“How many will ever see a devil in their lifetime? Evil first the province of men, for it is we who inflict it to each other.”
– Isocrates the Harsh, Atalante preacher
Constanza could have blamed it on the potion, but now she knew better: it’d been her. She’d gotten too comfortable, too soft. When the fat men from Mercantis came waddling into camp, asking about her latest breakthrough, she’d paid it no mind. Lysander had called her work a potion of mind reading, but it wasn’t exactly that: it didn’t narrow in on thoughts so much as desires, and only did so in a shallow way. You’d be lucky to get anything at all off someone unless they were looking at the very thing or person they desired. She told Merchant Lord Marius as much when he rudely came to her workshop and pestered her about it, but it didn’t put him off. He offered to buy her entire stock on the spot.
“No interested,” Constanza told him.
He didn’t take that well. Had a tantrum, but she bribed Archer with a philtre of warmth to toss him out and break the legs of his impolite bodyguards. A bit of a waste, she realized, since Indrani would likely have done it at half the price. Archer’s hate for the Consortium was a lazy one, rarely worked on, but no shallower for that. She’d thought it would be the end of it, but come morning Marius was bothering her again with a fresh set of twice as many bodyguards. Constanza, irritated, went to the Lady about it. Ranger was roasting manticore flesh over a cooking fire, and she deigned to listen until her midday meal was ready to eat.
“So get rid of them,” the Lady of the Lake said after the tale was told.
Constanza grit her teeth.
“Is Refuge not your domain?” she said. “Why are we even here, if not for you to protect us?”
The Lady of the Lake glanced at her calmly.
“To learn lessons,” Ranger said.
It looked like a dead end, but Constanza would wait. Maybe the great lady would be bothered to actually help out for once. Only the following day Merchant Lord Marius was back with a company’s worth of mercenaries and a smug grin.
“You’re a fool,” Constanza scorned. “You think you can come into Refuge with soldiers and do what you want? She’ll kill you all, then head to Mercantis and kill a few more just to make a point.”
“It’s you who’s the fool,” Marius laughed. “She’s not more above being bribed than anyone else. No one’s coming to help you. I’ll have your stock, now, and your oath never to sell to another.”
She told them off, raising her voice, but no one came. They battered down her door with a bench, ransacked her workshop and the Merchant Lord paged through her notes with idly interest.
“I’ll be wanting that water-breathing potion too, the moment you’ve finished it,” he said. “It was a pleasure trading with you, Concocter. I’ll be expecting ten mind-reading potions ready in a fortnight, when we return.”
He set down a single silver for every potion he’d taken, smiling pleasantly. Constanza grit her teeth, let it go, and the moment she could she ran to camp. She offered trades, very advantageous ones, but no one took her up on it. It was Lysander who explained why.
“The Lady said she’d allow it,” Beastmaster said. “No one’s willing to go against her.”
Constanza choked on her rage. All this just to teach her a lesson? The Merchant Lord and his entourage left that afternoon and life in Refuge seemed as it always had been, until Marius came back two weeks later. And, just like last time, he paid the Lady and she let him rob Constanza. Twice more it happened, until Constanza realized that the Ranger had no intention of stopping. Even when she’d refused to make potions and Marius had ordered the mercenaries to beat her every day until she did, the Lady of the Lake had done nothing. The lessons weren’t going to end. No one was going to help her. So Constanza went gathering herbs, deeper in the Waning Woods than she’d been in years, and shut herself into her workshop.
When Marius and his mercenaries next came, she opened the cauldron in her workshop and hastily drank down the antidote as the poisonous fumes killed everybody else within forty feet.
The antidote had allowed her to avoid death, but not without a price. Her veins were burning and she was short of breath, she could barely move without shaking. And still Constanza dragged herself up and she walked to the Ranger’s fire, sitting across the old monster.
“Safety at the mercy of another is not safety,” the Lady of the Lake mildly said.
“All that so I’d learn to kill?” Constanza rasped.
“Next time,” the Ranger smiled, “they will not press.”
And Gods damn her, Constanza thought, but she was right. Mercantis would never trouble her again. And worse still, she’d been right about the rest. When it came down to it, all the bargains she had made, the relations she had struck up, they’d been worth nothing. No one had helped.
She would not forget that, the Concocter decided.
