The Fallen Lands: The Ruins of Numinis
Very young, but all too old for her age, Ginni is a former nomad. A very pretty deceiver with layers of secrets and lies she puts on like scarves and skirts.
Guinevere the Seeress
Fortunes told, destinies revealed, hearts broken! Who will be brave enough to face…. their FUTURE?
“This is a stupid idea,” Rangrim grumbled as the three companions crowded through the tent flap. “A charlatan, for sure.”
Rhio grinned faintly. The young elven boy with the tambourine outside had taken their silver pieces, deftly tucking them away, even as he gestured them to enter the tent of “Guinevere the Seeress.” It was just past sunset outside, but bright fairy lights drifted through the camp, and a dozen small motes of light flickered inside this tent.
“Of course,” Rhio muttered. “But did you plan on spending that coin on something more entertaining today?”
Still grumbling, Rangrim settled down on one of the cushions on the ground. There were several, arrayed around a pedestal supporting a crystal ball.
Rhio’s eyes slid around the tent. It had a wooden frame, and a number of curious, decorative objects and knick-knacks perched haphazardly along the ledges formed by the frame supports. Curious glass jars filled with weird things— a cat with two faces, a disembodied eye— lined one shelf. Another held a series of bottles, all blue, all empty.
He crossed his legs and sank to the floor, waiting. Several minutes passed, the warm tent growing warmer with three full-grown men crowding it. Finally, the tent flap opened, letting in a gust of fresh air that rattled a metal windchime hanging in the center of the tent. A figure stood, silhouetted in the opening, the fairy lights behind her revealing a slender hourglass form.
The elven boy stepped forward, holding one hand in front of him, the other supporting the seeress’s elbow. She stepped in smoothly, a white blindfold over her eyes. She was dressed in a simple white shift, but bore no jewelry, and she was barefoot. The boy helped her to a cushion on the opposite side of the crystal ball.
She was also on the tall side for a woman, which he would have expected from an elf, except… he was fairly certain she was no elf. Graceful, like one, but she had a lushness to her that spoke of non-fey origins, though her blindfold also obscured her ears. She placed her hands on the crystal ball.
“I see three men before me,” she said quietly. “Thank you for coming to see Guinevere the Seer. Have you a question for the spirits?” Rangrim’s eyes rolled, and she smiled faintly. “It would be wise, dwarf, if you did not mock the spirits. They tattle.”
Rangrim glanced over at Rhio, uncertainly, and he shrugged. He knew this con— the blindfold wasn’t opaque— it was an easy trick. He settled back. “Oh, seeress,” he said, carefully schooling his voice to keep the mockery from it. “Tell us our fortune, do.”
Guinevere turned her head slightly. “Thank you… what an odd man you are,” she murmured. “For the spirits to have touched you so.” Then she bent her head, addressing the crystal ball.
“Oh, spirits of the Other Realm, reveal to me the fate of these three men! Guide them in their dest— ah!” she gasped, throwing her head back suddenly.
Rhio sat up. She was early with her cue. She should have given them a tantalizing tidbit before pretending to have a genuine vision.
A keening noise came from her mouth, sharp and clear, for a long moment— Rhio couldn’t tell if she was in pain or ecstasy. Then she snapped upright again, panting. “What—” she picked up the crystal ball, and it shimmered, blue lights suddenly flashing inside it. “Oh, no—” she turned suddenly, barely crawling to the tent wall before she vomited loudly.
All three men were quick to their feet, bending over to make sure she was all right. The blindfold still covered half of her face, and she wiped the back of her hand across her mouth, grimacing.
“Please,” she called weakly. “Send the boy in— Lope—” her voice had lost the hypnotic cadence of her patter. “I need help.”
Rhio looked up at Rangrim and Malidar, his face no longer the almost expressionless mask he’d worn for so long. “I’ll help her,” he said abruptly, kneeling beside the woman. Girl, really— she couldn’t have been much more than an adolescent. “Send the boy, though.”
Dwarf and man hustled out of the tent, exchanging knowing looks. Pretty damsel in distress? What better way to pull Rhio out of his uncanny fugue? Rangrim cast a parting look back as the tent flap fell closed.
Rhio helped the girl to a sitting position, brushing damp hair off of her face. “You all right?” He tugged at the blindfold. “Let me get this off—”
“No—” she reached a hand up, but he’d pulled it off already. She kept her eyes carefully turned downward, pretending not to see him. “Please. Go. I’ll refund your silver.”
