Nothing Taken

Pay attention. Yes, pay attention to what I'm going to tell you in this book, but also to everything else. Let your ears attend to every change in the wind, every draft in the ruin; let your eyes linger, really see, never let them assume. Because they'll want to, the lazy bastards. And your mind is even worse, always taking shortcuts, deciding ahead of time how things will be, what they mean. If you don't step in to impose some serious discipline, you're going to have a really bad day.

And adventurers who have a really bad day often don't ever get another. If they're lucky. There are much worse things than running out of days, let me tell you.

     - Ajahn Taepanich, Manual of Decent Chances: An Adventurer's Guide, 129 SE


Garrison Outskirts, Embrace-of-Fire, The Abwaild, 347 SE

She was on her way to ask Araceli a few more questions about the ruin when Brus stopped her. His pale face wore the "listen up, fledgling" look she'd come to dread and resent over the past few weeks, arms crossed over the layered scales that armored his bulky chest as he frowned up at her.

"You know, out here in the Abwaild it's a bad idea to leave your food out of eyeshot. You guard it like you guard your weapons. Moreso, even." He turned his head, lifted his black-bearded chin toward the quartzwood that surrounded their camp's clearing, a seemingly endless spread of glittering bark and garish purple leaves.

She reached behind herself, touching the haft of the monk's spade strapped to her back, and shook her head. "Nothing's more important than my weapons, Brus. Can't eat if I'm dead."

He snorted. "Can't fight if you're starving. You'd be amazed how little time that would take, out here, for Fallen like us. You can fight without your weapons, though, I know you can. What I hear, that monastery of yours don't even start you on weapons til you're old enough to weigh the cost of your chastity vows. All bare hands and feet first, yeah?"

"Hands and feet first, yeah," she repeated. "Useful in a pinch, but not my specialty. Out here? Likely just to get me killed. Better to run than fight half-assed."

"You've never tried to run on an empty stomach, Mael," he said softly. "Not so easy. Bet you've never really been hungry your whole life. Bet the Presilyo made sure to keep you fed. They want their monks and nuns to grow up big and strong, right?"

She started to say something, unsure exactly what, but he raised a gloved hand to stop her. The heavy leather creaked with the flex of his short stout fingers. "I know you think I'm just giving you a hard time. Because you're new, right? But I'm doing you a favor. I snagged your ration pack for you, got it back in my tent. Last time I'll do that. You leave it again, some Abwaild beastie comes and gobbles it up? We send you back to the Caustlands right away. And we talk. Let word get around. Adventurers willing to cross the Siinlan out into the Abwaild like this? That's a small world, and you'll not be let into it again if there's any doubt about you being reliable."

"Abwaild critters can't eat Fallen food," she said, but felt unease coil up in the churn of her stomach.

"Can't digest it, no. Might make them sick, might just pass on through, but it won't be doing you much good either way, will it?"

She frowned. "Does that happen? When Araceli told me to keep my pack close at hand I thought it was just about equipment and that. I keep all that stuff on me, I do try to be proper paranoid. Figured food would be left alone since it doesn't, I don't know, smell right to them."

"Creatures ain't always that bright, Mael. Not the weird ones out here in the Abwaild, not our own Fallen animal friends back in the Caustlands neither. I've seen dogs eat all sorts of things unlikely to nourish them any."

She sighed, feeling deflated. Rules had been hard for her, since leaving the Presilyo, since stepping off the Triune Path and renouncing her vows as a warrior nun. So many of the old rules she'd followed had turned to be, in her opinion, the purest of crowshit. But they'd also been damned hard to root out even once that revelation had begun to dawn—it often felt like they'd been hammered into every crevice of  her deepest self—and now she found it hard to take new rules as seriously as some of them might merit.

Like this one. Because he was right. Nothing out here a Fallen person like her could eat, nothing at all this side of the Siinlan. "Okay," she said. "I hear you, Brus. It won't happen again. I'll go get the ration pack now."

He nodded. "Good. Don't want to send you back, Mael, hope you understand that. You're a good fighter, and you've got a keen eye for detail we don't want to lose."

She managed the ghost of a smile. "Thanks, Brus," she said, and went to retrieve her rations from his tent.

