“Lord Afanasyev?” Evgeni groaned and stared up at the heavy wooden crossbeams that supported the ceiling in his little cell. It had already been a week since the rest of his team had headed out of Sanctuary without him. He was in no condition to be out adventuring: he still hadn’t fully recovered from his winter trials, and attempting to ignore that fact had just nearly cost him his life. Still, the only thing he hated more than being confined to strict bedrest in hospital was the matter of his temporary substitute with the team. It wasn’t that he questioned Alexei’s skill or integrity. The young eladrin was a formidable hunter of monsters in his own right: sharp, resourceful; only a decent swordsman, but an excellent archer. So long as neither his Mark nor his summer aspect got the best of him, a better elf or ally would be difficult to come by. Alexei was sound. The team was in good hands. What bothered Evgeni was knowing what Alexei had walked into. The Sanctuary team’s purpose was difficult to explain to outsiders, but what it did was dangerous beyond explanation. Evgeni had had enough close calls himself to have long ago seen the wisdom in not keeping count of them all. When Alexei had declared his intention to step in upon the team’s return from Asgard, Evgeni had been too gravely injured to put up much of a fight. Since then, harrowing visions of having to explain to the Vasilevs – and especially their steely matron, Grand Princess of Shiva Don -- that their son had been lost in his stead had wracked his conscience. He had only eaten when forced to, and hadn’t slept at all; the combination of these things had made him a bit…irritable. “Lord Afanasyev?” The drow turned his head towards the source of the voice and shot the uneasy guardsman peeking in the door a glare that would have withered fields. “What,” he snarled. The guardsman flinched and nearly lost his balance. “I’m sorry to disturb you, My Lord; but you have a…uh…visitor.” Evgeni narrowed his eyes at the guard. “You see…Lord Sten, Lady Pym and, Lords Caputo and Odinsson aren’t here; so….” Evgeni’s eyes flashed. “Uh…it sounds important?” The assassin sat up in the slow, ominous manner of an irate cobra preparing to strike, never releasing the guardsman from the virulence in his stare. “Fine,” he growled. “Show them in, but they had better keep it short. Very short.” The guard promptly disappeared. Evgeni ran a hand over his head and shook out his nest of white hair. A rather elaborate web of ties usually held it neatly back; having it loose here was yet another aggravating adjustment he’d had to make. He set his jaw and tried to think. The functionary from the Org wasn’t due in town for at least another week. Crystal Peak, thankfully, had been silent since last autumn. The drow from Ilindith weren’t likely to come all this way to admire their handiwork: they’d had seven straight months for that -- and then some. He shivered at the memory and quickly dismissed it. Sanctuary had tripled in size in its brief existence, but its guest list remained short. Who in the Nine Hells had fate abandoned so thoroughly as to send them to see him now? Just then, the guard strode back through the door, looking much more confident this time. He drew himself up to his full height just to the right of the doorpost. “My Lord, presenting Al'meh Noor el Qessir, of the Order of the Silver Scale.” Evgeni’s breath caught in his chest as his empty stomach dropped into his feet. His heart may have stopped as well. A tiny, elegant elven woman lightly stepped over the threshold. She was dressed in a beautiful caftan of azure silk that was embroidered with intricate silver floriforms. A veil made of a soft cream material with a single narrow band of azure ribbon at each end neatly obscured her head and neck, leaving only her very youthful, childlike face visible. She carried a beautifully carved cedar staff decorated with three rows of flowing, brass-inlaid script that spiraled along its length. “My Lord,” she began in a pleasantly-accented voice, “I--.” She stopped mid-thought and her mouth fell open. ”E --Evgeni?” The unmistakable scent of sandalwood drifted across the room on a light current of air. There was no question now. “Um. Hello, Noor.” The little elf rolled up on her toes and let out a tiny squeal of joy. Dropping her staff at the door, she sped across the room, planting her hands on Evgeni’s shoulders and the three kisses customary in Shiva Light for greeting a long-absent friend on his cheeks. “It’s you! Oh heavens, it’s really you!” she cried, squeezing his upper arms. The room swam as the excruciating rush of pain pushed Evgeni to the brink of unconsciousness. Fighting to steady himself, he inhaled sharply through his nose and feebly pawed at her hands. “Noor! Don’t…” Startled, Noor leapt away. It was only then that she noticed the start of the lattice of bandages visible above the neckline of his shirt. The color immediately drained from her face. “By the stars,” she gasped, looking him over more carefully. “Evgeni, what is this? And how horribly