Author: Chris Cook
Tara was glad to be back on dry land. The voyage from Tran Athulua had taken a week aboard one of the twin-masted merchantmen that ran the trade route between the Amazon Isles and Kingsport, and while it hadn't exactly been unpleasant, Tara had found that every now and then she needed to get up on deck and fix her eyes on the stable, steady horizon to quell the unusual feeling in her stomach. She had hoped to see one of the giant trade flagships that Solari sometimes talked about, strong enough to brave the wild currents of the channel between the Twin Seas to the north, and reach the wealthy ports of Lut Gholein and Kurast, but they were few and far between, and none were expected to reach the Isles anytime soon.
Still, Tara had not been disappointed in her first experience with sea travel, mild nausea notwithstanding. The merchantman, named the Duchess Olivia, was a sleek vessel, if somewhat wider around the middle than the Amazon sloops Tara had seen moored off the coast of her home island, and Corius Marzon, the ship's captain, was a lively old man who took great and obvious pleasure in regaling his guests, over excellent dinners, with tales of the adventures he had seen in his younger days on the Great Ocean and the Sea of Light, far off to the east. Tara suspected some, if not all, of the stories had grown significantly in the telling over the years - if nothing else, she knew the flight of arrows and spears, which Marzon regularly exceeded in his accounts of the desperate battles he had witnessed - but the captain told a good tale, and she hadn't had the heart to interrupt. She suspected Tryptin, the head of the Amazon mission travelling with her, was equally sceptical, and had heard many of the tales before, but the quiet young man - being a diplomat - naturally let the captain believe he was enthralled by every word.
And after a week of good food, uneventful travelling and Tara wishing the waves would calm down a bit, the horizon of sea gave way to the southern edge of Westmarch. Tara had quickly made sure her few belongings were ready to be offloaded, and spent the rest of the day watching the land grow closer, the tiny dots become wallowing cargo ships and speedy launches, and the blurred shapes on the horizon become the stocky wood and stone buildings of Kingsport. Tara was impressed - she knew the city was one of the largest in Westmarch, the main port of trade for all those from the east who didn't fancy taking their chances with the caravan across the desert wasteland of Aranoch, but until she saw it with her own eyes she hadn't realised the scope of the construction. Everything in Tran Athulua was built in the trees, a part of the world as it had always been - homes, markets, official buildings and temples all supported by the great old trunks, the city a refinement, a civilised reworking of the forest itself. Tara had never before seen such a large community built on the ground, without the forest to support it. She wondered if the natives ever realised how artificial their home was, perched on bare land like a creature huddling down against the cold. Living in such a place seemed as strange as building a house with no supporting beams within it. Then again, she thought, perhaps to the people of Kingsport, the notion of an arboreal city was a fantastic and bizarre thing.
Not that building on open land didn't have its advantages, Tara mused, as she walked across the gangplank between the Duchess Olivia and the stone docks that stretched out into the bay before Kingsport. Until someone found a tree that likes growing with half its trunk underwater the Amazon cities were restricted to carrying out their loading and unloading of ships the old-fashioned way, with flotillas of launches moving between the moored vessels and the beaches. Tara took a moment to look back at the Duchess, which was already having its cargo unloaded by teams of men on the docks, using counterbalanced cranes that swung out over the deck of the ship - it was definitely more efficient.
It would take a few hours for the vessel to be completely offloaded and the Amazon mission to prepare itself to move from the docks, so Tara was free to explore the old city for a little while at least. Tryptin had given her a few pointers on how to get around and what to avoid, but Kingsport was known as a generally safe port for travellers, and Tara knew how to take care of herself if she had to. Besides, she thought with a tiny grin as she made her way along the dock towards the shore, she was not likely to be picked as an easy mark by any loitering robbers. Though the year was making its way inexorably towards winter, Kingsport was far enough south that the winds were still mild, so Tara wore no cloak or robe. Her light leather armour, built for speed and silent movement, was perhaps a little more revealing than she would have liked - strange, she mused to herself, she had never really considered it at home, but here where most people were covered from neck to ankle despite the warm sun on them, she was a little aware of the sidelong glances she was attracting. To be fair, though, the fact that she was carrying Solari's prized spear, Silverstrike, might account for a few of those. Tara's instructor had insisted she take the ancient weapon, a family heirloom that had no warrior heir, with Solari's children being all male. The polished shaft and curved moon-white blade certainly marked Tara as a warrior to passers-by, for all that she felt slightly overwhelmed to be carrying it.
