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The Wall Of Altairis, Yllendyr Crownlands


As she pumped her wings and flew high above the world, watching the land below pass by deceptively slowly, Mara felt her stomach roil with anxiety. It wasn’t fear that had her on edge, but anticipation. She’d first seen the Elves wall almost an hour ago and by now she was above it, watching the enormous edifice pass by with rapt attention. There was no way to say exactly when she’d left the Forest and entered Yllendyr, such things were difficult to deduce from such an altitude, but eventually Mara knew it in her heart. She’d left the forest.

That was terrifying, exhilarating, and a little sad. She knew she hadn’t been sent on this task as a reward, knew that her father had only wanted her somewhere, anywhere, else. So many of the things she knew hurt, but she also knew those things were behind her, fading away into the distance. She’d have to face them again, but not now. For now she was soaring above a land she’d dreamed of visiting, unburdened by any responsibilities but those she’d accepted.

Time passed and she, in the manner of her people, absently memorized the route she took through the sky. Eventually she spotted what she’d been looking for. Far below there was a little clearing in the trees, unremarkable if it were not for the short tower that protruded from it. Perched atop the simple construction was a boulder uniformly painted a bright yellow. It was a sight as confusing to an outsider as it was unmistakable to a Harpy. Her people were down there.

Or, people like her? The idea of Harpies who weren’t her people, who she might not be able to understand, let alone relate to, was a difficult one to parse. Nevertheless, she began a circling descent. It wasn’t the fastest way to get to the little village, but it was the least threatening and the way she’d always been told to enter other tribes communities. Hopefully the Harpies of Yllendyr hadn’t forgotten good manners.

As it happened, and much to Mara’s pleasure, they had not. Her approach had been duly noted and a small group of Harpies had gathered by the time Mara eased herself into a landing near to the village marker. Just a glance told her that this was not the sort of village she was used to. There were a number of wooden houses made from, disturbingly, dead logs. They all faced onto a street paved with stones that seemed to vanish into the distance, cutting through the forest and leading to some distant place under the canopy that had disguised it from the air.

As for those who’d come out to meet her, they were just as peculiar as the village. At their front was an older man dressed in a black overcoat, its sleeves cut so his folded wings hung out of the arms, with an impractical tall hat. Behind him the other men were dressed in simple white shirts, also modified for their wings, and black pants. The women wore a variety of long dresses, some were even rather colourful, but none of the villagers male or female were dressed nearly as well as the man who stood before them to greet Mara. Before she could introduce herself he spoke, voice cautious but filled with curiosity, “Welcome to Teuan, friend. It is not often we have visitors from the other towns, nor ones who arrive with so little warning. May I ask where you hail from, and what your business here is?”

The rest of the villagers all regarded her inquiringly, and for a moment Mara didn’t know why. It only struck her that she was dressed in simple flying clothes when she looked down and saw the unflattering light brown fabric concealing her chest. Suddenly rather self conscious she spoke more softly than she’d intended, “Ah, I’m Mara. I don’t uh, come from around here.”

The older Harpy cocked a brow, “Yes, I figured. Do you mind telling us where you hail from Mara? It’d be helpful to know why you’re here, as well.”

“Oh,” Mara smiled nervously, “I’m from the Old Forest! The consensus sent me to meet the new Emperor, I just thought to… I was told you might have advice for me? The Harpies north of the wall know all about the Emperor right?”

The village chief, or that was what Mara guessed he was, quieted the murmurs that came from the townspeople upon Mara’s admission. He took off his hat and scratched the feathers that composed his ‘hair’ before shaking his head in disbelief, “That’s a rather unbelievable tale, miss. Of course, given your appearance, there's not many with all white feathers left up here, and the fact there’s two Emperors these days… Well, stranger things. I’m Heme, the Village head here.”

Heme paused and returned his hat to his head, “If the forest has truly sent you to meet the Emperor, or at least the one in these parts, I can at least say you cannot turn up to the Imperial residence looking like that. Expected or not the guards would toss you out dressed like a savag-… I mean to say, dressed so simply.”

Mara was naive, but she was not unaware that naivety was among her faults. She heard the near insult and took it for what it was. She was used to those, at least. Her smile weakened, but she managed to reply, “The Dryads gave me money for clothing, Village head Heme. Would you know where I could acquire some? As for guards, I am expected, but some directions to the Emperor's residence in Altairis would be appreciated.”

“Ah,” Heme paused, glanced at the small pouch at Mara’s side and then back at the other villagers before turning his attention to Mara, “The others tend to get their clothing at the common stores and modify it themselves, but I buy mine at a more reputable store in the city; one with its own tailor. If you’re willing to pay for it I could provide you a map of the city. I can point out my preferred clothing store, given they have experience fitting me they should be amenable to any requests you have, and the Emperor's southern residence.”

Mara eyed the Village head suspiciously, but the fact a number of other villagers were rolling their eyes while the rest muttered behind Heme’s back told Mara that this probably wasn’t the first time a traveller hadn’t had the most hospitable reception. Mara deflated a bit, she’d looked forward to meeting the Harpies beyond the wall, but they weren’t so different.

When she replied it was in a mirthless, if polite, tone, “How much?”

Heme had the audacity to smile, “Ah, well given this village is rather remote I imagine a five dacha note would be fair? Don’t you think so?”

In truth, Mara did not think so. Not just because she’d enjoyed speaking to the Yllendyr traders and business folk that came through, but because she just genuinely disliked Heme. From the looks he was getting from a few of his own people, it wasn’t an uncommon sentiment. Still, what choice did she have? Mara, very deliberately, reached into her pouch and produced a rather sizable roll of bills, from which she carefully extracted one before diligently returning the rest to her pouch.

The look on Heme’s face when she handed it to him was enough to restore some of the excitement she’d felt when she’d entered Yllendyr.

Altairis, Olarth’s Capital In The Yllendyr Crownlands


Mara didn’t doubt Heme had ripped her off, but she couldn’t begrudge the mans taste in clothing. She had fawned over nearly every textile and clothing store she’d encountered since entering the city, but the one Heme had directed her to was a cut above the rest. Of course, she’d later discovered it’s price was also a cut above the rest. Still, the azure and purple dress she’d come away with had been worth the four hundred and eight dacha she’d paid, probably. She certainly wouldn’t be flying in it, and it wasn’t particularly comfortable, but she’d gladly claw out the eyes of anyone who called it ugly to spare the world from their awful taste in fashion.

At least she’d had enough dacha left for a nice meal afterwards, the Elves had some truly incredible food. Or maybe it was just good, the fact she was starving from the exertion of flying for the last few days had doubtless made the meal irresistible. In any case by the time she had begun her walk to the Imperial residence she was full and satisfied by the clothing she was wearing, which might have been why she started to notice the looks she was getting from all the Yllendyr. They had to have seen Harpies before? Heme came here for his clothing, and who knew what else.

She shook her head, that was a question for another time. The Imperial residence was at the end of the next street according to the map, and when she turned the corner she knew Heme had been good for his word if not his price. The Imperial residence was an ornate palace with minarets piercing sharply into the sky, dating from the era when rival kingdoms had vied over the Yllendyr crownlands. The palace had not seen a king or emperor in more than three hundred years, until now, when it had become the headquarters of the Emperor Olarth’s court in replacement for the Vermillion Citadel.

To Mara it was, like everything else the Elves had built in this city, alien. Alien, and wonderful in a way that only something totally divorced from any architecture she’d seen before could be. Taking care not to spend too long staring Mara resolved herself and strode towards the gates of the palace with as much poise as she could summon.

The guards challenged her ong before she reached the gates, but as it happened she was expected. There was some confusion over her lack of identifying documents that led to an argument which nearly sapped all the confidence she’d so painstakingly built up from her, but apparently Harpies showing up and proclaiming themselves ambassadors from the Old Forest were uncommon enough for protocol to be relaxed.

Eventually she was allowed in, and a maidservant led her through the palace to Olarth’s war room, where he was presently occupied. A huge map laid on the table in the center. The maid opened the door to allow Mara in, and as she did so she could hear a pitched debate. Olarth was arguing with an old woman, apparently about the way he had handled a battle at some place called Imqua. Upon Mara’s entrance, however, both noted her presence and fell silent. The woman backed away, and after nodding at the new arrival, made her exit through a door on the other side of the room.

“I of course apologize it’s not the Vermillion Citadel, but it’s the best I could do in such a wartime environment. Welcome to my humble court. I’m told your name is Mara?” Olarth smiled warmly at the Harpy which had entered.

Mara did her best impression of a bow, having heard that was customary, before fumbling her first words to one of the most powerful men on the Continent, “It is, my name I mean. Mara.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Mara. As you likely already know, my name is Olarth, Emperor of the Yllendyr. Or well, one of them.” He laughed sheepishly.