Rhio chuckled. “Don’t worry about that,” he said. “Are you ill?” he paused, knowing what life could be like in these tent tribes. “Pregnant?”
“Oh, hells no— I just… I ate something.” she wrinkled her nose. “Skip the sausages, if you can help it.”
Rhio sat back. She was lying to him. She was good at it— really good. Good enough that he almost believed her, and already had decided not to buy any sausages. The boy— Lope— came in, spoke with her quickly in elvish (“Are you all right?” “Fine— they need a refund, though.” “What happened?” “I’ll tell you later. Maybe.”), and turned to Rhio, fishing in his pockets for the three pieces of silver.
“Here you are, sir. Apologies— please, if you don’t mind, keep this under your hat? Twouldn’t do for anyone to be whispering that our seeress is sick, you know.”
Rhio knew. He nodded and stepped out into the fresh air, escaping the nasty smell inside the tent. A quick nod to his friends sent them on their way— he still had business here. He stepped back to the tent, ducking around the side and taking cover behind a crate.
“Lope, I said I’m fine— you don’t have to—”
“Just cleaning up, Gin. You sit there and don’t move a— where ya going?”
“Blink needs me.” There was a rustle, and he heard tinkling glass. Water. And then some high-pitched gibberish, followed by “Guinevere’s” soothing voice.
A few moments passed, then the boy again: “What are you doing now?”
“What? Why? Twas just one mark—”
“I can’t stay, Lope. I—” there was a pause. “I’m in love, and I’m finally leaving.“ Again, he knew with a certainty that she was lying.
“What? One of those marks?”
“What? No, of course not. Someone I met last night, after dark. He’s a guardsman at the keep. His name’s Hal. Good man, strong arm— I’m going to be happy, Lope. You should be happy for me.”
“I don’t get it,” the lad’s voice was pitched high. “What’s the con?”
“There is no con, Lope. Not this time.” Truth. How… interesting.
“Well… yer not takin’ yer books, are ye? What’s a guardsman’s wife need with those?”
“Um….” another pause. Was she gearing up for another lie? “Lope, shut up and help me pack, or I’ll have to put you out.” There was more rustling, the sound of more glass being moved around. Finally, a long, quiet pause.
No, not quiet. He caught the barest sound of whispering, and leaned closer.
“Be a good boy, Lope. Don’t let them do to you— just don’t let them make you hard, okay?” A whispered assent. “I will always love you, no matter what. When our paths cross again, we’ll have much to share, and our joys will be tenfold. Safe passage, Lopanion Greysilver.”
“Safe passage, Ginni.” Another rustle, a sniffle, and then the whole tent shook as the flap was opened.
Rhio poked his head up. No longer in her seeress guise, the girl was pretty enough, her dark blonde hair bound back in a bright red scarf. Dressed in the colorful garb of the elven tribe, she blended in despite her obvious human heritage. She had a small market bag tucked under one arm. In one hand, she carried a walking stick. She strode out into the tribe’s carnival atmosphere, passing various elves as they juggled and performed for the “marks.”
Gliding among the crowds, Rhio followed her. She appeared to be wandering through the camp, but he’d known enough hunters to know when someone was stalking something. And if he wasn’t mistaken, her prey was Rangrim and Malidar. Rhio fingered one of his blades and followed her.
His companions stood awkwardly not far from the path back to town, obviously waiting for him. And she…. continued to drift, seemingly aimlessly, not far from that same path. She was waiting for them to leave. Ambush? It seemed unlikely— unless she was some kind of wizard, she couldn’t hope to take on—
Oh, damn. He pulled the blindfold out from the pocket where he’d tucked it, confirming— it was opaque after all. Crystal ball. Jar with floating eye. Smart way around that part of the “blind seer” con, he had to admit.
He strode out of the crowds to join his friends. “Let’s go,” he said flatly, heading onto the path. If she planned to ambush them, she could do it on the path in the darkened woods, where he and Rangrim could see easily, and she could not.
He muttered a few words to Rangrim and Malidar as they headed into the woods, and with practiced coordination, all three melted into the forest. Rhio took the position closest to her approach— it was hardest to gain the advantage, and he was doubtless the most skilled at hiding there.
They all heard her stumbling down the path. She sounded like she was pushing the staff ahead of her to feel her way ahead— was she really blind after all? Rhio didn’t believe it— she’d had sharp blue eyes when she scanned the crowds looking for them.