She spent an enjoyable couple of hours browsing the busy markets that clustered around the docks, sampling the spices brought in from a dozen distant lands, and idly wondering what the vendors thought of an Amazon with an interest in cooking. She had drifted to the edge of the markets, near the older part of the city, a maze of two-storey stone buildings and twisting alleyways, when she felt a tickle on the back of her neck. She quickly scanned the faces around her, knowing better than to ignore her instincts. Ignoring the boisterous crowds her senses homed in on anything out of place, shifting the buyers and sellers into the background for a moment. She caught a glimpse of a thin female form, underneath a long, hooded cloak, just as it disappeared into an alleyway, and noticed three unkempt-looking men slowly drifting out of the crowd, following her.
She knew at once they meant to rob her - the way they held their arms guaranteed they had weapons hidden up their sleeves, and their gait was uniformly too casual, as they forced themselves to appear to be merely wanderers, rather than the predators they really were. Tara was already moving towards them, sliding between stalls and moving behind the crowd, making sure she was unseen. Getting into a fight was the last thing on her mind, let alone starting one - on her first day in Westmarch, too - but three large men stalking one small woman offended her deeply, more than just the notion of robbery in itself. From their mannerisms and expressions, she judged the men to be nothing special, and hoped that the appearance of an obvious warrior with a lethal-looking spear would be enough to scare them off.
She reached the mouth of the alley barely seconds after the trio had disappeared, and saw as her eyes adjusted to the gloom that the woman had slowed down, seemingly unaware of the danger. The men were almost on top of her, one casually strolling alongside her, intending to overtake her and cut off her escape, the other two moving silently behind her.
"Gentlemen," Tara said loudly, "looking for something?" It wasn't the most inventive challenge - Tara was glad not to have stuttered - but it did the trick. The man in the lead took one look at her and sped up, disappearing around the next corner in his best impression of an innocent bystander. Of the other two, one swore and shot a glance after his vanishing comrade, and the other turned to Tara and let a small cudgel fall out of his sleeve into his hand. Tara raised her spear and let her mind become clear, creating the focus just like Solari had taught her, sending a swift, silent prayer to the goddess Zerae to aid her. A ripple of lightning ran along the shaft of the spear, really nothing more than a demonstration, but as it reached the spear's tip and leapt forward, earthing into the cobblestones at the robbers' feet, it had quite the desired impact. Tara stared levelly at them, and raised an eyebrow when they met her gaze - in truth, she hadn't been able to think of anything to say, but they took her point and ran nonetheless.
"A-are you alright?" she asked the women once her would-be assailants had vanished.
"Oh yesss," came a soft, sensual voice from the shadows beneath the hood, "I was in no dangerrr... but your kindnesss is most grrratifying." Tara nodded her acceptance, even as she tried to place the woman's accent - it was a strange one, hissing and purring alternately. The hood twitched, as if the person beneath it had tilted her head in curiosity.
"You are new in ourrr city, yesss?" she asked.
Tara nodded again, then tried to contain her surprise as the woman drew back her hood and revealed a feline face, with wide, deep eyes, pointed ears and a flattened muzzle, all covered in fur so fine it looked like her skin was a glistening, sleek black, until the points of the tiny hairs caught the light.
"Few would go out of their way to help a strangerrr in a strange city," the feline woman said, as she and Tara walked along the edge of the market.
"I-I'm sorry to hear that," said Tara.
"You're a kind one," the woman said with a very catlike grin. "We have good instincts for people. You have cats in your home place?"
"Yes," Tara said, thinking of the very independent-minded cats that made their homes in the higher branches above the city.
"Well, you know they alwaysss spot who'll give them a rrrub behind the earsss," the woman said. Tara glanced at her, and realised she was making a sly joke.
"Don't get your hopes up," she said, smiling tentatively, "I'm j-just discouraging robbers." The woman grinned widely and made a purring sound that Tara guessed was her version of laughter.