careless of me! Please, let me fix -- ” Evgeni snatched her wrist to prevent her from casting. “No magic,” he insisted, shaking his head. “I must recover old-fashioned way. Is long story.” He arched a snow-white eyebrow at her. “But what you are doing here? It is very long way from Ahara.” Suddenly aware of how close they were, Noor blushed deeply. She turned her focus to the floor around her silk-slippered feet. “Ah, I have not seen home in some years: my work means that I travel almost constantly. I came here to document the state of Shiva North, and the peoples and places in it. But of all the wonders its borders might contain, you are the last one I dreamed I would find. I had feared that you might not have survived Rebirth. I should have known better.” She lifted her chin a little, but strategically avoided meeting his eyes. “This is a long way from the northeast coast as well. What brought you here?” She nodded towards a particularly deep bruise on his forearm. “And, if I may ask: what happened? Surely this wasn’t the doing of --” The scowl was almost reflexive. “No, it was not mark,” Evgeni grumbled. The sound was harsher than he’d meant it to be. He took a breath to try to re-center, and realized he hadn’t remembered to release her wrist, either. He opened his hand. What was happening to him? “Just friendly exchange. Mostly. Rest was disagreement with windbag god. He deserved more than he got. But, I am patient hunter.” He noticed the concern etched upon Noor’s face as she mutely stared at him. He gave her cheek a reassuring caress. “I am not out of head. But this is very dangerous place now, Noor. It is not for wandering about, even for clever little historian who plays with time.” Noor tilted her head towards the warmth of his fingers and blushed again. “Ah, you flatter me, Syd Afanasyev,” she replied with a shy grin. “You are as incorrigible as ever.” She retrieved a high-backed wooden chair from the corner beside the door and set it beside the bed. Settling into it, she rested her elbows on the thick, red, leather-bound book at the end of the strap slung across her body, and frowned. “Evgeni, what is happening here? My previous stop was the city of Crystal Peak, to the west. I was there for several days. They were cordial, and even allowed me accompany them on an expedition; still, I could not escape the sense that there was something…something they did not want me to see, or maybe to know. And then there was Lieu…” “So you have met Peak Team. Is good to know they survived winter. I suppose.” Noor perked up instantly. “You are familiar with them?” Evgeni rolled his eyes and nodded. “Very. But what is a lieu?” “Oh, only the biggest forged I have ever seen!” Noor’s doe-like eyes sparkled with excitement as she threw her arms as wide as she could for emphasis. “Many places employ forged as part of their guard; but in all my years, I have never met anything like him. His legs alone are bigger around than me – not that that takes very much,” she laughed. “I cannot blame Aziz for preferring to sit on his shoulder: the view was much better. Anyway, while I was in the city, he was assigned to be my guide -- and my watcher, which did not help my misgivings. However, he proved an ideal assistant. Oh, how the Scale could use a legion just like him!” After over a year of collaboration, the existence of such an asset in the Peak shouldn’t have been news to Evgeni; yet here he was, learning of it from a complete outsider who had casually happened through the town. He managed to keep his displeasure out of his voice. There would be a few pointed conversations had once he was back on his feet. “Innnteresting," he intoned. Noor was much too giddy with enthusiasm to note the nuance in his reaction. “It truly was!” she gushed. “The last time anyone came this far north, it was all wildlands. I am ashamed to have to admit that we were unaware that such impressive cities had sprouted here since. Crystal Peak is very erudite for a place so young. And I fully expect the school at the Temple Forge will be renowned across all of Shiva in a few short years.” Noor paused, checked her surroundings and dropped her voice to a cautious whisper. “That is, so long as it does not draw the suspicion of The Org. The years since Rebirth have been deeply concerning for my sort. It is so hard to say what they will consider a threat anymore.” She lapsed into a pained silence. “You want I should tell you truth about north,” Evgeni heard himself offer. Noor’s eyebrows shot up. “Would you?” This was too much. He was getting uncomfortably reckless now. Maybe he did need to rest and clear his head. “Alright,” he found himself saying instead. “But is complicated thing, so no interrupting or we will be here for another half century. I will not use Common. Is easier for me.” Noor nodded. She unfastened the strap, quickly snapped her book open and readied her enchanted silver quill. Evgeni gingerly folded his arms across his chest, and leaned back against the pillow propped up against the headboard of the bed. “So,” he sighed. “It was