By the time they’d crossed from Helikean territory to Nicean, Alexis had grown weary of travelling. It wasn’t that she wasn’t learning from the Lady, on the contrary: with only the two of them on the road, she’d gotten more spars and tricks out of the Ranger than she’d dared to hope for. It was just that the lands around here were, well, drab. A little further east, where the borders of four cities if the League reached the sides of the same fertile valley, at least the bland plains and fields might have been broken up by some of the raids and squabbles that stories insisted flared up at least once a month. Instead they’d kept further west, to keep to the road and make the quickest journey to Nicae itself.
The Silver Huntress had doubts that the artefact the Lady had left to obtain would be the real deal, though. The people that came from Mercantis to earn the Ranger’s favour with useful information usually knew better than to bring her anything untrue, but drow artefacts were so unheard of it was a pretty dubious lead. The Lady wanted to get past the great enchantment that kept her out of the Everdark, though, so she was willing to chase down even the shadiest of rumours. Wasn’t Alexis’ problem if it didn’t pan out, anyway, was it? She’d fought Lysander for the right to accompany the Lady on the trip so she’d be able to learn from the woman, nothing more.
A few more days and the stretch of the road took them past a few villages and near the fortress town of Alchodon, which was when Alexis got to rue her words. She’d wanted excitement and she got it: smoke was trailing into the sky as swaths of the fields behind them burned, a lumbering column of armed men marching down the road.
“Interested?” the Lady asked.
“I can’t make out who it is,” Alexis admitted.
“You can,” Ranger corrected. “Let me teach you.”
She picked up sharpening her eyesight after only three tries, which the Lady praised her for even though archery-based Named tended to find easiest. The column was all soldiers, Alexis saw, men with long spears and polished armour.
“Spears of Stygia,” she said, even though no banner was flown. “But what are they here for?”
“Look further behind,” Ranger said.
Alexis did, and found horror. Wagons of people, dragged along. Men and women and children, in heavy chains and whipped when they slowed.
“Slaves,” the Silver Huntress said. “This is a slave raid.”
She turned to look behind her, at the looming walls of Alchodon. Atop the ramparts dozens and dozens of armed men, soldiers of Nicae, were watching the smoke rise into the sky. Watching their people being dragged away like cattle.
“What are they waiting for?” Alexis bit out. “They’re headed east, Ranger, back towards Stygian territory.”
The Lady of the Lake glanced at her, looking almost amused.
“They won’t come out.”
The Silver Huntress balked.
“That’s nonsense,” she said. “There’s got to be at least as many of them as the Spears in that fortress. Why wouldn’t they come out?”
“There’s talk that Helike is on the rise again,” the Lady said. “And Atalante is already busy squabbling with Delos over trade routes, so there’ll be no help from there if Helike comes knocking at the door. They’re going to let the Stygians go because the Strategos doesn’t want to be stuck in a war with Stygia when the Helikeans start marching.”
“But the Stygians are raiding them,” Alexis said, aghast. “They have a duty. There’s laws!”
“Take that as the lesson worth learning from this trip, Alexis,” Ranger said. “There is no law, save the tyranny of the strong.”
“That’s childish,” the Silver Huntress growled.
“It’s honest,” the Lady corrected. “All these laws and treaties and oaths, they all rest on the same foundation: someone is strong enough to enforce them. The moment that’s no longer true…”
She glanced at the smoke in the distance.
“Don’t get hung up on law,” the Lady said. “It means nothing once strength weighs on the balance. My family spent years travelling across Calernia when I was young, hunted by the Emerald Swords. And always princesses and kings swore all in their cities were protected, that gifts would be repaid in kind, that there were laws about this.”
The Ranger chuckled.
“How quickly those words wilted, when bodies began hitting the floor,” she said.
“That was wrong,” Alexis said.
“You can believe that, if you want,” the Lady smiled. “Act on it, even. Change the world. But to achieve that-”
“- I’ll first have to be strong,” the Silver Huntress murmured.
And it rang true, that was the worst of it. Alexis felt a kindling of rage at the thought that even trying to prove the Lady wrong she’d be proving her right. Was there no way? No, the Silver Huntress told herself, that was the wrong way to think.
She just needed to keep fighting, and one day she would win.
It was hard to predict how the Lady would react to being pressed for tutelage. It changed with her mood, her whim of the moment. Lysander had seen that boldness often paid off, though, so when she asked him why she should bother to teach him how to track manticores he boldly replied.