"Heartbrrreaker," she teased. "Hmm, most of your kind act embarrassed if one of us draws attention to what we arrre... you're refreshing," she added with another grin - Tara was noticing she grinned a lot, and found it infectious. They came to a spacious tent set up in a corner of the market, where the cries of the food vendors gave way to the more sedate sounds of various wise men, mystics and fortune-tellers all subtly plying their trade with adventurous travellers.
"I am Mmrrrlrrr," said the feline woman, "as a frrriend, I invite you to my home." She said it formally, like a prayer or ritual, and Tara guessed it was a custom of her people. She thanked her and went inside, finding the tent comfortably-appointed, with a wooden floor and colourful tapestries covering the walls.
"Ma-re-la is alright," the woman said, following Tara in, "I don't think your voicesss quite have the knack of ourrr tongue."
"Ta-rrra," repeated Marela, "good name. Soundsss like 'night-eyesss' in my tongue, a good name."
"Th-thank you," said Tara, seating herself on a pile of cushions as Marela lounged opposite her, instantly looking comfortable and luxurious the way a cat would. "D-does your name translate?"
"You know," said Marela, twitching her tail idly, "I've been in this place five yearsss, and no-one has yet asked me? You're a strange people... just between you and me, in your language, it means 'Miss Kitty'." Tara bit the inside of her cheek to stifle a giggle. "I know," said Marela with a feline stretch, "but my motherrr was a traditionalist... besidesss, it's not an exact trrranslation. Saying it in human makes it sound... cute." She grinned and shrugged.
Tara and Marela chatted idly for a couple of hours, stopping once or twice as a customer peeked tentatively through the flaps of the tent, looking to have their fortune told. Tara sat off to one side on those occasions, as Marela purred in her speech more than usual, went through a few eccentric feline customs involving waving crystals around and scratching patterns on a thin wooden board with her claws, and generally making sure anyone who visited her came away with the impression that they'd got some genuine exotic wisdom. Tara recognised most of it as pure show, but something told her that Marela wove a bit of real magic into her act, dropping innocuous comments and advice into her spiel that seemed to take her customers by surprise.
When Tara finally had to take her leave of her new friend, seeing the sun beginning to set and knowing she should spend the night with the caravan, even though it wouldn't set out until the next morning, Marela asked her to wait a moment. Digging through a pile of cushions, which seemed to be the sole form of furniture for a feline, she produced a tiny amulet on a silver chain, which she offered to Tara.
"A token of grrratitude," she said, "for your selflessness, and your company. My pride is farrr away in the land your kind call Kehjistan, but if you should ever find yourself there, they will greet you as a guest, and know by thisss token that you are frrriendly to us." Tara thanked her and took the amulet, which she thought would match her armour and spear nicely.
"And if you ever rrreconsider that rrrub behind the earsss," Marela added, her eyes wide, "you know where to find me, mmm." She winked at Tara and wound her arm in the material of the tent flap, letting her robe fall open at the side just enough for Tara to catch a glimpse of the side of her body and her leg, all covered in silky black fur and nothing else, except a stripe of white running up her thigh.
"Th-thank you," she stuttered, knowing Marela was teasing - well, half-teasing, at least - but still not quite sure how to respond. The feline smiled and disappeared back into her tent as Tara took a last glance back, then made her way out into the market.
She arrived back at the docks just as the sun was finally setting. The docklands and markets were still lit by dozens of torches, almost as bright as day, and Tara had no trouble finding the space where the Amazon mission had set itself up. Half a dozen wagons were surrounded by various teamsters, Amazon merchants and a contingent of Kingsport guards, a mere formality in peacetime, but one the city gratefully extended to the visiting Amazons, knowing full well how valuable they would be as allies if times turned worse. Tryptin was chatting easily with the lieutenant commanding the guards, and took a moment out to direct Tara to the covered wagon she would be travelling in when they went on the road the next day.
"Oh," he added as Tara was walking away, "there's another traveller in there with you, hope you don't mind. Apprentice wizard or something, her credentials checked out, she'll be with us as far as Duncraig. Call me if you need anything." He didn't seem concerned at all, so neither was Tara as she drew back the canvas flap covering the rear of the wagon and stepped up and inside.
