Valeria has been dead for 300 years now, and she lived for more than two centuries. She spent most of that time trying to warn the dragons that doom was coming, and they ignored her, and let it come. Their spirits were off on the Spirit Plane, participating in a huge Day of the Dead ceremony, and the necromancers broke in and sucked out their souls. Four out of five dragons in the world died in that raid, and so much Warp was let loose into the world that the storms didn't calm down for fifty years. The only good thing was that the necromancers immediately turned on each other, trying to decide who was going to be boss. They're still at it, which is the main reason I wasn't strangled for my big mouth years ago.
--Leod, the Storyteller of Freepost
I found that I was riding in a boat of some kind on a vast and eerily calm sea that extended to the horizon in three directions. I was drifting slowly toward a nearly featureless shore. A wolf that was the color of old mahogany paced the shore as if waiting for me to arrive.
Later, the wolf became a woman in brilliant crimson armor, though I do not remember the change; she reached out and stopped my boat before it touched the shore. Her hair matched the color of the wolf's fur.
"Are you in such a hurry to walk the sunless lands, Little Brother?" the woman asked. I tried to answer, but could not; I tried to shake my head and failed. "I don't think you are. But such is not your fate, anyway; you have a few more miles to travel, I think." She smiled warmly as she spoke, then pushed the boat back out into deeper water. "And when you meet my old friend Stormchaser, Little Brother, tell her that Valaria says it is time for her to come home."
Valaria? I woke up with a start, and realized that I was still at the bottom of a hole on Blackwater Moor. I felt much better for resting, though, and judged from the brightness of the gloom (an odd phrase, but appropriate for the bottom of a hole) that it must be about mid-day. I looked at the festering bodies of the rats I had killed the previous day, and the sight made me hungry; I tried not to think about what I was doing as I drew my dagger and carved a generous portion of raw rancid rat.
I spent ten days in that hole, broken only by ever lengthening forays onto the moor; I had become well enough acquainted with the substance of the moor that I was able to take Whisky's advice and memorize every rock. I consumed both of the rats that had followed me into the pit, as well as a third that had hoped to improve upon its fellow's fortunes; I passed time by using rodent shoulder blades to practice my scrimshaw. I spent the twentieth night since leaving Whisky camped on the moor, but retreated to my friendly hole for the twenty-first. I spent another day there recovering from warp burn, and then, on the twenty-third day of my explorations, I found the Fang, and within a few hours, Chalice's overturned tree.
I climbed out into the sunlight, circled to the high side of the tree, and eventually saw a mummified body high in the huge mass of severed roots. I climbed carefully to the body, saw the dagger, reached out to take it...
A bolt of crimson energy knocked me loose from the tree and I tumbled to the ground; I started to rise and a second bolt knocked me flat again. I decided to try negotiation.
"Chalice!" I called. "Chalice Stormchaser! Your kinswoman-You niece-Chalice Autumnleaf sent me. I have come to bring the Alicorn back to your people." I heard hooves on the scree, and soon there was a unicorn standing over me, threatening to finish me off with its horn. It was vaguely translucent in the harsh sunlight. I waited, and the unicorn metamorphosed into an elven woman who, save for the translucency, looked like a more robust version of the living Chalice.
"My kin sent you?" the ghost asked.
I risked rising to my elbows. "Yes," I answered. "And you have my word, before Elethay, that I will do all that I can to restore the Alicorn to your Kin. May I rise?"
The ghost offered me her hand and helped me to my feet; I looked at the tree and then into her eyes; she had been alone with the warp creatures since the Death Day massacre was only a little regarded prophecy. There were three hundred years of loneliness in that handshake, and in those eyes. "Do you swear it?" she said, and there was hunger in her voice.
"On my soul," I answered, and she threw her arms around me and wept ghostly tears. "I have a message, also," I said. "A woman with dark red hair said to me, 'And when you meet my old friend Stormchaser, Little Brother, tell her that Valaria says it is time for her to come home.' Be free, Chalice." The ghost kissed my cheek, and disappeared.
The climb was more difficult the second time, but I managed it. The dagger and its sheath were still in excellent condition, but the same could not be said of Stormchaser's earthly remains. I felt a bit of remorse at leaving the body there, but had little choice; I was too badly injured for heavy labor. Beyond that, I knew that her spirit was free, finally. I took the brooch that the living Chalice had seen in her dream, and gathered the buttons and buckles on the assumption that Chalice, or her family, might want keepsakes.
