This used to be a garden, the Princess thinks. Now it is nest of snakes. She stands, seemingly serene, beneath a spreading tree and surveys the careful skill on display around her. Stones arranged in careful lines and borders, grass trimmed to precise lengths and patterns, trees sculpted to best effect—even the seasonal scents of blossoms and fruit are specifically selected to create particular impressions. When, she wondered idly, does art become artifice? The few people with her are honored, even those who count themselves her enemies; an invitation to this private garden is rare and reserved for specific occasions. Not always special occasions, and this is well known, but nevertheless, no one but the Princess comes here for any reasons beyond meditation.
She has spoken to each of her guests. All three, in their turn, expressed the proper good wishes, made the correct pleasantries, discussed the safe subjects. Each of them broached the subject dear to their hearts afterward. She heard their requests. She deflected them all. They will leave honored but still disappointed, she knows and regrets. No one can please everyone, she remembers her mother saying. But a ruler cannot afford to please no one for long. Each guest has moved to contemplate a different part of the garden, to consider her rebuttals to their arguments. They are not, of course; they are scheming to get their way over her denials and delays. She sighs, for though she wishes only to keep the peace, she knows that this state of affairs is not peace, not really. Like the garden itself, this peace is an illusion, and like the blossoms around her, it waits only a strong wind to rip it apart.
She moves to each of them in turn, these two powerful men and one unbending woman. She plants a seed in each of their minds. She says, upon consideration of their arguments, she might find a way to partially accommodate them. She is specific, she is incisive, and she is clear that time is required. She lets them leave with hope that they might yet get what they want without violence. That, she thinks as the last one departs, is not peace either, but it is closer. “Chona,” she calls.
The diminutive aid appears from a shadow under a nearby tree. The Princess wonders how long she had waited there. “There will be no blood tonight, I think,” she says with the weight of lead in her voice. “Or tomorrow, I hope. But it is coming and soon; we cannot hide it behind this peaceful facade forever. Have you done as I asked.”
Shinchona stiffens a bit before she bows. “Yes, my Princess. Though I doubt its success, I have spoken to the others in the deep tunnels. The first steps are taken, and we’ll soon know the wisdom of this course.” The Princess arches an eyebrow at the servant, but Shinchona only shrugs. “Let us hope it is wise, my Princess, for now it is done.”
“Good,” the Princess replies, and she looks again over her garden. She can feel the wind now, blowing through her mind and rising around her. A storm cannot be stopped, only weathered, and the delicate beauty around her could suffer as much damage as the dangerous briars and dead branches she wishes to see blown away. Perhaps it should go, she muses. Perhaps it’s time for a change, and those are never peaceful. I grow tired of illusions.
Ser Luther grimaced as he struggled to move. Mud pulled at his leg until he managed to get it free with a wet pop. Water instantly filled the hole. He found a marginally dryer spot to put his foot down again and worked on getting his back leg clear.
“How you doing over there, Sir Shiny Britches?” Tarlith asked, grinning. One glance showed Ser Luther that she had forced the expression; her eyes held the same tortured frustration as all the others felt. She perched on a low tree branch over the marsh and visible resisted swatting at the cloud of insects around her.
“Good. Really good,” he called back, finally reaching semi-solid ground. “I’m having a great day.” He glanced around and saw that Lily’s magic had finally lifted Valkor out of the imprisoning mud, and the Sanctioned Witch had begun riding on the horizontal Hearthsworn’s back as she flew him to dry land. Valkor complained, loudly, but his heart wasn’t in it, Luther felt. He also didn’t see the shadows. “Any sign of them?”
Tarlith shook her head. “Not since they lured you two into that mess.” He shot her sour glance, but she ignored it. “Amari is still looking, but I don’t rate her chances. They won’t show up again until they’re ready to play with us some more.”
“If we knew where in Crystalia we were…” he growled, frustrated, and then let it go with a deep breath. “It’s this place, wherever it is.” Tarlith nodded as he spoke, her own unease clear on her pale riftling features. “This place isn’t…right, and the shadows are using that.” His feet squelched as he shifted around, looking for a reasonable path forward. “Any guess what they are?”
She grunted negatively. “Could be anything; I can’t get a good look. Fae would be my first guess, but they’re like none I’ve ever seen. Chimera?” She shrugged, clearly at a loss.
“Most likely,” he replied skeptically. She shrugged again and pointed him to dryer patches of ground to escape the marsh.
Valkor continued to complain as he wiped down his armor. Just as Ser Luther and Tarlith joined him and Lily, something burst from the undergrowth beside them. Luther nearly jumped out of his breastplate and had his sword half-drawn before he recognized Amari. “Don’t do that,” the paladin hissed.