"Oh! Um, hi," said a voice from inside. As Tara's eyes adjusted to the low light of a single lamp, she saw a slim young woman sitting among a pile of bags and satchels, an open book in her hands, her bright eyes staring at Tara in wonder.
"I'm Willow," the woman said.
Willow finally finished stowing her travelling gear and satchels in the wagon and sat down among them with an exhausted sigh. She had been taught to travel light, and could survive for weeks with only the wilderness and the contents a small backpack to keep her going, but her training had omitted certain aspects of life on the road. Specifically, how to cope with being used as a pack-mule for the Order's library.
She frowned, remembering her appearance before the council. They had, at the time, seemed quite reasonable, much more like kindly old women than the stern matriarchs Willow had expected. Their speaker, a sorceress in her mid-fifties wearing white robes, had done her best to put Willow at ease as she stood before them, intimidated both by her surroundings and the knowledge of the power the council had over her. Ahead of her sat the council, six sorceresses in pairs representing the three elemental schools, and behind each pair stood one of the blind Oracles, who were the most sought-after type of initiate, and who never left the church once they had been brought in. To one side of the council, on Willow's right, stood a column of sandstone, deep red even in the gloom of the council chamber, seeming to glow from within - fire. To her left, a column of obsidian covered in an oily film that crackled softly as tiny sparks ran across it - lightning. Behind her stood the third column, made of ice that never melted, and she privately wondered if it was coincidence that the element she was most attuned to was the one positioned out of her view. The speaker, she noted, was from the lightning triad, and none of the ice triad ever spoke during her hearing, except to quietly pass their decision to the speaker.
"It has been decided," the speaker had said, her kind voice taking on an unfamiliar formality, "that while your courage and your desire to serve are proven, your natural aptitude towards magic has left you wanting in the more scholarly aspects of our tradition. It is as much our failing as any other's that you lack this insight, for all those we take among us are unique, and we forget that at our peril. Nevertheless, the failing has occurred, and must be rectified before you may return to Entsteig and your training.
"We therefore bestow upon you the duty to be our representative among the great schools of magics in Westmarch and Khanduras. It is necessary that one of our Order visit these places, for while their magics are not ours, and we do not wish them to be, our devotion to the pure magic of the elements does not mandate that we go in ignorance of lesser mages.
"You will be given funds and authority to study with mages and tutors who, though outsiders, are known and trusted by our Order. You will not practice their magics, but you will understand them, and bring your understanding to us when you return. They will no doubt give you many books and manuscripts for our library, but written words can only go so far - we require the insight that only first-hand knowledge can bring.
"While you perform this service to the Order, it is our hope that you will come to better understand our place within the world, and the place of our magics within the magic of nature. Thus you will acquire the learning we have so far neglected to offer you, and know why it is that we devote ourselves only to the purest ways.
"So speak the Zann Esu."
It had sounded good at the time, for Willow had always been aware that the requirements of the Order seemed unnecessarily restrictive, particularly their sole devotion to elemental magic. Yet all her tutors and seniors, including many powerful, wise women - Ember not least among them - accepted it without question. Willow was not so headstrong as to assume that they were merely afraid of other magics, so clearly there was a good reason, but so far she had failed to discover what it was. She had been told that impure magics were dangerous, liable to fail in unfortunate ways, or to cause untold harm to their practitioners, but that was true of any magic. Certainly elemental magic had more than its share of dangers attached, as any fool could see - trying to control a bolt of lightning strong enough to shatter a boulder, or an inferno that could melt steel, with only the power of one's mind was not a pursuit for the faint-hearted. Perhaps, then, the council had been right, and Willow did need to see other magics for herself, to find out why they were different.
She was now coming to believe, however, that her assignment to this task was more a matter of convenience than design. Following the instructions she had been given, she spent her first day in Kingsport after a tempestuous voyage through the Twin Seas seeking out four old mages who had made their homes in the city, two of them attached to the reformed Horadrim church, one of them a cleric of some minor order Willow wasn't too sure she understood, and the last a wizened old alchemist who, by the look of things, hadn't left his laboratory since before the Reckoning twenty years ago. Each of them had politely welcomed her, retrieved various scrolls, leather-bound volumes, maps and charts for her to take back to the Order, and just as politely shuffled her back out the door again. Grumbling to herself while stowing all of them in waterproof satchels and finding space for them in the wagon she had been placed in by the caravan master, she wondered if the council had just wanted her out of the way for a while.