~

Mael toyed with one of the ration pack's straps as she sat cross-legged on the floor of Araceli's tent, listening as the small, intense woman detailed possible pitfalls for the upcoming ruin-crawl. The way her fingers skimmed over the curved blade of the falchion perched across her knees made Mael nervous.

"First and foremost are the locals," Araceli said. "The Praedhc here are especially sensitive about any perception of plunder where these old sites are concerned." She frowned, putting delicate wrinkles into a nose that looked as though it had been carved from some tiny brown stone.

"Because of the Borih'Sath ruin-sprawl just on the other side of the Siinlan, right?" Mael said. The destroyed city was one of the largest Praedhc sites in the Caustlands, and was always crawling with Fallen adventurers. Like themselves. And since it was in Fallen territory, the Praedhc could do nothing about the steady stream of valuables and artifacts that flowed out through the nearby town of Kualabu.

 "Yes. Embrace-of-Fire is not a large village and they're not anxious to tangle with us, but if they think we're removing anything from the garrison ruins, they will anyway. They'll be sending someone to accompany us, to make sure."

Mael cocked her head. "Just one person? What good do they think that will do if we decide not to listen?"

"Well," Araceli said, fixing her with a narrow gaze, "I suppose we could overpower the emissary, but that would have serious consequences and they know that we know it. They'd put in an official complaint and we'd end up as outlaws in all six Caustland States before we even crossed back over the Siinlan."

"How much did the College pay the Praedhc to allow us to be here, exactly?"

Araceli snorted. "That's not the sort of thing they're about to tell us. We're just mercenary hirelings to them, really, here to escort their precious scholar."

"Hey now," Mael said, feeling a smile tug at one corner of her mouth, "Yan isn't so bad. A little neurotic, maybe, but she can handle herself." Cerol Yan was certainly on the manic side, but she was also a decorated former soldier who had, according to rumor, even stood the Nowhere Watch at one point in her career. She carried her recurve bow and long daggers like she knew how to use them, and while excitable about her research she seemed to face the prospect of danger with steady familiarity.

"No, she's not so bad." A smile threatened to break through the fine-stonework cast of Araceli's small features. "Better than not so bad, she's necessary, College or no. I don't speak any Praedhc languages, do you?" Probably a rhetorical question, Araceli was the party leader and must already know this sort of thing about every member. But she answered anyway.

"No. Presilyo didn't teach them, just Fallen languages. I got Gentic and Common, and my Common's pretty limping to be honest." Of course everyone at the Presilyo "got" Gentic, as it was generally considered the Fallen lingua franca, and it was her native language anyway. Ambérico must be Araceli's; her name and accent made that pretty clear.

"That makes sense, I suppose the Triune Path doesn't care much about what goes on outside the Caustlands."

"No," Mael said simply. "They don't." Add that to my list, I suppose, and call it a good riddance even if it's also a complicated one.

"Mmm,"Araceli said. She looked down at the big sword laid over her lap, wiggled her jaw back and forth in thought. "We've gotten off track. Cerol Yan? Probably the most important member of the party, in the end. All we can carry out of the garrison is what she can fit in her head and her notes. We can take the latter with us, but the former won't do us any good if it's not healthy and attached, no?"

Mael nodded. "We couldn't find a secondary? Someone else to check her assertions, help with her work, provide another perspective?" Serve as a spare in case she ends up dead or worse? She'd been mulling this question for a while, but hadn't worked up the resolve to ask it until now. You didn't want to start talking about how one of your comrades should be made more expendable too soon after you joined. Not a good look.

Araceli's laugh was a wonder of cheerful long-suffering. "That's right, we couldn't. None willing to cross the Siinlan for the right price, anyway. Not really a surprise. Besides, we've also got Traevor Mazurek. He may not be able to read any Praedhc inscriptions, but he can tell us a lot about any spells that might linger behind them."

"Including ones on any valuable objects we're absolutely disallowed from moving in any way?"

"Well," Araceli said, and again there was that hint of smile. "It wouldn't hurt to know what and where they are. This may not be our last trip, and the next might come with better terms attached."

Mael frowned, then wished she hadn't. She didn't yet know the full shape of her feelings on Araceli's apparent plans, but felt right away that some of the edges pressed uneasy at her other thoughts, and there was no sense letting that show until she had a better handle on things. "Sure," she said, drawing on all her monastic training to smooth her mind and hopefully also her face. "That's just knowledge, same as any other we might find down there."

