Crooked Jaw did not want to wait. Thus, after a short farewell to Finbar's team (and that wretched donkey), the Longs, the wolves, and their two civilian companions startedup the High Path around the flank of Scarred Mountain. The Longs paused for lunch when they reached the snowy mountains and exchanged their usual forest camouflage for winter whites. Xavier's dark fur took more camouflaging than most and he slogged along, panting, toward the back of the group. Drift, unsurprisingly, didn't need any help blending in and walked steadily alongside Arla in the center. The day itself turned out surprisingly warm, with a cloudless sunny sky and a warm wind from the southeast that brought the sharp scent of fresh snow and pine forests up among the mountains ahead. After several hours of climbing, the samoyed looked up the curved, forbidding slope of Scarred Mountain on their left, its barren stones strangely scored with streaks and gouges running parallel to the ground. Then he shielded his eyes against the mid-afternoon sun high in the clear sky and craned up at the snow-laden mountains they would be passing later in the day. "Arla," he finally remarked, "as impressive as these mountains look up close, there's something I've been meaning to ask."
"What is that?" the collie-morph asked, quietly surprised that Drift was in good enough shape not to be panting from the effort of the climb up the saddle between the mountains.
"I don't mean to question the judgment of you Longs, but I'd really like to know why we're heading into an area Finbar was suggesting we turn back from."
"Crooked Jaw insisted we go on. He says he's 'had enough of living in caves'. If we went back, we'd probably have to wait for late next spring to get up here again."
"Nothing like—" Drift paused, his foot resting on a fallen aspen trunk. One of its ends was propped up off the ground by a large rock, and it bowed slightly under the load. "Hmmm," he murmured, shifting his weight on it to see how resiliently it bounced back. "Interesting."
Arla eyed Drift quizzically. "What did you say?" she asked, having not quite caught his murmured musing.
The samoyed looked up, his mouth twitching into a mildly embarrassed smile. "Sorry... my mind wandered for a moment. Nothing of immediate importance." Stepping over the log and hurrying to catch up, he continued, "Speaking of immediate importance, isn't this move rather last-minute, what with winter coming on? Wouldn't it be better to wait until spring?"
Arla's ears flicked in amusement. "At the risk of answering a question with a question, do you know how Crooked Jaw got his name, Drift?"
"That was my next question, actually," Drift replied. "His jaw doesn't look crooked."
"The lutins gave him that name. In their language, if they say someone has a crooked jaw, it means they are considered strong enough and tenacious enough to have it broken, survive whatever broke it, and then to recover afterward. (Given the state of most lutin medicine, that last requirement may be the most difficult.) Once he sets his mind to something, especially if it's something he considers for the good of the pack, it's very hard to talk him out of it. If we don't go with them, then they won't get to where we want them to go and may settle down someplace more likely to bring them into conflict with our logging crews or our farmers. We also would come out looking like poor allies, which is not something we want."
"Hmm. Put that way, that does make sense." Drift pondered for a bit more and then half unslung the bundle of rope tied to his pack and suggested, "Why not climb down the cliff face once we get around this mountain, and take the Low Path the rest of the way?"
Arla chuckled. "Have you ever tried lowering a tied-up dire wolf before? Besides which, if we did that, then the wolves wouldn't know the way out of the lake valley if they needed to leave."
"Good point," Drift said. "I think—" He stopped mid-sentence, his jaw dropping as they crested the mountain saddle. "Oh, wow," he breathed, struck almost speechless by the scale of the river valley unfolding before them.
The land sloped gently down between the mountains for several hundred yards before dropping precipitously away into a vast chasm over a mile wide, as if a giant had dragged an enormous shovel through the mountains and left a broad furrow behind. The entire town of Euper would have fit comfortably inside its breadth. To the right, it disappeared out of sight around the flanks of Scarred Mountain (which had finally given up its gouged, slightly concave look for a more traditional tree-and-snow slope), and was concealed to the right by a high ridge coming down from the mountain on that side. If the far canyon wall was any indication, that ridge would be the first of many. The canyon wall rose many times as high as Metamor's curtain wall, zigzagging up and down in sharp ridges and low hanging valleys as if the river valley had been cleaved through the feet of the mountains. Even so, none of the mountain valleys approached even a third of the way down to the main valley: instead, several of them emptied cascading, ice-encrusted waterfalls down the cliffs that vanished into the forest of evergreens that lined the edges of the canyon, with a few nearly bare broadleaf trees mixed in for variation. The mountain runoff then reappeared as small streams that bounced down the sloped valley floor before feeding into the main river. The majority of the canyon, though, was treeless, and was buried deep under gently drifted snow where the river and the streams hadn't washed it away.
As the group got closer, even the Longs (who had seen it before) paused to take in the staggering view. When Drift asked why the trees were only along the edges, Laura explained, "The bottom of the canyon is mostly grass, because the ground is very rocky. We don't know exactly why it's like that, but that's not important to our mission." Turning her attention to the ridges and mountains they would have to traverse in order to reach their destination, she continued, "Finbar said that a camp had been set on a high ridge midway between here and Ice Lake, and that we shouldn't have any problem reaching it well before sundown."
"It always makes me nervous when someone says we 'shouldn't have a problem'," Padraic commented, sotto voce.
"Smart man," Laura replied, nodding in wry agreement. "This is avalanche country. We'll be traveling low on the mountainsides, so I don't think we'll trigger anything, but that puts us a lot closer to the canyon wall than I'd prefer and accidents can still happen. I want everyone alert and ready to run for the ridges on a moment's notice. That should get you out of the slide path." She pointed up at the first that they would have to cross, its spine well-forested with evergreens. "Get to the trees, grab hold, and hang on. Arla, make absolutely sure that the wolves understand that." Once she was certain that had been taken care of, Laura turned and led the way. "All right, people, let's be about it."
The snow conditions made for slow travel as they climbed over ridges and trekked across valleys. The top several inches of the snow pack were wet and heavy, but a foot placed too forcefully would punch through to a dry, powdery layer below. The powder provided poor traction, and the dense snow above dragged at legs and feet. The wolves, with their broad snowshoe paws, generally managed to avoid this, but the Keepers were soon slowed and wearied by the slog. By the sixth ridge, Drift had shifted into taurform and taken the lead, clearing a path like an icebreaker on a sea of snow. Xavier was starting to grumble again, but apparently decided that helping flatten down the snow in Drift's wake was more productive than stewing in an ill mood. This improved the pace somewhat, but not enough for the three young wolves. They soon grew bored and, despite warnings to stay close to the group, were soon chasing each other across the slopes in a rampaging game of tag. Cloud Walker in particular dashed around with abandon and Crooked Jaw finally chased him down and thrashed him to get him to settle down.