“Sorry, sorry,” the elf replied. “But I found them. They look like they’re leaving us alone.” She looked dour when Luther raised his eyebrows questioningly. “They seem to have found other amusement. Come on.” The group hurried off and, after a few moments of unsubtle stomping through the brush, came to a ragged path worn in the wet ground. The trees had thinned a bit, but the forest retained its dim, haunted look. Ser Luther could make out the sound of running water in the distance, and Amari turned toward it, motioning for caution. Finally she crouched down and signaled the others into cover. “There,” she whispered, pointing.
The paladin shuffled forward with practiced caution and saw a space ahead among the trees—still overhung and dim, but more open and welcoming than anywhere else they had yet seen. A rambling, moss-covered cottage sat near the far edge of the space flanked by what looked like garden plots and a rabbit hutch. He could hear a stream flowing behind the structure and just barely see a curl of smoke from its leaning chimney. Then he saw the shadows. The roughly human-shaped patches of darkness that had bedeviled them for hours flitted and danced through the trees around the clearing. A few, he thought, had even moved under the eves. Ser Luther grimaced and drew his sword.
“All right,” he whispered to the others. “We can’t let them hurt whoever’s in there. I’m going in first; Valkor, back me up. Nothing gets behind us.” The dwarf nodded, clearly eager to finally have something to fight. “Tarlith, Amari, get around the sides. I don’t want any nasty surprises from something getting in the back door. But don’t dawdle; we may need your help.” He glanced at Lily, who looked equally eager and nervous. He forgot, sometimes, how young she really was. “You’re with me and Valkor. Stay behind us and try to dispel anything that they throw at us. Illusions have been their weapon of choice so far, and if we can rob them of that advantage, we stand a good chance. We need to be careful. We don’t know what we’re up against, exactly, so we can’t just rush—” A woman’s scream from the cottage cut him off. “Go!” he shouted, but the others were already running.
They broke out more or less in the directions he had instructed. Tarlith and Amari dashed away around the cottage. He heard Valkor falling in behind him, huffing to keep up, and a wash of nervous magical light told him that Lily was not far away. He saw the shadows flicker again, and it looked like several vanished inside the cottage. He heard the scream again, muffled and distant, and barely paused on the threshold before throwing the door open and stepping in, sword raised.
Even the heavy tree canopy could not wholly explain the gloom within. Ser Luther had an impression of haze and could see nothing clearly beyond the dim light spilling in behind him. Smoke hung heavy in the room, and he barely made out the shapes of household odds and ends. “Hello?” he called and took a step further in to give Valkor space. The cottage seemed to be one huge, irregular room with a blaze of heat coming from ahead and to his left, where he guessed the fireplace lay. “Hello? Is anyone here?” He coughed in the smoke.
“I am here,” came a woman’s voice from the shifting darkness. Ser Luther stepped in closer. Valkor moved to his right and came just into view. He heard Lily gasp and choke a bit as she crossed the threshold. “Why have you come?” The paladin squinted against the acrid fumes and thought he could make out a tall woman moving toward him from near the fire.
“We came when we heard the scream,” he said, growing wary. He could see almost nothing now as the smoke washed over them and through the door. “We have pursued malicious fae to this place, and we feared that they had entered and done some harm.” The air had grown close in here, and he coughed more deeply.
“No, honored sir,” the woman said. Her voice had a curious cadence, almost sing-song, and an odd intonation on her words. “There is no harm here. No malice. I had burned my fingers on my stew pot, nothing more. But your concern touches me.” She seemed to be approaching, but he could not be sure, and she swayed in a strange fashion. He heard a clacking on the wooden floor, like a cane coming down hard. He wondered if her legs were injured. “Come. Come in, and sit. Let me offer you some food for your gallantry.”
Ser Luther lowered his heavy sword. Valkor sounded like he was panting. “We have come far,” the paladin said, almost to himself. He blinked and wrenched his focus back. His legs nearly wobbled, and the food suddenly sounded like an excellent idea. “We could—”
He heard a crash to his right and turned quickly to see a few random objects rolling out of the sudden swirls of smoke. He saw Tarlith lying on her back, sprawled out where she had fallen through the window he could dimly make out above her. The woman noticed too, and she spoke from somewhere much closer than Ser Luther had expected. “Oh, one of your companions, no doubt. You must be famished and so tired. Come. Sit. Rest.”
Ser Luther shook his head. “No. No, something’s wrong.”
With a clang and bang, Valkor collapsed to the floor. “The smoke,” he slurred as he fell.
Ser Luther whipped back around and tried to raise his sword. He felt clumsy and slow. “The smoke is poisoned!” Behind him, he heard Lily slump down with a sigh.