Araceli looked at her for a moment longer than Mael found comfortable before speaking. "Yes. Same as any other."

Mael changed the subject then, and later that night her sleep had uneasy edges of its own.

~

The ruin was bigger than she'd expected, and stranger as well. Bigger because, while crumbling, most of its walls still stood at full height, in places soaring above the violet tops of the Abwaild trees; no part of the Praedhc ruins she'd seen in the Caustlands ever rose far above head-height. And stranger because, well, it was here, surrounded by absolutely nothing that was familiar. The structures themselves were formed from towering slabs of white granite and deep-blue lapis lazuli, fused together by Praedhc geomancers. Here and there the stone was cracked, though never at the joining-lines, with missing chunks and fallen sections.

Mael stood and took it in, watching the reactions of the rest of the party with discreet care. Araceli Soto was all watchful caution and cool assessment, while Brus Cabaet wore an expression of profound distrust tempered by professional confidence. Cerol Yan crackled with nervous fascination, fingers continually loosing and re-coiffing her tight low bun as she paced, making minute adjustments to the hardweave cap she wore above it. Traevor Mazurek frowned at the collection of collapsing buildings the same way he frowned at nearly everything else, as though cataloging all the ways they were apt to disappoint him.

They all stood pondering the ruin for a long while, taking it in turns to watch the rear out of bone-deep habit.

Then Yan broke the silence. "Where is this Praedhc emissary at, then? I don't like standing around exposed like this, and we have work to do." She ceased her pacing, put her hair into a final definitive bun, and pulled the recurve bow off her pack.

"Please put that back," Araceli said mildly. "You're all trained to draw quickly if there's a problem, and I don't want the emissary arriving to a group of Fallen all brandishing weapons."

Yan grimaced, hesitating.

"You should listen to your leader, it is not polite to loose a weapon in a place that is not yours." The voice--female, strangely echoing, speaking accented Gentic--came from the treeline behind Mael and to her left. Unlike the rest of the party, she did not turn to face it, instead scanning the same visual arc she'd already been watching. No sense having everyone looking in the direction an unknown person clearly wanted them to. She heard the faint, somehow embarrassed rustle as Yan replaced her bow, then Araceli's voice.

"Well. You must be Emissary Kal'ni'kesh." Mael sensed the Praedhc woman now, as the skillfully-woven concealing cloak was allowed to dissipate around her. Shadebender, then, and a good one. They'd all be kicking themselves for not managing to spot her. Time to brush up on awareness training. Out the corner of her eye, Mael caught a glimpse of Brus' slightly sheepish expression as he turned to cover the direction she'd been watching. She gave him a nod as she spun round to look at the Praedhc emissary, careful to keep her expression neutral.

The emissary was a short woman by most standards, though Mael wasn't sure how tall the Praedhc in this part of the Abwaild generally got. Praedhc tended to be shorter than Fallen people, or at least Fallen humans, but both groups contained wide variations in appearance and build. Mael herself was quite tall, with dark brown skin and a sturdy frame. This woman was light-skinned, almost as pale as Traevor, with the same sort of strange silvery lines crossing and curving over her face as the handful of other Praedhc Mael had seen. The same intensely blue eyes, too. Black hair peeked out from a leather cap beneath a deep hood. The rest of her clothing was all neutral greys and muted shades of purple and blue, with scraps of fabric attached to break up the wearer's outline. She had no visible weapons, but of course she must be armed.

She stood leaning on a quartzwood trunk and looked the Fallen party over before she spoke. "Yes. I am Tash'korah Kal'ni'kesh." She held up a folded piece of silvery Praedhc paper. "This is a copy of our agreement with the school that has hired you and has paid us. I carry it for reading if there are disagreements. I carry also a device that will send out all of our words to any who know how to listen. All we do will be heard by someone in Embrace-of-Fire."

"A Fathomcaster," Araceli said, sounding annoyed. "Might as well scream, 'Here we are! Come and investigate!' to the entire Abwaild.'"

The emissary laughed, a dead thing without even the forced humor born of politeness. "There is no one to come investigate but my own people."

Araceli sighed, working her lower jaw as she visibly fought her frustration. "Your people, yes. People aren't what I'm worried about. Plenty of other dangerous things that could pick up on the emanations of a Fathomcaster."