Drift winced, remembering similar thrashings in his own youth, but it didn't seem to slow Cloud Walker down much. He was soon dashing about again, a little closer to the group and keeping a watchful eye on his father's temper. After a few laps around the party, the young wolf leaped up onto the upturned roots of a fallen tree and looked down on them all with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Seizing a dangling pine branch in his mouth, he shook it vigorously. Snow cascaded down on them all, drawing yells from Xavier and several of the Longs. Xavier and Allart in particular competed for the loudest, longest complaints when snow went down their backs.
When the leopard spotted Cloud Walker still laughing at them from his high perch, though, he got his revenge. With one quick gesture from him, a swirl of wind shook the trees above the young wolf and they unloaded their remaining branches right on top of him in a shower of snow and shed needles. Xavier smiled and walked on. To his surprised friend, who had stopped breaking trail to watch, he remarked, "What? Did you think lightning was the only weather effect I knew?"
"Good point," Drift replied while Cloud Walker shook out from under the snow Xavier had piled on him and jumped down from his boulder. The samoyed turned east to look out over the next gully they would have to cross. Cloud Walker's fallen tree had toppled into it, limbs poking up through the snow, tapering out about halfway to the bottom. It looked like snow had drifted up against it from the north, toward the forbiddingly barren peak above. Oddly, most of the branches on the valley side of both ridges were missing, but it didn't occur to Drift to wonder what had caused it. Instead, he was just glad that he didn't have to push through them, like he had had to do on most of the previous ridgetops. Pausing to rub his taur shoulders and forelegs, which were starting to ache from climbing and descending through deep snow for most of the day, Drift twisted around to look back for the party leader. "Hey, Laura," he asked, "how far is it to the camp that Finbar told us about?"
Laura crunched through the snow to Drift's side, pulled a spyglass from her pack, and surveyed the area. "I think we've still got a few more ridges to go," she said, snapping the glass closed once she'd finished. "And if it isn't within two, then we'll find a comfortable spot for everybody to take a rest. If you're tired, though, somebody else can take over trailblazing."
"No, I'm all right," Drift replied, waving her concern away while he flexed his four legs in the snow to work the soreness out. "I just need to add some elevation changes to my daily run once I get back. I'm not used to going up and down so much."
"Okay, but don't wear yourself out. It takes longer to recover from fatigue up here in the mountains than it does back in Metamor Valley."
Drift nodded and moved forward again, testing his footing as he started downhill. Crooked Jaw, ever the leader, walked alongside him on top of the snow, and Xavier and Arla followed behind while Laura continued to scan the area with a feeling of growing concern. Reaching out to the tree next to her, she stroked its bare, limbless side, trying to figure out why it bothered her so much. She looked up toward the mountain again, and suddenly the snow-laden, treeless expanse above the two ridges registered, as did the funnel shape of the gorge between them. She turned to cry warning... just in time to see Cloud Walker make a running leap down the tree trunk and off into the pristine valley snow. "No, don't!"
The young dire wolf cratered the snow when he landed, the snow pack collapsing in a six-foot-wide circled around him with a loud WHOOMP! Immediately, it started to slide down the slope, taking a yelping Cloud Walker with it. The developing slide didn't restrict itself to those six feet, either. Fractures in the snowpack radiated out in all directions. Some bolted across and down the ridge, lancing toward the trailbreakers, others raced uphill toward the mountain, and still more surged up the ridge toward the rest of the party.
Laura lunged for the tree next to her as chaos erupted. Longs and wolves leaped for whatever handhold or secure footing could be found in the bare moment it took for the snow to disintegrate around them. She heard Allart yell in pain and looked to see Silent Stone yank the flailing child-man from the slide by a firm, toothy grip on the seat of his white camouflage pants. The rest of the Longs and the wolves looked okay in the second she spared to check them before returning her attention to the gorge and its mayhem. Drift, Crooked Jaw, Xavier, Arla and Cloud Walker didn't have a chance to grab a handhold, and she strained to spot some sign of them amid the dissipating cloud of powdered snow as the slide in the gorge ground to a halt.
She didn't have to wait long. Drift popped up almost immediately, and then hauled his friend Xavier to his feet a moment later. Both of them helped Arla up; the collie looking breathless but otherwise none the worse for wear. Crooked Jaw and Cloud Walker both surfaced a moment after that, burrowing out and shaking off in nearly identical motion.
"Is everyone all right?" Merideth called out. Into the replied affirmations (and one indignant "He bit my ass!"), Swift Shadow interjected a short, sharp bark of alarm. The young she-wolf stood high on the bundle of tree roots that Cloud Walker had just departed, her eyes and ears fixed intently on the mountain at the head of the gorge. A moment later, as silence fell on the group, everyone else heard it, too: a high, groaning strain as the entire mountainside creaked and shivered.
"Get out of there! Get to high ground, now!" someone shouted. It might have been Laura; it might have been Allart. It might even have been both at once, a warning to the trailblazers still in disarray down in the gorge. Whatever the case, the shout was almost completely buried by a tremendous cracking bang. A deep crevasse opened in the snowfield on the mountainside high above, and a massive slab of snow began to slide downward. At first it seemed to move deceptively slowly, but it rapidly built speed with a roar like rolling thunder.
That roar was met with a rising scream as Xavier, realizing that the avalanche would be on top of them before the trailbreakers could get to safety, met it with all the power at his disposal. The gust he called built from a tree-swaying breeze to a snapping wind to a howling gale and beyond, racing up the gorge to meet the oncoming wave of snow and blast it to powder. It wasn't enough. The leading edge of the slide blew away like a cloud, only to reveal large tumbling blocks of snow too massive to be balked even by the desperate hurricane Xavier was throwing at them. Forked lightning detonated the leading blocks with ear-shattering peals of thunder, but they were quickly replaced by the slide's seemingly inexhaustible supply. Indeed, the wind and the thunder were worsening the slide, shaking even more snow from the mountainside and sending it cascading inexorably downward.
"Blow it sideways!" Drift yelled over the din, waving his arm to the left as if to push the slide himself. "Dump it in the next valley over, if you can!"
