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Chapter 12: Phantasms and Deceptions

Len hissed and drew her sword partway from its sheath, though she wasn’t sure how effective a weapon it would be against this strange apparition. At her side she could see her fellow mercenaries also tensing for a fight, save for Yhani, who continued to regard the newcomer with a calm, even expression. The kalashtar elders, also did not seem to be alarmed; Ganharath merely rose from his seat and walked forward, the others trailing behind.

“Inharanath,” he said mildly as he came face to face with the apparition. “I see you have a new Vessel, but I know you nonetheless.”

The Inspired – Inharanath – merely shrugged. “Human flesh quickly grows weary,” he said, “as you no doubt are aware, child of Harath. But such is the devotion of our subjects that there are always more, willing to stand forth and serve.”

If Ganharath was at all offended by his words, he didn’t let it show. “You must have expended a great deal of effort to manifest yourself here,” he said. “I’m curious what message the Inspired thought was of such urgency that you were willing to go to such lengths to deliver it. You know we shall never cease to oppose you until the Age turns and the Dark is no more.”

“Maybe he’s not here just to talk,” Len muttered. “I don’t know a whole lot about psions; how much power can he wield in this form, anyway?”

“Thankfully, very little,” Ganharath said, a faint smile tugging his lips at the obvious displeasure on Inharanath’s face. “This technique is primarily a tool of communication, or for espionage. But we have little to worry about when it comes to that here; Adar is defended by the Shroud that Taratai our teacher raised before she was lost to us, and it blocks most intrusions; he can see the people to whom he is speaking, but I doubt much else. And though manifesting psionic abilities through this projection is possible, with the Shroud’s interference I think that Inharanath would not be able to manage it, and would simply lose the connection instead. No, I think we are safe from direct attack from him now.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” Len said, and let out a breath she’d been barely aware she was holding. Carefully, she slipped her sword back into its sheath and looked to Ganharath. “That still leaves the question – who is he and why is he here?”

“My name is Inharanath, Lord General of the Tenth Legion,” he said, bowing at the waist. “The naval forces you evaded earlier today had been placed under my command as well, and I applaud your skill at escaping them – though of course I regret the loss of life and the damage to the vessels. No doubt the kalashtar have filled your heads with horror stories concerning my kind, but I assure you that we desire only to rule our glorious empire in peace. I did not wish to use force on you, but you refused to cooperate peacefully and Captain Tulchasar panicked. I assure he has been… chastised for his error.”

“You have nice manners for body-stealing tyrant,” Rinnean said, crossing his arms casually. “Personally, I can’t say I disapprove of your manners or your methods – Sovereigns know, I’ve done things I’m not proud of – but I do have to take exception at your men shooting at us earlier. So why don’t you just get to the point and stop trying to butter us up?”

Inharanath pursed his lips. “Very well,” he said. “We received intelligence that you seek a relic buried somewhere in or near our domain. My brother and sister Inspired do not consider this matter to be of significant interest; I do. I believe such a weapon could greatly benefit the stability of Riedra – or threaten it, in the wrong hands. For obvious reasons, I would prefer this not happen. Therefore, I propose an arrangement. Come to Riedra; meet me on the border of Adar, near Kasshta Keep. I will provide an escort to the location of this relic, and my soldiers will help you retrieve it. In return, I request that the relic be turned over to the Inspired for study. You will be well-compensated for the device itself, and permitted to return to your homeland in peace.”

“How did he know?” Thyra hissed suddenly when Inharanath stopped speaking; her eyes were wide with fear. Not wise, in Len’s opinion, but the girl’s words were already out and there was no taking them back. The Inspired merely looked superior, but Ganharath answered.

“Information has always been the Inspired’s greatest weapon,” he said warily. “They walk in dreams, inhabit bodies other than their own, bend the wills of others to serve them – and their own counsels are conducted in Dal Quor, where they cannot be observed or overheard. They rely on knowing everything about their enemies, while they themselves remain ever hidden.” He turned back to Inharanath’s image. “Which is why I have to wonder why you have miscalculated so strongly here, Lord General? I promise you that the kalashtar have not forgotten you, and we know better than any what your kind are capable of. We will not harm our guests, but neither will we permit them to leave Adar if they agree to your bargain.”

Ghazaan, Thyra, and Rinnean looked shocked, and Havaktri looked dismayed; Len waved them off with one hand. She thought she knew what Ganharath was going, and didn’t want any of them to make a scene. But the Inspired only smiled.

“As a show of good faith,” he said, “several kalashtar prisoners of war we hold will be returned to you if you permit them safe passage; this I swear by the heart of Dal Quor and the Dream of the Age.”