"Any of them as dangerous as you?" the emissary asked, and Araceli fell silent, looked at her with narrowed, thoughtful eyes. Mael found herself admiring the question; it was so wonderfully double-edged even if it was partly directed at her. Saying both, "I have reason to be much more concerned about you than any other threat," and "Are you not up to dealing with any dangers that might arise?"

"As dangerous as us?" Araceli said finally. "I sincerely hope not. Is there something you want to warn us about?"

The emissary's mouth nearly permitted a smile, but her eyes were set too hard to accept it. "Yes. Many things. This place is a tomb. If you desecrate it, you will not cross the Siinlan alive. My sister patrols the embertrees on this side, and you will not see her before you are dead."

"We have already promised not to--"

"Quiet," the emissary snapped. "I don't care about your promises. I want your understanding, so hear me."

Araceli's breath left her nostrils in a sharpened rush, but she kept her mouth shut and her expression tight.

"There are dangerous creatures nesting here, but this is not a hunt. You will avoid danger when you can, or I will leave you while you fight. It is a large risk for me to come with you already, I will not make it larger. If danger cannot be avoided, I will fight only to defend myself. I have agreed to come as guide, not as soldier. We are not mercenaries for any Fallen, not ever."

Araceli just nodded, and made as though she were about to fold her arms before thinking better of it. The emissary went on.

"I will not answer your questions about this place unless they are for our mutual safety. You Fallen have turned enough of our knowledge to your own ends. I would have opposed letting you come at all, but I have no place to share in such decisions. Even so. We have agreed to let you find what you can, but I will not help you do it."

"That's disappointing," Cerol Yan said quietly. "Is there nothing that can be done to change your mind?"

"You cannot change the past. And you cannot change how the knowledge will spread. So you cannot change my mind. Do not argue," she said as Cerol began to raise a finger. Cerol took a step back, eyes frustrated and wide.

The emissary went on. "Last thing to warn. I said before this place is a tomb. A certain amount of purity and propriety is expected. If any of you are having relations with each other, you will not touch each other this way while we are under the ground. If you worship Fallen gods, you will make none of your rituals and prayers while in the domain of Huen'Cal, Heart of the Wombstone."

Mael glanced round at her companions. None of them were sleeping together that she was aware of. She certainly wasn't sleeping with anyone. She had in fact never slept with anyone; she was still sorting out the emotional and spiritual mess renouncing her vows had left behind. Which also meant that she and the Divine were...on a break of sorts. And she didn't think any of the others were more than conventionally religious.

"I see," Araceli said, her voice still tight. She turned to regard each member of the party in turn. "Is all this acceptable to all of you?" Mael inclined her head when Araceli looked her way. So did everyone else.

Araceli took in a deep breath and then let it out in a measured near-sigh. "We are agreed. Let's go, life doesn't get any longer when you stand around."

Everyone shifted in place as though getting ready to go, but no one actually went.

Traevor cleared his throat, glancing at the emissary with uncertain hope on his pale, clean-shaven face. "You, uh, you want to go first, since you're our escort?"

"Absolutely not," she said flatly. "One of you will take that risk. I am here to watch, not to assist. I will stay in the middle of your group at all times."

Araceli rolled her eyes, though Mael noticed that she did it while the emissary was still looking at Traevor and not Araceli. "Fine. Brus, you'll take point in narrow passages. I'll be right behind you, and beside you where there's room. Miss Kal'ni'kesh can go next, then Yan and Traevor. Mael, I want you watching our backs."

"Sure," Brus said shortly, and pulled the kite-shaped shield off his pack, letting it hang on his left arm, his right hand on the hilt of his broadsword. He headed toward the entrance they'd decided on, a badly-canted doorway in a partially sunken tower. Araceli followed, her own hand on the hilt of the kukri knife she used for fighting in tight quarters where the two-handed bulk of her falchion was a liability.

The emissary made a strange clicking noise with her teeth and followed, and then so did the rest of the party. Mael didn't particularly like taking up the rear, but she understood and agreed with Araceli's reasons for the decision. Still, though. That feeling of unlimited space she was meant to be guarding, stretching out and out behind the group, she wasn't sure she would ever get used to that. She felt it as Araceli ducked under the crooked threshold, felt it narrow but not disappear when she went through it herself a few moments later.

