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Chapter 13: Looking Forward, Looking Back

Len stood in the courtyard with her cloak wrapped around her, the rest of the garrison standing around her in even ranks. A faint drizzle of cool rain fell from an overcast sky, and she could hear the muttering of the other soldiers as they wondered what this was all about and when they could get back inside. Ghazaan was standing a few rows down; he’d looked over his shoulder and winked at her when they’d first gathered, and now he was waiting quietly with everyone else.

The murmur of voices died down and everyone stood straighter as Commander ir’Ashryn, a graying, middle-aged human with a thick mustache, came to stand before them, his officers arrayed behind. Among them was a figure Len hadn’t seen before, tall and slender and completely shrouded in white; Len’s gaze fall on it and lingered, an uneasy feeling growing in her chest. Then the commander cleared his throat and began to speak. “Attention, everyone,” he said. “You may have been hearing rumors lately that Karrn forces have been sighted in southern Cyre and seem to be heading this way. On account of the Karrn push to the north, many of you may have discounted these rumors. I must now inform you that they are, in fact, true. Karrn scouts have indeed been sighted not far from here. High command fears they may be preparing for a major push in this direction while the rest of the Five are distracted by the fighting in the north. Therefore, I have decided to expand scouting patrols of our own to ensure that if such a push comes, we will have ample warning. All of you have been sorted into patrol squads based on the recommendations of your superior officers; you will receive your assignments shortly. Though we have not faced a serious threat in some time, I expect that you will all perform this duty to the fullness of your capabilities.”

It was all Len could do to keep from rolling her eyes, and she had a feeling she wasn’t the only one. But that was the commander for you; dull as dishwater, marginally competent at best, and entirely oblivious to both of those facts. But he wasn’t done quite yet; he gestured behind him and the white-shrouded figure approached, gliding silently through the mist like a ghost. Now that they were closer, Len could make out a delicate, pale chin and strands of silvery hair poking from beneath the figure’s hood – a woman, Len thought, though she wasn’t entirely sure. “This is Yhani,” the commander said. “She’s a priestess from Aerenal, and offered her services to the Brelish military as a healer and spellcaster. Apparently, her credentials checked out, because she was assigned to us, and she is to accompany the patrols. There are unconfirmed reports that the Karrns may be using their undead; Yhani has ways of dealing with such creatures. I expect her to be treated with the highest respect. That is all; you will report to your immediate superiors to receive your assignments. For King and country!”

The commander saluted and the garrison returned it; he then turned and departed. As the officers stepped forward and the soldiers began to gather around their own superiors, Len couldn’t keep her eyes off of the shrouded elf-woman who was following a step behind ir’Ashryn. Since when did the Aereni elves give a damn about what happened in Khorvaire, anyway? And why would a priestess with sufficient magical power to best he Karrnathi undead sign up with Breland, and get assigned to a backwater
here? Something didn’t add up, and all of Len’s instincts told her that this was a setup, though for what, she couldn’t say.

In any case, Yhani – or whatever her real name was – bore watching.

///

The wind howled across the Tashana Tundra under a black night sky, scattering snow and chilling to the bone anyone unfortunate enough to be caught out in it. Ir’Sarrin’s company had taken shelter earlier that evening in a small cave under a rocky overhang and most of them now lay asleep around a flickering fire, the skeleton warriors standing watch along the cavern walls like macabre, unyielding sentinels.

Irinali sat by the cave entrance with her furs wrapped around her, staring out into the darkness with elven eyes that saw far even with limited light. The empty, frozen desolation repelled her, and yet at the same time it fascinated her; try as she might, she found she couldn’t tear her gaze away. The cold wind seemed to shear away all edges, all imperfections, leaving behind something at once fascinating and horrible – like the Mournland, in some ways, save that the Mournland had been the product of magic gone mad, while the Tashana Tundra had been shaped by no hand but nature’s. And yet, in the distant north Irinali could just make out flickering lights in many colors that added to the otherworldly air.

She hated, of course; hated it in her bones. But it was fascinating nonetheless.