The elders glanced at one another from the corners of their eyes, and Len thought she could feel the faint rustle of telepathic communication; finally Ganharath nodded and met Inharanath’s gaze. “You will permit us to discuss the matter,” he said.

“I will,” was the reply. “I will return here tomorrow in this form to hear your response. Choose wisely.” Then he was gone.

“I fear he will not keep his word,” Yhani said finally, after a long silence. “I know little of the Inspired compared to some here, but what I do does not fill me with confidence that this… creature… will honor his promise. I suspect betrayal.”

“As do we,” said Ganharath. “Inharanath’s name is very old, and very hated. He is ruthless even by the standards of the quori, though more impetuous than most.” He regarded each of the travelers in turn. “If you wish to continue your mission, we must make plans to evade him.”

“All right,” Len said. “My people are tired; we’ve had a long day and need to get some rest. After that, let’s get started.”

///

Inharanath released the shoulder of the younger man at his side, a Chosen officer whose name Shaikatari hadn’t caught; the man groaned and pitched forward and two of the common soldiers who stood guard caught him and led him gently from the tent. Inharanath himself did not appear winded at all; he merely strolled over to the map of Sarlona and regarded it intently.

Finally, Shaikatari spoke. “That technique you used, Excellency,” she began, “I didn’t recognize it. I’m not technically a psion, but my education covered the fine points of that art, and I had never heard of an ability like that. The power to manifest an image in Adar was his, but somehow you manifested it! Forgive my inquisitiveness, but I don’t understand.”

“There are many paths to psionic power,” Inharanath said, but Shaikatari was relieved that he sounded pleased. “The path of the psion is one; the path of the soulknife that you walk yourself is another. My path is different still; someday, I will tell you more of it.” He paused. “You have further questions, Chosen. You doubt the wisdom of my course of action today.”

Shaikatari saluted. “Forgive my doubting, Excellency,” she said. “I merely wonder why you chose to appear to the kalashtar. You must know that wouldn’t hand the barbarians over to us; they’ve been our enemies for as long as Riedra has stood. Why waste your energy when you must have known the attempt would fail?”

“You think it failed?” Inharanath asked, and Shaikatari could hear the amusement in his voice. “No. I want to find whatever it is the barbarians seek. I could have left my hand hidden, waited until they left Adar of their own accord, but that might have taken some time, and with careful planning to evade our attentions. Now, I have revealed myself, and the threat will spur them into action at once, with less caution and planning than they might have used. Riedra is ours, Chosen, from every fortress-city to the smallest hamlet; tonight, I will commune with my fellow generals and order them to keep watch. I do not know by what way the barbarians will leave Adar, but it will be soon. And when they resurface, they shall be ours.”

///

Len threw herself down on the simple bed in the plain guest quarters Ganharath had escorted them to and stared up at the ceiling. On the other bed, Yhani had seated herself and begun to brush out her long hair; Len watched for a moment from the corner of her eye and wondered, not for the first time, why she bothered. ‘Hani’s hair always looked perfect, regardless of what she did with it. ‘Hani was always perfect. Len normally admired that in her; sometimes, it could be extremely frustrating.

Finally, the sound of Yhani’s brushing stopped and Len could hear the rustle of cloth as she turned towards her. “Len,” she said, “You are very good at keeping your feelings buried, but I know you too well for it to work on me. Something is bothering you; what is wrong?”

“It’s just this whole situation, ‘Hani,” the captain said, still staring up at the ceiling. “We know what’s going on now, or we think we do, so that’s better than that trip to Karrnath, but still. We’re on another continent, in a country most people in Khorvaire have barely heard of, getting ready to make a trip after another artifact that damn rakshasa probably wants. Oh, and it looks like we’ve just made another enemy, one who’s also immortal and happens to be one of the rulers of the most powerful empire in Sarlona, if not the whole world. You could say I’m feeling a bit on edge.”

Yhani was silent for a long moment, and Len could almost feel her disapproval. “Please, dear heart, do not lie to me,” she said. “All of that may be bothering you, but it is not really what is weighing on your heart. If you do not want to talk about it, I understand, but please do not insult me with an explanation that you know is not true.”

Len sighed and sat up; as she did so, she relaxed some indefinable muscle in her face and let her whole body change. She could feel, though not see, the color drain from her skin, leaving it ashen grey; her hair came loose from its braid and hung lank and white down her back, while the features of her face lost their distinction and both pupil and iris faded from her eyes. When she looked back up at Yhani, it wasn’t as the human she so often pretended to be, but as what she truly was – a changeling.

