If the day to day mechanics of running a war doesn't break your heart on a regular basis, it's not a war, it's just a gladiator show with really bad seating.
Perrin didn't come back until I started to close the forge for the night; in the meantime, Pepper brought me two meals and spent a great deal of time staring at the yellow wolf that was nearly twice her weight. Eventually she took her cue from Brindle and made friends with Willow, all without any words being spoken. I just smiled, and tried not to get involved.
I was about to bank the forge when Perrin turned up; he told me to shut the doors and stoked the fire instead. He told me to sit on the floor and close my eyes, and keep them shut until he told me to open them; I obeyed. He puttered about for several minutes then set a stool between me and the forge, within easy reach of either. He settled himself, then stared to talk.
"There are several ways of going about this," he began. "But in the end, it all comes down to you and the Goddess. Either Elethay is willing to share her power with you, or she isn't. If she is, fine; if not... Well, that's what I'm here to find out. I have given you all the knowledge you need to practice Witchcraft, but the fact is that I still have my doubts about you." He paused, and I could hear the bellows creaking. "And I hate those doubts, because I LIKE you, Quill. And my friends... my family like you. And as hard as I try, I can't find any hard evidence to say that I SHOULDN'T trust you. But... You used to be a necromancer, and you have somehow managed to be haunted by a ghost that no one on the spirit plane can see. So it is obvious that there is a lot about you that I don't know. You may not know either... but I have no proof." There was another long pause, and again I could hear the bellows working.
"So we are going to leave it in the hands of the Goddess. You are ready to be initiated, and she will accept you, or she won't. If she accepts you, I will trust her judgment. And if she rejects you... I guess I will just have to trust my doubts, and regret it later." Another pause, more bellows. "Hold your right arm out, Quill, straight from the shoulder, palm up, and keep it there until I say to move." I obeyed.
"Now, concentrate on the Goddess. Ask her to accept your service; make whatever pledge you care to make. Ask her for her protection. And wait." Again, I obeyed. I though of all that Perrin had taught me of Elethay; my arm began to get heavy and started to tremble. I thought of my meeting with Valeria on the spirit plane; I thought of all of the warp-created horror I had seen and heard of. I clenched my teeth in the effort to keep my arm extended, and then...
The voice came and was gone like an arrow in flight; I did not so much hear it as know it had spoken. A rich, smiling, female voice had said, "Patience, Grandson; let the dwarf have his fun." At the same instant, there was a feeling of intense heat and some weight in my open right palm. I waited for the pain that had to follow that much heat, but it never came. The heat grew less, and then was only a pleasant warmth.
"Damn me to the Void nine times over, Quill. I think that you passed this one. Open your eyes, but don't move your hand yet; you need to appreciate the whole scene."
Perrin was seated off to my right; his axe was leaning against his stool in easy reach. I realized that he had planned to kill me on the spot if I had failed the initiation. The forge was to his left; I saw a small crucible sitting in the forge. Perrin still held the tongs he had used to manipulate the crucible.
"Molten lead?" I asked.
Perrin smiled and shook his head. "Go ahead and look, son."
I reeled in my nearly exhausted arm and looked at the object in my palm; it was a bronze casting of intricate knotwork. "Why did you need the crucible for this? Why not just move it with tongs?"
Perrin just smiled and shook his head. "It was molten. What you have there is a piece of original sculpture."
I stared at the thing in my palm; there was no question it was beautiful. On the other hand... "You poured molten bronze into my sword hand, and were going to cut me to bits if I flinched?"
Perrin shrugged. "I've seen you fight, Quill. If I had to kill you I wanted make sure things went my way. You know how much I hate to gamble."
I growled and held up the casting. "Is this sort of thing usual?"
Perrin shrugged. "Damned if I know. I've never witnessed an initiation by ordeal before; I've only heard rumors. Usually initiations run more along the Valerian pattern."
My face went blank while I thought about that. "No more doubts, though?"
"No more doubts. By order of the Goddess." He scrounged a bit, produced a leather thong, and threw it to me. "Given its origins, you might want to keep that thing with you." He smiled as warmly as I have ever seen him do, and added, "I'm off... Supper will be ready when you finish putting this place to bed. The others don't know what I had planned tonight; they just knew that the forge was off limits. Tell them what you want." He smiled again, shook his head, and left.
I strung the medallion on the thong and hung it around my neck, then put away the tools Perrin had used and finally banked the forge. I kept stopping to examine the medallion; it had no trace of magic about it that I could feel, either as wizard or witch. And yet... I shook my head. I didn't understand, and knew I was not meant to. Somehow that was enough.
Chalice, Ghost, Stragus, and Philo were all gathered at Jasmine's table; 'Bacco, and Whisky were loitering over a table game that neither of them enjoyed. I didn't see Pepper, but I suspected that that was because she didn't want to be seen. Everyone seemed nervous; I wondered how Perrin had convinced them to stay away from the smithy. I pulled the medallion off of my neck, looped the thong over a finger, and then closed my hand over it.