She took two steps past him, and he slipped out of the shadows, bringing the knife up and sliding it under her chin. She froze instantly, letting out a tiny squeak. Abruptly, light flared up in front of her, illuminating the path and the clearing they’d picked for their ambush.
Malidar stepped out from behind a tree up ahead, and Rangrim closed in, threateningly from her left. She didn’t move, didn’t speak.
She was shaking.
Inwardly, Rhio cursed, but he didn’t lower the knife. Whoever she was, she had followed them. Past experience had taught them hard lessons about being followed, particularly by such expert deceivers.
“Who are you, and what’s your business with us?” Malidar demanded.
The girl took a deep, shuddering breath. “My name’s Ginni,” she called out. “Could you— have your man take the knife from my throat?”
“Unlikely, wizard” Rhio hissed in her ear. She startled, and turned her head, about to look at him, then stopped when she felt the knife biting into her neck.
“What will it take to convince you not to slit my throat?” she asked simply. “I mean you no harm.”
“We’ve heard lies like that before. Why are you following us?”
“I wasn’t following you. I was leav—” she stopped. The knife was pressing sharp against her throat. One movement could end her life. “All right. I was following you,” she backtracked suddenly. “I want to leave the tribe. I hoped to go with you.”
Rhio pulled the knife away from her neck. She reached a hand up to her throat and he heard her shuddering breath. Damn, she was a good liar. He couldn’t tell if her relief was feigned or not.
“What makes you think you’d be welcome with us?” Malidar demanded. His face was stony— Rhio wasn’t the only one who’d suffered in their cause.
The girl took a step forward, away from Rhio, turning slightly. He saw what she’d done even as she turned— positioning herself so they stood more in a circle, and less in an ambush. “Please— it’s not that I don’t love my elven family, but— surely, you must know what it’s like to have big dreams?” Malidar’s face was still suspicious. “That’s all it is— I want a bigger life for myself, and surely… anyone can see you’re not farmers.”
Ah, of course. Flattery, sympathy— Malidar would never—
Malidar softened. Oh, damn him. “That’s all? We live a hard life, girl. People die. LOTS of people, good people, people we love and care about. It’s not songs and ale— it’s blood and shit. Go home to your tribe.” He turned to walk away, barely looking at her, and Rangrim turned slightly, too.
The three companions turned back to her. “No?” Rangrim spoke, his voice harsh and low. “Weren’t you paying attention? Blood, shit, death, betrayal— all that could be yours, and more.” He took a menacing step towards her. “Go home!”
“No.” She licked her lips and glanced back up the path, towards her tribe.
“We don’t have time or place for a pregnant mage—” Rhio began.
“I told you, I’m not pregnant. And I’m not going back.” She glared at him. “Are you going to kill me?”
“What? No….” he considered for a second. “Well, probably not.”
“Then I’m coming with you.” She looked at all of them. “You can’t tell me you have no need of an arcanist in your travels. I can help you.”
“And what’s in it for you?” Rhio demanded.
She shrugged, and the artlessness of the gesture gave it a sensuality that had to be deliberate. “A little treasure, some adventure, the chance to find a new place in the world. I couldn’t have stayed with the tribe forever, anyway.”
Rhio, Rangrim, and Malidar exchanged glances. If the evil they’d been fighting turned its attention to these lands… no. She wouldn’t be staying with the elves forever. Because they’d be dead, and so would she. “Stay here,” Rhio said, stepping towards his companions to confer.
Ginni crouched down where she stood and folded her arms over her knees. If needed, she could nap in this position— she’d done so a few times on long marches with the tribe. But she tired more readily than they did, and eventually her age and her skills as the “seeress” had earned her a hard-won place in the wagons.
I am going to regret this day, she thought. If the gray-skinned one doesn’t kill me before dawn, that is. The very madness of what she was doing struck her then, and she almost laughed out loud. I’m insane, she realized. Insane, and that’s why I saw— no. What she’d seen was no insanity. Or, rather, it was insanity, but it was an insanity that dripped Truth the way Blinky dripped magic. She shuddered, tucking her chin into her folded arms and looking around. The three men were still talking— no, wait. Two men. The third one, the gray-skinned one, had left them.
