separate rooms at the inn last night."

"So did everyone except you and Damakos," Naeris pointed out, nodding at the tiefling.

"So you aren't banging?" Amafrey asked.

"I thought that was what you were asking," Naeris said, "but it's so unlike you to drop hints. No, we're not."

"My image of you is shattered," Amafrey said.

"Why?"

"Have you seen how she looks at you?"

Naeris thought about it. "She generally looks rather grumpy to me."

"Well, that's fair; she seems to be a grumpy sort of person," Amafrey conceded. "Adjust for that, though, and she absolutely has that look. You know the one I'm talking about."

Naeris sighed, but nodded.

"I'm pretty sure that up to now the only person who looked at you like that who you haven't slept with and wasn't too young, too old or too male is my mother. So what's up?" Amafrey asked. "Don't say anything about the height difference, either, because I know what you're like with dwarves."

"Firstly," Naeris said, "dwarves are much taller than halflings. A height difference of one foot is not like a difference of two. Secondly, I have in fact propositioned Jillian, and she didn't take it well. She seems not to like talk of sex in general."

"Ah," Amafrey said, nodding, "good old halfling prudery, eh? That's a shame. On the other hand, I do know some people who would be just delighted to be introduced to you... interested?"

Naeris laughed. "Alright," she said. "Once we've organised the search and spoken to father you can make some introductions."

"Great!"

The keep was in the centre of the semi-circle described by Orcwatch's walls. Past a last, tiny wall there was a courtyard, much like the one outside the citadel at Nerath, and then there was the cliff. The keep itself was built into it, dwarven work again, visible from the outside by the doors and many balconies. Naeris, Amafrey and Damakos left their horses at the stable and went inside. Damakos said his goodbyes - his mentor had wanted a description of the demons as soon as he returned, he said - and left.

Naeris and Amafrey walked up to the closed throne room doors. The guards saluted to them but didn't move right away.

"Lord Taman is holding court, my ladies," one said. "We would ask that you make as little noise as possible until the trial is over."

They nodded and the guards stepped aside and opened the door. Quietly, they stepped inside. The room was imposing; the high arched ceiling held a series of false suns that illuminated it, casting the frescoes on the walls in a bright light. Taman's throne was at the far end of the room, atop a dais and surrounded by guards, scribes and other functionaries. Sitting at the bottom of the steps before him was Dorn, shirtless, scarred and holding two axes. Taman sat back, looking contemplative and regal in his fine black robes. There were few other people in the back of the room and they saw Naeris and Amafrey immediately, acknowledging their entrance with small nods before returning to the business at hand.

Before the throne, between two guards, knelt a woman in shackles and what had once been fine clothes that had been served poorly by a stay in the castle dungeon.

"Do you know who she is?" Naeris murmured to Amafrey.

"Don't remember her name," Amafrey said back, just as quietly, "but she's a merchant. Her business rivals were getting sabotaged, at first just minor stuff: little holes in warehouses to let rats in. Eventually it got really dangerous, though: poison in shipments of food, things like that. I guess it was her behind it."

"Mara Lackman," Taman said, his usually melodic voice stern, "you have been tried before this court, in my brother's name and mine, and been found guilty of conspiracy to murder, vandalism, burglary, theft and fraud. The sentence is a fine of two hundred gold pieces and thirty years hard labour, and a bar on the trade guilds of this city from granting you membership. Do you have any reason to give, as to why I should show you mercy?"

"I have a family, my lord," Mara said, "children. My wife has no trade. Take twice, thrice, five times as much gold, just permit me to work and feed my family."

"Even after the fine, you have wealth enough to keep your family in luxury for many years," Taman said, "long enough for your wife to learn a trade. I will not amend your sentence. Guards, take her away."

Each of the guards took an arm and hauled her to her feet and out of the room. After the door had slammed shut, Taman stepped down from his throne and beckoned to Naeris and Amafrey. They followed him and Dorn into a side chamber. There was little in it but a desk and some chairs. Taman sat down behind the desk and sighed. He was slighter of build and darker of skin than Lander, but otherwise resembled his brother closely. Dorn stepped behind his chair and gently rubbed his shoulders. Taman gratefully relaxed into his husband's hands.

"Well, I'm sorry that was your welcome back to Orcwatch, Naeris," he said. "Rest assured, though, that I am glad to see you. It's good to see you back safely too, Amafrey."

"It's good to see the both of you, uncles," Naeris said. "The message got through?"

"About the destruction in Knothill?" Taman asked. "Yes, that arrived a few days ago. I've spoken to Lander; he's arranging for aid to be sent. Or at least he's having Quara arrange it. Thank you for dealing with that, both of you."

"I'm afraid it might not have been completely dealt with yet," Naeris said.

"You think there might be more of them?" Taman asked.

She nodded. "The cultists stayed in an inn at every stop from Snowedge to Knothill, but according to the innkeeper they arrived too early to have walked from Orcwatch or the eastern fort and didn't have horses. They may have a hidden shrine, either in the wilderness near Snowedge, or they camped there and it's in the wastes."

"You want the area searched," Dorn said.