I found a secure seat and looked to the south, across the grey soup of the moor, down Blighted Ridge to Goldentooth in the distance. It was peaceful, and melancholy; I could easily have slept there. And then something inside me with weaker aesthetic sensibilities and a great deal more sense reminded me that I was breathing thin and warp tainted air, and that if I didn't get moving my friends were going to give me up for dead. I laughed out loud at that thought, and very carefully made my way back to the moor, and my homey little sump.
I spent another eight days in that hole recovering from Stormchaser's efforts at protecting her legacy. Two more rats donated their bodies to my disgusting larder while I waited to heal; my scrimshaw gradually improved.
The dagger that had caused me so much trouble was a beautiful thing, at any rate; it was as long as my forearm, impossibly sharp, and looked to have been carved from a single piece of opal. I wondered at the magic that had gone into its creation, and wondered again at what it might be capable of in the right hands.
Eventually I began the final leg of my adventure on Blackwater moor, which was finding a path from my hole to the outer rim, and then back to Ferrypoint. It was slow and miserable work, moving in ever widening circles, always making sure that I was within sight of terrain I had memorized, always waiting for another rat-or something worse-to ambush me. I decided that I could risk two full days of exploration before returning to the hole to recuperate-but that meant another two days in the hole before I ventured out again.
One afternoon I came upon the carcass of a dead and badly decayed gilga spawn, and was hungry enough to carve off a piece; the gilga protested. There was no question that it was long dead, but apparently the local warp had managed to animate its decaying body. I backed carefully toward shelter, and was horrified to learn that, rotten as it was, it was still able to fly.
I was much better armed and armored than the last time I had faced a gilga, but death had given this thing a durability that stretched belief. I hit it again and again, and had little difficulty evading its claws, but eventually I was too tired to dodge and it was still moving. We traded blows twice, to my extreme detriment, and then I finally managed to sever its head, and it stopped fighting. I chopped it into small pieces, and ate several of them, even though they were disgusting even by my horrible recent standards. And then I retreated back to my hole.
Fifty-one days after parting company with Whisky I found my way back to the camp he had shown me; I had been missing from Ferrypoint almost twice as long as I had lived there. I wondered how long I should wait for Whisky before I tried to find my way on my own, but Whisky and the wolves arrived three days after I did.
The wolves were extremely cautious of me at first, and Whisky just stared in horror; I shrugged. "I figure I'm going to disappear into the river for about an hour when we get back, and I'm probably going to have to burn the clothes," I said.
Whisky nodded. "You can say that twice. How much of that garbage is your own blood?"
"Enough." I indicated the tears in my leathers, and the wounds underneath. "This is from a rat that outweighed me, and these two are from a gilga that had already been dead for a couple of weeks, at least." Whisky just gaped at that, and I shrugged. "It's a strange place. Have you ever had a unicorn do that 'red death' thing to you? I have, twice. AND taken two really bad falls. And then there was the warp burn..."
"And the reason you're still alive is..."
I shrugged again. "I got lucky. I fell into a hole and found a refuge from the warp."
I handed him one of the gilga's shoulder blades. "That's a pretty good map, from the rim to the hole I stayed in, to the base of the Fang. Just in case anybody ever wants to go back. In the meantime... You DID bring the stew pot, didn't you? I'm about ready to kill for some hot food."
Whisky laughed at that, and soon had a meal prepared. After we had eaten, he looked at me again and asked, "Was it worth it?"
"I don't know," I answered, and showed him the dagger. "I am inclined to think so."
"Warp and insanity, that's beautiful! It's a shame to see it locked up in a Jikadell temple, of all places."
I shook my head. "It's up to Chalice. I hope she decides to leave the temple; I know she wants to; she hates it there. But she feels the other women need her." Whisky just shook his head.
The two-day walk to Ferrypoint was uneventful; my homecoming was delightfully anticlimactic. Perrin groused about all of the work I had missed, and grinned when he thought I wasn't looking; Jasmine hugged me, then scolded me for the hideous damage I had done to her leatherwork; 'Bacco grinned and said he would spot me to a drink at the 'Hand as soon as I had gotten cleaned up. Brindle the kitten (who had doubled in size while I was gone) bit me once as hard as she could, and then treated me as if I had never left.