"I can't!" Xavier shouted back through gritted teeth, windborne snow whipping past him in disintegrating sheets stripped from the ground around him. "I'm barely holding onto this as it is! If I try to turn it, it will run amok!"
The samoyed taur reached out and snatched Xavier off his feet. He then tossed the leopard over his left shoulder and dashed as fast as he could up the slope toward the safety of the ridgetop. "Then let it! You've done all you can— now it's time for us to get out of here!"
The winds reeled drunkenly as Xavier's concentration broke. Drift staggered as they buffeted wildly about the valley, whipping up whirls and blinding eddies. Farther up the slope, the winds slapped Arla off her feet entirely, knocking her to the ground. Beyond her, Crooked Jaw stumbled, but then bowed his head into the swirling storm and bulled through to safety at the ridgetop. "At least one of us made it," Drift shouted, his voice barely audible over the twin roars of avalanche and windstorm.
"No-one else will, though," Xavier gasped. Drift's burly shoulder had nearly driven the air from his lungs. His eyes locked on Cloud Walker's behind them, the young wolf wild with panic as he tried desperately to catch up. Then Xavier looked beyond to the avalanche that was nearly on top of them, and his eyes widened. With a rumble like a thousand caravan wagons all crossing a bridge at once, the unleashed winds whirled themselves into a massive tornado, a swirling white wall that slammed into the oncoming avalanche like two mighty waves colliding in the ocean. "So that's how it's done," he murmured, for one awe-inspiring moment able to watch the winds perform their ultimate dance of destruction.
For a moment, the right side of the avalanche was checked by the right side of the whirlwind, balked by the tornado's spin, the rampaging storm shielding the fleeing Keepers and their lupine friend. The left side of the funnel, its winds blowing with instead of against the avalanche, accelerated that half of the slide past them and off the cliff into the river valley below in a cataract of powdered white. In that moment, Drift reached Arla, lifted her with his strong right arm and, with every ounce of strength his taur body possessed, hurled her up the slope and out of the snow slide's path. In that moment, he prayed, Oh, Eli, forgive me all, knowing neither he, Xavier, nor Cloud Walker would make it out.
Then the moment passed. The tornado, already starting to dissipate, moved aside and a towering wall of ice and snow engulfed the three creatures still in its path. When it passed on and over the cliff, only silence remained behind.
The daedra Alexastra rode back into Euper in the guise of a simple black cat perched upon the tailgate of a caravan wagon. A slightly bedraggled-looking stray, the gatekeepers had grown used to seeing her like this, occasionally entering and leaving town aboard trader wagons, and had jokingly dubbed her the Caravan Cat. Some of the teamsters had started to consider her good luck, for Alexastra saw to it that no caravan she rode on came to harm during its journey. Besides the obvious self-protection and the chance to listen in on unguarded conversation, it also encouraged some teamsters to trust more in luck and talismans, and anything that distracted mortals away from the aedra was, in her opinion, effort well spent. After all, even a small slip here and there could leave openings for later enticements.
She should have been pleased with her return, especially when the guards spotted her and pointed her out, but instead she quietly seethed as she jumped down from the wagon and slipped out of sight down an alley. The past two days had been nothing but frustration for her. When Drift had set out for his thrice-accursed mission, she had, of course, followed. The shape of a falcon had seemed the best way to keep track of her mark, and she had nearly homed in on him when she felt scrying eyes upon her. A moment later, she was set upon by a pair of eagles and had to flee to maintain her cover as a simple animal. She could have easily slain both birds, but with aedra eyes on her, she knew that would only invite more powerful opponents. If the watcher wasn't certain she was a threat, the odds were good that they would only react proportionally. It was an easily exploitable aedra weakness. She'd tried two other shapes, a squirrel and a small bird, to try to approach, but had been balked both times without even getting close enough to set eyes on the white Keeper. When an arrow narrowly missed her while she was shifting shapes into a doe, she knew it was time to leave. Whatever Drift was doing, it was important enough to the aedra that they were taking no chances about interference.
Alexastra the black cat slipped through a hole in the foundation of a ramshackle house well inside Euper, slipping past several traps that would discourage anyone other than their maker from noticing the small passageway. When she arrived at the inner rooms, her first act was to check the room with magesight for any scrying eyes. That done, she shapechanged back to her Keeper disguise and lit a small candle for light before thwumping down on the soft sofa with which she had furnished her safehouse. The opulence of the room put a lie to the house's outward appearance and, after a few minutes of sulking, she got up and produced a wineglass and a bottle from a nearby cupboard. Pouring herself a drink, she pondered her options. They were not many. She could do nothing about Drift for the time being, either for good or ill.
If Drift came to harm doing whatever he was doing out there, she thought as she settled back on the couch, wineglass in hand, it wouldn't harm her lord's plans much. She had, as a matter of habit, laid contingency plans five ranks deep. The damage to her carefully crafted reputation, however, was something that she would not abide. She was a daedra spymaster, and even among the most secret and secretive of all daedra kind, there were expectations to be met. Having a mark escape from her sight and control, even if just for a short time, was bad enough: that the reason for his escape involved several of the high aedra made the affront just barely tolerable. Absolutely nothing was worth getting caught over. If something happened to him under the guard of those interfering aedra minions, she would certainly take her vengeance on the aedra and the Lothanansi... Alexastra paused and unclenched her fists, forcing herself to be calm, to be patient. Yes. She would be patient. She would wait. For now.
I hope nothing happens to him, a small voice whispered unbidden in the back of her mind. I would miss him. The regret that came with that thought nearly startled her into dropping her wineglass. It wasn't that she felt regret over losing him that alarmed her— Drift was hardly the first mortal she had found intriguing while she wove her nets around him. Her interest in mortals was what gave her the edge as a spy among them. She had spent almost her entire existence studying them, trying to get inside their minds, to learn to see things from their viewpoint. It was, she felt, the only way to have a chance of predicting their often erratic behavior.
No, what surprised her was the depth of that feeling. She would have expected that deep a feeling of pain and loss from the persona she'd adopted to shield herself from detection by Kyia, but to feel it from herself? It was... It was unprecedented. It was absurd!
It was dangerous.