She felt him behind her before he had a chance to bring the knife to her neck again, and this time, she reacted first. She rolled to the side, then scrambled to her feet, holding the staff out defensively. He barked a short laugh, but his hands were empty.
“We decided,” he said simply, his voice quiet. “Go home.”
Ginni’s teeth gritted together, and her eyes flashed. “No,” she repeated. The third refusal. Among the elves, threes had power. She was sundered from her tribe. She couldn’t go back now if she wanted to. She swallowed around the hard lump in her throat at that thought. “I can’t now. I have no home. You don’t have to take me with you, but you won’t be able to leave me behind.” She turned to Malidar then. “Please. I can help you. I’m not a fake— I have power…” she trailed off. If she hadn’t been hit with this insanity, she would have enspelled all three of them and left them groping after illusions as soon as they revealed themselves. Why hadn’t she? “Please.” Don’t make me beg a third time and turn me into a beggar, too. She had been worse things in her life.
Malidar waved a hand. Rhio’d already convinced them; if he wanted to play that game with this girl, Ginni, he could bluff her along, too. “Fine. Just beware— Rhio there is ready to slit your pretty little throat the second you give us trouble. Keep it in mind. We don’t tolerate traitors.”
She nodded. “Got it. Throat slit. OK.” She picked up her staff and satchel and looped the satchel over her head. She turned to the gray-skinned one and held her hand out. “Rhio, is it?” From the other side of the clearing, her posture appeared neutral, unassuming, and surely Malidar and Rangrim saw nothing in it. But the way she dropped her eyelids and nibbled the corner of her mouth, Rhio could see the master seductress within.
He glared at her, then smoothly slid his hand into hers. “Indeed,” he purred, stroking her wrist gently as he shook her hand. He was gratified to see her eyes widen with surprise… and pleasure. Two could play this game, and he was very, very good at it.
It means nothing, she kept saying to herself, but Ginni was a skilled liar and knew when she was telling a falsehood, even to herself.
She looked ahead at Malidar, riding at the front of the group, his tratnyr a spire against the golden sky. She couldn’t articulate what brought the tears to her eyes, but it could probably be summed up with one word: hope. Hope, and the death of hope— both of which she saw in the man who, whether Rangrim or Rhio agreed, was their leader.
Hope— that he’d keep them from devolving into the blood rage insanity they were already courting.
Hope— that he had the foresight to steer them to the best course to stop the coming doom.
Hope— that he had that foresight without being driven himself by greed or ambition.
Hope— that he really was the next (not the last) honest man who would rule the shattered realms of Numinis.
And the death of hope, which still lay in her vision, the sight of his head mounted on his own spear.
That was the day we lost the war, she thought again, not for the first time. Already in her mind, she had come to see him not for the man he was, guiding a very small group of scoundrels, but for the commander of armies that he would someday be.
She’d already started seeing him as her future liege and lord, and the thought gave her pause. First, because the very idea of her bowing her head to anyone and making an oath sincerely was, until a few hours ago, laughable.
Until he’d spoken, urged them to come together in common cause, brought forth Rhio’s knife. She’d seen the blood on her hand and, unflinchingly, she’d touched palms, first with Rangrim, then Rhio, then Malidar. The ritual was devoid of arcane bindings or energies. It was a pure ritual— meaningless in the mystical sense, but weighty in all other ways.
It was easy to swear loyalty to Malidar. She never had a moment’s doubt that he would repay loyalty with steadfastness, or that he would not ask of her— or any of them— anything he would himself balk at.
The other reason these thoughts made her uncomfortable had nothing to do with future oaths and bonds, but with the here and now. She already deferred to him, tactically and strategically. She did his bidding, a phrase that before would have turned sarcastically on her tongue so that all would know she did no man’s bidding without her own will behind it. She was the manipulator, the one holding the strings, always…. except now. And Malidar held no strings— he didn’t need to pull at her to get her to jump. He simply assessed, and spoke, and it seemed reasonable that she should agree with him.
What would happen, now that she thought of him as her liege? She’d never had a lord before. She’d lived her entire life loyal to no one and nothing. Was this what bonds of family and friendship felt like? If so, she didn’t particularly like it.
I will die for him. It wasn’t a question of whether she would or not— it was a shivering moment tied to her vision. If the moment came to pass, she would trade her life for his.
But her soul? The eternal part of herself that the elves believed in? She wasn’t sure it existed, but there was certainly an unseen self that she was able to touch with her magic. Malidar himself seemed to believe, if not in a soul, then an internal struggle that could only be won invisibly. Would she lay down that part of herself for him?