“It makes me wonder,” a soft voice said, and Irinali turned to see ir’Sarrin seat himself beside her. “Is this what Dolurrh is like? A cold emptiness that wearies the souls of the dead until nothing remains of them to tie them to their living selves? Is this what Alayria faced, in the end? Is this what our children faced? Nothing but darkness and cold and wind that slowly ate them away into nothing?”

Irinali started; it had been a long time since she’d heard Kharvin speak the name of his dead wife aloud. To her surprise, she found herself resting a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t know what awaits in the Realm of the Dead,” she said. “My business is mostly with bodies, not souls. But I’ve never read any study of Dolurrh suggesting it was this cold or windy.”

Ir’Sarrin snorted. “Some comfort, at least,” he muttered. For a long time the two of them sat silently, starting out over the tundra, before the warlord finally spoke again. “I know you’re not very religious, Irinali,” he said. “I wasn’t either when I was a young man. I followed the Sovereigns – Aureon, Dol Dorn, Onatar – but mostly out of habit. I never really believed. It was Alayria who introduced me to the Blood of Vol, you know. I didn’t much credit it at the time – it seemed like a bunch of superstitious nonsense. But then, as the war dragged on and my family started dying, it started to make more sense. Maybe Dolurrh isn’t like this tundra, but this life is. We are at the mercy of forces beyond our control, beaten down and used up until nothing remains.” He clenched his fist, and there was a fervent light in his eyes. “But we can change it, Irinali! That’s the great gift of the teachings of Vol – they take the power out of the hands of cruel gods and put it back in the hands of mortals, where it belongs. People say that the Blood of Vol offers no hope, but I say it is the only religion in this world that truly does. I believe that death, the scourge of existence, can be vanquished – maybe not in this generation or the next, but someday.” His voice broke. “Can you think of it, Irinali? A world free of death, of pain, where no one will have to experience losing the ones they love again? That’s the world I would build. In the Queen’s service, we can bring a new age to Karrnath, and then to Eberron itself!”

He’d said all this before, of course; Irinali was familiar with her patron’s dark moods. But something in the night’s darkness seemed to pull it all out of him at once, and she’d rarely seen him so – raw. She didn’t share his faith – though there were many ways by which a skilled necromancer could live on past mortal life, and she fully intended to make use of them when her time came, she didn’t believe it was possible to eradicate death entirely. And the Karrns were just another nation, not some chosen people. Still, she rested one of her hands gently on his. “It’s a glorious vision, Kharvin,” she said. “I hope I could be there to see it.”

Irinali realized that she did. She didn’t think it would ever come to pass, but a part of her almost wished it could.

“I don’t know if this thing we’re seeking can help in that cause,” ir’Sarrin said quietly, nodding at her. “But if the Queen desires it, I believe it must be valuable. This time, we’ll succeed – I know it. And in the end, it will all be worth it.”

By ‘all’, Irinali knew, he didn’t mean just this quest – he meant all the trials and losses the family ir’Sarrin, and indeed all of Karrnath, had ever gone through. She didn’t think there was any prize worth that much, but she didn’t have the heart to say it out loud.

///

Thyra stepped into the Elders’ audience hall the next morning with Havaktri following close behind. The kalashtar seemed to almost be radiating an air of mixed wonder and familiarity at finally seeing places that had been in her mind all her life; Thyra wasn’t sure if she could feel it because of her own developing thought-reading abilities, or just because Havaktri was simply projecting that strongly. Either way, her pleasure was difficult to miss, and the sorceress found herself feeling a strong sense of happiness for her friend.

The others were already gathered in the center of the hall; the two young women took up their position near Len and Yhani. Looking around the circle, Thyra saw that Rinnean looked dubious, Harsk curious, and Ghazaan nonchalant. Yhani was as serene as ever, but the sorceress couldn’t shake the feeling that Len was hiding something buried so deep that no one else could see.

“Where’s Captain d’Lyrandar?” she finally did ask, noticing who was missing.