She blushed with embarrassment and internally cursed herself before speaking again, “Of course, Emperor. I was uh, selected by my tribe to represent the consensus of the Old Forest in your court. It’s an honour to meet you!”

“Likewise, I must say. I haven’t had the opportunity to… well, properly meet a Harpy before, so I’m glad I had the chance. Your people are fairly rare anywhere north of Sundersevain.”

“Oh,” Mara smiled brightly, silently pleased to have been the first Harpy the Emperor had met, “I had heard that there weren’t many of us in the Crownlands, though I did meet some of my people in Sundersevain on my journey. They were… Different from back home, but not terribly so.”

“How are you enjoying Altairis so far? I hope you didn’t have any troubles along the way.”

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Mara answered honestly, “I was born in one of my peoples cities, but our homes are grown from the wood of the forest. We don’t have anything made of stone, or so tall! There are so many shops too! The Weavers, Fellyr, and some of my own people have only a small number of stores merchants from outside the Forest stop at, and certainly none with such variety. Your city is incredible, Emperor.”

“I’m glad you feel that way,” Olarth responded magnanimously. “But perhaps it may not stay my city for long. I suppose that this brings us to the articles of business we must discuss.” His face turned darker.

“The Imperium is at war. My savage brother has likely killed one of my brothers, has definitely killed the other, and is no doubt planning to march on this city and kill me before he starts a massive manhunt for our youngest brother. And once he has done that, he will no doubt bring fire, death and destruction upon the rest of the Imperium that refuses to acknowledge his control. You likely heard his speech, so you should know what kind of a man he is. The only chance we have to stop this is now, while he is still weak and the Crownlands are divided. I hope that the Dominion of the Old Forest can assist in some way.”

Mara’s smile faltered as the discussion turned serious. She’d tried to prepare for the inevitable request, but being there when it was made was something else. She was used to politics, but nobody died at home. Or at least, not to the point of the butchery she’d heard was going on as she explored the city. She had no authority to say yes, she knew that, she’d only been authorized to forward such requests to the consensus once the radio equipment the Weavers were bringing arrived. That didn’t stop her from wanting to. She couldn’t imagine a brother or sister being slaughtered in front of her, or a nation turning on itself. There had never been a civil war in the forest, and in truth she’d had to ask a Dryad to explain the concept to her when she’d questioned why there were two Emperors in the first place.

She made no effort to hide her pained expression, “I can inform the consensus of your hope, Emperor, but I can’t promise you more. I haven’t spoken to any member of the consensus since I departed for Altairis, but having read your brothers speech in the ‘newspaper’ I bought in the city, I don’t know what they will do.”

“I suppose that’s the best I can ask for for now, then. I might ask you to relay a story that may prove persuasive.

I don’t hope to sour you on the Imperium or its people, but my brother is an especially foul specimen, much like our father… it’s hard to believe we are even twins. To preface this, I don’t know if you know, but I had four brothers. Not a single sister. Doesn’t that seem a little improbable to you?”

Mara had a sinking feeling in her stomach, “I… I suppose so.”

“The truth of the matter is, I had nine sisters. None of them survived infancy. My father claimed that daughters were weak, unfit to rule or live in his household, that there was no need for them in the Vyalviur dynasty except to marry off to foreign princes, and there were no longer any foreign princes to marry them off to. So he gave them to my brother to… dispose of. The last seven, that is, after he was older. He had some pet Harpies in a dungeon somewhere he loved to torture and play games with. Harpies he had starved nearly to the point of death, so they would take basically anything you threw to them.

And they did. All seven of them.” Olarth looked incredibly disgusted.

It had been said by many throughout history that Harpies were a feral people, a primitive race whose instincts often controlled their actions and who exercised their higher functions only after doing whatever their natures compelled them to do. Mara had long since dismissed the notion as a racist misconception held by the occasional merchant. Now though, she wondered. The talons that formed her feet clenched and dug little grooves into the Emperors floor, and the amount of effort it took to restrain herself from an outburst both shocked and shamed her.

Sympathy, horror, sorrow, rage, all these emotions swirled in her mind upon hearing Olarths story. The old Emperor, the one who she’d idolized, whose empire she credited with doing so much good, was a monster beyond even the worst of the Dragon Tyrants. Mara could not think straight, and at the least took comfort in understanding that. She had to go before Olarth told her anything else.

“I… See.” Mara paused, a look of furious indignation breaking through the calm she tried to project, “I will inform the consensus, Emperor. At once.”

“Great men often have their dark secrets, Mara. The Vyalviur Dynasty has some of the worst. This is why I hope to put an end to that terrible history, so we can rediscover ourselves and lead the world in a better way. I can see I’ve given you a lot to think about, so we can talk again another time. Elenne will show you to the quarters we’ve prepared for you.” The maidservant who brought her here appeared at the door again, bowing.

Mara bowed to the Emperor as best she could under the circumstances, which essentially amounted to a tense nod, and all but stomped out of the room. The grooves she left in the floor behind her testament to the maelstrom of emotion that raged within her.
L O V E
The Old Mountain, Deep in the Old Forest


Deep within the labyrinthine tunnels that lay under the Old Mountain, in a place without any light save for that which emanated from the odd luminescent mushroom, a group of Weavers met. The chamber they gathered in was an ancient one, a nest used by their people in ages long past. Gerum, the defacto leader of her people, and perhaps the largest and most formidable Weaver born in centuries, gazed out into the darkness of the old room and shuddered to think of the number and scale of the creatures which had once lived there. It was why she had gathered them here for this, for them to guess at the significance of this place and come to a conclusion; this vast space was a hint of what they had been, what they could be.

As was custom it was not Gerum that spoke first, but a young male less than half her size, “Gerum, the preparations are complete. Our contact in Lieria has agreed to meet me to negotiate.”

The eerily resonant voice of the smaller spider was magnified by the expanse of the room, no, the great hall. Gerum tapped the rock below her in acknowledgement. That was good, for all they were less than their distant ancestors they had acquired tools the likes of which had always eluded their species in ancient days: manners, connections, friends. Gerum spoke softly, she had no need to grandstand, “This is good. You will have the resources of our people to bargain with, but no more. You understand child?”

Reading a Weaver was hard, even among their own kind, but Gerum was old now. She could feel the boys trepidation as he replied, “I do Gerum, but... May I ask why we have not asked the others Gerum? The Harpies are not without resources, nor are the Ursine. Even the Dryads keep treasures of the past.”

It would be the height of impertinence for a mere merchant to question the leader of their people, at least if that people were not Weavers. Weavers didn’t bother with pointless displays of deference, Gerum could devour every Weaver in this chamber even if they all turned on her, what did she have to prove? The question was valid, if naive, anyhow. The others in attendance would have asked it of her sooner or later.

Gerum laughed in the hissing manner of her people, “Boy... Agur. As you are not a Great Being I cannot expect you to know this, but the consensus of the Great Beings is not an apolitical affair. The Harpies folly all those years ago has had their voice in the consensus all but stripped while our connections, the connections you and your peers have made, has made ours larger than it has ever been. When we speak now, even the Dryads listen. Tell me, what would happen if we asked the Harpies for aid?”

Agur looked vaguely shocked. He was accustomed to the politics of outsiders, but to see that here? Had it always been so? He answered as he would have if he were speaking of Elven affairs, “They would regain their voice if the deal worked, and we would be held responsible if they led us to disaster again.”

Gerum tapped the floor and a number of the other weavers did the same. She spoke to the group as a whole, “You understand. As for the Ursine, they have no interest in such things. Why share the credit if the ally we might make is content to never speak out? The Dryads... They need no more power, nor do the Shadows. For untold eons they have dominated the consensus, but old and wise as they may be, their perspectives are the ones of those who need not worry about their next meal, their next year. The Dryads and Shadows have seen the forest reduced to a fraction of itself, have seen its inhabitants shrink with it, and they worry not. Why should they? To them this new civilization is interesting, frightening even, but it will pass as all others have. They can wait.”

Gerum paused, the other Weavers were looked at her with awe, she supposed it had been a long time since another had spoken the truth. She concluded, “No. I will not give them more say in how we will defend the Forest, how we will safeguard ourselves. Agur, you will go and bargain with what we have and you will return with what we need. The others have failed one way or another, we will not. Go knowing that Agur.”

Dismissed, Agur wasted no time in skittering out of the great hall and into a dark tunnel. Gerum watched him leave and reflected on her words, did she really think they could do it better than the Dryads? The Shadows? Well, she supposed they had to try.