fifteen years ago when I got a strange message from the guild....” For the next two and a half hours, the drow recounted an elaborate, winding tale that even he had to admit sounded more like a lunatic’s fever dream than fact. Living mountains that devoured an entire town. Sentient books that merged with whomever touched them. Cannibal children. Living temples. Cursed idols. Power-mad wizards performing terrible experiments in forbidding towers. Casino heists. A demonic circus with a warlord clown. Vengeful fey bent on genocide. A genius shapeshifter and tentacled horrors from beyond the stars. Twisted gods; shadow cults; floating palaces; a loyal living spell in concert; death matches; an undead hero; dwarven puppets; far too many assassins…and squirrels. There were so many things he hadn’t thought about – half of them deliberate -- since they’d happened that the words felt strange in his mouth, and even stranger leaving it. They must have sounded similarly bizarre to virgin ears, for Noor’s expressive face registered everything between incredulity and horror while he spoke. Still, she held fast to her promise not to interrupt, and her quill didn’t miss a single word. Evgeni had expected nothing less. They’d met in a largely unremarkable encounter two centuries ago, and her focus and drive remained the closest he’d seen to a match for his own. Perhaps that resonance of soul was what kept their roads improbably, inevitably crossing, heedless of the number of years that passed in between. There was no other sensible explanation for it. “…and that brings us to here,” he concluded with casual shrug. “Mostly.” Noor laid her quill in the center of her book. For several minutes, she stared at her writings in silence, as though trying to wrap her mind around something it didn’t want to embrace. When she spoke again, her trembling voice was barely whisper. “That is…quite a story.” Evgeni gave her a grave nod. “It is not to be shared until after this is over.” Noor closed her book and set it and her quill aside. “I understand,” she replied. “Then you also understand why you should not stay. We are in bad position already, and more is coming. If we half-succeed like last time, North is lost.” “If you half-succeed, Chrystaria is lost.” “Well, yes; but that is not point at moment. Point is buying time. If you are in south, maybe you have time to figure out escape for yourself, you know?” “Evgeni,” Noor said gently. “I am touched by your concern for me. But you know I cannot do that. I must be here. Like the rest of the Scale, I am a link in a chain sworn to protect and continue The Record at all costs. My work is both my calling and my purpose, and I would gladly give my life in its service. It is…what I am.” Evgeni sighed. He had known what her position was likely to be, just like he knew he had little chance of changing her mind. He would have to try to accept this now, even as his heart sank. “You are stubborn as dwarf, Noor,” he said sourly. She lifted her chin in defiance, but the silver in her eyes twinkled with amusement. “I learned from the best,” she shot back. “Did you, now?” Evgeni pounced with the precision of a hunting panther. Ignoring the howls of protest from his battered body, he caught Noor by the waist, then threw his hips the other way to reverse his momentum, slinging her out of her seat and onto the bed. She landed on her back with a tiny strangled yelp of surprise; but before she could get a breath in, he seized her lips and kissed her as though he were trying to feed upon her very essence -- the same way the drow had kissed him months before. A slight grin crept across his face as he felt the last of the tension bleed out of the little wizard pinned beneath his shoulder. There was an unexpected hint of longing in her kiss. He would take his time with his prey. He cradled her closer, leaned in a little harder, let his free hand slowly stray over the gentle curve of her shoulder, down the smooth blue silk that sheathed her arm. She threaded her fingers through his when he reached her hand, and held his hand tightly. And then, almost as suddenly as he began, he broke off the kiss, rolled again and neatly deposited a stunned Noor back into her chair. He flicked his tongue over his lips. The taste of her kiss was still there. Cinnamon, with a late mote of sweetness. It wasn’t unpleasant at all. “You have bit more to learn, little lamb,” he purred. “I…you…oh. Oh my,” Noor stammered. Wide-eyed and breathless, she whipped around to hide her burning ears and cheeks. She’d been smitten from the first time she’d laid eyes on him so long ago; but he’d never noticed. It wasn’t his way. So he couldn’t possibly know – could he? She covered her mouth with both hands and blankly stared towards the door in silence, her mind reeling through two centuries of thoughts, assumptions and beliefs. Evgeni gave a smug little huff as he curled up and drew his quilts over his head into an insulating cocoon. There. That should give her something else to think about for a while. Maybe now he could finally get some sleep.