“Apparently, he went back to his ship,” said Ghazaan. “This is our job, not his, remember. Think he’s seeing about getting Stormchaser fixed up and then trying to see whether anyone here might be interested in trading with him.”

“I suspect he will be successful at that,” Ganharath said; the kalashtar elder strode into the hall with one of the other elders, a woman who carried several long scrolls, at his side. “We get so few visitors from Khorvaire here that I expect many of our people will be interested in buying anything he has to sell, merely for the novelty. You, meanwhile, have plans to make. Jinkashtai has brought maps to help us.”

The woman elder – Jinakashtai – nodded and spread out one of the scrolls on the floor, revealing an intricately-detailed map of the continent. The mercenaries crouched around it, and then Yhani pointed to a spot in the far northern edge.

“That is where we need to go,” she said. “According to the map we found in the previous vault, this is the location of the second one. Havaktri told us that it is called the Tashana Tundra.”

“Yes,” said Ganharath, stroking his chin. “That land is little known to us, as all of Riedra stands between. I know only that it is cold, largely empty, and very dangerous.”

“Lovely,” said Rinnean. “And, as you so graciously pointed out, it’s on the other side of the damn continent, with an empire ruled by evil spirits in the way. Are we really expected to walk across the entirety of Riedra to find this vault? I think that Inharanath fellow would object to that, and it sounds like he has the resources to do something about it.”

“We could take the ship,” Harsk grunted. “Of course, then we’d have to worry about that blockade again. We got lucky once; maybe not so much next time.”

“There is a way,” Ganharath said slowly. “There are different disciplines among the psionic arts, just as, I believe, there are different schools among your wizardry.”

“Yes, this is true,” Havaktri put in. “My abilities are in the areas of telepathy and psychokinesis, but there are others.” Suddenly looking mortified, she bowed. “Forgive my interruption, Honored Elder.”

“Forgiven, child,” Ganharath said with a faint smile. “Havaktri is right. My abilities lie in the area we would call in your language psychoportation – the use of the psionic arts to transport objects across distances. If I joined my will with the other elders and drew upon their power, I believe I could send you most of the way along your journey?”

Len arched an eyebrow. “So you could just teleport us instantly to the Tashana Tundra? Sounds convenient.”

“No,” Ganharath said. “I can only send you to a place that is familiar to me; I have never been to the tundra, and if any of my line have, these memories have never come clearly to me. I could send you here,” he pointed to an area in the north of Riedra. “This is as far as my direct knowledge extends. You would have to make the rest of the way yourself.”
“Sounds like we’d still have to cross part of Riedra, then,” Harsk said. “Better than walking the whole way, but it still could be tricky.”


“It sounds like we’ll need disguises,” said Len; she glanced at Rinnean, and he nodded in understanding. “I don’t think those Inspired would be easy to fool, but if we could get past some of the regular people, that would help.”

“Indeed,” said Ganharath. “Thyra should have no difficulty – Riedra is a vast land of many former nationalities, most of them human. Her hair and eyes are unusual for this land, but not unheard of. Rinnean and Yhani should be able to pass as human, so long as they keep their hoods up and ears covered.” He looked to Harsk. “There are shifters in Riedra; they are not common, but the Inspired often use them as trackers and scouts. One of your group, however, is not what she appears.”

For a terrible moment Thyra thought he meant her, and that somehow her rakshasa heritage would be a danger to the mission. A moment later, however, and she realized that he didn’t mean her at all – Ganharath was staring directly across the circle, at Len. She regarded him evenly for a long moment, then lowered her gaze.

“You’re right,” she said. “I’m a changeling. Is that going to be a problem?” She looked back up, and her eyes were hard.

Ganharath raised an eyebrow. “Not at all,” he said. “Changelings are honored in Riedra; the Inspired hold that your race’s mutable forms are a sign of great spiritual advancement, and in their empire changelings typically hold positions above those of ordinary humans, though of course below the Inspired and their Empty Vessels. Your presence could be a great aid to your friends.”