Heartwood, Capital of the Old Forest


Mara sat quietly across from the Dryad that had requested her presence, the wooden woman regarding her inquiringly before finally asked, “They sent... You?”

It should have been an insult, but all Mara felt was relief. She was right, then. The nervous weight lifted off her shoulders, or at least some of it, for the first time since she’d stepped into the Dryads little office off the main street of the city. Well, office was a generous term. The room the young Harpy found herself in was circular and filled to the brim with all manner of foreign and exotic plants and flowers. Such was the density of the flora that the little moss platform and the Dryad resting on it had escaped her notice for nearly a minute after she’d entered. Any polite person would have spoken up, but not a Dryad. The wooden women loved their little jokes.

Mara answered the perplexed Dryad honestly, “They did. I think they’re just glad to be rid of me, or maybe they thought I was the only one who wouldn’t take a swipe at the Prin- err Emperor?”

The Dryad actually sighed, Mara wondered where the air was coming from, before the wooden woman stood from her relaxed posture splayed out on the moss mat and shook her head, “This is why I told Shaetarae sending a Harpy was a bad idea, not that there’s anything wrong with you of course, but I don’t doubt my elder sister was expecting one of your Greater Beings.”

Mara felt vaguely embarrassed, but the Dryad wasn’t wrong. Before the woman's rant could resume Mara spoke up, “I know I’m not what you expected, but I don’t think they’ll send another. If you could just... Tell me what I’m supposed to do? Beyond fly to the court of the new Emperor?”

The Dryad stopped and rubbed her wooden forehead, “Fine. If anything goes wrong I suppose there’s always another Emperor. Oh, that’s right there are two now if you hadn’t heard, you’ll be going to one in the south. I imagine that’s why Shaetarae asked for a Harpy, there are a number of your people on the other side of the Elves wall yes?”

Mara nodded, she’d been told about them before. Well, usually in insults. Apparently the Harpies on the other side of the wall didn’t care for the old ways either. Mara brightened at the idea of actually meeting them, what would they be like after having lived under the Elves for so much longer than her own people?

The Dryad went on, “Well then, maybe speak to them before flying to Altairis to meet the Emperor. Amaena is up north so we have nobody to lecture you on how you’re supposed to act when you’re there, a local might have the inclination to help. Or not. I can tell you you’ll need fancier clothing, they were rather strict about clothing when I was in the Elves army.”

Mara smiled at the idea, she always thought the Yllendyr merchants that traveled to her city looked pretty, “You’ll give me money for them? The clothes?”

The Dryad looked a bit surprised, “Oh, yes they don’t give civilians clothes do they? I’ll give you a fair sum, same as anyone else going out of the forest on a task from the consensus, to be used for clothing and necessities only! As for what you’ll be doing beyond flying to his court I’m told you’ll be mirroring what Amaena did for the last Emperor, that is, being the formal point of contact between the Forest and the Elves, negotiating with them when instructed to and staying in contact with the consensus and Greater Beings. You’ll be the forests representative and our voice.”

Just then the Dryad paused, considered what she’d said, and appraised Mara again, “Are you sure you want to do this? If the Harpies won’t produce a more... Experienced candidate I’m sure Shaetarae will agree to send a Dryad.”

Mara had visibly paled when the Dryad had explained what an ambassador did in detail. She hadn’t been told- How could they have sent her to do that! Still, it was a chance to show the Elves not all Harpies were irascible sets of wings and teeth. It was also a chance to get out of the forest. Out of the forest. That was what she really wanted wasn’t it?

She hesitated, and the Dryad noticed, but Mara spoke with as much confidence as she could muster, “I can do it. If my people won’t send one of the Greater Beings among us I’ll have to do.”

The Dryad almost looked ready to protest, now that the air headed wooden woman took the time to think about it, but eventually just nodded and reached behind a plant. Her hand reappeared with a small bag of money which she handed Mara, “Good luck, then. I know Amaena grew into her position, maybe you will too. You’re to arrive, introduce yourself, and await the arrival of the Weavers who’ve been assigned to aid you. They’re bringing a radio and a clay tree seed to set up the building you’ll work and live in. If all goes well you’ll be able to report on how things went with this Emperor Olarth sooner rather than later, Ambassador... Sorry, what was your name again?”

Mara grinned meekly, “Its Mara.”
Ylleria, Capital of the Yllendyr Imperium


Standing at the heart of Ylleria well within sight of the Vermilion Citadel, the very seat of Elven Imperial power, and nestled up against its counterparts was the embassy of the Old Forest. It had stood in that place for nearly eighty years, though few would recognize it now had they only seen it upon its establishment all those years ago. It wasn't that the building had been rebuilt, or even renovated; no, the reality was that it had grown. Great living vines and branches formed the uneven walls of the three story building, the immense product of a single seed that now stood as both an embassy and a reminder: that the past was not yet, that myth and legend lived on.

Within a creature from the nightmares of children the world over crept through the halls. Its dull black carapace, mottled with shiny brown hairs, seemed to disguise it in the dull light of the embassy. Every step the creature took, its many legs propelling it at a surprising if still leisurely pace, was silent enough that none but the most attentive listeners could have identified its approach.

Nevertheless, before it had even moved to push aside the leaf that served as a door to the room it had stopped outside a soft feminine voice sounded from within, “Curh? A pleasant surprise, please, enter.”

The dark spider, Curh, obliged and entered the room slowly, reverently. The Dryad within sat cross legged on a mat of moss growing out of the wooden floor, a small platform of raised and interwoven branches before her imitating a desk. The room itself was spartan by the standards of Elves, Humans, or even the Weaver that had just entered it, though doubtless some personal items were in the small Yllendyr made chest tucked into a far corner. Curh had on occasion wondered if all Dryads were so fastidious as the ambassador, she was the only one he’d ever known after all.

The woman with wooden skin and fine green vines for hair stared into Curh’s many eyes expectantly and he delivered the news he’d heard only moments ago, “It seems the Elf is dead, Amaena.”

The Dryad actually cocked a brow, her statuesque wooden face moving as fluidly as any being of flesh and bloods would, “So soon? I hadn’t expected... Ah, no matter. I presume I am to offer the Forest’s condolences to the family and congratulate the boy, what was his name? Vomur? Congratulate Vomur on his ascension?”

If spiders could cringe. Curh waggled a pointed leg to indicate there was more, his echoing and unearthly voice filling the room, “Vomlur, and it appears that will be unnecessary Amaena. By all accounts the Crown Prince was struck dead by assassins moments after his father passed, the surviving princes have turned on each other and word is one of the four has perished already.”

Amaena stood slowly, what parts of her body weren’t obscured by a rich yellow dress bending and stretching as if they weren’t made of wood. Her face twisted into an expression of concern as she adjusted the clothing, Curh was thankful Yllendyr modesty didn’t apply to his species. The Dryad eventually shook her head and focused on Curh once more, “Have you informed the other ambassadors?”

The spider scratched the floor to indicate he hadn’t and she continued, “Ah, very well, leave that me. Inform your fellows and have them contact the Forest at once. This changes much.”

“I will do so Amaena.” With that said Cruh bowed and fled the room, a proper farewell was unnecessary, wasted time in the face of urgency. His people were humble compared to such beings as Dryads and Shadows, but they were not fools, least of all Cruh. He understood the gravity of the knowledge he carried as he made his way to the embassy’s radio room, and as he told the operators he could see the other Weavers did as well.

This was a disaster, and an opportunity. At last.

Heartwood, Capital of the Old Forest


“We have not prepared for this, it is too soon.”

There was a susurration in the room at the words, they all knew it was true. The old Dryad, Shaetarae, was only giving voice to a collective sentiment, as unsettling a sentiment as it was. For all the forest had grown in new and unexpected ways in recent times, they hadn’t considered that the Elves, those who’d demonstrated previously unheard of power eighty years ago and gone on to subjugate the world, would allow their empire to begin crumbling. Or at least, not quite so soon.

It was Ooash who spoke next, and the indistinct silhouette’s speech was incongruously smooth for all it seemed to resonate in the room, “If the Elves dominion is broken the outsiders, Dwarves and Humans and Dragons, they will begin to assail us again. It is only a matter of time.”

Several assembled in the great hall cursed and glanced at the vast skull mounted at the end of the room, held up by vines that grew through its empty eyes and over its surface, a Dragon’s. It’s presence did nothing to reassure them. Shaetarae looked at Ooash, her gaze far more precise than those who struggled to distinguish the Shadow from its glamour, “Of course they will, belligerent children they are. We will not be surprised by them, at least.”