Naeris nodded. "Better to check there first than go into the wastes and find nothing."

"Good thinking," he said. "I'll go have some words and get things organised. Any specific idea on what they'd be looking for?"

"Somewhere that can house at least five people, probably more, with space for worship and summoning of demons. Far enough from anywhere settled that it wouldn't attract attention, too."

Dorn thought. "Seems unlikely there'd be anywhere like that we don't already know about. I guess they could have made something themselves, which would make it a serious problem to find." He walked out.

"I was enjoying that backrub," Taman complained. "Oh well. I imagine the search will take a while, I'll have a room set up for you, Naeris."

"Thank you. I should go to the temple as well, and speak to father," she said.

"Of course," Taman said. "I imagine he'll be happy to see you again. Well, I have further business to attend to, fortunately not concerning murderously ambitious merchants. If I were the vindictive sort I'd have given her another five years when she mentioned her family, they're better off without her."

They left the room, Tama going deeper into the keep towards his offices, and Naeris and Amafrey walked back to the entrance.

"You don't want to take that armour off before we go?" Naeris asked.

"No, I'm fine," Amafrey said. She raised a hand and sent a gust of sparkles into the air. "Magic's good for keeping it comfortable."

They walked out of the keep and back into the town. The temple was a large building, near the centre of the town, rather than the centre of the walls like the keep. Orcwatch wasn't large enough to sustain a god of its own, but it was large enough to feed Nerath's god despite the distance between them. When the town was besieged, civilians would come to the temple for shelter and to pray for the god to give strength to the defenders and fortifications.

The outside of the temple was plain, only the number of priests about it gave a hint to its purpose. Inside the walls were covered with murals. Many of them were agricultural: farmers harvesting abundant crops or animals being born. Others concerned reproduction: either during, showing childbirth or the splitting of the blood gourds used by those for whom the usual process was for whatever reason undesirable, or before, showing erotic scenes. Nerathi worship celebrated the fecundity of both the Valley Lake itself and its people.

They stated their intentions to a priest, who led them to a small meditation room and lit the sticks of incense hanging from the walls like torches. He left, closing the door behind him, shutting out all the light except the eerie glow of the incense sticks and their smoke.

"We would speak to our father," Naeris and Amafrey said as one.

At first, nothing happened but the smoke growing thicker. Then a figure appeared in the distance, a distance that didn't exist in the small room. It approached them slowly, and as it neared it became clear to Naeris that the figure was a woman, or at least appeared to be to her. Gods had no true appearance of their own, only a few essential characteristics that adapted to their worshipper's perspective.

To Naeris, Nerath's god was a half-elven woman, always sufficiently unlike her or her mother that she felt no relation to her, but still changeable. Now she looked a little like Tai and a little like Lael. Her breasts were heavy with milk, her belly swollen with pregnancy and her thighs damp with lust. She looked similar to Amafrey, Naeris understood, except human and with the addition of an engorged penis and swollen testicles.

They bowed deeply, and the god smiled and disappeared. Another figure appeared in the unreal distance behind the smoke and approached them. Lander smiled as he stepped inside the circle of smoke. Naeris wondered how this appeared to him; he wasn't in a similar room back in Nerath, as High Lord he was the god's anointed champion and shared a connection with it. He'd always claimed it wasn't something that could be explained in words.

"Hello, girls," he said. "It's good to hear from you. How have you been?"

"We're good," Amafrey said. "Knothill was awful, though. The work teams are on their way?"

Lander nodded. "They left yesterday. It'll be awhile before they get there, but they'll have the place back in order soon enough. Call it two weeks before it's liveable again, so you might want to postpone your trip back, Naeris."

"I'll be here a while in any case, father," she said. "The cultists that were in Knothill are dead, but there may be more out there."

Lander frowned. "You think they might be in Orcwatch? That's not a happy thought."

"I think they might be in the wastes, but the wilds around Snowedge are a possibility too. Dorn is arranging to have the area searched."

"Well, even if they aren't there it'll be good to have the place looked at," Lander said. "There's certain to be something interesting out there. In the wastes, though... normally when criminals run out to the wastes we say 'good riddance' and assume they're dead. If they're summoning demons, though, we can't rely on the demons to rip them apart." He stroked his beard. "They still might, though. Demons aren't loyal, or sensible."

"Can you think of anywhere they might be?"

"I can think of a lot of places, that's the problem," Lander said. "The wastes look empty from a distance, but there are a lot of ruins where the general structure is fairly intact. If you had supplies, and for whatever reason you didn't have to worry about demons, there are a lot of places that could be quite comfortable, assuming you didn't mind the lack of social life."

"You're not being very helpful, dad," Amafrey said.

"No, I suppose I'm not, am I? Here's an idea," Lander said. "If it turns out they are in the wastes, get Dorn to lead an attack on the nearest clan or pack. That should keep them busy long enough for you to have a good look around."

"That seems like it would get a lot of people killed," Naeris said.

"So does having demons running around," Lander said. "This way the people who die will have swords in their hands, comrades at their backs and a chance to get the enemy first. And really, the orcs and gnolls will attack again eventually. Why wait until they're ready?"