"Where's Willow?" I asked. "She should be here." Pepper materialized momentarily with Willow in tow, which prompted Jasmine to make disparaging comments about wolves at her table. Willow shifted to a form that was human enough to make Jasmine object to the extent of Willow's nakedness, which prompted a scramble for appropriate clothing. Given that Willow was taller than Whisky and nearly as broad as 'Bacco, it was a fairly amusing scramble, during which Willow flashed me a covert smirk that let me know her innocence was a fraud. Once a sufficiently large cloak had been found and order restored, all eyes again returned to me.
"Is anyone familiar with molybdomancy?" I asked, and was answered with blank stares from all but Perrin. "You pray for guidance over a small quantity of molten metal, then pour it out onto a surface and try to take your answer from the shape the metal takes." I held my hand over the table and let the medallion fall to the end of the thong. "And so I have an initiation gift from the Goddess herself. Not bad, eh?" I swept my eyes around the room, and assured myself that Jasmine, 'Bacco, and Whisky had been in on Perrin's plan, whether they approved or not. I sat down and let Chalice take the medallion; she passed it to each of the others in turn. Once it had made the rounds, the food started to appear, and we had a VERY merry feast. I couldn't help but wonder what they would have done if I had failed.
Eventually the gathering began to break up; Willow reverted to wolf form and retreated to a corner in the company of Brindle and Pepper. Perrin, Jasmine, Chalice, and I were still at or near the table when Ravin appeared. Chalice was shocked; she had never met Ravin before. Jasmine and I were merely surprised; Perrin indicated that Ravin should join us at the table.
"I take it our orc passed," Ravin said with a smile. We all nodded, and I passed him the medallion. He examined it at some length, returned it to me, and then said, "I imagine this commits you to the next step, Perrin."
Perrin nodded and said, "I guess it does."
"The next step?" I asked.
Perrin nodded again. "We need to find your ghost, Quill. We need to find out what Tayma wants, and try to set her free."
"All right," I said. "Any ideas of how to accomplish that?"
Perrin and Ravin exchanged a glance, and then Perrin spoke. "We think you need to try to track her down on the spirit plane."
I scowled. "I thought you said that there was no trace of her on the spirit plane."
Ravin grinned. "On the surface of it, on that part of the spirit plane that is more or less tied to the physical world, no, there is not. But the planes are all more complex than that; remember how many extra layers being able to fly adds to the physical plane. On the spirit plane, every single person has a piece of it inside of them, more or less. Or at least there are sections that only that person can get to. The point is that Tayma is not getting at you from the outside, she is somehow trapped inside of you, and is trying to communicate, or escape, when your control is weakest."
I looked from Ravin to Perrin and back again. "And the reason you have so many reservations about this process, that you are trying to hide from me?"
Perrin shrugged. "The personal sections of the spirit plane; they are where nightmares live. Goddess only knows what you'll run into."
"You want to send me to a place where all of the garbage in my mind can take shape and do physical damage to me." I shook my head. "The molten bronze was just a warm up, wasn't it?"
Perrin smiled sheepishly; Chalice watched with increasing horror; Jasmine just listened. "I don't see that we have much choice, but there is one consolation: Ravin will be going with you," Perrin said. I didn't answer, I just stared. "We can build Ravin's participation into the ritual. The spirit plane is his home ground, now, and as long as your physical body is inside his boundaries, he should be able to follow you wherever you go."
"Stormchaser wants to go," Chalice said suddenly. "She says that if Ravin can go, the same rules should apply to her, as long as Quill's physical body is in contact with the Alicorn."
Perrin, Ravin and I exchanged surprised glances. After a few moments, I said, "I'm willing to be overruled, but is there any reason why we should NOT let her go? She IS a battle-hardened unicorn, and she has knocked me off of my feet twice."
"Among other things..." Perrin muttered disgustedly. Jasmine giggled, Chalice clenched her teeth and closed her eyes in fighting a smile, and Ravin just laughed out loud.
I wasn't particularly amused; I said, "THAT is a closed book; if she can't control herself, she can always bother Ravin. The question remains, Why not?" Ravin stopped laughing and grew thoughtful; Perrin looked at him and tried to fight his own grin.
"She's right," Perrin said at last. "I can add her to the ritual with little trouble. And you could probably use her help."
"Probably," I agreed. "When do we do this, then?"
"Tomorrow at sunset? Spirit magic is always a little stronger after sunset, and I have never tried this trick before." I looked at Perrin when he said that, and he gave me the slightest of shrugs. "And you can use another day to rest, Quill. This may take a lot out of you."
"Or kill me?"
Perrin shrugged again. "Or kill you, but probably not. You're hard to kill. Now get some sleep."
At some point in the small hours of the morning I was awakened by Willow's growl; Ghost had tried to slip into my cellar and out again unnoticed, and had not been prepared for the man-sized wolf on the floor beside my bed. Ghost had had the sense to freeze in place and try to sort things out.
I made a light and stared at Ghost; he was holding a small, ornate harp. "And the reason you're here?" I asked.
Ghost indicated the harp. "I couldn't very well give this back to Philo tonight; he would have caused a scene. I thought you could keep it."
"That's Philo's harp?"