Yhani’s eyes widened slightly – it wasn’t often that Len chose to show her true face, even to those who knew her best – but then she merely nodded, as if waiting for her to continue. Len drew a deep breath, and then she began. “There’s something about this place, ‘Hani,” she said. “This whole trip really. The kalashtar may not be a very old race, but Sarlona is old, full of memory and heritage. This is the place humans came from, you know, crossing the sea from Sarlona to Khorvaire thousands of years ago and conquering it. Galifar, the Five Nations, the Dragonmarked Houses – it all has its roots here. And the kalashtar do have history, stretching back to the Realm of Dreams, like Havaktri told us about. And you have history that’s even older – that’s what your little speech was all about, wasn’t it? History and heritage and knowledge. And Ghazaan’s got the Dhakaani Empire in his heritage, and Harsk has the druids, and Thyra has her church.

“Changelings have no culture, ‘Hani. I don’t have history or heritage. My kind, we’re like those crabs that live in other creatures’ cast-off shells. I barely even remember my birth parents, so I don’t even have that much to ground myself on. We flit into the cracks in civilization, change ourselves to fit in, live our whole lives in disguise. We reinvent ourselves to become whatever we need to be to survive, and then we do it again and again, but who are we, anyway, when we’re alone and shapeless? You know I tell people that I prefer to take human shape to escape how changelings are persecuted, but that’s not it at all. I do it because I’m afraid that if I ever stop playing a part and just let myself be me, I’ll realize that there isn’t really anything under the mask, that there isn’t really a ‘Len’.” She hung her head. “You’re a rock, ‘Hani. You know who you are, where you come from, where you’re going. You’re unshakable. And I don’t even know what I am.”

Yhani stood and quietly crossed the room; seating herself beside Len, she put an arm around her shoulders. “Do not talk like this,” she said, and there was force in the quiet words. “Maybe you do not know who you are, but I do. I know you stood against the Karrn forces when all of the officers were dead, and thanks to your leadership we held the border fort. I know you showed me all the wonders of Sharn, and I saw you laugh at the street performers’ show, that you were outraged at the watchmen who used their authority to bully the common people, that you wept when we took the skycoach tour and you saw all the city’s lights spread out beneath us, though you tried to hide it. I know you kept us together after the War ended and you made sure we would all still be able to earn our living, that you wanted to help Thyra even after she lied to us because you saw that she was frightened and alone.

“You are a great many things, Len, and that is why I love you. You say I am solid, like a rock? You are something different, dynamic and adaptable, but always at your core I see the determined, courageous person I have come to love. Perhaps you do not feel you have the histories some do, but I say, you are Len. And perhaps that is enough.”

Len looked up at her and smiled, barely trying to hide the tears that trickled from the edges of her eyes. “Do you really mean that or are you just trying to make me feel better?” she asked. “It all sounds good, but I’m not sure I actually live up to it.”

Yhani took Len’s face in her hands and pressed their foreheads together. “I am a priestess, dear heart,” she said. “I know things. And I will have faith for both of us, if I must. Now, as patient and understanding as I may be, if you say such foolish things about yourself again, I shall have to slap you.” Len managed a smile through her tears, and Yhani smiled back. “Now be still,” the priestess said. “We must rest, for we have much to do tomorrow, and I fear little time to do it. But know this – whatever you may think of yourself, you are neither lost nor alone.”

///

Inharanath is an Inspired, and they never play direct or obvious games. In this case, he deliberately showed his own hand to force our heroes’, and he considers himself fully prepared for any attempt to evade his attentions. Of course, the kalashtar have some tricks up their sleeves too, and are used to Inspired ploys, but we’ll have to wait until next time to see what Ganharath has in mind.

In game terms, Inharanath isn’t a psion; he’s something a bit more specialized. His abilities are based off of a Pathfinder psionic class, but I’ll see if anyone can guess which one. We’ll see more of what he can do before the story is over.

Len’s identity crisis is something I’ve been planting the seeds for across several chapters (and has been in the back of my mind for the character since before I started work on the first fic), and this isn’t the end of that subplot, despite Yhani’s encouraging words. As a changeling, she has a somewhat different understanding of what identity means than most other people would (or how we would typically use the term in modern discourse) and we’ll be getting more into that later, but it definitely influences her fears that she’s just an empty shell playing a part. Also note the reference to Len’s parents as a further reason why she doesn’t feel connected to any sort of meaningful heritage – we’ll get more into them as we dig deeper into Len’s backstory down the line.

-MasterGhandalf


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