She shook the feeling as best she could, and activated the fadelamp tied to her armored robes, letting her eyes adjust to the subtle spectrum of light that spilled out violet round her own feet, bathed Traevor and Cerol Yan in pale blue in front of her, transitioning to green, yellow, and then orange against the walls of the ruined tower. With more space, the fadelamp light would reach a wan rust-red at its edges before dropping off to nothing, making it invisible outside its own chromatic sphere of illumination. Useful, though with some obvious drawbacks.

They all did their best to make a minimum of noise as they moved to the tower staircase and descended into the ruin's first basement level. The Praedhc were fond of underground spaces, said they were "closer to the Wombstone," which to Mael's understanding was their fear-and-awe name for what the Fallen called the Abwarren. Hopefully this particular ruin didn't extend that far down.

The following hour was tense but uneventful. Long corridors bathed in clashing rainbow light from Mael and Araceli's fadelamps. Rooms with half-collapsed ceilings, largely full of rubble. No sign of anything of interest. Strange sounds, as there always were underground like this: the groaning of stone, the scuttling of small Abwaild-vermin, something vaguely liquid off in the distance.

They found another staircase, and descended without discussion. Mael gripped her monk's spade tightly as she imagined the redoubled weight of rock now impending over their heads. She caught a glimpse of the emissary's face, thought there was a note of fear in the silvery lines and pale features of her face. She wondered how the woman had been induced to come with them, but thought she knew anyway. Duty is a right bastard sometimes, she told herself, and remembered the worst of her monastic years all in a rush. Blood on the haft, blood on the hands, blade passing an inch from the throat. Arrow in the stomach, crushed rib, crippled leg. Healed but never forgotten.

She winced at the twinge of memory, took in a deep breath, let it out as at the same time she let the past flow on by. Not now. Now is now, now matters.

This second level down was more fruitful. Yan found several things to be excited about, from engravings on walls to a pair of books with mostly readable pages. "We never get intact books in Caustland sites," she breathed, teasing the paper apart with a delicate steel instrument. "Hell, we barely even get non-intact books."

"And whose fault is that?" the emissary demanded. Her voice was so sharp and unexpected that Cerol started badly, nearly jostling the precious artifact off her lap.

Mael felt a deep stab of unease, and began to move slow and deliberate toward the argument. This could end very badly for all involved.

"Well, certainly no one here," Araceli said, contempt dripping off every word. "We weren't born yet. Or our parents. Or our grandparents."

Mael kept moving nearer, skirting round the edge of the small room.

"You are Fallen," the emissary replied, as though it were the final answer to any question of culpability. She had stepped a little closer to Araceli, and Mael wasn't sure the Praedhc woman even realized she had done it.

Cerol Yan set the book carefully aside and stood up, the joy of discovery slowly replaced by seeping anger. "You and your villagers are descended from the Old Kash Empire. I've been in at least a dozen ruins where your people used to hold sway. Should you be held personally accountable for everything I found in the deepest parts of those sites?"

Mael got within striking distance of the emissary, grip loose and ready round the haft of her monk's spade. Stop it stop it stop it, we don't need to do this we could really regret this.

The emissary glared, looking as though she wanted to spit on the debris-covered floor. "That is different. The fact that those ruins are ruins at all is—"

"ENOUGH," Mael shouted, and the word surprised her even though it came from her own mouth. "We can argue about Starfall and ancient empires another time. Right now, we are here and now. What purpose does any of this serve? Not the one we came for, so," she jerked her head to one side as though trying to violently banish a kink in her neck, "shut. Up." The heat she felt rising up from her feet through her chest surprised her nearly as much as the word had.

The emissary gave her a deep frown, something frightening staring out from her deep blue eyes. The rest of the party looked slightly abashed, except for Araceli, who was clearly on edge.

Traevor Mazurek broke the long silence with a nervous laugh. "She's right, you know. This isn't the time to put each other's ancestors on trial. For my part, if it makes you feel any better, I'm absolutely willing to admit that all my most recent ancestors were total bastards. Including my parents. Especially my parents." His deadpan sad-sack expression was a wonder of comedic timing, and Mael would have cracked up herself if she weren't already used to Traevor's half-serious, self-deprecating sense of humor from the journey here.