Len sat back on her heels, a stunned look on her face. “I know some people back home who’d laugh their asses off to hear that,” she finally said. “Let’s just say that changelings aren’t so well-off in Khorvaire and leave it at that.” She shook her head. “By the Traveler, you hear something new every day. So, what about Havaktri and Ghazaan?”

“There are none like him in Sarlona,” Jinkashtai said, speaking the common language of Khorvaire in a somewhat halting voice. “Could be a problem.”

“Maybe not,” Thyra said thoughtfully. “I’m an illusionist – among other things. Maybe I could make Ghazaan appear human, at least long enough to fool anyone who got too close.”

“Well, that’s embarrassing,” Ghazaan said. “Imagine if you couldn’t take it off and I got stuck looking like a scrawny twig-man with no teeth? I’d never be able to show my face in public again!” Nonetheless, he was smiling. “But I’ve done worse things for a job than that. If Thyra thinks she can pull it off, I’m willing to let her try.”

“And what about me?” Havaktri asked. “I know that I’m knew to this continent, but I’m kalashtar and I know my history. If the Inspired find me and realize what I am, they’ll kill me. I know that for sure.”

“There is a way,” said Ganharath. “It is very dangerous, but one our people have used successfully before. Riedra is a strictly hierarchical society; the people are taught from an early age to obey those above them without question. It makes them formidable, disciplined foes – but it is also a weakness we can exploit. The quori have bred their Empty Vessels to be in tune with Dal Quor, making them idea for possession – you have noticed, no doubt, that this connection also gives them a striking appearance. As it does we kalashtar, who are bound from birth to rebel quori. A kalashtar or an Empty Vessel will always stand out in a crowd of ordinary humans – but, by a twist of fate or our connection to the Realm of Dreams, we resemble each other remarkably. Enough for impersonation to be a viable tactic.”

“Are you suggesting what I think you are?” Len asked. “’Cause if you’re saying Havaktri should pretend to be an Empty Vessel – or even an Inspired – that sounds damned dangerous, and I’m not going to force her to do it if she doesn’t want to.”

“An Empty Vessel would be easier,” said Ganharath. “Travelling as an Inspired would put you above questioning, but even in Riedra Inspired are not so common as to pass without comment, and when the real Inspired heard of it, they would know Havaktri was not one of their brethren. Empty Vessels are more common. But possession leaves no sign, so it would be possible to change the story to suit the circumstances. Either would grant you authority to pass through Riedra unchallenged, unless your deception was discovered.”

“You don’t have to do this, Havaktri,” Len said. “We can find another way if you want.” Thyra reached out and put a hand on the kalashtar’s shoulder, trying to direct her thoughts toward her friend and let her know that whatever she chose, she supported.


Havaktri looked down at her hands for a long, silent moment, then back up first at Len, then at Ganharath. “I’ve heard that impersonating an Inspired carries a death sentence,” she said. “But then, so does being a kalashtar in Riedra. I don’t think this puts me in any worse position than I would already be in.” She sat up straighter and squared her shoulders. “What must we do?”

///

We get a bit more Len backstory today, including her first glimpse of Yhani. We’re starting to come up on events Ghazaan mentioned when talking about how they met, so we’ll see how that plays out before long.

Irinali and ir’Sarrin have an interesting dynamic; two very different people bound together by common cause and mutual respect, it’s not the sort of thing you see that often among villains. Irinali wouldn’t risk her life for ir’Sarrin or his cause – I think the end of the last fic showed that -but she’s loyal otherwise, and he’s probably the closest thing she has to a friend. Here we also see a bit behind the mask of ir’Sarrin himself; beneath the fanatical and driven warlord is really a weary old man who’s lost everyone he loved, desperately clinging to the cause he thinks will give some meaning to his loss.

And of course, our heroes get ready to put their plans in order, and will soon be joining the hunt for the vault. Havaktri’s deception has been in the works for a while – we’ll have to wait and see if she can pull it off (the same goes for Len’s discovery of the role of changelings in Riedra). And of course, we’ll also have to wait and see if this will actually blindside Inharanath at all, and what he intends to do about it…

-MasterGhandalf


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