He has to be an aedra counterspy, she thought, her heart starting to race. He has to be. Him or someone near him. That has to be the reason. One of Velena's minions. But how could they possibly have—? The alternative explanation was too impossible to be believed, and she discarded it immediately. Draining the rest of her wineglass in a single gulp, she marshaled her emotions back into order and mentally chided herself. Be calm. Keep your guard up. Only fools panic. She set the emptied glass down on the table and steepled her fingers in thought. The intervention of an aedra minion of sufficient skill both to affect her and to evade her detection while doing so was not a development she had expected, but she felt certain it was a manageable complication. The prospect of unveiling and besting such a skilled opponent was tempting, but she admonished herself with a phrase that she had picked up long ago from a Suielman legionnaire. "She who chases two rabbits will lose them both," she said aloud as she walked out of the room and up a flight of steps. Stepping out on a small balcony, she stayed there just long enough to drape a piece of red cloth over the railing before retreating back inside.
Having set up the signal for Thestilus to contact her, Alexastra settled back onto the couch to wait, plucking up a small pillow from the cushions and holding it close. The cool darkness of the room helped settle her thoughts, and she nixed the idea of ferreting out the counterspy. If she managed to uncover him while working with Drift, wonderful, but ensnaring both Arkos and Snow was complicated enough without adding another target. As much as she hated to agree with the little nuisance, Thestilus was right: Lord Agemnos was grasping for too much at once this time. A contract closure was fine, but using a Marked of Akkala to do it? What in the Nine Hells had induced her lord to offer such an open contract in the first place, anyway?
Alexastra sighed and massaged the bridge of her nose, shooing those thoughts away. What Lord Agemnos wanted, Lord Agemnos got. If he wanted her to get it for him, she would do it or she would be killed and he'd get someone else to do it. Glancing around once more in magesight to make sure she wasn't being scryed upon, she cursed and tossed the couch pillow across the room. "What a horrid waste. Drift is too entertaining to be used up like this, and much too smart. There's more profit to be made from harnessing that brain than there is from making him into a sword for killing." The mental image of Drift's delectable body in a Suspira-charmed harness (and not a stitch else) improved her mood enough for her to pick up the pillow and take it back to the couch, cuddling it against her and imagining it was him. That fantasy lasted until she saw his dull, glazed eyes, and she flung the pillow away again with a snarl. Suspira's touch would take away what she found the most enjoyable about him. "What a waste," she growled again and faded back into sullenness. For a long while, all was silence, her mood gone as dark as the room around her. "Thestilus had better not have made a hash of things while I was away," she finally grumbled, and got up to light more lamps. She didn't need them, but why make that brat Thestilus feel any more welcome? Drift would be fine, she assured herself. What harm could he possibly come to in just two days, without her there to instigate it?
Drift slowly regained consciousness... and immediately wished he hadn't. When he opened his eyes all he could see was dimly lit snow bare inches from the end of his nose. Panic scrabbled at his mind, and he shoved it into a corner while he tried to figure out what had happened. He was laying pinned face-down, he couldn't move, his right arm was trapped under him, and his left arm twisted up and behind him at an angle he knew it wasn't supposed to reach. His entire lower body was wrenched to the right and down relative to his upper body, straining his back at the taurform hip. Burning pain radiated from his left shoulder down his arm, across his back, and down his chest and belly. Underneath that, his whole body felt like one massive bruise, from the top of his head, to the tiptoes of his hind legs. The last thing he remembered was... oh. The avalanche. That explained just about everything.
That did not, however, explain the feeling of something nudging his left hand somewhere above him. It hurt, and Drift reflexively twitched his hand to try to get whatever was doing it to stop. Once again, he immediately wished he hadn't. Whatever it was gave a relieved, excited yip, muffled by the snow, and starting digging. When blunt digging claws snagged on his arm fur and jerked, Drift yelled so loudly that he scared away whatever was digging. While the samoyed ran through every curse word he'd ever heard of, and then invented a few more just for the occasion, he tried to wriggle and heave his way free of the snow. Work now, panic later had been one of his father's sayings when things had turned hectic at the forge, and the memory stood him in good stead now. The jolts of pain from his shoulder as he struggled inspired him to start over at the beginning of his blue streak, but the sound of it also brought back whatever had been digging. Drift heard an unmistakably canine whine and figured out who it was. Only Cloud Walker and Xavier had still been in the path of the avalanche when it hit, and Xavier wouldn't whine. Gripe, yes. Whine, no. "If you're going to dig, Cloud Walker," he snapped, "then dig carefully, dammit. I think my arm's broken."
The digging sound, when it started again, was more tentative and it started closer to his head, so he gritted his teeth and bore it when the digging still jostled his arm now and again. The snow felt like rock around him. Only beneath him did it have some softness left, and that stole some of the pushing power out of his right arm. It had also certainly saved his life, cushioning his landing after the long fall from the cliffs above.
The light from above was getting brighter as Cloud Walker got closer, and Drift tried to push his right arm up his chest through the snow toward it. The air was starting to get bad around him, and if he could just— yes! Cloud Walker's claws collided with his own, bringing with them fresh air that Drift sucked at greedily. "All right, good job," he panted, patting the young dire wolf's snout. It was all he could reach. "Now let's try and get the rest of me unburied, okay? Carefully?"
By the time Cloud Walker excavated enough snow that Drift could shake free, both of them were panting from weariness. Tousling the young wolf's headfur with his good hand, Drift took some time to look around and get his bearings. They had somehow survived the fall from the clifftops, just barely overshooting the line of trees fringing the valley edge. Xavier was nowhere to be seen, and Drift got no response when he called for the leopard man. They would have to search for him. Although Cloud Walker's tail swished slightly in gladness that Drift was free, he trembled with anxiety from the long fall into the unfamiliar river valley. His ears were lowered and he stayed close to Drift's side, whimpering quietly to himself. Both of them could hear the pack howling mournfully on the clifftops, and even dimly pick up a few of the louder shouts from the Longs. Deliberately pitching his voice with confidence to counter Cloud Walker's fear, he asked, "How about you howl for your pack while I get my arm fixed up? That will at least let everybody else know we're okay, and that we're looking for Xavier." Being given a useful task seemed to be just the distraction Cloud Walker needed, and he wagged his tail in approval of the idea before moving off a bit to make his call. The wolf's ears were still lowered a bit, Drift noticed, but his morale seemed improved. While Cloud Walker did that, the injured samoyed taur gingerly drew his dagger from its sheath on his left arm and sliced his vest apart, retying it into a serviceable sling. Getting his injured arm into it was worthy of a few more swear words, but he bit them back to avoid alarming his young companion. He also deliberately avoided looked at the misshapen bumps and bulges of his shoulder, to avoid alarming himself. At least no bones were sticking out.