The Weavers and Ursine pounded the uneven floor of roots in agreement. Before they had stopped Gerum, a great Weaver far and away larger than even the other females in the room, spoke above the commotion in the hissing and echoing manner of the Weavers, “We have managed to recreate many of the Elves weapons below the Old Mountain, this is true. However, as it stands we lack the stockpile needed to arm even the Harpy warriors that have volunteered to learn the rifles, let alone my fellows who have trained on the machine guns and artillery. We have nowhere near enough to equip an... Army, as the Elves call it.”

The Dryads in the room, all of them, grimaced. It was they who had insisted on caution, their twisted perception of time no doubt influencing their decision making. Well, the situation was not unrecoverable. Gerum went on, “That said, we Weavers have many many workshops throughout the Forest. If the Great Beings in attendance sanction it, we shall begin to produce as many arms as quickly as we are able. The Grand Ursine’s mines in the caves will have to be expanded, though. As will their smelting facilities.”

The argument that erupted was a long one. The Dryads were wary of damaging the forest, but the Ursine mollified their concerns by insisting the rock they cut into was dead, far below the Forests roots. The Shadows objected to waiting, asserting that to do so was foolish and parties should be led into the lands of the Dragon Thralls to thin their numbers. That motion was defeated by the Harpies, they knew well there was no way to eliminate enough of the spineless pests fast enough to make a difference when they marched on the forest.

By the time the debate was done all had agreed to expand the production of weaponry and to train as many were willing as quickly as possible. The Dryads were still afraid of the consequences of expanding the industry on and below the Old Mountain, but they feared and loathed the Dragons and their Thralls all the more. The very thought that the enemy could be slaughtered to the point the forest could retake the land they had stolen from it was enough to turn the normally placid women to bloodshed.

Beyond that the Harpies and Ursine had agreed to fortify the borders of the Forest, a measure supported by all. Earthen walls, like those Dryads in the Elven army had reported seeing, would be erected and positions to fight from dug into them. The Forest would never again be victim to the wretched creatures that lived outside its loving embrace. It’s children would never again allow it to be harmed.
Altairis, Olarth’s Capital In The Yllendyr Crownlands


A day had passed since her conversation with the Emperor, and Mara had yet to leave the room she’d been given. She’d accepted the breakfast a servant had brought without enthusiasm, but otherwise hadn’t moved from the bed she was now splayed out on. It hadn’t even occurred to her to turn on the lights. On some level she understood that the Weavers would be arriving soon, and that she’d have to submit a report on what Olarth had told her, but that was a distant concern; it had no bearing on the thoughts that raced through her mind, nor did it rouse her from her lethargy. The future was not what consumed her attentions.

Yesterdays revelations had cast her adrift, and through she’d raged upon learning Naerzo, the man who’d built the empire she idolized, was a monster, all she could do now was reflect. Reflect and regret. She regretted her outburst in front of Olarth, and moreover she regretted that briefest of moments where she’d been tempted to call the Emperor a liar to his face. It had been fleeting, a single impulse among many, but where she scarcely remembered the myriad of other things she’d thought while speaking to Olarth, the memory of that compulsion lingered. How foolish was she, to love a man she’d never met, to the point where she’d nearly defended him to his own son?

It was a thought that shamed her. Her cheeks reddened and, as if looking for a distraction from that line of thinking, she glanced at the clothes she’d hung on the opposite wall. She’d shed her dress at some point, but it had never left her sight, hanging on the wall as it was. Even in the thick of her rage, her confusion after hearing Olarth’s words, she’d taken care to keep that dress pristine. Oh she’d considered tearing it apart, in fact even now she longed to, but she didn’t. It was a product of the Empire in a way that nothing else she owned was, it could not have existed without the Imperium. Without Naerzo. If she truly regretted all she’d believed, why hadn’t she destroyed it? Somewhere, below the chaos of her current state of mind, she knew that for all her beliefs had been faulty she wasn’t yet prepared to abandon them. She wasn’t ready to crawl back to her father.

Her father. Years of arguments came back to her, accusations and demands. How could she undermine him so, how was she so blind as to ignore the shackles the Emperor had put on her people? All the things he’d said, she was forced to reconsider. She regretted fighting with him, siding with his rivals, being cast out of her home. She missed him, she missed her family, and yet... Even now, as she was realizing, she didn’t agree with her fathers beliefs; she didn’t support a return to brutality of her grandfathers time. Did that make everything he’d said wrong though? She’d unflinchingly argued the enlightened principles of the Yllendyr, of the Emperor that led them, and now she realized she’d done nothing but drive a wedge between her and her family for the sake of delusional, cruel, old tyrant. She might never agree with her father, but she understood him now. She saw how asinine her obstinate refusal to see any evil in the Elves had been. Still, that didn’t justify her own peoples evil. The dead Emperor had done wicked things in the name of prejudice, her father would do them in the name of tradition.

She still loved her father, but she was not the only one that had tarnished that relationship. Had she the chance to go back in time maybe she’d not have fought him as viciously as she did, and maybe he would have been kinder in return, but Mara still believed that the old ways of her people were wrong, and that the Imperium had done something good in forcing the Harpies to change. Naerzo was dead, his empire lived, and if even the cruel old corpse had done a good thing, then what could Olarth accomplish? Mara had doubts about him, suspicions fuelled by a new found and frightening skepticism of the Yllendyr, but he had told her the truth.

The Weavers would be coming with their radio soon, and Mara knew what she would say in her report.

The City Of Paprean, The Old Forest


Ena had been in a foul mood for days now, ever since Mara had been sent away. She hadn’t so much as spoken a word regarding her daughters ‘assignment’ to him, and she’d been as cordial as could be expected in public, but while they were alone Temar’s wife had taken ever opportunity she could to demonstrate her fury without making an argument out of it. He’d hoped she’d calm down before they discussed the issue, but as Temar entered his home and saw Ena looming in the hallway he knew his wife had finally worked herself up to the confrontation they’d both known was inevitable.

It began, predictably, with an indignant shout, “I can’t accept this Temar! How could you! Our own daughter!”

Temar always tried to project an air of calm, but while he didn’t shout the tension that immediately entered his voice was indicative enough of his feeling regarding the question, “How could I? I am the Chief, how could I not? How many times have I told that girl to restrain herself, how many times has she defied me? Much more and I’ll be a laughing stock, in my own city!”

“So that’s it?” Ena fumed, “You sent your daughter into a war for the sake of your reputation? Where did my husband go, Temar, or is all that’s left of him a coward?”

It was an assertion designed to nettle, and nettle it did. Temar made no effort to restrain the volume of his reply, “A coward!? Is that what you think of me Ena? I’m a coward to do what had to be done to hold onto this house, to keep you, and yes, her safe? Do you really think those bastards Mara calls ‘friends’ would be kind to us if they had their way, be kind to her? If Umar took my title do you think he’d hesitate to exile us!?”

Ena all but exploded, “Safe! With the Elves! They are at war you old vulture, war. What happened to those stories your father liked to tell us? Have you forgotten what war means to the Elves, have you forgotten why you took the stance you did? Why you and Mara fought to begin with!”

They were inches from each other now, and Temar could see the genuine fear behind his wife’s fury. The sight was too much for him to shout in her face, to truly defend his actions, he only irritably muttered, “Altairis is as far from the front line as any city in the Yllendyr’s lands. She’ll be fine, safe, with the Emperor the silly girl says she loves.”

Ena lowered her voice, but her tone was sharp, “Oh if she’s with the Emperor then. I guess she’ll be the last to die, when the southern Emperor falls.”

Temar balked, but managed to voice a meek retort, “She’ll fly away long before then, she’ll see the Elves for what they are Ena, she’ll finally understand what those carrion eaters she associated with are trying to accomplish. She won’t stay, not when she knows.”

“When she knows,” Ena shook her head, “When she knows what Temar? That you were right? You two have argued too long for her to ever accept that, and we both know she’ll not abandon her duty, she got that from you. Your stubbornness. You have to nominate another at the next consensus Temar, bring our girl home before its too late.”

Temar couldn’t find a reply to that. He couldn’t think of one in all the time he spent looking after Ena had turned her back and strode into the depths of the house.

Heartwood, Capital Of The Old Forest


Some Days Later.

Temar stepped into the Great Hall of Heartwood with an outward confidence that belied the anxiety that had gripped him ever since his argument with Ena. He hated to admit it, but the woman was right. Mara wouldn’t run even when she saw the true nature of the Elves. She had a duty as an ambassador of the forest, and she wouldn’t betray that; not like he’d betrayed his duty as a father by sending his only child into a situation he knew all too well the reality of.

Oh he was sure the so called ‘reformists’ would use his recommendation Mara be replaced by a more qualified ambassador to further subvert him. Maybe Mara would even help them when she got back. It hurt that she’d turned on him, that she’d sided with the very people who’d steal Temar’s city and slander his name, but if he lost her... Just the thought made him sick. For all their differences she was his daughter, his only child, and the thought of her dying was as nauseating as it was incomprehensible. Damn it all, he had no choice.