"I suppose," Naeris said.

"Fires," Amafrey said, "now I have to decide if I want to come with you or with the army."

"I imagine you'll be safer with the army," Naeris replied.

"True, but you'll be safer if you have more people with you too. You won't be rid of me that easily!"

"I think your mother would be very angry at me if I didn't recommend you stay with the army, Amafrey," Lander said. "There's still more to learn from training."

She sighed. "I suppose."

"You can go with Naeris is they turn out to be in the valley, though," he offered. "It's just the wastes that are much too dangerous."

While Amafrey punched the air, Naeris fished Aoth's trinket out of her bag. "Do you know what this is?" she asked her father.

He, or at least the image of him, moved closer to examine it. "That's a Suloise boat-dagger," he said at last. "An excellent piece, too. It would be worth a lot of money to a collector."

"Wait," Amafrey said, "that thing really is called a boat-dagger? It wasn't just Aoth?"

"That is what they're called, though if your objection is based on it clearly not being a dagger then I quite agree," Lander said. "I suspect the term might be a corruption of the original Suloise term; the language is obscure. Anyway, this has a connection to that unfortunate merchant?"

"It was what contained the demon that possessed him," Naeris said.

"Ah. That makes sense, possessing a piece of trash won't get you far. Well, that is helpful, then. They must have some presence in the wastes to have got this; if it had been stolen we'd have heard about it, as I said, they're very valuable. Hmm..." Lander thought, tapping his chin, "yes, tell Dorn to call off the scouts and start organising for an offensive. I'll get out my maps of the wastes, I can only think of a few places that might have had something like this. Get a map of your own and bring it here this time tomorrow, I'll show you where to look."

Naeris nodded and put the thing away. "We'd better be going, then, before Dorn wastes too much time organising the scouts. Goodbye, father."

"Yes, you're right. Goodbye, girls. Be safe."

"Bye, dad."

The image of Lander disappeared, and a few moments later the priest opened the door. They thanked him and left, hurrying back to the keep. After asking a guard they found Dorn in a room with Mei Chao, Orcwatch's general, and some of her officers, poring over maps. Everyone looked up as they entered.

"Hello girls," Dorn said, "come to help us plan? There's a lot of ground to cover, we don't usually have searches over this large an area."

"We usually have a better idea of where to look," General Mei grumbled.

"I've just spoken with my father," Naeris said, "and his instruction was to call the scouts off and organise an offensive. The cultists are in the wastes if they're anywhere."

"An offensive?" the general repeated. "The High Lord wants us to attack the wastes?"

"I like it," Dorn said.

"That's correct," Naeris said. "He's studying his maps to pinpoint likely locations. I'll go back to him tomorrow and take notes."

"What would the objectives of this offensive be?" General Mei asked. "We've never done an offensive into the wastes. We've pursued beaten enemies in, but never initiated. What's changed?"

"Primarily to make it less appallingly dangerous to locate the cultists," Naeris said. "The clans and packs will move to attack the army, and thus not be in our way. The secondary objective would be to delay any attack they are planning to make on us. 'Why wait until they're ready?' he said."

"I don't like the idea of going in to a fight with gnolls without the benefit of fortifications, but if those are the High Lord's orders... When is this offensive to take place? Do we have time to call up more troops?"

"I don't see why not," Naeris said. "We were expecting to wait a week for the scouts. How long do you think we'll need?"

"It would take two weeks for troops to get here from Nerath, but perhaps we could call in some of the forts... Yes, if you could ask him if we can take the bulk of the troops from the forts north of Knothill, that is probably the best we can do. They will take a week to get here and rest, but the extra numbers will help. So, let's say a week, unless two weeks is allowable and we can have troops from Nerath."

"I'll ask him tomorrow," Naeris said.

The general nodded. "Captain, get Lady Naeris a copy of our best map of the wastes." An officer saluted and left. "I'll have it sent to your room. Lord Dorn, shall we start planning now or wait until we have a better idea of what our forces will look like?"

"How much would you say there is to plan?" he asked. "By the sound of it, our job is to be a big, obvious distraction."

"Fair enough," she said. "We'll reconvene after the High Lord's instructions are known."

They left. Amafrey led Naeris to where she thought her room would be.

"I think that went alright," she said. "The general's a bit too far to the tradition side, but that's her. I think it'll work."

"You're not worried about the army?" Naeris asked.

"I don't think they'll run into all that much. More than we could take if it was just us, of course, but you only get big attacks every few decades, and we had one just seven years ago. I think we'll do great."

"That's a good point," Naeris said. "Perhaps we'll even push the next attack back another decade."

They went down a corridor full of guest rooms, knocking on doors and, if the knock went unanswered, checking if they were set up for a guest. They went through several until one was answered.

"Oh, hello miladies," said the servant who'd answered the door. "Your room's almost ready for you, Lady Naeris. I should have it done in a few minutes. Someone brought up two messages for you, too. Just a moment," he went back into the room and came back to the door a few seconds later with a few papers, "here."

"Thank you," Naeris said. "I'll be back later."



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