His saddlepack looked battered, but intact, although it hurt his wrenched back to turn to check it. His waterskin was gone, but if he remembered the map Padraic had drawn, the path he'd have to take to meet up with the Longs at the wolf pack's new home would never stray far enough from the river that he'd be likely to need it. Whirlwind hadn't gotten lost, but heaven help him if he knew how he would wield it with only one arm. That left him with only his dagger for meaningful defense, a thought that provoked a moment of black humor. A weapon he'd bought for the express purpose of killing himself if he were ever trapped in a fire was what he was going to have to rely on when trapped in snow. Looking up at the canyon walls again, and then up even farther to their tops, he couldn't believe he'd survived. If Cloud Walker couldn't find Xavier in the snow, then the leopard would most likely have landed among the nearby trees. Drift ran the fingers of his right hand through his thick neckruff, hoping that his friend would be in better shape than he was. This was not going to be an easy task if he wasn't. The problems that lay ahead threatened to overwhelm him, but he pushed back at them with his father's words. "Work now, panic later," he said to himself, and then glanced skyward with some words from his mother. My Lord Yahshua, I know you said you'd never give me a challenge beyond my abilities... but there are times that I wish you didn't trust me so much.
Several minutes later, Drift and Cloud Walker had found Xavier. The black leopard morph hung doubled over a limb at least ten feet up a leafless birch tree. He wasn't moving. "Xavier? Xavier, wake up!" Drift called, putting his forepaws against the trunk and gently shaking it. Cloud Walker barked, but the leopard didn't respond. Even when Drift walked his forepaws as far up the tree as he could, Xavier still didn't react, and he was still just out of arm's reach, though not far enough away that Drift could miss the blood staining the leopard's head fur from a wound just ahead of his right ear. "Oh, this is going to be interesting," Drift groaned as he climbed back down. Reaching for his saddlepack, he pulled out a long bundle of rope. "Okay, Cloud Walker, I'm going to need your help. Here's what we're going to do..."
Half an hour later, Drift and Cloud Walker were ready. The two of them had woven a rudimentary net (actually more of a crazed spider's web) between the branches under Xavier, at a height that Drift could reach. The trick of it was that neither end of the rope was up in the tree. One end was tied around the trunk of a nearby pine, while Cloud Walker held the other end in his jaws some distance away. Drift had designed it this way for two reasons: ease of retrieval once they were finished, and so that, if necessary, Cloud Walker could slowly lower the net by adding slack to the line. Drift hoped it wouldn't come to that, because he wasn't sure if the net's weave would hold together while sliding, but it gave him an extra option if something went wrong. It wasn't pretty, but with one arm out of commission, the other needed to maneuver and possibly catch Xavier before the leopard's head hit anything, and Cloud Walker only able to handle one rope end at a time, it would have to suffice.
"Ready, Walker?" Drift asked.
The young dire wolf looked oddly surprised for a moment, and then braced his paws and wagged. It had taken several attempts before Drift was able to explain what was expected of him in terms he could understand, but once he'd figured it out, he had tackled the problem with characteristic energy and uncharacteristic focus. Perhaps the avalanche had shaken some of his puppyish silliness loose.
"All right," Drift said, "let's do this." The samoyed taur reared up, placed his forepaws against the trunk, and walked them up as high as he could reach while still keeping his hind paws in a stable position on the ground. Then, using his good arm, he snapped Whirlwind into staff form and carefully reached up to prod at Xavier with one end. "Brace yourself, Walker," Drift said as the leopard started to slide off the branch. "Here he—"
Xavier's eyes fluttered open.
It had been a good plan. The only flaw was that Drift had assumed Xavier wouldn't wake up in the middle of it and panic. The leopard-man flailed as he landed in the net, catching Drift squarely on his injured shoulder with a swinging backhand. Reeling back as pain exploded outward from the impact, Drift misstepped with his left forefoot. It slid off the side of the trunk, taking the rest of him with it. Wobbling on his feet and momentarily dazed from bashing his muzzle on a branch on the way down, Drift looked up to see that at least part of his plan had worked. In spite of Xavier's thrashing, Cloud Walker was carefully lowering the net while Drift recovered.
Cradling his aching shoulder, Drift felt his temper boil over. He welcomed the distraction: it took his mind off of the pain-induced nausea roiling his stomachs. Throwing up in taur form was not an experience he ever wanted to repeat. "Dammit, cat!" he shouted, pausing to wipe blood from his nose and spit more from a bite wound on the inside of his cheek. "Hold still!" The net, as expected, was starting to come apart, and Drift put his hand on the leopard's sagging backside to keep him from falling out.
Xavier stopped thrashing around and seemed to settle for grumbling incoherently as he was lowered to the ground. This made Drift nervous. How badly was his friend injured? Somewhere during the fall, Xavier's pack had ripped open, and with only the supplies in Drift's saddlepack, Drift wasn't sure they had enough food to wait for the Longs if Xavier couldn't be moved. The samoyedtaur pulled his sleeping blanket from his pack and kicked it open on the snow with a forepaw, so at least Xavier would have a dry surface to lie on. While he untangled the leopard from the net and moved him to the opened blanket, he asked Cloud Walker to search for any items in the snow with Xavier's scent. With the young wolf occupied and distracted, Drift settled his taur half down in the snow next to the blanket and tried to remember anything he'd been taught about head injuries. He knew there wasn't much, but anything was better than sitting around trying not to panic. Work now, panic later, he thought, but how could he work if he couldn't think of what to do?
Finally, he remembered something from basic patrol training, a rhyme one of the standing army's battle healers had drilled into them regarding head impacts. "Matching eyes, rest and rise. They don't match, healer's latch," he reminded himself aloud. Taking a deep breath to settle his nerves, Drift blew it out in a long sigh. "Okay. Please don't let them not match," he prayed as he reached for the leopard's face...
Drift nearly jumped out of his fur when Xavier's hand seized his wrist, stopping him before he could lift the leopard's eyelids.
"Not supposed to use not over an' over in a sentence," Xavier mumbled, his voice slurred. "S'not... not right. Not right..." He trailed off into incoherency, his hand relaxing and dropping to the ground again.