“No,” the woman said, and he saw her move freely now. Behind him, the door slammed shut, and the window above Tarlith banged closed. “Not poisoned. But the herbs of this forest produce such strange effects when one breathes them in.” She moved smoothly out of the shadows, and Luther gasped. His eyes watered, and his head swam. She loomed over him on a bulbous lower body and eight strong, skittering legs. “Now sleep, little iron man. Dinner will come soon.” Ser Luther took a step toward the creature, but his sword slipped from numb fingers, and he crumpled unconscious to the floor.
The back of Ser Luther’s head throbbed when he awoke. He groaned, squinted, and looked around. The dim light lancing through the trees felt too bright. His legs were slightly spread and his arms too, though thankfully kept low, and his entire body reclined on something that felt like the rigging of a ship. He realized a second later that he was stuck fast to an enormous web. He shuddered and pushed down the visceral horror. He pulled but could not free his limbs and quickly gave up trying. He still felt so weak. To his left, he saw Tarlith stretched on her own web spun between two stout trees, and Lily hung beyond her. He looked for Valkor but only spotted him a moment later. The dwarf lay on the ground, cocooned in sticky, pale webbing and anchored to a tree.
Turning back, he saw Tarlith stirring, groaning, as if fighting to awake from a nightmare. He tried to get a better sense of their surroundings and thought he spotted the smoke from the cottage curling through the trees ahead and to the left. Beyond them, past Lily’s still dormant form, he saw what looked like another small clearing and more webs spun between thin trees. He couldn’t see more than that, though, and glanced back at the riftling as she groaned and blinked her eyes open. “How are you doing there, Miss Pointy Teeth?” he asked in a hoarse voice.
Tarlith groaned again, coughed a few times, and finally spit something dark and foul onto the grass beside her. “I’ve lost fights and felt better than this,” she said with a slight slur in her speech. Ser Luther raised his eyebrows at her unaccustomed candor. She took in their situation and tugged experimentally at her bonds. “We’re dinner, aren’t we?”
“That depends,” Ser Luther replied, looking around again. He felt stronger with almost every breath. “Most likely, yes. Especially if that, thing, gets hungry soon.” He tried to shrug and almost managed it. Tarlith started working methodically on trying to free her left arm. Their limbs were pinned down by thick, layered ropes of web laid over their wrist and ankles. His own bonds had hardened to the consistency of rock. He scanned the trees around them again and, after a long moment, thought he saw the movement he was looking for among the lower branches of some large trees off to the right. “I think—“ he began but cut off. They both turned toward the soft sound of something approaching through the brush. Just beyond their small grove, the monster moved easily among the trees, its long, sharp legs lancing into the soft earth with surprising delicateness. It spared them barely a glance, but they could feel its watchfulness and caution before it vanished from sight.
Ser Luther licked his lips, staring into the trees after the monster. “All right. That’s promising, actually. The longer it waits, the better our chances.”
Tarlith shot him an incredulous glance. “Really? And what chance would that be?”
He couldn’t help grinning a bit. “Where’s Amari?” Tarlith blinked and glanced around again. When she looked back, her expression had shifted from concern to pleased determination. Ser Luther nodded. He glanced back to the right. “I’m pretty sure that help is on the way.” Tarlith craned her neck to see, and sure enough, the brush at the edge of their clearing parted just slightly. Before the ranger could break into the clear, however, everyone’s attention whipped back to the opposite side of the grove. The creature reappeared, stalking through the bushes and brambles. Its human head scanned the trees incessantly, but Ser Luther got the sense that it could hear and feel far more than it saw. Fortunately, he thought, so can Amari. The monster crossed in front of them quickly and vanished into the forest. The paladin frowned.
“So long as Amari stays free and unhurt we’ve got a chance,” Ser Luther whispered to Tarlith. “But with that creature hunting her, she won’t have a chance to get in here.” He gritted his teeth and started pulling at the restraint on his right arm. A low, soft wail rose up to his left, and he froze for an instant. A quick glance at Tarlith showed that she heard it too. They turned and looked beyond the their grove. He saw Lily stirring on her own web, but past here, in the clearing beyond, he saw the shadow of the monster move against the trees. The wail climbed in pitch and piteousness, and it sounded more like a distinctly feminine sob before it cut off.
“That wasn’t the monster,” Tarlith said without looking around at him. “That was a prisoner.”
“Come on,” Ser Luther replied, straining at the webbing again. He thought he saw motion near again, coming up behind them, but within seconds the creature returned, moving nimbly through the undergrowth. “We need a distraction,” he muttered.
“I can get you one.”
Ser Luther jumped at the unexpected voice, not close but far closer than he had expected. He looked wildly around but saw nothing. Then he looked up. Hanging from a branch of the tree than anchored the right side of his web, a figure leaned down toward him. He could see little save tawny colored fur framing the youthful, intense face of a young boy wearing cream-and-orange clothes and sporting pointed, tufted ears and a twitching fox tail.
“Hi.” The boy smiled. “I’m Uzumaki.”
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