The next morning Willow was surprised to see people being turned away from the caravan. This in itself was not unusual - when she had been in Entsteig there had always been more travellers seeking the safety of the caravans than could be accommodated, and the road between Kingsport and Duncraig saw far more travellers than anywhere in the north, even with the wealthy avoiding it in favour of the luxurious riverboats. But, so far as Willow could see, she and a pair of men - a gemstone dealer and his bodyguard, in the third wagon - were the only passengers among the half a dozen wagons.
After breakfast she asked Shan, the caravan master, what was going on in one of the rare moments when he wasn't being beset by hopeful merchants and travellers.
"Big party coming in today," he explained, in the terse manner Willow was beginning to think was a habit for him, "ship arrives soon, the Duchess Olivia. Booked the whole caravan months ago. Only needed five wagons, and we've got six, otherwise you and Jasken," he indicated the gem dealer, who was haggling with a trader outside his wagon, "would've had to wait. Diplomatic expedition, to the Baron's palace, then up to Duncraig to see the Regent. We'll take on new passengers then." He turned away as a group of wealthy-looking men began trying to bargain with him.
The caravan was parked near the docks, with only a handful of stalls and tents separating them. Willow kept out of the way of the teams of men moving cargo about, and found a foreman who didn't look like he had anything vital to do at the moment. She frowned as his eyes went to her figure first, but he straightened up and behaved more respectably once he noticed the Zann Esu sash around her waist and the staff in her hand, the wood inlaid with glittering veins of crystal.
"Ma'am," he said, adopting what he evidently hoped was a sufficiently contrite expression.
"Has the Duchess Olivia arrived yet?" Willow asked.
"No, ma'am," the foreman said hurriedly, "not yet, she's due this morning though and by all account the weather's been good on her course, so she should be in sight any time now. Are you boarding her, ma'am?"
"No," said Willow, "just meeting the passengers."
"Oh," said the foreman. "They're from Philios, you know, ma'am," he added hesitantly. Having not been turned into a frog, or whatever he seemed to fear was the result of inadvertently checking out a sorceress, he seemed to be regaining his nerve.
"Is that so?" said Willow icily. The foreman nodded, glanced around, hastily bowed a farewell and scampered away. Willow stared out to sea for a moment, wondering if any of the dim blurs on the horizon were ships, or just her imagination, then wandered back to her wagon.
She thought 'Philios' sounded like somewhere up on the Westmarch peninsula, but she couldn't find it there when she consulted one of the maps she had been given from the Order's library. She found a larger-scale map and scanned it lazily, hoping the name would catch her eye - the cartographers employed by the Order seemed to favour detail over clarity sometimes. She glanced over the coastline of Westmarch, the Gulf and even Entsteig, just in case she hadn't heard of the place when she had been there, all without result. It was only when she was on the verge of folding the map away that she chanced on the name, and her eyes widened. She double-checked, but she had read it correctly: Skovos, Lycander, Philios - the Amazon Isles.
Well, she thought, this should be interesting. She had never met an Amazon, but Ember had sometimes mentioned them, on the rare occasions she spoke of the Reckoning. Willow searched through the provisions she had brought with her, and found what she was looking for. Before she had been sent to Entsteig, Ember had given her a book she had written, a notebook she had made during her own travels. It was a rambling, disorganised volume the older woman had added to whenever she had thought something worth recording, but perhaps... Willow flipped through the pages, past instructions for mixing herbs, how to bury the dead to prevent reanimation, the methods of creating various staves imbued with elemental powers, what various shapes of clouds revealed about the state of the winds in the sky and sketches of dozens of minor predators, including instructions for dealing with them. Finally a quick drawing of a spear caught her eye - Amazons were spearwomen, she knew - and she read in more detail.