The emissary gave a little snort at that. Trying for dismissive, but Mael spotted the sliver of a smile trying to tug at the corners of her mouth and eyes. The Praedhc woman caught her noticing it, too, and visibly clenched her jaw before she spoke. "Your mother and father's poor parenting is not my problem, Fallen." Her scowl deepened, but she still couldn't keep the cracks from showing in the hard mask of her expression.

Mael looked the emissary in the eye and shook her head, just a tiny movement but one she was sure the woman caught. I've seen under the role you're wearing, not much, but enough. I know you're human. Well, a person anyway. "She's right, Traevor. Can't expect your emotional burdens to be borne by random Praedhc."

Traevor gave a theatrical sigh, and Mael had to clamp down internally to suppress a laugh. The emissary whirled to face Araceli. Partly so I can't see her face, maybe. "Tell your pet scholar to finish collecting whatever information she needs from this room. I'm going to go spend some time in prayer and contemplation."

Araceli just nodded, and gestured vaguely at Cerol Yan, who rummaged in her pack and pulled out a small book. On closer inspection, Mael saw that it was a prepared hedgeprint blank, ready to be turned into the first of a potential chain of copies. That would take time, though—while it wasn't necessary for the transcriber to physically write anything, they did have to read with great care lest they introduce errors into the new master copy they were creating.

Mael frowned. "How long is this going to take?"

Yan shook her head. "Not long. I'm only going to copy the most significant bits. Which is half the point of bringing me along, you know? Being able to tell what matters and what doesn't?" She didn't look at Mael as she spoke, practically hopping from foot to foot in her focused excitement.

"Guess it is," Mael said, and walked over to guard the corridor. Then she stood there for a damned long time, staring down the stretch of hallway trying to let her mind wander just enough that she wouldn't go mad, but not enough that she might miss anything. Brus kept watch behind her, and when she glanced at him his attention seemed to be half on the door to the room where Cerol Yan worked and the other two kept an eye on the emissary.

Nervous, she thought. But they outnumber her three to one in there, and we'll come running at the first sign of trouble. Still, she understood. There were ways to feel out a potential opponent without ever seeing them in action, gauge just how formidable they might be, but the emissary was a troubling blank to this kind of non-physical assessment. Shadebender, she reminded herself. No use not being seen if you can be sensed other ways. So Divine only knew how bad it might be if things came to actual blows.

They didn't, at least not then. Just when she thought Traevor and Araceli must be due to relieve them on watch, all four of them came out of the room. Yan looked positively radiant, reaching behind to pat her pack in the spot she must have stashed the book.

"All set," she said, and Araceli inclined her head, pointing down the corridor. The party formed up and went.

They didn't find any more books, but Cerol Yan still stopped them a few times to examine this artifact or that wall engraving. They descended another level.

Praedhc and subbasements, Mael thought a little sourly, feeling a subtle thrum beneath her feet just outside the range of physical perception. She didn't like it. She especially didn't like it when the sensation grew stronger as they approached the door at the end of a short hallway. The door was stone, and took both Brus and Araceli pushing at once before it would open far enough for Brus, easily the widest member of the party, to slip through the gap.

Using up a lot of their strength to do that. Maybe unwise, maybe not. Guarantee the emissary is watching and taking note, though. At least we haven't had to fight anything so far.

Mael slipped through last, and felt her breath catch, shutting her mouth before it became an audible gasp. The room was immense, extending not just outward but also soaring so high it must extend into some ruined building on the surface. Looking straight up, she saw her fadelamp pass through all the colors of the spectrum with the red light still failing to reach a ceiling. It was the same looking forward; the rust-shade outer reaches illuminating only floor, an uncertain expanse of black stretching out beyond.

"By God," Brus said, hefting his shield upward as though ready to fend off the unsettled dark.

The emissary drew in a sharp breath. "What did you say?"

He stared at her a moment before he realized. "Oh." He shook his head. "Just an expression, to be honest I don't even really believe..."

"I don't care what you believe," she snapped. "Keep your Fallen gods out of this place."

His features tightened. "Honestly, I'm not..."

"This place is a graveyard," she said, voice dropping into quiet depths of ice. "Their bodies may long be gone, but this is where they died. Do not sully it with your 'expressions.'"