Drift checked the leopard's eyes: they matched, and Drift heaved a sigh of relief. Still he wanted to get his friend to the Longs as soon as he could, if he could just figure out a way to move him safely. What would Wolfram or Misha do in a situation like this? he asked himself. After a moment, the answer came to him and he started gently patting down Xavier's chest and sides, checking for broken—
Xavier swatted him. "Stoppit. That tickles."
Drift had to take several long breaths before he regained enough control to reply. He leaned down close, so close that his breath ruffled Xavier's short fur and growled a low rumble into the leopard's ear. "Xavier, I know you're injured and not right in the head right now," he said, "but I swear to high holy heaven that if you hit me in the shoulder even one more time, I'm going to snap your arm off and beat you with it!"
"You did what?"
Alexastra leaned forward, her expression incredulous but inwardly thankful that she had thought to soundproof the building when she acquired it. In a chair across from her, Thestilus flinched. In his hand rested a silver ring, emblazoned with the Marcus family crest, and when Alexastra tried to grab it from him, he clenched his fist tight around it and pulled it away. "You haven't called for a meeting in two weeks!" he retorted, clutching his hands to his chest. "Did you expect me to just twiddle my thumbs and wait?"
Alexastra slammed her fist against the table, and then rose to her feet. "Yes, you fool! Why should I call for you if I don't need anything from you? Things were proceeding exactly as I had planned!" She stepped off to the side and started pacing, running the fingers of her right hand through her headfur in an effort to regain her calm. It didn't help much. "Your job," she said after a few paces back and forth, "is to sit on Linafex and make sure he doesn't do anything stupid until we're ready." She sliced a hand through the air to cut off his reply. "It is not your job to meddle with Brightleaf's inn employees, or to try to burgle Xavier Marcus' rooms for blackmail materials. Do you have any idea how badly Marcus would have reacted to another blackmail attempt?" Throwing her hands up in the air, she continued, "And then to top it off by letting another thief in because you forgot to latch the window behind you! What were you thinking?"
"Mostly I was thinking 'don't get caught'," Thestilus snapped back. "You know: Kyia's watching, and who knows how close the nearest Lightbringer zealot is. It's not Daedra'kama yet, so—"
"Which is why you shouldn't have gone in the first place. That's what patsies are for, you half-brained imbecile!" Alexastra exclaimed, hands thrown wide in exasperation. "If you had half the sense that Lord Ba'al gave a hound—" Alexastra stopped herself before her rant could truly gather speed and sighed, massaging her temples as if to dull a headache. She circled smoothly around the back of Thestilus' chair, her footsteps as silent as a cat's, and draped a wing across his shoulders. Stooping down to the child-imp's level and dropping her voice into something soft, placating, and almost maternal, she sighed, "Oh, Thestilus. I'm sorry. I forget how new you are at this business. You're what, barely eighty years old?"
"One hundred and twelve next month," Thestilus said, eyes warily fixing on the clawed hand resting on his thigh.
"Close enough. Now, I've been doing this a lot longer than you have, and there are a few things you need to learn about ensnaring mortals. First," she said, gently drawing a line across his trouser leg with a claw tip, "is that this is very delicate work. You've just ruined two, perhaps even three of my backup plans, because you moved too quickly." She scored another line. "Second, have a backup plan. Have several. If a thief surprises you while you're burgling, offer to split the take. Whatever the answer, stay out of reach. Try a bit of negotiation before you run. We have resources that some might find useful. Lastly..." Thestilus gulped. A razor had appeared in the she-daedra's hand as if from nowhere, and now nestled against his throat. It tingled with the characteristic tightness of a mithril edge. Alexastra smiled. "A little something I learned from a Southlands wanderer: Be patient. It is the slow knife that penetrates." She turned the hand on his thigh palm-upward. "Now give me that ring this very instant or I will carve a smile in your throat, pull your tongue out through it, and leave you for the Lothanansi." Thestilus carefully dropped the ring into her waiting palm, and she folded the razor in one hand before slipping it back into a pocket nestled inside her sleeve. "Don't get me wrong," she said, tucking the ring down the front of her dress. "You've got some good ideas, but I'd appreciate you running them past me before you implement them. Okay?" She patted him on the knee and, just to further mess with his head, gave him a motherly kiss on the cheek before gesturing him toward the door. "I'll see what I can do to clean this up. In the meantime, keep Linafex under control. Study him. Figure out what makes him tick."
The barrage of shifting emotions almost worked. She nearly had him out the door before Thestilus recovered from her psychological warfare. "I already did that," he snapped, digging in his heels and resisting the push of Alexastra's wing. "He's all wrapped up in his daughter. He wants to marry her into a higher class."
"Yes," she said, impatient to get out and fix what Thestilus had bungled, "but why does that appeal to him? Is it just for the sake of his ego, or does he actually care about her welfare?"
"Why should I worry about that?" the child-imp sneered. "It's far too late for him to back out now."
Alexastra slapped him on the back of the head. "Because, you idiot, if he's still doing it for his daughter, then Velena could contest his contract if something goes wrong and he gets killed too early. Don't just assume the net is tight: check it."
"She won't get him out of it. He signed of his own free will."
"I've seen it happen."
"No, I'm not. It was a couple of centuries before your time. Don't ask around about it; Lord Agemnos doesn't like to be reminded. But that's not why I'm telling you to investigate."
"No, it's not." She folded her wing against her arm, seized Thestilus by the collar, lifted him up off the ground, and locked him in a nose-to-nose glare. "I'm telling you to do it," she said, clipping each word, "because anything less is sloppy... AND I HATE SLOPPY!!"
Thestilus made a very satisfying thump when he bounced off the wall across the hallway, and Alexastra shut and locked the door behind him. "Idiot." Her sharp ears picked up what he called her in return as he walked away, and she smirked. Maybe next time she had to spy in Metamor, she'd be one of those. After all, if dear Edward could make the shape look good, she could make it look downright stunning...
It had been a very long night. Even if Xavier had been in any shape to travel, it had been too late in the day to make any worthwhile distance. Drift had thus settled on excavating a decent campsite from the snow, using broken-off pine boughs and the lower branches of Xavier's tree to make a sheltering roof just like he'd been instructed in patrol training. While the samoyed taur was working on that, Cloud Walker had managed to recover a few of Xavier's supplies, including his sword and another blanket, but shortly after that the young wolf had come racing back to camp in a fright and had adamantly refused to leave again. Another avalanche had rumbled down the far side of the valley, and Drift initially guessed that Cloud Walker was still fearful from the previous one. This was not welcome news, but not unexpected nor really that surprising. Getting swept off a cliff by an avalanche was definitely one way to develop new phobias, Drift reasoned.