The rest of the assembled took their places in the vast room, and as always the oldest of the Dryads, Shaetarae, spoke before the rest of the consensus, “In the name of the Forest I convene this meeting of the consensus of Greater Beings. As you all know we have gathered so that you may share the results of your efforts to safeguard the Forest, and to hear the first report of our new ambassador to the southern Emperor of the Elves.”

Temar straightened at that, he had not known Mara had moved so quickly to Altairis as to have a report ready for the consensus already. He wanted nothing more than to hear it, but he hadn’t the authority to demand it come before the perfunctory reports of the other Greater Beings; his people had suffered greatly for bringing the Yllendyr to the forest. They had not been expelled from the consensus, but these days even the Weavers words carried greater weight.

It was no small blessing that the reports on the status of the Forests defensive preparations were delivered concisely by the assembled with something to say. In truth it was a miracle not a single argument broke out. It seemed everyone agreed on the necessity of what was being done, and moreover the impression Temar got was that nearly every one of the assembled would rather get back to their tasks than waste time here.

He could sympathize, of course. Between myriad of status updates on the border fortifications and reports on factory and tooling conversions Temar was exhausted and frustrated by the time Mara’s report was read by Shaetarae. Of course, the moment the Dryad spoke he perked up and listened intently, “Very well, it seems none of you have been idle. This is good. Now, our Ambassador has delivered a... Disturbing report.”

Temar’s stomach dropped, but the Dryad didn’t seem to notice, or care about, the expression of horror that momentarily crossed his face and continued impassively, “Mara of Paprean has informed us of a most distressing tale conveyed to her by the Emperor Olarth regarding his brother Ecurir and the former Emperor Narzo.”

What followed was a story that drove nearly every Harpy in the room into a frenzy. Temar’s chest burned with rage, and vindication. The divisions between the Harpies present were unlikely to be mended by this alone, but the details of the story, and the fact Mara had conveyed it, was enough to unify the fractious people for now.

As soon as Shaetarae finished relaying Mara’s recommendation to support Olarth’s bid for Emperor, Temar cried out, “This is intolerable! My daughter is right, we must have vengeance. This Olarth may help us get it, but even so I demand we recall my daughter, I won’t have her in the court of someone who shares the same blood as that monster in the north. Regardless of their intentions.”

The room froze. Temar had the backing of nearly every Harpy in the room, but that counted for little. Shaetarae’s gaze narrowed, “That is not your decision, child. Know your place.

Her voice quieted the Harpies as it seemed to reverberate in the very roots and trunks that made made up the floor and walls. Temar shivered, but forged ahead, “She is my daughter, it is nobody's decision but mine. As for vengeance, my people must have it. Even if you deny us, we will take things into our own hands, Dryad.”

He had no assurance of that, of course, but that didn’t seem to matter. The Harpies behind him certainly didn’t object to his words, regardless of their feelings about Temar as a chief. Shaetarae strode towards him slowly, but with a fierce look in her eyes, “You sent your daughter away, and in the doing you surrendered your right to control her fate, little Harpy. She is an agent of the Forest now, and it will be the Forest that decides when she may leave her post.”

There were a foot apart when Temar opened his mouth, only to find a root had separated from the floor and begun to choke him in an instant. His support dissolved as the other Harpies exchanged panicked glances and nervously backed away as every Dryad in the room began to glare at them, barely restrained violence in the wooden women's eyes. The very walls of the Great Hall seemed to vibrate as the magic of the Dryads awakened something in the living wood of the building.

Shaetarae didn’t appear to care as Temar struggled to breath with the root wrapped around his neck all but lifting him off the ground. The ancient Dryads speech continued unabated, “And vengeance? With your own hands? You and your people seem to have forgotten the oaths they made. You will follow the laws of the Forest, or you will not live to see yourself leave it.”

The root snapped back into the floor and Temar collapsed, grasping at his throat. Shaetarae only frowned at him, “Leave, Temar of Paprean. Perhaps when you next visit Heartwood you and your people will remember you participate in the consensus at the leisure of we who have permitted you to do so.”

There was nothing else to say, not that Temar was in a position to say it. His throat had already begun to bruise when a number of other Harpies carried him out of the great hall. His people followed him, each one departing with sour, indignant expressions. Of course, even in shock as he was, Temar saw the fear behind the masks the Harpies struggled to keep in place. The Dryads had never threatened a resident of the forest, nor raised a hand against them. Not once in living memory.

He was terrified, and he was not alone.

The Deep Wild, The Old Forest


Ena had spent the previous day tending to her injured husband, and fending off the flurry of questions that had been directed at her and him in the aftermath of the disastrous meeting of the consensus. The forest was in an uproar, and from what she knew it wasn’t just her people that were scrambling to understand just what had happened in Heartwood and why; even the Weavers had made inquired as to whether Temar was well enough to speak with their Matriarch. Ena didn’t know what to make of that.

Of course, at the end of it all, all she cared about was her Husband, and her daughter. The Dryads had refused to even consider recalling Mara, and with what Ena had heard about the story her daughter had delivered to the consensus, she was terrified for her little girl.

Which was why she was here now, in a place known only to Harpy chiefs, and occasionally their wives. There was nothing to mark the spot in the forest she landed, it was simply a tiny clearing in a seemingly endless expanse of trees, but as soon as she did Ena found herself surrounded by other Harpies. The others were odd, each one dressed in black flying clothes and covered in jewelry of every kind.

They might have looked peculiar to an outsider, even savage given the macabre nature of some of their ornaments, but any Hapry would know exactly who they were. The Sky Witches. Rarely were they seen outside of religious ceremonies, and in the last decades there had been few enough of those that they had acquired an almost mystical status.

They made no effort to greet her, she was not a chief, but nevertheless Ena spoke, “I come to make a request, children of the spirits, recipients of the pact.”

A wrinkled woman, for they were all women, stepped forward from the circle of Witches that had surrounded Ena, she rasped, “You have no right to request something of us, you are not your Husband. You are not a chief. We owe you nothing.”

Ena did her best to look unaffected by the statement, but worry crept its way onto her face regardless, “I know, I know, but please. Temar is injured, he cannot come, but I speak on his behalf. I beseech you, please send some of your number to Altaris. My daughter is in danger. She needs you, your protection.”

Ena was about to continue, to tell the Witches of all that had transpired, but the old woman held up her hand and Ena faltered. The elder eyed Ena appraisingly before speaking, “Yes, we know where your daughter is, Ena of Paprean. We know what task she has been entrusted, and we know how your husband came to suffer the wrath of the Dryads. We will do as you ask, we will uphold the pact.”

With that the mysterious women retreated into the forest without another word, and Ena was left alone in the woods. She nearly shouted her thanks at the trees.
The Wall Of Altairis, Yllendyr Crownlands


As she pumped her wings and flew high above the world, watching the land below pass by deceptively slowly, Mara felt her stomach roil with anxiety. It wasn’t fear that had her on edge, but anticipation. She’d first seen the Elves wall almost an hour ago and by now she was above it, watching the enormous edifice pass by with rapt attention. There was no way to say exactly when she’d left the Forest and entered Yllendyr, such things were difficult to deduce from such an altitude, but eventually Mara knew it in her heart. She’d left the forest.

That was terrifying, exhilarating, and a little sad. She knew she hadn’t been sent on this task as a reward, knew that her father had only wanted her somewhere, anywhere, else. So many of the things she knew hurt, but she also knew those things were behind her, fading away into the distance. She’d have to face them again, but not now. For now she was soaring above a land she’d dreamed of visiting, unburdened by any responsibilities but those she’d accepted.

Time passed and she, in the manner of her people, absently memorized the route she took through the sky. Eventually she spotted what she’d been looking for. Far below there was a little clearing in the trees, unremarkable if it were not for the short tower that protruded from it. Perched atop the simple construction was a boulder uniformly painted a bright yellow. It was a sight as confusing to an outsider as it was unmistakable to a Harpy. Her people were down there.

Or, people like her? The idea of Harpies who weren’t her people, who she might not be able to understand, let alone relate to, was a difficult one to parse. Nevertheless, she began a circling descent. It wasn’t the fastest way to get to the little village, but it was the least threatening and the way she’d always been told to enter other tribes communities. Hopefully the Harpies of Yllendyr hadn’t forgotten good manners.