She shuddered again, thinking of the evil black thing with eyes that had flown from the tiefling’s body at its death. Would she give herself over to them, to keep his head from the spike?
Ginni wiped another tear from her eyes. Would she— could she— kill for him? Take a life? Her reticence in doing so until now had less to do with squeamishness, despite what Rangrim and Rhio thought, and more to do with a basic finality of such an act. Once you were a killer, you were always a killer. She could never undo such a thing.
I have been worse things, before.
She could do it. For Malidar. By extension, for the rest of them, but mostly, for Malidar, her liege, though he was unaware. Her lord. Her king.
And when it is over, and he is king in fact, what of you, little Ginni? Will you stand in court to him, whispering secrets and information in his ear, until his people fear and hate you? What will become of Malidar’s witch when King Malidar rules this land in peace? When Rangrim has returned to his people, their hero and savior? When Rhio rules a web of informants and spies throughout the land? How will you answer when the mob blames you for the failed crops or the fever run amok? What will you do when your mere presence is a liability?
When it was over and the time for great deeds and sacrifices was seemingly done… when he was safe, she would make a final sacrifice. For her liege. For her king.
She bent low over her horse’s neck so her companions wouldn’t see her weeping at the thought of what she might someday need do. If they lived.
Ginni’s eyes flew open when she felt the staff strike home. Black shadowy flames leapt along her staff, striking her in the eyes and heart. She flung an arm up to protect herself, but she knew it was too late.
Shadows wrapped around her, wreathing her with a cold, grasping fire that sucked all hope from her— and then dissolved. She opened her eyes, but now she saw Malidar— whole and alive— surrounded by Rhio and Rangrim, readying weapons, looking as though they were about to head into a fight. Her vision expanded, and she saw a slim, tall woman beside them— that’s me, she thought with wonder. Wonder turned to cold horror as the vision focused in again on the determined faces of her companions and herself— each of them with glowing red eyes and the tiny buds of horns dimpling their foreheads.
With unrealistic relief, Ginni saw that Malidar was unafflicted.
The vision blanked. She found herself standing in the courtyard. A heartbeat sounded, unnervingly loud in her mind. Her heartbeat.
Shall I take you now? a voice, hot and wet like burning oil, whispered in her mind.
What the— fuck no! Ginni recoiled from the oil in her mind, but there was nowhere to run.
You took My servant from Me, the voice said, almost petulant now. The leering, angry face of the tiefling they’d just slain loomed over her.
Fuck you, Ginni replied, getting angrier now.
You took My visions. Gloating.
You can have them back. They suck.
You will take My power over life and death. An offer. A temptation. A statement.
Never! I— she paused. Ginni suddenly saw herself behind Rangrim, but instead of pouring a healing potion, she was drawing on his own healing reserves to restore him. Strength flowed through him, and the dwarf stood up, invigorated and much more capable of charging ahead without suicide. She saw Malidar, falling before the claws of some enormous, black-winged beast. Her stomach clenched in terror. Then her voice brought him back to stand and renew the fight.
Ginni felt sick to her stomach. Malidar, falling— she could save him! My king, she thought. She quickly covered the thought when she heard an oily little laugh in her head, but it was too late.
Just remember, little wizard. You may be inconvenient, but you are Mine, now. You have been Mine since the moment you decided you could make this deal. You sealed it when you willingly took My servant’s life. Killer. So. You have more power to protect your precious “king” now. How…. sweet. The word dripped with sarcasm, and Ginni’s eyes burned with her own tears.
The sound of her heartbeat again, the roar of sound around her whooshed into her ears as if she had never heard anything before. Someone was touching her shoulder. Malidar.
My king. Oh, by all the elven gods, what the hells had she done?!?
I would give my soul for him. It was something she’d come to terms with only a week or two before, the force of her loyalty shocking even herself.
“Just… give me a minute ,” she said, choking back tears.
“It’s all right— your first kill. It was a good kill—”
Holy hells, he actually thought she was upset over the kill? He had no idea. She’d turn the courtyard into a charnel house if it meant keeping him alive.
The thought, for once, did not repulse her. And that was troubling too.
“I know— just give me a minute,” she said again. She would have to tell him about Gruumsh as soon as she could. It would explain, at least for now, what was wrong with her.