“I am the strongest of your pupils,” the Beastmaster said. “Second only to you.”
Neither Archer nor Alexis were his match when he brought his menagerie to bear and the Concocter’s path to survival was one of utility, not strength. The Ranger smiled at his words, eyes mild, and his hopes soared.
“Are you now?” she asked.
She rose and left. He knew better than to follow, his stomach tightening with worry. He heard what she’d done only the following morning, when he went to buy a fresh set of flints from a peddler and found himself refused.
“The Lady says you’re cut off,” the peddler said. “You’re a good lad, but not that good.”
Not a soul in Refuge would trade or gift him so much as a blade of grass. Lysander struggled to understand the lesson, thinking it nothing but petty discipline, until the third day. When he’d finished the last of his dried meat to feed Old Beggar and found there wasn’t enough left for Strider, his wolf. He went hunting, but it was barely enough. And when he returned Abraxon, his Atalantian sharpbeak, had grown hungry. The Beastmaster had twelve beasts in his menagerie, the most that he could Masterwithout strain, and now that he could no longer trade he found himself buckling under the weight of keeping them fed.
He spent all his days hunting until dark and still barely kept them sated, but the strain was getting to him. When he was made to spar against Indrani, she brutally demolished him in three exchanges. The bruises would only slow him on the hunt, he knew, and what if he’d broken something? And so Lysander limped back to the Lady of the Lake, who sat by her fire with a deer skewer in hand and watched him with mild eyes.
“I can’t,” the Beastmaster admitted. “It’s too much.”
“Borrowed strength will always turn on you,” the Ranger said. “It’s one of the first things my mother taught me. Do you begin to understand, now? If your strength relies on others-”
“- it can be stripped from you by them,” Lysander quietly finished. “Yes. I understand.”
“Good,” the Lady said. “You may trade again. Do not forget the lesson.”
Lysander wouldn’t, he swore it. He would not be had like this twice, be made a fool of.
He would never need anyone ever again.
“I have a test for you,” the Lady said.
“Yes,” Indrani replied.
Ranger looked at her, face fondly amused.
“Not going to ask what it is?”
Archer was not. Last time she’d taken a test she had killed Merchant Lord Septimus and taken the scarf she now wore day and night. She was, if anything, eager for another.
“I’ll find out when I need to,” Indrani said.
“It might kill you,” the Lady warned.
“So could crossing a river,” Archer said. “Fear is a shackle.”
The Lady looked approving and Indrani hid her pleasure.
“You always say the right things,” Ranger said. “Now we find out if you mean them.”
Indrani was given a single ivory token and told to bring it to the other side of the Waning Woods. It sounded easy, which probably meant it was a trap. Archer was clever enough to always have a bag prepared in case she needed to leave, though, so when a riding party of fae struck the camp in the middle of the night she wasted no time running. It wasn’t the Wild Hunt, she reassured herself, not even the Lady would use them for a lesson. Right? Whoever they were, though, there were brutal and unrelenting. They had hounds with them, great snarling beasts that kept picking up her trail through rivers and even rain, and they were never more than half a day behind.
Archer kept moving. She never slept more than a few hours at a time and rarely at night. When she used up her rations she began eating berries and mushrooms, rarely catching fish. All was eaten cold, a fire would have gotten her kill within the hour. All that stood between her and death was the movement of her legs, so Archer moved. Always forward, never looking back, as the fae pursued her to snatch back the token the Lady had taken from them.
Inexplicably, it became easier. When she learned to let go of what was behind her, of what was ahead of her, there was only a present and the present was… easy. Entertaining, even. There was a surprise around every corner: an enemy or a treasure or a cursed tree. Indrani thought on her feet and kept moving, like a fish in the stream, and found one day that she was enjoyingthis. She was half-dead, exhausted and filthy but she was still having fun. That the fae were never far behind only made it better, forced her to stay sharp.
When she did reach the southern edge of the Waning Woods, Archer almost didn’t cross into the plains. It would mean an end to the test, to the game. But she’d been sent here for a reason, so she did. And as the ivory token turned to dust in her fingers, Indrani stood alone with the wind in her hair as before her the sun rose in the distance over Lake Calydon, she found her breath catching in her throat. An end to the journey, a horizon she’d never seen. Never looking forward or back, she thought. Like an arrow in flight. How many more horizons like this were still out there for her to chase? A hundred, a thousand?
Archer didn’t know, but she couldn’t wait to find out.