As it happened, and much to Mara’s pleasure, they had not. Her approach had been duly noted and a small group of Harpies had gathered by the time Mara eased herself into a landing near to the village marker. Just a glance told her that this was not the sort of village she was used to. There were a number of wooden houses made from, disturbingly, dead logs. They all faced onto a street paved with stones that seemed to vanish into the distance, cutting through the forest and leading to some distant place under the canopy that had disguised it from the air.

As for those who’d come out to meet her, they were just as peculiar as the village. At their front was an older man dressed in a black overcoat, its sleeves cut so his folded wings hung out of the arms, with an impractical tall hat. Behind him the other men were dressed in simple white shirts, also modified for their wings, and black pants. The women wore a variety of long dresses, some were even rather colourful, but none of the villagers male or female were dressed nearly as well as the man who stood before them to greet Mara. Before she could introduce herself he spoke, voice cautious but filled with curiosity, “Welcome to Teuan, friend. It is not often we have visitors from the other towns, nor ones who arrive with so little warning. May I ask where you hail from, and what your business here is?”

The rest of the villagers all regarded her inquiringly, and for a moment Mara didn’t know why. It only struck her that she was dressed in simple flying clothes when she looked down and saw the unflattering light brown fabric concealing her chest. Suddenly rather self conscious she spoke more softly than she’d intended, “Ah, I’m Mara. I don’t uh, come from around here.”

The older Harpy cocked a brow, “Yes, I figured. Do you mind telling us where you hail from Mara? It’d be helpful to know why you’re here, as well.”

“Oh,” Mara smiled nervously, “I’m from the Old Forest! The consensus sent me to meet the new Emperor, I just thought to… I was told you might have advice for me? The Harpies north of the wall know all about the Emperor right?”

The village chief, or that was what Mara guessed he was, quieted the murmurs that came from the townspeople upon Mara’s admission. He took off his hat and scratched the feathers that composed his ‘hair’ before shaking his head in disbelief, “That’s a rather unbelievable tale, miss. Of course, given your appearance, there's not many with all white feathers left up here, and the fact there’s two Emperors these days… Well, stranger things. I’m Heme, the Village head here.”

Heme paused and returned his hat to his head, “If the forest has truly sent you to meet the Emperor, or at least the one in these parts, I can at least say you cannot turn up to the Imperial residence looking like that. Expected or not the guards would toss you out dressed like a savag-… I mean to say, dressed so simply.”

Mara was naive, but she was not unaware that naivety was among her faults. She heard the near insult and took it for what it was. She was used to those, at least. Her smile weakened, but she managed to reply, “The Dryads gave me money for clothing, Village head Heme. Would you know where I could acquire some? As for guards, I am expected, but some directions to the Emperor's residence in Altairis would be appreciated.”

“Ah,” Heme paused, glanced at the small pouch at Mara’s side and then back at the other villagers before turning his attention to Mara, “The others tend to get their clothing at the common stores and modify it themselves, but I buy mine at a more reputable store in the city; one with its own tailor. If you’re willing to pay for it I could provide you a map of the city. I can point out my preferred clothing store, given they have experience fitting me they should be amenable to any requests you have, and the Emperor's southern residence.”

Mara eyed the Village head suspiciously, but the fact a number of other villagers were rolling their eyes while the rest muttered behind Heme’s back told Mara that this probably wasn’t the first time a traveller hadn’t had the most hospitable reception. Mara deflated a bit, she’d looked forward to meeting the Harpies beyond the wall, but they weren’t so different.

When she replied it was in a mirthless, if polite, tone, “How much?”

Heme had the audacity to smile, “Ah, well given this village is rather remote I imagine a five dacha note would be fair? Don’t you think so?”

In truth, Mara did not think so. Not just because she’d enjoyed speaking to the Yllendyr traders and business folk that came through, but because she just genuinely disliked Heme. From the looks he was getting from a few of his own people, it wasn’t an uncommon sentiment. Still, what choice did she have? Mara, very deliberately, reached into her pouch and produced a rather sizable roll of bills, from which she carefully extracted one before diligently returning the rest to her pouch.

The look on Heme’s face when she handed it to him was enough to restore some of the excitement she’d felt when she’d entered Yllendyr.

Altairis, Olarth’s Capital In The Yllendyr Crownlands


Mara didn’t doubt Heme had ripped her off, but she couldn’t begrudge the mans taste in clothing. She had fawned over nearly every textile and clothing store she’d encountered since entering the city, but the one Heme had directed her to was a cut above the rest. Of course, she’d later discovered it’s price was also a cut above the rest. Still, the azure and purple dress she’d come away with had been worth the four hundred and eight dacha she’d paid, probably. She certainly wouldn’t be flying in it, and it wasn’t particularly comfortable, but she’d gladly claw out the eyes of anyone who called it ugly to spare the world from their awful taste in fashion.

At least she’d had enough dacha left for a nice meal afterwards, the Elves had some truly incredible food. Or maybe it was just good, the fact she was starving from the exertion of flying for the last few days had doubtless made the meal irresistible. In any case by the time she had begun her walk to the Imperial residence she was full and satisfied by the clothing she was wearing, which might have been why she started to notice the looks she was getting from all the Yllendyr. They had to have seen Harpies before? Heme came here for his clothing, and who knew what else.

She shook her head, that was a question for another time. The Imperial residence was at the end of the next street according to the map, and when she turned the corner she knew Heme had been good for his word if not his price. The Imperial residence was an ornate palace with minarets piercing sharply into the sky, dating from the era when rival kingdoms had vied over the Yllendyr crownlands. The palace had not seen a king or emperor in more than three hundred years, until now, when it had become the headquarters of the Emperor Olarth’s court in replacement for the Vermillion Citadel.

To Mara it was, like everything else the Elves had built in this city, alien. Alien, and wonderful in a way that only something totally divorced from any architecture she’d seen before could be. Taking care not to spend too long staring Mara resolved herself and strode towards the gates of the palace with as much poise as she could summon.

The guards challenged her ong before she reached the gates, but as it happened she was expected. There was some confusion over her lack of identifying documents that led to an argument which nearly sapped all the confidence she’d so painstakingly built up from her, but apparently Harpies showing up and proclaiming themselves ambassadors from the Old Forest were uncommon enough for protocol to be relaxed.

Eventually she was allowed in, and a maidservant led her through the palace to Olarth’s war room, where he was presently occupied. A huge map laid on the table in the center. The maid opened the door to allow Mara in, and as she did so she could hear a pitched debate. Olarth was arguing with an old woman, apparently about the way he had handled a battle at some place called Imqua. Upon Mara’s entrance, however, both noted her presence and fell silent. The woman backed away, and after nodding at the new arrival, made her exit through a door on the other side of the room.

“I of course apologize it’s not the Vermillion Citadel, but it’s the best I could do in such a wartime environment. Welcome to my humble court. I’m told your name is Mara?” Olarth smiled warmly at the Harpy which had entered.

Mara did her best impression of a bow, having heard that was customary, before fumbling her first words to one of the most powerful men on the Continent, “It is, my name I mean. Mara.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Mara. As you likely already know, my name is Olarth, Emperor of the Yllendyr. Or well, one of them.” He laughed sheepishly.

She blushed with embarrassment and internally cursed herself before speaking again, “Of course, Emperor. I was uh, selected by my tribe to represent the consensus of the Old Forest in your court. It’s an honour to meet you!”

“Likewise, I must say. I haven’t had the opportunity to… well, properly meet a Harpy before, so I’m glad I had the chance. Your people are fairly rare anywhere north of Sundersevain.”

“Oh,” Mara smiled brightly, silently pleased to have been the first Harpy the Emperor had met, “I had heard that there weren’t many of us in the Crownlands, though I did meet some of my people in Sundersevain on my journey. They were… Different from back home, but not terribly so.”

“How are you enjoying Altairis so far? I hope you didn’t have any troubles along the way.”

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Mara answered honestly, “I was born in one of my peoples cities, but our homes are grown from the wood of the forest. We don’t have anything made of stone, or so tall! There are so many shops too! The Weavers, Fellyr, and some of my own people have only a small number of stores merchants from outside the Forest stop at, and certainly none with such variety. Your city is incredible, Emperor.”

“I’m glad you feel that way,” Olarth responded magnanimously. “But perhaps it may not stay my city for long. I suppose that this brings us to the articles of business we must discuss.” His face turned darker.

“The Imperium is at war. My savage brother has likely killed one of my brothers, has definitely killed the other, and is no doubt planning to march on this city and kill me before he starts a massive manhunt for our youngest brother. And once he has done that, he will no doubt bring fire, death and destruction upon the rest of the Imperium that refuses to acknowledge his control. You likely heard his speech, so you should know what kind of a man he is. The only chance we have to stop this is now, while he is still weak and the Crownlands are divided. I hope that the Dominion of the Old Forest can assist in some way.”