The Alicorn impressed the gallery, though. Jasmine said that the sheath was unicorn leather impregnated with Moonglow odylic; Perrin marveled at the dagger's flexibility and sharpness. We spent some time in speculation on what would cause a unicorn to want his corpse to be treated in such a fashion, and then I went off to try to wash Blackwater out of my hair.
A long bath and a change of clothes later, 'Bacco and I were sitting in the Severed Hand, listening to Philo charm another audience. When he had finished his set, he joined us, and seemed genuinely glad to see me.
"I heard you were having an adventure," Philo gushed. "I hope you have a couple of good stories to tell."
I resisted an urge to show him the Alicorn; I suspected that it might cause a riot. "I might. But at the moment, I need your help. I need to talk to the Jikadell girl that Sojourner set me up with the night I fought Bosco. How do I go about that?"
Philo stared at me as if I were the stupidest creature on the planet. "You pay your money and you pick her out of the line. Or you pay more money and you make a reservation. Or you pay even more money, and they throw out whoever she's with, and bring her to you..."
I smiled half-heartedly. "I only want to TALK, Philo..."
Philo sighed. "So you pay your money, and you pick her out of the line, or..." I started to growl, and he stopped. "They're slaves, Quill. And as far as Clytemnestra cares, they only exist for the revenue. Tell her you want to butcher one alive, and she'll quote you a price. So it doesn't matter WHAT you want, it will cost you money."
I nodded. "You sound like the voice of experience."
Philo grinned. "No, I've been listening to Stragus. He's become obsessed with one of them, and she doesn't like him, so he beats her. Which makes her less valuable to the temple, which makes the rate they charge him go UP. Which makes him that much angrier, and he beats her that much more... I figure the poor girl has about a week before he kills her."
"You sound like you find it amusing," I said, flat voiced.
Philo looked at me, and for a moment his desperation flashed across his face, then he shook it off. "It comes of having a price one's head. It tends to... broaden... one's perspective." 'Bacco growled, and I just shook my head.
We left the 'Hand as soon as Philo began his next set and made our way to the temple. We were told that Chalice was engaged, but that she would be free at midnight, and that her services for the second half of the night would cost 20 Imperials. 'Bacco and I had 26 between us; I sent 'Bacco home with six, and sat down to wait.
Philo's lecture on the nature of Jikadell the Harlot's trade BOTHERED me. I found myself resisting an urge to strangle everyone I saw who wasn't wearing the yellow silk of the temple whores. I wanted to call fire from the sky and blast the temple, and Lechmoor, and the whole Haskalad Empire right off the face of the earth. All I did was sit quietly and wait for my turn.
It was a long wait; they tried to talk me into visiting another girl. Eventually they brought me to Chalice's room; I was reminded that I had not paid for the privilege of damaging her, and would be well advised to refrain from doing so. I kept my comments to myself.
The room was much smaller and empty save for the bed and the girl; Chalice knelt in the same position as the last time. I sat down in front of her cross-legged before she could choke out the standard greeting. She looked up in surprise; she said, "Quill?" and her voice broke.
All of my anger slid back to somewhere outside of that room, and I smiled at her with all of the warmth I had. "Did you think I had forgotten?" Chalice threw her arms around me, hugged me fiercely, and shook her head against my shoulder. I chuckled and hugged back.
"It's been awful, Quill. I think they may kill me soon, just for amusement." She paused, and fought back the sobs that were trying to make themselves heard. "I don't mind dying, Quill. Especially not in the Lady's service. But I want so much to know that I am doing what she wants."
I pushed her away and kissed her forehead. "This may help," I said, and pulled the Alicorn from my belt pouch. She stared as I unwrapped it; I got the impression she was afraid to touch it. I took it out of its sheath and presented the hilt to her; she took it tentatively and then doubled up in pain and dropped it.
I grabbed the Alicorn reflexively, started to reach for Chalice, and then stopped and got out of the way while a miracle took place. Chalice's mass multiplied; her bones lengthened and shifted, and in the space of a few heartbeats she had become a unicorn. She made a loud and frightened equine noise, and I gestured her to silence. I threw a blanket across her shoulders, and then wrapped my arms around her neck. "Slowly, Chalice. Just relax and be quiet."
Chalice's breathing slowed to a normal rate, and I said, "Now... Do you have any idea how to change back?" She started to shake her head, then stopped to look at me and nodded once. And then she was herself again. I picked her up and sat on the bed; she held onto me with all of her strength and trembled.
"I think," I said quietly, "That we can take that as a sign that the Lady wants you out of this place."