He stared another long moment, then simply turned away and continued ahead. The emissary made a little grunting noise that Mael couldn't really interpret, and followed again, still in the middle of their formation. Mael went too. She'd taken no more than twenty steps when Brus signaled for the rest of them to come in close. Before she could get near enough to see whatever it was he'd stopped them before, the emissary let off a rattling string of agitated Praedhc words.

"What? Why?" Cerol Yan said.

Mael came up beside the rest of the group, saw the huge stone-slab come into view, just barely illuminated by deep-red light that seemed reluctant to touch it. Something was shown on the stonebut not carved in, something that lived on the surface somehow. Writing in columns on the left and right of some central image, all huge.

"What did she say?" Araceli asked.

"She said we must leave immediately," Cerol replied. "That this is not a place we are meant to be."

"Yes," the emissary said, her voice tight. "Your invitation is revoked. You leave back to your Caustlands, your Ashwound, right now."

A long silence as they all looked at each other, weighed the delicate tension in the air. Out the corner of her eye, Mael saw Cerol Yan step closer to the strange wall, her back to the rest of the group.

"Leave?" Araceli said, careful neutrality in her tone. "Why?"

The emissary sneered, looking almost ready to bare her teeth. "I won't— I don't have to give a reason. This is our place. You must leave. We will return some of your payment, if that is your concern."

"That's a map of the Caustlands," Brus cut in. "Or at least part of it is. Look, you can see the Siinlan, the Five Rivers, and...that's...that must be..."

He was right, Mael could see it too, and then she saw the reason he had trailed off, and she gasped, twisting her neck so hard in her effort to look away it made her vertebrae crackle.

The Black Fence, oh sweet holy Lotus Child it shows—

She grabbed Brus roughly by the shoulder and spun him around. He didn't resist, but he did shudder. She shook him once, hard. "Don't. Look. At. That. The emissary is right. We need to leave. Now."

"That would be my call," Araceli said icily, and Mael stepped right up in front of her, blocking the shorter woman's view of the wall. "He's right. It's a map. A full map. Nothing omitted." When Araceli's angry expression did not change, she continued, "nothing cut out."

Araceli's scowl lasted another bare instant, then her composure simply broke. "Oh shit, you mean the Black Fe...I...okay, yes, we're leaving. Right now." She spun on her heel and started for the exit.

Mael nodded, and moved to follow, but when she looked to make sure the rest were coming, two figures still stood facing the wall. One was Cerol Yan, standing motionless. The other was Brus, who was walking slowly toward the massive vertical plane. He'd lit a fadelamp of his own, making the stone surface change color as he approached. Orange...yellow...green...

"Brus!" Male cried out, putting her best voice-projection skill into the name. "Come back here!"

His reply was barely audible across the stretch of emptied space and discordant color that now separated him from the rest of the group. "The detail...I have to see the detail...always wondered..." His form shuddered, and then it rippled, and now it was too short and too long and Mael looked away.

The emissary's voice floated in from her left, deadly cold. "This place has always been dangerous, but now it is broken. We are going to have to kill him."

Brus laughed, and the distance in it was unmistakable now, beyond simple measurement. More laughter joined it, worse even, perhaps from behind the wall.

Cerol Yan turned around, and held up another hedgeprint blank. Her eyes darted round, her smile a rictus of sickened excitement.

"I got all of it down," she said softly. "Every last word. It tells us how, just as it told them, just like as it told the Praedhc only I don't under—"

The emissary's blade caught her across the face, and Yan reeled back, screeching out a raw denial. Her voice was joined by others, the laughers behind the wall, closer now.

Mael sucked in a hissing breath and spun her monk's spade into action. No time for aught but the here and now. I move...

~

The emissary was heavy, almost dead weight. She'd live, though, Mael was fairly sure of that, despite whatever all this drying blood might otherwise tell. Mael had seen to the wounds herself, carefully checked the Praedhc woman's vitals. After, of course. There had been nothing she could do for the others.

Mael grunted and adjusted her grip, comforted by her burden's shallow breathing. Almost there. Almost there. She wasn't sure what would happen when she arrived at the village, but knew she had to go. She sighed, and re-balanced the emissary on her shoulder a moment so she could pat the pocket where she'd stashed the book. Not the book Yan had been transcribing at the end, no, that she'd burned. The other one. She wasn't going to let this all be for nothing.

After all, nothing really should be free.

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