Mara’s smile faltered as the discussion turned serious. She’d tried to prepare for the inevitable request, but being there when it was made was something else. She was used to politics, but nobody died at home. Or at least, not to the point of the butchery she’d heard was going on as she explored the city. She had no authority to say yes, she knew that, she’d only been authorized to forward such requests to the consensus once the radio equipment the Weavers were bringing arrived. That didn’t stop her from wanting to. She couldn’t imagine a brother or sister being slaughtered in front of her, or a nation turning on itself. There had never been a civil war in the forest, and in truth she’d had to ask a Dryad to explain the concept to her when she’d questioned why there were two Emperors in the first place.

She made no effort to hide her pained expression, “I can inform the consensus of your hope, Emperor, but I can’t promise you more. I haven’t spoken to any member of the consensus since I departed for Altairis, but having read your brothers speech in the ‘newspaper’ I bought in the city, I don’t know what they will do.”

“I suppose that’s the best I can ask for for now, then. I might ask you to relay a story that may prove persuasive.

I don’t hope to sour you on the Imperium or its people, but my brother is an especially foul specimen, much like our father… it’s hard to believe we are even twins. To preface this, I don’t know if you know, but I had four brothers. Not a single sister. Doesn’t that seem a little improbable to you?”

Mara had a sinking feeling in her stomach, “I… I suppose so.”

“The truth of the matter is, I had nine sisters. None of them survived infancy. My father claimed that daughters were weak, unfit to rule or live in his household, that there was no need for them in the Vyalviur dynasty except to marry off to foreign princes, and there were no longer any foreign princes to marry them off to. So he gave them to my brother to… dispose of. The last seven, that is, after he was older. He had some pet Harpies in a dungeon somewhere he loved to torture and play games with. Harpies he had starved nearly to the point of death, so they would take basically anything you threw to them.

And they did. All seven of them.” Olarth looked incredibly disgusted.

It had been said by many throughout history that Harpies were a feral people, a primitive race whose instincts often controlled their actions and who exercised their higher functions only after doing whatever their natures compelled them to do. Mara had long since dismissed the notion as a racist misconception held by the occasional merchant. Now though, she wondered. The talons that formed her feet clenched and dug little grooves into the Emperors floor, and the amount of effort it took to restrain herself from an outburst both shocked and shamed her.

Sympathy, horror, sorrow, rage, all these emotions swirled in her mind upon hearing Olarths story. The old Emperor, the one who she’d idolized, whose empire she credited with doing so much good, was a monster beyond even the worst of the Dragon Tyrants. Mara could not think straight, and at the least took comfort in understanding that. She had to go before Olarth told her anything else.

“I… See.” Mara paused, a look of furious indignation breaking through the calm she tried to project, “I will inform the consensus, Emperor. At once.”

“Great men often have their dark secrets, Mara. The Vyalviur Dynasty has some of the worst. This is why I hope to put an end to that terrible history, so we can rediscover ourselves and lead the world in a better way. I can see I’ve given you a lot to think about, so we can talk again another time. Elenne will show you to the quarters we’ve prepared for you.” The maidservant who brought her here appeared at the door again, bowing.

Mara bowed to the Emperor as best she could under the circumstances, which essentially amounted to a tense nod, and all but stomped out of the room. The grooves she left in the floor behind her testament to the maelstrom of emotion that raged within her.
Such city, much train, wow
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The Old Mountain, Deep in the Old Forest


Deep within the labyrinthine tunnels that lay under the Old Mountain, in a place without any light save for that which emanated from the odd luminescent mushroom, a group of Weavers met. The chamber they gathered in was an ancient one, a nest used by their people in ages long past. Gerum, the defacto leader of her people, and perhaps the largest and most formidable Weaver born in centuries, gazed out into the darkness of the old room and shuddered to think of the number and scale of the creatures which had once lived there. It was why she had gathered them here for this, for them to guess at the significance of this place and come to a conclusion; this vast space was a hint of what they had been, what they could be.

As was custom it was not Gerum that spoke first, but a young male less than half her size, “Gerum, the preparations are complete. Vulwyn Traro has agreed to meet me to negotiate.”

The eerily resonant voice of the smaller spider was magnified by the expanse of the room, no, the great hall. Gerum tapped the rock below her in acknowledgement. That was good, for all they were less than their distant ancestors they had acquired tools the likes of which had always eluded their species in ancient days: manners, connections, friends. Gerum spoke softly, she had no need to grandstand, “This is good. You will have the resources of our people to bargain with, but no more. You understand child?”

Reading a Weaver was hard, even among their own kind, but Gerum was old now. She could feel the boys trepidation as he replied, “I do Gerum, but... May I ask why we have not asked the others Gerum? The Harpies are not without resources, nor are the Ursine. Even the Dryads keep treasures of the past.”

It would be the height of impertinence for a mere merchant to question the leader of their people, at least if that people were not Weavers. Weavers didn’t bother with pointless displays of deference, Gerum could devour every Weaver in this chamber even if they all turned on her, what did she have to prove? The question was valid, if naive, anyhow. The others in attendance would have asked it of her sooner or later.

Gerum laughed in the hissing manner of her people, “Boy... Agur. As you are not a Great Being I cannot expect you to know this, but the consensus of the Great Beings is not an apolitical affair. The Harpies folly all those years ago has had their voice in the consensus all but stripped while our connections, the connections you and your peers have made, has made ours larger than it has ever been. When we speak now, even the Dryads listen. Tell me, what would happen if we asked the Harpies for aid?”

Agur looked vaguely shocked. He was accustom to the politics of outsiders, but to see that here? Had it always been so? He answered as he would have if he were speaking of Elven affairs, “They would regain their voice if the deal worked, and we would be held responsible if they led us to disaster again.”

Gerum tapped the floor and a number of the other weavers did the same. She spoke to the group as a whole, “You understand. As for the Ursine, they have no interest in such things. Why share the credit if the ally we might make is content to never speak out? The Dryads... They need no more power, nor do the Shadows. For untold eons they have dominated the consensus, but old and wise as they may be, their perspectives are the ones of those who need not worry about their next meal, their next year. The Dryads and Shadows have seen the forest reduced to a fraction of itself, have seen its inhabitants shrink with it, and they worry not. Why should they? To them this new civilization is interesting, frightening even, but it will pass as all others have. They can wait.”

Gerum paused, the other Weavers were looked at her with awe, she supposed it had been a long time since another had spoken the truth. She concluded, “No. I will not give them more say in how we will defend the Forest, how we will safeguard ourselves. Agur, you will go and bargain with what we have and you will return with what we need. The others have failed one way or another, we will not. Go knowing that Agur.”

Dismissed, Agur wasted no time in skittering out of the great hall and into a dark tunnel. Gerum watched him leave and reflected on her words, did she really think they could do it better than the Dryads? The Shadows? Well, she supposed they had to try.

Heartwood, Capital of the Old Forest


Mara sat quietly across from the Dryad that had requested her presence, the wooden woman regarding her inquiringly before finally asked, “They sent... You?”

It should have been an insult, but all Mara felt was relief. She was right, then. The nervous weight lifted off her shoulders, or at least some of it, for the first time since she’d stepped into the Dryads little office off the main street of the city. Well, office was a generous term. The room the young Harpy found herself in was circular and filled to the brim with all manner of foreign and exotic plants and flowers. Such was the density of the flora that the little moss platform and the Dryad resting on it had escaped her notice for nearly a minute after she’d entered. Any polite person would have spoken up, but not a Dryad. The wooden women loved their little jokes.

Mara answered the perplexed Dryad honestly, “They did. I think they’re just glad to be rid of me, or maybe they thought I was the only one who wouldn’t take a swipe at the Prin- err Emperor?”

The Dryad actually sighed, Mara wondered where the air was coming from, before the wooden woman stood from her relaxed posture splayed out on the moss mat and shook her head, “This is why I told Shaetarae sending a Harpy was a bad idea, not that there’s anything wrong with you of course, but I don’t doubt my elder sister was expecting one of your Greater Beings.”

Mara felt vaguely embarrassed, but the Dryad wasn’t wrong. Before the woman's rant could resume Mara spoke up, “I know I’m not what you expected, but I don’t think they’ll send another. If you could just... Tell me what I’m supposed to do? Beyond fly to the court of the new Emperor?”

The Dryad stopped and rubbed her wooden forehead, “Fine. If anything goes wrong I suppose there’s always another Emperor. Oh, that’s right there are two now if you hadn’t heard, you’ll be going to one in the south. I imagine that’s why Shaetarae asked for a Harpy, there are a number of your people on the other side of the Elves wall yes?”