Ghost nodded. "He's been mooning over it every since he was rescued. He talks like it's alive."
I shook my head. "You're a good friend, Ghost. Not particularly sane, but a good friend."
Ghost grinned. "I wanted to hear him play it; even 'Bacco says he's pretty good. And it was fun."
I kept shaking my head. "It has never even occurred to you that you might get caught, has it?"
Ghost thought for a moment, then grinned again. "I used to think about it; now I just make sure it doesn't happen. Besides, everyone in Sojourner's household is busy staying out of his way; he is REALLY angry about that flying girl." He gave me the harp. I took it and ran my fingers over the strings; it had held its tune surprisingly well, and I corrected the changes with little difficulty. Ghost stared. "You can play the harp?" he asked.
I thought about it. "I have studied, I think. I know how to tune it, and play a few basic chords." I shrugged. "Just another part of the mystery, I guess."
"You'll know tomorrow, though, won't you? After you free that girl from the spirit plane?"
"What are you talking about?" I growled.
Ghost sighed. "I listen. I hear things. Perrin talks to Jasmine; Perrin talks to Ravin; Perrin talks to you. Nobody much talks to me, but it doesn't matter." He paused to grin at me. "Perrin thinks that this spirit walk will bring back your memories, and maybe free your dragon. He's not really very concerned about the girl. But he doesn't want to send you over the mountains if you're going to turn into a necromancer; that's why he initiated you into Elethay before the spiritwalk. And he's STILL not sure, not really. He doesn't want Ravin to go with you, because he's afraid Ravin's spirit might be lost if they have to kill you."
I kept plucking random chords and thought about that. Finally I said, "You really are a good friend, Ghost. Go get some sleep; we'll talk more about this tomorrow." Ghost faded into the darkness as I continued to play the harp softly.
A short time later someone said, "You're still going to do it, aren't you? This hasn't changed a thing for you."
I looked up and saw that Willow was now humanoid enough to speak. "You're right," I answered. "This doesn't change a thing. Though it does make things make more sense." I looked up, and realized there was another question she hadn't asked. "Don't try to avenge me. If Perrin has to kill me, it will be the right thing to do. Your job... What I want you to do... is get the others safely to the Ebonese district on the far side of the valley, particularly Stragus and Philo. Chalice might be able to stay here, and Ghost will be fine wherever he chooses to be, but the other two will need your help."
"What if they don't want to follow me?"
"I'll make sure they know what I want done, and then you will have to beat Stragus senseless at some point; it's the only thing he really understands. And here you thought you were done with being wolf queen."
Willow chuckled. "And now I may get to be werewolf queen. It's still better than plowing fields."
"I guess it is at that." I set down the harp, quelled the light, and slept until midmorning. Once I was up, I put together (or at least requested; no one would let me do any real work) a large picnic lunch, and led my strange little band off into the woods: three elves, a young human, an orc, a vermite, a wolf, and a cat, more or less.
We found a likely spot that was sufficiently remote, and then Ghost returned Philo's harp; Philo tried hard not to cry, and almost succeeded. Philo started to play while the rest of us ate; we had to threaten to take the harp away by force before Philo would eat anything. When Philo had eaten, we gave him his harp back and settled into a sated, sleepy sprawl.
"Philo?" said a surprised voice I didn't recognize; my eyes shot open wide.
"Shoglar?" asked Stragus with just as much surprise, and suddenly I was on my knees.
"Stragus? What the Void have they done to you?" asked Shoglar, and I was on my feet with my sword in my hands; Shoglar turned out to be a Haskalad soldier with two companions. Shoglar might have been present at my first duel with Stragus, but I wasn't sure; I had seen him a few times in Lechmore in Stragus's company.
"Hello, Shoglar," I said calmly. "My name is Quill. What can I do for you?"
"We're looking for Soujourner's lizard girl," Shoglar answered before he could sort things out. "Stragus, I thought Brickwall had you." I could see Shoglar was trying to work out his position, and I suspected that he was getting an answer I wouldn't like.
I decided not to give him a chance. "I'll give you all of the answers you want after you lay down your arms and surrender. No point in educating you if we're just going to kill you."
I could almost hear Shoglar working it through: I was a problem, and Stragus was a problem if he fought, but he might not fight; Philo, Chalice, and Pepper were inconsequential; Ghost was not likely to be a problem. So it was really three to two, and maybe three to one... and then Willow rolled to her feet, looked Shoglar in the eye, and growled slightly. Shoglar's eyes got wider; he glanced back to Chalice, who responded by drawing the Alicorn casually and flipping it in her hand. Shoglar dropped his spear, and his companions followed suit.
"Damn," said a voice that wasn't quite Chalice's; I looked down and saw blue eyes glaring at me through a curtain of auburn hair. "I was hoping we were going to get to kill them."
I sighed. "They were raised to believe that shapeshifters were monsters who would hunt them down and kill them if they got the chance. If we had killed them, they would have been right. I had to find another way."
"Spoilsport," Stormchaser growled, and then her hair became lighter and her eyes turned green. I smiled weakly to acknowledge the change, and hoped that I was right.
Prisoners. Gray Lady help me, I had prisoners.