That assumption had lasted until Drift started trying to light a fire. He had been trying to figure out a way to strike flint and steel together one-handed ever since they'd gotten Xavier out of the tree, and thought he finally had a workable plan, when Cloud Walker yipped in alarm and stepped on the tinder before Drift could light it. He then growled and snapped at the samoyed when Drift tried to push him out of the way. A long and significant stare out into the surrounding forest finally got the message across: something was out there, and it might not be wise to draw attention.
Without a fire, the night had been long and bitterly cold, and Drift had slept very little of it. His back still ached from the wrenching it had received during the fall from the clifftop and, with nothing to distract him from it, his shoulder nearly brought him to tears. It burned like a limb gone to sleep, mixed with the stabbing pain of cramping muscles. Having already claimed his left arm and the left side of his chest, back, and belly, the pain was starting to spread into the right side as well. Even if his back had allowed him a comfortable sleeping position, his shoulder guaranteed that any sleep that he did manage to get would not be restful.
Long before the full moon had risen to its height, Drift rearranged the recovered blanket over Xavier and Cloud Walker and started walking, spending the rest of the night pacing round and round the campsite trying to keep his mind busy. He recounted from memory the stories and folklore of all the constellations he could pick out in the late autumn sky. He unbuckled his dagger from his injured arm and moved it to his upper foreleg in case he needed it. He scrubbed the blood from his muzzle with snow. He mentally designed a tool for lighting tinder with one hand, and made a plan for how he could produce it in large lots to sell to the Long Scouts and to the army quartermasters. He pondered the springy aspen tree on the rock he'd encountered earlier in the day, beginning to metamorphose it into a possible way to smooth out wagon travel over bumpy roads. In short, he did everything he could think of to keep from thinking about his shoulder. This was, after all, not the first time he had used such a tactic, and he was rather good at it. Finally, he came up with a way to carry his friend if Xavier was still not well enough to travel without assistance, and then spent the rest of the night working on finding and preparing the needed materials by the light of the moon. By morning, he had almost everything ready, at the cost of a badly dulled dagger. He was watching the sun rise, framed in the distant canyon mouth, and was actually finding it rather pretty, when he heard Xavier wake up.
"Get. Off. Me."
Drift couldn't help it, and broke into a smile: sometime in the night, Cloud Walker had piled overtop across Xavier and now the leopard was nearly buried in wolf and blanket. Without looking, he said, "Be nice to him, Xavier. He kept you warm all night."
"Fine. I'll give him some jerky when I can reach my pack. Now— ow, dammit, that hurts! Get him off me!"
"You might find that a bit hard to do: your pack's contents are likely scattered halfway across the canyon and buried in snow. Still, I'm sure he appreciates the offer." Drift prodded Cloud Walker with a forefoot. "Come on, Walker, I know you're awake. I saw your eyes open."
The young dire wolf opened one eye and gave an exaggerated yawn, and then got up, stole the blanket, and curled up in it a few feet away.
"How are you feeling, Xavier?" Drift asked.
"Horrid," Xavier replied. "My head hurts, my ribs ache, and my stomach is advising me to make no sudden moves." Squinting as if the dawn light was too bright for him, he groped for the blanket to steal it back. His hand kept missing, clumsy and uncoordinated in spite of Xavier turning his head to focus his full attention on it. Only with a visible effort of concentration did he find his mark. "Everything's blurry," he added with a frustrated frown, and just a hint of a petulant grumble. As he pulled on the blanket, trying to get it back from Cloud Walker (who promptly tugged it from his fingers), he asked, "Why is it so quiet? Where is everyone?"
That wiped the smile from Drift's face. "You still don't remember?" he asked with a sigh, certain by now that Xavier was not in any shape to be walking. "Well, at least you're coherent today... that's a step up from last night." He settled his taur body down on the snow next to his friend, folded over him for warmth the other blanket that Xavier had been lying on, and explained the previous day's events.
"An actual whirlwind?" Xavier asked once Drift was finished. He lay back, folding his hands across his chest and looking up at the sky while he tried to imagine the scene. "Huh," he said at last. "I would like to have seen that. Or rather," he corrected himself a moment later, "I would like to be able to remember having seen it. It must have been impressive."
"It was," Drift replied, with a wry smile for Xavier's benefit. "Had it happened at any other time, I probably would have needed new trousers."
Xavier snorted in amusement, and then put his arm across his chest with a grimace of pain. "Ow. Don't make me laugh... it hurts." After a few moments, he opened one eye and fixed it on Drift. "Don't think, though, that I haven't noticed you left out what caused that snow slide. If you didn't know what it was, or if it had been someone who isn't here, you would have said so. If you had caused it, you would have stumbled all over yourself apologizing. That leaves—"
"Xavier," Drift interrupted, "between your messed-up head and my busted arm, do you really think we have the time to waste hunting blame right now?"
"Good point," Xavier replied, acknowledging the canny remark. "All right, then. If time is at a premium, then I assume you've taken some of it to consider our next move?"
For a reply, Drift lifted the contraption he'd built during the night out of the snow, a trio of thick aspen boughs tied into the shape of a capitol 'A'. "As a matter of fact, I have." Drawing it close to the leopard, he reclaimed the stolen blanket from Cloud Walker and started to tie it onto the contraption. "I'm going to need your help, though."
Up on the clifftops, Laura scoured the river valley with her spyglass, searching for any sign that Drift, Xavier and Cloud Walker had made it through the night. "Any sign of a fire?" she asked Padraic, who had stood the last watch of the night.
"Not even a glimmer," the rabbit replied, shading his eyes against the rising sun. "With the cold air spilling off the mountains last night, I bet it got pretty cold down there. Lightning Boy must be freezing his tail off." Motion on the far side of the valley floor drew his attention for a moment, but it was only a bull moose browsing along the edge of the clearing, bringing down small showers of snow while it stripped twigs and bark from a small aspen. "Not a peep from Cloud Walker, either, according to Ralls and Merideth."
Laura frowned. It did not sit well with her that the two civilians and that scatterbrained yearling were on their own, and she wanted to kick herself for letting Drift carry almost all of the team's rope. There was no way she could have used it to lower the entirety of the party, but she could have at least lowered one person, most likely Padraic, to a ledge on the cliff, where that person could have tied the rope and climbed the rest of the way down. At least that would have gotten one experienced scout down to them...