'It would no doubt amuse many to know,' Ember had written, 'that the reclusive Amazons are, in fact, among us in all the nations of Sanctuary. Though most, besides the nobility, hear only wild rumours of warrior-women, there are in truth as many men as women who serve the Amazon nation. And while the women, great warriors and mages after a fashion, remain on their island homes to protect them, their men travel widely as merchants, diplomats, teachers and apprentices in all trades. Thus their nation remains in contact with those of the mainland, their people learn new skills and crafts, and the majority of their women take husbands and live in a fashion not very much dissimilar to that of other nations, which would no doubt come as something of a disappointment to the brainless alcoholics who frequent the taverns around here, and tell lurid tales of tribes of women and their sexual exploits, which would, I imagine, cause a real Amazon to laugh aloud, were any of these fools to tell their tales in her presence. I must find better lodgings.' Part of the problem with Ember's notebook was that, though she was a perceptive observer of practically every aspect of the world around her, she tended to get sidetracked when it came to writing things down, particularly on her travels when she hadn't had the peace and quiet of the Order's church. Willow skimmed the next couple of paragraphs, which complained some more about the less sober denizens of Khanduras, where Ember had evidently been while she wrote this section, and related an amusing incident involving a man who hadn't known better than to make an indecent suggestion to a sorceress, and had left the tavern swearing never to drink again, unharmed but with his clothes burned to ash.
'It seems that this time of chaos,' Ember had written a few days later, 'has drawn the warriors of the Amazon nation out of their seclusion, so that they walk among us and sometimes, if one is fortunate, can be persuaded to exchange a little of their knowledge. My companion of the last few days is quite amiable, though she affects a stern countenance in public, and I have learned as much about her ways of magic as she has learned about the elements from me. Of the reason for her presence in this place at this time she has been vague, and I suspect that behind this secrecy lies some source of knowledge akin to our oracles. But it is certain that, as our Order has, the Amazons too have foreseen the rise of the Prime Evils, and sent their finest warriors to aid the cause of order.' She seemed to have stopped writing for a while there, because the next paragraph was in a different ink, and on the subject of the mastery of fire magic, which Ember had studied all her life. Willow searched the surrounding pages for more details, but there seemed to be none.
She had to admit she was a little disappointed. She had assumed there were Amazon men, of course - how else would they get more Amazons? - but she would have liked to have met a warrior. But the Reckoning, the great battle against the Prime Evils, had been twenty years ago, and since then the Amazon women had been just as scarce as they had been before. Willow doubted a diplomatic expedition to Duncraig required the presence of any warriors. She had been forming the idea of waiting on the docks, to watch the Amazons arrive, but though she was sure their men would be amiable enough travelling companions, she couldn't quite muster any enthusiasm.
She sighed and returned the notebook and maps to their satchels, then went out in search of supplies and lunch. Afterwards, for want of anything else to do, she came back to the wagon and read some more of Ember's notebook, picking a page at random and discovering all sorts of things she had never really considered about minor demons, the wielding of a staff as a melee weapon in an emergency, and which parts of the imp species called 'Fallen' were edible, if the only other option was starvation. Ember had led an adventurous life. Willow saw the name Deckard Cain in the text, surprised that her sponsor had met the famous Horadrim scholar before he disappeared, and began vaguely searching through a copy of one of his manuscripts that she had acquired the previous day. Unlike Ember, the old man seemed to have an aversion to writing down anything he didn't consider absolutely necessary - the text dealt mainly with the relations between various species of demons, and read like a particularly dull textbook. Willow was just about to stow her books and head out for dinner when someone pulled up the canvas flap at the back of the wagon and climbed inside.
"Oh!" exclaimed Willow, seeing torchlight, not sunlight, outside, and realising how long she had been reading. "Um, hi," she added, as her visitor reacted to her. Willow had greeted her automatically, and only now took in what she was seeing: an athletic figure, clothed in leather armour, which was cut to allow a lot of freedom of movement, and - Willow tried not to stare at the woman's ample cleavage, on display as she climbed into the wagon - leaving no doubt that the Amazons had brought a warrior along after all. Willow fixed her gaze resolutely on the Amazon's face - the last thing she wanted was to offend her - and found a surprisingly gentle gaze staring back at her, not at all the stern Valkyrie warrioress she had imagined.
"I'm Willow," she heard herself say.