Mara nodded, she’d been told about them before. Well, usually in insults. Apparently the Harpies on the other side of the wall didn’t care for the old ways either. Mara brightened at the idea of actually meeting them, what would they be like after having lived under the Elves for so much longer than her own people?

The Dryad went on, “Well then, maybe speak to them before flying to Altairis to meet the Emperor. Amaena is up north so we have nobody to lecture you on how you’re supposed to act when you’re there, a local might have the inclination to help. Or not. I can tell you you’ll need fancier clothing, they were rather strict about clothing when I was in the Elves army.”

Mara smiled at the idea, she always thought the Yllendyr merchants that traveled to her city looked pretty, “You’ll give me money for them? The clothes?”

The Dryad looked a bit surprised, “Oh, yes they don’t give civilians clothes do they? I’ll give you a fair sum, same as anyone else going out of the forest on a task from the consensus, to be used for clothing and necessities only! As for what you’ll be doing beyond flying to his court I’m told you’ll be mirroring what Amaena did for the last Emperor, that is, being the formal point of contact between the Forest and the Elves, negotiating with them when instructed to and staying in contact with the consensus and Greater Beings. You’ll be the forests representative and our voice.”

Just then the Dryad paused, considered what she’d said, and appraised Mara again, “Are you sure you want to do this? If the Harpies won’t produce a more... Experienced candidate I’m sure Shaetarae will agree to send a Dryad.”

Mara had visibly paled when the Dryad had explained what an ambassador did in detail. She hadn’t been told- How could they have sent her to do that! Still, it was a chance to show the Elves not all Harpies were irascible sets of wings and teeth. It was also a chance to get out of the forest. Out of the forest. That was what she really wanted wasn’t it?

She hesitated, and the Dryad noticed, but Mara spoke with as much confidence as she could muster, “I can do it. If my people won’t send one of the Greater Beings among us I’ll have to do.”

The Dryad almost looked ready to protest, now that the air headed wooden woman took the time to think about it, but eventually just nodded and reached behind a plant. Her hand reappeared with a small bag of money which she handed Mara, “Good luck, then. I know Amaena grew into her position, maybe you will too. You’re to arrive, introduce yourself, and await the arrival of the Weavers who’ve been assigned to aid you. They’re bringing a radio and a clay tree seed to set up the building you’ll work and live in. If all goes well you’ll be able to report on how things went with this Emperor Olarth sooner rather than later, Ambassador... Sorry, what was your name again?”

Mara grinned meekly, “Its Mara.”
Ylleria, Capital of the Yllendyr Imperium


Standing at the heart of Ylleria well within sight of the Vermilion Citadel, the very seat of Elven Imperial power, and nestled up against its counterparts was the embassy of the Old Forest. It had stood in that place for nearly eighty years, though few would recognize it now had they only seen it upon its establishment all those years ago. It wasn't that the building had been rebuilt, or even renovated; no, the reality was that it had grown. Great living vines and branches formed the uneven walls of the three story building, the immense product of a single seed that now stood as both an embassy and a reminder: that the past was not yet, that myth and legend lived on.

Within a creature from the nightmares of children the world over crept through the halls. Its dull black carapace, mottled with shiny brown hairs, seemed to disguise it in the dull light of the embassy. Every step the creature took, its many legs propelling it at a surprising if still leisurely pace, was silent enough that none but the most attentive listeners could have identified its approach.

Nevertheless, before it had even moved to push aside the leaf that served as a door to the room it had stopped outside a soft feminine voice sounded from within, “Curh? A pleasant surprise, please, enter.”

The dark spider, Curh, obliged and entered the room slowly, reverently. The Dryad within sat cross legged on a mat of moss growing out of the wooden floor, a small platform of raised and interwoven branches before her imitating a desk. The room itself was spartan by the standards of Elves, Humans, or even the Weaver that had just entered it, though doubtless some personal items were in the small Yllendyr made chest tucked into a far corner. Curh had on occasion wondered if all Dryads were so fastidious as the ambassador, she was the only one he’d ever known after all.

The woman with wooden skin and fine green vines for hair stared into Curh’s many eyes expectantly and he delivered the news he’d heard only moments ago, “It seems the Elf is dead, Amaena.”

The Dryad actually cocked a brow, her statuesque wooden face moving as fluidly as any being of flesh and bloods would, “So soon? I hadn’t expected... Ah, no matter. I presume I am to offer the Forest’s condolences to the family and congratulate the boy, what was his name? Vomur? Congratulate Vomur on his ascension?”

If spiders could cringe. Curh waggled a pointed leg to indicate there was more, his echoing and unearthly voice filling the room, “Vomlur, and it appears that will be unnecessary Amaena. By all accounts the Crown Prince was struck dead by assassins moments after his father passed, the surviving princes have turned on each other and word is one of the four has perished already.”

Amaena stood slowly, what parts of her body weren’t obscured by a rich yellow dress bending and stretching as if they weren’t made of wood. Her face twisted into an expression of concern as she adjusted the clothing, Curh was thankful Yllendyr modesty didn’t apply to his species. The Dryad eventually shook her head and focused on Curh once more, “Have you informed the other ambassadors?”

The spider scratched the floor to indicate he hadn’t and she continued, “Ah, very well, leave that me. Inform your fellows and have them contact the Forest at once. This changes much.”

“I will do so Amaena.” With that said Cruh bowed and fled the room, a proper farewell was unnecessary, wasted time in the face of urgency. His people were humble compared to such beings as Dryads and Shadows, but they were not fools, least of all Cruh. He understood the gravity of the knowledge he carried as he made his way to the embassy’s radio room, and as he told the operators he could see the other Weavers did as well.

This was a disaster, and an opportunity. At last.

Heartwood, Capital of the Old Forest


“We have not prepared for this, it is too soon.”

There was a susurration in the room at the words, they all knew it was true. The old Dryad, Shaetarae, was only giving voice to a collective sentiment, as unsettling a sentiment as it was. For all the forest had grown in new and unexpected ways in recent times, they hadn’t considered that the Elves, those who’d demonstrated previously unheard of power eighty years ago and gone on to subjugate the world, would allow their empire to crumble. Or at least, not quite so soon.

It was Ooash who spoke next, and the indistinct silhouette’s speech was incongruously smooth for all it seemed to resonate in the room, “The Dragons and their thralls will come again, then.”

Several assembled in the great hall cursed and glanced at the vast skull mounted at the end of the room, held up by vines that grew through its empty eyes and over its surface, a Dragon’s. It’s presence did nothing to reassure them. Shaetarae looked at Ooash, her gaze far more precise than those who struggled to distinguish the Shadow from its glamour, “Of course they will, belligerent children they are. We will not be surprised by them, at least.”

The Weavers and Ursine pounded the uneven floor of roots in agreement. Before they had stopped Gerum, a great Weaver far and away larger than even the other females in the room, spoke above the commotion in the hissing and echoing manner of the Weavers, “We have managed to recreate many of the Elves weapons in the shadow of the Old Mountain, this is true. However, as it stands we lack the stockpile needed to arm even the Harpy warriors that have volunteered to learn the rifles, let alone my fellows who have trained on the machine guns and artillery. We have nowhere near enough to equip an... Army, as the Elves call it.”

The Dryads in the room, all of them, grimaced. It was they who had insisted on caution, their twisted perception of time no doubt influencing their decision making. Well, the situation was not unrecoverable. Gerum went on, “That said, we Weavers have many many workshops throughout the Forest. If the Great Beings in attendance sanction it, we shall begin to produce as many arms as quickly as we are able. The Grand Ursine’s mines in the caves will have to be expanded, though. As will their smelting facilities.”

The argument that erupted was a long one. The Dryads were wary of damaging the forest, but the Ursine mollified their concerns by insisting the rock they cut into was dead, far below the Forests roots. The Shadows objected to waiting, asserting that to do so was foolish and parties should be led into the lands of the Dragon Thralls to thin their numbers. That motion was defeated by the Harpies, they knew well there was no way to eliminate enough of the spineless pests fast enough to make a difference when they marched on the forest.

By the time the debate was done all had agreed to expand the production of weaponry and to train as many were willing as quickly as possible. The Dryads were still afraid of the consequences of expanding the industry on and below the Old Mountain, but they feared and loathed the Dragons and their Thralls all the more. The very thought that the enemy could be slaughtered to the point the forest could retake the land they had stolen from it was enough to turn the normally placid women to bloodshed.

Beyond that the Harpies and Ursine had agreed to fortify the borders of the Forest, a measure supported by all. Earthen walls, as Dryads in the Elven army had reported, would be erected and trenches to fight from dug behind them. The Forest would never again be victim to the wretched creatures that lived outside its loving embrace. It’s children would never again allow it to be harmed.
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