She shook her head in annoyance, banishing the useless 'what-if', and then refocused her attention on the valley below. The question was not what she would have done if things had gone differently; the question was what she would do now. The answer to that question depended greatly upon the condition of the trio below. "Come on, you three," she murmured, her breath pluming in the frosty mountain air. "Do something. Something visible."
Padraic spotted them first. Or, to be more accurate, he was the first to notice that the moose had stopped feeding and was now looking across the valley floor at the forest edge near them. "There," he said, pointing as a white shape emerged from the pines. "And there's Cloud Walker, too. And—"
Laura focused her spyglass and, after a moment, smiled in approval. "Look at that. Very clever, Mr. Snow. It's no wonder Misha thinks you're a good investment."
The rabbit scout squinted, but was unable to make out exactly what was happening. "What's clever? I can't tell from this distance. He's like a big walking snowdrift: he blends right in."
Laura made a mental note of the unintentional pun and handed over her spyglass. "Here. Take a look."
"Huh," Padraic grunted once he'd focused in. "That is clever. A travois cut from aspen limbs and a harness made from rope. Though how he got the limbs down without an axe... With just that little dagger of his, he'd have been up all night carving and hacking. Maybe he found them blown down from the avalanche. But what's he hauling on it, and where's..." Padraic leaned forward slightly and twisted the sections of the spyglass, carefully adjusting the focus. "Oh, hells. I think that bundle of blankets on the travois is Xavier," he said, lowering the glass, his mouth tightening into a concerned frown. "Do you think the cat might have bought it?"
Laura took the glass back and studied the trio for a few moments while they left the wood's edge and approached the stream. "No, I don't think so," she finally replied. "He's moving around a bit under that blanket and—" Xavier's head popped out of the blankets so he could argue something with the samoyed. "Ah, there he is. He looks pretty beat up. Judging by that bandage around his head, he might have gotten concussed during the slide. Drift's not in good shape, either; he's got his arm in a sling. Damn, I wish we had more rope, and no, you are not going to try to climb down without it. I know you've done ropeless cliff climbs before, but not here and not with ice and snow waiting to add you to the casualty list."
Padraic, his mouth open to protest, clicked it shut again.
Down below, the moose eyed the young dire wolf and the strange wolf-thing approaching. While neither matched him in size, he still decided that discretion was the better part of valor and ambled off toward the lake in search of solitude.
Drift watched it go, and then stooped gingerly to fill his waterskin from the stream. Watching above, Laura frowned. "Only one waterskin... Maybe they lost the other? Padraic, see if you can round up a blanket, any rope we have left, three days of carnivore trail rations for each of them (pemmican, if we've got any left), and a spare waterskin." After a moment's thought, she added, "Get my signaling mirror, too. It's in—"
"It's in your pack, third pocket on the side. I know." Padraic winked as he started back toward the camp. "Would you like breakfast in bed with that, too?"
"Yes, actually," Laura called after him, "but that can wait until after you've got everything else rounded up. If we've got a spare box of tinder and flint, bring that as well; they might have lost theirs."
When Padraic returned with the requested items, he brought with him Arla and Crooked Jaw. "These two followed me home," he quipped. "Can I keep them?" When Laura didn't respond after a moment of awkward silence, he prodded, "What's wrong?"
"I think Drift's left shoulder is out of joint," Laura replied, collapsing her spyglass and putting it away. "He tried spearing some fish with that crazy staff-javelin of his, and he nearly crumpled over."
"Ouch. Here's your mirror." He handed it over, a small, polished square of metal.
"Cloud Walker didn't have much luck, either, and now they've started upstream." She shook her head slightly. "Though why they aren't heading back to the treeline for cover and shallower snow, I don't—"
Crooked Jaw interrupted her with a howl, loud and imperious, echoing once off the mountains before it was joined by the voices of the rest of the pack, and then finally by Cloud Walker down in the valley. Arla looked on, startled, and then flipped her ears back in alarm as Cloud Walker's reply reached her. "Oh, my..."
"What was that?" Laura asked.
Arla explained. "Crooked Jaw demanded that all the wolves 'speak their place'. It would be like you ordering everyone to report in. The wolves up here with us replied that all was well, but Cloud Walker replied, 'Standclaw sign, leap and leap high. Silent now.'"
Padraic paused in the middle of tying the blanket and supplies in a bundle and looked up. "What does that mean?"
She told them, and her tail curled down with worry.
Laura cursed. "Oh, hell. And Drift and Xavier don't know it. I don't suppose either of you brought parchment and a pencil... Dammit." She pondered for a few moments, and then started giving orders in rapid-fire succession. "Arla, get back to camp and tell everybody that we're going to be moving light and fast. Anything that isn't absolutely necessary gets cached. We'll pick it up on the way back. Crooked Jaw, you too, please. You ready with that bundle yet, Padraic?" she asked while the two canines hurried back to camp.
"Just about," he replied, tying the end of about two arms' length of rope just under the knot holding the bundle closed. Lifting it up by the untied rope end, he swung it gently to test the weight and the knots. "Okay. I'm ready. Just give me a target."
"First things first." Laura held up her left hand, framing Drift in the L-shape between her thumb and forefinger. With her right, she lined up the mirror so that reflected sunlight fell on her fingers, and then twitched it across to her thumb and back again. "Come on, Mr. Snow," she murmured as she repeated the motion. "Pay attention to the blinking light..."
After a few more blinks with the mirror, she saw Drift stop and raise his hand as if to shield his eyes. "Excellent," she said, lowering the mirror. "Toss it, Padraic. Out there in the deeper snow if you can; I don't want anything getting smashed."
"If I can?" Padraic echoed as he started whirling the bag-on-a-rope, faster and faster to build up the momentum it would need to get out to the trio below. "Is that a challenge?" Before Laura could snap at him not to damage the bag, he slung it away out into the canyon, away and down and down some more, to land in a puff of deep snow right where Laura had asked him to put it. The rabbit smirked. "Ask me something difficult next time."
"Save the bragging for later," Laura replied, not in a mood to banter. She turned and hurried toward camp. "We've got to hurry if we're going to save their lives." To herself, she added, "Damn it, we scouted this area for over a year— how in the hells did we miss this?"