John had thought that bringing down a wyvern would please the Lady, but somehow it seemed to be the opposite. He honestly could not understand why.
“How did you kill it?” the Ranger repeated for the second time.
‘With my spear’ had not been well received, so this time he elaborated some.
“I threw a spear at it,” the Hunter said. “It grew angry. So I ran through the woods and its wings got caught in a branch. It broke my second spear when I tried to get its throat, but it knocked me back into a tree rotten on the inside and it toppled down over its body. I finished it off after.”
She looked even angrier. Somehow, John dimly felt that now might not be the time to ask for the spear lessons he’d been aiming to get out of her with a wyvern head trophy.
“Head to bed,” the Lady of the Lake said. “We’re going on a trip tomorrow.”
John beamed. He was going to get that training, after all. He must have misread her. He dropped in his bedroll for the deep sleep of the righteously victorious, only to wake up in the middle of the night. He was not, the Hunter immediately noticed, in Refuge anymore. Or in his tent. The trip must have started early, only where was the Ranger? This looked like no part of the Waning Woods he had ever been in, either, and already he could hear creatures creeping closer. He rose from his bedroll but immediately froze: there had been a tinkling sound.
Silver bells had been sown into his pants, tinkling every time he moved. The sound drove the beasts around him wild.
John skewered two lynxes leaping down from above in the two heartbeats that followed, but something larger was approaching. These were not good grounds to fight, the clearing was too small and he was not on the offensive. So he ran, the silver bells ringing as he did. He ripped a few of them off in a fury after the sound drew an entire flock of sorrow birds, but they were sown deep into his pants. He kept running, the sound drawing ever more great beasts from the depths of the woods as the smaller ones attacked him from every direction. Those bells were going to get him killed, John realized.
He took a risk and ripped off his own pants, wearing little save boots and vest, but with a swallowed scream he realized it wasn’t enough. Some of the bells were directly on his skin, glued there with some sort of dark paste. He tried pulling at them, but he was afraid he might rip out a muscle getting them off so he had to give up. John tied up his pants into a makeshift skirt and began running again, his spear slick with blood and his limbs tiring. He began taking wounds, inevitably.
A great cat ripped up his shoulder, a unicorn impaled him less than an inch away from his left lung and a cursed scarab burrowed into his bare knee before he managed to rip the insect out. He was slow and wounded, smelling of blood and fear, and still the damned bells drew more beasts to him. He wouldn’t make it back to camp, the Hunter realized. He wasn’t even sure he’d gone the right way. He was going to keep running and bleeding and getting slower until a creature finally got him. He was going to die here, alone in the woods with not a soul in sight.
Fear lit a fire in him, but it could not make up for bleeding wounds. A fight with a nesting drake went south on him, his slick spear sliding against the scales, and though he blinded the creature with his bare hands it mauled him before fleeing. He could see his own ribs, looking down. John tried to get up, hearing the tinkling of silver bells, but his vision blackened.
He woke up in his bedroll by a fire, his entire body hurting. He still had traces of his wounds, but they’d been greatly healed. Concocter, he thought, but it was not such a fond thought. It had occurred to him as he ran that the dark paste that’d kept those bells on him had likely been of her making. John saw them even now, a dozen of them placed atop neatly folded clothes. He found the Lady’s eyes across the fire.
“Why?” he asked.
“Luck will get you killed,” the Ranger said. “Even providence.”
“All heroes have it,” John pleaded. “I cannot be rid of it.”
“I know,” she said. “But there is a way around that, Hunter.”
A pause, her eyes went to the bells.
“Be good enough it won’t matter, when the luck fails.”
The Hunter hesitated. They had nearly gotten him killed, these silver devils. This very night. And yet he found his hand closing around one as the Lady of the Lake watched him. Slowly, carefully, he hung it in his hair. One, he thought. Only one. For now.
He would prove them all, the Hunter thought, that he was good enough to be one of them.
Five people sat around a fire waiting for the Lady of the Lake.
One wore her silence like an armour, even her face changed so it could not be known.
One clutched her weapons too tight, already leaning into fights she had yet to pick.
One sat away from the flame, seeing in even warmth the shape of the cage.
One smiled a little too sharply, showing teeth always looking to take a bite.
One wore silver bells in his hair and spoke too loud to others who did not listen.
Out in the dark, the Lady of the Lake smiled. They had learned her lessons well.